Dr. Lakshmi Sriram’s expertise in and love for both Hindustani and Carnatic systems, underscored their beauty.

With quiet mastery, Dr. Lakshmi Sriram sailed through an exposition of the comparative intricacies and nuances of the Carnatic and Hindustani styles of music at The C.P. Arts Centre recently. Lakshmi clarified, at the outset, that she was making an attempt to bring to the appreciation of the average lover of Carnatic music, who wished to know more about Hindustani, and who formed the bulk of the listeners.

There was no simple answer to the question, ‘Do the twain meet?’ Her treatment of the topic laid more stress on where they do and where they don't. Backed by erudition and experience in the practice of both schools, her dissertation brought out in easily assimilable explanations, the similarities and dissimilarities between them.

Both have the basic feature of raga, which she demonstrated vocally with regard to the North Indian version Bhoop and its counterpart, Mohanam. While raga is defined through its discrete notes, Sa, Ri/Re, Ga, Ma, and so on for melodic purposes, in usage (prayoga) in both systems, some swaras are stretched to oscillate or hover around the anchor swara in a smooth flow (gamaka). Lakshmi referred to an appreciative expression, “ragam shobhikkiradu” (the raga shines) from this aspect. There is more to the rendering of a raga than reproducing its grammatical swaras.

Tala and laya

Another similar feature is Tala or the cycle of beats - that is distinguished from laya, which pertains to the rhythm of the composition or the rendition. One difference is the general tempo. Carnatic music is essentially of medium tempo (madhyama kala), while Hindustani is mostly slow in tempo (vilamba). At this point, Lakshmi gave a telling demonstration in raga Nadanamakriya. While the fast movement in Carnatic music is apparent and also to some extent more of a practice, by and large, the North Indian system is slower.

Lakshmi pointed out an interesting distinction between the two in laya. In Carnatic, the laya never changes within a composition. Contrarily, it is common practice in the other system. The tala beat is never maintained by hand in the North Indian system, but it is prominently noticed in the South.

While the contributions of accompaniments are notable in both, the Carnatic system has a high proportion of value compared to the North. The percussion (tabla) plays an important role as the only accompaniment in North Indian music; in the South, the mridangam shares honours with the violin and the singer. The tabla keeps maintaining the cycle rhythm mainly through variations of ‘na-dhim-dhin-na’ and keeps the talam for the singer who does not need to maintain it himself. As for the percussion in the other system, the mridangist needs to know the composition and the sancharas thoroughly in order to be effective.

Hindustani compositions are essentially simpler. Basic presentations are the same with alapana (introduction), kriti (composition), niraval (improvisational development of Sahitya?) and swaraprasthara or kalpanaswaras, corresponding to alaap or taan, bandeesh in chhota and bada khayal, bol alaap, bol laya, bol taan and sargam. Long karuvais in the middle of keri characterise bol alaap in the North Indian system. Lakshmi gave a picturesque aural sketch of this aspect through ‘Sarasiruha,’ charanam of ‘Tulasidala’ in Mayamalavagowla with bol alaap in a similar raga. ‘Eduppu’ in Carnatic style is usually after the beat, in Hindustani it is before. (Demonstration Raga: Jayjayanti).

It is rewarding to listen to a lec-dem, when the speaker is an expert in both schools and loves both systems passionately. One wished that in the question and answer session, more questions from the audience had relevance to the topic. In response to one such question, Lakshmi pointed out that one deterrent factor to a rasika of Hindustani music in developing a liking for Carnatic music could be the “aural confusion” that appears to exist with all the artists on the stage contributing together to the building up of a concert. In general, Carnatic music is harder and more intellectual than the more emotive Hindustani music.

Lakshmi could open up the audience's mind to the beauty of both systems. This listener, in particular, finally concluded that both were equally inspiring and divine.