Carnatic music is the classical music of South India. It has several things in common with North Indian or Hindustani music in that both musical systems are strictly modal and share the 22 note microtonal scale. Both Carnatic and Hindustani music have some Ragas or modes in common, as well as some ‘talas’ or rhythm cycles, but they are now widely divergent in style, their differences having begun to emerge about 800 years ago when North India became susceptible to Persian influences by way of the Moghuls.
Carnatic music rests firmly on a devotional foundation. The compositions are predominantly vocal rather than instrumental and are vehicles of devotional fervour, expressing love, respect, familiarity, passion, friendship, playfulness and admiration for the divine in the context of the familiar relationship cultivated by devotional Hindus, between human beings and the divine. The attitude towards the divine can be plaintive, joyous, teasing, praising, indulgent, philosophical or complaining – and much more.
The vast majority of Carnatic compositions are ‘krithis,’ or devotional songs are based on established structures, but some forms such as ‘thillanas’ are purely rhythmic, with no lyrical content. They are usually played at the conclusion of evening recitals in order to leave the listener in a state of joyous upliftment and exhilaration.
I have chosen several popular ragas/modes, in the assumption that they will sound less strange and foreign (than some others) to the western ear, but I have also included a couple of slightly atonal ragas, because of their cleansing astringent quality, and their tendency to induce a more active attitude of listing. The raga in the mode of Revati is one of my favourites, because Revati is the name of the lunar asterism in my horoscope, and it refers to the constellation of the Pleiades.
Typically ragas are thought to correspond to and induce moods and conditions – even to influence the weather – and are specific to certain seasons and times of day and night. All these factors of course lead to innumerable permutations and combinations dear to the taxonomically inclined mind typical of South Indian thinking and philosophy.
I have included here krithis – with one exception – which are addressed to the divine in the form of the Goddess, invoking and evoking several of her aspects and manifestations. The exception is “Theertha Vilayatu Pillai”, meaning something like “incorrigibly playful boy”, which is addressed to Krishna. I include this as an example of how krithis sometimes express complex religious and philosophical beliefs and attitudes in deceptively simple ways. The composer frames the song in the context of a girl complaining to her friend about Krishna’s playful and annoying antics. This places all three – god in human form, devotee and her friend – in relation to each other as playmates.
The first ‘verse’ of this particular krithi (the anupallavi) expresses a particularly profound concept, wrapped up in a sweet and playful incident – when Krisna offers a fruit to a girl, snatches it back when it is half eaten, and bites it himself, and then returns it.
Traditionally food which is offered to god (before it is ever tasted) is called ‘prasad’, and is believed to be imbued and infused with divine qualities, so that partaking of such food is a powerful blessing. When Krishna takes a bite, the fruit becomes ‘prasad’, which is a sort of transubstantiation. When he takes back the fruit after the girl has begun to eat it and takes another bite, he ignores and violates the strong food taboos against eating food tasted by others. Only intimate familiars such as mothers and children or lovers or spouses share food in this way. By this simple act Krishna shows himself to be the intimate darling of his devotees, and he erases and ignores all that separates himself as a divinity and his beloved human friend. He shows himself to be humble and loving, while at the same time conferring his divine blessing in a covert unpretentious way.
I might be excused if I indulge in an interesting digression, in order to include a little information about the composer of this Krithi, the renowned Tamil poet Subramaniya Bharathi who is one of my favourites. His poems are extremely fresh and naturalistic, free of artifice and unnecessary cleverness, yet – or perhaps therefore – deep, evocative and powerful. Bharathi came from a Bhramin family, but he firmly rejected caste distinctions. He agitated against the British and had to spend some time in remand due to his nationalistic sentiments. In the significantly, I think, posed photograph shown here, he stands beside his seated wife (very uncharacteristic for an Indian man of his era) and his youngest daughter (a proud and dignified looking little girl!) is seated while the older sons and daughter stand behind, with both boys standing the furthest back.
