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Articles on Carnatic Music

Transformed Tamil Music
by Ramalingam Shanmugalingam

Life and its feel are inseparable. So are man and language. From the moment man started breathing, the outgoing breath produced speech-sounds. Sound waves are produced when the speaker’s vocal chords, tongue, lips, etc. affect the stream of his outgoing breath. Every sound that is produced by the breath is not of the same pitch. The rise and fall in musical level or pitch is called intonation. When the listener recognizes a speaker’s sound and the meaning understood, a language is spoken.

Tamil is one of the South Indian languages belonging to the Dravidian family. It has a long and large amount of recorded history. THOKAPPIYAM is the earliest written record available in Tamil. "THOLKAPPIYAM is a monumental work of Tamil which deals with the Science of language and literature mainly and thereby gives a partial picture of the Tamil Nadu of its age." (Preface to THOLKAPIYAM by Dr. S. Ilakkuvanar.) Scholars, Western and Western oriented Tamils, pay only passing attention to prehistoric connections from Tamil literature. Tamil literary, epigraphical and archeological sources exist, according to many Tamils , only for about the past 2000 years. From the frequent use of ‘enpa - enpanAr’ - "so they said" in THOLKAPPIYAM, among others, it can be inferred there were sophisticated grammatical and literary works in Tamil prior to THOLKAPPIYAM. The recent discovery indicating the possibility of a city lost to the sea around Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu may throw more light to establish a Tamil history recognizable beyond the Christian era. However, the age of THOLKAPPIYAM according to Dr. Ilakkuvanar, "is not later than 6th century B.C."

THOLKAPPIYAM deals with all the aspects of Tamil language and literature in three books. They are, the book on ‘ezhuttu - letter, with Phonetics; the book on ‘col’ - word, the study of Morphology and Syntax; and the book on ‘poruL, - Literature. Literature is the fruit of the words. "A sentence is a word or set of words followed by a pause and revealing an intelligible purpose." (A. H. Gardiner, The Theory of Speech and Language.)

Bharathy in his immortal words proclaimed that the age of Tamil is hard to determine, even by experts in all fields of knowledge;;such is her antiquity. This is mainly due to poetry set to music that enhanced longevity of the language, through repetition. Most languages are sweet to the ear but it was the Tamils who defined Tamil as the combination of ‘ijal’ - literature, ‘icy’ - music and ‘Nadakam’ - drama. Tamil is also known as ‘muttamizh’ - Three-in-one Tamil or Tamil Trinity.

The natural phenomenon of speech to vary the pitch or musical level of each syllable was fully utilized by our forefathers to give the language the added advantage for people to sing or listen to the music. The introduction of printing technology and transport facilities made media more accessible and literacy became the property of the folks, as opposed to that of a few scribes who, with the help of the stylus and palm leaf, etched literary works for posterity. Music in the Tamil language grew with the language, to hold itself as musical poetry. Tamil language with music and art was given royal patronage in ancient times. This is eloquently expressed in one of the early epics called‘cilappatikAram’ by Prince Ilango Adigal. The author of ‘cilappatikaram’ was a true expert. He was an artist as well as a connoisseur of art. He was not only well versed in the Tamil language but in music and dance also. His royal lineage is evident from his treatment of the three Tamil kings, Chera, Chola and Pandiya, of the kingdoms of the Tamils. His religious tolerance is also well established in the treatment of characters representing all three religions of the time.

He abdicated his throne to become a ‘turavi’ - an ascetic. Poet Ilango as the author of ‘cilappatikAram’ had the necessary qualifications to erect an epic that stands as an edifice to Tamil cultural excellence. He packed his story with information where history merges into myth.

Madhavi the co-heroine of ‘cilappatikAram’ is introduced in the chapter on her debut in dance and Music -‘arangkERRu kAdy.’ in Canto Three. A sage from the PODYIL Mountains cursed the unacceptable behavior of immortal Cayanthan, one of Indran’s sons and the nymph Urvashi. Urvashi was forgiven, due to her dancing excellence and was born a mortal in the city of Puhar. It was due to this noble and amorous adventure of this pair, that the beautiful and talented Madhavi was born. She learned music, dance and etiquette from teachers of unequaled knowledge and experience from the age of five to twelve. Her dance and music debut was a royal command performance at age twelve.

The teachers who helped her blossom were: One, an exponent of the art of the two forms of dance, the pure dance and character dance. He combined these dance forms and developed rules for such dance styles that maintain the eleven positions of the breast independent of the limb movements. He knew all words for all the songs and was also an expert in playing the drums and the cymbal that is used to time and differentiate the pace of the dance.

Her music master was an expert performer on the ‘jAzh’ - harp and flute. His handling of the percussion instruments produced well-rounded sounds, mellow and deep. He could adapt music to suit the mood of the dance repertoire. The intrigues and subtleties of the classical lyrics were maintained even in places where he invented new variations.

