Tradition, Classicism and Innovation in Karnatic Music

December 18, 2015 at 10:50 pm 1 comment

(Article by Dr Kanniks Kannikeswaran published in the Sep 2015 and Oct 2015 issues of Sruti Magazine. Reproduced with permission)

An oft repeated quote in musical circles is ‘tradition should never be violated’. Another one is, ‘We purists cannot accept these experiments. The purity of Karnatic Music should never be compromised’.

These quips and more lead us to certain fundamental questions. What is tradition in Karnatic Music? Or for that matter what is Karnatic Music and what is tradition? What constitutes purity?

I have posed the question ‘What is Karnatic Music?’ to several practitioners and students. The answer that I get is invariably along the lines of the following. ‘Karnatic music is South Indian Classical music; it is all about the rendition of kriti-s with manodharmam and the creation of an aesthetic experience for the rasikas”.

All the answers that  I got  pointed to the kucheri paddhati of Karnatic Music.

However, Karnatic music as we know it is much larger than that. It is actually a wide umbrella encompassing the Kucheri paddhati, the music that accompanies dance forms such as kathakali, bharatanatyam, kuchipudi and mohiniattam, the bhajana sampradaya, the tevara singing in temples and more. Despite the fact that the repertoires of these sub-genres do not intersect what is common to all of them is the system of ragas and talas. Conservative traditions such as Tevaram are limited to a small set of ragas while the kucheri and the bharatanatyam music repertoire embraces a wider range of ragas and talas. At the core of the Karnatic music umbrella is the theory that underlies much of the lakshya.

As it can be seen, the kucheri is only a subset of this wide umbrella. In fact the word kucheri is not a Tamil or a Telugu word; it is not even a sanskrit word. It is an urdu word that means ‘a court’ where disputes are decided. The phrase ‘court kucheri’ is commonly used in Tamil colloquy. How did the word ‘kucheri’ come to describe a music performance? It is possible that the fact that performances happened in ‘Courts’ of kings (especially Thanjavur, Pudukkottai etc.) led to the usage of the name ‘kucheri’ to denote a performance itself.

Given that the ‘kucheri’is the de facto face of Karnatic music, when we talk about tradition in Karnatic music, do we only talk about the generally accepted tradition in kucheris?

kacheriKucheris of today present a blend of manodharma and kalpita sangitam. The sangati as we know today is an integral element of a kriti rendition in the kucheri and otherwise. The sangati falls in the domain of both the kalpita sangitam and manodharma sangitam. Certain singers take pride in demonstrating fidelity to their guru parampara by faithfully reproducing sangati-s each time they render kritis in a kucheri exactly as taught to them by their guru in conformity with tradition while certain others leave it to the moment to improvise sangati-s.

However, are the sangati-s of today the same as those conceived by the composers who lived 200 years ago? By conforming to the sangati-s practiced by our guru parampara are we honoring the intent of the composer who created the same kriti 200 years ago?

The kriti Vatapi Ganapatim for example, as composed by Dikshitar was bereft of sangati-s; it was Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer of Thanjavur who created the practice of singing this composition at a higher tempo along with a volley of a dozen sangati-s. Every karnatic musician is proud of these sangati-s no doubt. However, was Vaidyanatha Iyer’s introduction of sangati-s thanks to his creative license a violation of tradition? It is said that Dikshitar’s nephew Subbarama Dikshitar was not happy with Iyer’s transgression of the original composition that he even excluded him from the Vaggeyakarakula charitam (biographies of Vaggeyakaras) in which he had included many of his contemporary vaggeyakaras.

Thus by rendering the multiple sangati-s in Vatapi Ganapatim whether in a solo rendition in a concert or in a congregational rendition, what is the tradition that we are honoring and what is the tradition that we are leaving behind?

col dikshitarHere is another example from the world of Dikshitar’s compositions. The kriti svaminatha paripalayasu is well known to all as a madhyamakala kriti with an eduppu offset by 3 matras from the samam and is enjoyed as a brisk composition that sets the mood in the beginning of a kucheri. Little do many of us know that the kriti Svaminatha as it is etched in our collective cognition is the result of an innovation in the 1900s where the original chauka kala sama eduppu kriti was popularized into this current form by none other than one of the greatest performers of the past century GNB himself. The lakshmi_shankarlate vidushi Lakshmi Shankar has stated that she remembers her mother who had learned the ‘then traditional’ version of this kriti from TL Venkatarama Iyer had cried foul at GNB’s clever transformation in the early 1900s. In today’s world, the chauka kala rendition of this kriti would probably be frowned upon as a ‘violation of tradition’ by rasikas and critics alike.

