A Unique Tradition: The Inclusion of Women in Music Making

This song is an example of South Indian karanataka sangeeta, or Carnatic music, which has come to be known as the classical music of South India. Several different layers are pieced together to form this aural experience. These layers include rhythms and melodies (which are complex in nature), and drones, but they all merge to form one fluid movement. The style of this music is indeed unique, but what makes the music truly interesting is the tradition of who performs it. In a stark contrast to many other cultures, women are directly involved in the making of music, much of which is widely performed.

A Mridangam

Drones are ever present in the background, providing what has come to be a very distinctive sound for Indian music. These were traditionally provided by lutes called tamburas, but in recent years many musicians have begun to use synthesizers for the same effect. The rhythms that can be played are called talas, or “time cycles” of reoccurring beats (Titon 286). The main drum used is called a mridangam, which is a large two-headed drum.The clip above provides a very typical example of how these two layers interact; the drone starts at the beginning, while the drummers come in at a later time (Titon 286). These two roles are usually played by men. The melodies of Carnatic music, called ragas, however, are frequently performed by women. These ragas are built upon countless rules which a vocalist or instrumentalist learns throughout his or her training. The melodies, however, are most often vocal and are typically sung upon texts that worship gods, tell tales, and ultimately work to convey a significant emotion (Titon 284).

Starting in the early twentieth century, women in music became so important that it even directly affected the state of society. Scholars in India noticed this connection. In her article, “Gender and the Politics of Voice: Colonial Modernity and Classical Music in South India,”Amanda Weidman states, “If family women could be given a proper grasp and appreciation of music, the rest of society would improve.” (Weidman 209) One scholar, T. K. Chidambaranatha Mudaliar, even suggested that music created by females more embodies the spirit of “art” (Weidman 207). Needless to say, women consequently changed the tradition of music in the South Indian music-culture. The example posted above is famous female singer M.S. Subbulakshmi singing a devotional song to a deity. The piece is interesting because it represents the older traditional style of Carnatic music with a male-dominated background, but also features this extremely well known female singer. This shows the blend between the older music tradition built upon the three layers, and what has become a great new tradition in the last century in South Indian culture: the enthusiastic inclusion of women in the musical scene of South India.

M.S. Subbulakshmi

M.S. Subbulakshmi Singing


Titon, Jeff Todd. Worlds of Music: an Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples. Belmont, CA: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2009. 277-198. Print.

Weidman, Amanda. “Gender and the Politics of Voice: Colonial Modernity and Classical Music in South India.” Cultural Anthropology 18 (2003): 194-232. Web. 30 Nov. 2011.


2 thoughts on “A Unique Tradition: The Inclusion of Women in Music Making

  1. I found it really interesting that this author was able to find a video of women singing a devotional song that was typically dominated by male singers. One would think that a song to the deities would be not typically be dominated by one gender. I would have thought that men and women would have been a part of every type of song. I also really liked the link to the timeline of Subbulakshmi’s life because it really shows that she live a long and influential life. But now I wonder what women in the music culture have been doing to affect old social norms. Are they still breaking such barriers and continuing this influence on the state?


  2. As Anthony said, the inclusion of women in this music-culture is very interesting, particularly since many of the music-cultures we’ve discussed this semester have had gender divisions in their music. Seeing women cross these divisions and moving into producing and performing music that is traditionally performed by men is fascinating. In addition to Anthony’s question about how women’s involvement in prestigious music is affecting social conditions, I am particularly interesting in how female involvement in this music came about. What prompted the involvement of women in this music? Were there particular people or groups that pushed for women’s participation? Was there any resistance to female participation in Carnatic music?

    – Paige H.

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