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Conversation between Carnatic and Classical Part 2

Dear Bijoy:
Thanks for your missive on Bach, the fugue and the music of the Renaissance period.  I found them to be very interesting.  What is mordent? What are grace notes and trills?
Is the below one piece or a compilation
Why do you think western music was able to diverge into the harmonic path, while Indian music continued on the gayaki path that you talk about? Is it because Indians didn’t think “instrumentally?”
Ok, my turn.  I am not an expert in Carnatic music so I will tell you what I know.  Also, my tutorial will meander unlike yours which follows logic 🙂
The most famous composers of Carnatic music are Thyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar, and Shyama Shastry, all of whom were more or less contemporaries.  They are called “The Divine Trinity” and had signatures.  A Thyagaraj krithi or song will end with his name in the last line.  Dikshitar’s signature was ‘guruguha’ which would come in the last paragraph or charanam.  Shyama Shastry’s signature was “Shyama” also towards the end of the krithi.  This way, novices can figure out the composer.
A Carnatic krithi is divided into three parts: Pallavi, usually containing two lines.  Anupallavi, with four lines.  And charanam of varying length.  Now, on to the composers
Thyagaraja: The most salient thing about Thyagaraja is that all his songs were infused with bhakti.  They were like conversations to God.  Lord Rama, in particular, was his favorite deity and he composed hundreds of krithis on Rama, often asking/beseeching the Lord to give him divine grace.  There is a famous group of Utsava Sampradaya krithis, as they are called, which serenade Lord Rama from dawn to dusk.  The first one is called “Meluko Vayya” or “Wake up Lord” and is set in the morning raga, Bowli.  And on it goes throughout the day/life till we put the Lord to sleep with the beautiful sleep=inducing ragam, Nilambari, which all Tambrahm mothers use to hum their infants to sleep.  The lullaby to put Lord Rama to sleep is “Uyyala Logavayya.”
A famous Thyagaraja krithi is Nagumomu and it happens to be one I love.  A long time ago, I asked Jayalalithaa, the CM of Tamilnadu, what her favorite ragam was and she said, “Abheri.”  It is a good choice and this song is set in raga Abheri.  Carnatic aficionados like my friend, Srikantan in the Bay Area, will know various versions of this particular song– who sung it best in which concert.  In fact, Srikantan told me a long time ago that Balamurali Krishna (who happens to be my guru) sang a version of Nagumo in Narada Gana Sabha of Chennai in 1983 and it gave him goose bumps.  To appreciate Thyagaraja, you need to know Telugu, which I don’t.  His lyrics are simple and sweet.  They are explained in the below website/
In terms of rendition, there are several renditions.  I am going to give you a modern version
Here is a traditional version, but I don’t necessarily like it too much.
Here is a snippet of the “Laali” song, which is the putting to sleep song in Nilambari ragam.
Next time, Dikshitar.  I spent the last hour listening to wonderful songs! What fun.
n 14-Nov-2012, at 12:40 PM, ji wrote:
Dear Shoba,
In my last tutorial, I spoke of the Renaissance period of Western classical music. Before proceeding to the Baroque period, it would be very useful to summarise the salient aspects of the Renaissance period as it will help in maintaining the thread of the argument I am trying to develop.
The two significant developments in the Renaissance period were the beginning of the classification of the human voice into registers and the start of the use of major and minor keys. This could be called the beginning of harmony which is nothing more than a pleasing succession of chords and chords are a pleasing collection of notes played simultaneously according to a set of pre-ordained rules.
I do not know much about Carnatic music but this was certainly when western music began to diverge from Hindustani music. In Hindustani music no instrument may do what the human voice cannot. The gayaki style exemplifies this the best. Also, Hindustani music developed a sophisticated theory of melody. Tansen, who is generally credited with the codification of the ragas, did so in the fifteenth Century.
The Baroque period (c.1600 – c.1750) made progress in the harmonisation of music in fits and starts. I say this because, in other spheres of human activity, there were stalwarts like Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) and Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650) who must have given a musical genius like Bach his fascination for metronome-like precision.
This inspired him to write many fugues, the best example of which is:
The best definition of a fugue is in Wikipedia:
In music, a fugue (play /ˈfjuːɡ/ fewg) is a compositional technique (in classical music) in two or more voices, built on a subject (theme) that is introduced at the beginning in imitation(repetition at different pitches) and recurs frequently in the course of the composition.
Another aspect of the Baroque period is the technical development of the instruments. Thus the precursor of the modern piano, the harpsichord, was developed. It also had a foot or pedal keyboard:
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) was a very prolific composer of both religious and secular music. In his later life he wa the organist and choir master of St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzig where he was required to write music for every Sunday Mass but even earlier, he wrote many famous religious works like his Christmas Oratorio:
and the Mass in B minor. Here is the Kyrie (Kee-ree-ay) or Lord have mercy. Notice how he wields the different parts of the choir. This is probably because he himself was a boy soprano when he was a kid.
There was another facet to Bach’s musical genius – that of a great teacher. In fact he wrote the Well-Tempered Clavier only to teach his students the intricacies of the keyboard. It went on to gain fame in its own right.
I have spent a fair bit of time on Bach he is generally considered one of the 3 greatest composers ever. This leaves me with no choice but to have more tutorials for the rest of the Baroque period.
I hope you like it.


