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You are here: UMWiki>WorldInTwoCities Web>LocalMusicScenes>Carnatic (30 Jul 2009, LarsChristensen)
South Indian Classical (Carnatic, or Karnatak) Music

Carnatic, or Karnatak, music, is the classical music of southern India (generally south of the city of Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh state) that evolved from ancient Hindu traditions and was relatively unaffected by the Arabic and Iranian influences that, since the late 12th and early 13th centuries, as a result of the Islamic conquest of the north, have characterized the Hindustani music of northern India. In contrast to northern styles, Carnatic music is more thoroughly oriented to the voice. Even when instruments are used alone, they are played somewhat in imitation of singing, generally within a vocal range, and with embellishments that are characteristic of vocal music. Fewer instruments are used in Carnatic than in northern Indian music, and there are no exclusively instrumental forms.

To many listeners, the music of the south has a restrained and intellectual character as compared with the music of the more secular Hindustani traditions. The chief centres for present-day Carnatic music include Tamil Nadu (formerly Madras), Karnataka (formerly Mysore), Andhra Pradesh, and Kerala states.*

Meet Twin Cities Carnatic musicians!

Nirmala Rajasekar, vina player, singer, and teacher of Carnatic music

Tim Eriksen, vina player

DikshitarThyagarajaShamashastri The Carnatic music trinity

From left to right:
Sri Muttusvāmi Dīkstar, (1776-1835)
Sri Tyāgarāja, (1767-1847)
and Sri Śyāma Śāstri (1792-1827)

The trimūrti (trinity) of Carnatic music**

The three great names of Karnatak music - Muttusvāmi Dīkstar, Tyāgarāja, and Śyāma Śāstri , - were never directly patronized by the court establishment, but their teachers or forebears, or both, had been. Although the Indian ideal of a musician who sings for divinity instead of royalty is embodied in them, and particularly in Tyāgarāja, they are nonetheless part of the general musical tradition of the Thanjavur establishment.

Sri Muttusvāmi Dīkstar (1776-1835)

Unlike the other two composers of the ‘trinity', Muttusvāmi Dīkstar was born into a musical family. Muttusvāmi received his first training in vīnā and vocal music from his father. At the age of fifteen he accompanied a yogī on a pilgrimage to Varanasi, where he remained for five years. This period in the North is said to account for his long and serious compositions, which may be influenced by dhrupad (a type of vocal composition in North Indian art-music). Like the other two members of the trinity, he refused to sing at court and, on occasion, he lived in poverty.

Whereas Tyāgarāja's and Śyāma Śāstri's compositions were largely in Telugu, Muttusvāmi Dīkstar is noted for his Sanskrit texts. He composed at least 600 pieces, most of them krithi, (see below) and like Tyāgarāja used a great many different rāga (see below). His frequent use of ornamentation, corresponding to that of the vīnā, shows the influence of his early training on the instrument. Muttusvāmi Dīkstar's krithi display a virtuoso grasp of rāga, and two of them are famous as rāgamālikā, one containing 10, the other 14, sequences of different rāga.

Sri Tyāgarāja (1767-1847)

Tyāgarāja is widely regarded by Carnatic musicians as the finest and most important South Indian composer. He was born into a climate of Hindu revivalism, and his father, Rāma Brāhmam, a pūjāri (Hindu priest) connected with the court of Tulajājī at Thanjavur, introduced his son to Rāma bhakti (Hindu religious devotion to the god Rama). Both Tyāgarāja and Muttusvāmi Dīkstar are known as having been smārta Brahmans, a group closely associated with the development of devotional religion in the 15th and 16th centuries. The status of the ‘trinity’, as Brahman musicians, contributed greatly to an increase in the social acceptability of the practice of music.

His lifelong devotion to Rāma is well documented, and it is this which was the primary focus of his musical activity. Like the other two members of the ‘trinity’ he was firm in his refusal to serve at court, in the face of repeated requests, seeing it as incompatible with his role as a bhakta (religious devotee). A significant difference between Tyāgarāja and Muttusvāmi Dīkstar and Śyāma Śāstri, however, was his dedication to teaching other musicians. His many disciples included Vēnkataramana Bhāghavatar and Vīnā Kuppayyar, who, among others, preserved his compositions through notation, and Subbarāya Śāśtri, the son of Śyāma Śāstri.

Tyāgarāja is remembered both for his devotion and the bhāva (‘emotion’) of his krithi, a song form consisting of pallavi, (the first section of a song) anupallavi (a rhyming section that follows the pallavi) and caranam (a sung stanza; serves as a refrain for several passages the composition). He is also noted for composing in a great number of different rāga, many of which he invented himself. The texts of his kriti are all, with a few exceptions in Sanskrit, in Telugu (the contemporary language of the court), and this use of a living language, as opposed to Sanskrit, the language of ritual, is in keeping with the bhakti ideal of the immediacy of devotion. Of his many compositions, which number over 700, particularly noteworthy are: the pańcaratna (‘five jewels’) krithi, one in each of the ghana (‘heavy’) rāga: Nāta, Gaula, Ārabhi, Varāli, and Śrī. This grouping was suggested by Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar in 1940 and it has become a permanent feature of the annual Tyāgarāja Carnatic music festival in Thiruvayyar.

