Dr. P. P. Narayanaswami

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Kutcheri, Raga, Tala, Sahitya
Artistes, Composers, Lyrics
Tributes, Tidbits, Quizzes
Dance, Harikatha, Folk Music


<< Part I


The next important ancient text is the Tamil epic poem "shilappatikAram", written in the second century A. D. by Ila"ngO aDikaL, a Jain prince turned ascetic. This work is an elaborate record of the religious, political, and cultural life of the era, in which music played an extremely important role. KOvalan, the hero of the epic play, and his courtesan consort MAdhavi communicate with each other through music, recording a variety of moods, from somber seriousness to playfulness. A teasing musical phrase alienates KOvalan from MAdhavi; KOvalan leaves her company and returns to his ever-faithful wife, KaNNagi; then they make their fatal trip to Madurai. ShilappatikAram contains much useful information about the state of Tamil music and fine arts of the period. Modes, for one, are described as paNNs. Te process of deriving new paNNs by modal shifts of the tonic was known at the time.  Although its terminology is couched in the Tamil language, many of its concepts have been adopted from the nATyashAstra. Musical practice, since the time of shilappatikAram in the Tamil region took the form of devotional composition. "Tevaram" and "Tiruppugazh" singing put much of the theory into practice and the Otuvars (hymn singers) have maintained these styles of singing in temples for generations (although the current renditions of their songs do not predate the eighteenth century).

kuDimiyAmalai Inscriptions

The oldest musical notations that have come down to us are the brilliant rock inscriptions of kuDimiyAmalai, in the Pudukkottai district (in Tamilnadu), carved out during the rule of the Pallava King MahEndravarman in the seventh century A. D.  Most of the material in the inscriptions is in the grantha script and somewhat difficult to decipher; but, as the earliest known source of Indian music in notation, it is invaluable to the study of Indian music. Notations of seven large compositions in varying lengths, one in each of the primary grAma rAgas, are carved on a vertical rock, and the main body of the inscription contains thirty-eight horizontal lines of musical notation. Each line has sixty-four characters representing notes, forming sixteen groups of four each. The inscription is divided into seven large sections, and the title of each appears in Sanskrit (madhyama grAma, SaDja grAma, SADava, sadhArita, pa~ncama, kaishiki madhyama, and kaishika). These may perhaps be sections of abhyAsa gAna (exercises in singing), probably intended for practice on the vINa. The bottom of the rock contains unusual writing in a Tamil script vogue during that period.


After nATyashAstra and shilappatikAram, the most prominent text of national stature is "b.rhaddEshi", written in the ninth century A. D. by Mata"nga Muni. By his time, the term "rAga"  to describe modes had become common practice. The phrase "rAga"  is mentioned for the first time in this work. Mata"nga follows the work of Bharata very closely. While Bharata concentrates on grAma, mUrcchana, and jati, Mata"nga deals with rAgas as a special subject. Mata"nga recognized SaDja grAma and madhyama grAma. From these grAmas are derived shruti, svara, mUrcchana, tAna, jati and rAga. The ArOhaNa (ascending) and the avarOhaNa (descending) pattern of svaras, according to Mata"nga, formed the mUrcchana of a rAga. MUrcchana, in effect, describes the string of notes that, with further embellishments, constitutes the core of a rAga. These embellishments were called alamkAras of which Mata"nga lists thirty-three varieties. He describes them as musical excellence that figure in songs. He gives grAma rAgas and their derivatives. B.rhaddEshi shows that musical aesthetics had indeed reached a high level of development. (Even works created as late as the sixteenth-century compositions of PurandaradAsa might have been influenced by Mata"nga's work.) The importance of nAda (musical sound with metaphysical implications) is stressed in his work.

na nAdEna vinA gItaM na nAdEna vinA svara.h |

na nAdEna vinA n.rttaM tasmAnnAdAtmakam jagat ||

NAda is classified into sUkSma, atisUkSma, vyakta, avyakta, and k.rtrima. Mata"nga refers to two grAmas, SaDja grAma and madhyama grAma. He declares that mUrcchana is ascent, and tAna is descent. Further, he recognizes seven qualities of gitas and prabandhas: suddha, bhinna, gauDi, rAga sAdhAraNi, bhaSA and vibhASa. The classification of rAgas into shuddha, chAyAlaga and sa"nkIrNa led to many classifications of the rAga system. Tribal ragas like kAmbhOji, kuri~nji, mArva, ba"ngaLa, etc., can be traced to Mata"nga. The book is supposed to contain a section on vAdya (instruments) but this seems to be lost. Mata"nga extensively quotes the earlier work of KOhala.  

