Sunday, January 29, 2006

If music be the food of love (Part I)

This post by Charu finally got me to write down this (two part) piece, which I’d been planning to write for weeks now.

Carnatic classical music has evolved and grown over centuries to become what it is today. In this piece, I’ll walk through some of the aspects of the historical influences on this music form, and the influence of royal patronage and different“shisya paramparas” in the development of this musical form.

It remains the classical music form of Southern India, and its growth was seen in all four southern states. The “bhakti movement” (effectively from the 10th to the 15th century) served as a strong catalyst to promote growth of Carnatic music, just like it did for Hindustani music. It also resulted in a form of Carnatic music called “bhajana sampradaya”. In Karnataka, two groups were instrumental for the growth of the music. The Vaishnavite dasas wandered the countryside composing hymns and songs on Vishnu (or his avatars), in relatively simple Kannada (stepping out of the Sanskrit based compositions that dominated religion). Foremost amongst these was Purandaradasa, considered the “pitamaha” or “grandsire” of Carnatic music. He is credited with organizing early lessons in music (sarali varase, janti varase through alankaras and geetas), and also composed hundreds of short songs (kritis or just “dasa sahitya”). A number of other dasas also composed numerous songs. There was also a parallel Saivite movement, the veerasaiva movement, where Basaveshwara, Akka Mahadevi and numerous other veerasaivas composed simple songs (vachanas) in Kannada, in praise of Siva. Though vachana sahitya is not very popular today, dasa sahitya remains highly popular in Carnatic concerts, and is also still sung by folk singers. This form of lyric was not set to a specific raga, but musicians were freely allowed to express the lyrics in any raga of their choice. Modern dasa sahitya is often sung in ragas that were adapted directly from Hindustani music (Sindhu Bhairavi, Kapi, Behag), but traditionally dasa and vachana sahitya were sung in Carnatic ragas that have direct folk origins (Ananda Bhairavi, Natakurunji, Neelambari, Aarabhi, Nayaki and such other ragas), and still are by folk singers. This form of music was not rigidly bound by rules, but remained within the classical form. Their contemporary bhakti composers in Andhra composed in Telugu, and foremost amongst them was Annamachari. Many of his compositions were lost until relatively recently, when hundreds of his songs were found (in inscriptions on plates) buried in a cave. But the music these were set to was lost. His songs were popularized in recent times by Balamuralikrishna. In Tamil lands, the Nayanars and Alvars were instrumental in spreading and developing music (and much of Carnatic music has been influenced by the traditional pann system of Tamil music).

Both western and Indian classical music forms have benefited enormously and grown due to royal patronage. Carnatic music was widely patronized by the Vijayanagar empire, which was the dominant empire in Southern India during this time. Though it existed during an early time during the development of Carnatic music, it left behind a rather unique legacy. Vijayanagara fell in the late 16th century, but much of their empire was left in the hands of their former generals. The Wodeyars ruled Mysore, while the Nayakas began to rule Madurai and Tanjavur. The language of the Vijayanagara court was Telugu, and Telugu became the language of poetry and music in Southern India, and so many composers started composing in Telugu. Their successors, the Nayakas and the (early) Wodeyars continued to patronize Telugu. So, Telugu remained the de-facto court language for nearly 500 years, till the 17th century.

Much of the prolific growth of this music form during the 17th-19th century was in the Cauvery belt around Tanjavur, and thanks to this little twist of history, a vast number of compositions were written in Telugu, which has remained the major language for this form of music. An interesting aside is that the Marathas (starting with the Venkaji) came to rule Tanjore, displacing the Nayakas. But they did little to meddle with local customs, and many of them became great patrons of Carnatic music, and may perhaps have influenced the adoption of bhajans by North Indian bhakti saints in Carnatic music.

Mention must be made though of Oothukadu Venkata Subbaiyar (or just Venkata Kavi), who lived in the mid 1600s in Tamil Nadu. He was a composer who composed in both Tamil and Sanskrit, but his Tamil compositions were of the highest order. His compositions went on to inspire many composers to compose in Tamil. The biggest legacy in music though was left by three composers, known as the “trinity” of Carnatic music. These were Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dixitar and Shyama Shastri. Of these, Thyagaraja undoubtedly had the greatest impact. He was a telugu speaking brahmin who lived in the Tanjavur region (Tiruvarur), and composed prolifically almost exclusively in Telugu. However, it was not just his prolific ability to compose that resulted in his compositions coming to dominate the form of music. He was also a true music evangelist, and had many, many disciples. They continued to popularize his compositions even after his death, and this “shisya parampara” spawned a legacy hard to surpass. It became another reason why Telugu remains the most common language heard in Carnatic music. Thyagaraja was also partial to the raga Kharaharapriya, and it’s many offshoot ragas (janyas). Thanks to that, this raga and its offshoots have come to exceedingly dominate carnatic concerts.

