STELLA SUBBIAH (Artist Development Lead, Bhavan London)
In conversation with
LUDWIG PESCH (Author of The Oxford Illustrated Companion to South Indian Classical Music)
VIGNESH ISHWAR (Musician)
Today, as in the remote past, India’s musicians and dancers share a vast and varied repertoire. Apart from facilitating oral transmission, the underlying vocabulary helps to convey feelings underpinned by aesthetic principles and values. So it hardly surprises that the best-loved lyrics are those endowed with scope for reflection and debate among listeners, critics, and the artists themselves.
For this webinar we focus on several key composers whose vision shaped South Indian music and dance as we know it today. We will consider the compositional form of Varnam or Varna, in Karnatic music which can be interpreted as not only colour, praise , or syllable but also as melodic movements. These melodic movements of Arohi, Avarohi, Sthayi, and Sanchari add to its structure and offer various musical possibilities for musical interpretations.
Bharatanatyam Historically, Bharatanatyam was mostly prevalent in Tamil Nadu, though traces of it were found in the 20th century in what are now Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Today it is taught and practised throughout the globe. The term ‘Bharatanatyam’ has been in existence at least from the 15th century but we do not know the compositions the dancers performed in the early years of Bharatanatyam. […] The repertoire added during the time of Tulaja and Serfoji II owes its credit to four brothers of Tanjavur who belonged to a traditional natyacharya family. They were Chinnayya, Ponnayya, Sivanandam and Vadivelu, the ‘Tanjavur Quartet’ we know.
Miraj is famous for tanpuras made by its craftsmen, who honed their skills by first becoming trained musicians.
How did it ever strike someone to stick a piece of wood on a dried pumpkin, build this bridge and that and twist some strings on it, to make this wonderfully resonant thing one calls the tanpura? […]
“Musical training is the basic foundation for an expert tanpura maker. There are about 500 craftsmen in Miraj and all are musicians.” […]
As much as Miraj is associated with the tanpura, it is also associated with Ustad Abdul Karim Khan saheb, the founder of the Kirana gharana of Khayal. It was after listening to his record, playing in a shop, that Bhimsen Joshi decided at the age of 11 to run away from home to learn music. Music can become as obsessive as that. […]
All great musicians of the Kairana gharana have sung at this festival such as Bhimsen Joshi, Gangubai Hangal, Roshanara Begum, Hirabai Badodekar and Suresh Bhau Mane. “We have a tradition of ending the three-night musical offering with a concert by a Kairana gharana vocalist. This year it was Ganapati Bhat,” said Mirajkar.
Abdul Karim Khan saheb’s music was uncluttered and deeply moving. He could tug at hearts with his plaintive and sharply etched swaras, and the power of his music lay mostly in that. Sheer mastery over swaras, what Bhimsen Joshi once spoke of as ‘swara siddhi.’ Veena Dhanam, who was hard to please, had great regard for his music. He was probably the first Hindustani musician to seriously study the Carnatic system and the first to be invited to sing all over the south. He even recorded a Tyagaraja kriti.
Source: The Hindu : Arts / Music : Strings of purity by Lakshmi Sreeram, The Hindu, July 19, 2012 Address : http://www.thehindu.com/arts/music/article3657463.ece
One of the debated topics in Carnatic music is the deviation by musicians from the so-called ‘original’ pathantaram of kriti-s. This article is not an attempt to provide a conclusive answer to end the debate but a constructive provocation and an invitation for opening up the topic for a wider debate. […]
While in matters of art and aesthetics no rule can be imposed on either the artists or their audiences, some relevant considerations in the matter appear to be: Is there incontrovertible proof in all such cases that the ‘versions’—which includes the raga, its arohanaavarohana, mela and musical phrasing—touted as the original or authentic are really the versions composed by their authors? In the case of modern composers there may not be any problem because most of them write them down in notation which, in spite of the inherent limitations of any notation to capture all the nuances of Carnatic music, provides at least a defence against wholesale distortion. In the case of composers who lived during an earlier era of entirely oral transmission of music, there would be real difficulty in ascertaining the authenticity beyond doubt. […]
At first, this question seems easy to answer: just watch performers from either strand of Indian music and you’ll know Which is Which, merely going by the instruments in use, or how they dress and watching the body language involved: harmonium or sarangi vs. violin for melodic accompaniment for most vocal recitals, and tabla drums rather than a double-faced mridangam.
