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The Beauty of Carnatic Music

By Anishka Yerabothu, IV Form

The Beauty of Carnatic Music

I was first drawn to Carnatic music when I heard a friend singing and I loved listening to the different songs and melodies.  I would go home humming the tune and even make up some of my own!   I feel privileged to learn this art form from my Guru, Mrs. Tara Anand, who is considered one of the best Carnatic music teachers in the country.

In the words of Yehudi Menuhin, who is considered the greatest violinist of the 20th century, “I knew neither its nature nor its richness, but here, if anywhere, I found vindication of my conviction that India was the original source. The two scales of the West, major and minor, with the harmonic minors as variants, the half-dozen ancient Greek modes, were here submerged under modes and scales of (it seemed) inexhaustible variety.”   Carnatic music is an intricate and complex classical music system from South India that dates back to the 12th century.

This music system is based on four core concepts: swaram, ragam, talam and sruthi.  Swarams are solfa syllables sung much like the do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti and do of Western music.  A ragam is a scale that can have up to seven different swarams in various patterns.  Talam is the rhythmic beat structure to which compositions are set and is maintained by the vocalist’s hand while singing.  Sruti is the pitch at which one sings.  This is maintained by the Tanpura, a stringed drone instrument.        

In November, I took part in the Fall Student Music Showcase.  I sang a varnam composed by Sri Karoor Devudu Iyer, in a ragam called Sree, and set to Adi talam- a 16 beat cycle.  Varnams are central parts of our learning that create a strong foundation for even more complex songs.  One would typically start with this piece at a concert and use it as a warm-up because it has both sahithyam (words) and swaram.  They are sung in at least two speeds, of increasing speed, to demonstrate the musician’s control and mastery.  The songs are primarily devotional, sung in praise of different deities.  The meaning of Sami Ninne, the song I sang, is: Oh lord! I am waiting for you. Don’t delay in coming.  You rule the world! You live in Sri Garppapuri. Oh the lord of the cow.  Oh the beautiful lord of Kamakoti! Listen to my prayers!

Carnatic vocalists are accompanied by a drum and violin player.  Nihar Iyengar, on the mridangam, and Sadhana Venkatesh, on the violin, accompanied me for the Showcase.  The mridangam is a two-headed South Indian percussion instrument.  The Carnatic violin is essentially the Western violin that has been adapted into Carnatic music by the eminent Carnatic violinist, Sri Balaswamy Dikshitar, in the 18th century. 

I am thrilled to have the opportunity to pursue Carnatic music through Music Studio at St. Mark’s.  This is not something I have been able to do before.  It is exciting to be able to introduce this art form to the school and a western audience!   


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