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Music of India - Part One

Music of South India

by L. Subramaniam

The html code, hyperlinks, and linked knowledge webs associated with this chapter are not part of the original chapter cited above, and are authored by Jack Logan, Ph.D.

For us, as a family, music is like food. When you need it you don't have to explain why, because it is basic to life.

-- Ali Akbar Khan


Prior to learning about music of the Indian subcontinent, please read this Short History of India.

Part of the music referenced in this section is found in the Anthology of South Indian Classical Music compiled (with extensive notes) by L. Subramaniam and found on Ocora (Radio France) C 590001/2/3/4 (4 CDs). See a list of the contents of the Anthology of South Indian Classical Music with a few samples.

This material begins in the traditional Indian manner, with "Stotras" or invocations to the Gods and Goddesses.

The first example is an invocation to Lord Ganesha, the elephant-faced God, son of Lord Shiva (one of the Holy Trinity). Ganesha is the God who is invoked before commencing anything auspicious or before starting any new venture since He is considered to be the Remover of all obstacles.

The second example is an invocation to Goddess Saraswati, who holds the Veena and a book in Her hands (symbolizing music and education). The Goddess of Arts, Music, and Learning. She is the Giver of knowledge.

The third example is an invocation to Goddess Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth and Prosperity. She is the consort of Lord Vishnu, the Preserver of the Universe.

Origins of Indian Music

Indian Music is probably the most complex musical system in the world with a very highly developed melodic and rhythmic structure. This (structure) includes complicated poly-rhythms, delicate nuances, ornamentations and microtones which are essential characteristics of Indian music. This makes it very difficult to notate every detail in Indian music.

Originally Indian music was passed on by oral tradition (lit. Guru means teacher; shishya means student and parampara means tradition) from one generation to another for centuries. The music was never written down until much later. The notation system was actually developed much later more as a memory-aid than something from which to learn or something from which to perform. This is why the tradition wherein the student learns from a Guru on a "one-on-one" basis is considered to be the only real way to learn music since there are so many aspects that cannot be learned from a book because the existing notations are only a skeletal representation of the music.

Indian Music had its origins in the Vedas (4000 B. C. - 1000 B. C.) Four in number, the Vedas are the most sacred texts which contain about a thousand hymns. They were used to preserve a body of poetry, invocations and mythology in the form of sacrificial chants dedicated to the Gods. Great care was taken to preserve the text, which was passed down by oral tradition, so much so that both the text and the rituals remain unchanged to this day. The literature of the Vedas is divided into four parts: the Rig Veda, the Sama Veda, the Yajur Veda and the Atharva Veda. The oldest, the Rig, dates back to about 4000 B. C. It was recited, at first, in a monotone; it was later developed to three tones (one main tone, and two accents, one higher and the other lower called Udatta and Anudatta respectively.) This was done to accentuate the words since the text was of primary importance. The Yajur Veda which mainly consists of sacrificial formulas mentions the Veena as an accompaniment to vocal recitations during the sacrifices. By this time, the chants had evolved to two main notes with two accents forming the first concept of the tetrachord (four notes.)

The Sama Veda laid the foundation for Indian Music. The origin of Indian Music can be traced back to this Veda. Three more notes were added to the original tetrachord resulting in the first full scale of seven notes; within this scale were all the important and known musical intervals. The concept of the octave is also mentioned here.

The Atharva Veda was a collection of formulas that deal with Black Magic and spells. The text of the Vedas is in Sanskrit, the classical language of India.

The history of Indian music may be divided into the Ancient, Medieval and Modern periods.

