All craftsmen in Miraj are musicians – the wonderfully resonant Tanpura (Tambura)

tambura_workshop_miraj_thehindu_1907012
A view of the shop where tanpuras are made. Photo by Lakshmi Sreeram – courtesy The Hindu

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

“Tambura is my constant companion – a bridge to my past, keeping the memories of my childhood alive.” – Bombay Jayashri >>
Learn more about the tambura (tanpura) >>

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Gamaka determines the character of each raga in vocal and instrumental music

By N S Ramachandran (University of Madras, 1938) | Compositions >>

Gamaka has been defined by Sarngadeva and others as the ornamentation of a note by shaking it. But evidence from their works can be cited to show that the idea of gamaka is more extensive than the connotation of this definition; it has been used to convey the idea of beautifying a note not only by the shake but by any other means which seem to be efficient or adequate. For instance by the adjustment and control of the volume of a single note it can be made to assume different shades of colour, and these effects can be, and have been legitimately classed under the category of gamakas. […]

This complexity in the nature of gamakas, as used in vocal and instrumental music, has been noticed and exhaustively treated in Sanskrit treatises on music. They offer an abundance of material on this subject as well as on others. […]

Sreevidhya Chandramouli
Srīgananātha (Gītam) – Malahari rāga – Rūpaka tāla
contributed by Sreevidhya Chandramouli >>
Lyrics, notation and translations >>
Practice Rupaka tala here >>

Though the employment of gamaka in music is plain enough it is a long time before we come across the term gamaka in Sangita literature. Bharata does not use the word gamaka in his Natya Sastra. […]

Among authors who came after Bharata, Narada in his Sangita Makaranda and Matanga in his Brhaddesi mention gamakas though they do not enumerate any list of them or seek to define them. Along with the idea of gamaka, the expression ‘gamaka’ was perhaps being slowly evolved. Narada in dealing with alankaras says that he will describe 19 gamakas but their definitions are missing in the existing recension of his treatise. Matanga freely uses the term gamakas in the definition of ragas and gitis. As in so many other respects, he is the writer who gives the most important information on this subject between the time of Bharata and Sarngadeva. […]

The gamaka has come to occupy a vital place in our system of music. It is not simply a device to make melodic music tolerable, and it is not its function merely to beautify music. It determines the character of each raga, and it is essential to note that the same variety of gamaka appears with different intensity in different ragas. The function of the same gamaka in different ragas varies subtly and establishes all the fine distinctions between kindred melodies by an insistence, which is delicate but withal emphatic, on the individuality of their constituent notes. The gamaka makes possible the employment of all the niceties in variation of the pitch of the notes used and is therefore of fundamental importance to our music. If the personality of any raga is to be understood it cannot be without appraising the values of the gamakas which constitute it.

Source: Ragas of Carnatic music by N S Ramachandran, University of Madras, 1938, CHAPTER V. Gamakas and the Embellishment of Song, pp. 112-158
URL: https://archive.org/details/RagasOfCarnaticMusicByNSRamachandran
Date Visited: 18 March 2022

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What’s the difference between Hindustani and Carnatic music?

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.

M.S. Subbulakshmi © Dhvani Ohio
“Even at the peak of her career M.S.Subbulakshmi continued to learn from other musicians”
R.K. Shriram Kumar >>
Young Maestros 2018 © Sangeet Research Academy >>

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).

The Carnatic Trinity hailing from Tiruvarur (Tamil Nadu, 18th-19th c.):
the composers most revered and performed by Carnatic musicians
Muttusvami Dikshitar
Sri Tyagaraja
Syama Sastri

Painting by S. Rajam © Sruti Magazine >>
Composers on DhvaniOhio >>

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:

  1. 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;
  2. 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;
  3. 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 Hindustani tihai 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 a recital by one of its most beloved exponents:

M.S. Subbulakshmi – Live at Carnegie Hall 1977 | List if items >>

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 >>

Internet search screenshots for Indian music jazz fusion
“The classical music of the West has influenced
our musical culture” – Manohar Parnerkar in
Sruti Magazine August 2019 >>

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.

