A Veteran's Observation And Insight

Carnatic Music

Carnatic classical music is raga- and tala-based. Just as 'Aham brahmasmi' of Advaita philosophy is the culmination of all philosophical thought, ragabased music is the ultimate in sound architecture. Seven swara-s in 12 swarasthana-s (pitches) are the basis of all the musics of the world. Indian music has gone a step further and identified 22 in an octave and enlarged the scope of raga delineation.

Picking up six or seven swara-s on a straight or curved pathway at a time and enriching them with microtones and semitones give the raga system a lot of scope for producing a variety of sound pitches.

Every raga has a distinctive personality or swaroopa. The musician must, in a recital, endeavour to chisel out in every item the swaroopa of the raga concered. In all the items  especially in a kriti suite consisting of raga alapana, kriti, niraval and kalpana swara the personality of the raga must dominate; a mere sketch will not do. If the swaroopa is presented in all its grace and beauty, it is good music.

A kriti is nothing but a raga interpreted with the help of sahitya within the framework of rhythm. Raga alapana is not unlike the presentation of a glimpse of the ocean itself. Elaboration of a small stretch of sahitya to bring out raga bhava is niraval. Swara kalpana highlights the various swara sanchara-s with which the raga swaroopa is constructed. Vaggeyakara-s like Tyagaraja and Dikshitar endeavoured to present several aspects of the raga-s though their kriti-s.

Compositions through which the various raga-s are presented in their splendour must be rated as 'great'. Other kriti-s which do not contain musical substance merely exist as shrubs in a big forest.

Annamacharya & Purandaradasa

Among the earliest music composers, Annamacharya and Purandaradasa were the most prominent. They created the keertana form of composition in which the opening lines were named pallavi and the rest were called charana-s. Anupallavi was a later construction. We do not know when and by whom anupallavi was innovated. In some of Dikshitar's compositions, the anupallavi and charanam are compounded and named samashti charanam. Anubandham containing chittaswara-s with or without sahitya were still later additions to the kriti.

We are left with thousands of compositions of Purandaradasa and Annamacharya without the musical structure originally conceived by the composers, leaving us the only alternative of setting them to music in our own way and singing them.

 Compositions of the Music Trinity

 The great vaggeyakara-s we call the Trinity were different. They were master musicians, poets and great devotees. They lived like saints using music as a vehicle for divine sadhana. Because they were gifted with musical genius and composing ability, disciples from various corners of South India gathered around them, learnt their compositions and propagated them.

Dikshitar's kriti-s are marvels of architectural beauty. They are a musician's paradise. They give plenty of scope for expression of all gamaka-s. The pattern of his kriti-s was all his own; sangati-s do not play an important role in it. As the kriti unfolds in a slow measure, the beauties of the raga dominate and the anubandham in medium tempo (as if to offer relief from the slow tempo) concludes the composition.

Dikshitar chose mainly slow speed for his compositions from which the raga-s can be studied thoroughly, swara by swara. He exposed the swaroopa of the various raga-s with finesse. Tyagaraja seemingly kept musicians of all grades of ability in mind while he composed. His kriti-s n= include those that can be rendered by beginners, as well as difficult ones that call for a vidwan's skill to render them. On close observation one can isolate at least 16 different patterns in Tyagaraja's kriti-s. One wonders if yet another pattern can ever be devised.

Papanasam Sivan, the greatest composer of modern times, once remarked: "Tyagaraja has laid a supreme highway; other composers can do nothing more than tread that path." Tyagaraja was as great a composer as he was a bhakta. Speaking about his spontaneous kriti-s, my guru used to say: "Tyagaraja must have been toying with different raga-s, including rare and unearthed ones, during his leisure time. Kriti-s flowed spontaneously during the time he prayed and meditated. His sishya-s would quickly note down sahitya, pallavi, anupallavi and charana with rough, quick notation. Tyagaraja would then go through the piece, polish it and teach the students the finished piece."

Syama Sastry composed fewer kriti-s than the other two of the trinity, but he too was a great composer. He mastered and unravelled the rhythmic beauties of Misra Chapu tala and presented what resembles Dikshitar's but was not an imitation. Tyagaraja, Dikshitar and Syama Sastry wove the subtleties of musical excellence into their compositions and they pushed forth the frontiers of art music.

Attributes of good music

Raga-s have characteristic personalities which must be brought out with the help of gamaka-s, tempo and proper timing of phrases. A musician can be said to have done justice if he brings out the personality of the raga.

The quality of music declined when it began to be commercialised. Sangeeta vidwan-s must be held responsible for the fall in standards. Truly great musicians make the listening public rise to their standards and not the other way around. Dedication, proper training, idealism and hard work can help in the revival of standards.

Careful analysis of good music gives us some pointers that should help in this revival. The general tendency in concerts today is to rush at breakneck speed through all segments of a kriti suite— raga alapana, presentation of the kriti, niraval and swaraprastara. This high speed negates the very purpose of good music, which is to bring forth something that is aesthetically beautiful. A slow, relaxed pace lends beauty and grace to the movement of sound. It also lends dignity and rakti to the music presented. If you run, how can you dance.

The duration of a concert is also a vital factor influencing the quality of music in concerts. When the Madras Music Academy came into being in 1928, its annual series was conducted in a pandal (a temporary enclosure not unlike a circus tent). There were no microphones or loudspeakers. There was only one performance a day, which usually spanned four hours and a half. Every concert included a standard 4-kalai pallavi. Even veena and violin solo performers were heard with rapt attention by a disciplined and interested audience.

As time went on, performing musicians multiplied in numbers. The duration of a concert came down to two hours and a half or even less. With a number of kriti-s and other compositions included in each presentation, there was little scope for leisurely delineation of raga-s or compositions, or for 4-kalai pallavi-s.

