Monday 24 December 2018

Carnatic Music for Dummies

This is an introduction to both Carnatic music and how to listen to a few concerts in Madras every December. And how not to avoid developing a distaste for this marvelous art.

My primary qualification for this essay is that after fifteen years of listening to Carnatic music, primarily in December, I still remain a dummy. But often, I thoroughly enjoy it, with the same passion that I enjoy the Tamil film music of  MS Viswanathan, KV Mahadevan and Ilayaraja; the jazz of Louis Armstrong; or the European classical music of Bach Mozart Beethoven and others.

I urge you to glance through these two earlier blogs I wrote, to get a feel for my level of appreciation. The first one is in Tamil only, the second is bilingual 

If you enjoyed the songs in films like Sankarabharanam, Thillana Mohanambal, or Sindhu Bhairavi, then this introduction may be sort of useful; or at least, mildly interesting. If you can identify ragas, and wax eloquent about GNB brighas, Ariyakudi’s todi, Dakshinamurthi Pillai’s theermanam, or Chembai’s kathiri swaras, please escape now, and advice your equally knowledgeable rasika mitras to avoid this blog like a malarial swamp.

Somewhere in your family, friend circle, office, college, school, club or literary circle, there is a passionate friend, a connoisseur (rasika) who wishes to take you to the Sanjay Subramaniam or Ranjani Gayathri concert at some posh, high priced sabha. Avoid this person like the plague. He or she is like a management consultant describing the virtuosity of Tolstoy when you are trying to learn nursery rhymes, or Lala Amarnath genuflecting on Prasanna’s off-spin or Vinoo Mankad’s stance, to a street cricketer.

I, on the other hand, am like someone who tells you this beach stall makes a good bhel puri, this tea-shop concocts an excellent lemon tea, and this pushcart serves a terrific onion oothappam. Or even a banana stem (வாழைத்தண்டு தோசை) dosai or suraikkai dosai (சுரக்காய் தோசை) 

Types of songs Carnatic music has several types of songs – kriti, varnam, vrittam, padam, jaavali, thillana, keertana, tukkada, mangaLam, pallavi. Like sales tax, service tax, value added tax, surtax, luxury tax, cess, etc. The difference is primarily in the quantity, not in the basic nature. Some songs are merely two or minutes long; a kriti can take 20 minutes to 90 minutes.

Two categories of songs, a kriti (often the centre-piece of the concert), and RagamTanamPallavi (RTP) have very different structures from the other songs. They are the heart of Carnatic music, contrasting severely with western music and Indian film or pop music, in providing scope for performer’s creativity.

Most people who grow up to be Carnatic music rasikas, grew up in an atmosphere where it was background noise in their childhood. Over time they developed a taste for it. They are fundamentally incapable of understanding the utter torture that this hour long exposition is, to a beginner.

While the refined rasika can delight in the variety and imagination and creativity and dexterity of the musicians, the beginner cannot handle it. If you know the language of the lyric, it enhances the listening experience. But if you don’t know the language, after a few minutes, boredom can set it, unless you have a good understanding of the nuances of the music. My personal experience has been, that the last fifteen minutes of a concert, especially when at least one familiar song was performed, was the most delightful part of a concert.

Listening Tip 1 The best part of most Carnatic concerts, for a beginner, is the last fifteen minutes.
Corollary 1 If you don’t enjoy these songs, the odds are that Carnatic music is not for you.

Structure of a Concert

A two and half hour concert is structured by the primary singer (or violinist, vainka, flautist, or nagasvaram vidwan if it is an instrumental concert), as a set of songs, of different ragas, and varying duration. Most songs have a basic lyric, which the singer renders, usually accompanied by a violin and a mridangam. Sometimes a second or third percussion instrument, - ghatam, kanjira, morsing, konnakol, tavil, or even Hindustani tabla, may be used. Extremely rarely, a flute, veena, chitraveena accompanies the singer instead of the violin.

A typical concert begins with a short song, maybe five minutes long, usually a salutation to Vinayaka.  Then a slightly longer song, maybe ten minutes. The comes a short kriti, maybe twenty minutes long, followed sometimes by another brief song, then the main kriti, usually an hour long, ending with the thani aavarththanam (தனி ஆவர்த்தனம்).  The singer has between fifteen and thirty minutes left to wrap up. She or he sings a few short songs, called tukkadaa-s (துக்கடா), maybe a vrittam (விருத்தம்), maybe a thillaana (தில்லானா), maybe even a Hindustani song, and concludes with a mangaLam (மங்களம்).

