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K(C)arnatic Music - A Brief Introduction

Stumbled across a post in a Facebook group and the discussions around the origin of Karnatic Music. So wanted to record my observations and interpretations around Karnatic music and its origin.

There are two predominant theories around the origin of Karnatic music:

  1. Divine origin: According to ancient Indian beliefs, most of the art forms are said to have originated from Gods and Goddesses.
  2. Natural origin: Seven notes of the scale(Svaras) are said to have originated from the sound of different animals.

Digging a little deeper on the natural origin of these notes gives us some interesting perspectives.

Indian classical music has seven basic notes, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni, with five interspersed half-notes, resulting in a 12-note scale.

The sounds and tones of some animals and birds were connected with the origin of some notes/swarms is referred in many ancient treatises. The keen musical sense and the ability of ancient human’s observation simulated and distinguished the frequencies, qualities, and timbre of those sounds also was another factor of the evolution of Karnatic music. The origination of Sa, Ri/Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Da/Dha, and Ni from the sound of different animals and birds are as follow:

Shadjam = Sa - Cry of the peacock Rishabham = Ri or Re - Lowing of the bull Gaandhaaram = Ga - Bleating of a goat Madhyamam = Ma - Call of the heron Panchamam = Pa - Call of the cuckoo bird Dhaivatham = Da or Dha - Neighing of the horse Nishaadham = Ni - Trumpeting of the elephant


Sa is derived from Shadja which means ‘giving birth to six’. It does give birth to 6 other notes Re is derived from Rishabha which means ‘Great One’ Ga is derived from Gandhar which means ‘sweet fragrance’ Ma derived from Madhyama which means ‘being in the middle’ Pa is derived from Panchama which means ‘the fifth note’ Dha is derived from Dhaivata which means ‘sixth note/divine’ Ni is derived from Nishad which means a ‘seventh note’ also ‘setting at rest’, ‘esoteric doctrine’, ‘secret doctrine’, ‘mysterious or mystical’

Singing the Swaras has a positive effect on the body, mind, and the consciousness. The svaras also, affect our feelings and emotions. The svaras are also associated with planets and colors:

‘sa’ (shadjam) - Mercury - green ‘ri’ (rishabham) - Mars - red ‘ga’ (gandharam) - Sun - golden color ‘ma’ (madhyam) - Moon - white or yellowish tint ‘pa’ (panchamam) - Saturn - blue or black dha’ (dhaivatam) - Jupiter - yellow ‘ni’ (nishadham) - Venus - multicolor

Music in India went through a series of evolutionary transformations. Sama-gana , the musical way rendering Sama Veda, was the earliest form of singing. Sama Veda recital has still been attributed to be the most difficult yet harmonious one. This was followed by Gandharva whose emotion was predominantly an appeal. Even now Gandharva refers to someone who is extremely good with music. It is said that ancient form of Gandharva was highly intellectual which did not give room for flexibility and imagination.

Of the two most celebrated bachelors of Hindu Mythology - Naradha and Tumburu, Tumburu was regarded as the best among the Gandharvas.

Gandharva led to Gana, music of songs.Dhuruva Gana is a song that is played during various stages of a play, usually accompanied by instruments. Natyashastra has detailed explanation on context and grammar of Dhruva Gana,

Post Gandharva period was dominated by Prabandha kind of music. The term Prabandha is explained in Sangita Ratnakara as:

A composition which is bound by Dhatu and Ang.

Dhatu means the limbs or parts of a musical composition like Sthaayi, Antara, Dhruvpad etc.. Ang means the different elements that comprise the Prabandha like swar, taal, pat, birud etc.. Prabandhas are highly structured and governed by its grammar. This eventually gave birth to Manodharma Sangita forms of music like Kriti and Drupad.

Kritis is what defined the Pallavi, Anu-Pallavi, and Charanas. Kriti is a balance of essence of the Raga, Bhava, structure of music set to a Tala. So this is why every musician has a scope to explore around the Kritis (Alapanas) and perform the various with which it can be experienced.

Along with the Kriti, several other song formats with special reference to dancing (Varna, Svarajit, and Javali etc) have come into being.

While the term raga is articulated in the Natya Shastra (where its meaning is more literal, color, as in mood), it finds a clearer expression in what is called ‘jati’ in the Dattilam

The Kalyana Chalukya King Someshwara III (1127-1139 AD) in his Manasollasa (also called Abhjilashitarta Chintamani) calls the Music of his times as Karnataka Sangita. This, perhaps, is the earliest work where the name Karnataka Sangita first appears. Later, Thulaja the Nayak ruler of Thanjavur in his Sangita saramruta (1729 – 1735) calls the Music that was in vogue at his time as Karnataka Sangita. That was, perhaps, because the authorities and the Lakshana-granthas he quoted in his work were authored by Kannada-speaking scholars. Later, Sri Subbarama Dikshitar in his Sangita-sampradaya-pradarshini (1904) refers to Sri Purandaradasa as Karnataka Sangita Pitamaha (father of Karnataka Music).

The contributions of the Kannada scholars in terms of – the Lakshna-grathas that articulated the theoretical aspects of the Music; defining the concept of classifying the Ragas under various Mela-s; refining the elements of Music such as Taala; coining fresh Music terms; and, systemising the teaching methods , particularly in the early stages of learning – had been truly enormous.

Karnatic music might look flourishing in Tamil Nadu but it did not originate here.

Next post will be more of how Raga, Tala and Melakarthas evolved.


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