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Carnatic music

Karnatak music (Sanskrit karnataka sangeetham [कर्नाटक सङ्गीतं]) also known as Carnatic music is the classical music of South India (as opposed to the classical music of North India called Hindustani) It is different from Hindustani in that it emphasizes the structured song, is much more theoretical, and has more stringent rules.1 It also emphasizes the expertise of the voice rather than of the instruments. As with all Indian music, the main two components of Karnatak music are raga, a melodic pattern and tala, a rhythmic pattern. (One might want to read these pages bofre proceeding.)

Table of contents
1 North v. South Indian music
2 Karnatak concerts
3 Karnatak songs
4 Traditions
5 Karnatak people
6 Attitudes
7 External links
8 Footnotes

North v. South Indian music

In contrast to Northern India, the south was never successfully invaded by the Mughals and its musical forms thus represent purer Indian music. Karnatic music remained popular among the common people, and was performed as a normal spiritual ritual. The roots of the music were written between 4000 BC and 1000 BC, in texts like the Sama Veda. Instruments include a kind of oboe called a nagaswaram and a barrel drum called the tavil. The three greatest Karnatic composers are Mutuswamy Dikshitar, Syama Sastri and Tyagaraja. These are regarded with spiritual awe and are referred to as the Trimurti.

This music tradition from South India is replete with songs eulogizing various Hindu Gods (predominantly Vishnu and his incarnations) or the Vedic spirit. In short Bhakthi is the key element.

Karnatak concerts


Karnatak music performed by a small ensemble of musicians. The troupe usually has a vocalist, a primary instrument performer, a drone instrument performer and a rhythm instrument performer.

Primary instruments are string instruments like veena and violin. Drone instruments are accompanying instruments which just set an environment for the underlying melody (e.g., tambura and sruti box). Rhythm instruments are percussion instruments (e.g, mridangam, gadam, etc.). See also: Indian musical instruments.


Sice most Carnatic improvisation is done in concerts, it seems apt to mention it here. There are four main types of improvisation in Carnatic music:

  1. Ragam This is usually performed before a song. It is, as you may expect, always sung in the ragam of the song. It is a slow improvisation with no rhythm, and is supposed to tune the listener's mind to the appropriate ragam by reminding him/her of the specific nuances, before the singer plunges into the song. Theoretically, this ought to be the easiest type of improvisation, since the rules are so few, but in fact, it takes much skill to sing a pleasing, comprehensive (in the sense of giving a "feel for the ragam") and, most importantly, original ragam.
  2. Niraval This is usually performed by the more advanced concert artists and consists of singing one or two lines

Karnatak songs

Structure and variety

Karnatak songs are varied in structure and style, but generally consist of three verses:
  1. Pallavi (पल्लवि). This is the equivalent of a refrain in Western music. Two lines.
  2. Anupallavi (अनुपल्लवि). The second verse. Also two lines.
  3. Charanam (चरणं). The final (and longest) verse that wraps up the song. The Charanam usually borrows patterns from the Anupallavi. Usually three lines.
This kind of song is called a keerthanam (कीर्तनं). But this is only one possible structure for a keerthanam. Some keerthanams have a verse between the Anupallavi and the Charanam, called the Chittaswaram (चिट्टस्वरं). This verse consists only of notes, and has no words.

A Varnam is a special kind of song which tells you everything about a ragam; not just the scale, but also which notes to stress, how to approach a certain note, classical and characteristic phrases, etc. It's like reading the Bible in a foreign language. A varnam has a pallavi with many lines and a charanam with substanzas, thus:

  1. Pallavi
  2. Charanam Introductory line, then
There are are many more kinds of songs such as geethams and swarajathis, but for lack of room, they will not be explained here.

Some special songs deserve to be noted here, the Pancharatna Kritis(पञ्चरत्ना क्रिती), and the Ashtapathis(अष्टपति)

How to sing them

There are many intricacies in singing these songs, but usually it will follow a pattern of elaboration on the preceding forms, or "saving the best for last". Each line has several ways of singing it, called sangathi(संगति)s. They are usually sung twice each, from simplest to most complex. There are more complex rules when there are two adjacent lines, each with its own set of sangathis. In this case, all the sangathis of the first line are sung, and then the first and second lines are sung in sequence, with the most complex sangathi of the first line, followed by the second line. The two lines are sung this way for every sangathi of the second line, and usually the most elaborate sangathi of the second line will link back to the pallavi. The above rules for singing two lines mostly apply only to the last two lines of the anupallavi or charanam.

The subtleties of Karnatak music were once not known to many people, but as a lot of treatises were developed and Bhakti (absolute devotion in Hinduism) flourished in India, more and more people got attracted towards it and it has earned international acclaim.


Carnatic music has very specific traditions pertaining to the learing and performance of music.

Karnatak people

One of the earliest and prominent composers in South India was the saint, and wandering devine singer of yore Purandara Dasa (1480-1564). Purandara Dasa is believed to have composed 475,000 songs in Kanndada and Sanskrit and was a source of inspiration to the later composers like Tyagaraja. He also invented the tala system of Carnatic music.

The Great Comosers

Saint Tyagaraja (1759?-1847), Muthuswami Dikshitar (1776-1827) and Syama Sastry (1762-1827) are regarded as the trinity of carnatic music.

Modern singers

MS Subbulakshmi, Mangalampalli BalaMuraliKrishna, DK Pattammal are the arts' greatest living performers. Srinivasa Iyer, a doyen of carnatic music, who had taught three generations of acclaimed musicians, and who was often acclaimed as the Pitamaha (Great Father) of Carnatic music passed away on October 31, 2003.


External links


  1. This, some argue, makes Karnatak music more creative!