The term “Sangeeta” originates from Sanskruta, an ancient language spoken in India that is considered the root for many modern Indian languages. It means music and is derived from the words “Sam,” meaning good, and “Geeta,” meaning song or singing. Sangeeta is based on the seven swaras or notes that form its fundamental elements. There are two main styles of Indian music: Hindustani music, which is predominantly sung in the northern part of India, and Karnatak (also spelled Carnatic) music, which is sung in the southern part of India. Although both styles share the same basic building blocks of seven swaras, they differ in their musical delivery. This article focuses on Karnatak music and provides an introduction to important terms and basic concepts of ragas and talas.

Carnatic music, also known as Karnatak music or Karnatik music, was originally called Karṇāṭaka sangīta or Karṇāṭaka sangīta in India. It is one of the two main styles of Indian classical music, the other being Hindustani music. The classical tradition of Carnatic music is from the southern region of the Indian subcontinent, which corresponds to the four modern states of South India: Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. Vocal music is the main emphasis in Carnatic music, with most compositions written to be sung. Even when played on instruments, they are meant to be performed in a singing style called gāyaki. Like Hindustani music, Carnatic music relies on two main elements: raga, which refers to the modes or melodic formulas, and tāḷa, which refers to the rhythmic cycles.


Origins and history

As with all art forms in Indian culture, Carnatic music is believed to have a divine origin, with input from the Devas and Devis. However, it is also widely accepted that the natural origins of music played an important role in the development of Carnatic music. Ancient treatises describe the connection of the origin of the swaras, or notes, to the sounds of animals and birds, and man’s keen sense of observation and perception in trying to simulate these sounds. After hearing and distinguishing between the different sounds that emanated from the hollows of a bamboo reed when air passes through, man designed the first flute. In this way, music is venerated as an aspect of the supreme (nāda brāhmam). Folk music is also said to have been a natural origin of Carnatic music, with many folk tunes corresponding to certain Carnatic ragas.

The Vedas are generally considered the primary probable source of Indian music. The Sama Veda is said to have laid the foundation for Indian music and consists mainly of hymns of Rigveda, set to musical tunes, which would be sung using three to seven musical notes during Vedic sacrifices. The Yajur-Veda, which mainly consists of sacrificial formulae, mentions the veena as an accompaniment to vocal recitations during the sacrifices. References to Indian classical music are made in many ancient religious texts, including epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The Yajnavalkya Smriti mentions, “vīṇāvādanatattvajñaḥ śrutijātiviśāradaḥ tālajñaścāprayāsena mokṣamārgaṃ niyacchati” (“The one who is well-versed in veena, one who has the knowledge of srutis, and one who is adept in tala attains salvation without doubt.”). Carnatic music is based on music concepts mentioned in Bharata’s Natya Shastra. The Natya Shastra mentions many musical concepts, including swara and tala, that continue to be relevant to Carnatic music today.

Carnatic music saw revolutionary growth during the Vijayanagar Empire due to the Kannada Haridasa movement of Vyasaraja, Purandara Dasa, Kanakadasa, and others. Purandara Dasa, who is known as the Sangeeta Pitamaha, meaning the father (founder) of Carnatic music, laid out the complete fundamental principles and framework for Carnatic music. Venkatamakhin is credited with the classification of ragas in the Melakarta System and wrote his most important work, Chaturdandi Prakasika, in Sanskrit. Govindacharya expanded the Melakarta Scheme into the Sampoorna raga system, which is the system in common use today.

Although earlier writers Matanga, Sarangadeva, and others were also from Karnataka, the music tradition was formally named Karnataka Sangeetha for the first time only in the 13th century when the Vijayanagara empire was founded. Since the late 12th and early 13th centuries, as a result of increasing Persian influence (and as a result of the Islamic conquest) in North India, Hindustani Music started evolving as a separate genre, while Carnatic music was relatively unaffected by these Arabic and Iranian influences. A clear demarcation between Hindustani music and Carnatic music can be seen in the latter half of the 14th century, as the word “Carnatic” came to represent South Indian classical music as a separate system of music.

During the 18th to 20th centuries, the Kingdom of Mysore’s monarchs provided a distinctive impetus to the development of instrumental Carnatic music. The composers of that era employed an array of instruments, including the veena, rudra veena, violin, tambura, ghata, flute, mridangam, nagaswara, and swarabhat. Some instruments, such as the harmonium, sitar, and jaltarang, which were not traditionally used in the southern region, also gained popularity. The influence of the English brought in the saxophone and piano. Even the royal members of this dynasty were noted composers and highly proficient in playing musical instruments, either as solo performers or in collaboration with others. The likes of Veena Sheshanna (1852-1926), Veena Subbanna (1861-1939), and T. Chowdiah were some of the renowned instrumentalists of that era.