Music: South India

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Music: South India

The music of South India (Sanskrit, Karnātaka Sangītam) is referred to as Carnatic or Karnātak music in English. It has absorbed a number of traditions, theories, and stylistic features over a long period of time. Many of the features discernible in today's concerts, be it the lyrics of a song, an instrumental style, or a typical rhythm, can be traced to different parts of a vast area comprising Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. As the four southern states were created on the basis of linguistic considerations following India's independence in 1947, it is important to recall here that this music is not confined to Karnataka, nor can it be ascribed to any particular group on the basis of ethnic, linguistic, sectarian, or social categories.


Only in the last few centuries has "music" in the modern sense of the word become an art in its own right, and early Indian music was by definition subservient to the needs of drama, dance, public festivities, and religious rituals. Much of South India's musical evolution has therefore eluded the scrutiny of historians concerned with factual and biographical accounts rather than hagiography or the intricacies of current Karnātak music theory: "It is very difficult to make a purely chronological survey of musicological writing..Many streams of musical systems existed; little is known about their time of origin and extinction. Some overlap others in time, some stay independent of one another, and some cross one another's path; sometimes the impact of one is seen on the other" (Ramanathan).

Inscriptions and evidence in Tamil literature, for instance the Cilappadikāram, leave no doubt that there has been a give and take between dance, temple and concert musicians since ancient times: "Provisions of endowments were made for the maintenance of professional dancers, singers and instrumentalists who were attached to temples. Available evidence makes it more than clear that they were expected not only to perform before the deities as part of divine services but also to entertain the visitors to the temples through public performances. As a matter of fact the ranga-mandapa, the theatre for performing arts, became an integral part of the architectural features of any temple worth the name" (Ramesh).

Rāmāmātya, a sixteenth-century scholar and minister who flourished at Vijayanagar, is regarded as the first writer who outlined a distinct South Indian music system in his treatise titled Svara Mēla Kalānidhi. Like other music scholars before and after him, he sought to reconcile the discrepancies between conventional music theory and established practice. With the defeat of the Vijayanagar empire in 1565 and the subsequent destruction of its splendid capital, the focus of Karnātak music shifted farther south. Patronage was available in plenty at Tanjāvûr (English, Tanjore), Thiruvananthapuram (Travancore), and Mysore. The Nayaka rulers, a Telugu-speaking dynasty flourishing in the seventeenth century, and their successors, the Marathas who ruled from the late seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries, are regarded as the patrons under whom Karnātak music acquired its present characteristics. Since then, members of several erstwhile royal families of South India, most notably those of Travancore and Mysore, have continued to play an active role in every aspect of South Indian musical life, be it as patrons, scholars, composers, or performers.

Music Education

Formal education has never been the sole source of musical knowledge. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer (1908–2003), the most influential Karnātak teacher and vocalist of the twentieth century, leaves no room for doubt about the important role played by the community of hereditary temple musicians: "In the past, Carnatic music was nourished by the nadaswaram tradition. As a child I followed the pipers through the four streets round the temple in the procession of the deities. Now and then the pipers would stop and ruminatively elaborate a raga. The crowds would throng to worship the gods as well as to listen to the music." He continues to highlight the value of personalized music education: "Staying with the guru for years and absorbing music by listening as well as learning is no longer feasible. ..I find that those who learn from classes held in the home of vidwans show better results than government college students." The informal "family" environment (gurukulavāsam) in which most performers and teachers of the past were formed has thus been substituted by the courses offered by private and government institutions. Yet, as far as the family members of prominent musicians are concerned, it still plays as significant a role as it did several generations ago.

A distinct feature of South Indian music is the body of exercises and didactic compositions known as abhyāsa gāna (practice music). Many months are devoted to the lessons included in this basic curriculum, during which a teacher supervises the exact repetition of pitches, phrases, embellishments, and increasingly complex metric arrangements in several tempi. The skills acquired through these exercises, and also the ability to discern minute stylistic details, are needed by soloists and accompanists alike. The importance of this learning method lies in the common denominator it provides for all performers, thus enabling most experienced Karnātak musicians to perform together without any prior rehearsals.

