South Indian (Carnatic) Music
- Ludwig Pesch
history of South Indian music
of Indian music are traced to prehistoric antiquity. One widespread theory
holds that there has been a gradual development from simple forms and techniques
to more complex ones.
On the other
hand, the rich store of melody, rhythm and instrumental technique found
among tribal musicians makes it probable that sophisticated music emerged
long before theoretical rules (lakshana) were framed for the first
time almost two thousand years ago.
Art or concert
music in South India is called Karnataka Sangitam ("Karnatic music"
in English). Its history gains sharper contours from the Renaissance
period which, in South India, had its centre in the Vijayanagar empire
(1336-1565). Ramamatya, a 16th century music scholar at Vijayanagar, laid
the foundations for the present theoretical framework of South Indian music.
system of 72 scales (melas) was developed on the foundations laid
by Venkatamakhin in the 17th century. Perfected by later theoreticians,
the mela-janya raga system provided composers with virtually unlimited
scope for melodic variety.
of ten scales (that) presently followed by most North Indian (Hindustani)
musicians is also based on the mela or melakarta system. However, because
of its accuracy, internal consistency and differentiation, some leading
Hindustani musicians have begun to adopt the southern system of 72 melas
in preference to the system of thats which V.N. Bhatkhande had developed
and introduced earlier in this century. These highly educated performers
pursue a music that, although rooted in tradition, has greater scope for
their imagination and virtuosity.
Dasa (1484-1564), a celebrated poet, mystic and composer of Vijayanagar,
taught Karnatic music in a systematic manner. His method of teaching
(abhyasa ganam) consists of a graded course comprising some primary
lessons (alamkara) and small didactic and devotional songs (gita).
The teaching method created by Purandara Dasa is still followed today and
provides the common denominator for all Karnatic musicians.
In the 18th
and 19th centuries, the important kriti form of song was refined by the
great composer Tyagaraja (1767-1847). Tyagaraja's songs still serve
as models for most contemporary compositions in Karnatic music. Several
other forms of compositions further enrich every musician's repertoire.
The present concert format (kacheri paddhati) evolved in the course
of this century. Professional musicians used to be trained in the private
environment, the household (kula) of a teacher (guru).
Such an apprenticeship
was therefore called gurukulavasa. Now, major institutions such as Kalakshetra
College (Madras) have taken over as far as the training on a professional
level is concerned. Yet every musician also continues to cultivate a relationship
with a master musician on the lines of the gurukula.
of music in Indian society
regarding "classical" and "folk" music do not apply to Indian music. Traditional
and modern, codified (marga) and regional (deshi) styles
mingle in every performance. Religion is much more an integral part of
daily life in India than in Europe. Almost every house has a small space
serving as a chapel (pooja room).
is a sacred tulasi plant in the garden. On the other hand, music also relates
to various social customs without being "religious music" in the Western
sense of the word. There exists an old tradition of classical music for
art's sake. For most Indians, music is, of course, a means of distraction
from daily worries, a form of entertainment among others. Although the
mass media (cinema, radio, television) have changed popular tastes
and introduced many foreign and modern elements, it still can be said that
Karnatic music always remains unmistakably South Indian in character and
The idea of
an individual and permanent musical "work" is still not very important
in India. Perhaps it does not relate to prevailing philosophies about the
nature of the universe and man's role in the scheme of evolution. More
important, therefore, than the reproduction of a finished work is the understanding
of stylistic principles underlying traditional music.
never rely on musical scores. In Karnatic music, compositions (kalpita
sangita) and improvisation (manodharma sangita) play an equally
important role. Thousands of "songs" have been handed down from generation
to generation in oral tradition (sampradaya) or are being composed
in our time.
There is no
separate repertoire for vocalists and instrumentalists. Improvisations
such as the exposition of a raga (raga alapana) and variations of
a theme (e.g. kalpana svara, niraval) are so carefully intertwined
with a composition that the resulting effect is one of a complete musical
unity. For an inexperienced listener it is therefore difficult to identify
the beginning and end of an improvisation.
facets of Karnatic music can only be mentioned in passing here although
they are of greatest importance for maintaining the stylistic integrity
of any particular tradition of classical music (bani).
Shruti denotes microtones based on the seven basic notes (sapta svara)
and their twelve semitonal variants (svarasthana). Ornamentation
(gamaka) plays a great role even in the rendering of scale patterns
(arohana-avarohana), characteristic phrases (prayoga) and
special phrases (visesha sancara). In other words, a gamaka constitutes
more than arbitrary embellishment as it is the key to the individual character
of a raga (raga rupa). Intermediary notes (anusvara) have
the purpose of lending continuity to all melody. Subtleties of this kind
cannot be reduced to writing but need to be assimilated through long exposure
to good music and years of practice under the guidance of an experienced
musician. There are hundreds of melodic structures (raga) and numerous
rhythmic patterns (tala). Tala and raga can be compared to the warp
and weft of a piece of fabric. When both are combined, they can produce
an unlimited number of musical patterns and moods. Each musician specializes
in a repertoire of his own, inherited from his teacher and expanded with
the help of senior colleagues.
Ludwig Pesch is a freelance
musician, lecturer and cultural worker. After gaining experience as church
organist, Jazz musician and music teacher, he graduated as a Karnatic flautist
from Kalakshetra College (Madras). He has widely performed all over South
India and in other countries.
His major reference work, The Illustrated
Companion to South Indian Classical Music, is due to appear in fall 1998
(Oxford University Press, New Delhi)
Another reference work, Ragadhana:
An Alpha-Numerical Directory of Ragas, appeared in 1993 (2nd edition, Irinjalakuda,
Kerala); and Eloquent Percussion: A Guide to South Indian Rhythm (with
Mridanga Vidvan T.R. Sundaresan) in 1996 (eka.grata publications, Amsterdam)