Challenges of internal diversity in the Carnatic genre

Perfect alignment to pitch, intellectualism and bhava make for great music

Updated - December 05, 2021 09:03 am IST

Published - December 17, 2011 12:16 am IST

M.S. Subbulakshmi (left), Veena S. Balachander (top) and Palghat K.V. Narayanaswamy. Photos: D. Krishnan & Special Arrangement

M.S. Subbulakshmi (left), Veena S. Balachander (top) and Palghat K.V. Narayanaswamy. Photos: D. Krishnan & Special Arrangement

Widely varying styles have an equal place under the Carnatic umbrella. Is it at all possible to define a single aesthetic for a genre that ranges from the thrilling and electrifying rhythms of a Trichy Sankaran accompanying the late Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer singing the Tyagaraja masterpiece Dinamanivamsha, to the subtle rendering of a padam by the late T. Brinda? Such contrasts, though they do exist in a genre like Hindustani music, are always less stark.

If, as it was earlier argued, the indiscriminate use of amplification has somehow thwarted attempts to evolve a modern Carnatic concert aesthetic, it must be countered that even in the earlier days of amplification, when neither technology nor economics were on their side, male vocalists such as Madurai Mani Iyer and Palghat K.V. Narayanswamy achieved what was perceived to be highly aesthetic presentations. For somewhat different reasons, T. Brinda and others of the Dhanammal school are perceived as having practised a certain defining paradigm of the Carnatic aesthetic. And of course, there was the inimitable M.S. Subbulakshmi.

Perfect alignment to pitch

One common aspect of such artistes who were perceived as highly aesthetic in the earlier days of amplification is the scrupulous attention they paid to shruti shuddham or toaligning themselves perfectly to pitch. Arguably, such scrupulous attention to pitch alignmentmay well have had the effect of mitigating the jarring impact of imperfect amplification. Even where there's a great struggle to maintain shruti shuddham , an exquisite secret leaps out of old recordings of ageing masters who had lost control of their voices. That secret is the pride of place they accorded the tambura and its overall audibility. The aesthetically pleasing aura created by a sonorous and meticulously tuned tambura has a way of gently embracing a singer's shruti lapses and folding it into the overall sound. Unfortunately, the exact opposite is feared and hence a tendency to relegate the tambura, whether a real one or electronic, to de facto inaudibility for the audience. This only exacerbates the listener's perception of a lack of shruti shuddham .

Art, as it is normally understood, is first and foremost sensual and emotional before anything else, but Carnatic music has always been seduced by the intellect, resulting in anything from a mild flirtation to a torrid affair. The intellectual, even in musical contexts, need not be disdained but it certainly challenges conventionally held notions of aesthetics. More importantly, such intellectual music may not suffer as much at the hands of bad audio as conventionally aesthetic music, and hence, could induce stagnation in the evolution of better sound.

Music for the intellect

Intellectually stimulating music that is skillfully woven into the overall presentation can be highly appealing; it is a unique dimension of Carnatic music absent in other genres. Carnatic intellectualism has many facets, the most prominent of which is the arithmetic of rhythm or kanakku . The arithmetic (it is still a bit grandiose to call it “mathematics”) is extremely sophisticated and can be said to have an entirely abstract aesthetic of its own that exists independently of the sensual and emotional.

The democratisation of the Carnatic stage in a social and cultural sense must be applauded and hastened but all concerned parties must recognise that it is aesthetic suicide to treat this process as a license to jostle for more individual volume or prominence. The balance of sound in a traditional kutcheri ensemble consisting of a vocalist or instrumentalist, a violinist and one or more percussionists, evolved over a century free of amplification. Any experimentation with that balance must be attempted very judiciously and organically, always with a view towards maintaining or enhancing the overall aesthetic. Of particular interest are the different styles of percussion accompaniment that have evolved and attained amazing levels of sophistication over the last century, bringing with them their own aesthetic norms that have to be integrated into the overall aesthetic.

Electronic amplification of acoustic instruments such as the veena and chitravina is an ongoing process that has led to unique playing styles and an exploration of vocal nuances on these instruments with a convincing clarity not imaginable before. In particular, the added sustain obtainable in plucked acoustic string instruments has been a great boon to artistes with the genius to exploit them. Thus a Veena Balachander was able to pull on his strings across an incredible span and weave a complex cadence of gamakas with a single pluck and pull, while a Chitravina Ravikiran is able slide on his strings to explore with an astonishing clarity intricate, kaarvai-laden nuances seemingly endlessly with a single pluck or even without one. However, the added versatility to these instruments has come at the cost of a significant loss of the rich, warm, original acoustic tones of these instruments. Here we have the case wherein an enhancement to the melodic aesthetics of the system itself has come at the expense of the overall aesthetics of sound. This cost has to be eliminated or at any rate reduced and that remains an eminently worthwhile challenge for instrument designers.

Bhava, the crown jewel

The emotional in the art is what is referred to in the Carnatic world as bhava . Bhava comes from many aspects of Carnatic music but its most serious claimant is the repertoire itself. The bedrock of Carnatic music is its repertoire – the intensely bhava-laden compositions of great masters. The remarkable vibrancy and sustainability of Carnatic music compared to some other genres come from bhava which is certainly the crown jewel. In fact, it could be argued that this alone often compensates for the lack of other aesthetic dimensions in the overall experience.

To conclude, perhaps it is now worthwhile to attempt at defining an ideal Carnatic aesthetic norm. Might it not be too far from the truth to say that an ideal Carnatic aesthetic norm is achieved at the rare intersection of a good auditorium, good balance of sound, great bhava, prefect shruti-shuddham, some intellect and an emotionally mature team?

In Part 1, the matter of articulating a generic Carnatic concert aesthetic was discussed.

(The author is a biomedical design engineer with a keen interest in the design of acoustic and wind musical instruments and can be reached at

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