The bard in Madhavi’s entourage was a famous Tamil poet and critic and knew how to avoid flaws in his own work. He was a poet adept in theatrical art, psychological drama and tragedy.

The young ‘mirutangkam’ - drum, player was familiar with all the types of dance, musical notation and singing. He knew the vast range of the significant ‘tala’ - beats and could improvise rhythmic variations. His control of the drum’s noise level was marvelous. He could play as to allow the sound of other instruments also to be heard, but his style to accentuate sounds such as thunder was unique and designed to drown the other instruments, when necessary.

The flute player was another accomplished member of the troupe. He was a scholar and knew the rules well as to adjust his pitch to allow other instruments to take center stage as demanded by the mood of the dance. He could play the flute as to bring out the trills of birds and raise his pitch above the loud sound of ‘muzhavu - kadam’ - the timbal and help other instruments create harmony in unison.

Then there was the harp - ‘jAzh’ (the native Tamil stringed instrument) player. He could play the fourteen stringed instrument blending high, median and low pitches in a manner pleasing to the ear. This instrument was used with the oboe to tune other instruments.

The musicians sat in the aisle. The stage was erected according to specific dimensions as laid down in the rules of sculpture. The debutante entered the stage placing her right foot first and stood with her body slanted to the right according to the dance tradition. Older dancers stood on the right of the stage and started the performance with two devotional songs to the accompaniment of the assembled instruments. After the invocatory prayer, Madhavi opened her debut with an offering of flowers, called ‘malar marijAty’ – PUSHPANJALI, invoking the blessings for a trouble free performance.

‘paratanAddijam’ - BHARATHANATYAM derives its name from the first syllables of the three cardinal elements of dance ‘pa’ for ‘pAvam’ - Expression, ‘ra (irA)’ for ‘irAkam’ - musical mode, ‘tA’ for ‘tALam’ for Rhythm. This classical dance form follows the rules laid down in the science of ‘parataNAddijam.’ At the end of each dance performed for a particular song, as per the program, the musicians sounded all their instruments together as a sort of a finale for each item of dance.

An English translation of ‘cilappatikAram’ by Alain Danielou is available as SHILAPPADIKARAM (The ankle Bracelet.), A New Directions Book Published in New York in 1965, Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 64-16823. Alain Danielou sums up Madhavi’s recital in these words:

" Frail ankles bejeweled with circlets,
Madhavi, that beauty of Puhar,
Displayed upon the stage her dance,
her precise diction, subtle sense of time,
her knowledge of all rhythmic patterns,
of the five sorts of temple songs,
of the four systems of music,
of the eleven kinds of dance.
Her fame spread to the ends of the world."

The influence of Sanskrit and the attempts at Aryanisation of Tamil culture transformed the pure Tamil music into what is now known as Carnatic music. This development took within its fold other linguistic groups such as Sanskrit, Telugu and Kannadam. The transformation of Tamil music could be said to have taken place in three stages. The pure music that existed as part of the Pre-Sangam and Sangam literature up to the second century A.D. and was free from religious influence. The religious devotional mix which could be described, as the Period of Devotion was the second stage from A.D.200 to 1600. The third stage could be during the Pre-Modern period from 1600 A.D to the Modern Tamil period from 1900 to-date.

The late Mr. C. Rajasingam in his book "Cultural Contribution of The Tamils" , Page 76 calls SIVA the embodiment of Tamil music, with the hymn by Saint Sampanthar: "An illustration of the concept of wholeness through form and substance; body, mind and spirit; cognition and realization; language, music and rhythm is brought in the mystic song:

In music and its seven diatonic notes,
In Tamil, with its inlaid multiform RAGAS,
In the melody that underlies and sweetens all
There in the beat and manifold rhythm of TALAS
In all that is here in VEEZLIM MILZALAI
Wherein are earth, life, heat,
The ent’ring wind; the three
Sempiteral fires - sun, moon and soul-
The Heaven and all therein,
In all - He alone is."

"The thirteenth-century ‘SANGITARATNAKARA" was written in the Deccan, just before the Muslim conquest of this region by Ala ud-Din Khalji. It is shortly after this that one notices a gradual differentiation between north and south Indian music..... . The Muslim influence was largely effective in the north of India and undoubtedly helped to further the differentiation between north and south Indian music, the two classical systems which are now generally referred to as HINDUSTANI and KARNATAK (Carnatik) music respectively." ( Chapter 9, Music by N.A. Jairazbhoy in the book A Cultural History of India edited by A. L. Balsham.)


R. Shanmugalingam is an Engineer from Nallur Jaffna currently living in the USA. He is a renowned Tamil scholar and the creator of the Yazhan Tamil Editor. appuacci@san.rr.com



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updated on 03/20/2009