The Carnatic Tradition

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Instrumental musical traditions are tricky propositions. It takes some training to understand time, key, and pitch; how to recognize the slight changes in playing that can signify a shift to a whole other genre. In the western musical tradition, we’re used to talking about music in terms of genres or cultural traditions, be it Baroque classical or country music and the blues; often a genre, like punk, can denote a whole philosophy and style in addition to referring to a genre of music. And while each genre and style has its formal qualities--a waltz is traditionally written in ¾ time and punk songs famously feature a mere three chords--new songs and styles can arise, constantly mutating to reflect the changing social-political context. Jazz gave way to jazz fusion, disco gave way to house and techno, which has seemingly opened the doors to anyone with a bedroom and computer to cultivate an army of fans.

When looking at the Western Classical music canon from this standpoint of musical hybridization and intersection, things start to get interesting at the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition where young composer Claude Debussy first encountered the Javanese gamelan and the players required to operate the musical machine and the centuries-old programs/compositions that they brought to life, infusing a degree of improvisation as they sped up and slowed down as a group, like a living, breathing organism. While musical instruments and ideas had made their way to Europe from the colonies, this was an instance of presenting the exotic, the other within a contained Western convention. And yet, the infestation of ideas that breached the bubble of Western music had already taken root. From that moment on, Western music could no longer claim to represent a pure and just representation of the musical world as ideas and styles both from within and outside of Western society would continue to intersect and give rise to whole new modes of composition.

As few cultures remained isolated during the waning of the colonial period, it’s important to remember that the transfer of ideas and instruments wasn’t one-sided. But unlike much of western music, which was changing rapidly in nature and expanding in function, Indian Classical Music tradition--as captured in the Hindustani, or Northern Indian, and Carnatic, or Southern Indian, music--have both retained a direct connection to the music and traditions first laid down during the Vedic period. Both traditions share a distinctively devotional quality as they were believed to have been passed down from the Devas and Devis, Hindu gods and goddesses. Yet, the Carnatic tradition in particular has incorporated Western instruments all the while retaining a distinctly Indian quality that is unmistakable to the ears.

Both North and South Indian Classical music gained popularity in the states during the fifties and sixties and can still often be heard in such easy-to-find places as Indian restaurants. Truly listening and understanding Carnatic music is not something that can be achieved by simply reading this article nor by eating a meal, but must be heard and experienced first and foremost. That said, for the many that Hindustani and Carnatic music has served as environmental background music designed to lend an extra-sensory dimension of ‘authenticity,’ there are plenty who have fallen under either tradition’s spell when least expected, the music overpowering one’s Western ears, bending them to embrace a tradition that dates back to the days of Gods.

In Harry Partch’s eccentric, visionary take on the history of music that serves as the grounding for his theory of microtonality Genesis of a Music, the famously eccentric composeroutlined a history of music slightly different than what was being taught in the conservatories around the Western world, demonstrating a remarkable familiarity with a wide range of tuning systems and theory present in non-Western traditions. For Partch, the voice was akin to a Socratic form, the ideal upon which all music is built. Rather than approaching the voice as something that should mimic the just intonation of Western instruments, he instead built what would become known as the Instrumentarium, a collection of bizarre and otherworldly-looking instruments that were designed to bring Partch’s forty-four note scale to life. Within everyday speech, Partch heard a multitude of tones that fell outside of the twelve notes established by the Western classical tradition, each one hinting at a possible note all of its own.

Just think about how we talk versus how Western Opera’s presentation of the voice. You do not greet a person in some combination of do-ra-fa-so, right? Rather, than projecting a series of held notes, the human voice wavers up and down, hitting tones that fall in between, say, A and B flat. As Partch and other scholars have noted, the western tradition of equal temperament tuning attempted to tame the vast tonality presented by the human voice, essentially reducing its countless complexities to twelve notes of equal temperament in order to reflect what an instrument tuned equally sounded like. Ultimately, Partch felt it was the keyboard to blame for this shift and noted that even as recently as the late 18th century, some keyboards were manufactured with eighteen keys to a scale, adding in extra minor or black keys to allow for different and alternate tuning systems.

While Partch’s writings on Indian music are rather sparse as he attempts to take in the whole of musical history, his published correspondence with A.H Fox Strangways provides an intriguing portal to the controversies surrounding Carnatic music in the 1940s. Stranfways was the founder and editor of the British quarterly journal Music and Letters in addition to being an avid fan of Indian music. Responding in opposition to Partch’s theory of just intonation, he extends a rather sympathetic ear to both Partch’s ideas while demonstrating how western notation and instruments are putting at peril the millennia-old tradition of the ragas. While both the Hindustani and Carnatic traditions back thousands of years, the Carnatic

He writes, “To go back from Equal Temperament on keyed instruments is to scrap the music of two centuries. We may have entered on an evil course--it has ruined singing for instance….The Indians’ are “up against it,” too: they have imported the harmonium, the issue of which is inevitably European harmony, though they don’t know it. A 25-note harmonium has been invented for them, so that they can plays their [ragas], but they won’t use it--too difficult, two expensive--they are settling down complacently on the 12-note scale, and contenting themselves with the dozen or so [ragas] it will play, and scrapping the many scores of them they used to sing.”

