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One Music Two Forms-Hindustani and Carnatic Classical Music

Padmashrri Aruna Sairamji
  • Padma Shri Awardee, Vidushi Aruna Sairamji enlightens on key differences between Hindustani and Carnatic Classical Music.  

One of the most unique features of Indian classical music is that it has two completely distinct forms of music based on the geographical diversity of the country. While North Indian classical music is known as the Hindustani style and South Indian classical music is known as the Carnatic style. What makes it interesting is that both the styles have distinct similarities, as well as dissimilarities.


Revered Carnatic Music Exponent, Padma Shri Awardee, Vidushi Aruna Sairam puts light on some of the key aspects of Carnatic Music, which differentiates it from Hindustani Music in an interesting conversation with Dr Priyaankaa Mathur


Looking at the similarities between the two systems, we find that both Hindustani classical and Carnatic music are primarily Raga based, on the system of Alaaps. In both the styles there is the concept of arriving at the Sam and both follow the concept of half Taal or Khali, while it is called Arudhi in Carnatic music. 


The two forms differ in the feel of the presentation as beautifully put by Vidushi Aruna Sairamji, “One major difference what we call is the sthayibhav, that is the basic emotion and the core aspect of Carnatic music indifference to the Hindustani music.  The Carnatic spirit of presentation is more of an extroverted nature and a celebrative expression, as compared to Hindustani music which is more of an introverted, inward journey which goes deep inside emotion.”


Hindustani and Carnatic styles have a different style of repertoire as the basic unit of Raga presentation differs in both the systems as Arunaji explains, “In Hindustani Music, the Raga elaboration begins with one Swara (note) which acts as a building block while doing an Alaap. There onwards small phrases are build followed by slightly bigger and complex clusters of notes and taans. While in Carnatic music the basic unit itself is not a single note, but a cluster of notes, which is a phrase in itself.”


She adds, “In Carnatic music we don't use one Swara, rather we start with a phrase, and the phrase has to be the signature phrase of the raga, so that by listening to it the audiences get to know which Raga is being performed.  It is similar to the Pakad (the characteristic phrase of the raga) in Hindustani music. Like in Hindustani music, if sadaj is being used, one goes around the note till the mood of the note is established, and then you go to the next note of the raga, while in Carnatic music we build the raga in the units of phrases.”


Video link of Raga Rendition in Carnatic style


Stating an example she explains," In Hindustani music, if we look at the main phrase of Ragas 'Yaman' it is 'Ni Re Ga Re Ni Dha Sa' which begins extremely slow taking the characteristic notes, elaborating the Raga note by note. 


In Carnatic music, we call 'Yaman' as 'Kalyani' and would begin with the phrase (Pa Ma Ga Re Ga, Sa Ni Re Ga, Ga Ma Dha Ni Re Ni Dha Pa Ma Ga Re Sa...) so there is a lot of preludes before we come to the main Sa, thus there is a difference in the sorority of both the styles.”


One of the major differences between both the styles is the methodology of presentation and the tempo since it is reversed in both systems. While the Hindustani classical music establishes itself with a slow Vilambit tempo and gradually increasing the speed from Vilambit Laya to Madya Laya to Drut Laya.


The Carnatic music has prominence of Madhya Laya, wherein a concert begins with a Madhya Laya composition and slowly proceeds to slower and deeper renditions. The main piece of the concert in Carnatic style is very Grand and is in Vilambit Laya which comes towards the end of the concert, which is just opposite the Hindustani system.


Thus, in contrast to a Hindustani concert if a Carnatic concert begins with a Vilambit slow composition the audience will not accept it as typical Carnatic style, since it is supposed to be very lively and fast from the very beginning. Likewise in Hindustani classical, if there is no Vilambit and peaceful rendition initially and the performer sings very fast with a lot of variations right at the beginning of a Khayal, that will not be accepted well.


The next important difference is based on how the Gamak is used in both the styles as Arunaji puts light on it saying, “There are 10 different types of Gamaks known as the 'Dasavidh Gamak' which can be differentiated based on their usage in both the systems. In Carnatic music 'Gamaks' are used with a lot of Andolan (pendulum-like movements) which is very Chanchal (agile), while in Hindustani it's more with Meend (glides) and is very deep.”


