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Articles on Carnatic Music

Music and Color

People who have never seen an Indian wedding or attended an Indian gathering are amazed by one thing when they see pictures: the color. The photos are vibrant with color and shimmer everywhere, from the reds of the kumkum to the greenery, the white clothes of men to the yellow turmeric, the orange marigolds to blue, purple, red, green saris that span the rainbow.

Carnatic music and music concerts have their own color. Women and men arrive to listen to music in finery, their jewels and clothing shimmering. The artists sit on a stage decorated with colorful cloths, and they themselves are decorated by shiny shawls in appreciation. The mridangam and veena bear velvet covers, and the cherry-brown of the violin gleams. Flowers in pink and red and white and yellow are bestowed as gifts to gods and artists, and the yellow lights dim as the concert begins.

During the concert, too, the swaras have color. The drone, the stable base of any music, Shadjam or Sa, has a color: light pink. It is the pale pink of dawn, or of birth, or the table rose. It is the color of the lime that artists smear on their betel leaves, which turns their mouths bright red. It is the energy of a furious korvai, and the pale pink of their cheeks when in the humid climate they sing a particularly beautiful, lilting phrase, and the audience blushes pale pink Sa in return.

Panchamam is the other drone note: pa. It is black, the color of the night sky, and of the faces of gods. It is the shining hair of a goddess, singing as she combs her hair. It is the dark intent eyes of the mridangist, and the single eye of the mridangam, as they dance with the rhythm of the music. It is the deep, moist earth, and the ebony fingerboard of the violin. It is the intense concentration of the artists on their music, and only their music.

Other colors begin to fill in the in-between. White madhyamam, ma, fills the room, as the dust rises from the bow of the violin. It is the clean, crisp shirts and dhotis of the male performers, and the marks on their foreheads. White is also the color of purity of music and of the rava on the mridangam head, the ivory inlaid in the veena and the skin of the kanjira.

Parrot green rishabam, ri, brings brightness to the concert scene. It is somewhat rare, but seen in a silk shawl thrown all of a sudden onto the shoulder, and in the spring earth. It is a vibrant leaf decorating the doorway, or folded and chewed. It is the parrot that mimics the music, and the fresh phrases that emerge from imagination.

Yellow makes an appearance with dhaivatam. The godly color of turmeric, and of the gods that smile down upon the music. It is the sun, shining brightly and listening, and its child, a flame planted in respect. It is the mango and the laddu, offered with sincerity.

No concert would be complete without gold - in the zari of saris and dhotis, in the rings and necklaces worn with pride, the dangling chandelier earrings. It is the same gold that shines from their eyes as they discover a new nuance with glee, and the gold of the gods and goddesses adorned by each composer.

Nishaadam brings together all the colors - a mixed palette of every color, joining together the previous scale and the next. The rainbow, because no color can be enjoyed in isolation. After all, the word raga comes from the word for color, and there are as many ragas as there are colors in the world!

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updated on 03/20/2009