“India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grand mother of tradition. Our most valuable and most artistic materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only!”Mark Twain
Like Mark Twain, I have a lot to say about India. So many of the things we take for granted have roots that reach far into the history of the Indian subcontinent. These include the English language, which belongs to the Indo-European family. Also, the numbers we use daily originate in India. They are often misnamed as “Arabic” but in fact they came into Arabic culture through contact with India. On a related note, we’ve touched on the musical continuity between all of these cultures elsewhere.
Carnatic music in India
Now, India is huge. It is home to more than a billion people. This includes a variety of racial, ethnic and religious groups. Corresponding to this diversity is a huge range of languages. Many of these languages are mutually unintelligible and belong to completely different language families. As a result, a term like “Indian music” is hopelessly broad. Therefore, in this post we will learn about a specific genre of music that has developed in India. It’s called Carnatic music.
To help us understand what this type of music is all about, we have an expert to explain the core principles. His name is Sivanathan Pillay. He’s a Carnatic music specialist from Durban, South Africa. Here is a collaboration between us, featuring violin and tabla:
He sat down with me to discuss his art with me and give me some insight into his musical world. I’m sure you will find this fascinating. To make it easier to follow, I’ve split our conversation up into three parts, which you can find below:
Part 1: What is Carnatic Music?
Carnatic music is both a musical system and an ancient body of traditions. It is indigenous to the Indian subcontinent and it has deep ties to Hinduism. In many ways, this music grew out of the spiritual insights and practices of Hinduism. Interestingly, the exact same phenomenon occurred in the west. Carnatic music remains the chief mode of music making in the south of India.
Musicologists often divide “Indian” music into two broad categories: Hindustani, which dominates the northern part, and Carnatic, which dominates the south. So the influence of Carnatic music corresponds, roughly, to the green part in this map.
While they share a great deal in common, there are significant differences. Chief among them is the fact that the Hindustani genre is an amalgam of indigenous Indian traditions with Persian, Arabic and Mongol influences. In contrast, the Carnatic style is more firmly rooted in India and there is far less foreign influence.
Part 2: Instruments in Carnatic Music
In this part of our conversation, Sivanathan walks us through some of the standard instruments in Carnatic music. He even treats us to a demonstration of some of them: the morsing, the kanjira and his own beloved mridangam. Watch this video to see the demo:
Part 3: Theory and Traditions
A consistent theme throughout our interview was the interconnectedness of music, spirituality and memory. This connects to what another of my podcast guests had to say about Russia. This attitude contrasts with western culture, where all experiences are compartmentalised. It’s common for people in western societies to believe that music and art are simply entertainment.
There is an amazing blindness in all of this, because music embodies values. It is never neutral. So it was quite refreshing to hear Sivanathan describe an approach to music making that is so similar to my own. I especially enjoyed hearing about his lineage and the way he traces his musical ancestry through his teacher, to his teacher’s teacher, and so on.
In this part of our conversation, Sivanathan talks about ragas. These correspond, roughly, to scales and modes. Similarly, Arabic music talks about maqqams. After describing the ragas, he gives us a demonstration of two types of raga, and he shows us how to name the steps of the scale in Carnatic terms. You can see them below, contrasted with the Latin equivalents you are probably more familiar with:
Needless to say, it is always a pleasure to talk to a knowledgeable person who is able to explain things in an accessible way. I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation and it spurred a period of creativity and innovation in my practice life. I’ll be bringing you some more Carnatic violin music soon!