Purandara Dāsa (1484–1564), the most prolific among the saint-composers, is credited with establishing the current curriculum of Karnātak music. His method was disseminated by his fellow members of the Haridāsa movement ("servants of Hari" or Vishnu). His songs provide students with colorful mental images and an appealing, endearing tone. In his most popular piece, the composer addresses Gananātha as the "big-bellied, elephant-faced Lord" (Gaṇesha) who has the "power to remove all obstacles," a gift for which he is "praised by the patron deities of the arts and sciences." This small composition, "Shrī Gananātha," belongs to a genre known as gītam, wherein the practice of musical skills is easily combined with involvement and expression (bhāva). The lakshana gītam is a variant containing lyrics that inform the learner about the special features (lakshana) of the underlying rāga.

Concert Repertoire

A Karnātak concert (kachēri) gives ample scope for spontaneity, precise ensemble work, and the rendition of compositions belonging to different genres that evolved quite independently from one another over several centuries. Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Ayyangar (1890–1967), a vocalist whose style has influenced many of his disciples and admirers, first introduced the concert format now followed on most occasions: artistically conceived études known as tāna varnam form the opening item; then follow several pieces belonging to the vast and varied repertoire of elaborate art and devotional songs (kriti, kīrtana); the rāgam-tānam-pallavi "suite" is sometimes performed as the main concert item. As an extension of this conventional concert format (kachēri paddhati), one or several compositions belonging to the traditional dance repertoire, are presented toward the end: the rhythmically conceived tillāna (the only song genre devoid of "meaning"), and a padam or a jāvali, based on lyrics with an erotic theme (sringāra bhāva). In addition, many performers present Tamil pieces such as the lively Tiruppugal or their own musical adaptations based on devotional lyrics in any Indian language (e.g., Sanskrit shlōkam, Tamil viruttam). Among the "minor" (tukkadā) items included in the final stage of a concert are popular versions of pilgrim songs (kāvadi chindu) and adaptations of North Indian genres set to hybrid (dēshya) rāgas.

During a concert, several compositions alternate with solo and group improvisations in the form of rāga ālāpana (unmetered rāga exposition), tānam (pulsating yet unmetered rāga exposition), niraval (sequences based on tonal variations of a given theme), svara kalpana ("imaginative" tone combinations), and tani āvartana (rhythmic interlude by one or several performers).

In view of the artistic freedom enjoyed by all South Indian performers, it is important to highlight their respect for a concept that connects them with the music of their ancestors, namely that of the learned composer whose task is to create elaborate pieces that have pride of place in a modern concert. In Lewis Rowell's translation of a passage in the thirteenth-century Sangītaratnākara, a vāggēyakāra (literally, "word singer") is "one who composes both music and text." This master composer is endowed with "a thorough knowledge of grammar, proficiency in lexicography, knowledge of prosody, proficiency in the use of figures of speech, comprehension of aesthetic delight (rasa) as related to emotive states of being (bhāva), intelligent familiarity with local custom, knowledge of many languages, proficiency in the scientific theories of fine arts, expert knowledge of the three musical arts, a lovely tone quality, good knowledge of tempo, tāla, and kalā, discrimination of different intonations, a versatile genius, a beautiful musical rendering, acquaintance with regional (desi) rāgas." These characteristics still account, in the view of most Karnātak musicians and critics, for the lasting appeal of the songs bequeathed by the "Trinity" of South Indian music (Tyāgarāja, Shyāma Shāstri, and M. Dīkshitar) and their musical heirs. The intricacies underlying their compositions has also opened floodgates to individual artistic expression. Following the advice given in the lyrics of these vāggēyakāras, musicians now dare to express themselves for the sake of artistic and spiritual fulfillment.

Our understanding of the music prior to the "Trinity" is quite limited, however, as these three were evidently the first composers who succeeded in passing on many of their compositions to posterity by way of oral transmission: "In India composers till the beginning of this century did not notate their compositions. In other words, no original scores are available. Songs have come down only in the oral tradition" (Ramanathan).