The ancient period originates with the Vedas and is followed by the Upanishads. Though the Upanishads are considered by some as the concluding portion of the Vedas or the Vedanta, they are in a class by themselves. Dating from 1000 - 300 B.C., they laid the foundations on which the philosophies and religions of India are based. It is in the Upanishads that the solfege system of seven notes is discussed. In the West, the solfege system was not developed until the tenth century A.D. by Guido of Arezzo. The period of the Epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (500 B.C. - 200 A.D.) saw the development of the Jati system on which the modern Raga system is based. Also, various melodic and percussion instruments are mentioned during this time. Mention must be made of the Natyashastra, a treatise written by Bharata in 300 B.C. It is the most authoritative and ancient work on the classical science of music and dance. Another milestone in the development of Indian music is the Brihadesi whose author, Matanga, started a scientific classification of scales which was the basis for the later development of the seventy two Melakarta system (parent scales) by the great scholar Venkatamakhi. Narada, another scholar contemporary with Matanga, further defined Ragas, coded the microtones (Srutis) and gave them their twenty-two names.

The medieval period dates from approximately the fifth to the seventeenth centuries A.D. The Geeta Govinda and the Indian song of songs were composed during this period. The medieval poet Jayadeva was the first to introduce the concept of Chhanda Prabandha (verses set to rhythm in a uniform manner.) The text, in Sanskrit, consists of beautiful songs dealing with the RadhaKrishna theme - thus, it is of religious and musical importance. Jayadeva's songs, known as Ashtapadi are still sung today though the melodies may vary.

The Sangeeta Ratnakara, another treatise by the great composer and musician Sarangadeva, deals with the classification of Ragas according to the various seasons and different times of the day and the importance of certain notes in the delineation of the Raga (Vadi and Samvadi)

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries northern India endured a series of invasions by Muslim rulers from Asia minor on a crusade to spread the Islamic religion throughout the region. Until this time, the history of Indian music remained the same for the whole of India. Following the Islamic invasions and the concurrent cultural amalgamation, Indian music developed two distinctive systems: North Indian music (Hindustani music) and South Indian music (Karnatic or Carnatic music.) The influence of Islam together with other cultural, social and political forces produced the unique Hindustani (literally, the music of India - Hindustan is the Hindi word for India, Stan translates as land of the Hindus) style. In South India music continued to develop without external influence and is still known today as Karnatic (literally - in Tamil - old or traditional).

The modern period (seventeenth century A.D. to the present) unfolds as a result of the efforts of individuals. Other than Venkatamakhi, the scholar who devised the system of seventy two Melakartas (parent scales from which thousands of Ragas are derived), three composers, known today as the musical trinity, worked and flourished, (Tyagaraja - 1767-1847; Muttuswamy Dikshitar - 1776-1835 and Syama Sastri - 1762-1827). Born in Tiruvarur all three were scholars of the scriptures and sacred literature.

Tyagaraja (1767-1847)

Born on May 4, 1767, Tyagaraja was a prolific composer who composed more than 2,000 songs. His compositions were mainly in the Telugu language though he did compose in Sanskrit too. He wrote two Operas, Prahlada Bhakti Vijayam and Nowka Charitram. A great devote of Lord Rama, Tyagaraja's songs are very noble, sublime and soul-stirring. He was the first composer to perfect the musical form Kriti. He also introduced the concept of the Sangati (variations on the melodic line of a composition which can enrich the composition. He placed great importance and emphasis on the value of absolute music. He wrote several songs in unusual Apurva Ragas. His style is simple, beautiful and charming which appeals not only to the scholar but also to the layman. He also composed songs in some of the lesser used Melakarta Ragas. His Pancharatna kritis (lit. Pancha means five ratna means jewel or gem) are in a class by themselves. They are based on the five Ghana Ragas: Natai, Gaulai, Arabhi, Varali and Sri. They are unusual in form. They consist of a Pallavi, Anupallavi and multiple Charanams (see under Kriti form for detailed explanations). The Charanams are first sung in solfa syllables and then repeated with the text. You will hear the Pancharatna Kriti in Arabhi Raga, Sadinchine.

