Karnataka Sangeeta: a Foreign Take on Classical Music

The classical music of Southern India, Carnatic music, is considered one of the oldest systems of music in the world. Carnatic music is a very complex system of music that requires much thought, both artistically and technically. The basis of Carnatic music is the system of ragas (melodic scales) and talas (rhythmic cycles). There are seven rhythmic cycles and 72 fundamental ragas. All other ragas are considered to have originated from these. An elaborate pattern exists for identifying these scales, known as the 72 Melakarta Raagas. Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri, the three saint composers of the 19th century, have composed thousands of krithis that remain fresh among musicians and rasikas. The most important specialty of Carnatic music is its highly devotional element. The concept of the compositions is set entirely against a devotional outline. The notes of Carnatic music are “sa-ri-gaa-ma-pa-da-ni”. These are abbreviations of the real names of swaras, which are Shadjam, Rishabham, Gandharam, Madhyamam, Panchamam, Dhaivatam and Nishaadam.
Each note of the pattern (the swaraa) will have up to three varieties. The only exceptions for this are the two base notes shadjam and panchamam, sa & pa which have only one form, and madhyamam, the middle swara, which has only two notes. Spirituality has always been the prominent content of Carnatic music. The beautiful blending of the beauty and devotional element has made it extraordinary and divine.
Carnatic music is usually performed by a small ensemble of musicians, consisting of a principal performer (usually a vocalist), a melodic accompaniment (usually a violin), a rhythm accompaniment (usually a mridangam), and a tambura, which acts as a drone throughout the performance. Other typical instruments used in performances may include the ghatam, kanjira, morsing, veena & flute. Defining elements of Carnatic music are a nasal timbre used both vocally and instrumentally, and improvisation. Carnatic music festivals take place in many Southern Indian Cities such as Chennai, Bengaluru, and Thiruvananthapuram. 
Despite the fact that most of the gods being worshipped in South India classical music take on a feminine form, women in India have only recently (since the mid 20th century) become involved in the performance of Carnatic music. According to Amanda Weidman, whose ethnography on gender and the politics of voice describes the inner merging of the female artist and the musical voice in South India, women of high respect have made their way into the performance of classical music through the redefinition of classical in the 1940’s as a natural expression of devotion. Womanly behavior at that time highlighted naturalness and meaning. “Although seemingly opposite, the roles of artist and respectable woman reinforce each other; the “natural” voice of the artist was-and still is-identified with the chaste body of the respectable woman. To “come into voice” on the classical stage, then, involves engaging not just the conventions of musical art, but the conventions of female respectability.” (Weidman 222) Drawing back on the text, women in India today are very much involved in Carnatic musical performance, however, there are still boundaries that must be overcome. For example, women do not tend to play percussion and reed instruments, and stick mostly to vocal parts. That is not to say, however that there are not many females who have made careers out of their music and have become leading vocalists in India.

Titon, Jeff Todd. Worlds of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples. Belmont, CA: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2009. 277-298. Print.

Weidman, Amanda. “Gender and the Politics of Voice: Colonial Modernity and Classical Music in South India.” Cultural Anthropology,. . 2Blackwell Publishing, 2003. 194-223. Print.

“Ardhana NH.” About Carnatic Music. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Dec 2011. <http://www.aradhana-nh.com/carnatic_music.php&gt;.

“South Asian arts.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2011. Web. 06 Dec. 2011. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/556016/South-Asian-arts&gt;.


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