What constitutes tradition in the field of ragas? It is the later day kanakangi/ratnangi mela system that holds currency today as opposed to the more ‘traditional’ raganga raga system followed by the Venkatamakhi parampara all the way from Ramaswami Dikshitar through Subbarama Dikshitar (and even Ambi Dikshitar). Do we construe the usage of Ganamurti (or for that matter even the raga names from the relatively modern kanakangi/ratnangi scheme ) for instance as an affront to an older tradition? A rendition of ‘Ganamurte’ in the raga ganamurti rich in sangati-s would receive vehement nods of approval today as conforming to tradition. However it is not commonly known that ‘Ganamurte’ is allegedly a composition created by the sishya parampara of Tyagaraja. By attributing it to Tyagaraja and performing it which tradition are we honoring and what are we violating?

The question of tradition slips into grey areas when there is an intersection between liturgical music and the kucheri paddhati. The Tevara singing tradition was codified during the era of the monarch Raja Raja I by the Saint Nambiandar Nambi. Teveram singing is confined to a limited number of panns. We see the occasional presence of Tevara hymns in the ‘‘traditional’ kucheri paddhati with the text tuned to modern ragas of the 18th century. While the tuning of the ancient text from the 11th century to ragas that didn’t exist is considered to be a transgression of the sacred music tradition by some in the Oduvar community, the kucheri paddhati does allow this liberty without batting an eyelid. Again, are we violating tradition by singing 11th century verses in 18th century ragas?

What is tradition in Karnatic music? Should there be limits and constraints on interpreting music?
bmkAgain, I got a range of answers from a number of practitioners. However the answer that really struck a chord in me was that given by Dr Balamuralikrishna in an interview to Sruti in 1984. ‘Tradition is nothing other than the basic grammar around which a superstructure is built’. He goes on to say that anyone is free to innovate and that only those innovations that ‘are good’ will secure the approval of rasikas for sustained periods of time and continue as traditions; and anything that survives the test of time is a classic regardless of whether it is a composition featured in a film or whether it is an innovation within the kucheri paddhati.

Thus the sangati-s of Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer on an accelerated version of the rather stoic kriti Vatapi Ganapatim that have survived the test of time constitute tradition so much so that a vilamba kala rendition of this composition bereft of sangati-s as notated in the Sangita Sampradaya pradarsini (1905) could be construed as a violation of tradition!

There are several such innovations that we take for granted as tradition. We only have to look back at history to get an idea of the innovations that have led us to where we are.

kanniks_violin_scrubbedThe violin was a colonial instrument that entered the fold of South Indian Art music perhaps in the early 1800s thanks to Baluswami Dikshitar and the Thanjavur quartet. Thus, about 200 years ago, the violin was not part of the Karnatic music tradition while it is an integral component today. Not only have various banis of performing the violin come into being today; there are competitions and benchmarks that place the various players of today. The violin came to India during the lifetime of Beethoven. Its natural sound range and tuning (E/A/D/G) was altered to suit the vocal range of Indian performers; even the strings are tuned S/P/S/P much like the Sarasvati vina of South India.

The harmonium came to India with the missionaries; the pedal harmonium was a substitute for church organs. The hand bellowed harmonium was an innovation which gained popularity in Hindustani khyal music, thumri, bhajan and kirtan renditions, the bhajana sampradaya and other karnatic music sub-genres of yesteryears.

Playing Karnatic music on instruments alien to the South Indian soil in a solo setting is just an extension of the existing paradigm of Karnatic music; however, bringing alien instruments into the fold of a vocal performance of Karnatic music, is certainly an innovation of the past two centuries that has now become a tradition. The violin which only accompanied vocal and flute music in the 60s now even accompanies the vina.

Tyagaraja was an innovator, the first to develop sangati-s to the extent we admire and appreciate today. Dikshitar created new kriti formats, totally different from those of the existing norm. He also created a new genre of nottusvara sahityas with sanskrit lyrics fitted to colonial tunes, thus conforming to the definition of an ‘inferior vaggeyakara’ as described in the vaggeyakāralakṣaṇamu section of the Sangita Sampradaya pradarsini! Although he was rooted in the orthodox Venkatamakhi paramparya and the Srividya Tantric fold, he was easily able to step out of his shoes, negotiate with alien tunes brought in by the East India company and create a hitherto non-existent genre of Indo Colonial music.

There has been innovation in the content of kucheri-s. The word ‘tukda’ is of urdu origin (it means ‘a slice/piece/part of the whole’) and it is no secret that the ‘tukkada chapters’ of certain artists are more popular than the purva bhagas of their kucheris. And while hindustani styled non-kampita prayogas are occasionally frowned upon in kucheris, the tukra section of a kutcheri is often replete with bhajans and abhangs and an occasional tarana.

Today is not the end-all be-all state of karnatic music. After all the kucheris of today have little resemblance to the performances of yesteryears. The microphone, the hall sizes, the accompaniments, short listening spans have created a performance culture that is probably vastly different from the high pitched long span recitals of yester-centuries. An Indian Rip Van Vinkle from the year 1800 woken up from a 200 year slumber today would probably shudder at the sight of a western violin being used to play ragas such as ananda bhairavi and the drop in sruti of the male singers and the overt dependence on amplification.


