Improvisation and the #aesthetic of Carnatic music

One major difference between the Hindustani and Carnatic traditions can be seen in their treatment of improvisation. In his book A Southern Music, Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna explains improvisation in the context of Carnatic music:

The [Sanskrit] word manodharma has two components to it: mano, meaning ‘one’s own will’, and dharma, which refers to a certain righteousness in the path… Improvisational music is what is referred to as manodharma sangita, or the music that issues out of the individual musician’s very own and personal musical sensibility.

In both systems of Indian classical music, improvisation within a raga (melodic scale) is seen as the highest level of musical skill; in no musician is qualified to perform if they are not proficient in improvisation (which is why I have a while to go until I give a concert, lol), and indeed improvisation plays a central role in Indian classical performances.

In Hindustani performances, improvisation makes up the vast majority of the concert; there may be a few compositions with defined lyrics and melodies that are performed, but the rest of the concert is raga-based improvisation. In a typical Hindustani concert, the performer will say, “I will now play/sing Raga ___”, (or they might not say anything) and they will begin a certain type of improvisation in that raga. They will then move on to another raga or two, and then end the concert with some short compositions.

In contrast, Carnatic performances are typically driven by compositions, not freeform improvisation. Instead of just announcing the name of a raga, the artist would typically say, “I will now perform the song ____ in ____ raga, set to ____ talam (rhythm), dedicated to Lord/Goddess _____ and composed by _____.” They would then begin by improvising in the raga in which the composition is set, and then they would sing the composition itself, which would have defined lyrics set to a specific rhythmic cycle. Within Carnatic compositions, there is plenty of scope for improvisation, but the artist cannot deviate from the lyrics of the composition.

This reliance on compositions with set lyrics presents listeners and performers of Carnatic music with this question:

Is Carnatic music “art music” or “devotional music”?

Art music is “music composed in a classical tradition and intended as serious art, especially as distinguished from popular or folk music.” I think that Indian classical music’s strong emphasis on improvisation would place it in this category (although improvisation is, by definition, not composed beforehand) because improvisation is meant to showcase a performer’s musical skill. Improvisation allows listeners to better understand and appreciate a specific raga, and is very much regarded as a “serious art”.

However, before branding Carnatic music as art music, we have to take a closer look at the compositions that make up Carnatic music. With very few exceptions, all Carnatic compositions are explicitly religious in nature, addressing various Hindu gods and goddesses in Sanskrit, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, or Kannada, and asking for their blessings. We also have to remember that Carnatic music, like Bharatanatyam and other classical Indian dances, was originally performed in temples, and still is.

It seems to me that the artistic, purely musical aspects of Carnatic music cannot be easily divorced from its religious aspects. Sure, a musician could give a concert consisting solely of improvisation and no compositions. We could call that art music, but most people would hesitate to call it Carnatic music. Similarly, someone could read out the lyrics of Carnatic compositions and we could call it a poetry recitation, but unless it is performed in a musical context, with improvisation, we wouldn’t be able to call it Carnatic music.

If you’ve made it this far, I want to try a small experiment. Below is a Carnatic song performed by the Trichur Brothers. If you can, listen to a couple minutes of the song without scrolling past the video.

“Deva Deva Kalayamithe” is set in the raga Mayamalavagowla, in an eight-beat cycle. It was composed in Sanskrit by Maharaja Swati Tirunal (1813 – 1846).

Now, read the lyrics and try listening to the song for a few more minutes.

Deva deva kalayamithe charanambuja sevanam

“Oh Lord of the celestials! I pay my respects to your lotus-like feet.”

Bhuvana traya naayaka bhuri karunayaa mama

Bhavathaapam akhilam vaaraya ramaakantha

“You are Goddess Lakshmi’s husband and lord of the three worlds! Please obliterate all the miseries of this worldly life through your infinite compassion.”

Jaata rupa nibha chela janmaarjitha mamaakhila

Pataka sanchaya miha vaaraya karunaya

“You are adorned with golden clothes. Through your grace, please obliterate the sins I have accumulated in my previous birth.”

Dithijaali vidhalana deenabandho maamava

Sritha vibhudha chaala sri padmanaabha shoure

“You vanquished the clan of demons; you are the refuge for the dejected ones and the celestials alike. Please protect me, Oh Lord Padmanabha!”

Do you feel like your listening experience changed after reading the lyrics? Does the devotional tone of the song affect your opinion of the music itself? Which aspect of the song appeals more to you: the aesthetics and the improvisation, or the religious lyrics?

For me, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. The poetry of the lyrics is quite beautiful, and can be appreciated in isolation. However, I think I appreciate the lyrics more once I hear them being spoken along with improvisation, using the conventions and “grammar” of Carnatic music. So, Carnatic music, like so many other things in the world, resists easy classification. Maybe that’s just part of its appeal.

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