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«VOCAL AND INSTRUMENTAL RENDERINGS IN CARNATIC MUSIC - A COMPARISON* Krishnaswami Alladi** Abstract: Carnatic music, the classical music of South ...»

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Krishnaswami Alladi**

Abstract: Carnatic music, the classical music of South India, is rich in melodic

and devotional content. Vocal renderings effectively convey the devotional aspect, and a

variety of instruments enhance the melodic effect of the vocal renderings. After briefly

tracing the origins and early development of Carnatic music, we will describe vocal and instrumental renderings and provide a comparison. We also allude briefly to some links between Carnatic music and Hindustani music, the classical music of North India.

0. Introduction I appreciate the invitation from the Center for the Study of Hindu Traditions (CHiTra) of the University of Florida and the Florida Chapter of The Society for the Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Culture Among Youth (SPIC-MACAY) to speak at this Sangeet Sammelan. The topic I have chosen is very broad and so this talk will not be a complete treatment. But the talk is given in the hope that it will help enhance the appreciation of Carnatic music concerts in general, and those at this Sammelan in particular. I do not consider myself an authority on Carnatic music, the classical music of South India, but I am an ardent rasika (= devoted enthusiast). Although I will make references to Hindustani music, the classical music of North India, I will concentrate on Carnatic music with which I am more familar.

The talk is divided into three sections. We begin by briefly describing the ancient origins of Indian music and its significant development in the last few centuries. Then we present various aspects of vocal rendering and conclude with a discussion of instrumental music both as accompaniments as well as lead renderings in Carnatic concerts.

1. Origin and early development Divine origin: Hindus believe that their music has a divine origin. Of the four vedas, the Hindu holy scriptures, the Sama Veda is very musical. Even though all four vedas have to be recited in very specific sonorous fashion, the Sama Veda is actually recited in musical form. Indeed the sapta swaras, the seven basic musical notes sa, ri, ga, ma, pa, da, ni, originate in the Sama Veda. Of all the Hindu gods, Lord Shiva is especially fond of the Sama Veda. Saint Thyagaraja, the greatest of the Carnatic composers, says in his famous composition Nada Tanumanisam Sankaram in raga Chittaranjani, that the sapta swaras emerged from the five faces of Lord Shiva who is referred to as Sankara in this song. The specific lines of the composition alluding to this are “satyo jathadhi pancha vaktraja, sa ri ga ma pa da ni vara saptaswara”. Quite appropriately, this composition of Thyagaraja is the prayer song of the Madras Music Academy and is sung at the opening of its Annual Conference every December.

————————– *Talk delivered at the Sangeet Sammelan of CHiTra and Spic-Macay at the University of Florida, on April 3, 2010.

Salvation through music: Music can excite a variety of senses in our body and mind. Some forms of music kindle our carnal desires, while other forms provide calmness and tranquility. To the Hindus, music is a medium to communicate with, and eventually reach, God. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, one of the foremost carnatic vocalists of the twentieth century, pointed out in his speech as the President of the 1947 Music Academy Conference, that Sarnga Deva, in his great thirteenth century treatise Sangeetha Rathnakara on music, says that the four Purusharthas (= human objectives), namely Dharma (= righteousness), Artha (= wealth), Kama (= desire), and Moksha (= salvation), can be best attained through music. It is the aspiration of all Hindus to attain moksha and be permanently with God instead of being caught in the cycle of birth and rebirth and suffers the ills of mortal life. Thus the belief in the devine origin of our music and the emphasis that music is the perfect medium to reach God, is the primary reason that Carnatic music is intensely devotional.