Even in the absence of other clues, experienced listeners know what distinguishes one concert item from another, in order to immerse themselves in that which endows “classically trained” musicians across South Asia with a deeply felt sense of unity: raga, aptly defined as a “tonal framework for composition and improvisation” by Joep Bor in The Raga Guide.
What binds Hindustani and Carnatic music lovers together is the experience of raga which, given its roots (lit. colour, beauty, pleasure, passion), denotes a cultural phenomenon rather than just a particular combination of notes. This means that raga-based music is more widely shared than one would expect in the modern world due to its capacity to transcend linguistic boundaries. In short, both strands of Indian music, Hindustani and Carnatic music, have absorbed a wide range of regional traditions throughout history. At the same time, “raga music” continues to serve as a vehicle for meaningful lyrics in any conceivable genre in addition to “classical” or “devotional” music. Even when rendered by an instrumentalist or sung without lyrics (as customarily done within both Hindustani and Carnatic recitals) each raga constitutes “a dynamic musical entity with a unique form, embodying a unique musical idea”. […] As regards Hindustani ragas, they “are known to musicians primarily through traditional compositions in genres such as dhrupad, dhamar, kyal, tappa, tarana and thumri. Good compositions possess a grandeur that unmistakably unveil the distinctive features and beauty of the raga as the composer conceived it.” (Joep Bor).
A comparable range of genres is available to Carnatic musicians, including varnam, kirtana, kriti, ragam-tanam-pallavi, padam, javali, tillana with a notable difference: since the 16th century, Carnatic compositions take up more time in order to render the lyrics faithfully, as intended by their composers and jealously guarded by teachers, discerning listeners and critics alike.
It is hard to imagine how such ideas would have worked before the advent of the tambura or tanpura – another feature of Indian music which may explain why older scales and theories have fallen into oblivion ever since – in spite of frequent mentions in text books.
But it’s harder to explain the musical differences in plain language while listening attentively as their respective performances unfold: differences begin to multiply, mostly in ways too subtle for words. Such differences call for probing into the depths of Indian “classical” music in the sense of a particular branch of music that is governed by clearly defined rules as well as unwritten conventions valued by professionals and connoisseurs.
For Indian listeners, such distinctions are mostly associated with a particular region, like the northern Hindustani and southern Carnatic music even if deceptive when it comes to the birth places of noted Hindustani exponents: many famous musicians were born or trained in Bengal in the east, and Dharwad in the south, also known as “Hindustani music’s southern home“. Being associated with a famous regional tradition or lineage is mentioned in most programme notes, like the vocal gharana known as the “Dharwad Gharana” or “Gwalior Gharana” in Hindustani music; and likewise, southern musicians pride themselves for having learned their arts within a bani (“family tradition”) designated by a particular town, for instance Tanjavur (vocal), Lalgudi (violin) and Karaikudi (vina or veena).