  1. Subramaniam:

    I’m not sure why you got the idea I was comparing performers. I wasn’t. Yo Yo Ma and Lata Mangeshkar are pure genius as performers. My comment was about the composers and the process of music composition Indian vs Western.

    My definition of creative is quite universal. Following a well known (Torrance) definition, “creative”, simply put, is “number of things or combinations”, their “rarity” and the “extent to which they are detailed”. You can call it narrow/specific/whatever, but the definition remains the same. (I actually hold a PhD in music, I’m not just making this up.) By this definition Indian composers fairly flunk the test.

    The point I made in my last post was that Indian composers were vedic priests who wrote songs for the Gods. Their focus was perhaps on the song and not on the music (notes). There were no instrumental compositions. OTOH Mozart and Bach focused on the music – voices, instruments, tempo. The other composers you named (Tirunal and Papanasam) may have written non-religious works, but still stuck to monophonic music.

    Finally I’m a musician but I don’t claim to be a teacher or leader (even if that is thrust upon me!). I was merely sharing my opinion, and in the last closing point to my post, I did acknowledge that post-Bollywood Indian music was and is creative.


    The process of learning music (eg playing the scales) is rote in any system of music. I was referring to compositions. As a writer I’m sure you’ll appreciate that a modern Indian writer writing “wandered lonely as a cloud” (in a local language) is a lame copycat. It wouldn’t matter at all if that work was scratched on a palm leaf or virally streamed on Youtube.


  2. Vijay

    You are clearly the authority on Western music, but pls permit me to address some of your points.

    Your point, as I understand, is basically that “ensemble = creative, not-ensemble = rote, Indian music = not-ensemble = rote”. This is one definition of creative. I would not call it “narrow”, rather it is specific to your point of view. By this definition Yo Yo Ma and Argerich, whose famous pieces are recitals of “canon”, would not be creative either. What Yo Yo Ma does with Bach’s preludes is equivalent with what Bhimsen Joshi does with his taans. In a deeper sense, by your definition Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier is merely an analogy to Carnatic varisaigal to expound and practise all keys and all combinations. But this does not make Bach or Varisaigal any less of a genius.

    Let me add some color to the historical context. Carnatic music is captured in oral tradition i.e. it is performed and taught and cataloged orally. There are some anthologies but nothing as sophisticated as Kochel or BWW listings. Your “periodisation” is partially accurate but remember that Carnatic music is not just in the Trinity. There were others like Swati Tirunal and Papan Sivan who wrote many songs not just religious hymns. Tirunal is famous for his retelling of folk stories and for his lullabies. And to your point about patronage, every king or prince has sponsored or censored the arts according to the customs and issues of their day. An opera about Greek Zeus or a kriti to Lord Rama, what is the difference?

    Resinging the same song from 400 years ago – isn’t it the same whether it is a Tyagaraja aradhana OR a Mozart festival? Also you would be surprised at how many music schools in India now take a more holistic approach to music and ask students to interpret the music and form their own variations. It may be too harsh to judge the 21st century by the standard of Malgudi Days.

    I think it is good for established musicians to lead others into modern ways, just not sure it is achieved by casting one type of music in a somewhat unfairly negative way.


    1. NS: Finally someone says what I wanted to say!! Let me add that western classical music is more follow-the-book “rote” than Indian music, which while following the composers and compositions are not as much by the book. As you say, there is no book. This is getting good 🙂 Have to get my original poster, “Bijoy” to jump in. Vijay could use some help, I think 🙂


  3. To clarify:

    Vocal registration is not the fundamental difference between Indian and Western classical music. The fundamental difference is in the idea that Western music is “ensembled” (as that article points out) but Indian classical music is not.

    Why did it come about this way? Well, Indian classical music is derived from the vedas and all the composers basically wrote songs to worship or petition the gods. Songs were then “set” upon instruments; instruments did not have an independent existence. Also, India didn’t really have independent instruments anyway. (This is interesting because Saraswati Devi is commonly shown with a veena. This instrument is purely Indian and is several thousand years old. The Greek harp/lyre is about that old. But the Westerners beat us to it, again, by extending the lyre into a violin/cello/fiddle etc. More importantly, they developed an instrument that stood independently.)

