An Introduction to Indian Classical Music (Carnatic)

This is the second installment of my introduction to Indian Classical music. It’s dedicated to the Carnatic tradition from southern India. Like the first exploration, which focused on Hindustani music, it is written from a western perspective, and for western listeners entering the rich traditions of Indian music. I will do my best to discuss basic themes and concepts within Carnatic music, but my own limitations should be acknowledged. Despite my ambitions for these writings, and my love for both traditions, I still know relatively little about Indian Classical music. It is an incredibly complex, diverse, and nuanced tradition. It would take a lifetime of study to do it justice. When contrasted with the Hindustani tradition, many aspects of Carnatic music will be easier for western listeners to conceptualize, though it’s sometimes less accessible to our ears. The music is deeply spiritual, utilizes rapid tempos, and is often ecstatic in nature. My love for it was late to develop, and these albums have only begun to enter my collection in the last few years. For this reason, and others, I know less about it than the Hindustani tradition. That considered, many of the basic concepts of Carnatic music are cross-traditional. I have explored these in my writings about Hindustani music. I recommend those who have not read the first installment to do so before continuing further.  I hope my efforts will offer some entry into this incredible world. I’ll do my best to transfer the relevant aspects of what I know, while trying to keep it simple and not overwhelm. Please forgive my limitations where they might fall. Because I am writing from a western perspective, for western listeners, and because of the dynamic differences between western music and music from India, there will inevitably be generalization and errors in translation. Please forgive me this, and understand I am writing with the best of intentions.

Though it was largely neglected during my early explorations of Indian Classical music, my appreciation for the Carnatic tradition has grown steadily over the years. Sadly, my understanding remains elusive and under-developed. I am not able to impart as much as I might like, and am forced to predicate this section with an admittance of this failure. There are reasons for this. My tastes lean toward musical characteristics found more frequently within the northern tradition, and as a result, Carnatic music has been slow to unfold itself. There is also a marked difference in accessibility. Not only are Carnatic records less available in the west, but there seem to be significantly fewer of them as a whole. Though it shouldn’t be taken as gospel, Discogs lists around 150 records in the Carnatic tradition, against over 1000 in the Hindustani. I have no explanation for this disparity, nor whether it bears any indication of popularity, or reflects roughly accurate totals of respective recordings. Either way, it should be understood that it’s hard to find records from the southern tradition, or access a range of music within it. As I did with my exploration of Hindustani music, I have done my best to choose a broad representation of instruments and vocalists within the tradition – while trying to choose recordings that are relatively inexpensive and easily found. For the reasons illustrated above, this has been less successful than my previous effort.

The roots of Carnatic music trace back thousands of years. Both northern and southern traditions of Indian Classical music share the same beginnings, but Carnatic music is much closer to their ancient Vedic origins. The basic concepts found in Hindustani music, such as the the playing of ragas, which are harmonic modes (a constrained set of notes around which a melody is structured) played toward a specific meaning, in conjunction with talas (rhythmic cycles), are present in Carnatic music. These structures are rooted in the oldest realizations of Indian music, and directly relate to spiritual meaning. Between traditions, there are differences in ragas, both through how they are realized, and how they are arranged. Though musicians do sometimes contribute new ragas, the primary ragas in both traditions were not composed. They evolved and were passed down over many centuries. That said, the Carnatic tradition does have a greater frequency of attribution for its ragas. Almost all ragas are written to be sung. Even for those with a developed understanding of this music, recognizing a raga, as it is played, can be incredibly challenging. Carnatic music utilizes a great deal of improvisation within a prescribed mode, but this is much more restricted than in the Hindustani tradition, as its ragas adhere to a far more rigid structure. Like the northern tradition, Carnatic music uses a drone as a harmonic reference point to the raga being played. This is most often established using a tanpura. Where Hindustani music has a broad range of allowance for degrees of religious devotion within its boundaries, as well as religious neutrality of its players, the Carnatic tradition is focused on the spiritual tenants of Hinduism. Most Carnatic recordings that stray from the raga tradition are songs of devotion. Unlike Hindustani, which is an aural tradition, Carnatic music is taught and learned in a written form, thus has a much stricter structure within which a musician can improvise and interpret. In this way, it is a form whose realization is much easier for western listeners to understand, and allows for a greater familiarity between interpretation of a raga. The Carnatic tradition does not constrain its ragas to relationships to times of day and seasons. This means that unlike  the Hindustani tradition, a raga can be played without consequence at any time. This has lead to the borrowing of southern ragas, by northern players, for performances. This rarely happens in reverse. Languages generally differ between traditions. Hindustani music is primarily sung in Hindi, where as Carnatic is most often sung in Telugu. This might account for some of the discrepancies in the distribution of Carnatic music, but given that 75 million people in India speak Telugu, it seems unlikely.