A Hindustani Classical Music presentation begins with a Khayal Bandish with Sthayi and Antara in Vilambit Laya which establishes the Raga rendition and its the mood with Vilambit Alaapchari, Bolalaap, Sargams followed by Layakari, Bolbant and Taankari which gradually increase with the tempo. After the Vilambit Khyal comes a Madhyalaya or a Drut Laya Khyal Bandish followed by an Ati Drut (fast tempo) Tarana or Tappa. The performance is concluded with one or two semi-classical pieces like Thumri, Dadra or a Bhajan. 


Elaborating on the performance repertoire of a Carnatic Music concert, Arunaji explains, “A Carnatic music presentation gives prominence to Madhya Laya and begins with a 'Varnam' which is like a warmup piece, which sets the very mood and vibration of the concert. Then comes the 'Kriti' which has three parts 'Pallavi', 'Anupallavi' and 'Charnam' and is like a Bandish with Sthayi, Antara and Abhog in Hindustani style. The only difference is that the Alaapchari is either before the Kriti is an abstract form or during the Kriti with the Sargam and Bolalaap which we call 'Niraval'. Since we don't stretch the Kriti, its structure is very tight. So all the improvisations happen either before, during or after the Kriti. We have several types of Kritis according to the laya like Vilambit laya, Madhy alaya and Drut laya Kritis. 


The entire Carnatic music repertoire is reverse from the Hindustani style wherein the vilambit khayal is the longest piece with more elaboration in slow tempo, which gradually increases to Madhya and then drut khyal, while in Carnatic music the Vilambit piece comes in the end.”


While in Hindustan Music Vilambit laya Khyal is the longest and central piece of the performance in Carnatic music there are many options to choose from for the central piece. Arunaji says, “In Carnatic music, we have various options to choose from for the central piece instead of the Vilambit laya Kriti.


One way is to follow the sequence Alaap, Kriti, Bolbhanav, Sargam, layakari and the main piece. Another way is to do a 'Ragam Tanam Pallavi'.Here the first part 'Ragam' means a Raga, second part  'Tanam' is Nom- Tom  Alaap, which is developed in Mandra, Madhyam and Taar speak. The third is 'Pallavi' which has only one Mukhra, while the layakari is done with the words. Usually, the musicians compose the Pallavi themselves and it shows the true brilliance of the artist to exhibit one's knowledge of Raga, Alaap, Bolalaap, Layakari. Thus, in Carnatic music even composing is a part of a performer’s profile.”


Looking at the similarities in compositions and musical genres in both the styles we find that a 'Tillana' is a very popular form of Carnatic Music which is similar to the Tarana of Hindustani music. It has pneumonics which has sometimes meaningless words, or are the words from the Dance vocabulary or the bols of the Mridangam vocabulary (Patakshars), while some will contain actual meaningful words.


Video link of Tillana

A Hindustani concert has brief pieces performed by the accompanying artists on Tabla, Sarangi and Harmonium, while a Carnatic concert includes in between Solo pieces of Ghatam, Mridangam called 'Taniyavartanam' and Violin, which extends to the time of the overall concert. The entire concert would last about two and half hours in today's day while in earlier times concerts lasted 4 to 5 hours.”


Both Hindustani and Carnatic styles have an elaborate Taal system, having a variety of taals being used as part of the performance repertoire, as each Bandish which is performed in both the systems has a definite structure, and is set in a particular Taal.


Some of the popular Taals in Carnatic music are the 'Aditaal' a 16 beat taal, 'Rupaktaal' which is a multiple of 6 or 12 beats,  'Chautaal' (Chaputal) which has two versions which are multiples of 7 or 14 beats, and 'Khanda Chapu', which is a multiple of 5  & 10 beats. While in Hindustani music the most popular Taals include 'Teen Taal' (16 beats), 'Ek Taal '(12 beats), 'Rupak' which is 7 beats and Chautaal (14 beats) to name a few.


The Hindustani Music strictly follows the time theory, wherein each Raga is associated with a certain mood and an emotion corresponding to the particular time frame of the day or a particular season in a year. While Carnatic music is devoid of any such time restrictions for a Raga recital.