Tips

  1. to explore the above topics on your own, refer the Indian sources recommended here >>
  2. 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 Parur bani (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)

Acknowledgements

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.

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A storm of songs: India and the idea of the bhakti movement

by John Stratton Hawley

  • 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
  • Interview in The Hindu (January 10, 2016): “A Storm of Songs examines how devotional songs such as padams mingled with the abhangs, how the Dalit narrative and Sufi music found an outlet in creating the network called the Bhakti movement. In a conversation, he maps the mystical journey which knits India.” – Read the full interview here:
    https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/bhakti-challenges-communal-religion/article8086253.ece

“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

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Mahakavi Subramania Bharati’s 100th death anniversary celebration – Usha Rajagopalan & Geetha Srikrishnan

Mahakavi Bharati: The Man, His Poetry, Those Times
Video lecture on the occasion of Mahakavi Subramania Bharati’s 100th death anniversary

In commemoration of the 100th death anniversary of poet C. Subramania Bharati, join us on this virtual event as we celebrate the life and works of Mahakavi Bharati.
Usha Rajagopalan is a writer, translator, and lake conservationist. Geetha Srikrishnan hails from a musically inclined family, and is a Classical Carnatic Musician.

An independent writer who moves from writing for children to translating Bharati’s poetry, Usha’s interest in Bharati’s poetry “was fuelled by hearing his songs sung by all ranks of singers”.

Read the full interview in The Hindu >>

Selected Poems of Subramania Bharati
by Usha Rajagopalan

Ranging from the fiercely patriotic and the deeply romantic to the humbling intensity of devotion and the sharp criticism of self and society, this selection brings together poems that reflect the very essence of Bharati’s broad philosophy. Usha Rajagopalan’s translations echo the lyricism and transformative power that have lent Bharati’s poetry their distinctive and enduring quality. They seeks to complement what Bharati himself set out to do with the original text: to create an epic using ‘simple phrases, a simple style, easily received prosody, and the rhythms used in the language spoken by the common man.’

https://usharajagopalan.co.in/books/

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“Sampradaya is like a broad river and the bani is a tributary”: Umayalpuram Sivaraman on his 75 years of performance >>

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Coming soon: the 3rd, digital and free edition: Ragadhana 2021

Both earlier editions of Ragadhana were well received in India and beyond. Being out of print for several years it is time to make it available again as a 3rd (free) edition. 

In tune with today’s needs, Ragadhana may now be read as well as browsed:

  • online with the help of any browser
  • offline via eReader (any tablet or pc)
  • in printed form (PDF download)

The present edition incorporates the 2nd, revised and enlarged edition (1993).

Carnatic music is a vast realm with room for both, adherence to tradition and creative exploration of melody in all its diversity. This observation may account for the enthusiastic feedback received received from students, teachers and composers for the earlier editions. The present updates and some additional material are intended as a way of returning their compliments.

“I completely enjoyed the role of being an observer and a commentator”: Sebastian and Sons by T.M. Krishna celebrates the contribution of mrdangam makers

More by and about T.M. Krishna >>

Read the full interview in the Deccan Herald >>

The writing in Sebastian and Sons introduces us to the storyteller in T M Krishna like never before. It’s a non-fictional work written with a novelist’s touch. It makes for a riveting read with the musician’s earnestness to absorb the stories of his subjects and his ability to look at the larger picture shining through. He concurs his approach was unique: “This book was very different writing for me; it was a new form for someone who has largely explored philosophical ideations driven by research (treatises), activism and self-introspection. This is the first time I wrote a book with the approach of a journalist. And it was other people’s stories, which I was trying to make sense of. I completely enjoyed the role of being an observer and a commentator.”

