Carnatic Music interview by Stewart Smith

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An introduction to South Indian Traditions
Carnatic Music Ensemble perform the classical music of Southern India, a living tradition that may be less familiar to Western ears than the Hindustani music of the north, but is equally rich. Hailing from the city of Chennai, the Ensemble features the violinists Dr M Lalitha and M Nadini, singer and percussionist Sm Subbulakshmi Muthuswamy, and Neyveli KV Ramkumar on the mridangam drum. The Ensemble has performed across the world, collaborating with numerous artists. Counterflows marks their Scottish debut.
Counterflows director Alasdair Campbell discovered their music on a British Council sponsored trip to India last year. Arriving in Chenai, he was immediately struck by the city’s particular atmosphere. “It wasn’t just the balmy heat. As we were greeted by the most colourfully clad people all dressed up for us, the first thing that happened, after a lot of hellos, was that we were played the most beautiful music. It struck me that instead of frantically trying seek out the Indian underground experimental scene what I should really be doing is starting at the beginning and then explore the way this tradition is performed in the contemporary setting and what relationship, if any, this has with what Counterflows is doing. That was that!
“The little I have learned about Carnatic music is that it is relatively untouched by outside influence. What I was interested in was the complex systems and rhythms that structure this very rigorous practice and also the rituals that the music follows. These are the sorts of things that drew me into the music and also I feel links it somehow to Counterflows. Even in our wayward, and as we like to think, experimental pushing-for-the-new music we are riddled with rituals and methodologies. Improvisation can be seen as a form of ritual, and improvisation is at the heart of Carnatic music.”

To introduce the music of the Carnatic tradition, Counterflows spoke to the Ensemble’s Dr M Lalitha.

The Ensemble consists of two violinists, vocal and percussion. Is this typical instrumentation for Carnatic music?

Yes. In an instrumental concert of the Carnatic Music, the ensemble consists of a main melodic instrument – here it is the violin. It also has a percussion as an accompaniment known as the pakkavadyam. Here the mridangam and the tala are used as accompanying instruments. In a vocal concert, the main will be the singer accompanied by the violin and the mridangam. Sometimes upapakkavadyam like the kanjira (like the tamorine) and the ghatam (clay pot) also feature.

How does Carnatic music differ from Hindustani classical music from the north?

Indian Music has two classical systems, the Hindustani from the North and the Carnatic or the South Indian Classical Music from the South. The tradition of Indian music practiced and developed is nearly three thousand years old. The semantic divide between the two styles started from the time of the ‘Sangeetaratnakara’ of Sharangadeva (1210-1247 AD). This was later enhanced by the Muslim influence and this musical bifurcation was described for the first time as Hindustani and Carnatic music by Haripaladeva in his text the ‘Sangeetsudhakara’ (1309-1312 AD).

Could you explain what raga and tala are?

Carnatic music is essentially raga and tala based. Each raga has its own scale consisting of minimum five and maximum seven notes known as svaras. A raga has a specific ascending called Arohana and descending known as Avarohana along with the ornamentation known as the Gamaka. There are also particular characteristic phrases of a raga that establish its identity. There are 72 Melakartha ragas or the parent ragas which have all the seven notes in the ascent and the descent, apart from the Janya ragas that are the offspring of these Mela ragas, of which there are more than a thousand with various permutations and combinations. There is a set of rules to be a Melakartha raga though.

Regarding the tala system, in the Carnatic music it is highly developed and complex. There are seven basic talas known as the Sapta Tala from which the 35, 175 talas emerge. Apart from this are the Chapu talas: the Kanda Chapa, five beats, and the Misra Chapu, seven beats.

In south Indian music, different musical forms are also present. Musical forms are of two kinds: kalpita (composed) and manodharma (improvised or creative). Both manodharma and kalpita require a very high level of training in music. In Kalpita sangitam, the pre-composed music of the great composers like Saint Tyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar, Syama Sastri, Gopalakrishna Bharati and others are rendered, while in the Manodharma Sangitam musical forms like the Raga Alapana, Tanam, Niraval and Kalpana Svaram are rendered.

Improvisation plays a central role in this music. Can you tell me more about the ‘music of the imagination’ as it is known?

Yes, improvisation plays a key role in Carnatic Music. In south Indian music, different musical forms are present. As already mentioned, musical forms in Carnatic Music are of two kinds — kalpita (composed) and manodharma (improvised or creative). Both manodharma and kalpita require a very high level of training in music. In the Manodharma, the true challenge for a musician lies in his or her ability to improvise on the spot. There are also different kinds of improvised music used in Carnatic music. For instance, a Raga Alapana will be a melodic improvisation without perceptible rhythm. Kalpana Svaras are melodic improvisations within the framework of a rhythmic cycle known as the Tala. Niravel is yet another improvisatory form where there is a melodic improvisation within the framework of a rhythmic cycle using words. Tanam is an interesting improvisation form, which is a melodic improvisation with a perceptible rhythm. Tanam should be rendered using syllables like ‘ta’ and ‘nam’ having different rhythmic formations. In a concert all of these improvisatory forms can be heard. The Tanam is specially used in the musical form Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi.

Do you compose your own kriti (songs)? Or is your repertoire based on the great composers like Tyagaraja?

The repertoire is mostly based on the great composers like Saint Tyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar, Syama Sastri and others. Yes, we also compose our own kriti and other musical forms like Varnam and Tillana. We also perform the compositions composed by our gurus Sri. V. Lakshminarayana Iyer and Smt. Subbulakshmi Muthuswamy.

Are your lyrics based on existing texts or are they original? What kind of subjects do you sing about?

The lyrics of the compositions are original and mainly deal with devotion to the many gods / goddesses of the Hindu pantheon like Lord Ganesha, Lord Muruga, Lord Shiva, Goddess Parvati and her various forms like Goddess Kamakshi, Goddess Minakshi & Lord Vishnu, Goddess Lakshmi Goddess Bhuvaneswari, Goddess Sarasvati to name a few.

I understand you practice your music every day at dawn. Why dawn?

Any art form requires serious practice for a real serious student/performer of that art form. This is known as Sadhakam in Carnatic Music. It requires discipline, focus and commitment. We normally practice every day at dawn, first of all since it will be very quiet in the morning and the mind will be very fresh. There will be practically no disturbance in the morning from the outside world and the mind focuses on the music without any external disturbances combining elements of deep listening, concentration techniques and observation.

Counterflows has invited electronic music pioneer and artist Mark Fell to explore possible ways to collaborate with musicians from the Carnatic tradition, examining the systems and processes in the context of his digital practice. Are you familiar with his work and are you looking forward to seeing what you come up with together?

We are looking forward to working with Mark Fell and yes we are a little familiar with his work. We are excited and looking forward to seeing a ‘great musical collaboration’ coming up together.