If we were to conclude by this that Bharathi cherished feminist sentiments, we would be quite right. He was a fervent believer in women’s rights, particularly the right of women to have an education, and to treated as equals. His misfortune was that he remained poor for most of his peripatetic life, and had great difficulty supporting his family. Bharathi left home shortly after his marriage to begin his wanderings and his young wife (she was seven and he fourteen when they were married) spent most of her life with her parents.
I decided against including transliterations and translations of the lyrics for the rest of the krithis here because of the depth and extent of explanation that would be involve in order to make them comprehensible. Krithis are very densely allusive, and to understand them one has to know the stories behind them about their subject – the incidents, names, attributes, significance, etc., of the god or goddess, and all the subtle conceptual play that goes into the composer’s creation. Carnatic composers create both music and lyrics, and choose the appropriate ‘tala’ to accompany the composition.
Krithis are usually composed in the South Indian languages of Tamil and Telugu, but also in Sanskrit, and less often in Malayalam. This post contains Tamil and Sanskrit krithis.When you hear the line of a song repeated, it is in order to demonstrate the variations permitted in the protocol of raga, and therefore the singers and the composer’s virtuosity.
Likewise when you hear the syllable Sa, Ri, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha and Ni sung in various combinations, (for instance in “Mamavathu Sri Saraswathi”) you are hearing Carnatic ‘solfeggi’ – which serves to show the groups of notes which bring out the character of a particular raga. Sometimes these notes are combined to form words, which then have the effect of puns. For those who wish to explore this complex subject, there are several resources available on the internet. Unfortunately I know no intelligible English language books on the subject.
The singers featured here, Sowmya and Sudha Raghunathan, are two of my particular favourites, and they have very different and individual styles voices, but both are very traditional, and both are elite and expert Carnatic singers. The style of singing is one that originates in the throat rather than the chest or diaphragm or head, as we are used to hearing in western music, and it can take a little getting used to.
If readers wish to enlarge upon this very brief and sketchy introduction to Carnatic music, they are welcome to do so in the comments.
Mamavathu Sri Saraswathi
Devi Neeye Thunai
Raga Suddha Dhanyasi
Raga Mohanam (said to be the most ancient of all Ragas)
Sri Chakra Raja
(Multiple Ragas referred to as ‘Ragamalika’ or Garland of Ragas)
Pahi Nikhila Janani
Raga Amrutha Varshini
Theeratha Vilayattu Pillai
By Subramaniya Bharathi
Thinna pazham kondu tharuvan-pathi
Thingindra pothinile thatti parippan,
Yennappan yennayyan yendral athanai,
Echir paduthi kadithu koduppan.
1.Azhagulla malar kondu vande –yennai,
Azha azha cheythu pin , kannai moodi kol,
Kuzhalile chootuven , yenban, Yennai ,
Kurudaki malarinai thozhikku vaipan,
2.Pinnalai pinnindru izhuppan-thalai,
Pinne thirumbu munne chendru maraivan,
Vanna puthu chelai thanile –puzhuthi ,
Vari chorinthe varuthi kulaippan.
3.Pullanguzhal kondu varuvan-amudhu,
Pongi thathumbum geetham padippan,
Kallal mayanguvathu pole adai,
Kan moodi vay thirandhe ketpom.
P.R. Ramachander’s English translation, with some minor adaptations.
Pallavi (opening stanza,)
Krishna is an ever playful boy,
And girls in the streets are in endless trouble
Charanam (unifying composition)
1. He would bring very pretty flowers,
And after making me weep and then cry,
He’d say “close your eyes, I’ll set them in your hair”
And once my eyes were shut he’d give them to my friend.
2. He would pull my braid from behind,
And before I turn, he would hide in front of me.
In the new bright coloured sari that I wear,
He would raise dust on it and spoil it.
3. He would bring a flute and play,
A song dripping with nectar,
Which would make us close our eyes, and open our mouths
And seem as if we had passed out drunk with wine.