Carnatic Music

A brief history of carnatic music

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Carnatic Music - Brief History

Brief History:
The origin of carnatic music dates back to the 13th century A.D. with a book named Sangeetha Rathnakara written by Saranga Deva. It was spread and popularized with significant contributions by composers like Purandaradaasar (15th century A.D.) and the trinity of carnatic music Sri Thyagarajar, Sri Muthuswami Dikshithar and Sri Shyama Shasthry (18th century A.D.) who were contemporaries. Their compositions are filled with devotion and are unique in their own way. They have a universal appeal across all sections of connoisseurs of classical music, language being no barrier.

Key aspects of carnatic music:
The two main aspects of carnatic music are: Shruti (Pitch) and Laya (Tala). There is a popular saying that elucidates this: “Shruti maata layaph pita”, Shruti personified as mother and Laya as father

  1. Shruti:
    Shruti refers to the scale or the pitch on which music is rendered keeping its frequency as the foundation. Each shruti has three octaves or staayis namely: Madhyama Staayi , the normal octave, Mandara staayi and Taara staayi being the lower and higher ones respectively.
  2. Laya (Taala):
    Taala refers to the rhythmic cycles in which the swara (notes) and the saahithyam (Lyrics) are set. Carnatic music is set to any one of the seven Taalas which are: Dhruva, Mathsya, Rupaka, , Jhampa, Thriputa, Ata and Eka.
The seven swaras S,R,G,M,P,D,N are the building blocks of the ragas and they cover one octave. The swaras are denoted as follows:
S – Shadjam
R – Rishabham
G – Gaandaaram
M – Madhyamam
P – Panchamam
D – Daivatham
N – Nishaadam

Of these, S and P are called Prakriti Swaras (one that does not change) and the rest are called Vikruti swaras (one that changes).

The Vikruti swaras have sub-types.
R (Rishabam) is of three types namely: Shuddha Rishabam, Chatushruti Rishabam and Shatshruti Rishabam.
G (Gaandaaram) is of two types namely: Sadhaarana Gaandaaram and Anthara Gaandaaram.
M (Madhyamam) is of two types, Shuddha Madhyamam and Prathi Madhyamam.
D (Daivatham) is of two types, Shuddha Daivatham and Chathushruthi Daivatham.
N (Nishaadam) is of two types, Kaakali Nishaadam and Kaishiki Nishaadam.

A Raaga is characterized by a combination of a sub set of these Swaras. Though some of them overlap in terms of frequency of the note, one can not replace the other nor can both of them coexist in a particular raga. The ascending order of the swaras in a raga is called Arohanam and the descending order of the swaras is called Avarohanam.

Raga Classification:
Main Ragas that have all the seven swaras in both Arohana and Avarohana are called Melakarta Ragas and the ones with fewer swaras of each of them are called its janya ragas. If there is retrograde step in Aarohana or Avarohana of a raaga, the raga is called a vakra raga.

Paddhathis or compositions are of many types. They are: Varnams, Krithis, Padams, Javalis, Thillanas and Viruthams. Varnams are compositions which depict the varna or color of the raga. Varnams are further classified as Adi thala varnams, Ata thala varnams and pada varnams. Krithis are refined forms of compositions. Their basic structure includes 3 parts, Pallavi, Anupallavi and Charanam. Some Krithis have a pallavi and Samashti charanam (without an anupallavi) . Some krithis have madhyama kala saahithyam and chittai swarams. Padams are compositions which are descriptive. Javalis are abhinaya types of compositions. Thillanas are compositions which have sollukattus / jathis which are sung for dance recitals. Viruthams are usually hymns of gods sung in ragas at a slowpace or within thala at the end of a concert.

  • Gamakas:
    Gamakas refer to the variation of pitch of a note using heavy oscillations between adjacent and distant swaras. These are made use of in sangathis(modifications) in krithis and in manodharma sangeetham (creative music).
  • Mudhras:
    Mudhra represents the unique signature of the composer used in their works. E.g. Guruguha for Sri Muthuswami Dikshithar.
Advanced concepts in music:
These are the ones that are sung in concerts. They include: Alapana, Kalpana Swaram, Neraval, Ragam Thanam Pallavi etc. They constitute Manodharma Sangeetham. Alapana refers to presenting a sketch of the raga usually sung using akara prayogams or allowed phrases in the ragas which are called classic pidis in the carnatic music jargon. Kalpana swaras are those sung by an artiste using their imagination along with some mathematical calculations called kanakku. Neraval is elaboration of a single line using one’s creativity. It is usually sung in two speeds. Ragam Thanam Pallavi is the most advanced concept in carnatic music. Ragam refers to the alapana. Thanam is rhythmic version of the alapana which is sung using the syllables aa nam thaa nam. Pallavi derives its name form the following words. Pa – Padam la – layam vi – vinyasam (variations) because it has saahithyam (padam), thalam (layam) and neraval (variations).

Vageyakaras (Composers):
The word vageyakara means one who gives a beautiful blend of swara and sahithya. The composers are mainly classified as pre-trinity and post-trinity composers.

As one commences learning carnatic music, the growth curve includes the following stages: Abhyaasa gaanam (Varisais, Alankarams), Geethams, Varnams, Krithis, Manodharma sangeetham and finally Ragam Thanam Pallavi. Learning theory happens side by side along with the various stages or the levels.

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