I had the great privilege of traveling to India this past December and it is a trip that, though this may sound cliché, has changed me forever. I have always had an affinity for India and its colossal mixture of people and customs within its borders. I remember as a child opening up our huge atlas that we had at home and my eyes always strayed to that mysterious country in the East. I also remember hearing a Bollywood song for the first time and that’s when I got hooked. Though Bollywood isn’t exactly the most accurate representation of the country, the music fascinated me… you couldn’t help but get up and dance to it!
After spending a little over two weeks trying to cover as much of the country as I could, I ended my trip in Chennai (formerly known as Madras) just in time for their annual music festival, which is considered to be one of the world’s largest cultural gatherings. For six weeks, in all sorts of venues scattered around the city, the music and dance of South India is honored and put on display literally ALL day. Since the standard concert duration is around three hours, I unfortunately only managed to see two in my short time there. But they indeed were two of the most stunning performances I have ever witnessed.
Here is a clip of the dress rehearsal right before one of the concerts I attended. This is Raji Gopalakrishnan and ensemble, with Raji being accompanied by violin, mridangam (side-held drum), ghatam (clay pot drum), and moharsing (mouth percussive instrument).
To try and cover the music of over 1.2 billion people with hundreds of different languages and customs would be far more than ambitious, so I will focus my post strictly on the music of South India (and a bit of Bollywood as well), otherwise known as Carnatic music, since the piece I am playing is based on Carnatic scales and rhythms.
The term “carnatic” may originally have come from the Sanskrit term karnatakam meaning “that which pleases the ear”, but this cannot be confirmed. Nevertheless, the term is used to describe the southern region of India (the states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala) and the music associated with the area. Compared with Hindustani music, which is the other genre of music most influenced by the Islamic and Persion peoples of North India, Carnatic music is more deeply rooted in the ancient customs of Hinduism. Melody and rhythm are not prioritized one over the other in this music, and often the compositions of both are considered complex to a “Western” ear.
Without getting too technical, Carnatic music is based on four important aspects: a raga (the rules of melody, governing what notes can be played and how they should be played; similar to the Western scale or mode), the tala (similar to the Western meter or number of beats allowed within a group), the Śruti (the central note which the song is based on, like the Western tonic note), and swara (meaning the position of what we would call a “note” and it can also mean solfege — instead of do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti, in this case it’s sa-ri-ga-ma-pa-da-ni).
Carnatic music is strongly based on vocal music and within the sets of rules mentioned above, improvisation is another strong aspect of this genre, though improvisation in this instance is performed within composed works. There are many different ways in which the singer/musicians can improvise, from singing a raga slowly while gradually increasing octaves, varying the melodic lines and tempo of a particular lyric of the song, improvising strictly on solfege, and also allowing the lead percussion instrument to play a solo.
Compositions were orally transmitted to students up until the 18th century and pieces are generally written in solfege notation instead of in a staff notation like the music of Western classical music. This is because most pieces are sung at the pitch which is most comfortable for the singer and Carnatic music tends to use many accidentals, causing too much confusion in staff notation.
This music had a long tradition of students living in the homes of their teachers, known as gurus, having daily lessons and learning from one individual. Most students have a lineage of teachers (this is actually very similar to the Western classical flute community!) that they trace back to ancient musicians or legendary composers.
Now that we have a very general overview of what defines Carnatic music, I will focus on how it is used in different contexts.
Concert Music (Kutcheri)
The typical kutcheri ensemble contains the singer, a violin, a mridangam, and other percussion instruments such as the morsing or ghatam. The percussion instruments are strictly accompaniment and do not generally deviate from what the singer is doing unless they have a designated solo. The violin player often has a more prominent role, playing back and forth with the singer and imitating what they sing back to them in a varied form. Interaction between all musicians is essential and each instrument has its own unique role in the composition. The music contains very complicated vocal lines both melodically and rhythmically, with the singer covering a wide vocal range and showcasing extreme vocal agility. Concerts usually last about three hours without an interval and the audience who attend typically have an idea of how Carnatic music works and often beat along with the patterns (the tala) of the singer with their hands on their laps. Audiences are encouraged to clap when they find the singer has shown exceptional virtuosity or sung a profound text and often are invited to request that certain pieces be sung.
