Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Pocket guide to Carnatic Music


Carnatic music or karnataka sangitam is the classical music of south India—the area covering the four states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala.

Traditional followers of Indian music believe that it is of divine origin. In this, people who listen to north Indian or Hindustani and south Indian or Carnatic classical music, are united. In particular, the Vedas, more specifically the Sama Veda, are said to be the wellspring of what has evolved through the millennia into Indian classical music.

In Tamil Nadu, ancient Tamil compositions such as the Tevaram or Tiruvachakam have been sung for centuries by a community of temple musicians known as Oduvars. The music they render is based on melodies called panns, which predate raga music.

Carnatic music is essentially raga music—raga and tala music, to be more precise—with a vast number of songs based on an austere structure of melodic and rhythmic fundamentals. In short, every Carnatic music composition is rendered in a particular raga and a definite tala or rhythm cycle.

A raga is a unique arrangement of the seven swaras or solfa notes—sa, ri, ga, ma, pa, dha and ni, with the microtones in between. In practice, 12 such srutis are identified—with two ri-s (rishabha), two ga-s (gandhara), two ma-s (madhyama), two dha-s (dhaivata), and two ni-s (nishada).

In the melakarta scheme of ragas, 72 parent ragas are identified, and divided into two sets of ragas, based on the two types of madhyama—suddha and prati—with 36 suddha madhyama and 36 prati madhyama ragas.

All 72 parent ragas are complete ragas, with each raga containing all seven notes in both ascent and descent. In other words, each melakarta raga will have the scale sa-ri-ga-ma-pa-dha-ni-Sa in the ascent and Sa-ni-dha-pa-ma-ga-ri-sa.

The two subsets are further divided into 6 chakras each, consisting of 6 ragas each. Each of the suddha madhyama and prati madhyama ragas is differentiated by the positions of the other swaras, with only the shadja and panchama constant.

While the parent ragas are known as mela or janaka ragas, their offspring are known as janya or offspring ragas. A large number of permutation-combinations is possible, with such variations as 5 swaras in the ascent and 6/ 7 in the descent or vice versa, 5 and 5, or 6 and 6, so on and so forth. Thousands of ragas are the result.

A tala is a rhythmic cycle with a specific number of beats. Carnatic music uses a comprehensive system of talas called the Suladi sapta tala system. It has seven families of talas, each of which has five members, one each of five types or varieties (jati or chapu), thus allowing 35 possible talas. In practice, a small number of talas are regularly used.

Sophisticated, arithmetically intricate rules govern the elaboration of tala patterns. Once the tempo of a song is decided, the musician can accelerate. The vilambita is the slow pace, while madhyama is double that pace and the durita four times the vilambita kala. The singer maintains the tala or tempo by slapping his hand on his thigh, while instrumentalists may resort to tapping their feet.

This is Carnatic music in a nutshell, though it is an oversimplification of a complex, sophisticated system.

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