Then there are the preferred languages used in song lyrics in the case of vocal music; and certain rhythmic patterns local listeners would instantly feel familiar with or, conversely, associate with “novelty” when first employed beyond their place of origin. The latter is eagerly anticipated toward the end of a recital. In the opening and main parts of a recital, the most obvious differences between Hindustani and Carnatic music include the following traits:
Hindustani musicians prefer “accelerating” almost imperceptibly – from slow to fast tempo – during an alap (raga alapana, the melodic improvisation preceding a composed theme); this preference entails presenting fewer items compared to their Carnatic peers;
by contrast, a typical Carnatic or Karnatak concert opens with two or three items in a brisk tempo, including sections in “double tempo”, before elaborating a particular raga in a slow-to-fast format akin to the Hindustani format known as “imagination” (khyal or khayal) traceable to 18th c. court music;
Carnatic recitals are enriched by arithmetic elements derived from the repertoires of temple and dance musicians, and coordinated by visible gestures (something listeners love to emulate for the sake of self-immersion or as a sign of appreciation); and not surprisingly, rhythmic intricacies were successfully adopted and refined as part of Hindustanitihai patterns, most successfully by Ravi Shankar in the course of collaborations with southern instrumentalists (duly acknowledged in Raga Mala: The Autobiography of Ravi Shankar); be it for his solo sitar recitals or novel, mostly temporary jugalbandi ensembles like the one documented on video: recorded in 1974 at the Royal Albert Hall in London: “As far back as 1945, I was absorbing the essence of these from the fixed calculative systems of the Carnatic system.” (To understand their application, watch a tarana on YouTube repeatedly, starting from 3:27) Unsurprisingly this process of give-and-take, once proven successful, has become too common to bother crediting it to any particular source, other than declaring it a “shared heritage” cherished by musicians and audiences all over the world: Unity in Diversity at its very best!
To appreciate some of the aforementioned characteristics in the context of South Indian music, listen to recitals by two of its most beloved exponents:
From the above mentioned differences follows the most important one, namely the amount of time assigned to compositions based on elaborate lyrics: the concise bandish in a Hindustani recital vs. the tripartite kriti several of which occupy pride of place in Carnatic music.
The standard syllabus for South Indian “classical” music is ascribed to 16th c. composer Purandara Dasa of Vijayanagar (modern Hampi in northern Karnataka as indicated on the music map seen below). His method proved so efficient as to provide a common ground for aspiring singers or instrumentalists from many regions and linguistic backgrounds. This may explain how such music invites the convergence of several voices or instruments into one (unison): a soloist accompanied by violin just as two vocalists (popular duos known as “Brothers” and “Sisters”), or pairs of flutes, lutes (vina) and violinists, all capable of achieving perfect alignment at any given moment during a recital; and this not merely for evenly paced motifs but with equal ease in richly embellished passages. For good measure, such feats require neither notation nor lengthy rehearsals but instead combine musical memory with considerable freedom to enrich predictable patterns with one’s own flights of imagination.
As regards inevitable specialization such as a particular vocal or instrumental style, required for mastering certain melodic and rhythmic intricacies and compositions, there is an infinite variety to delve into: variety that explains the evolution of two great music “systems” that kept evolving and intersecting ever since musicologists became obsessed with classifying and validating certain features in the 19th and 20th centuries.
For non-Indian music lovers and students, Yehudi Menuhin’s reminiscences titled “Unfinished Journey” may be a good starting point: the violin virtuoso was among the first to appreciate fact that “Indian musicians are sensitive to the smallest microtonal deviations, subdivisions of tones which the violin can find but which are outside the crude simplifications of the piano (or harmonium)”. His interest in Indian violin music motivated Menuhin to invite the South Indian violin virtuoso Lalgudi Jayaraman to tour the UK and participate in the 1965 Edinburgh music festival.
For a better understanding of what Yehudi Menuhin meant by “smallest microtonal deviations”, listen to the very first composition most learners of Carnatic music have learned – a gitam (didactic song) by Purandara Dasa – in: A brief introduction to Carnatic music >>
Since then, musicians from various backgrounds have never ceased to contribute to an unprecedented intercultural dialogue: exponents of western classical, ecclesiastical and minimal music just as jazz, pop and film music, all set to explore new horizons together with their Indian peers.
to explore the above topics on your own, refer the Indian sources recommended here >>
in order to get a clear idea what this means in practice, listen closely to audio and video contents featuring two prominent families of violinists whose roots lie in South India: one known as the Parurbani (brothers M.S. Gopalakrishnan & M.S. Anantharaman), and the other brought into prominence by N. Rajam (Hindustani violin) and her brother T.N. Krishnan(Carnatic violin)
Thanks to Michael Zarky (Tuning Meister) for providing valuable tips and corrections for this post and previous Carnaticstudent courses including those offered in conjunction with university eLearning programmes.
