A centerpiece of technology, industry, business and culture within India, almost 5 million people live in the city of Chennai. From automobiles and textiles to finance and film, the city is alive with its own activities and progress. One area this has always been true is in the music of Chennai, known as Carnatic music.
Carnatic music is an art form developed in southern India, and its history reaches back hundreds of years. Somewhere after the 13th century, the music of northern India and the regions to the south started to head develop differently, so by the 15th century, Carnatic music was sound all its own. Today, it still inspires listeners, singers and musicians, and travelers come from far and wide hoping to hear Chennai for themselves. If you book a holiday in Chennai, here is a closer look at what you should listen for when you go.
Madras Music Season
The Music Academy, Madras was established in 1929 to promote, protect and maintain the standards of Carnatic music. Over time, it has become a standard for traditional Indian dance as well, ensuring the preservation of musical and dance performances and the continuation of their techniques, theories, compositions, histories and more. Each December, in a continuing effort to promote the art forms they have seen fit to protect, the Academy organizes and hosts the Madras Music Season-one of the most important cultural events in the entire world-where Carnatic music and traditional dance take centre stage in Chennai. (image by Easwar Chandran).
Performed by a small group of musicians, Carnatic music is centred around a principal performer-usually a singer, but the reason the music sounds the way it does has more to do with the notes, timing, choices, theories and compositions than the people-or instruments-in the ensemble.
Sruti is really just another name for musical pitch; the sruti is the note-or key-determining the rest of the notes involved. Because the number of notes found within a scale is technically infinite-in the same way are an infinite number of points on a line-sruti establishes what the graded pitches are within an octave. In Carnatic music, there are 22 different notes within an octave (by contrast, in Western music, an octave has 12 notes in it)that can be performed and discerned, allowing for a lot of melodic movement within a small auditory space.
Swara refers to a sound that is a musical note defined not by its frequency, but by its relative position to the notes above and below it. It is an auditory location system so musicians can play the same melody or part in a different sruti. Because sruti can and does change, swara-like a musical, shape-shifting map-is always able to move itself to where the new sruti is, without a loss of the distance and intervals between notes. Basically, swaras are the solfege of Carnatic music. (image by Scott Griessel).
A raga system is a set of rules by which a melody is created. Rules for how and when notes move up and down, which notes should only be used in rare instances, which phrases ought to be employed or avoided-the list is a long one, and it is specific to Carnatic music. All styles of music have their own version of a raga system. In Western music, it is called a mode. In short, raga is a grouping of rules that have to be followed completely, or at least with only a slight deviation now and again, in order to ensure the music being played is truly Carnatic music.
While the raga system dealt with notes, the tala system deals with time. A fixed number of beats or a cycle of time exists within every song, and there are specific ways in which these are incorporated and utilized so different rhythms result across songs. One beautiful feature of Carnatic music is the way singers keep time by moving their hands and fingers up and down in pre-set patterns.
As is the case with most art forms, Carnatic music must be seen-and heard in person-to be fully appreciated for the remarkable and specific style of music it is. While a holiday to Chennai in December to see the Madras Music Season would be ideal,anytime you want to havea Carnatic musical experience, simply travel to Chennai and listen.
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Feature image by V S Anandha Krishna