Indian Classical Carnatic Music

Carnatic music, known as karnataka sangitam (in Indian languages) is the classical music that originated in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamilnadu and Kerala i.e southern part of India.

Indian sitars
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Lyrics in Carnatic music are largely devotional; most of the songs are addressed to the hindu deities. There are, besides, a lot of songs emphasizing love and other social issues which have been composed in Carnatic music, although some of them, especially with the ‘Rasa’ (emotion) of love, continued to be composed and are widely popular, that rest on the concept of sublimation of human emotions for union with divine. Thus, for instance, a young woman in a modern classical composition, will be yearning for one of the deities, such as Krishna, as her ‘lover – the purpose of such musical pieces being at once to provide an outlet for human emotions and unlike in the normal rum of motion pictures, to address God rather than another human being. Carnatic music as a classical form is always thus required to be a culturally elevating medium.

As with all Indian classical music, the two main components of Carnatic music are raga, a melodic pattern and tala, a rhythmic pattern.

Origin, Sources and History
Like all art forms in Indian culture,  Indian classical music is believed to be a divine art form which originated from the Devas and Devis(Hindu Gods and Goddesses), and is venerated as symbolic of nada brahman.  Ancient treaties also describe the connection of the origin of the swaras, or notes, to the sounds of animals and birds and man’s effort to stimulate these sounds through a keen sense of observation and perception. The Sama Veda, which is believed to have laid the foundation for Indian classical music, consists of hymns from Rig Veda, set to musical tunes which would be sung using three to seven musical notes during Vedic yajnas. The Yajur Veda, which mainly consists of sacrifical formulae, mentions the veena as an accompaniment to vocal recitations. Reference to Indian classical music are made in many ancient text including epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata. All ancient sangam literature songs had been set to complex musical notes. The Yajnavalkya Smriti mentions vinavadana tattvajnah srutijivisaradah talajnascaprayasena moksamargam niyacchati(“The one who is well versed in veena, one who has the knowledge of srutis and one who is adept in tala, attains salvation without doubt”).

Owing to Persian and Islamic influences in North India from 12th century onwards, Indian classical music began to diverge into two distinct styles, being Hindustani music and Carnatic music. Commentaries and other works, such as Sharngadeva’s Sangita Ratnakara, furthur eloborated on the musical concepts found in Indian classical music. By 16th and 17th centuries, there was  a clear demarcation between Carnatic and Hindustani music; Carnatic music remained relatively unaffected by Persian and Arabic influences. It was at that Carnatic music flourished in Thanjavur, while the Vijaynagar Empire reached its greatest extent. Purandara Dasa, who is know as the father(Pitamaha) of Carnatic Music, formulated the system that is commonly used for the teaching Carnatic Music. Venkatamakhin invented and authored the formula for the melakarta system of raga classification in his Sanskrit work, the Chaturdandi Prakasika(1660AD). Govindacharya is known for expanding the melakarta system into the sampoorna raga scheme – the system that is in common use today.

Carnatic Music was mainly patronized by the local kings of the Kingdom of Mysore and Kingdom of Travancore in the 18th through 20th centuries. The royalty of the kingdoms of Mysore and Travancore were noted composers and proficient in playing musical instruments, such as the veena, rudra veena, vilin, ghatam, flute, mridangam, nagaswaram and swarabhat. Some famous court-musicians and royalty proficient in music were Veena Shashanna(1852-1926) and Veena Subbanna(1861-1939), among others.

With the dissolution of the erstwhile princely states and the Indian independence movement reaching its conclusion in 1947, Carnatic music went through a radical shift in patronage into art of the masses with ticketed performances organized by private institutions called sabhas.

Author: Priya Chetan


  1. Interesting and informative article about Indian Classical Music, thanks for writing and sharing it with all of us

  2. Nice article, can you write about santoor? Some time back I listened this instrument and it is was a pleasant experience for me.

  3. Though I read most of these in other web sites, still it is interesting to read from your article.

    Great article.

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