Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU on indiaserver.com
Music : December 03, 2000
Of taals and taans
The author is a Chennai-based writer on music and science.
Carnatic and Hindustani music are forms of Indian music which have been practised in the areas to the south and north of the Vindhyas respectively for the last six centuries or so. This definition is admittedly not very illuminating - Alice in Wonderland must have felt similarly enlightened when she was told that a mock turtle is something with which you make mock turtle soup.
Having said that, let us get down to brass tacks. I am sure that the terms raga and tala are understood by all, and will not therefore insult your intelligence by attempting to define these.
Carnatic music is formal, more structured and therefore more rigorous in its methods than Hindustani music. It has a well-defined grammar, and a veritable treasure house of kritis (musical compositions) to serve as a reference should some dispute arise regarding the usage of a particular prayoga (musical phrase) in any raga. Practitioners are expected to play by the rules whether they are acolytes or veterans. Those who violate the grammar find themselves dubbed as gadflies and mavericks. And rightly so.
The bulk of Carnatic music as we know it today comprises the oeuvres of the venerable Trinity namely Tyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Syama Sastry. The members of the Trinity were contemporaries, and lived in the Tiruvarur area of Tamil Nadu from the mid 18th to the mid 19th centuries. The swaroopa (form or structure) and bhava (defining characteristics) of almost any raga that is heard today is due substantially to the seminal works of these great saints. For them, music was a way of attaining Godhead, and not a source of livelihood. Their kritis are a combination of bhakti (devotion), jnana (knowledge) and an unmatched felicity of musical expression. Small wonder that their works have survived to the present day.
The kriti still remains the chief vehicle for expressing the beauty and structure of a raga, and has become an indispensable part of Carnatic music.For most of us lay listeners, no amount of ragalaapana (conveying the bhava of a raga using the a, ta, da, ri and na syllables) can match a well-renderedkriti. What is more, even the basic format of a kriti comprising pallavi-anupallavi-charanam has remained unchanged to this day. The members of the trinity also handled other variants in kriti format such as pallavi-samashti charanam, pallavi-multiple charanam and the swarajati, but not as much as the format mentioned earlier. The kritis of Dikshitar are replete with references to mythology, astrology and the esoteric science of Sri Vidya. His kritis, especially the major ones such as Kamalambam Bhajare in Kalyani, Sri Krishnam Bhaja Manasa in Todi or Balagopala in Bhairavi encapsulate the raga bhava so well that they are considered by many to be the benchmarks by which other compositions in the same ragas are judged. His kritis are considered as references regarding the usage of rare prayogas. Tyagaraja's kritis overflow with bhakti towards Sri Rama, and are characterised by a multitude of sangatis (lively cascades of musical variations on a single line of the song). Syama Sastry's outpourings of devotion towards the Goddess Kamakshi of Kanchi are finely chiselled masterpieces revealing his tremendous grip over tala.
The beauty of Carnatic music is that the kritis have been preserved almost intact from the mid 18th century till the present time, thus validating the idea that classical music is not for an age, but for all time. People still render Tyagaraja's Enduko Peddala in Sankarabharanam, Dikshitar's Sri Krishnam Bhaja Manasa in Todi and Syama Sastry's Sankari Sankuru in Saveri. The kritis are presented these days more or less the same way the great saints had composed them. Of course, there are variations and these can be attributed to patanthara (style of singing). There have been attempts by some celebrities in filmdom to pass off kritis of the trinity in ragas other than the ones in which they were composed. Fortunately these experiments remain exactly what they are - experiments, nothing more.
Hindustani music on the other hand is much more informal and freewheeling. It would not be exaggerating to say that anything goes. Well, almost. There is no fixed grammar, and if a musician attains celebrity status, whatever he plays or sings becomes part of grammar. There is no body of work which can serve to act as a touchstone by means of which others may be tested or compared. There is no logical classification of ragas, such as the one developed in Carnatic music by Govindacharya in the 18th century. A bit difficult, this!