Muthuswamy Dikshitar (1776-1827)

Born on March 24, 1776, Dikshitar was the youngest of the Trinity. He wrote about 300 compositions in all which were in Sanskrit. A great scholar, he had profound knowledge of the Vedas, Upanishads, astrology, mythology, magic, etc. He sang praises of all the Deities without exception. He chose a medium to slow tempo for his songs which gave him the scope to bring out the depth and beauty of each Raga by using subtle gamakas (ornamentations) and delicate microtones. The use of the Madhyamakala (passages which are in a faster tempo than the rest of the song) only added to the beauty of the compositions. His great intellect shows in all his compositions. He has compositions in many rare ragas and talas. His five year stay in the holy city of Benares caused him to be profoundly influenced by the Dhrupad style of singing which was prevalent at the time. He also composed songs based on some North Indian Ragas. His Navagraha kritis in praise of the nine planets reveal his knowledge of the science of astrology. These were originally seven in number called the Vara kritis after the seven days of the week and were based on the basic seven Talas. The two kritis in praise of Rahu and Ketu were added later. The Navavarana kritis in praise of Devi (Goddess) are some of his other superb compositions. Dikshitar's compositions are carefully worked out - the laboured quality of his compositions cannot appeal to the layman. They have to be studied carefully to appreciate their intrinsic value.

Syama Sastri (1762-1827)

Syama Sastri was born on April 26th, 1762. He was well-versed in both TeIugu and Sanskrit, both of which he used in his compositions. He composed about three hundred compositions, mainly kritis and Swarajatis. A great devotee of Devi (Goddess Parvati), She is the theme for his compositions. His compositions are very scholarly and have to be listened to a few times before their value can be appreciated. He perfected the Swarajati to its present form. His Swarajati in the Raga Todi (which is sung in this Anthology by the maestro Semmangudi Srinlvasa Iyer) is a beautiful example of this. Some of his compositions are very rich in rhythmic conception. His style is not as simple as Tyagaraja's but at the same time not as laborious as Dikshitar's.

Ancient Period (4000 B.C. - 400 A.D.)

Vedas (4000 B.C. - 400 A.D.) Upanishads (1000 B.C. to 300 A.D.) Ramayana and Mahabharata (400 B.C.) Bharata's Natyasastra (300 B.C.) Matanga's Brihadesi (400 A.D.) Narada (400 A.D.)

Medieval Period (400 A.D. - 1600 A.D.)

Jayadeva's Geeta Govinda (12th Century) Sarangadeva's Sangeeta Ratnakara Bifurcation into two systems of music Purandara Dasa (1484-1564)

Modern Period (1600 A.D. - present)

Venkatamakhi (early 17th Century) Shyama Sastri (1762-1827) Tyagaraja (1767-1847) Muthuswamy Dikshitar (1776-1827)

Musical Forms

Musical forms may be categorized under two headings: 1. Abhyasa Gana (literally abhyasa - practice; gana - song) 2. Sabha Gana (literally sabha - audience) The above are forms, therefore, (1) intended for practice or to acquire technical skills and/or (2) intended for performances before an audience in a concert situation. Originally, all compositions were composed as vocal music and the same compositions were then played on various instruments. Therefore, all forms have texts.

Gita or Gitam

Literally, "song", Gitam belongs to the Abhyasa Gana group and denotes a particular type of composition. It is a very simple musical "paragraph" that has no divisions. It is sung in a uniform tempo from the beginning to the end without variations. The melody is very simple and outlines the Raga on which it is based and is set to a particular Tala.


Swarajatis, which also belong to the Abhyasa Gana or technical group, are compositions which are learned following Gitams. They prepare "the way" for the more complicated form, Varnam. They are similar in structure to the Varnam. Divided into three sections called PaIlavi, Anupallavi and Charanam respectively, the Charanams have different tunes. It was originally a dance form containing Jatis (rhythmic syllables). These were later excluded by Syama Sastri who developed and perfected the Swarajati into its existing form today.


Very similar to the Swarajati, the Jatiswaram belongs to the repertoire of dance music. Originally the Pallavi, Anupallavi and part of the Charanam were intended to be sung in Jatis (rhythmic syllables). Gradually this practice changed and the Jatiswaram is now sung entirely in Swaras (solfa syllables). While in the Swarajati the stress is on the music or the melody, in the Jatiswaram the rhythmic patterns dominate.