Foundations of Carnatic music: Although Indian music is ancient, the foundations of Carnatic music were laid only a few centuries ago - recent compared to the long history of India. In Sarnga Deva’s musical treatise Sangeetha Ratnakara written around 1227 AD, one finds a precise definition of grama, the unit with which the range of the sruti (= pitch) can be partitioned. Music flourished in the Vijayanagar Empire in South India, especially under the rule of Krishna Deva Raya. Another golden era for music was in the Chola period in Tanjore in South India. Some of the great early composers were Purandara Dasa, Kshetragna, Rama Das, and Annammacharya. Of particular importance is Purandara Dasa (early 15-th century), who was born rich, but gave up his wealth and contemplated on God through music. He composed hundreds of songs in different ragas (= scales) and with the raga Mayamalavagowlai as the starting point. Indeed today, when learning music, every student begins with a recitation of the sapta swara notes in the raga Mayamalavagowlai. Purandara Dasa’s emphasis on Mayamalavagowlai served as a motivation for Govinda Dikshitar to contruct the scheme of 72 basic Melakartha ragas from which all other Carnatic ragas can be derived. Govinda Dikshitar served as a Minister in the court of Tanjore from 1577 to 1614. His seminal work Sangeetha Sudhamani was further developed around 1620 by his son Venkata Makhi who provided a rigorous classification of the ragas based on the melakartha scheme, and that is what is in use today.

The great Trinity: In the century following the introduction of the Melakartha scheme and the raga classification, Carnatic music attained a perfection owing to work of the three greatest composers all of whom were born in Tiruvarur in the Tanjore district just a few years apart. They were Saint Thyagaraja (born in 1767), Muthuswami Dikshitar (born in 1775) and Syama Sastry (born in 1763). It is as if the three Gods - Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, all incarnated at about the same time and effected a glorious transformation of Carnatic music!

The Trinity gave the world hundreds of kirtanas (= well structured compositions) in a whole range of ragas. Through these compositions, the full scope and structure of the Carnatic ragas were exhibited. Each of three saints had a different musical style and message to convey. Saint Thyagaraja’s compositions were philosophical in content so much so that his work is referred to as Thyagopanishad, comparing it to the Upanishads.

Thyagaraja was a devotee of Lord Rama (one of the two premier incarnations of Lord Vishnu, The Protector) and most of his compositions focus on Lord Rama. In contrast, Dikshitar undertook the task of visiting temples all over India, and composed songs in praise of the many Hindu Gods and Godesses in these temples. Syama Sastry on the other hand focused on Goddess Parvathi (the consort of Lord Shiva), one of the three principal female Hindu deities.

Thyagaraja compositions which are mostly in the Telugu language, have relatively few words and so their movement is often spritely. The sweetness derived from the ease of movement of Thyagaraja’s compositions is compared to drakska paka (= the sweetness of the grape), because as soon as the grape in put in the mouth, its sweet taste is immediately felt. Dikshitar’s compositions are in Sanskrit; they are more weighty and slow paced and so it takes a greater effort while singing them to properly deliver their melodic effect. Their delight is compared to narikela paka (= the sweetness of the coconut), because the hard shell of a coconut has to be broken before one can enjoy its contents. Syama Sastry’s compositions are just as weighty and slow paced as Dikshitar’s, but have fewer words like those of Thyagaraga thereby providing an easier movement. The sweetness of Syama Sastry’s compositions is compared to kadali paka (= sweetness of the banana), which can be realized by peeling the banana. The banana is easier to peel compared to the breaking of the coconut.

The compositions of the Trinity also enhanced our understanding of the structure of the various ragas. Some ragas lend themselves nicely for elaboration, such as Todi, Bhairavi, Sankarabharanam, and Kalyani. Such ragas are known the ghana (= weighty) ragas. The capacity to elaborate on a raga lies of course in the imagination of the composer and performer. For example, the raga Karaharapriya was not considered a ghana raga before the time of the Trinity. After Thyagaraja’s great composition Sakkani Raja, Karaharapriya was elevated to the status of a ghana raga.

Besides being set in a raga, each Carnatic composition is also set in a tala or beat cycle. Adi tala (8 beat cycle), Rupaka tala (3 beat cycle), and Misra Chapu tala are three of the more prominent talas. Among all talas, Adi tala is considered supreme. Indeed, most of Saint Thyagaraja’s compositions are in Adi tala.

The immortal work on the Trinity served as an inspiration for a host of other composers, and so there is no dearth of good kirthanas in Carnatic music today. Indeed new compositions are emerging regularly. Of the many composers after the time of the Trinity, perhaps the most illustrious was Maharaja Swathi Thirunal of Travancore (in the state of Kerala). Indeed The Trinity, Purandara Dasa, and Swathi Thirual, are considered the five greatest composers in Carnatic music. Papanasam Sivan (of Madras) perhaps stands above all of the composers in the last fifty years. I actually had the privilege of listening to a live concert of Papanasam Sivan in Madras in the 1970’s when he sang many of his famous compositions and presented some new ones which have since become well known.