Mohandas V. Badagara/Wilderfile
The greatest strength of Hindustani music, which has perhaps contributed to its overall popularity vis-a-vis Carnatic music worldwide is the stress that it lays on voice culture and melody. When one hears even an average Hindustani musician, one cannot help noticing his total alignment with the sruti (pitch or basic tonic note). The tanpura and the artiste are in perfect harmony with one another, and tranquillity reigns supreme in the concert hall. This contrasts markedly with the situation obtaining in Carnatic music. There are some senior vidwans (maestros) who invariably deviate from the sruti after a couple of songs into the performance; even senior musicians of yesteryear were guilty of singing off key. The saddest part is that no one wants to accept this.
Fortunately the present crop of musicians are a determined lot, and a lot of stress is now being placed on voice culture and singing to sruti. However the Carnatic musicians have a long way to go if they can hope to catch up with their Hindustani brethren. One reason, which has been advanced for the lack of sruti sense in Carnatic music, is the excessive stress that is placed on gamaka (oscillation of notes). This does not quite wash, as veterans such as Madurai Mani Iyer were always bang on target as far as sruti was concerned. He never used to compromise on gamakas - not to my knowledge at least. Among the present day veterans, K. V. Narayanaswami and T. V. Sankaranarayanan are noted for their total involvement with sruti while singing.
Carnatic music does not have anything quite like the taan in Hindustani music. The taan, which is a fast paced torrent of musical ideas expressed using only the akaaram (long a syllable, such as a in far) is perhaps the most important edifice on which the entire structure of Hindustani music rests. When taans are properly rendered , both the artiste and the listener are transported to a different plane of consciousness. It is well nigh impossible to indicate the thrill one experiences when listening to Bhimsen Joshi, Pandit Jasraj, Kishori Amonkar or Parween Sultana unleashing their superfast taans on the audience - you just lose track of yourself and float along with them. Perhaps the only Carnatic vocalist who could have matched the Hindustani giants taan for taan is M. Balamuralikrishna. I cannot think of anyone else.
However the art of kalpana swaram singing i.e., improvising combinations of allowable notes and phrases while maintaining the tala is something where Carnatic music can justifiably hold its head high. The equivalent in Hindustani music is sargam, which is something that all artistes merely make a motion of going through. The singing of intricate rhythmic patterns using sol fa syllables is something that Hindustani musicians can barely comprehend, much less execute. This is because in a Carnatic music recital, the main artiste keeps the tala, and the accompanists have to follow it. On the other hand in a Hindustani music recital, the tabla artiste keeps the tala, and the rest of them flow with him.
The raga-tanam-pallavi represents the apotheosis of Carnatic music. The raga and tanam correspond to alaap3 with and without rhythm in Hindustani music. The pallavi has virtually no counterpart in Hindustani music. The word pallavi is a portmanteau -pa is derived from padam meaning word or phrase, la from layam or rhythm and vi from vinyasam or imagination. In other words, pallavi is a beautiful synthesis of prosody, rhythm and imagination.
The intricate nature of the pallavi, especially the singing of the trikalam (singing in three speeds, each of which is exactly double the previous one) is something that is beyond the scope of Hindustani music. In nadai pallavis the basic unit of tala is changed from the default setting of chatusram i.e. four counts per beat to tisram, khandam, misram or sankeernam that have respectively three, five, seven and nine counts per beat. These are dangerous grounds for even a seasoned Carnatic musician, and for a Hindustani musician it would be sheer torture to even think of treading along this path. Some Hindustani musicians aver that the dhrupad is the equivalent of the pallavi in their system. However there are not too many people around who sing dhrupads, and it is therefore difficult to make any comment on this statement.
To sum up, each of the systems has its own plus and minus points. The average South Indian has a healthy regard for Hindustani music, and is prepared to sit through Hindustani recitals with not only open ears, but also an open mind. Sadly, the average North Indian considers Carnatic music as just a collection of songs with a religious flavour. In order to dispel this myth, the present day Carnatic musicians must work harder, much harder. They must go in for voice culture in a serious way, and also look for ways and means to maintaining their voices like they do in the West. Only then can Carnatic music take its rightful place on the world scene. Otherwise it will have to be content with being another (lesser) known form of Indian music.
Table of Contents
Copyrights © 2000, The Hindu.
Republication or redissemination ofthe contents of this screen are expressly prohibited
without the written consent of The Hindu.