Sri Śyāma Śāstri (1792-1827)

He was the oldest member of the trinity. His family was not musical but he was taught Telugu and Sanskrit by his father, who was the pūjāri (Hindu priest) at the Kāmāks temple in Thanjavur. Śyāma Śāstri received his musical training initially from a wandering teacher, Sangīta Svāmī, and later from Paccimiriyam Ādiyappayya. Although, like the other two members of the ‘trinity’, Śyāma Śāstri eschewed royal patronage in favor of a life of devotion, his financial position was secure due to his inheritance of land, originally granted to his father by the ruler of Thanjavur in 1783. One request he did accede to, however, was to sing against the Andhran musician Bobbili Keśaviaya, who had issued a musical challenge to the court musicians at Thanjavur.

Devotion was the primary aim of his music-making, inspired by the Hindu bhakti revivalism of the 18th century. He worshipped the goddesses Kāmāks, to whom many of his compositions were addressed, and it is possible that he initiated Muttusvāmi Dīkstar into Devi bhakti. His output is smaller than Tyāgarāja's (traditionally said to be around 300 pieces, many of which are now lost), but it is generally considered to be extremely fine and rhythmically intricate; his use of tāla is widely admired. Śyāma Śāstri's texts were largely composed in Telugu, widening their popular appeal. Some of his most famous compositions include the nine krithi, Navaratnamālikā, in praise of the goddess Mīnāks at Madurai, and his eighteen krithi in praise of Kāmāks. As well as composing krithi, he is credited with turning the svarajati, originally used for dance, into a purely musical form (his three svarajati in rāga Tōdi, Bhairavī and Edukulakāmbhōji are all devotional songs to Kāmāks).

Language

Tamil is the mother tongue of most of the leading carriers of the modern Karnatak music tradition, and Madras is its cultural centre. However, many song texts and writings are in Telugu, because the existing tradition is to a great extent an outgrowth of the musical life of the principality of Thanjavur in the Kaveri delta. Thanjavur was the heart of the Tamil empire of the Chola dynasty (from the 9th century to the 13th), but in the second quarter of the 16th century a Nāyak viceroy was appointed by the emperor at Vijayanagar, thus establishing a court whose language was Telugu. Of the trinity composers, Tyāgarāja's and Śyāma Śāstri's compositions were largely in Telugu, while Muttusvāmi Dīkstar is noted for his Sanskrit texts.

Basic terms of Carnatic music

alapa: an unmetered introduction to the performance of a metrical composition, comprising an exposition of the mode or rāga of the composition.

krithi: a vocal composition, with text in Telugu or Sanskrit, set to a classical rāga and tāla. The subject of the poetry is normally devotional, but the artfulness of the musical setting and its suitability for improvised development are as important as its religious meaning. Thus a kriti is normally embellished with pre-composed variations (sangati), and in performance it may be preceded by an extended ālāpanam (see ālāpa, above) and/or followed by improvised variations (niraval, svara-kalpanā). The earliest kriti performed today are those of the ‘trinity’ of Carnatic composers.

laya: the rhythm observed in the talas (rhythmic cycles; see below for more details) of Carnatic compositions.

rāga: In Indian musical theory and practice a melody-type or mode, suitable for expressing aesthetic ethos and religious devotion. A rāga provides the melodic material for the composition of vocal or instrumental melodies and for improvisation. Each rāga is characterized by a variety of melodic features, including a basic scale (perhaps with additional or omitted notes), grammatical rules governing the relative emphasis of different scale degrees and the sequence of notes in ascending and descending contexts, distinctive ways of ornamenting or pitching particular notes, and motifs or formulae from which complete melodies or improvisations can be constructed. Each rāga has a unique aesthetic identity, sometimes described in terms of the classical rasa aesthetic system. Rāgas are normally attributed to divine rather than human origin and are sometimes considered to exist in the form of deities or spirits, or to have magical or therapeutic properties.

sahitya: a Carnatic composition.

sruthi: In Indian musical theory, the smallest audible interval, a microtone; especially a microtone as opposed to a scale degree (svara). Only the latter are employed as melodic pitches. However, śruti appear in ornamentation and in different modes the svara may be theoretically located at different microtonal positions. In South India śruthi also denotes the tonic drone, a sustained droning sound which produces a constant tone and maintains it throughout a piece or section of music.

tāla: In Indian musical theory and practice the marking of musical meter by means of hand gestures (or alternatively by small cymbals or by drum-patterns), and hence, the meters so marked. Each tāla pattern comprises a fixed number of equal beats, with claps and silent gestures asymmetrically disposed to facilitate time-keeping. The pattern is considered to be a cycle (āvart(anam)), in which the first beat is the culmination of the previous cycle as well as the beginning of the next. The cycle is repeated as many times as necessary to complete the composition and any ensuing improvisation; change of tāla in the course of an item is rare in concert music, but it can occur in pre-composed or non-classical music and dance.

