The Desi Sangita tradition contained the embryonic elements of what would become the Carnatic music of today. T.M. Krishna continues his series on our classical traditions and their contemporary manifestations…
Either at the time of the Natya Sastra or sometime after, another tradition seems to have emerged. This tradition of “Desi“ or “Sangita” is described in texts like the Brihadesi, Manasollasa and, finally, in the Sangita Ratnakara authored by Sarangadeva in the 12th/ 13th century. Between the days of the Natya Sastra and the Ratnakara are about 1000-1200 years. The emergence of this tradition is very important for us to understand where we are as a Carnatic classical idiom today.
Desi Sangita is the form of presentation like Natya was in the older Natya Sastra tradition. Bharata's Natya is referred to in these texts as Marga Sangita. Though Desi Sangita and Natya seem similar — as both have the three elements of Drama/ Dance, Music and percussion — there are some very important differences. Firstly, while the Marga Sangita refers to Natya, Gana and Vadya, the Desi Sangita refers to its components as Gita, Vadya and Nritta. The important change here is the use of Nritta instead of Natya. In its purest form, Nritta is considered an aesthetic expression that has limb movements where the actor is not being identified with the character and is not emoting a dramatic emotion. The use of his limbs and even some abhinaya are purely for the audience's aesthetic pleasure. It does seem that drama never had any role in Sangita.
An older presentation type mentioned in the Sangita Ratnakara is Sudha Paddati, considered purer for this reason and prefixed as ‘Sudha'. This is described as a group of singers, musicians playing wind and percussion instruments and dancers coming on to the stage with the dancer hidden behind a screen. The instruments are tuned following which there is a presentation of compositions meant for the percussive instruments. Then the dancer is revealed, places flowers and begins dancing to the accompaniment of Prabandha singing and Vadhyas accompanying.
Interestingly, this is very similar to the description of the Thandava Vidhi mentioned in the preparatory parts of the Natya presentation in the Natya Sastra. Also, the form of dance described in Thandava Vidhi is Nritta, the same as in Sangita. The term used for the music in Thandava Vidhi is not Gana like in all Natya presentations but Gita, which is the same term used in Sangita. This does lead us to speculate whether the Sudha Paddati was derived from the Thandava Vidhi. There is also another possibility that this tradition already existed during the time of Bharata. Why would Bharata, in a primarily dramatic presentation, have an opening oriented towards music and dance? Did he adapt it from this tradition? These are all, of course, completely in the realm of speculation.
The Desi ragas seem to have appeared from older gramaragas and uparagas and their subsets known as Bhashas, Vibhashas and Antara Bhashas. These Desi ragas are classified into four categories, Raganga, Bhashanga, Kriyanga and Upanga. These ragas are the basis for all musical forms presented in the later ‘ Sangita' form. Originally in the presentation of Sudha Paddati, prabandhas may have been sung in older Gramaragas but later the Desi ragas took over.
The Sangita Ratnakara also describes 15 varieties of Gamakas. These Gamakas are used only in Gana and are completely unknown in the Gandharva.
The two presentational forms of Desi music are Alapti and Prabandha. Alapti seems to be the first reference to what we may call improvisation in the modern context. Alapti is of mainly three varieties.
The purpose of the first, Raga Alapti is to crystallise the raga and prepare the ground to render the Prabandha with percussion accompaniment. This involved building the raga in four stages using phrases that make the raga from the Prabandha composed in it. This is similar to the modern Alapana-Keertana suite.
Rupaka Alapti is when melodic variations are a part of the Prabandha. In one variety, to a one line of the Prabandha melodic variations without lyrics are sung and concluded with the repetition of the line. The author of one other text mentions that before the repetition of the Prabandha line the melodic variations are sung as Svaras. This seems to hint at a possible precursor to what we sing as Kalpana Svara today.
The second type of Rupaka Alapti is when either one line or the whole Prabandha is taken up and melodic variations are sung with the lyrics of the Prabandha. A specification is that the duration between syllables of the lyrics must not be changed. The modern Neraval is a very similar way of improvising a line in a Keertana.
Prabandhas are songs that have four sections and six parts. Out of the four sections it is the third Dhruva that is the most important, which is repeated many times, and every Prabandha has to have this section. Some later Prabandhas do have a fifth section. Other than meaningful texts, Prabandhas are the first compositional forms that we come across that have a part that contains only Svaras (sa, ri, ga etc.) There is also use of the syllables of rhythms, ta, dhi, thom etc. and Thenaka which contain syllables of tena, tena. Many of the Prabandhas are on patrons or secular in character and composed in many languages like Sanskrit, Prakrit, Karnata, and Gauda.
The two Desi presentations in Sangita that came after Sudha Paddati were Gaundali Vidhi and Perani Vidhi. While the songs in Sudha Paddati were originally known as Prabandhas, it's possible that due to local languages when it came to Gaundali Vidhi the songs came to be known as Chayalaga Suda (meaning Sudas which are shadows of Sudha variety), that got corrupted to Salaga Suda. Therefore, in order to differentiate the older Prabandhas from these, they referred to the Prabandhas of the Sudha Paddatis as Sudha Sudas. There is one more variety of Prabandha called Ali.
In respect to the understanding of Svaras, we find changes that indicate a movement towards a newer Svara structure and fixed tonic though the music described in the Ratnakara is still based on the Gramas. The Svaras here too have 22 Srutis and Sarangadeva gives a detailed description of how he arrived at each Sruti using two Veenas with 22 strings each. He also provides the possibility of 10 Vikrita Svaras; Svaras that are not in the original position, possessing the interval as described in the music of the Marga tradition. Sarangadeva also speaks of another method of deriving Moorchanas where the Moorchana for Ni is not begun at the position of Ni but actually on the position of Sa. This seems to indicate changes leading to a fixed tonic.
The Desi Talas were different from the Talas used in Gandharva. Breaking up the time units of Talas of Gandharva derived Desi Talas. 120 varieties of Desi Talas are mentioned. Desi Talas were mainly shown by either the sound of the cymbals or the sound of the hand. The use of silent movements in demonstrating Talas is not very clear.
From the above descriptions it is clear that the Desi tradition is definitely an independent if not a breakaway from the older Natya Sastra tradition. Significantly, there are a lot of indicators that this tradition was probably the embryonic stage of the development of Carnatic music given the movements towards more Svara varieties, a fixed tonic, a independent set of ragas, improvisations like Raga Alapti and Rupaka Alapti, and the use of Gamakas. The final separation of Nritta from Sangita is attributed to Gopala Nayaka who pioneered the Chaturdandi tradition and created a tradition of only music. While all this was in relation to Sanskrit treatises, what was happening in Tamizh country? We will see next week.
Clarification: The Natya Sastra is known as the fifth Veda not because of its "profound impact on the arts over the centuries" but because the Natya Sastra itself in its first chapter while talking about the creation of Natya refers to it as a fifth veda created by Brahma. Secondly the Natya Sastra is not the only text that gives references to music of those times, other texts like the Dattilam,do talk about the music of the same tradition.
The writer is a Carnatic vocalist based in Chennai