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Carnatic music is the form of classical music performed in the southern part of India (Hindustani music is from the north of India). It is performed as both a vocal and instrumental form of music, with an emphasis on melody, raga (scale) and rhythm. Indian classical music lays little emphasis on harmony except as fifths or octaves.

Previous: Carnatic for Dummies
Next: History of Carnatic music

Introduction and Raaga
TaaLam and Rhythm
The Concert and Compositions
Other Aspects and Songs


Introduction and raga

The notes of Carnatic music are not usually fixed. In this sense they are much like the do re mi fa so la ti of western music. A performer tunes an instrument to the desired pitch (accompanists of course tune to the main performer's pitch) or sings at whatever pitch is most comfortable. This is called the kaTTai. Traditionally, the G above middle C is kaTTai 5, F is 4, A is 6, etc. Most Indian instruments do need tuning for each performance, according to the main artists' pitch - even percussion instruments are tuned.

The notes used correspond to do re mi, but are called sa ri ga ma pa da ni. Sa is shadjamam, the basic note that exists in all scales. It is used as a drone note (played on a tambura), along with Pa, pancamam, its fifth. In concerts, you will hear sa pa Sa playing in octaves in the background to allow musicians to stay in tune. The other notes are rishabam (ri), gaandaaram (ga), madyamam (ma), daivatam (da), and nishaadam (ni). These notes are called swaras.

While all scales have sa, not all have the other notes. Though sa ri ga ma pa da ni sa comprise the main vocalized notes of Carnatic music, the actual notes (relative frequencies) that they form number 12. There is only one sa (not counting octaves) and one pa, but there are 2 types of ma and 3 each of the other notes.

As an example, let's take sa as middle C. Pa is then G. From here on out, the notes will be designated by first letter only. R1 is C#, R2 is D natural, R3 is D#. Ga is overlapping, so G1 is D, G2 is D#, and G3 is E. M1 is F, M2 is F#. Similarly, D1 is G#, D2 is A, D3 is Bb, N1 is A, N2 is Bb, and N3 is B. These twelve notes are used in combination to give various scales of ascending and descending order. Some scales (these are ragas) take seven notes in the ascending and seven in the descending, but others remove notes and still others vary the order of the notes. However, because G1=R2 (D), G2=R3 (D#), N1=D2 (A), and N2=D3 (Bb), these do not occur in the same scale successively. These combinations give 72 main ragas and innumerable other ragas from which compositions are composed. (For more information, see Intro to raga).

TaaLam and rhythm

Rhythm in carnatic music changes for each composition. Songs are set to a specific taaLam, or beat. Each taaLam comes in cycles of a number of beats, called an aavartanam. For example, one of the most common taaLam is called aadi. In aadi taaLam, 8 beats (commonly 4 swaras to each beat) make one cycle. Thus, up to 32 swaras may comprise one cycle, lengthened and shortened to accomodate the taaLam. TaaLam is kept by beating the right hand gently against the right thigh while seated with your legs crossed ("Indian style"). For aadi taaLam, first beat the palm of the hand (1), then tap the fingers pinky (2), ring finger (3), middle finger(4). Then beat palm (5), turn the hand over and beat the back of the hand (6), palm (7), back (8). This is one cycle. This cycle will repeat throughout the song. Although often the number of swaras per beat will change during a carnatic song, the actual beat changes within a song VERY rarely, and even then, it is a fixed change, not a slowing down or speeding up of the beat itself.

The concert and compositions

Compositions are composed in a fixed raga. This means that they do not deviate from the notes in the raga. In carnatic, there are no "accidentals" or variations in rhythm (there are exceptions but rarely). Each composition is set with specific notes and beats, but performers vary widely in their presentation. Improvisation occurs in the MELODY of the composition as well as in using the notes to expound the beauty of the raga.

As you enter the hall, you will notice the main performer(s) sitting in the middle. The musical sound you hear first is the drone (tambura) playing sa, pa, Sa. Accompanists like violin and veena sit to the main performer's left (your right), and percussion instruments are usually to your left. All performers sit on the stage without chairs or stools.

A concert (called a kuTcEri) will usually begin with a piece called a varnam. This piece is composed with an emphasis on swaras of the raga. It is lively and fast to get the audience's attention. Varnams also have words, the saahityam.

After the varnam, compositions are performed called kritis or keertanams. Most often, these compositions are religious in nature. These stick to one raga, although a few have sections composed of different ragas (a raagamaalika).

Many performers first begin main compositions with a section called raagam. In this, they use aakaaram (essentially, using the vowels aa, ri, na, ta, etc. instead of swaras or words) to slowly elaborate the notes and flow of the raga. This begins slowly and then becomes more intense and finally establishes a complicated exposition of the raga that shows the performer's skill. All of this is done without any rhythmic accompaniment. Then the melodic accompaniment (violin or veena), expounds the raga. Experienced listeners can identify many ragas after they hear just a few notes.

With the raga established, the song begins, sung usually only with the saahityam. In this, the accompaniment (usually violin, sometimes veena) performs along with the main performer and the percussion (mridangam, and sometimes ghaTam and ganjeera). A song usually contains 3 parts: pallavi, anupallavi, and caraNam. The pallavi is analogous to a chorus. After the anupallavi, the pallavi is again sung, and again after the caraNam as well. Each phrase is repeated with variations.

Next the performer begins swaram. In this section, swaras are sung separately (as sa ri ga, etc.) to the beat. The performer must improvise a string of swaras in any octave according to the rules of the raga and return to beginning of the cycle of beats smoothly, joining the swaras with a phrase selected from the saahityam. The violin performs these alternately with the main performer. In very long strings of swara, the performers must calculate their notes accurately to ensure that they stick to the raga, have no awkward pauses and lapses in the beat of the song, and create a complex pattern of notes that an experienced audience can follow.

The main composition of any concert will have a section at this time for the percussion to perform separately (the tani aavartanam). The mridangam performer alone will perform complex patterns of rhythm and display his or her skill, and if other percussion performers are present on stage, they too will perform, and the percussion instruments engage in a beautiful rhythmic dialog until the main performer picks up the melody once again.

The composition ends with the performing of the main portion of the song. Following the main composition, the performer will play or sing other songs with or without raga and then perform lighter songs that are more catchy and popular. Hindustani pieces are often performed, as well as short westernized songs and other popular pieces. Some performers also take requests at this time.

Every concert that is the last of the day ends with a mangaLam, a thankful prayer and conclusion to the musical event.

Other aspects and songs

In some songs, performers sing the words and then proceed to sing the same line repeatedly in variations. This is called neraval - it may be done in the same raga as the song or it may even travel from the main raga to other ragas before returning. Another aspect with which musicians expound raga and their own sense of rhythm is with taanam, in which the word aananta is used for syllables. This may also be performed in different ragas before returning to the raga of the composition and has no rhythmic accompaniment.

Another type of song that is often performed (usually near the end of a concert) is the tillaanaa. This is done to beat sounds like dheem, takiTa, nadiru, etc. and is meant for the end of classical dance performances. It is very rhythmic and lively with only a short saahityam section. Other songs like love songs and lullabies may also find their way into the end of a concert.


Next: History of Carnatic music

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updated on 03/28/2009