There are similarities, between traditions, in how the primary ragas are organized. Both divide them into sets of six (referred to as Chakras in the south). The Carnatic tradition does not arrange its 72 primary ragas with subdivisions such as Raginis or Putras. The equivalent of the primary six ragas in the Hindustani tradition are called Janaka (parent) Ragas, bellow them are groups of Janya (decedent) Ragas. Each Janaka defines a Chakra. Because the ragas of the Carnatic tradition are written, but still hold improvisation at the heart of their realization, the way a raga is guided into being is markedly different. The Hindustani has the system of thāts attached to each raga that helps determine the development of meaning and improvisation. As I mentioned in the previous installment, though thāts are attached to a set of notes (mode), those notes may be abandoned to achieve its higher meaning described by the thāt. This is not the case in the Carnatic tradition. Improvisation is strictly within a raga’s given mode, and described by 7 primary methods- Alapana, Niraval, Pallavi, Ragam, Swarakalpana, Tanam, and Tani Avartanam. These are structural guidelines toward arrangements and articulations of notes, and used as approaches to improvisation, rather than as a movement toward specific spiritual meaning. From what I can tell, though there is a great deal of focus on what a player brings to a raga in the southern tradition, the spiritual content within it is implicit. A raga is always that raga. Carnatic music, both in recordings and performances, is generally focused on songs of particular structures and ragas. In both cases, lyrics tends to be fixed and of a devotional nature. The structure of songs is sometimes underpinned by a raga, and sometimes only crosses into aspects of a raga. Song structures are arranged into the classifications – each with a basic structure of approach. These are Ragam Thanam Pallavi, Gitam, Svarajati, Varnam, Kriti, and Tillana. Because Carnatic music recordings include both songs and ragas, but ragas are often denoted by the song they underlay, it can be difficult understanding what you are listening to. When first beginning to explore this tradition, I would advise not worrying to much about understanding these structures. Let your ears guide you.

Despite their apparent differences, Carnatic music shares enough similarity with the northern tradition that most new listeners would struggle to distinguish them. As time passes, and depending on where your ears are drawn, the distinctions become more pronounced. Though I lack the benefit of access to language and culture, these two traditions of music feel incredibly distinct. Carnatic music tends to have much faster tempos, sometimes at breakneck speeds, and drifts toward greater display of a musician’s virtuosity. The music is often hypnotically repetitive – almost chanty. It is less melancholic and reflective in nature, and seems to have a more joyful relationship to its spiritual meaning. When listening to the two traditions side by side, over time, it becomes apparent the marked differences in the way that a musician’s spiritual connection is expressed. The Carnatic tradition, though more restrictive in form, seems to encourage a less constrained emotional content. It moves outward and is far more ecstatic in nature.

This group of records has been hard to construct, particularly when considering what I wanted to be able to offer within it. When I was working out what to include in the Hindustani section, I was overwhelmed by viable options, and subjected dozens to the chopping block. In this case I’ve had few to choose from. As I mentioned, this is related to accessibility. I own around 50 records in the Carnatic tradition. Though significantly less than what I own of Hindustani music, it should be more than enough to choose from. Unfortunately, most of the Carnatic albums I own are impossibly obscure, have no digital record, and have little reference elsewhere. It would defeat my purpose to focus on them. Carnatic music also has a more constrained representation of solo instruments – the violin, the flute, the veena, the nadaswaram, and the Gottuvadyam (which frustratingly, I do not own any recordings of and is obscure in its own right). Encountering other instruments is extremely uncommon. As a result it is much harder to give a broad overview as the tradition itself offers less diversity. Of the six recordings I’ve chosen, the first four are hard to find, but not impossible. The last two are easy and affordable. I hope you will be patient and track them down.


Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu ‎– Memorable Violin Solos (1971)

This record is part of a group of releases, that I wish I could discuss more. They draw from both traditions and were brought about because of a resurgent interest in Indian Classical music during the 1950’s and 60’s – largely due to the fame of a young generation of players during that period. These LP’s group old recordings from 78s and radio performances made by an earlier generation of musicians. They offer a rare view into a short cross section within the history of this music and show how it evolved over a short period, despite the music’s grand tenure. Thus, these recordings are probably the oldest on this list, despite the album’s late release.

The use of western instruments within both traditions of Indian classical music has been fairly common for centuries. The violin is central to Carnatic music and encountered more often than any other instrument. What is particularly interesting about this, is that though it is of western design, it’s earliest realizations are thought to have been Indian. Early versions of this instrument, called Ravanhattas, were taken through North Africa by traders, and then into Europe, where it evolved into what we now call a violin. It was then reintroduced to India during the colonial period.  Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu was regarded as one of Carnatic music’s most important violinists. He was born in 1893 and died in 1964. His playing set the bar for many members of the generation that followed him. This series of recording exhibits both ragas and songs in many of the styles I mention above. It’s a good introduction to range within the southern tradition, and displays some of its greatest heights. The album also paints an unexpected picture of Indian music’s ancient roots, and helps us understand their relationship to musics across broad geographies. The fact that we are hearing a violin, a familiar instrument in the west, helps build a sonic bridge, but we must not forget that this is still an ancient music of clear lineage. Not only did the Ravanhatta travel, but so did its music. As the violin cries out, in Naidu’s hands, we hear fragments of striking similarity to the folk musics of North Africa, Spain, and Eastern Europe. It is a reminder that the ancient world and its many cultures were not hermetic, nor closed off to us now. Music traveled and evolved both over time and distance. This is a moment where we can understand how India’s ancient music traveled and embedded itself in music that would become part of the cultural landscapes many of us call our own.



Chitti Babu – Veena (1968)

The veena is one of the Carnatic tradition’s most common instruments, and one of my favorite across both traditions. I think of it as being halfway between the sitar and the sarod. It possesses some of the harmonic intricacy found in the former, while also owning some of the percussiveness of the later. To my ear, it is almost perfect. Chitti Babu was one of the most famous and renowned players of the veena. He was born in 1936 and died in 1996. Due in part to his fame, his records are fairly easy to track down. This album comes early in his catalog, and is one of my favorite record covers in a tradition graced with incredible graphic design. It is composed entirely of devotional songs, whose structures are related to ragas, but not part of the six chakras. Babu seemed to favor songs during his career over more serious ragas.  From a western point of view, particularly when you are beginning your explorations of Carnatic music, I wouldn’t worry too much about the structural character of the music you encounter, or distinguishing between songs and ragas. For an outsider the differences will seem subtle. The important thing is your relationship to the music itself and whether or not you like what you hear. On this album, and throughout Babu’s body of recordings, there is a lighter and less intense approach than is often encountered in Carnatic music. He brings a sense of air and an ethereal quality, to the songs he plays, which is distinct and worthy of exploration.



T.R. Mahalingam ‎– Flute (1969)

The flute is fairly common within South Indian Classical music, but is not as well represented in recorded form. With Natesan Ramani and Hariprasad Chaurasia, Thenkarai Ramakrishna Mahalingam is one of it’s most famous players. He was born in 1926 and died in 1986. He was generally regarded as a child prodigy and as having revolutionized the approach to playing the Carnatic flute. His style of playing has since overtaken all others in this tradition. He is also credited as being the first to bring the flute into the harmonic range associated with the human voice, something previously thought impossible. He had a long and illustrious career, but sadly did not record prolifically. This album can be difficult to find and often commands high prices. Fortunately, the excellent Japanese label EM reissued its entire contents as part of a larger compilation in 2010. You might have better luck looking for that. These recordings are incredibly beautiful and consuming. It breaks my heart that Mahalingam  only has a couple of recordings in his name. He takes us to great heights and into a profound inner beauty. There is something about his playing on this album which I cannot put my finger on. It is stripped down, austere and without embellishment. It feels more pure than other recordings in the southern tradition, perhaps more inward, reflective and connected to the northern tradition. I cannot recommend it enough.



