Grammatical Aspects Of Carnatic Music

Music is universal and is the life line of sublime expression.

Carnatic composer and violinist Dr. L. Subramanian

Carnatic music is basically an application in complete expansion within given restrictions.  An artistic uniqueness is created within a grammatical limits.  Rules of grammar in Carnatic music have not prevented the great writers from producing creative, beautiful works of literature.

A sentence in any language is a collection of words that conveys sense or meaning and is formed according to the logic of grammar.  Similarly, Sruti and Laya are the main grammatical aspects which makes music melodic. Sruti and Laya are like mother and father in Carnatic music.  

Music gets the identity as art form with the imbibing of the highest values of Lakshaya and Lakshana.   Lakshaya and Lakshana of art form are like Sruti and Smriti relationship of sacred Veda, Upanishad, Brahma sutra etc.    Lakshana defines and establishes the form. Abstract nature compelled Lakshana formation for the ease and comfort of practitioners, teachers, students and performers and also for the connoisseurs and discerning listeners.

The Music of India is one of the oldest unbroken musical traditions in the world.  It is said that the origins of this go back to the Vedas. During the Sangam literature, music and dance were the main attraction or entertainment among the mass.  Legend has played significant part in shaping and promoting the role of music in Indian culture. Silappadikaram is the first and foremost a treatise on music. The Puranas were written to elucidate the truths preserved in the Vedas and present them in capsules and modules to the music aspirants.

Ragamala Dance Company – Photo by Hub Wilson

There are 22 Srutis well known in the Carnatic music arena. Creation of raga is made easy with these 22 Srutis and to differentiate one raga from another. Swara is an essential aspect in a Varnam, Kriti, Keertana and other forms of music.  Saptaswara is the universally known syllables in music. Sa and Pa being Achala Swaras, out of 5 remaining Swaras, Ma has two variety and other four i.e. Ri, Ga, Dha and Ni have 3 varieties each. Thus there are 16 Swaras.  Composition in Carnatic music is required to follow prosodic order.  In so far as Tala there are 10 Pranas known as Tala Dasa Pranas. This gives detail characteristics of a Tala structure.                

Music too has diversified into different genres. There are classical Music like Carnatic and Hindustani.  Carnatic music is one of the few musical systems of the world blending a fine technical structure to a profound aesthetic value.  It is a melodic system based on fundamental sounds known as Srutis, which form the basis for the definition of notes, known as Swaras.  Particular sets of Swaras are used to construct melodies known as Ragas. 

Each of the innumerable ragas of Carnatic music is defined by rules of usage of its note called Raga Lakshana including the permissible and forbidden manners of ascent, the Arohanam and descent, the Avarohanam, the aesthetics of transition between notes, the Gamakas and their relative importance.  Shift of tonic is the process by which new Melas can be evolved. 

Mridangam virtuoso Sridhar Parthasarathy

Compositions in Carnatic music possess multiple dimensions.  The aesthetic element refers to the melodic value extended by the raga and its intensive usage with the lyrical aspect. The prosodic dimension describes the technical or grammatical value associated with the poetic meter. The rhythmic element captures the association of the Sahitya and prosody according to the Tala to which a composition is set to. The grammatical aspects in Raga, Tala and compositions are briefly discussed below:

Grammatical aspects of raga alapana:

We are aware that the raga alapana has undergone organized expansion from time to time. However the raga alapana paddhati now in vogue is as per the Matanga’s raga paddhati. There are three main stages of alapana- 1. Akshiptika (introduction) 2. Raga Vardhani (main content of alapana) and 3. Sthayi and 4. Makarini , the concluding part of alapana.

In Akshiptika a succinct form of raga is presented by the musician for making a clear identification of raga by the listeners.

Raga Vardhani which is the second stage of Alapana, has 4 stages – Eduppu (commencement) and Muktayi (conclusion) for every stage i.e. Vidari I-IV.

In the concluding part of Alapana the Arohana Sthayi and Avarohana Sthayi is maintained and Sthayi Sanchara is done with madhyamakala sanchara and in higher octave sanchara and finally concluding with avorohana karma. In some ragas it is concluded in higher octave Sadjam also.

Again while analyzing the aspect of grammar in raga Alapana, the exposition of a raga sung before a kriti is different from the one sung before a Ragam, Tanam, Pallavi.  In both the situation the raga Swarupa has to be shown maintaining the grammatical aspect of raga alapana.  But in for a Pallavi singing the raga Alapana is slightly expanded than singing before a Kriti. This in itself is a full topic for discussion with proper examples. Its quiet amusing that some raga give scope for elaborate exposition whereas some have very little scope. It is observed that the present day artists have made a research even to sing such ragas elaborately giving importance to each swara sancharas within the permitted scope.

Grammar in Tala

The variety of Tala as in Carnatic music is not found in any other musical form. When we discuss about Tala it has 10 pranaas to be followed. Tala is the strength for a composition.  As a hand of clock moves according to a time sequence (rhythm) so also in Tala which has a time frame,  moves around set to the letters. We have variety of Talas like Sapta Tala, 175 Talas, 108 Talas, Navasanthi Tala etc., each has different parts and style of presentation.

Each Tala has angas- Anudrutham, Drutam, Lagu, Guru, Plutham and Kakapadam.  These are taught to the students at the initial stages of learning. Alankaram lessons are very apt to explain these aspects. But all these Angas are not used in a normal Tala. These are more applicable for dance where every small variation can be explained with an Abhinaya.

There are several ways of doing a Tala. Here we count time, and several gestures are involved like joining two hand, counting the fingers, lifting the hands up, turning right and left etc. etc. 

Yathi pattern is adopted in the Kalpana Swaras by musicians which adds beauty to the composition and also the Tala kattu. Similarly different Chaapu Talas have its own attraction and added value to the composition.

Grammar of a composition

A composition has three parts: Padam, Prasam and Yathi.

Padam refer to the sentences in the composition. For e.g. Marukela ra O’Raghava in Jayanthasri Ragam or Sri Saraswathi in Arabhi raga. The compositions are usually set to Adi, Rupaka or chapu Talas.

Prasam – 3 kinds of Prasam – Adiprasam, Anuprasam and Antyaprasam. The pattern of words in the sentences must be uniform. Prasam and Yati both are important.

In Adiprasam the second letter of the first word will be same.

                     e.g. Seethapathe naa manasuna (pallavi)

                            Vaathathmaja dule chenda (Anupallavi)

                               (Kamaas – Tyagaraja)

Anuprasam : the words sound similar in the sentence.

                     e.g. Balakanakamaya chelasujanapari-

                            Balasri Rama Lola vidruta sara

                             (Atana- Tyagaraja)

In Antyaprasa there will be similar sound at the end of the sentence.   

 E.g. Dikshitar kriti in Anandabhairavi –

                   Manasa Guru Guharoopam Bajare –re

                   Mayamaya Hrithithapam    Thyajare- re

Yati denotes the word pattern in a composition. It will be similar to that of Anuprasam in the sentence.

Similarly for a Pallavi, Vilomam, Anulomam and Pratiloman should be maintained.

Thus it is seen that Carnatic music has grammatical rules which needs to be followed.  From the basic lesson (Abhyasagana) to the kriti singing the set pattern of grammar is required to be followed in order to give an esthetic sense and also to add embellishment in rendering.

Author: Dr. Saroja Raman

Dr. Saroja Raman is a vocalist who has been pursuing Carnatic music from the age of 7. She has a Doctorate PhD in Music from the Delhi University, India
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