The melodic and rhythmic theories of Karnātak music are referred to as rāga and tāla, respectively. Although Hindustani music has similar concepts, and both systems have their roots in the same ancient theories, several major differences remain, both in the realms of theory and practice. The most obvious difference concerns the theory that prescribes either the day or night for the performance of North Indian rāgas. South Indian musicians and theorists, generally observant of traditional customs (sampradāya), regard such restrictions as obsolete and counterproductive from an artistic point of view. The sole reminders of similar restrictions are certain rāgas originally associated with temple rituals and therefore performed at certain hours of the day. Conversely, certain moods, such as those associated with loneliness at night or the excitement of spring, are often evoked by specific rāgas in the Karnātak music composed for Bharata Natyam dance and dance drama.

A musician is expected to portray the finer points of a rāga in a manner that discerning listeners (rasika) would recognize and relish. The "shape" of a rāga (rāga rûpa), traditionally regarded as a "personality" unlike any other, is largely defined by compositions. In the absence of detailed notation, most musicians rely on learning by hearing, particularly for the study of specimens belonging to the gītam, varnam, and kriti genres. These items provide the musical context for all the phrases included during the exposition (ālāpana) of a given rāga.

On similar lines, ornamentation (gamaka) depends on the melodic context of each note, either as part of an ascending or a descending series of notes, or within an oblique phrase. Auxiliary notes (anusvara) provide the contours and "colors" characteristic of Karnātak melody, and color is indeed implied by the Sanskrit word rāga (from the root ranj, "to color," or "to be attached to"). The rich texture achieved by the skillfull and appropriate application of embellishments helps a musician to endow a melodic line with continuity and expressiveness, even in a slow tempo.

An estimated two hundred to three hundred South Indian rāgas (recognizable melodic entities) are currently performed, more or less regularly, during concerts and in dance recitals. In theory, several thousand different rāgas could be formed by way of applying all the conceivable combinations of the basic seven notes (sapta svara), the twelve semitonal variants (svarasthāna), the enharmonic variants assigned to four out of the five "variable" notes (vikrta svara), and numerous microtonal shades (the proverbial 22 shrutis). On a more practical level, South Indian music is based on 72 scale types, from which 72 corresponding "parental" rāgas (janaka rāga) as well as their numerous "offspring" (janya rāga) are derived for the purpose of classification.


The South Indian concept of tāla is based on a cyclic arrangement of units (kriyā, "gestures"), which helps all participants to coordinate the rhythmic flow (laya) of a concert in an appealing manner, either as part of a song or in any improvised concert item. Many distinct tālas and their innumerable variants enable Karnātak musicians to create an astonishing variety of intricate rhythmic figures and cross-rhythms.

Among the unique features of Karnātak rhythm are the different starting points (eduppu or graha), for the beginning of a song or theme, and the subdivisions (nadai or gati) of each "beat" within a given tāla, while maintaining the basic tempo (kālapramānam) throughout a concert item. Specialists in the rhythmic aspect (laya) of Karnātak music manage to increase or decrease the tension and density of rhythmic patterns with mathematical precision and at any given moment. Such flights of imagination may either be subjected to the rules of prosody, as in the case of items based on lyrics (e.g., pallavi or kriti), or may be meant only to heighten the aesthetic pleasure of listeners on the basis of abstract rhythmic patterns (yati) and pleasant combinations of sounds, as in the case of a drum solo.

The elaborate climax of a drum solo (kōrvai) consists of carefully constructed sequences of complex patterns in which all the aforementioned concepts are translated into practice. Ideally, this process should manifest itself in a spontaneous and effortless manner, making listeners forget that a drum solo is nowadays rarely, if ever, performed without some amount of calculation.

Later Developments

Music and dance

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, prominent dance masters (nattuvanar) and the musicians belonging to their dance ensembles (chinna mēlam) have assimilated as well as enriched the concepts and playing techniques now associated with Karnātak "art" music: melodic expressiveness (rāga bhāva), aesthetic appeal (rasa), and rhythmical variety (tāla). As a result, bhāva (bha), rasa (ra), and tāla (ta) are commonly said to be the very essence of the dance now called Bharata Natyam (bha-ra-ta dance), a dance style that was still known as sadir in the early twentieth century.