Devotion was the primary aim of his music-making, inspired by the Hindu bhakti revivalism of the 18th century. He worshipped the goddesses Kāmāks, to whom many of his compositions were addressed, and it is possible that he initiated Muttusvāmi Dīkstar into Devi bhakti. His output is smaller than Tyāgarāja's (traditionally said to be around 300 pieces, many of which are now lost), but it is generally considered to be extremely fine and rhythmically intricate; his use of tāla is widely admired. Śyāma Śāstri's texts were largely composed in Telugu, widening their popular appeal. Some of his most famous compositions include the nine kriti, Navaratnamālikā, in praise of the goddess Mīnāks at Madurai, and his eighteen kriti in praise of Kāmāks. As well as composing kriti, he is credited with turning the svarajati, originally used for dance, into a purely musical form (his three svarajati in rāga Tōdi, Bhairavī and Edukulakāmbhōji are all devotional songs to Kāmāks).

The Tradition of the Tyāgarāja Aradhana Festival, performed annually in Thiruvayyar, India, and in St. Paul, Minnesota

This section is under construction.

Some instruments of Carnatic music***

Mridangam Mridangam
The mridangam has a heavy annular membrane around the right side, and a number of pieces of straw which are placed radially between the annular membrane and the main membrane. The right side has a permanent application, known as soru or karanai. The left side uses a mixture of flour and water to provide a proper tone. This application must be removed after each performance. The lacing and heads are all placed upon a barrel shaped wooden shell. The wood is usually of jackwood.

The instrument is usually tuned with a small wooden block and a heavy stone. The block is placed against the rawhide weaving and struck with the stone. The manner of striking may either raise or lower the pitch. It is generally tuned to the tonic of the piece being performed.

The player sits cross legged with the left foot below and the right foot over and slightly extended. The mridangam rests upon the right foot and ankle. Since the instrument is very heavy it is also cushioned by some rolled up cloth placed at the right foot. The right hand plays the smaller head, while the left hand plays the head with the temporary application of flour.

sruti box Sruti box
also known as surpeti, swar pethi, swar peti, swarpeti, or sur peti
The sruti box is an Indian drone instrument. It is a small box whose only function is to provide the drone; there are two basic forms, manual and electronic. The manual form is a small free reed organ. It has no keys, can play no melody, and is pumped by some small bellows with the hand.

In the last few decades, the electronic versions have become very popular. The electronic ones have evolved considerably over the last few decades. Original versions were simple analogue devices that tended to drift and were unreliable, but advances in digital technology have brought them to a high level of reliability. Such versions are commonly referred to as "electronic tamburas".

Although the surpeti is common throughout India, their usage differs considerably. Hindustani musicians will regularly use them in practice but usually would not consider bringing them onto the stage. Carnatic musicians very regularly use them in stage performances.

vina Vina
Saraswati vina (Saraswathi veena) is the instrument associated with Saraswati, the goddess of learning and the arts. It is variously called simply vina, the "Saraswati" part being implied.

The saraswati vina has a body made of wood, generally jackwood. The highest quality vinas have the entire body carved from a single block of wood, while the ordinary vinas have a body which is carved in three sections (resonator, neck and head). The vina has 24 frets made of brass bars set into wax. There is another resonator at the top of the neck. This is no longer a functioning resonator, but is mainly used as a stand to facilitate the positioning of the instrument when it is played. Because it is no longer functioning, it is not unusual to find that this upper resonator may be made of acoustically neutral materials such as paper maché, cane or other similar materials. Unlike north Indian instruments like the sitar, the saraswati vina has no sympathetic strings. It has only four playing strings and three drone strings ( thalam). The main bridge is a flat bar made of brass. This bar has a very slight curve, which gives the vina its characteristic sound. A major centre for the manufacture of the saraswati vini is in Tanjore.

The performer sits cross-legged on the floor, the small vestigial gourd rests against the left thigh while the main resonator rests on the floor. The right hand plucks the strings while the left hand frets the instrument.

Carnatic music links

The Indian Music Society of Minnesota: http://www.imsom.org/

The Carnatic Music Association of North America: http://www.cmana.org/

Khazana, an online store of Southeast Asian art and culture items: http://www.khazana.com/

Music India Online, an online Indian music store where you can listen to Carnatic music clips: http://www.musicindiaonline.com/

Sources

* From Encyclopędia Britannica, 2002.

** Trinity, terms, and language sections from the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians

* Images and information on Carnatic instruments from the personal web site of David and Chandra Courtney, Indian music teachers, scholars, and performers based in Houston, Texas: http://chandrakantha.com/articles/indian_music/instruments.html.

-- Main.chri2397 - 23 Jul 2009

Topic revision: r2 - 30 Jul 2009 - 14:50:20 - LarsChristensen
 
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