It was around the same time as Thyagaraja that Dixitar and Shyama Shastri also lived. Dixitar composed predominantly in Sanskrit. He composed in a vast range of ragas, across the spectrum. Though he did not have the army of disciples Thyagaraja had, his legacy lived on mainly through his own (extended) family (with Ambi Dixitar being prominent), who went on to have many disciples, who continued to sing and popularize his songs in concerts. Shyama Shastri composed in Sanskrit and Telugu, however, only 47 of his compositions still survive today. His “shishya parampara” was far more limited.
These composers however were masters of the kriti/keertana form of composition, and given the sheer volume of their legacy, and their vast number of disciples, this form of music went on to dominate Carnatic music.

In the next post, we’ll look at some more recent historical developments in Carnatic music, and look in to the prevailing “hypothesis” that this music form is largely performed by brahmins, and the evolution of the modern concert format.

(note: this is not a very comprehensive post, so I hope some of the comments go in to areas I didn’t touch upon).


Prasanth said...

Hi Sunil,

Always used to wonder why so many of the songs are in Telugu. BTW, can you suggest some good books that i can read on Carnatic music ? Especially in English?

Sujatha Bagal said...

I'm amazed at your knowledge of Carnatic music. I learnt to sing when I was young, but was never intrigued enough to dig so deep into its origins.

Anonymous said...

A fabulous (not "post" in this case, but) essay! A great read!

Thanjavur seems to have been a very happening place in those times! And it was a linguistic melting pot too: Telugu, Maratha rulers; Tamil, Sanskrit, Telugu, Kannada (the late "Periyaval" Chandrasekharendra was a Kannadiga) and Marathi scholars. The court-language of the Marathas was Telugu too.

Besides the intense composing activity, considerable work in musicology took place around (before) the Trinity period. The Mela-karta raga system evolved around this time, for example. Some of the kings were scholars themselves: Tulaja Maharaja wrote the treatise Sangeeta Saramrta.

Also to be mentioned is the Nama-sankirtana tradition in this region. The primary gurus of this tradition were Bodhendra Saraswati (of the Kanchi Matha), Sridharayya ("Ayyaval," a Telugu person). This was possibly influenced by the Maharashtrian abhang tradition.

The Maratha influence also extended to Mridangam playing. The terms, Chapu (as in the tala "Khanda Chapu") is probably from the Marathi "Chhaap" छाप; and "mora" (the concluding rhythmic pattern) from "mohra" मोहरा.

There were a number of works on Krishna-bhakti too in Thanjavur. And Krishna-bhakti is always expressed as... erotism! (That seems to be the convention.) Narayana Teertha (moved in from Andhra) composed the Krishna Leela Tarangini. Tyagaraja, as orthodox as they came,
created the shringara-laden opera Nauka Charitram. (I am intrigued.) And the numerous javalis, padams, etc.

Regarding composers:
Besides Venkata-kavi, there were other Tamil composers like Gopalakrishna Bharati (of "Nandanar Charitram" fame) and the Tamil Trinity (Arunachala-kavi, Muthuthandavar, Marimutha Pillai).

In Andhra, besides Annamacharya was the famous Rama-bhakta composer - Bhadrachala Ramadasa. He was greatly respected by Tyagaraja too and is mentioned in many of the latter's works.

Anonymous said...

By "Thanjavur," of course, I mean the Cauvery delta region.

R.Nandakumar said...

thanks sunil - and srikanth - for all that gyan. look forward to part 2.

Sunil said...

Hi Prasanth. There are some good books on carnatic music, written in English (I read the english ones primarily myself). For some trivia on Carnatic music greats, I had reviewed a book earlier. It's light and very enjoyable, and touches upon the lives of a number of musicians.

Music in South India: The Karn-atak Concert Tradition and Beyond by T. Viswanathan, Matthew Harp Allen is supposed to be very good, and has excellent reviews, but i haven't read it yet. It is written so as to be easily understood by some one with little knowledge of the music. Vedams books has a collection of a number of different books, and their list is found here.

Sujatha...i think i started reading and learning more about the music because i didn't like it when any one told me "this is how it should be sung", or "this can only be performed this way" :-). Then i became extremely interested in the details and evolution of the music, and the influences that changed it, and made it what it is today.