Spread of Carnatic music: The great compositions of the Trinity were handed down to their disciples and in the decades that followed, these compositions were being heard regularly all over South India - in the courts of the Maharajas, in temples, and in various cultural gatherings - and Carnatic music was being considered as the classical music of South India. Some of the notable vidwans (= scholars) who were instrumental in the spread of Carnatic music were Patnam Subramania Iyer, Konerajapuram Vaidhyanatha Iyer, Ramnad Srinivasa Iyengar, Madurai Pushpavanam, and Maha Vaidhyanatha Iyer.

Some of them were accomplished composers in their own right, having imbibed the deep knowledge directly from the Trinity. Patnam Subramania Iyer was a disciple of Thyagaraja and his compositions are remarkably similar to that of his great master in melody and grace. Maha Vaidhyanatha Iyer composed Mela Raga Malika, a magnificent song in which the various stanzas are set in the different Melakartha ragas. In rendering this masterpiece of Maha Vaidhyanatha Iyer, the grand structure of the full set of Melakartha ragas is unfolded.

We will now describe the evolution of carnatic music concerts and compare the role of vocal and intrumental music in these concerts.

2. Vocal music in Carnatic concerts

The concert format: Even though great vidwans were giving public performances in the nineteenth century, the actual format of a Carnatic concert crystallized only in the early part of the twentieth century. The present concert format structure is due to Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar, one of the greatest vocal performers of the first half of the twentieth century.

A typical Carnatic concert starts with a varnam which is a short piece emphasizing notes and containing very few words. A varnam is a warm up item and helps the artiste get into the groove; it also provides a delightful start and sets the mood and tempo of the concert. The next item is usually in praise of Lord Ganesha (the elephant faced God), the remover of all obstacles. These are followed by a few short compositions. After this, more weighty compositions will be sung, and for these quite often the artiste will render an alapana (= elaboration) of the raga (= scale) in which the composition is set.

Sometimes for such compositions, the artise will choose a specific line of the song and do a neraval, which is an elaboration of that line in the full scope of the raga and in various speeds. The neraval will be followed by a rendering of swaras, namely the permutation and combination of the notes of the raga, in different speeds. Thus with the raga alapana, neraval and swaras, the grand structure of a major composition is exhibited. Usually after every raga alapana, and after every round of neraval and swara singing by the vocalist, the stringed intrumental accompanists get a chance to respond suitably.

In some concerts, a Ragam, Thanam, Pallavi is chosen as the central piece. A Pallavi is the starting line of a song, and for a Ragam, Tanam, Pallavi, the starting line of any song could be chosen for this kind of elaboration. But there are special pallavis (famous one liners!) that have been composed and it is such pallavis that are typically chosen for elaboration with Raga and Tana introduction. In what follows, I will say something more specific about the appropriate rendering of neraval, swaras, tana and pallavi.

After the vocalist renders the main item of the concert, the percussion accompaniments do a short and brisk thani avartanam (solo demonstration). After this thani avarthanam, the vocalist sings a few thukkadas (= light pieces). Very often, songs with sringara rasa (= romantic flavor) are sung in the thukkada portion. After this, the concert concludes with a mangalam which is a benediction for peace in the world.

A major carnatic music concert is about three hours long and except for short spells when the instrumentalists are playing, the vocalist is singing for the entire stretch. Senior vocalists often have their disciplines as supporting voices. This is mutually beneficial. It helps the senior vocalist who with advancing age would not have the same stamina to go full throated for the three hour duration; it provides an excellent concert training for the disciple to sing along with the master.

Neraval: In principle, an expert musician can pick any line of a composition and do a neraval (elaboration) of it in the underlying raga (scale). However, the great scholars from whom our tradition has descended, have emphasized that the line chosen for neraval must have arthabhava (= lofty meaning and emotional content). Also, that line should have relatively few words so that the movement is easy and uncluttered. Then the neraval will be pleasant and soul stirring.

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