Music: Karnatak

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Music: KarnĀtak

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the musical tradition of India divided into two main schools, that of the Hindustani tradition of North India, influenced by Persian music, and the Karnātak, or Carnatic, school of South India. The Karnātak school drew on Tamil and Telugu literary as well as Hindu devotional traditions. The earliest Karnātak music was devotional, performed in temples, but then royal families and prosperous landowners patronized musicians who would perform for them in their palaces and mansions. The royal courts at Tanjore, Pudukkottai, and Ettayapuram became renowned centers of Karnātak music with Tanjore at one time employing some 360 musicians in concerts known as arangam, sabha, or sadas. The kings of Vijayanagar and, after its fall in 1565, the Wodeyars of Mysore were also great patrons of Karnātak music. The music developed in sampradayas (music schools), and although four types of improvization are the norm, these occur along well-defined and well-organized lines. Karnātak music is almost exclusively devotional, but there are also children's songs, humorous compositions, and film songs.

Karnātak music is performed by a small group of musicians consisting of a vocalist, a primary instrumentalist playing such instruments as the vina or violin, sometimes a wind instrument such as a flute, a drone instrumentalist perhaps playing a tamboura or shruti box, and a rhythm instrumentalist who might play a percussion instrument such as a mridangam or ghatam. The two main components of Karnātak music are the rāga, a melodic pattern, and the tāla, a rythmic pattern, where singers keep the beat by moving their hands in specific patterns. There are seventy-two primary or parent rāgas, and each one is associated with one of nine feelings: shringara (romance), hasya (humor), karuna (longing), raudra (anger), veera (heroism), bhayanaka (fright), vibhatsa (disgust), adhbuta (wonderment), or shanta (contentment). Rāgas are also associated with the seasons of the year or time of day. The songs usually eulogized the Hindu Gods, especially Vishnu and his incarnations. The songs usually consist of three verses: the pallavi, the refrain of two lines; the anupallavi, the second verse, also of two lines; and the caranam, the final verse, usually of three lines and one that borrows from the anupallavi.

One of the earliest composers was Purandara Dasa (1480–1564), who systematized the laws of teaching music and was reputed to have composed 475,000 songs in Kannada and Sanskrit, although only a hundred survive. He invented the tāla system and preached the virtues of a pious life in his songs, known as padas. They were simple metrical devotional songs of the bhāgavata tradition, sung in a simple language, that also appealed to the illiterate. He sang the praises of the Hindu God Krisha, and his four compositions in praise of the Hindu God Gaṇesha are practiced today by students of the Karnātak tradition. He inspired the three greatest composers of the Karnātak tradition, Thyagaraja (c. 1759–1847), Mutusvāmi Dīkshitar (1776–1827), and Syami Sastri (1762–1827), who are considered to be the "Trinity" of Karnātak music. In the twentieth century, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer (1908–2003), a teacher of three generations of Karnātaka musicians, was acclaimed as the second Pitamaha (Great Father) after Purandara Dasa. One of his most famous pupils is the female singer Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi (b. 1916), popularly known as M. S. or M. S. S., who completely charmed both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Damal Krishnaswamy Pattammal (b. 1919) is often referred to as the second of the "Female Trinity" of Karnātak music; M. L. Vasanthakumari is the third. Modern Karnātak music is sometimes played as a musical composition without singers.

Roger D. Long

See alsoDīkshitar, Muttusvāmi ; Rāga ; Subbulakshmi, M. S.


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Rao, B. Dayananda, ed. Carnatic Music Composers: A Collection of Biographical Essays. Hyderabad: Triveni Foundation, 1994.

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Music: Karnatak

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