Carnatic music is one of the most colourful, complete and highly evolved melodic systems in the world. With over 7.2 million scales/modes (ragas) to choose from, not to mention hundreds of rhythmic cycles (talas), there is very little that a good Carnatic musician and composer cannot do, especially from a melodic perspective.
A pure Carnatic music concert provides a wholesome experience. It combines melody, rhythm, lyrics and places equal emphasis on compositions and improvisation. A listener enjoys contrasting speeds ranging from the fast and exciting to the slow, deep and tranquil and gets to hear some of the world’s most sizzling melodies and sophisticated rhythms.
In recent years, top notch Carnatic artistes have also brought to fore the versatility of the system through collaborations with musicians and composers from several other cultures including Western Classical, pop, blues, jazz, Chinese, African and South American. A musician with good grounding in Carnatic will easily be able to relate to and adapt to almost any system in the world since several things that are being considered experimental or innovative in parallel systems have been anticipated and surpassed by Carnatic musicians centuries ago.
The roots of Carnatic music can be traced back to the times of the Vedas. Carnatic music also has drawn significantly from Tamil music, at least as an ancient as its Aryan counterpart. Thus, today’s Carnatic music symbolises the essence of the two major cultures, viz, Vedic and Tamil, encompassing the best of Indian culture as a whole.
Some Carnatic ragas like Ahiri, Harikambhodhi, Pantuvarali can trace their origins to over 2000 years. Hundreds of profusely moving devotional pieces of the azhwars and nayanmars, composed over 1200 years ago, are rendered even today. Great musicologists expounded upon concepts like raga, tala and gamakas in treatises like the natya shastra, believed to have been authored nearly 2000 years ago by Bharata.
Credit for making Carnatic music an organised system from the point of view of its dissemination goes to Purandara Dasa, 1484-1564. He systematised the basic teaching and learning and also composed hundreds of pieces. Annamacharya was another giant composer around this period and he is said to have composed over 15,000 pieces.
The Trinity – Tyagaraja, Muttuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri – arrived around 1760-s and dominated the music scene for the next 80-90 years. They continue to rule the hearts and minds of followers of Carnatic music all over the world even today. Hailing from the same town, Tiruvarur, in South India, they blazed 3 different trails.
Another great personality in the annals of Carnatic Music was Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi, a great innovator and trailblazer, said to have lived between 1700-65, (between the period of Purandara Dasa and the Trinity). He was a complete master of melody, rhythm and lyrics and was fluent in Sanskrit and Tamil, employed a variety of musical forms such as the krti, javali, tillana, and kavadichindu and showed several innovative and dazzling structural variety within these forms.
Other notable composers include Gopalakrishna Bharati, Pallavi Gopala Iyer, Swati Tirunal (widely acknowledged as a multi-faceted royal composer and patron of Arts), Tanjore Quartet, Subbaraya Shastri, Mysore Sadashiva Rao, Patnam Subramaniya Iyer, Maha Vaidyanatha Shivan, Ramaswami Shivan, Poochi Shrinivasa Iyengar, Mysore Vasudevachar and Papanasham Shivan, to name a few.
Carnatic musicians have also, for centuries, drawn from other cultures including Western Classical, Hindustani and Indian folk. But remarkably, the system has retained a distinct image and identity of its own, as it has imbibed various concepts but without ever jeopardising its basic concepts. In other words, the fundamentals of Carnatic music have been so all encompassing and anticipatory that innovations or imports can only enrich it and not modify it.
Modern Carnatic music owes a lot to great vocalists such as Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Kanchipuram Naina Pillai, ‘Tiger’ Varadacharyar, Maharajapuram Vishwanatha Iyer, Musiri Subramanya Iyer, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, T Brinda, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, G N Balasubramaniam, Madurai Mani Iyer, Alathur Brothers, Ramnad Krishnan, M D Ramanathan, K V Narayanaswami, Voleti Venkateshwarulu, M S Subbulakshmi, D K Pattammal and M L Vasantakumari.
Carnatic music has also been enriched by developments on the instrumental front for thousands of years. Bharata, the great musicologist mentioned numerous instruments even 2000 years ago and classified them as stringed, wind and percussion. Among string instruments, he mentioned chitravina, which has continued to flourish, albeit with modifications. Other ancient instruments that are prominent today include mrdangam and flute. Instruments that have gained popularity in more recent times include violin, ghatam, morsing and kanjira.
Prominent Carnatic instrumentalists in the last 100 years or so include Tirukkodikkaval Krishna Iyer, Dwaram Venkataswami Naidu, Papa Venkataramaiya, Rajamanickam Pillai and T Chowdaiah (violin), Rajaratnam Pillai and Karaikkuruchi Arunachalam (nadaswaram), Dhanammal, Karaikkudi Brothers and S Balachander (veena), Gotuvadyam Narayana Iyengar and Budalur Krishnamurty Shastri (chitravina), Palladam Sanjeeva Rao and T R Mahalingam (flute), Palghat Mani Iyer, Palghat Ramachandra Iyer, Pazhani Subramaniam Pillai and Murugabhoopaty (mrdangam), Dakshinamurty Pillai (kanjira), V Nagarajan and Harishankar.
The list is scarcely complete and it will take volumes to enumerate the contributions of each of those mentioned. Scores of excellent musicians and composers have taken the music to new heights and are continuing the good work today.
For more on the subject, please read Ravikiran’s book, Appreciating Carnatic Music.