Arunaji explains, “The Time theory was followed in Carnatic music several centuries ago, but since last one and a half centuries time theory is not being followed in Carnatic music. We do recognise that certain Ragas reflect a particular mood at a specific time in the day. The only reason to not follow the time theory, as to what I heard from my elder masters is that they believed that whichever Raga you sing your Gayaki will create its mood, which can be created at any time in the day.”


In regards to the Raga Classification, Hindustani Music follows the 'Thaat Raga system', wherein the entire gamut of Ragas are classified under 10 Thaats namely Bhairavi, Asawari, Bilawal, Khamaj, Kalyan, Marva, Poorvi, Todi, Kafi, and Bhairav. 


The Carnatic Music follows the Mela Raga Classification as propounded by Vyankatamakhi, who identified 36 Ragas with permutations and combinations of notes with Shudha Madhyam and the same combination of Ragas with Tivra Madhyam, thus giving the 72 'Mela Raga Classification Theory', which includes the entire gamut of ragas giving all possible combinations. 


Over the centuries many Ragas have been exchanged between the Hindustani and Carnatic music styles. Like Raga Bihag, Kafi, Kamaj, Vrindavani Sarang, Hameer Kalyani has been adopted from Hindustani style to Carnatic. While the Hindustani style has adopted Ragas Charukeshi, Hamsaddhwani, Kirwani from Carnatic style, which are now prevalent in the Hindustani classical performance repertoire.


Anuranaji gives a musical sketch of Rasa and Bhava Abhivyakti in Carnatic Music, saying, “Let us take the example of the Navarasa starting with Karuna Rasa depicting pathos and sadness. If we see Raga 'Punnagavarali' which is a Carnatic melody, it has the Shudh Rishabh (Re) Komal Rishabh (re), Shudha Gandhar (Ga), Komal Gandhar(ga) Shudha Madhyam(Ma) and Shudha Nishad(Ni). The chain of the swaras goes like  (Sa Re re sss Ga ssss ma ga Ga Re re Sa, Ni Sa Re Sa ma Pa, Pa ma ga ssss, pa ma pa ma Re re ssss  Sa ) while the glide from Shudha (Re) to Komal (re) brings in the Karuna Bhav. A Padam is sung in this Raga depicting the Viraha Bhav( Karuna Rasa).


Like in Hindustani music how a Doha or a Shayari is sung before a Thumri, similarly in Carnatic music a sloka is sung as a preface to a Kriti. Arunaji demonstrated a sloka in Raga Hameer Kalyani from Sri Krishnakarṇamrutam a work in Sanskrit by the poet Shree Bilvamangala Swami describing Shringara Rasa in the composition saying 'Sayankale Vasante Kusumita Samaye' which describes the evening in the forest with birds chirping, wherein the night flowers (Raat ki Rani) are blossoming. It is sung in Raga Hameer Kalyani (Ni Dha sss Ma Pa, Pa Ma Pa Dha sss Pa ma, ma Re Sa Ma sss Pa Dha sss Pa Ma."


Seasonal Ragas of Hindustani Music have been depicted in the Ragamala paintings, (Garland of Ragas), which comprises of several Ragas sung one after the other in position, mostly done in a Thumri recital.


Throwing light in the context of Ragamala and Ragamalika in carnatic music, Arunaji says, “Although the tradition of Ragamala painting is not found in southern India. In the south, the divinity and the Raga are very well intertwined like the name of the Goddess itself, which is the name of the Raga. Many temples are attributed to Kalyani with prefixes Parama Kalyani, Sugam Kalyani based on the Raga Kalyani, while the Raga 'Shankarabharanam' means the Jewel of Shiva' and there are many similar examples. In the parlance of the performance repertoire, a similar term, ‘Ragamalika,’ is referred to in Carnatic music which is a rendition of a few or several different melodic modes in succession, which is occasionally a part of the performance.”


To read all articles by author and her bio

Also read

1. Bharata’s Natya Shastra

2. What is a RAGA

3. Origin and Evolution of Musical Instruments in India

4. Thyagaraja, Musician and Saint Poet par Excellence

5. Four Basic Elements of Carnatic Music

6. Hindustani Classical Music – Its evolution and emotional synthesis


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