This clip of a kutcheri is sung by Nithyasree Mahadevan, a prominent Carnatic singer from Tamil Nadu. Notice how easily her voice moves through the extremely difficult lines and how the violin must support her but not in an overbearing way. When the drums enter, are you able to keep the pulse with the music or do you find it somewhat difficult at times?
Bharatanatyam A classical dance, deeply rooted in the beliefs of Hinduism. It is meant as a devotional act, helping to bring the dancer and the audience to a closer knowledge of the Divine through the visual manifestation of energy within their bodies and the music. Different hand gestures made by the dancer, known as mudras, are used to symbolize a specific word or image. The dancer is meant to tell a story, usually a mythological tale of ancient India, using distinct facial expressions, hand gestures, and precise body movement. Hindus still perform this today and use the beautiful, entrancing dance as communication between heaven and earth.
Danced by Mythili Prakash: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2V9Z0rd2baU
Kathakali A dance-drama from the state of Kerala. The word literally means ‘story-play’. The themes of these plays are taken from the ancient scriptures known as the Puranas and from the epics of Mahabharata and the Ramayana . Dancers must wear elaborate and concise make-up to help identify which characters they are portraying.
Kolata A folk dance of Karnataka that involves groups of dancers holding pairs of sticks and striking them against each other as they dance to a song. The themes of the song could be anything from love, political issues, or songs of celebration.
No region of India has been untouched by the sounds of Bollywood. The hub of Hindi cinema in Mumbai is home to some of the most famous films in the world, though most people where I am from have probably never heard of any of them.
The revenue of most Bollywood films is generated significantly by the music performed in them. From popular beats, celebrity singers, and the incorporation of regional dances and songs, the music of a Bollywood film is essential and often determines whether a movie is a flop or a success. Unlike its Hollywood counterpart, the bulk of Bollywood films are what Westerners would consider a “musical”, placing often five or more choreographed songs within the storyline. The songs can be influenced by many different cultures of India and the dance usually takes a more modern twist of traditional Indian dance.
The music is so important that most Bollywood films have “playback” singers (usually classically trained) who record the soundtrack first, and then the actors/actresses (typically well-known celebrities) take care of the dancing and lip-synching. Though this may seem a bit odd to “Westerners” to have actors apparently singing with a voice incredibly different than their speaking voice, this aspect is overlooked by Indian cinema-goers because the music is so important to them and must be of high-quality.
Here is an example of more traditional song within a film. This is a clip from the film Umrao Jaan (1981) starring Asha Bhosle (singer) and Rekha (actress). This example is more like Hindustani music than Carnatic and the lyrics are a ghazal, a form of poetry that has been linked back to ancient Arabic verse. I have also added a clip (for contrast) from the re-make of Umrao Jaan in 2006, with Alka Yagnik (singer) and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan (actress).
Jiya Jale – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwoSBP_GiuQ
India’s musical culture is widely varied, but the aspects that permeate the huge subcontinent are devotion and profession, whether it be of love, despair, or joy. South Indian music, in particular, portrays these ideas in complex and intricate detail through rhythm, melody, and deep lyrical meaning. I continue to be fascinated by how these musicians express themselves so naturally in such a challenging and virtuosic way. Even in their films, music seems the ideal way for Indians to express themselves and when I witnessed this myself in December, it most definitely solidified my belief in music’s power to transcend boundaries and change a person’s mood, perception, or thought.
I hope this post has interested you enough to explore Carnatic music further and the other half of Indian classical music, known has Hindustani, as well! Thanks for reading and my apologies that I have been a bit behind with posting. As usual, I have added links below of other pieces that I enjoy.
Alka Yagnik (singer) and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan (actress) performing “Taal Se Taal” from the film Taal (1999): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XSjWDJ3901E
AR Rahman and Chinmayi (singers) Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan (actors) performing “Tere Bina” from the film Guru (2007): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DqNhu7Sbmf8
Harinie Jeevitha dancing Bharatanatyam: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=prQOdTmF8u0
Kishore and Padmavani Mosalikanti performing a Kuchipudi (another type of classical Indian dance) duet: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEVZ0zNvGAU
Sonu Nigam (singer) Shahrukh Khan and Manisha Koirala (actors) performing “Satrangi Re” from the film Dil Se.. (1998): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vfvGrChLEn0
Rahat Fateh Ali Khan performing “O Re Piya” from the film Aaja Nachle (2007): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qtaetK9sXJI