sangIta ratnAkara

The next authoritative text after b.haddEshi is the thirteenth-century work "sa"ngIta ratnAkara". This work was written by shAr"ngadEva, who lived sometime in the first half of thirteenth century. This work is of particular interest for two reasons. First, it was written in the Deccan region under the yAdava dynasty. Second, it is the last text available that was written before the onset of Islamic political influence. Shortly after this text was completed, the yAdavas, based in Devagiri, were routed. In 1294, Alau-d din Khilji attacked Devagiri and carried off to Delhi an enormous treasure. A musician named Nayak GOpal was part of the wealth transferred to Khilji's court. (The yAdava court ended in 1318 when Prince HarapAla revolted and was flayed alive by the order of the Delhi court)

Sa"ngIta RatnAkara has seven adhyAyas (chapters): svara, rAga, prakIrNnaka, prabandha, tALa, vAdya, and n.rtta. The discussion of svara includes nAda, svara, grAma, mUrcchana, tAna, svara prastAra, varNAlamkara, and jati. Details are given about shuddha svara, SaDja and madhyama grAma, mUrcchanas, shuddha tAna, gamaka, and so forth. ShAr"ngadEva records 264 rAgas, fifteen varieties of gamakas and twelve types of tALas (rhythmic cycles). The terminology of twenty-two shrutis, grAma, mUrcchana, tAna and alamkAra has all been preserved, but it takes a more advanced form than similar terminology found in earlier manuscripts. While the framework of rAga as we know it today was not understood at the time of ShAr"ngadEva, both b.rhaddEshi and sa"ngIta ratnAkara laid down the foundations for rAga creation based on grAma mUrcchana. Among the numerous commentaries on sa"ngIta ratnAkara, the one that stands out is "kalAnidhi" by KallinAtha; another is SimhabhUpAla's "sudhAkara"

During the time between b.rhaddEshi" and  "sa"ngIta ratnAkara", Indian music proliferated, in terms of both modes and aesthetic practices Yet up to the thirteenth century, there is no way to find any distinction between karNatik and HindustAni traditions. There were different elements and also different terminology, but the theory seems to be unitary. The development of music in subsequent centuries does not give any indication that there were any decisive breaks with the past. What we do find are differences in styles, types of musical compositions, aesthetic values, and, above all, goals of musical cultivation. Musical treatises of this long period have recorded the features of India's musical development.

sangIta samayasAra

Musical practice also underwent considerable change as new forms of compositions emerged in thirteenth-century and after, an era which also saw the production of both theoretical and practical works on music. Of texts that appeared after sa"ngIta ratnAkara, a notable one was the monumental "sa"ngIta samayasAra" by the thirteenth-century Jain author PArshvadEva. It consists of 1400 verses spread around 10 adhikAras.  Some parts of his work were lost, except for nine chapters, in which topics such as nAda (sound), dhvani (pitch), sharIra (resonating body), gIta (vocal music), Alapti (rhythm-free introduction), varNa (melodic lines) and alamkAra (ornamentation), various types of compositions, sthAya (melodic phrases), and tAla are discussed at length.

Other works around the period

Around 1130AD, the cAlUkya king SOmEshvara wrote a huge work, "mAnasOllAsa" (also known as "abhilASitArttha cintAmaNi"). It is a mixture of prose and verses.  Instrumental music is given great importance along with a classification of them.  His son, JagadEkamalla authored the work "sa"ngIta cUDAmaNi".  During the same period, another work, "sa"ngItasudhAkara" was compiled by HaripAla, a King of Gujarat.  "Sa"ngItOpaniSad sArOddhAra" is yet a work on music and dance composed by SudhAkalasha.