Every raga can be divided into a number of phrases or sangati-s, which, when strung together, reveal its personality, its raga bhava. Every phrase must be rendered at a speed suited to the composition, not slower, not quicker. The sangati-s must also be rendered with proper gamaka-s. Slow-paced pieces offer a lot of scope for rendering the various gamakas with telling effect. Musicians who have a thorough grasp of the various gamaka-s will be able to generate raga bhava. Plain sanchara-swara combinations are also used during raga alapana. Some of these plain swara-s, if rendered with anuswara-s, lend fullness and weight to the phrases. Every sangati in raga alapana has got its own kala pramana. Any disturbance of this pace will alter the shape of the sangati and mar its effect.

The various aspects of raga alapana must also be rendered with proper punctuation, for best results. The minute time pauses between sangati-s constitute punctuation. Punctuation in music serves the same purpose that it does in the recitation of prose or poetry in any language: it drives home the message better. This aspect was best illustrated in Dhanammal's veena-playing and Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu's violin-playing.

Weaving in of new designs and spontaneous improvisation is called manodharma. It is this aspect of music that elevates a musician to high ranks A kriti can be interpreted in different ways, deftly using gamaka-s and anuswara-s, proper timing and punctuation. This flexibility when utilised shrewdly makes music ever so fresh. When this is missing, you've only to listen to a musician once to say you've heard it all. Models of swara kalpana are found in tana varnam-s and the chittaswara-s of kriti-s. A mere rattling of kalpita swara-s without a plan makes little sense. Swara-s must be woven into attractive patterns, which bring out the true image of the raga. If, in addition, mathematical matrices are woven in too, they are most welcome.

The purpose of any system of music is to create and portray aesthetic beauty (sogasu). Paying attention to all the ingredients of good music will enable gifted musicians to elevate music. Such music tugs at the heartstrings.

There is also a very delicate aspect of music: aarti, or emotional supplication. In our music, words may reflect the bhakta in the musician, while music reflects the artist in him. This is particularly the case with the compositions of Tyagaraja, Dikshitar and Syama Sastry. Personally, when I sing I keep before me only the immense possibilities the raga on hand offers and aim at interpreting it. I may be a bhakta in my room of worship, but I am a musician on the concert stage.


Among the items presented in a concert are varnam, kriti, padam, javali and tillana. These are different in architectural design although there is no fundamental difference insofar as the musical aspect is concerned. A piece in slow tempo permits much more musical embellishment than a fastmoving piece. A composition is like a vessel that can be filled with the quintessence of a raga to its capacity. The kriti is a relatively small ship or a boat, but the padam is a big vessel, like a tanker. The javali, on othe other hand, is like a glass; or you may describe it as a pocket edition of the padam. They all contain the same Ganga water.

 Pani’s Pithy Oneliners

If you run, can you dance?

 Posing this question, Pinakapani refers to the tendency of many modern musicians to engage in high-speed singing and mathematical gimmicry and says: "It looks as if the fellow is singing at speed for the drummer. Then only good drummers will be fixed up for his concert tomorrow. You sing something which the drummer likes to play; then, if the drummer is invited for a concert, he would say: ‘ Invite him also, I will accompany him'. It is a mutual give-and-take. Things have come to this pass." Pinakapani made the same point, about the craze for speed, when he declared forcefully: "Speed is the cancer of music" which is the title of an interwiew-based article published in The Hindu of 22 November 1998.

 Space for beauty is between consonants

 R. Rangaramanuja Ayyangar once demonstrated how Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer used to sing, gamaka - laden, the line 'Agajalamuna' in the kriti Raghunayak in Hamsadhwani. Pinakapani observed: "In the space that lies between two consonants, all these phrases can be fitted in.

" Again, after demonstrating how the line 'Vasavadi sakala' in Dikshitar's kriti Sree Subrahmanyaya in Kambhoji, Pinakapani commented: "Look at the distance between one consonant and another. The interval is meant to be filled with melody. Because Dikshitar was a vainika, he, more than most vocalists knew what gamaka was. He composed his songs in slow tempo, permitting gamaka-s, because that was the way he played on the veena."

"Quicken the pace", he said, "and you drive out beauty."

They sang and they died

It is Pinakapani's lament that the heritage of the greats of Carnatic music of the early part of the 20th century has not been preserved. "You see, they sang and they died. Their music went to waste. Nobody grasped it. They should have practised that wonderful style of singing and kept it alive for the next generation. That they didn't do."

 No straight lines in Carnatic music

After demonstrating Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer's alapana of Arabhi, Pinakapani commented: "Simple phrases do not come out of his mouth. In everything there is some design and construction."

 In Saveri, he said, most singers only go up to shadja and then come down. Pinakapani contrasted this with the opening line of Dikshitar'sSree Rajagopala, as rendered with profuse gamaka-s by Mannargudi Rajagopala Pillai: "You should listen as he dwells on the tara sthayi shadja. It is by a circuitous route that you arrive at the beauty of a melody, not by a straight march through swara-s. The latter will be like Veda parayana."

How much is too much?

When Pinakapani sang, laden with gamaka-s, the line beginning with the words 'Emomo delpi' in a Kalyani javali, I said: "I suppose, Sir, some would say this is too much?" Pinakapani replied: "I will introduce as much beauty as I can. Judge for yourself which is too much. When you sing it, perhaps I will say it is too little."

"Who is there to decide how much is just right, optimal?" he himself asked rhetorically and explained: "It all depends on the musician's capacity, and on the taste of the listener. Also, on the scope that the raga gives for development. All raga-s do not give so much scope. But most of the raga-s we use, they do permit such admirable, detailed treatment."