Raga, Tala and Pedagogy: On the First Steps in Carnatic Music by Jeremy Woodruff
The system by which any music is taught is the key to what is preserved, and how, in a musical tradition. I chose to research the basics of instruction in South India,both as an entry point for some practical knowledge on the South Indian flute, and as away of examining basic tenets of karnatic music. Using advanced knowledge of a foreign music without having prior knowledge of its basic pedagogy is a bit like attempting to build a chair without a seat for one’s backside. Only by studying the basic assumptions of the music, may we identify what techniques are useful to us, or not, because only then we carefully consider for what they were originally intended. […]
All melodic instrumental training in karnatic music is focused on reproducing subtleties of vocal performance. As imitating singers was the main way that instrumentalists from the time of ‘the Trinity’ updated, preserved and greatly enriched what is now known as karnatic music, it is natural that it is considered the greatest means to accomplishment in instrumental training. Where schools mainly disagree is on how (and how far) these vocal subtleties should be imitated. […]
Gitas are the first pieces to be learned after the rigorous basic exercises outlined above. The Gita, ‘Sri Gananatha’ is the first of these Gitas to be learned by any student. Maybe it is the ‘Für Elise,’ or ‘Minuet in G’ by Bach of karnatic music. It is therefore a special case, but it can still serve well as a concrete demonstration of how gamakas of a single raga, on a single song can differ radically from teacher to teacher. The gita is given in fig 2.1 in Indian notation.
[Bold typeface added above for emphasis]
Read the full paper A Western composer’s view of early music education in Carnatic music on Academia.edu >>
Review by Vinay Lal (Professor of History & Asian American Studies, UCLA) in Canadian Journal of History: A Storm of Songs: India and the Idea of the Bhakti Movement by John Stratton Hawley: “The idea of a ‘‘bhakti movement’’ has long been one of the largely unexamined verities that have played a critical role in the idea of Indian civilization and, more speciﬁcally, the notion of a composite culture. Bhakti is usually rendered as ‘‘devotion,’’ and in the generally accepted narrative encountered in Indian histories and popular Indian opinion alike, a devotional movement originating in the Tamil country in the eighth century gradually made its way north and eventually engulfed the entire country. […] The fundamental achievement of John Stratton Hawley’s A Storm of Songs is to probe how the idea of a ‘‘bhakti movement’’ came about and what Indian scholars, inspired by nationalism, might have contributed in giving rise to a canonical narrative about bhakti’s place in shaping an Indian sensibility. […] Hawley has succeeded in gifting us an exceptional study of India’s much lauded bhakti movement.” – Read the full review on this author’s blog or here: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/315532465
“In this comprehensive book, Hawley traces the 20th-century history of the notion of the bhakti movement the idea that there was a significant, unified, pan-Indic turn to devotional religiosity in medieval India. The author argues that the invention and promotion of this idea was a key aspect of nation building in that it offered a narrative of Hindu unity despite the vast and disparate set of religious processes ranging over different vernacular languages, regions, and time periods.” – Learn more or find a copy in a library near you: http://www.worldcat.org/title/storm-of-songs-india-and-the-idea-of-the-bhakti-movement/oclc/893099156
Carnatic Wave is an aural journey into the Karaikudi Veena tradition, a centuries old practice of Southern Indian classical music being carried on by a group of musicians in Portland, Oregon. This short documentary offers a glimpse into their world of Carnatic music, highlighting the importance and challenge of teaching traditional art forms in our modern society. – Documentary maker David Van Auken