Lalgudi Jayaraman – Violin, Venu, Veena (1971)

This album melts my brain. It is absolutely incredible. Easily one of my favorites on this list, and probably of all the Carnatic albums I own. Lalgudi Jayaraman was one of South India’s most famous and well represented violin players. He was born in 1930 and died in 2013. Though this album credits him as its primary player, the recording represents a trio of players who take equal importance as it unfolds. In addition to Jayaraman, we also encounter the flautist N. Ramani, who I briefly mentioned above, and the veena player Trivandrum R Venkataraman, who enjoyed a long and respected career in India. To my only knowledge, this is the only recording of his playing available. It’s a great introduction to Carnatic music, and were the album’s availability not somewhat limited, it’s where I would recommend everyone to start. Not only is the music incredible, but in a single stroke, is also displays three of the tradition’s most noted instruments. It’s a great taste of the dynamic range found in the south. That set aside. The music.. oh the music! Few albums I own take me so far, and to such heights. All three players are in top form. There are moments where one of the three players takes control as the others fall away, others of call and response, where one having taken the reins – thrusts it at another, and moments where they intertwine, shift among each other and double the next instrument’s notes. The emotional density is overwhelming. In some inexplicable way, there is the outward ecstatic quality familiar in Carnatic music, while at the same time there is a level of inward contemplation more noted in the northern tradition. This album takes you on a journey with few parallels.



Sundaram Balachander – Sangeeta Madras (1963)

This album is common and affordable. You can find it in most second hand record shops. As much as I rail against the potential for elitism within record culture, and never want to believe that the cost of a record is a reflection of its quality, I am guilty of this occasionally. I passed on this record for years, assuming that there was a good reason for its general availability – e.g. people sold it because it sucks. Do not fall prey to this as I did. When I finally got around to listening to, and subsequently buying it, this album quickly became a favorite. It was issued in the 1960’s as part of a World Pacific series dedicated to Indian Classical music for release in the western market. It also features the flute playing of N. Ramani, who we encountered above. Sundaram Balachander is one of India’s most renowned players of the veena. I adore his playing, particularly for the aggressiveness of his attack. Generally speaking, Indian classical music is not known for its musicians taking their frustrations out on their instruments, and though I’m sure this is not what is actually happening, at times it feels like this. It’s great. Though this type of attack does seem to be more characteristic in veena playing, Balachander’s particular aggression is something I can find little equivalent for anywhere in Indian classical music. He hammers out his notes furiously. Though the album is in Balachander’s name, N. Ramani’s flute playing takes considerable focus. It is close to a duet album, but on the first side Balachander takes the lead, and N. Ramani does the same on the second. This album is great, profoundly beautiful, and incredibly worthy of your time.


Smt. M.S. Subbulakshmi ‎– Meera Bhajans (1965)

Like the album above, I encountered this album with frequency in second hand record shops. During her long lifetime, M.S. Subbulakshmi was the Cranatic tradition’s most famous singer. She was born in 1916 and died in 2004. Most of her life was spent in the spotlight. She came from a family with an esteemed musical lineage, and began her studies early. Though her recordings are dedicated to the Carnatic tradition, she is one of the few Indian musicians that I am aware of who embarked on a dedicated study of both traditions. A great many of her recordings are of a deeply devotional nature, and dedicated to the singing of spiritual texts. This album is no exception. Bhajans are encountered across both traditions, and unlike most music in the Carnatic tradition, are sung in Hindi. They are devotional songs of no fixed structure, and thus can be adapted to fit any form or genre of singing. Because they are derived from spiritual texts, the lyrics tend to be fixed outside moments of improvisation.  Subbulakshmi’s voice in incredibly beautiful, imbuing every verse with a density of emotional depth. This album has a sound fairly familiar within Indian music of a devotional nature. It has an ecstatic quality which verges at times on becoming a mantra. It’s a great place to begin when exploring the southern tradition’s more devotional qualities.


-Bradford Bailey


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  3. Stuart Riddle

    Another good selection, but perhaps a few things I would differ about. I think one of the key differences between Carnatic and Hindustani music is in performance practice – Carnatic concerts in my experience feature about half a dozen ragas – mostly fast and furious – but with one at the centre of the performance which gets a longer treatment and a more intense emotional approach. One advantage of the CD format is that these longer renditions can be programmed on a disc.

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