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The word “Sangeeta” comes from Sanskruta, an old language spoken in India that is thought to be the origin of many modern Indian languages. It translates as “music” and is made up of the words “Sam,” meaning great, and “Geeta,” signifying a song or singing. Sangeeta is based on the seven swaras or notes that are its fundamental components. There are two primary styles of Indian music: Hindustani, which is predominantly performed in the north of India, and Karnatak (also spelled Carnatic), which is heard in the south. Both of these styles use the same essential seven swaras, yet they differ in their musical delivery. This article focuses on Karnatak music and provides an introduction to essential terms and the basic concepts of ragas and talas.

Carnataka music, also known as Karnatik or Karnataka sangīta, originates from India and is one of the two main styles of Indian classical music, with the other being Hindustani music. It first began in the southern area of the Indian subcontinent, which is made up of four modern-day states: Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. Vocal music is the main emphasis of Carnatak music, with most compositions written to be sung. Even when played on instruments, the style of singing is called gāyaki. Similar to Hindustani music, Carnatak music is based on two key elements – raga (modes or melodic formulas) and tāḷa (rhythmic cycles).


Origins and history

As with all art forms in Indian culture, Carnatic music is believed to have a divine origin, with input from the Devas and Devis. However, it is also widely accepted that the natural origins of music played an important role in the development of Carnatic music. Ancient treatises describe the connection of the origin of the swaras, or notes, to the sounds of animals and birds, and man’s keen sense of observation and perception in trying to simulate these sounds. After hearing and distinguishing between the different sounds that emanated from the hollows of a bamboo reed when air passes through, man designed the first flute. In this way, music is venerated as an aspect of the supreme (nāda brāhmam). Folk music is also said to have been a natural origin of Carnatic music, with many folk tunes corresponding to certain Carnatic ragas.

The Vedas are generally considered the primary probable source of Indian music. The Sama Veda is said to have laid the foundation for Indian music and consists mainly of hymns of Rigveda, set to musical tunes, which would be sung using three to seven musical notes during Vedic sacrifices. The Yajur-Veda, which mainly consists of sacrificial formulae, mentions the veena as an accompaniment to vocal recitations during the sacrifices. References to Indian classical music are made in many ancient religious texts, including epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The Yajnavalkya Smriti mentions, “vīṇāvādanatattvajñaḥ śrutijātiviśāradaḥ tālajñaścāprayāsena mokṣamārgaṃ niyacchati” (“The one who is well-versed in veena, one who has the knowledge of srutis, and one who is adept in tala attains salvation without doubt.”). Carnatic music is based on music concepts mentioned in Bharata’s Natya Shastra. The Natya Shastra mentions many musical concepts, including swara and tala, that continue to be relevant to Carnatic music today.

Carnatic music saw revolutionary growth during the Vijayanagar Empire due to the Kannada Haridasa movement of Vyasaraja, Purandara Dasa, Kanakadasa, and others. Purandara Dasa, who is known as the Sangeeta Pitamaha, meaning the father (founder) of Carnatic music, laid out the complete fundamental principles and framework for Carnatic music. Venkatamakhin is credited with the classification of ragas in the Melakarta System and wrote his most important work, Chaturdandi Prakasika, in Sanskrit. Govindacharya expanded the Melakarta Scheme into the Sampoorna raga system, which is the system in common use today.

Although earlier writers Matanga, Sarangadeva, and others were also from Karnataka, the music tradition was formally named Karnataka Sangeetha for the first time only in the 13th century when the Vijayanagara empire was founded. Since the late 12th and early 13th centuries, as a result of increasing Persian influence (and as a result of the Islamic conquest) in North India, Hindustani Music started evolving as a separate genre, while Carnatic music was relatively unaffected by these Arabic and Iranian influences. A clear demarcation between Hindustani music and Carnatic music can be seen in the latter half of the 14th century, as the word “Carnatic” came to represent South Indian classical music as a separate system of music.

During the 18th to 20th centuries, the Kingdom of Mysore’s monarchs provided a distinctive impetus to the development of instrumental Carnatic music. The composers of that era employed an array of instruments, including the veena, rudra veena, violin, tambura, ghata, flute, mridangam, nagaswara, and swarabhat. Some instruments, such as the harmonium, sitar, and jaltarang, which were not traditionally used in the southern region, also gained popularity. The influence of the English brought in the saxophone and piano. Even the royal members of this dynasty were noted composers and highly proficient in playing musical instruments, either as solo performers or in collaboration with others. The likes of Veena Sheshanna (1852-1926), Veena Subbanna (1861-1939), and T. Chowdiah were some of the renowned instrumentalists of that era

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