    What is independence? Indian composers were basically Vedic priests who wrote songs to appease the gods or relate godly tales to people. Worship, not instrumentation, was their main goal. They probably figured it is a great privilege for a violin to have some worshipful song thrust upon it. On the other hand Western composers appreciated that a violin is capable of many more tones and harmonies beyond vocal range. They wrote pieces (pure music, not songs) to explore and exploit the capabilities of the instrument. Naturally when Western composers got together, they jammed. They explored various dimensions across instruments. The ensemble was born.

    In one word, Western music was creative and Indian music is rote. Even today we have wizened vaathiyaars (well not all vaathiyaars) who congregate in Madras for the music festival. They are singing and re-singing (and re-singing) the same song from 400 years ago. No innovation. Western music has periods from Medieval to modern. Carnatic music had one period of about 40 years that ended in the 1700s. Hindustani music, descended from Samaveda, was explored over the 72 basic ragas until about 1700 or so. After that the Gharanas grabbed various ragas and basically polished and perfected them, and thereby molded every incoming student, for years and years and years, until the student belted out the Gharana from every pore and orifice.

    The modern day Western composer is now creating new tunes and experimenting with computer music and whale songs. The modern day Indian (dare I say Carnatic) student is being beat over the head by his crabby old vaathiyaar until he, like Swami of Malgudi days, plucks the cane from his master’s hand and cracks him over the head, and goes off to join the other boys to do Indo-Jazz or Tabla-fusion or Club-Le-Mabb-Le.

    Sardonic humor aside, one has to acknowledge that Indian music did evolve – in film and folklore – and the antakshari remains the enduring testament to the character of the Indian song. Can’t really play antakshari over Bach and Shostakovich. Of course, the old vaathiyaar just belches over his vettalai and makes a moue and waits for the music season.

    And so it goes. Music in all forms, in India and elsewhere, is celebrated in all its forms. Now with all the borders vanishing and all these computers and all this technology it isn’t long before we’ll be incorporating real time space signals to form symphonies-on-demand.

    Happy tunes, everyone!


    1. Vijay
      Great post! Naturally I have to go to the point of argument. Come on! Alapana is creative. Singing varnam in the middle of the concert llike TM Krishna does is “creative” although I don’t like it.


      1. Shoba,
        Alapana and mid-concert arrangements are, by definition, improvisations. In Indian music this specifically includes sub-raga alapanas, taans (Bhimsen Joshi), and bhavageet variations (Gangubai). Improvisations reflect the creativity/ability of the artist, not the music itself. My comment was about the music (in the canonical sense). Monotone music with instruments doubling the voices (or in the case of tabla-esque metronomic beats) is not really creative.
        Now die-hard gharana types argue that the raga is just the base upon which gharana-specific or artist-induced arrangements are built. This is a beg-the-question form of the previous argument: an arrangement is an improvisation, not canon. A second argument is that “modern” music is all improvisations upon the basic 72 ragas (keys in Western music). This sort of avoids the premise. Post-medieval Western music was written with the basic premise of ensemble; Hindustani music was written with the basic premise of a song doubled on voice and instrument; that is the fundamental difference. You might note that pre-1955 (in a sense pre Lata Mangeshkar) singers were still mono-tonal. It was the Bollywood revolution (late 50s onwards) that gave rise to modern music and modern singers (like Kishore and Lata). Even so the whole thing centered on the voice (instruments not independent). I would say it is only in the 80s that true instrumental combinations – bona fide ensembles – really made it into the musical mainstream. (BTW, this is not a statement of popular appeal, I am just saying such music came upon the scene.)
        Finally the last remaining gharana types argue that this definition of creativity is too narrow. This is a shoot-yourself-in-foot situation. If basic ensemble – addition and subtraction, if you will – is not met then there is no hope for multiplication or limits or integrals.

        Having said all this I should also say the following. Music in the 17th-18th century (in India and in the West) existed only because princes and kings paid for it. Indian kings, driven by popular appeal, only paid for religious or mythological works. Western royalty did no different; indeed chamber music was labeled so because of its limited (and somewhat iconoclastic) appeal. But now, with all this technology it is possible for music to really embed into the masses. (Like STOMP.) The real truth and beauty of music is that music – in its pure form – is the integrator for the world. It is the glue and the rainbow of the world. Music is the quintessential expression – crossing language and culture and geography – of human feeling.

        Happy tunes!


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