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What is Carnatic Music ?

Carnatic music (Sanskrit: Karnāaka sagīta) is a system of music commonly associated with the southern part of the Indian subcontinent, with its area roughly confined to four sans-serif states of India: Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. It is one of two main sub-genres of Indian classical music that evolved from ancient Hindu traditions; the other sub-genre being Hindustani music, which emerged as a distinct form because of Persian and Islamic influences in North India. In contrast to Hindustani music, the main emphasis in Carnatic music is on vocal music; most compositions are written to be sung, and even when played on instruments, they are meant to be performed in gāyaki (singing) style.

Although there are stylistic differences, the basic elements of śruti (the relative musical pitch), swara (the musical sound of a single note), rāga (the mode or melodic formulæ), and tala (the rhythmic cycles) form the foundation of improvisation and composition in both Carnatic and Hindustani music. Although improvisation plays an important role, Carnatic music is mainly sung through compositions, especially the kriti (or kirtanam) - a form developed between the 14th and 20th centuries by composers such as Purandara Dasa and the Trinity of Carnatic music. Carnatic music is also usually taught and learnt through compositions.

Carnatic music is usually performed by a small ensemble of musicians, consisting of a principal performer (usually a vocalist), a melodic accompaniment (usually a violin), a rhythm accompaniment (usually a mridangam), and a tambura, which acts as a drone throughout the performance. Other typical instruments used in performances may include the ghatam, kanjira, morsing, venu flute, veena, and chitraveena. The most outstanding performances, and the greatest concentration of Carnatic musicians, are found in the city of Chennai. Various festivals are held throughout India and abroad which mainly consist of Carnatic music performances, like the Madras Music Season which has been considered as one of the world's largest cultural events.

Like all art forms in Indian culture, Indian classical music is believed to be a divine art form which originated from the Devas and Devis (Hindu Gods and Goddesses), and is venerated as symbolic of nāda brāhman. Ancient treatises also describe the connection of the origin of the swaras, or notes, to the sounds of animals and birds and man's effort to simulate these sounds through a keen sense of observation and perception. The Sama Veda, which is believed to have laid the foundation for Indian classical music, consists of hymns from the Rigveda, set to musical tunes which would be sung using three to seven musical notes during Vedic yajnas.The Yajur-Veda, which mainly consists of sacrificial formulae, mentions the veena as an accompaniment to vocal recitations.References to Indian classical music are made in many ancient texts, including epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata.






Owing to Persian and Islamic influences in North India from the 12th century onwards, Indian classical music began to diverge into two distinct styles, being Hindustani music and Carnatic music.Commentaries and other works, such as Sharngadeva's Sangita Ratnakara, further elaborated on the musical concepts found in Indian classical music.By the 16th and 17th centuries, there was a clear demarcation between Carnatic and Hindustani music; Carnatic music remained relatively unaffected by Persian and Arabic influences. It was at this time that Carnatic music flourished in Thanjavur, while the Vijayanagar Empire reached its greatest extent.Purandara Dasa, who is known as the father (Pitamaha) of Carnatic Music, formulated the system that is commonly used for the teaching of Carnatic music.Venkatamakhin invented and authored the formula for the melakarta system of raga classification in his Sanskrit work, the Chaturdandi Prakasika (1660 AD).Govindacharya is known for expanding the melakarta system into the sampoorna raga scheme - the system that is in common use today.

Carnatic music was mainly patronized by the local kings of the Kingdom of Mysore and Kingdom of Travancore in the 18th through 20th centuries. The royalty of the kingdoms of Mysore and Travancore were noted composers and proficient in playing musical instruments, such as the veena, rudra veena, violin, ghatam, flute, mridangam, nagaswara and swarabhat. Some famous court-musicians and royalty proficient in music were Veene Sheshanna (1852–1926) and Veene Subbanna (1861–1939), among others.

With the dissolution of the erstwhile princely states and the Indian independence movement reaching its conclusion in 1947, Carnatic music went through a radical shift in patronage into an art of the masses with ticketed performances organized by private institutions called sabhās. During the 19th century, the city of Chennai (then known as Madras) emerged as the locus for Carnatic music.

Nature of Carnatic music :

The main emphasis in Carnatic music is on vocal music; most compositions are written to be sung, and even when played on instruments, they are meant to be performed in a singing style (known as gāyaki).Like Hindustani Music, Carnatic music rests on two main elements: raga, the modes or melodic formulæ, and tala, the rhythmic cycles.

Today, Carnatic music is presented by musicians in concerts or recordings, either vocally or through instruments. Carnatic music itself developed around musical works or compositions of phenomenal composers (see below).


Sruthi commonly refers to musical pitch. It is the approximate equivalent of a tonic (or less precisely a key) in Western music; it is the note from which all the others are derived. It is also used in the sense of graded pitches in an octave. While there are an infinite number of sounds falling within a scale (or raga) in Carnatic music, the number that can be distinguished by auditory perception is twenty-two (although over the years, several of them have converged). In this sense, while sruti is determined by auditory perception, it is also an expression in the listener's mind.


Swara refers to a type of musical sound that is a single note, which defines a relative (higher or lower) position of a note, rather than a defined frequency. Swaras also refer to the solfege of Carnatic music, which consist of seven notes, "sa-ri-ga-ma-pa-da-ni" (compare with the Hindustani sargam: sa-re-ga-ma-pa-dha-ni or Western do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti). These names are abbreviations of the longer names shadjarishabhagandharamadhyamapanchamadhaivata and nishada. Unlike other music systems, every member of the solfege (called a swara) has three variants. The exceptions are the drone notes, shadja and panchama (also known as the tonic and the dominant), which have only one form; and madhyama (the subdominat), which has two forms. A 7th century stone inscription in Kudumiyan Malai in Tamil Nadu shows vowel changes to solfege symbols with ra, ri, ru etc. to denote the higher quarter-tones. In one scale, or raga, there is usually only one variant of each note present. The exceptions exist in "light" ragas, in which, for artistic effect, there may be two, one ascending (in the arohanam) and another descending (in the avarohanam).