The tukkadaa-s are usually songs that the general public is far more familiar with, often in Tamil – songs by Arunagirinathar, Gopalakrishna Bharathi, Oothukkadu Venkatasubba Iyer, Subramania Bharathi, Papanasam Sivan etc; or rarely Periyasami Thooran, Kalki, Bharathidasan. Popular examples are Theeradha Vilayattu Pillai (தீராத விளையாட்டு பிள்ளை),  Paarukkulle nalla naadu (பாருக்குள்ளே நல்ல நாடு) , Eppo Varuvaaro (எப்போ வருவாரோ), Thunbam Nergayil (துன்பம் நேர்கையில்), Kurai onrum illai (குறை ஒன்றும் இல்லை). The adventurous singer will toss in a movie song, usually one popularised by MS Subbulakshmi or DK Pattammal, or sometimes MK Thyagaraja Bhagavathar. The performers are very relaxed by this point, they usually choose a fast paced song, they sometimes take requests from the audience. Also, by this time, any VIP or member of the organizing committee is usually at the canteen, sipping coffee.

This should explain Listening Tip 1.

Viruttams are often songs from classical Tamil poetry of the sixth to twelfth centuries – poems of the Alwars, from Tevaram, Kamba Ramayanam etc. They are usually rendered without percussion accompanying, so slow, and very fluid and emotional.

A thillaana is a musical number composed for a dance, and just has notes for musical notations, no actual lyric.

Well Kept Secret 1  While a song is structured around a lyric, most rasikas don’t come for the poetic beauty of the song, but its musical rendering by the artist. This is one major reason, why Carnatic rasikas can enjoy so many songs, regardless of  language.

Most ardent rasikas will deny this, vehemently. The deep philosophy of Thyaggaya’s lyrics, the brilliant vocabulary of Deekshitar, the undeniable bhakti of Purandaradasa, the simplicty of Papanasam Sivan’s tamil, or the delightful metaphors and alankara phrases of Andal and Arunachala Kavi…. What rich poetry, they will say.

As one very knowledgeable person put it, the lyric is like a coat hanger. But the musicians don’t hang their song on it, they weave it into existence.

Rettaivaal Rangudu Tip 1 Ask a rasika if he will enjoy his favorite song, minus the gamakaa-s, sangatis, niraval etc, just a rendering of the kriti without its embellishments….for the “lyrical beauty”

The Raga Boondoggle
Whenever a musician starts a song, especially an aalaapanaa, you will see some avid rasikas lean forward for a few seconds, then lean back into their seats, with a  beatific smile on their faces. This means they have recognized the raga. Others will wait to comprehend the actual first or second line of the lyric, so they can look it up in their raga book, or search on google. I’ll leave out the tricky games performers play, the various levels of snobbery and mischief among the knowledgeable rasikas, and the sandbagged inferiority complex of the newbies. My utter ignorance of any raga after fifteen years of listening, and my continued enjoyment of carnatic music in spite of it, is my primary qualification (and also disqualification) for writing this essay.

The unspoken consensus is that knowing the raga is the essence of being a better class of rasika. It is only unspoken while the concert is going on. Tala rarely gets the same privilege as the raga.

Listening Tip 2 Not knowing a raga (ராகம்) wont hurt you. Don’t let it affect your enjoyment. The same goes for taalam (தாளம்).

Rettaival Rangudu Tip 2 Most film songs, are not set to a particular raga. They only have a tune, called a mettu in Tamil. Has that ever affected your enjoyment?

Listening Tip 3 The vast majority of concerts are free. Attend them, encourage these upcoming musicians.

During the December Margazhi Carnatic season, from December 15 to January 1, about eight major sabhas, some with their own halls, some with rented premises, feature the stalwarts of Carnatic music, in prime evening slots. These performances are ticketed. The same ticket, varying in price from Rs.50 to Rs.2000 or more, is usually valid for the 4.30 and 7pm concerts, so you get two for one, if you have the stamina.

Well Known Secret 2
But these same sabhas also feature concerts by up and coming singers, in the morning slots. From 9am to 4pm, almost every sabha offers free concerts. And several other sabhas pop up only for the December season, and usually offer fully free concerts. Several of them are quite good; some are excellent. These are attended not just by friends and family, but also by ardent and discerning rasikas.

It takes about  a decade of very good performances, for a singer to get a prime time slot. As you can judge, this is not conducive for a career. Most musicians therefore, are professionals in other fields, who give up those careers only when they become consistently popular enough to get ticketed performances, sell recorded concerts and earn with their music.

