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Articles on Carnatic Music

Silence, the Soul Of Music
by Krishna Warrier Parameshwaran

(This is the first of our article entries. Here we will print several entries to our article contest for your benefit.)

Music has popularly been defined as the harmonious blending of sounds, aimed at giving contentment, solace and happiness to people. However, some of our greatest Carnatic music geniuses have contended this definition and offered their own conception of music. Let me delve into my memories and try to re-live the process of one such re–definition.

Before that, let me explain why the popular definition of music as a blending of harmonious sounds, which seems quite reasonable, could possibly be contended. Here, let me call linguistics, the scientific study of languages, to my aid.

One of the principal tenets of linguistics is that language acquires the capacity to communicate because it deals with ‘differentiation’. For example, what is meant in English by the word ‘cat’ is that which is not ‘not cat’. All other words signify ‘non cats’ while ‘cat’ refers to ‘cat’ and ‘cat’ alone. And what exactly is ‘cat’? In terms of language, “cat’ is everything that is not ‘not cat’. In short, language acquires the capacity to communicate because it deals mainly with negatives. Languages define the worlds in which they exist in terms of what ‘is not’.

When this analogy is transferred to music, we naturally find that music or musicality necessarily resides in the possibility of ‘non music’ or to use a better and a more succinct term, musicality is one of the functions of ‘silence’! Many are the stalwarts of Carnatic music who have recognized the enormous implications of this possibility and worked upon it to build up glamorous and spacious edifices of music.

Cut to the early eighties. A small auditorium in Kozhikode, Kerala, was all abuzz with excitement. The hall was overflowing with music lovers and the hum of whispered consultations and the aroma of high-blown expectation was palpable.

The occasion was a mike-less concert, to be presented by M A Sundaresan, accompanied by Tiruparkadal Veeraraghavan on the violin and none other than Palakkad Mani Iyer on the mridangam. Actually, as per the printed program, the performer for the evening was to have been D K Jayaraman. He had to cancel his tour of Kerala suddenly and hence was replaced by Sundaresan at the last minute.

The tempo, weight and grace of the program were enhanced many times over by the inimitable accompaniment of Mani iyer. How ever, what still lingers in my memory is Mani Iyer’s impromptu lecture in the middle of the concert.

What started out as an emotional out pouring against the wide spread dependence on the microphone at the expense of full throated singing, soon turned into an intellectual exposition of how silence becomes the golden frame that adds to the value of good music.

In essence, Mani Iyer’s argument was that the corridors of silence, consciously crafted by vaggeyakaras of the old was what differentiated music from sound. It is the juxtaposition of sound against silence that makes or mars music. He also contended that good percussion accompaniment also makes use of these silences imaginatively. In today’s world of instant music, and micro thanis Mani Iyer’s words are as evocative as any corridor of musical silence.


K Parameshwaran is doing research in Linguistics at the University of Kerala. His hobbies include reading, doing crosswords and the enjoyment of Carnatic music. He learned to play the mridangam, but had to forgo practice because of some extremely painful experiences. Contact paramu_2000 at rediffmail dot com.



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updated on 03/20/2009