Srikanth.....thank you for such a detailed comment. Tanjavur (and another part of the Cauvery, Mysore, which i'll touch upon in my next post) was the place to be between the 17th and 20th century for sure. Most of the later developments in carnatic music happened here. And it was partly because of the "melting pot" of cultures that so many ideas were able to flow, with the best of various influences being adopted. The Marathas (apart from the various influences you listed) also probably speeded up the adoption of hindustani raagas in to carnatic music, since they brought many with them. You are also right about the other major Tamil composers like Bharati. And Arunachala kavi, Muthuthandavar were great pre-trinity composers, and contemporaries (or even before) Venkatakavi. I'm just very fond of Venkatakavi's compositions, that's all :-)

I believe Nagarjuna is acting as Ramadasa in an upcoming movie (he acted as Annamacharya earlier). I hope the music in the movie is good.


froginthewell said...

sunil, nice post. Can you give references to nATakkurinji, nAyaki and Arabhi being of folk origins? The first two seem quite expectable given their vakra nature but Arabhi? Though this seems to say that there is no real evidence that nATakkurinji had its origin in the ancient period.

A quibble : tyAgarAja lived in tiruvayyAr, not tiruvArUr. It was dIkShitar who lived in tiruvArUr and shyAmashAstri lived in tanjAvUr. The funny thing is that all three were born in tiruvArUr ( and around the same time! ). Another one : Smt. vidyA shankar's book has 70 kRtis of shyAma shAstri with musical notation ( though the former edition has only 46, close to what you mentioned ). Till now I haven't heard of a controversy surrounding the authorship of these ( unlike dIkShitar and tyAgarAja kRtis where many later generations musicians have allegedly tried to pass their own kRtis as some trinity's ).

Actually I somehow wonder why dIkShitar did not have more impact on kEraLa than tyAgarAja : it was four of dIkShitar's disciples, the tanjAvUr quartet, who principally adorned the court of svAti tirunAL, the guy who imported some of the very rich tanjore tradition to bring some music to a by-then-culturally-decadent kEraLa ( in particular there are allegations, which I am inclined to believe that several svAti compositions were actually tuned, if not entirely composed by the tanjAvUr quartet ). I hope that some day the impact of dIkShitar will trump that of tyAgarAja :-))

Nice to see the point about kharaharapriya - which was virtually unexplored before tyAgarAja and brought to life single-handedly by tyAgarAja. It gives me hope that the rAgas that aren't considered profound today, if they fall into the hands of a really skilled composer, may reveal some profound aspects. However, no such thing seems to have happened after trinity ( as far as I know ).

Sunil said...

Hi Frog....thanks for commenting.

Ok.....i was trying to do too much with one sentence there. What i wanted to say was that dasa and vachana sahitya were traditionally sung in different ragas (from their present tunes), more often than not of folk origin. So, when you hear Jagadodharana in originally was not sung in Kapi, but something else. But that kind of music gives the singer the flexibility to select a raga of his/her choice and render the song in that. Arabhi is (afaik) not of folk origin. Natakurunji and nayaki might be or might not be (it's discussed often on various egroups/bulletin boards. Most people believe they are), but are both ragas that were popular well before the trinity. A lot of what i mentioned about Dasa sahitya i learnt from Mysore Nagamani Srinath's lec dems. She is an authority on (hari)dasa sahitya.

Yes...Vidya Shankar's books has 70 krtis of Shastri....and they're probably all genuine. It's becoming pretty accepted now. Good pointer. But the actual notation of about 30 of them are unknown.......and that really goes back to the handing down of the compositions to disciples.

That's a very interesting point about Dikshitar not having such a huge effect in kerala. Especially since he composed in Sanskrit, which should have been much more acceptable to the Kerala court than Telugu. His compositions are beautifully structured and precise, and when rendered well, an absolute pleasure to listen to (both for the music as well as the lyrics). But the one advantage (i think) Thyagaraja had was that his compositions allowed the singer an opportunity to showcase an elaborate "nerval" (Shyama Shastri's did too.....but there are other reasons why his compositions are not as prevalent). With a Dixitar composition, its a challenge to render it well, but gives little scope for elaborate "nervals".

Nice point about the ragas. Perhaps some one will make a rarer raga his/her own....and it'll become popular!! Balamuralikrishna keeps coming up with new ragas....:-)

froginthewell said...

But the actual notation of about 30 of them are unknown.

But the book gives notation for all 70 of them. I rudimentarily browsed through the introduction etc. to look for caveats saying that some 30 of them aren't "authentic" ( in the sense kRtis Smt. vidyA shankar did not learn from her guru shyAma shAstri, the great grandson of the great composer shyAma shAstri ). I couldn't find any.