Structure of a Kriti
A kriti, usually chosen by the singer for showcasing her or his repertoire, is the prime attraction for the experienced, discerning rasika. There is a 90% chance that the singer will sing something composed by one of the musical trinity, Thyaagyaa, Muthuswamy Deekshitar, or Shyama Shastri. There is a 5% chance that he will choose one composed by Papanasam Sivan.

Before singing the actual kriti, a singer will render the aalaapanaa of the raga. Taking the famous TiruviLaiyaadal film song “paaTTum naane”, this is the aaaaaaaaa part, before he gets into the lyrics.

A kriti has a pallavi, an anupallavi, and one or more charanams. This is the structure now followed by most film songs, also, but they rarely have an anupallavi. The pallavi is repeated after every stanza, but a beginning listener can be befuddled, because EVERYTHING seems to be repeated several times. 

We will get to that. To continue with our paattum naane example, here is how it breaks down. After the anupallavi and the charaNam, the singer will sing the pallavi again.

paaTTum naanE bhaavamum naanE
paaDum unai naan paaDa vaiththEnE

kooTTum isaiyum kooththin muRaiyum
kaaTTum enniDam kadhai solla vandhaayo
asaiyum poruLil isaiyum naanE…
paaDum vaayai mooDa vandhadhoru

Notice that this song has only one charaNam. After the charaNam, followed by the pallavi, the singer gets into swaraa-s
ri ga ri tha
ri ga ri tha ni sa pa ni 

and so on. These are swara in Sanskrit and swaram in Tamil. For some songs, these swaram sequences are set by the composer himself (called chiTTa swarams). Usually these are short songs, five to ten minutes long. The singer must learnt these by heart and render them – they don’t have the freedom to change the swarams in such songs (the paaTTum naane song is one example; EntharO Mahaanubhaavulu is another). This requires a prodigious memory, best learnt orally. It can be hard enough for one song; imagine learning the chitta swarams for several hundred songs, a thousand songs!

For the kriti, though, the singer must create these sequences based on his experience and imagination. Kalpana (Tamil – karpanai கற்பனை) is the Sanskrit word for imagination. So these are called kalpana swaraa-s. And this is where Carnatic music differs from Western classical or pop and from Indian film musics. It is not enough to be able to memorize and sing a song. The singer must come up with these phrases of music, within the structure of the raga and tala, and weave these phrases out of his imagination. The accompanist (usually a violinst) then plays his version, usually a replay of the phrase – a test of memory and ability. The singer sings a series of short phrases, and often then strings the whole set of phrases together. Also they vary the kaala (காலம் kaalam in Tamil), that is the speed or time of the phrases. (This is very different from the Taalam). Some phrases are rendered in three speeds, in succession. The percussionists know this format, and play their phrases on the mridangam, ghatam, kanjira or other instrument. Often the mridangist accompanies the singer, while the ghatam or kanjira accompanies the violin when the latter repeats or renders the singer’s swara phrase. The phrase sequences can get more and more elaborate and complicated, and after the most elaborate version, the singer finishes by coming back to the pallavi.

Listening Tip 4  The swarams are perhaps the most interesting part of listening to a long kriti, especially for a beginner.

The aalaapanaa is far and away the most tortuous. We have no idea why the singer is wailing away, as though a beloved leader of the Soviet Union or a sitting President or Prime Minister of India had passed away. Or why the whole audience sits through this long lament, and some even seem to nod vigorously in appreciation. Could they actually be enjoying this? Don’t the Geneva conventions prohibit such treatement, as worse than what one may see in a German stalag, or in Guantanamo Bay? No, no, no, poor innocent beginner, fellow dummy, restless rasika, impatient ignoramus, nonresident Mylaporean, Homo Margazhi HaplessSapiens…. incredible as it may seem, the fervent fevered fans actually PAY to listen to this! It is what they have been waiting for. The aalaapana is the nectar of the Gods, the gem in the lotus, the vadai in the sambar, the centerpiece of their attention, the H1 visa in the passport of the bride or groom they are arranging, the integer root in a polynomial equation, the akkara vadisal on the banana leaf, the Paramapadam of their journey towards aesthetic exuberance.

This phase of the kriti, is the other segment where the singer has to bring in all his imagination, conceptualization, and performance. His manodharma must mould his musical performance and bring sowkhyam to the listener and sowbhagyam to the sabha’s coffers. This is what the sampoorna rasika means, when he waxes eloquent about the Ariyakkudi todi of 1967 or the Semmangudi’s Kharaharapriya the year Rajeshvari mami’s daughter Savitri got married or Seshagopalan’s Kamboji just a day after Kittu got a job in the Railways. After all, manodharma cannot be confined to the performers.

