How Hindustani and Carnatic musicians engage with the idea of sruti

There are differences in the way artistes of both genres are trained to attain pitch purity

November 19, 2020 03:51 pm | Updated 03:52 pm IST

Illustration for The Hindu

Illustration for The Hindu

“The only mystery in life is why the Kamikaze pilots wore helmets,” said Al McGuire.

Other mysteries are right up there too — why khayal performers use the harmonium to accompany their incredibly nuanced melody; or how Western classical musicians tolerate an equally tempered scale; or why Carnatic vocalists don’t train specifically for pitch purity and how a significant number among them get away with varying degrees of sruti misalignment.

McGuire’s mystery has a poignant humour about it — there is nothing poignant or humorous about my questions. But they are mysterious alright.

Pitch is fundamental to all music. Different kinds of music across the world have their own engagement with pitch — in technique, aesthetics and philosophy.

American musician Jody Stecher, speaking of his discovery of Indian music, said that when he heard K.V. Narayanaswamy at Wesleyan University teaching the scales of Mayamalavagowla “as if they were the most important melody in the world, I was shaken and profoundly moved. Who sings scales with that kind of involvement? And then when I discovered dhrupad and also good khayal, I saw how much you can pull out of a single pitch.”

Subtle differences

Carnatic and Hindustani music are melodic — the music does not have vertical layers like Western polyphony and harmony do. The sophistication of the music lies in the subtleties of how pitch is approached, how the ‘same’ note is subtly different across ragas, and how phrases are formed by weaving these myriad pitches through a variety of ornaments to evoke the raga. We negotiate these nuances not through analysis or calculation but by ear, by musical instinct honed by listening and learning, the oral/aural way.

Sruti shuddham or pitch purity is regarded as much a necessity in Carnatic as sur is in Hindustani music. Srutirmaataa layahpitaasruti is the mother and laya the father — goes a popular saying in the Carnatic world.

In her immensely entertaining book Raga’n Josh , Sheila Dhar recounts how her guru Pt. Amarnath refused to go beyond the practice of a single note, the shadja, for many classes and months. To him, no progress was possible until she had perfected the ‘Sa’ and was able to sing it sharp and steady like a ray of light. So Dhar was “parked at the Sa” for many weeks. She compares notes with a South Indian friend who had, in that duration, already learnt a few varnams and kritis. When Dhar nervously mentions this to her guru, his dismissive response reflects a typical opinion of Hindustani musicians about sur in Carnatic music — stereotypical and exaggerated but not without a kernel of truth.

The point to ponder is that there is nothing in Carnatic music to parallel the kind of training a Hindustani singer undergoes for pitch purity. In one of his podcasts, Sanjay Subrahmanyan responds to a listener asking how his daughter can improve her sruti shuddham . In his typical, no-nonsense style Sanjay says, “Sing everyday. Keep a tambura, even an electronic one, and sing every day. Her sruti is bound to improve.”

Undeniably, it will. But beyond improvement, there is a finer engagement with sruti that can develop an intense pitch sensitivity, which is perhaps what Tyagaraja indicated in that intriguing line ‘kolahala saptaswara grahamula gurute mokshamura’ (knowing where in the body the tumultuous seven swaras originate is itself moksha). I sometimes wonder what today’s Carnatic musicians make of this line or if they are even curious about it.

The early morning ritual of Hindustani singers, the kharaj sadhana, sung to a well-tuned tanpura (one is reminded of the charanam line in Tyagaraja’s ‘Kaddanuvaariki’), aims at developing steady intonation and sensitivity towards sur and the minute hair’s breadth lapses that are so easy to make. This intense concern with pitch produced a Kishori Amonkar who spoke of getting a “ darshan of the sur ”. “I think of sur as God and when I sing a raga, I beg the raga to show me the sur , to let me have a darshan .”

In reality, attaining that pinpoint precision and mergence with the sur during the act of singing is not something that just happens. When endowed with a tuneful voice, it does appear to happen naturally but when the spirit is as involved as the voice apparatus in this sadhana , and when that mergence occurs because of an intense, unwavering engagement with the tanpura, then the music gains a transcendent luminosity.

A different music

Carnatic music is not Hindustani music — it is melodically more complex. Hindustani music is about notes held long and a leisurely unfolding of the raga. In the time a Hindustani musician sings the nishadha of a Raag Yaman, the Carnatic musician would have sung quite a few phrases of Kalyani with hardly any restful pauses on notes. Carnatic is more heavily ornamented, with the shake, the kampita , all pervasive. The shake of a Thodi’s ‘Ga’ might sound out of tune to the uninitiated, but that is not the issue here.

Certainly, the intonation of Carnatic music is vastly different from that of Hindustani, but there is such a thing called sruti shuddham and that is not something Carnatic musicians train for separately or with intensity.

To get back to the mysteries I began with, the explanation for the first two is banal convenience. As for the third, given Carnatic music’s immense complexity in melody, lyrics, accompaniment and in laya, pitch imperfections are not noticed for the most part because attention is gobbled up by all these other, not so subtle, aspects. Truly, a good Carnatic music concert is among the most engaging experiences one can have, even if the sruti is a slight casualty at times.

Just as the khayal world tolerates the harmonium, the Carnatic world too tolerates sruti lapses — minute or not-so-minute pitch lapses are not discerned by everyone. But surely musicians should try to develop such acute pitch sensitivity if only to see what trajectory their growth then takes.

The author is a Chennai-based

musician and writer.

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