About neravalizable lines abounding in tyAgarAja's kRtis - of course you are right, it is widely accepted to be the case. Also one reason why those kRtis ( being more malleable ) have undergone greater corruption/change from the original form. Incidentally, this article mentions what is probably one of the biggest disasters in this connection. To quote that article, "Subbarama Dikshitar had planned to publish another large work containing
100 kriti-s of Shyama Shastri, 500 kshetrajna pada-s and the kriti-s of
Tyagaraja collected by Mr. Chinnaswami Mudaliar from the Walajahpet school. lt is our misfortune that he could not complete his project, and we are not able even to trace the manuscripts of his collection"

tyAgarAja having had greatest impact would have been okay if people devoted more space to the several beautiful and profound kRtis he has written.

Sunil said...

Frog....thanks again for commenting. I do need to read that book.....just to see the notations and sahitya of those compositions, and yes, there isn't much dispute that they are authentic (i didn't say there was). Yet having the notations is one thing, and knowing the song is another. It's a great pity, but very few musicians can render even ten or fifteen of Shyama Shastri's compositions well.

That article link is really nice....and i'll totally agree that it's another disaster. People haven't really devoted more space to several beautiful Thyagaraja kritis. But thats how it works sometimes. Perhaps some one will come along, and revive some of never know.

Anonymous said...

Very nice essay. I personally am extremely fond of Annamacharya's compositions. He was a priest at Tirupathi for most of his life, and it turns out that his compositions were found in a corner of the main devasthanam itself (rather than caves, though I may be wrong). I used to wonder why there were so few of Syama Sastry's compositions available, now I know better ! Swati Tirunal was remarkable not only for his talent as a composer, but also for his liberalism and farsightedness. His mother and him instituted universal education for all (including girls) in Travancore during their reign, and is responsible for the advanced state of literacy and women's rights in Kerala today.

Sunil said...

vkrishna.....thanks. Yes....i couldn't remember exactly where they found those compositions. Anyway....the ragas they were set to were lost and so the present form of many of his songs are actually not the original raga. Balamuralikrishna has done much to revive Annamachari compositions (just like Semmangudi revived many of Swati Tirunal's compositions). Swati Tirunal was one of Travancore's finest kings. He strongly believed in "dharmic" rule, and the duties of a king. But it was a time when Travancore was coming under greater English influence, and i believe he didn't like that much. But he did carry out a lot of reform in Kerala society, and was an admirable king.

Sunil said...

Manu.....thanks. I took a look at your blog, and will keep a close eye on it. It's a great initiative you've taken up.....a blog dedicated to classical music! (the first perhaps).

Anonymous said...


Anonymous proxy list from today :

Anonymous said...

Hi sunil,

This is the first time I am writing to anyone on the net, with a wee bit of apprehension:))
Today I was browsing on the net looking for songs on uday ravi chandrika raagam aka sudha dhanayasi(which incidentally my teacher garu taught me only today:)and I was looking for specifically annamaiyya keertanas.Somehow googling I came to your blog and read this write up which was amazing. You have a profound amount of knowledge in carnatic classical. Please continue to write somemore. I hope to keep learning:)
BTW,I viewed your profile too and was glad to know that you are a PG Wodehouse fan like me.

Thank you

Anonymous said...

I must say, that is a wonderful post on the history and evolution of Carnatic music. Wonderful post...

As a side-note, you can check out

It has a very good collection of Carnatic music.

Anonymous said...

Sir please note there was nothing called 'Carnatic Music' to start with.
The formal form of present day Karnataka Music started during Vijanagara empire led by the revolutionary works of Sri Purandara Daasa’s institution. Different forms of music might have existed before that but not the formal form of Karnataka music. 'Carnatic' is a name given to certain geographical area of South India mostly by Moguls. British continued to use it and possibly associated with ‘Karnataka Music’. Mostly after 1964 when Mysore State was renamed as 'Karnaataka state' many tend to use ‘Carnatic music’ in place of ‘Karnataka music’. But everyone knows in ‘Karnataka music' Karnataka stands for classical music of South India, not the state of Karnataka. All great musicians prefer to use ‘Karnataka Sangeeta or Sangeetam’ including the great trinity. Though it may too late to reverse the use of ‘Carnatic’ it is better to start all articles as ‘Karnataka Sangeeta or Sangitam AKA Carnatic music.’ Then new comers can follow the history clearly with no confusion

South Indian