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).