VidAraNya of Vijayanagaram made a prominent contribution, "sa"ngItasAra" in the 1300s.  This work discusses rAga s and rAgiNis at great length.  The concept of time is tied up with the mood of the rAga. Improvisation, or rAga AlaApana is dealt with in detail.  Six a"ngas of an AlApana are discussed, namely AkSipta, rAgavardhani, vidari, sthAyi,  vartani and nyAsa.  A list of 16 mELas (parent scales) are provided along with some janyams derived from them.

Post ratnAkara period a brief history

Northern India was under the domination of the invading Islamic conquerors from the 13th century. Alau-ud-din Khilji had many court musicians and poets. Amir Khusro.  the prominent among them, introduced the musical forms, Qual and TaraNa. Being Persian in origin, he undoubtedly blended Persian and Arabic forms into Indian Music so well that what emerged was different, and ultimately more interesting.  Muhammad bin Thuglaq, Ibrahim Shah of Jaupur, Zain-ul-Abidin of Kashmir, and many other rulers had numerous court musicians.  RAja Mansingh of Gwalior was a renowned composer, who encouraged the dhrupad style of singing.  Hussain Shah Sharqui of Jaunpur introduced the Khyal style.  Under the Mughals, musical patronage continued to reach new heights. Emperor Akbar's court was adorned by many illustrious musicians, the most famous being Miya Tansen.

Over these periods, many important musical treatises were written, both by Hindu and Muslim scholars.  The first Persian work on Indian Music, "Lahjat-I-Sikandar Shahi" was written under the Sikandar Lodi of Delhi. Ibrahim adil Shah II of Bijapur composed the "Kitab-I-Nauras" (Nine rasas), a collection of poems about emotions to be sung in different rAgas.  There is a work, "sa"ngIta mAlika" by the muslim musicologist, Mohammed Shah, written in Sanskrit with a commentary in Hindi.

While northern India came under Islamic rule in the thirteenth century, peninsular India and Deccan became the realm of the Vijayanagara empire, founded around 1336 A. D. by Harihara and Bukka. Most of the energies of the Vijayanagara emperors were spent in fighting the Bamani sultans. There were many unholy alliances and much religious animosity. Among the Vijayanagara rulers, K.rSNadEvarAya, who reigned from 1509-29, stands out, and his encouragement of religion and the arts has been noted by many authorities. By 1565, however, the Vijayanagara Empire crumbled, and its rulers were reduced to local chieftains. Later, the power of the Bijapur sultans was taken over by the Mughal Aurungzeb. At this time, the Telugu rulers also founded the NAyak Empire in Madurai, which was later extended to the Tanjore region. Marattas, who hounded the Mughals all over India, founded a royal line in Ta~njore, replacing the NAyak rulers. Soon afterwards, the British became a factor in the region. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, musical development in southern India took place under these historical currents. Undoubtedly, the ebb and flow of different political powers have left their telltale marks on the musical development of the region.

The karNATIk and HindustAni traditions

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw the compositions of many musical treaties and compositions, and until around the 1660s, both Hindustani and karNATik systems of music claim the same texts as their source material. "SvaramELakalAnidhi" was written in 1550 by RAmAmtya, a minister of Vijayanagaram's RAma Raja. Then came "RagavibOdha" of SOmanAtha in 1609.  "CaturdanDIprakashika" was written in 1660 by Ve."kaTamakhin. These writings mark the beginning of what can be called the karNaTik tradition. There were also treatises produced in northern India at that time; noteworthy are "SadragacandrOdaya" by PuNDarIka ViTTala at the end of sixteenth century;  "Ragatara"ngiNi" by LOcana Kavi (date not well established); "H.rdayakautaka" by H.rdaya NArAyaNa (c1660); and "Sa"ngIta Parijata" by AhObila (c1665). In these works, the classification of rAgas according to a specific parent scale became a well-established practice, replacing the mUrcchana system. Even though shruti is mentioned, it was no longer functional as in "nATyashAstra", the madhyama grAma having fallen by the wayside. By the end of the seventeenth century, the message of "nATyashAstra" was largely irrelevant for actual musical practice, both in southern and northern India.