Strangways’ letter continues to resonate today and captures many truths about Carnatic music while highlighting a fundamental question that remains at the heart of the tradition today: how faithful is contemporary Carnatic music to the ragas composed over 3000 years ago?


Such Western instruments as the harmonium, violin, and flute are good examples of how South Indian players modified instruments, as possible, to match the human voice’s harmonic range. The harmonium itself was brought to india and other hot and humid British colonial outposts due to the fact that its heat resistance allowed colonists to enjoy the music generated by a Western instrument in their homes and churches constructed to foist British beliefs and government upon subjugated populations. Of those that made their way to India, one must have caught the eyes of Indian instrument makers, including Dwarkanath Ghose who in 1875 came out with an Indian harmonium half the size of the Western version. Prior to the harmonium’s embracement by Carnatic players, vocalists would typically be backed by sarangi players who performed with a bowed, short-necked string instrument. After the harmonium was introduced, the troubles that the sarangi presented in its extensive re-tuning made the harmonium a desirable alternative, though the two went back and forth in favor as traditionalists and trailblazers went back and forth.

As players and composers like Rabindranath Tagore made the harmonium their tool of choice, a new vernacular for both the instrument and carnatic music as a whole was opened up with the instrument becoming commonplace in many carnatic ensembles. While history would take a less disastrous course than the one feared by Strangways, the letter in Partch’s book does much to shed a light on the often-precious desire for “purity” within a musical tradition, especially when it is tied up with religious and other social modalities. Nonetheless, Carnatic music’s principle algorithms have withstood thousands of years for a reason and their ability to give players and composers space to experiment with other styles and voices has slowly encouraged the tradition to mutate and evolve while retaining a direct connection to its devout origins.

In the twelfth century,  Indian classical music began to split into the two traditions owing to increased Persian and Arabic influence in the north. Nonetheless, both Hindustani and Carnatic music share a set of foundational elements that gives shape to the kriti (compositions). These can be ignored if the higher meaning as described by the thaat (mode) need be attained via other melodic and performative methods. Each kriti contain ragas--the melodic formula--and tala, the rhythmic cycles. The raga can be thought of as the flavoring, the cluster of notes associated with a piece, with the sruti representing the relative musical pitch and the swara the musical sound attached to a specific note.

Despite being amongst the most commonly known aspect of Carnatic music, ragas are also amongst the most misunderstood concepts within South Indian Classical music. Simply put, a raga is a collection of musical phrases, not just the notes associated with it. This can be contrasted with the notes of a scale that can be played, through rote memorization but fail to capture the specific turns of phrases dictated within a raga. In performance, musicians will often declare the raga they will be playing with “markers” that indicate whether a specific raga is indeed being performed. Ultimately, ragas take a great deal of study and practice to truly know one, with most performers only capable of playing a handful of ragas over the course of their careers.

Improvisation is central to both traditions, but the ragas of the Hindustani are often written the parameters for the structure of improvisation and emotion dictated by the thaats around which are centered a set of notes (mode). There are ten thaats within Hindustani music, although the commonly accepted melakarta scheme has seventy-two ragas. This is partly why Carnatic music has more dissonance in general. The melakarta scheme came into being in the seventeenth century when the composer Venkatahmakhin built upon the mela system of rags first proposed in the mid-sixteen century, using six swaras derived from the known semitones to arrive at his system of seventy-two melakarta ragas. The melakarta ragas use a more standardized pattern than proposed by Venkatahmakhin, as accomplished by Govindhacharya who not only standardized the swaras, but also naming each standard raga that differed in structure while keeping the original swaras.

Carnatic music is much more stringent and only allows for improvisation if it is called for in a raga’s given mode and takes the form of seven methods: Alapana, Niraval, Pallavi, Ragam, Swarakalpana, Tanam, and Tani Avartanam. Whereas the spiritual meaning is of a specific nature in Hindustani ragas and its principle objective, the methods guiding the arrangements and how the notes are articulated within the improvisation as the spiritual content is generally implicit. Ultimately, whether or not a performer is able to successfully articulate a raga is open for debate with competing schools of thought and style bumping up against one another.

