A brief introduction to Carnatic music

Whatever one’s personal background and aspirations may be, Carnatic music remains a quest for undiluted aesthetic experience (rasa). Three basic concepts are essential for daily practice as well as proper appreciation: rāga (tuneful rendition with minute intervals and rich in embellishments), tāla (rhythmic order marked by mathematical precision), and bhāva (expression of thoughts and emotions).

To appreciate how these qualities are being inculcated, listen to the very first song taught for generations and from a very young age – long before a learner grasps the other concepts that distinguish “classical” Carnatic music from its popular counterparts (devotional, folk and film music):

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

The origins of South Indian music are traced to prehistoric times. Musical instruments form a favorite subject for sculptors, painters and the authors of ancient Tamil and Sanskrit texts. Vocal and instrumental genres have have since coalesced into a single body of compositions and themes. These form the basis for creative elaboration and self-expression.

Several strands have been intertwining throughout Indian music history. The celebrated Kannada writer and dramatist, Kota Shivarama Karanth, went so far as to declare that Indian culture today is so varied as to be called ‘cultures’.1

Music was cultivated by nobility and common people alike. A mere glance at India’s literary heritage, including poetry, drama, mythology and scholarly texts, reveals an ongoing quest for new ideas. The same can be said of performers, instrument makers and skilled amateurs. The resulting “art music” is in fact an amalgam of different regional” or “indigenous” styles (dēsi). Today it is being studied all over the world on account of its continuity, infinite variety and a rare capacity for self-rejuvenation.2

Carnatic music owes its name to the Sanskrit term Karnātaka Sangītam which denotes “traditional” or “codified” music. The corresponding Tamil concept is known as Tamil Isai. These terms are used by scholars upholding the “classical” credentials and establish the “scientific” moorings of traditional music. Besides Sanskrit and Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam have long been used for song lyrics.

Tips for using the interactive Carnaticstudent-map >>

Purandara Dāsa (1484-1564)3, a prolific poet-composer and mystic of Vijayanagar, introduced a music course that is followed to the present day. Since the 17th century, hundreds of rāga-s (melody types) have been distributed among the 72 melakarta rāgas (scales).

The type of song prevailing today, known as kriti (lit. creation), was popularized by the most revered poet-composer of South India, Tyāgarāja (1767-1847), his contemporaries Syāma Sāstri and Muttusvāmi Dīkshitar (together known as the “Trinity” of Carnatic music), and their disciples.

Sriraga (alapana) followed by pallavi (opening lines) of a kriti by Sri Tyagaraja
Entaro mahanubhavulu
“To as many great souls as there be I bow respectfully”4
rendered by K. Sai Shankar (vocal & tambura, Kalakshetra, 1:19)
Tyagaraja Aradhana Festival
at Kalakshetra
Photo © Ludwig Pesch

Their songs built on the kīrtana tradition – lilting, easy to remember tunes suited for the congregational singing of South and North Indian lyrics just as those of Bengal.5

Comprising two or three melodic themes (pallavi, anupallavi and charanam), these songs continue to kindle creativity, even displays of virtuosity, among today’s singers and instrumentalists.

The modern-day kutcheri concert format emerged as late as the 20th century and is still widely followed today, in spite of much debated challenges by younger musicians like T.M. Krishna who seeks to “remove the barriers imposed by the music” through both, his concerts and in writing.6

A performer may draw inspiration from sacred texts and epics, mythology, aphorisms, patriotic poetry, stories, customs and dances associated with a particular place of pilgrimage or centre of learning; and conclude with “light” songs such as lullabies and love poetry (tukkada items).

Mangalamapalli Balamuralikrishna – one of the most revered singer-composers of Carnatic music of all times – reminded his students and listeners time and again that tradition without innovation has no meaning. “His daring efforts to tread unchartered territories in music and to look at music as a whole being larger than the mere sum of parts are also his strengths.” (The Hindu, 30 July 2015)

Text: Ludwig Pesch >>

This website offers many resources for free (see menu for details): to learn more about the above mentioned composers and scholars, the places where they flourished; and about the musicians who tread in their footsteps today.

Enjoy your exploration of a wonderful music!

“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) >>

Learn & practice more

  1. Quoted by historian Ramachandra Guha in “Melody within” – Politics and Play: India’s classical music may be the best antidote to chauvinism” (The Telegraph, 6 June 2020) []
  2. For details, see Unity in Diversity, Antiquity in Contemporary Practice? South Indian Music Reconsidered (Goettingen University Press, Open Access), an essay by Ludwig Pesch[]
  3. A highly readable overview of various social and historical factors that distinguish Carnatic music is provided in the chapter titled “Songs from the soul: 1805–1847” in Modern South India: A History from the 17th Century to our Times by Rajmohan Gandhi, pp. 151-3[]
  4. For clear translations of this composer’s lyrics, see Tyagaraja: Life and Lyrics by William J. Jackson, OUP Madras 1991 (for Entaro mahanubhavulu, see p. 210) []
  5. According to Reba Som, Rabindranath Tagore (who didn’t know how to write music) “was often attracted by the distinctive styles of regional music [and] wrote about the great evocative power of tunes wafting across distances–carrying the message of an unknown address whispered in the ear by a traveller–bringing a note of hope and encouragement across oceans of divide.” Among these regional styles was Carnatic music with which he became acquainted “during his stay with civil servant brother Satyendranath in Karwar in western India”, an interest sustained during his 1919 visit to Madras where “he had heard with pleasure instrumental recitals on the veena in the south Indian style”.
    Reba Som, Rabindranath Tagore: The Singer and His Song, New Delhi: Penguin 2009[]
  6. This is, for instance, evident in a review of his book, A Southern music, by Deepa Ganesh: “It is not easy to be T.M. Krishna. He will raise questions, challenge existing notions, unmindful of what the consequences will be” (The Hindu, 20 March 2014) []