Here is the kicker. After the singer’s aalaapana, the violinist performs a solo, an exploration of the same raga, using his or her imagination.

The aalaapana is not accompanied by percussion. A singer may sing two or more kritis, in a concert, each preceded by a raga aalaapana. Usually the first one is short, an aalaapana of about five minutes, a violin solo of three to four minutes, the song itself, some kalpana swaraa-s for about five to seven minutes. The longer kriti, the main piece of the concert, has a similar structure, except, the thani follows the kalpana swaraa-s.

The other songs are almost never preceded by an aalaapana.

The percussionists get their solos, or duets, towards the end of the concert, when the singer has finished the kalpana swaras of the main kriti. This is called thani aavaraththanam. These are also divided into segments – the mridangist starts with a few introductory phrases, then demonstrates a few of his sollu kaTTu (word phrases), usually learnt from his guru or his own innovation, then completes it with a theermanam (conclusion), which leads back into the pallavi, where the singer and violinst join in, and conclude the kriti. If there are two or more percussionists in a concert, they have round robin of swara phrases (these are their kalpana swaras).

I have left out the neraval. This is nowadays my favorite segment in any concert. This too involves a lot of imagination and creativity from the performers.

Even less guidance is available for the casual listener on the thani aavaraththanam, or talam itself, than on the ragas. Practiced listening is what is expected – this is the hardest entry barrier (not the listener’s class, caste, time, job, location, musical training, salary etc, which are the popular accusations of the harshest and most ineffective critics of Carnatic music).

Well Kept Secret 3
All kritis are composed for voice. “There is nothing in Indian classical music composed for an instrument,” declared Ilayaraja at the inauguration of the Music Academy season in Dec 2017. He meant both Carnatic and Hindustani. I believe he is right. This is in severe contrast to Western classical music, and perhaps the music of other nations. Of the latter, I know nothing, of the former very little. Any concert featuring a violinist, flautist, vainika, nagasvara vidwan or any other instrumental musician, features the instrumental renderings of lyrical compositions.

Well Kept Secret 4
Carnatic music, like all music, is independent of language. A Beethoven symphony can be set to Tamil or Telugu or Korean, just like Muthuswamy Deekshitar set English note swarams to Carnatic. But language IS a major barrier for most casual listeners.

Most of the songs performed are in Telugu because its most popular and revered composers set their songs in Telugu. Tamil Isai Sangam, which conducts its concerts in Raja Annamalai Manram in Parry’s, features a season entirely of Tamil compositions. There are even lyrics in English (like O my lovely Lalanaa), but none I know of in Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Gujarathi etc. South Indians who have settled in the north have learnt and played Hindustani music, ghazals, abhangs, Rabindra sangeet etc on the Carnatic stage, but the north Indian counterparts for the most part, have thoroughly ignored the southern music, just as they have the languages and their literature – though, with the massive migration of north Indians into Bangalore, Madras, Hyderabad, etc may change this. Europeans and Americans, even the rare Chinese or Japanese have been more curious and adventurous. Ironically, the film industry is at the cutting edge of diversity of ideas and talent, and south to north migration, with AR Rahman so popular in music, or the Anirudh composition, Why this kolaveri, becoming a national hit. But these may be isolated phenomena, not a trend.

A longer article would strain readability. Even this one is twice as long as I planned, and very late for this December. Perhaps it will be somewhat useful to some curious potential Carnatic rasikas, in days to come.

Listening Tip 5
Most lecture demonstrations are far above the vocabulary and grasping power of the casual listener. 

But I recommend that if at all you listen to musician talk about music, attend a lecture demonstration by Neyveli Santhanagopalan. He has a delightful sense of humor, a soft and cultured style of presentation, a deep and developed appreciation of both poetry and Carnatic composition, and caters to scholar and beginner alike in the audience.

For history of the music, or musicians, attend a lecture by Sriram V.

I have been extremely fortunate that these two people have been my gateways into the delightful world of Carnatic music.

Related Essays
Sculpture and Music - An experimental video
AthyanthaKaama Pallava's poem - A musical experiment

Some video clippings of musical segments

Tukkada - kurai onRum illai by MS Subbulakshmi

Tukkada - eppo varuvaaro - Madurai Mani Iyer

aalaapana segment by Madurai TN Seshagopalan

Kalpana swara segment by Neyveli Santhanagopalan

Thani aavarthanam by Atlanta Sriram