In performance, Carnatic music generally has more or less three defined speeds in which the compositions are executed, though the tempo does not tend to vary for the length of the composition, depending on the specific context. And while Carnatic music is known for its faster tempos and breakneck speeds, Hindustani music can also achieve a comparable velocity, though it will often fluctuate or drift over the course of a performance/

A quick side note. You’re likely thinking that this sounds like an awful lot of work involved in learning how to correctly play South Indian Classical music and historically, Carnatic music was cultivated by and within the royal courts. In contrast to the relative popularity that it receives here, Carnatic music remains largely reserved for those that original from the Brahman, or priest, caste, who typically have the economic wherewithal to provide patronage to foster professional players. That said, respected players such as TM Krishna are seeking to bring their music to “the masses,” though clearly even just listening to Carnatic music is a learned practice, let alone performing it.

Our story really picks up at the end of the eighteenth century with what is known as the Trinity of Carnatic music. Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri. Composing hundreds of new ragas and talas, they also helped to introduce improvisation within the ragas themselves. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were periods of immense change within South Indian Classical music as it prior to the mid-eighteenth century, music was generally subservient to the language text, whether it was great poetry, devotional texts, or even the stringing-together of the names of Gods and Goddesses. It was compositional innovations pioneered by the trinity that the music that gave the performer the latitude to her or his musical ideas. Thus, no longer was a composition a fixed text, but one given to change, interpretation, and intra-musician dialogues.

Alas, there is a certain directness akin to language that forms a foundational layer of the Carnatic tradition. In The Grammar of Carnatic Music, author linguist V.K. Vijayakrishnan offers this succinct summation of the way in which songs are composted and passed down in Carnatic music. He writes, “There is nothing like copyright in Carnatic music (as in day to day language). There cannot be. Once a composer has finished composing, the thing composed is no longer in his/her hands. The performer has the right to ‘interpret’ it, meaning, change the musical lines ever so lightly, add sangatis, add cittaswarams and so on.” Even in its most improvised moments, Carnatic music consists of an entire grammar with particular idioms, phrases, and even “quotations” from other compositions that are given such a twist so as to communicate a whole range of feelings and thoughts.

Vijayakrishnan advances his take on the linguistic nature of Carnatic music by contrasting it with spoken language that comes into being through no written or fixed texts, arguing that the tradition uses the fixed texts of compositions upon which to create its own ever-changing lexicon of Carnatic music and the grammar of its ragas. The result is a “free-flowing musical discourse” that just like any spoken language promotes a variety of practices that reflects a multitude of social, cultural, and aesthetic variables. Approach the music like a true linguist, Vijayakrisnan presents a tidy framework in which to rectify the different styles and varieties of Carnatic music, noting that any style that comes into being does so in the context of others and the value accorded to different styles ebbs and flows over the decades and centuries as the dominant mode gives way to another and another, creating a rich and vast tapestry of music from which the performer can draw inspiration.

While the Hindustani tradition features a scale with twelve notes--which has crept closer to equal temperament since the introduction of the harmonium, more on that below--the Carnatic scale is made up of twenty-two notes, with the sruti the smallest gradation in pitch that can be perceived by the human ear or performed by the human voice. In his book on Carnatic music, A Southern Music, the highly accomplished music critic and carnatic performer T.M. Krishna, he uses ragas as a means to coin the term “art music” to capture the emotional representation within carnatic music that can be achieved without the use of lyrics.

In attempting to gain some understanding of such an immense history and practice, one can think of carnatic music as a musical system or program designed to communicate and incite spiritual fulfilment in its players. Whereas languages organically come into being through human interaction, which then give rise to a proper lexicon and grammar and ultimately fixed texts, carnatic music can be thought of operating in reverse, taking the infinite possibilities both realized and still-virtual within the Carnatic system to achieve the intended feeling or message while also opening up a dialogue both within the compositions, or kriti, themselves, and amongst the varying styles and practices that manifest in relation to one another.

To bring the rich tradition of carnatic compositions to life, carnatic music usually requires a small assemblage of instruments that involves a primary performer that typically takes the role of a vocalist, a melodic and rhythmic accompaniment often in the form of a violin and a mridangam respectively. Both traditions also make central the presence of a drone that serves as the harmonic point of reference for the particular rage being performed, which is traditionally created by a tambura However, today most players use a sruti box, or an electronic reproductions, as using an actual tambura is quite expensive due to the cost of shipping them from location to location. A variety of Indian and western instruments make up the variety of instruments used, including the ghatam, kanjira, morsing, venu, veena (Carnatic flute), and chitraveena.

Long considered a western instrument, the violin is just one of several instrumental, alongside the flute and harmonium, that were enfolded into the Carnatic tradition. Perhaps even more interesting, though, is the fact that while of western design, the earliest versions of the violin are believed to have originated in India. These proto-violins, called Rvanhattas were taken through North Africa by traders and ultimately to Europe where they evolved into the violin and shipped back to the Indian colonies.

