India - Carnatic Music

by V.A.Ponmelil (All rights reserved by the author)

Carnatic Music

The Carnatic music is the classical system of South India and one of the most complete and sophisticated systems of music ever invented by man. It has one of the world’s best, oldest and richest, musical traditions.

There can be no comparison, especially in the directness of the expression and the range of melodic material available in the Carnatic music. It can be performed simply and in all humility, or with the grandest elaboration retaining the core of both meaning and melody. The meaning of the lyrics revolves around the acts of religious devotion.

The basic form is a monophonic song with improvised variations. There are 72 basic scales on the octave, and a rich variety of melodic motion. Both melodic and rhythmic structures are varied and compelling. The changes in the raga or the tala designation are regarded as a natural part of the evolution of Carnatic music.

The roots of Indian Carnatic music are generally traced back to the Vedas, particularly the Sama Veda. The Carnatic music has also been considerably influenced by the ancient Tamil music from the Dravidian culture of the southern parts of India. Thus, it amalgamates the glorious confluence of the Sanskrit and Tamil cultures that underlie all of Indian civilisation.

During the Sultanate period, when the Hindustani music went through lot of changes, the Carnatic music did not see many changes. By this, it does not mean that the Carnatic music is totally devoid of external influences. The exchange of musical ideas between the Carnatic and the Hindustani music and the interactions of both classical systems with Indian folk music has always been important.

The Carnatic music is also drawn from the styles and the works of other parts of India. The composers like Muthuswami Dikshitar and Tyagaraja have tried to create musical forms based on their exposure to Western music. Oothukkadu Venkata Kavi and Swati Tirunal composed in languages outside the region, such as Marathi and Hindi.

During the period of British rule, the western influence on the Carnatic music resulted in the induction of the Violin into the Carnatic music and also into the composition of Carnatic tunes based on western melodies. The basic concepts of Carnatic music have been very encompassing and anticipatory that the innovations and the imports have only enriched it without irreversibly modifying its basic structure.

The melody is the mother and the rhythm is the Father of Carnatic music. It also gives importance to lyrics. The seven musical notes Sa, Ri, Ga, Ma, Pa, Da and Ni are said to be the constant companions of Saraswathi the goddess of music. While Sa and Pa are the constant notes that remain fixed in any given pitch, the rest of the five notes have variable values of two each. That gives a total of twelve notes or swarasthanas in the octave.

There are several thousands of compositions, of multiple varieties, in several languages and themes. Also, the Carnatic musicians have the advantage of easily being able to learn and adapt to other music systems of the world since the basics of this system are strong, yet accommodative, thus paving way for fusion music too.

There are many great compositions created by the personalities like Purandaradasa, Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Sastri. Several other great composers such as Patnam Subramanya Iyer, Swati Tirunal and Papanasam Sivan have also contributed to the splendour of this system. Now, the Carnatic music is at the crossroads of aesthetic diversity, with its international reputation being increased.


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