Women as performers

Until the beginning of the twentieth century, a "respectable" musician was understood to be male: "Another tremendous step forward is the emergence of women as equals of men in this male-dominated field" (Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer). As the rich legacy of "artful" songs (kriti) permeated the educated classes of South Indian society, many women from different social backgrounds could, for the first time in history, pursue successful musical careers without being stigmatized. The list of prominent female singers includes pioneers like "Vīnā" Dhanammāl (1867–1938), "Bangalore" Nāgaratnammāl (1878–1952), Sarasvati Bai (1894–1974), T. Brinda (1912–1996), M. S. Subbulakshmi (b. 1916), D. K. Pattammal (b. 1919), and M. L. Vasanthakumari (1928–1990). They acquired the skills and knowledge to develop individual styles (bāni) of their own, and thereby encouraged their own disciples and other educated women to perform in concerts and broadcasts and to produce recordings.

Vocal and instrumental music

With the emergence of an affluent and cultured urban class from the late nineteenth century onward, and especially following the foundation of societies (sabhā) for the promotion of musical excellence, solo and ensemble performances by instrumentalists have ceased to be regarded as inferior to a vocal recital. Interestingly, though, there still exists no instrumental repertoire as such; all musicians have learned their music through singing, and the gāyakī, or "vocal" type of expression, continues to be regarded as superior to any style that emphasizes the technical possibilities of an instrument. Even a vina (long-necked lute) is meant to "sing," and the human body has been referred to as gātra vīnā, the human counterpart of the wooden lute mentioned in ancient texts.

For at least four centuries, the tamboura (a long-necked lute serving as a drone) has been the main support and common denominator for most traditions of Karnātak music. On the other end of the spectrum, there is the humble bamboo flute (Tamil, pullankuzhal; Sanskrit, vēnu), which was introduced into concert music by Sharabha Shāstrigal before the turn of the twentieth century. As evidenced by numerous sculptures in South Indian temples, as well as its mention in ancient Tamil literature, the transverse flute had been a leading instrument in dance music for most of the last two millennia. Along with the violin, the flute has since acquired the status of a full-fledged instrument. Several other melody and rhythm instruments, including the saxophone, mandolin, and ghatam, have either been newly introduced or have gained prestige. The prevalence of electronic amplification during concerts has also facilitated the formation of ensembles with instruments that would have been incompatible in the past.

The inclusion of at least one extensive drum solo (tani or tani āvartanam) is a conspicuous feature of contemporary Karnātak music. Palghat Mani Iyer (1913–1981), an exponent of the mridangam (double-faced drum), became a legend in his own lifetime as the musician who elevated the perfunctory tani to a highlight of all the concerts in which he participated. Most modern percussionists seek to emulate his precision, virtuosity, and imaginative treatment of any given tāla; his sense of self-restraint, so conducive to the aesthetic balance of a concert, is much harder to come by.

The future

Many South Indian performers are now in a position to interact with appreciative fellow musicians, composers, and audiences all over the world. In spite of the alarm periodically raised by experts and critics, the proven resilience of authentic Karnātak music, combined with a profound regard for classical standards (sampradāya) on the part of many young musicians, will ensure its survival.

Ludwig Pesch

See alsoDīkshitar, Muttusvāmi ; Rāga ; Shyāma Shāstri ; Tāla ; Tyāgarāja


Pesch, Ludwig. The Illustrated Companion to South Indian Classical Music. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Ramanathan, N. "Musicology in India." Sangeet Natak. Journal of the Sangeet Natak Akademi New Delhi 110 (1993): 31–41.

Ramesh, K. V. Inscriptions on Music from South India. Mysore: Dept. of Epigraphy, Government of India, 1988 (unpublished paper).

Reck, David B. "India/South India." In Worlds of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the World's Peoples, edited by Jeff Todd Titon. 4th ed. Schirmer/Thomson Learning, 2002.

Rowell, Lewis. Music and Musical Thought in Early India. 1992. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1998.

Srinivasa Iyer, Semmangudi. "Music Then and Now." Interview and translation by Gowri Ramnarayan. Frontline Magazine 14, no. 16 (1997).

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