About Karnatak music

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The Two Styles

There are two distinct styles in the modern performance of Indian classical music, the Karnatak in the South and Hindustani in the North. According to the history of Indian music, there was no distinction between Northern and Southern musical traditions until after the 13th century A.D. The split was largely effected by political changes; there were frequent Moghul invasions and economic upheavals in the North at that time, until the Moghuls conquered North India and established Muslim rule.  Indian music captured the imagination of Muslim rulers and, as a result, Muslim musicians adopted the performance of Indian music, and added many new melodic and rhythmic forms to the repertoire, while promoting the use of new musical instruments. Hindustani music flourished in Moghul courts, while Southern India's culture remained relatively undisturbed, and the music of the South prospered mostly in the temples and in the courts of some Southern kingdoms.  South India became the centre of Hindu learning, and Sanskrit literature continued to play an important part in the development of its music where, protected from foreign influence, it retained a more traditional form.  The fundamental principles of melody and rhythm are common to both systems and the differences between modern performance of Karnatak and Hindustani music are largely a matter of style, instrumentation and repertoire.

Raga

Unlike much music in the West, Indian music does not employ harmony—it is rhythmic, melodic and modal in character.  There are two principal elements in Indian music: raga, which refers to the melodic/modal aspects, and tala, which refers to the rhythmic aspects.  The melodic soloist, singer or instrumentalist, chooses a tonic pitch and tunes the drone to the tonic and its fifth which remain constant throughout the performance.  Once this pitch is decided upon, it is not changed for the duration of a concert.  There are no key changes or harmonic modulations in Indian music.

Each raga has certain traditionally fixed tones in its associated ascending and descending scales.  The character of each raga is established by the order and the sequence of notes used in the ascending and descending scales and by the manner in which the notes are ornamented. These ornamentations, called gamakas, are subtle, and they are an integral part of the melodic structure.

There are hundreds of ragas, each of which has individual characteristic features and distinct moods.  The notes or discrete pitches used in a raga are called svaras, represented by specific Indian solfege syllables: sa ri ga ma pa da ni, which roughly correspond to the Western: do re mi fa so la ti.  There are a number of ragas which use all the seven notes in both ascending and descending scales, and others which use five or six tones only.  Other ragas are crooked, or vakra, because of subtle upward and downward jumps within the scale and differences in ascent and descent.

The Melakarta System

Around 1642 A.D., the scholar and musicologist Venkatamaki introduced for the first time a new method of classifying ragas which came to be popularly known as the Melakarta system. According to this system, ragas using all seven notes in ascent and descent are grouped together as "parent" scales, and called Melakarta ragas.  The scale is divided into two tetrachords.  Remembering that sa (one) and pa (five) are always natural, and that ma (four, which is the upper note of the lower tetrachord) can be natural or raised, all possible Melakarta ragas can be found by writing out the possible permutations and combinations of states (natural, lowered, or raised) for the other four notes (ri, and ga in the lower tetrachord, da andni in the upper one).  Keeping a constant value for ma (e.g., unraised), all the combinations of values for the other notes will give 36 scales.  By raising ma, another 36 scales are obtained, accounting for a total of 72 Melakarta ragas.

It should be noted that the Melakarta ragas are all Sampurna ragas, which denotes the following characteristics:

All seven notes (sa, ri, ga, ma, pa, da, ni) are present in both the ascent and descent.
The notes are of the same type in both the ascent and the descent (e.g., a Sampurna raga would never have a lowered da on ascent and a natural one on descent).
The notes are played in scalar order, with no leaps or backtracking. No foreign notes are allowed.

All other ragas, such as those which use five notes (pentatonic), six notes, various combinations between ascent and descent, or "crooked" motion (Vakra ragas) within the scalar structure are called Janya ragas (i.e., derivatives).  Each Janya raga can be related to a "parent" Melakarta raga according to pitch content.  The Melakarta and Janya ragas, taken together, account for hundreds of ragas.

Tala

In the matter of musical time, India has contributed a most sophisticated and scientifically developed system of rhythms.  The meters in Indian music are considered to have been developed from the meters of Sanskrit prosody.  Groups of short syllables, long syllables, and different combinations of the two are the fundamental roots of such meters, and the basis for the durational element in Indian music.  The music is governed by the meter or rhythm of the tala.Tala is the root or basis of every form of Indian music:  vocal, instrumental and dance.  Tala is an organized metric cycle composed of traditionally determined rhythmic units and is performed through a series of conventional hand gestures such as claps, finger counts and waves.  There are hundreds of talas covering a vast range of time measures, and each tala has its own characteristic structure or divisions.  The different structures of talas give rise not only to a variety of “time signatures” but also influence the patterns in singing and drumming to a great extent.  There is an elaborate and systematic theory of tala (tala dasapranas) which details all the important principles of rhythm. 

Many music scholars consider India's rhythmic system to be the most highly developed in the world, particularly for its thorough and logical treatment of the various principles of movement in time.  There is perhaps no parallel to the cohesive way in which rhythms are organized in the Indian musical system or manifested in the art of Karnatak drumming.  The elaborate theory and astonishingly complex drumming style of Indian rhythm have become a most interesting and intriguing area of musicological study and performance practice for scholars and musicians from the West.

There are a vast number of talas encompassing a whole range of time measures  and each tala has its own distinct structural makeup.  The different structures of the talas give rise not only to a wide variety of rhythmic measurement, but also influence the compositional and improvisational patterns of the music quite significantly.  The regular beats in a tala cycle are the foundation upon which intricate devices of cross-rhythm and syncopation are built.  In essence, the tala serves as a rhythmical frame and time referent for both the composition and its variations.

First recorded in the 16th century, the Suladi Sapta (7) talas have remained popular since Purandaradasa's time.  The five jatis and the Sapta talas, systematically arranged in a scheme, give rise to 35 talas. These talas form the bulk of the present day Karnatak music.
 

 

 

(This description is adapted from The Rhythmic Principles and Practice of South Indian Drumming by Trichy Sankaran)