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Dr Radhika Jaidev writes a series of articles from this issue on ‘Tamil Classical Music’ for the Online Voice readers.


Indian music has been said to be rooted in Hindu, Vedic literature. According to Ayyangar (1972, 1993), “the origin of music is not easy to trace” (p.1) but Nada Vidya or science of sound is an offshoot of the Vedas and its study leads to “Nadopasana, a self-realisation through contemplating Nada” (p.3) or sound. We see “the principles underlying this music in the Sama Veda, the third of the sacred vedas that dates back to 1700 BCE” (Thompson, 2014). The Sama Veda comprises three types of sounds- Stobha, Pratishta and Saptaka and of these, the Saptaka was the most important as the full scale of seven notes, known then as Krushta, Prathama, Dviteeya, Tritheeya, Chathurtha, Mandra and Atisvarya, were born from it. These names were later replaced with Shadja, Rishabha, Gandhara, Madhyama, Panchama, Dhaivatha and Nishadha.  These notes came to be identified with sounds of birds and animals in nature (Ayyangar, 1972, 1993, Kumar, 2012). Ranee Kumar (2012) expresses that the swaras or notes were later refined and formalized as musical notes with accents to mark pitch, register, count and mode of emphasis.

The basic notes provide the foundation structure of the two main sub genres of Indian music as we know today, namely Hindustani and South Indian classical or Karataka Sangitam (Carnatic Music). However, Carnatic music as it is taught and performed today is influenced to a large extent by the Bhakthi Movement and the religious themes of that era and to a lesser extent by the Persian and Mughal influences that resulted from the influx of people from the North and North West. Additionally, Carnatic music includes influences of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. Another important Sanskrit treatise on music was the Natya Sastra or Bharata Sastra, a Sanskrit text of some 6000 couplets on dance and drama composed, arguably, some 2500 years ago.

This ancient treatise considered music as an “aid to dance and drama” although it did contain a great deal of information about the instruments of music such as the veena, a stringed lute-like instrument, among others (Sambamoorthy, 1960; Ayyangar, 1993, p.20). Sambamoorthy (1960) explains further that the entry of the veena, a fretted instrument capable of producing more “delicate quarter tones” slowly began to replace a more ancient instrument called the yal, a harp like instrument which will be explained later in the articles to follow.

At this juncture it is important to quote the words of Tamil scholar, Mu. Arunachalam, translated from his book, Tamil Isai Illakkiya Varalaaru, into English by Indira Parthasarathy for The Hindu, “The south Indian music system, which was indeed Tamil Pannisai, was erroneously named, for the first time, Carnataka sangeetham in the 12th century by a westernChalukya king, Someswara Bhuloka Mamalla, in his ‘Manasoullasam’, a monumental work that dealt with all the subjects under the sun, including music. In no other language in India, there existed at that time Sahityas (musical compositions) as they did in Tamil. Though most of the music manuals written from the 9th century onwards were in Sanskrit, the source materials for them — like the varieties of ‘ragas’ (pann) they had mentioned in their works — were all associated with the Tamil literary works, like ‘Silappadikaram’, ‘Thevaram’, and ‘Nalayira Divya Prabhandam’” (Parthasarathy, 2011).

This article has its cue from Mu Arunachalam and aims to trace the influence Tamil, its people, language and literature in the evolution of South Indian classical music or what came to be known much later as Karnataka Sangitam (Carnatic Music). It seeks to provide a snapshot view of Tamil music from its inception some time during the Sangam period, when music was predominantly folk in nature, accompanied by basic string and percussion instruments, to a point when it became a more structured genre of music, sung to the accompaniment of more sophisticated string and percussion instruments. It provides evidence of the influence of the Tamil language and literature works on Carnatic music as it exists today through reference to published works including library and online resources.

To do this, the series of articles trace the origins of South Indian classical music from the Sangam period when the themes of music were related, predominantly, to nature, landscapes and human relationships, through the period of Jain and Buddhist influences during the Pallava and Chola reigns in South India, the Bhakthi period when there was a revival of Hinduism and religious themes, up to a more contemporary stage when Carnatic music became a more structured genre with a distinct style of delivery(http://www.newworldencyclopedia. org/entry/Carnatic_music). Historians and classical music researchers have noted that Carnatic and Hindustani music shared a common beginning rooted in the vedas, specifically Sama and Rg vedas up until the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries (Shringy & Sharma, 1978; Premalatha, 1985; Zvelebil, 1992).

However, with the influx of Persians coming into India and that of Islam in North India after that, Hindustani music started evolving as a separate genre. Carnatic Music, on the other hand, which was based in South India, remained substantially influenced by the Bhakti movement which inspired the use of religious themes (http://www.newworldencyclopedia. org/entry/Carnatic_music). The authors hope that the book will, at the very least, whet the appetite of its readers to find out more about the rich and ancient heritage of Tamil music, the contributions of Tamil composers and their compositions to what is commonly known today as South Indian classical or Carnatic music.

(to be continued)

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