Appreciating Carnatic music

I’ll start off by saying that I’m not crazy about music. Music is not my heart and soul. I’m just another guy who plugs in his earphones whenever I’m travelling, bored out of my mind, or can’t get a song out of my head. I can’t even claim to be a Carnatic music buff. The 5000 songs in my iPod would beg to differ. But Being from Chennai, the Carnatic music capital, I was exposed to a lot of Carnatic music from a young age.

Carnatic Singers

I would be dragged to concerts where I would either fall asleep, or watch the funny hand gestures made by the singer. I found it very difficult to understand how people could enjoy music that seemed to have no impact on the listener. My father always used to tell me that it takes time, and a lot of hours of listening, to appreciate Carnatic music. It didn’t make sense to me how effort can help you appreciate a form of music. A few years on, I think I understand.

Carnatic music is one of the most organised and complex forms of music, which is why it is so difficult to appreciate at first. Any song you hear is set to a specific tune or ‘ragam’, and each ragam has a unique set of notes or ‘swaras’. The number of ragams present today is uncountable. Since there are only twelve notes, the number of ragams containing all the notes are limited (72), and this number can be calculated by basic mathematics. All other ragams are based on these 72 ragams.

The beat of the song is characterized by the ‘thalam’. Again, the number of thalams present are many. The 4 basic thalams are in multiples of 3, 4, 5 and 7. The beat of any song, western or classical, from any part of the world, can be classified in this thalam system.

This is just scratching the surface, and there are many more concepts and intricacies in Carnatic music. I’ll leave it to the reader to explore.

Carnatic Music

A concert typically consists of a main performer (a singer), a violin, and a mridangam along with a ghatam or kanjeera (the drum instruments). Concerts cannot be rehearsed as such, and they are an expression of creativity of the singer and the supporting instruments. This is one of the highlights of Carnatic music, where nothing is fixed and all the performers are free to express themselves. It is an uninhibited form of music. Therefore, the rapport between the singer and the supporting performers is important. The duels between different instruments and/or the singer are fun to watch, for the slightly trained ear.

There are many people who appreciate Carnatic music at their first concert, but this requires a high level of temperament for music. For the rest of us, understanding the intricacies of Carnatic music keeps us interested, and eventually, we really start to enjoy it.

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