Source: Srivathsan Nadadhur, Deccan Herald, 7 June 2020
URL: https://www.deccanherald.com/sunday-herald/sunday-herald-art-culture/the-melody-of-dissent-an-interview-with-carnatic-vocalist-tm-krishna-845453.html
Date visited: 7 June 2020

Excerpt from S. Gopalakrishnan’s “Another Listening” newsletter
A much awaited book ‘Sebastian and Sons’ by TM Krishna on the evolution of the art of Mridangam making is going to be released on 2 February 2020. ‘The making process is an intellectually, aesthetically and physically taxing one. From acquiring the skins for the circular membranes and straps to the wood for the drum, from curing the material to the final construction, and at the end of it all, making sure that it has the tone that the mrdangam player wants, mrdangam-making is also a highly nuanced operation at every stage. This requires a highly tuned ear and an ability to translate abstract ideas expressed by musicians into the corporeal reality of a mrdangam. Yet, their contribution to the art of the mrdangam is dismissed as labour and repair—when it is spoken of at all.

There are legendary mrdangam players, yes; there are also distinguished mrdangam makers, many of them from Dalit Christian communities, who remain on the fringes of the Karnatik community. Sebastian and Sons explores the world of these artists, their history, lore and lived experience to arrive at a more organic and holistic understanding of the music that the mrdangam makes’.

As a dedication to all major Mridangam makers of the past I dedicate Mridangam solos of three all-time masters, Pazhani Subramania Pillai, Palakkad Mani Iyer and Ramanathapuram C S Murugabhoopathy

1. Pazhani Subramania Pillai (1908-1962) : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8r2FafKt_X8
2. Palakkad Mani Iyer (1912-1981): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V9Zd8GjQ39w
3. Ramanathapuram CS Murugabhoopathy (1914-1998): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZtFXE4aVMT8

Subscribe to the “Another Listening” newsletter for daily Carnatic music recommendations and more: anotherlistening@gmail.com

There is not only myth, but also vocabulary. “In Tamil, ‘thol’ means ‘skin’ and ‘thattu’ means ‘plate’. Mridangam players will talk about thattu, but not about thol,” Krishna said. “These were all ways of distancing.”

Photo © The Telegraph picture

Read “T.M. Krishna speaks about his new book, Sebastian and Sons at the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet” (21 January 2020): https://www.telegraphindia.com/states/west-bengal/mridangam-the-cowhide-conundrum/cid/1739616

T. M. Krishna (in MOPA “Notes to Myself”):
Now here is a fascinating story of a musician born and bred in privilege by his own admission, who enjoyed a liberal, progressive environment both at home and at school that laid the foundations for a fearless, critical mind and outspoken tongue, enjoyed the best of teachers who fostered an abiding love for Carnatic music in his young heart and was one among the band of young musicians who took the Carnatic stage by storm in the 90s. […]

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Audio tip | JA Jayanth’s grandfather and guru TS Sankaran live at Kalakshetra >>

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The idea of singing birds: A tribute to a vital artistic tradition – Book Review

More by and about T.M. Krishna >>

A Southern music: The Karnatik story

By T.M. Krishna, HarperCollins, Rs 699

If a successful and busy Karnatic singer takes time off in order to write reflections on South Indian or “Karnatic” music, the book release function is bound to be met with considerable interest. […]

He pays tribute to the tambura (the tanpura) as “the life-giver, the soul of our music”. For Krishna, “it is the one instrument that can be said to hold within itself the very essence of classical music. So unobtrusive is this instrument, so self-effacing in its positioning on the stage and so tender of nature, that it is almost taken for granted.” Sadly, the tambura is rarely played “live” even during live concerts where it tends to be drowned by its electronic surrogate with devastating effect. Restoring its presence would seem indispensable in efforts such as those outlined under two chapter headings, “To Remove the Barriers Imposed by the Music” and “To Expand the Listenership of Karnatic Music”. The very concept of “fusion” is dismissed as a “lopsided idea of the music.” […]

The fact that 15 out of 588 pages are assigned to an Index is welcome in view of the publisher’s ambition to provide readers with a “path-breaking overview of South Indian classical music.” A mere glance at the Contents page and Index proves that, as in his concerts, T.M. Krishna would take nothing for granted, starting with instructions titled “A Note on Reading”. […]
LUDWIG PESCH

Source: The idea of singing birds
Address : http://www.telegraphindia.com/1140228/jsp/opinion/story_18023416.jsp#.UxC3W16kAfl

The tambura’s role in perfect alignment to pitch: “The most beautiful way to discover music” – T.M. Krishna >>

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