Yet, the popularity Indian classical music has enjoyed here is not matched at home, where Carnatic music has become a rarefied practice whose players come from across South India’s different regions and classes to give expression to this deeply spiritual and ecstatic music, with Chennai serving as the central hub in which. And while they are far from household names, the music they give deep expression to via a vast range of instruments alongside the voice has continued to persist, a hypercomplex set of algorithms that have been arranged and modified to mutate and grow, to integrate new and foreign styles and instruments while retaining a certain organic wholeness.

One of the great ironies of Carnatic music is that almost in spite of its seeming esotericism, it is best understood simply by shedding one’s expectations and knowledge of “what music is,” and opening one’s ears to the infinite possibilities being realized by the learned performers through which the music travels, playing the player as much as it is played. Like a computer program that needs electricity to run, the voice is what both enable Carnatic music to continue while also being the very thing that the rest of the musical accompaniment is built to reflect.

It’s in looking to some of Carnatic music’s greatest performers and the breathtaking records they have left behind and continue to create that one is reminded of just how human this system, this set of rules or algorithms that manages to both mutate while retaining an internal consistency that few other traditions can claim to have. Without further ado, below are five of the most celebrated and ground-breaking Carnatic musicians of the past century.

Smt. M. S. Subbulakshmi

Smt. M. S. Subbulakshmi

When it comes to the vocalists of Carnatic music, there has been none more significant or popular in the past century than Subbulakshmi’s. Born in 1916 and passing away in 2004, she recorded one of the most enduring albums in the form of Sri Venkatesa Suprabhatam, an album that forty years later still sells tens of thousands copies with each year. Considered the “Queen of Music” within and beyond southern India, she was the first woman to be awarded India’s highest Civilian honor, the Bharat Ratna in addition to receiving what is considered Asia’s Nobel Prize equivalent, the Ramon Magsaysay award. She notably played at the United Nations in the 1960s alongside a brief stint as a Bollywood star.

Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu

Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu

As mentioned above, the violin came to occupy a central element in the musical arrangements and is the most prominent western instrument found in contemporary Carnatic music. Naidu was born in 1893 and passed away in 1964 with the reputation of being one of Carnatic music’s most influential and important violinists. On the record Memorable Violin Solos released in 1971, a number of 78s and live performances comprise the music found on this magical compilation in which Naidu incorporates sounds and styles from many of the countries through which the Ravanhatta traveled, including Spain, North African, and Eastern European countries. His multi-lingual playing helped set the bar for an entire generation of players while serving as a testament to the fact that while Carnatic music was considerably more isolated than Hindustani music, it did not exist in a bubble, but its instruments and players traveled the world, bringing back with them foreign ideas that became part of the Carnatic music lexicon.

Ariyakkudi Iyengar

Ariyakkudi Iyengar

Another of the music’s most accomplished singers and largely referred to as simply Ariyakkudi, the performer made his debut at the 1918 Tyagaraja Aradhana. An annual celebration of Carnatic music attracting visitors both close and from afar, it was conceived by its namesake right before his death in 1847. Its present form is less than a hundred years old, however. From there, Ariyakkudi began a steady ascent that involved teaching a number of successful disciples alongside shaping the musical interests of M. S. Subbulakshmi. Born in 1890, he passed away at the age of seventy-seven having become a legend within the Carnatic world whose influence still holds strong today.

G.N. Balasubramaniam

G.N. Balasubramaniam

Otherwise known as GNB, Balasubramaniam was an unforgettable vocalist whose changes to aspects of the tradition helped increase its popularity amongst classes who had otherwise ignored it. Also a popular Tamil actor, as a child born in 1910 he attentively watched the great performers of that period, learning and aspiring to such heights. Rejecting his father’s wishes for him to become a lawyer, Balasubramaniam gave his first performance in 1928 before focusing primarily on his acting for a period. After a period in which he starred in a variety of movies, GNB returned to the Carnatic tradition, penning some 250 ragas before his death in 1965.

Vidwan T R Mahalingam

Vidwan T R Mahalingam

While the flute is rather common, it is not so much when it comes to recorded form. One of the most celebrated flutists, he was widely considered to be a child prodigy following his birth in 1926. As previously mentioned, most instruments in South Indian classical music were designed to mimic the voice, but until Natesa Ramani, no such technique existed. Mahalingam popularized this technique, demonstrating that it could in fact be done. Influencing generations of flutists, a recent 2010 compilation by the Japanese label EM has made his work more accessible to a wider audience while continuing to influence students of Carnatic flute to this day.