The (live) audiences of today are all in concert halls, the sabhas in whom the very act of singing is condemned by none other than Saint Tyagaraja. It is an irony that the very words that he uses to condemn musicians singing ‘to mortals in sabhas’ are being sung to 21st century mortals in sabhas today for a fee!

filtercoffeeThe Karnatic music world today has a number of conundrums. The orthodox karnatic music community holds the kucheri-dharma as sacrosanct and begins the day with Kumbhakonam degree coffee regardless of the fact that the word kucheri- a word of Urdu origin means ‘a court’ and it doesn’t even have anything to do with music. Every bean that is used to make the filter coffee cherished by this ‘tradition bound’ world owes its origin to the Muslim Sufi Saint Baba Budan who smuggled a lone coffee bean into India from the Middle East.

Here is a quote from Dr Balamuralikrishna again from his 1984 interview to Sruti. “Those who harp on tradition (and tradition, the way they understand it) should either go along with the traditional musicians to heaven or understand what tradition really is”.

So given where we are with the framework of ragas and talas that constitute the backbone of the larger umbrella of the Karnatic music tradition (above and beyond the kucheri paddhati in sabhas) what are the innovations that we may expect in the future?

1. The present day kucheri and its scaled down versions on radio and television as well as the scaled up 4 hour kucheris are the result of an innovation from the days of Ariyakkudi. Could radical changes happen to the form and presentation of a kucheri? One hears the rumbling of the beginning of these changes and the resultant echoes in the form of rebuke from critics. Further changes are bound to happen. Only time will tell.
2. Other sub-genres of Karnatic music such as the sacred music of the Tevaram or the music that pre-dated the Trinity might gain currency and get featured as period-music concerts with instrumentation corresponding to the period of their popularity. It is only because we view everything through the paradigm of the kucheri that we use contemporary kucheri accompaniments even for the music that came into being before the violin got absorbed into Karnatic music unlike concerts of western Art music where baroque era music is performed strictly with instruments of that period.
3. The term manodharma sangitam refers to the improvisitory component of Karnatic music rendition. Today’s manodharma is exhibited in the alapana, the tanam, the neraval, sangati and kalpana svara renditions. Can this be extended? Can other forms of improvisation come into being?
4. Could ‘on the spot creation of lyrics’ become a feature of concerts? There was a practice during the golden era of dhrupad where singers had to be proficient in the art of creating compositions spontaneously. Could that skill be part of the manodharma component of kucheris of the future? Would that involve a different kind of a training? Would this difference in approach to creativity create a new breed of musicians amongst whom a Tyagaraja may incarnate in our generation?
5. The rasas explored in Karnatic music will broaden in scope to include a wider body of expression; themes will expand beyond Hindu religious ideas and cover a broad range of subjects much like how the freedom movement in the early 1900s spurred the creation of a patriotic repertoire which entered the Karnatic music kucheri and took idols such as MSS and DKP to dizzying heights of popularity. This broadening of subject areas will in turn play a larger role in enabling diverse audiences to enjoy and appreciate the art form.
6. Shorter compositions written by the performers themselves will add an element of unpredictability and a greater degree of creativity in kucheris and will contribute to an enhanced sense of anticipation on the part of audiences.
7. Music moved from temples and Royal Courts to sabhas in Madras. The kucheri and other allied forms of performance may move to other places such as schools. The movement to other non-conventional avenues such as parks and kuppam-s has already begun.
8. Innovation in music education and the introduction of Art music as a discipline in schools may spur the creation of curricula that forwards musical awareness and appreciation, and basic performance skills.
9. Formal curricula in music history, music creation (formal training in building a community of vaggeyakaras), will create career options in music which are beyond the current realm of performance and teaching.
10. The ‘on-demand availability of music’ on the internet and social media is already beginning to ‘disrupt’ traditional models of music delivery and pedagogy. The increased online presence of performers, teachers, students and rasikas will only increase the outreach of Indian art music.
11. Voice culture will play a larger role and will refine the aesthetics of what is heard.
12. Ensemble performances of ‘arranged music’ featuring non-traditional instruments (from all over the world) and choirs as well as manodharma sangitam played by unconventional ensembles will begin to develop new audiences and will become a part of the larger Karnatic music umbrella.

All of the above will create a more erudite base of music makers and consumers, a wider audience base and potentially a more musically aware society.

Dr Kanniks Kannikeswaran

(Published originally in the September and October Issues of Sruti Magazine. Reproduced here with permission).

Entry filed under: Classical Music, Classicism, Conservatism, Innovation, Interpretation in Karnatic Music, Tradition versus innovation, Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

The Kriti Kalavati by Dikshitar (Soundcloud Link to Recording) The Essence and Grace of Mrinalini Sarabhai

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Soumya  |  December 19, 2015 at 2:13 pm

    Brilliant, beautiful take on the history, innovation, and the future of Carnatic music. Makes so much sense. Sharing!


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