Having reached a pinnacle during the Mughal era, musical development suffered in its later years. Aurungzeb (1658-1707), although fond of music, chose to follow an Islamic fundamentalist life once he ascended the Delhi throne. He ordered musicians out of his court, and these unfortunate artists had to seek their livelihood in less glamorous provincial courts. With this dispersal, it became difficult to communicate musical knowledge and, over the years, musical theory and practice separated. The chasm widened due to lack of knowledge of Sanskrit or Persian by practicing musicians. Nevertheless, tradition was jealously guarded and passed on. Khyal singing, due largely to the efforts of Sadarang and Adarang during the reign of Mughal Shah (1719-1748), came to the forefront of musical performance. Gradually, gharanas developed.  Music became professionalized and techniques were guarded as trade secrets. Attempts at standardization did not begin until the twentieth century when Pandit V. N. Bhatkhande worked out a system of classification.


Among the theoretical works of the period, the first one was "SvaramELkalanidhi" by RamAmATya, written under royal commission in 1550. It is brief and clearly written, forming an important link with the past (ShAr"ngadEva's Sa"ngIta ratnAkaram seems to have inspired it) while dealing with the modern era in karNatik music. RAmAmAtya upheld the claims of lakSya (purposeful musical activity) over mere lakSana (organized sound), a tradition that, to this day, is stressed in the karNATik musical system. In asserting this, RAmAmAtya sets the grammar of music on a firm foundation. Using the vINa as an instrument with which to conduct research into the nature of sound vibrations, RAmAmatya worked out a group of twenty parent scales which he called mELa. From these scales, 64 janya rAgas were derived, classified into a hierarchical scheme: uttama (superior), madhyama (good), and adhama (inferior). They were also assigned as appropriate to different times of the day and for different seasons. Eventually, this classification scheme lost currency in southern India. His generative grammar scheme and the use of vINa for acoustic exploration, however, mark him as a pioneer in the modern development of karNATik music.


In the wake of RAmAmAtya's work came SOmanAtha's "RagavibOdha", published in 1609. As the name suggests, this treatise dealt with rAgas. On fundamental musical theory involving the controversial twenty-two shrutis, mELas and rAga generation, SOmanAtha had nothing new to say, although he clarified many points. His main contribution lies in setting down the technique of writing the exposition of rAgas (rAga sa~ncAra); in addition, he investigates the nature and role of dEshi (folk) music and its position in relation to classical music. He clearly held folk music in high regard as a source of emotive expression and musical forms. Techniques of vINa playing fascinated him as well. He emphasized the subtleties of the instrument, giving it pride of place in his treatise.

SangIta PArijAtam

"Sa"ngIta Parijatam" by AhObila, written in the seventeenth century, is considered to be the root of the present-day Hindustani system of music. Under six mELa categories, this work tabulates 11,340 rAgas with three subdivisions (pentatonic, hexatonic, and heptatonic). But the work describes only 122 of those rAgas in detail. Instead of using specific names for his scales, AhObila uses phrases like vik.rta svara, kOmal, tIvra, tIvratara, and so on. His scale of suddha notes corresponds to the current KAfi  thATh of the  Hindustani system.

SangIta Sudha

In CaturdaNDI PrakAshika, the author Ve"nkaTamakhin clearly attributes "Sa"ngIta Sudha" to GovindAcArya (Govinda DIkSita) a minister under the NAyak rulers of Ta~njore (Sevappan, Acyutappan, and RaghunAtha), contrary to some beliefs that RaghunAtha NAyak was the author. Of the seven chapters that probably existed, only four are extant, which mostly discuss "Sa"ngIta ratnAkaram". Ten types of rAgas are described, with a further classification of thirty grAma rAga, eight uparAga, twenty upA"nga, ninety-six bhASa rAga, twenty vibhASa rAga, four antarbhASa rAga, twenty-one rAga"nga rAga, twenty bhaSA"nga rAga, thirty upA"nga rAga, and fifteen kriyA"nga rAga. Thirteen lakSaNas of rAga are enunciated (graha, amsha, tAra, mandra, nyAsa, apanyAsa, samanyAsa, vinyAsa, bahutva, alpatva, antarmArga, SaDava, and auDava). Fifteen mELas and fifty rAgas are described according to the scheme of VidyAraNya, and lengthy details on the concept of AlApana are also included.

Part III >>


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