Varnas or Varnams

Though it belongs to the technical group Abhyasa Gana, the Varnam is also performed in concerts as opposed to the Gitam which is not. Literally meaning "colour," the Varnam consists of two halves: the P&aumlvanga, or the first half and the Uttaranga, or the second half. The two halves are almost equal in length. The first half consists of the Pallavi, the Anupallavi and the Muktayi or Chitta Swara's. The second half consists of the Charanam and the Charanam Swaras.

The PalIavi and the AnupaIIavi are usually two lines each, both sections with lyrics. The Chitta Swaras is a passage of solfa syllables. After the first section is completed, the performer goes back to the first line of the Pallavi. If the Varnam is to be performed in more than one tempo, the first section is played or sung in all the different tempi before proceeding to the second section.

The Charanam consist of one line with text. The Charanam Swaras are groups of solfa syllables. There may be four or more groups of Charanam Swaras in each Varnam. The Charanam is used as a theme of return after each group of Swaras. As in the first half, each group of Swaras is played in all the different tempi before going on to the next group.


A Kriti is a composed composition set to a certain Raga and a fixed tala. There are three sections in a Kriti: Pallavi, Anupallavi, and Charanam.

Ragam, Tanam, Pallavi


Ragam consists of free improvisation (without rhythmic accompaniment) based on a particular Raga. The soloist develops the Raga in stages, staying within the framework of the Raga. There are certain rules which must be observed and some restrictions that apply. Each Raga is based on a scale of five, six or seven notes. There are certain notes in the Raga which are more important than the other notes. These are called Vadi and Samvadi and are stressed more than the others during the improvisations. The soloist will not use notes that are not in the Raga (vivadi swaras). If there are any microtones incorporated with any of the notes, they must be used. There are certain typical phrases or usages of certain phrases in some Ragas which make them easily distinguishable. Ragas are derived from Melakartas or parent scales (see under Some Important Concepts of Indian Music for a more detailed explanation.) The Raga Alapana or delineation of the Raga starts slowly bringing out the beauty and mood of the Raga and is slowly built up ending with Pharans (fast runs) where the performer can demonstrate his virtuosity and technical prowess.


Tanam is the second phase of the Ragam, Tanam, Pallavi where the performer continues to improvise, still without any rhythmic accompaniment. Though there is no drum accompaniment, this section introduces an element of rhythmic pulse as opposed to the Ragam wherein the improvisation is free. At the end of each phrase section a stereotypical rhythmic cadence pattern is used to indicate the end of that particular section.


Pallavi consists of a short precomposed melodic theme, with words, which is usually set to one cycle of Tala. The theme is played two or three times in its simple form (without variations) during which the drummer familiarizes himself with it and enters. The Pallavi has the following main features: 1. NeravaI This literally means filling up or spreading; in other words, filling up portions of the Pallavi line with new, fresh and creative music. The soloist improvises new melodies built around the words of the Pallavi keeping the rhythmic structure constant. (Note: This type of improvisation is also used with the Kriti form where a line of the Kriti is taken as the theme for Neraval improvisation.) 2. Tri-Kalam In this section the Pallavi is played in three Tempi keeping the Tala or rhythmic cycle constant: i.e. (1) usually twice as slow as the original tempo, (2) the original tempo and (3) twice as fast as the original tempo. 3. Swara Kalpana This improvised section is performed using swaras (solfa syllables) in medium and fast speeds. Each swara kalpana passage returns to the beginning of the Pallavi theme. The possibilities are endless in this type of improvisation and are only limited by the creative capacity, technical and musical abilities of the individual performer. 4. Ragamalika The Pallavi usually ends with this section, which literally means, "Garland of Ragas." The soloist improvises freely in different Ragas and at the end of each Raga comes back to the rhythmic theme of the original Pallavi.

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