Raga system

raga in Carnatic music prescribes a set of rules for building a melody - very similar to the Western concept of mode.It specifies rules for movements up (aarohanam) and down (avarohanam), the scale of which notes should figure more and which notes should be used more sparingly, which notes may be sung with gamaka (ornamentation), which phrases should be used or avoided, and so on. In effect, it is a series of obligatory musical events which must be observed, either absolutely or with a particular frequency.

In Carnatic music, the sampoorna ragas (those with all seven notes in their scales) are classified into a system called the mekakartha, which groups them according to the kinds of notes that they have. There are seventy-two melakarta ragas, thirty six of whose madhyama (subdominat) is sadharana (perfect fourth from the tonic), the remaining thirty-six of whose madhyama (subdominant) is prati (an augmented fourth from the tonic). The ragas are grouped into sets of six, called chakras ("wheels", though actually segments in the conventional representation) grouped according to the  supertonic and mediant scale degrees. There is a system known as the katapayadi sankhya to determine the names of melakarta ragas. 

Ragas may be divided into two classes: janaka ragas (i.e. melakarta or parent ragas) and janya ragas (descendant ragas of a particular janaka raga). Janya ragas are themselves subclassified into various categories.

Tala system

Tala refers to a fixed time cycle or metre, set for a particular composition, which is built from groupings of beats.Talas have cycles of a defined number of beats and rarely change within a song. They have specific components, which in combinations can give rise to the variety to exist (over 108), allowing different compositions to have different rhythms.

Carnatic music singers usually keep the beat by moving their hands up and down in specified patterns, and using their fingers simultaneously to keep time. Tala is formed with three basic parts (called angas) which are laghudhrtam, and anudhrtam, though complex talas may have other parts like plutamguru, and kaakapaadam. There are seven basic tala groups which can be formed from the laghudhrtam, and anudhrtam:

  • Dhruva tala
  • Matya tala
  • Rupaka tala
  • Jhampa tala
  • Triputa tala
  • Ata tala
  • Eka tala

laghu has five variants (called jaathis) based on the counting pattern. Five jaathis times seven tala groups gives thirty-five basic talas, although use of other angas results in a total of 108 talas.

Free Download Saptha Thala Alankaras

Saptha Thala Alankaras

Improvisation :

Improvisation in raga is the soul of Indian Classical Music - an essential aspect. "Manodharma sangeetham" or "kalpana sangeetham" ("music of imagination") as it is known in Carnatic music, embraces several varieties of improvisation.The main traditional forms of improvisation in Carnatic music consist of alapana, niraval, kalpanaswaram, ragam thanam pallavi, and thani avarthanam.

Raga Alapana

An alapana, sometimes also called ragam, is the exposition of a raga or tone - a slow improvisation with no rhythm, where the raga acts as the basis of embellishment.In performing alapana, performers consider each raga as an object that has beginnings and endings and consists somehow of sequences of thought.

The performer will explore the ragam and touch on its various nuances, singing in the lower octaves first, then gradually moving up to higher octaves, while giving a hint of the song to be performed. Theoretically, this ought to be the easiest type of improvisation, since the rules are so few, but in fact, it takes much skill to sing a pleasing, comprehensive (in the sense of giving a "feel for the ragam") and, most importantly, original raga alapana.


Niraval, usually performed by the more advanced performers, consists of singing one or two lines of text of a song repeatedly, but with a series of melodic improvised elaborations. Although niraval consists of extempore melodic variations, generally, the original patterns of duration are maintained;each word in the lines of text stay set within their original place (idam) in the tala cycle. The lines are then also played at different levels of speed which can include double speed, triple speed, quadruple speed and even sextuple speed. The improvised elaborations are made with a view of outlining the raga, the tempo, and the theme of the composition.


Kalpanaswaram, also known as swarakalpana, consists of improvising melodic and rhythmic passages using swras (solfa syllables).Like niraval,kalpanaswaras are sung to end on a particular swara in the raga of the melody and at a specific place (idam) in the tala cycle.

Kalpanaswaras have a somewhat predictable rhythmical structure; the swaras are sung to end on the samam (the first beat of the rhythmical cycle). The swaras can also be sung at the same speed or double the speed of the melody that is being sung, though some artists sing triple-speed phrases too.

Kalpanaswaram is the most elementary type of improvisation, usually taught before any other form of improvisation.


Tanam is one of the most important forms of improvisation, and is integral to Ragam Tanam Pallavi. Originally developed for the veena, it consists of expanding the raga with syllables like tha, nam, thom, aa, nom, na, etc.

Ragam Tanam Pallavi

Ragam Tanam Pallavi is the principal long form in concerts, and is a composite form of improvisation. As the name suggests, it consists of raga alapana, tanam, and a pallavi line. Set to a slow-paced tala, the pallavi line is often composed by the performer. Through niraval, the performer manipulates the pallavi line in complex melodic and rhythmic ways.The niraval is followed by kalpanaswarams.

Thani Avarthanam 

Tani Avartanam refers to the extended solo that is played by the percussionists in a concert, and is usually played after the main composition in a concert.The percussionist displays the full range of his skills and rhythmic imagination during the solo, which may take from two to twenty minutes.

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