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South Indian (Carnatic) Music
- Ludwig Pesch

The history of South Indian music

The origins of Indian music are traced to prehistoric antiquity. One widespread theory holds that there has been a gradual development from simple forms and techniques to more complex ones.

On the other hand, the rich store of melody, rhythm and instrumental technique found among tribal musicians makes it probable that sophisticated music emerged long before theoretical rules (lakshana) were framed for the first time almost two thousand years ago.

Art or concert music in South India is called Karnataka Sangitam ("Karnatic music" in English). Its history gains sharper contours from the Renaissance period which, in South India, had its centre in the Vijayanagar empire (1336-1565). Ramamatya, a 16th century music scholar at Vijayanagar, laid the foundations for the present theoretical framework of South Indian music.

The present system of 72 scales (melas) was developed on the foundations laid by Venkatamakhin in the 17th century. Perfected by later theoreticians, the mela-janya raga system provided composers with virtually unlimited scope for melodic variety.

The system of ten scales (that) presently followed by most North Indian (Hindustani) musicians is also based on the mela or melakarta system. However, because of its accuracy, internal consistency and differentiation, some leading Hindustani musicians have begun to adopt the southern system of 72 melas in preference to the system of thats which V.N. Bhatkhande had developed and introduced earlier in this century. These highly educated performers pursue a music that, although rooted in tradition, has greater scope for their imagination and virtuosity.

Music Education
Purandara Dasa (1484-1564), a celebrated poet, mystic and composer of Vijayanagar, taught Karnatic music in a systematic manner. His method of teaching (abhyasa ganam) consists of a graded course comprising some primary lessons (alamkara) and small didactic and devotional songs (gita). The teaching method created by Purandara Dasa is still followed today and provides the common denominator for all Karnatic musicians.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the important kriti form of song was refined by the great composer Tyagaraja (1767-1847). Tyagaraja's songs still serve as models for most contemporary compositions in Karnatic music. Several other forms of compositions further enrich every musician's repertoire. The present concert format (kacheri paddhati) evolved in the course of this century. Professional musicians used to be trained in the private environment, the household (kula) of a teacher (guru).

Such an apprenticeship was therefore called gurukulavasa. Now, major institutions such as Kalakshetra College (Madras) have taken over as far as the training on a professional level is concerned. Yet every musician also continues to cultivate a relationship with a master musician on the lines of the gurukula.

The role of music in Indian society
European ideas regarding "classical" and "folk" music do not apply to Indian music. Traditional and modern, codified (marga) and regional (deshi) styles mingle in every performance. Religion is much more an integral part of daily life in India than in Europe. Almost every house has a small space serving as a chapel (pooja room).

Often, there is a sacred tulasi plant in the garden. On the other hand, music also relates to various social customs without being "religious music" in the Western sense of the word. There exists an old tradition of classical music for art's sake. For most Indians, music is, of course, a means of distraction from daily worries, a form of entertainment among others. Although the mass media (cinema, radio, television) have changed popular tastes and introduced many foreign and modern elements, it still can be said that Karnatic music always remains unmistakably South Indian in character and temperament.

The idea of an individual and permanent musical "work" is still not very important in India. Perhaps it does not relate to prevailing philosophies about the nature of the universe and man's role in the scheme of evolution. More important, therefore, than the reproduction of a finished work is the understanding of stylistic principles underlying traditional music.

Repertoire and style
Indian musicians never rely on musical scores. In Karnatic music, compositions (kalpita sangita) and improvisation (manodharma sangita) play an equally important role. Thousands of "songs" have been handed down from generation to generation in oral tradition (sampradaya) or are being composed in our time.

There is no separate repertoire for vocalists and instrumentalists. Improvisations such as the exposition of a raga (raga alapana) and variations of a theme (e.g. kalpana svara, niraval) are so carefully intertwined with a composition that the resulting effect is one of a complete musical unity. For an inexperienced listener it is therefore difficult to identify the beginning and end of an improvisation.

Several important facets of Karnatic music can only be mentioned in passing here although they are of greatest importance for maintaining the stylistic integrity of any particular tradition of classical music (bani).

For instance, Shruti denotes microtones based on the seven basic notes (sapta svara) and their twelve semitonal variants (svarasthana). Ornamentation (gamaka) plays a great role even in the rendering of scale patterns (arohana-avarohana), characteristic phrases (prayoga) and special phrases (visesha sancara). In other words, a gamaka constitutes more than arbitrary embellishment as it is the key to the individual character of a raga (raga rupa). Intermediary notes (anusvara) have the purpose of lending continuity to all melody. Subtleties of this kind cannot be reduced to writing but need to be assimilated through long exposure to good music and years of practice under the guidance of an experienced musician. There are hundreds of melodic structures (raga) and numerous rhythmic patterns (tala). Tala and raga can be compared to the warp and weft of a piece of fabric. When both are combined, they can produce an unlimited number of musical patterns and moods. Each musician specializes in a repertoire of his own, inherited from his teacher and expanded with the help of senior colleagues.

Ludwig Pesch is a freelance musician, lecturer and cultural worker. After gaining experience as church organist, Jazz musician and music teacher, he graduated as a Karnatic flautist from Kalakshetra College (Madras). He has widely performed all over South India and in other countries.

His major reference work, The Illustrated Companion to South Indian Classical Music, is due to appear in fall 1998 (Oxford University Press, New Delhi)

Another reference work, Ragadhana: An Alpha-Numerical Directory of Ragas, appeared in 1993 (2nd edition, Irinjalakuda, Kerala); and Eloquent Percussion: A Guide to South Indian Rhythm (with Mridanga Vidvan T.R. Sundaresan) in 1996 (eka.grata publications, Amsterdam)