What is common to Carnatic and Hindustani Music

  • By Sakuntla Narasimhan
  • April 30, 2024
  • Though Indian Classical Music divided into  Carnatic and Hindustani Music  for about 500 years, there are commonalities w.r.t ragas, tals, tumris and dadras, and musical compositions handed down from generation to generation. 


An earlier article Comparing Carnatic and Hindustani Music This one tells what is common – Editor. 


The phrase ‘Unity in Diversity’ describes succinctly a characteristic of several aspects of life in this subcontinent. Classical music, with its two versions, Hindustani and Carnatic, is one such area where similarities exist in the midst of differences. 


First published in Journal of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in 1976.


For about five centuries now, Indian classical music has had this division into Hindustani and Carnatic styles. One of the important treatises on musicology, the Sangeeta Ratnakara written by Sarangadeva in the 13th century, is studied by musicologists of both North and South. Neither Khayals and dhrupads, nor kritis and pallavis, as they are sung in the North and South respectively today, were in vogue in Sarangadeva’s time. The division into Carnatic and Hindustani music is therefore believed ‘to have taken place sometime thereafter. Since the fountain-head for both systems is the same, there is much that is common to both. 


To begin with, both ‘Carnatic and Hindustani music have the raga system as a corner-stone. A recital of Indian classical music of either kind, outside the framework of ragas, is inconceivable. Also, the definition of a raga as a melodic grouping of notes based on certain rules, is the same in both styles and the aim in both is to perform as evocatively, as possible’ 


Both systems define beautiful music in the same way, as tuneful, melodic music that is pleasing to the ear and evokes emotional response. This beauty is brought about through embellishments, primarily through what are called, gamakas. Several varieties of gamakas have been listed and classified, and one of the major and‘ striking differences between Hindustani and Carnatic music arises from the difference in the way gamakas are employed-that is, the way notes are shaken and swung to bring out nuances.


Incidentally, this stress on aesthetics has meant that although theoretically, over 34,000 ragas are listed as possible, only around 300 are named, catalogued and actually used in Carnatic music. Similarly in Hindustani about 150 ragas are used.


Out of all these ragas, there are some that exist in both styles.


Among these again, there are some that go by the same name also in both systems—for example, some of the Kalyan varieties. Or Abhogi—there is an Abhogi in Hindustani music which uses the same notes as the Abhogi of Carnatic music. The same notes take slightly different forms in the two styles, mainly because of the way the notes are delivered. That is to say, the mode of delivery differs, although the goods are the same and originate from the same storehouse. 


There are other ragas which use the same notes but go by different names in the South and North. Malkauns and its South Indian counterpart Hindolam are perhaps the best known examples of this kind, being a very popular raga in both styles. Several such pairs of corresponding ragas can be named—Ahirbhairav of Hindustani music and Chakravakam of Carnatic style, Hamsanandi and Puriya of the South and North respectively, Mohanam of Carnatic music and Bhupali of the North, and so on. The melody is the same and the notes used are identical.


Sometimes the name of a raga appears in both Carnatic and Hindustani music, but their musical entities are quite different. There is, for example, a Todi in Carnatic music, and a Todi in Hindustani music, but the two are not similar. The Todi of the South employs only komal swaras, whereas the Todi of the North has its counterpart in the Subhapantuvarali of the Carnatic system.


Over the years, the two styles have borrowed ragas from each other, assimilated them into their own body of music and given them a characteristic flavour typical of the host system.


One of the three great composers of Carnatic music, Muthuswami Dikshitar, is said to have travelled to Benares 150 years ago and composed kritis in North Indian ragas like Jaijaivanti and Brindavani Sarang. These ragas were used with gamakas typically Carnatic, resulting in a subtle change in the raga swaroop, while at the same time retaining the characteristics of the original. Both versions are beautiful, both use the same notes and yet they sound different. It is like an artist trying to paint two canvases using the same set of colours. The two pictures can be both predominantly blue and brown, and both beautiful, without being identical.

Tansen tomb Gwalior. He was born to Brahmin parents, Laxmi bai and Makarand Pandey. 

North Indian music has also borrowed ragas from the South and adopted them into the Hindustani style—particularly in the last 25 years or so since Independence. Kirvani, Simhendramadhyamam, Vachaspati and Narayani are examples of this kind. The notes remain the same, but the way they are delivered adds a distinguishing touch.


The similarities between Hindustani and Carnatic music are not confined to ragas alone. In the area of rhythm also, the commonly used talus are basically the same, although the names may be different at times. The most widely used tala of Carnatic music, Adi tala, has 8 or 16 counts and the corresponding teental of Hindustani music has 16. Jhaptal of the North with 10 matras corresponds to Jhampa tala of the South with five matras, and so on. Both Hindustani and Carnatic musicians sing sargams although in the latter this is carried to great heights of sophistication with very well defined rules.


Both Hindustani and Carnatic music have a body of Iaya'baddha or kalpita sangita, that is, musical compositions handed down from generation to generation. These compositions form the framework in both systems for improvisation by the artiste. Looking at the varieties of compositions in the two systems, one again finds similarities—the slow khayals of the North can be compared to the pallavis of Carnatic music where a single line is taken up for elaboration. Bolraan of Hindustani music resembles niraval of the South; Madhyalay compositions of Hindustani music have their counterpart in the South Indian kriti. The tarana of Hindustani music and tillana of Carnatic music are very similar.


Then there are tumris and dadras of Hindustani music which find their parallel in the padams and javalis of Carnatic music—parallel in the sense that the themes are the same and almost always woven round viraha taapa or love lornness, or variations on this theme. The accent is on emotion, rather than on showing off one’s intellectual virtuosity. 


There is a border-line between Hindustani and Carnatic music where the points of resemblance become as strong as the points of divergence. It is, of course, possible to choose and identify areas in the music of the two styles in such a manner that there is nothing in common. But our accent here being on the unity in diversity of the two styles, it is possible to point out enough similarities to show that the two are but variations on a theme—sister streams, in fact, derived from a common definition of melodic beauty.


This article was first published in the Bhavan’s Journal, August 15, 1976 issue. This article is courtesy and copyright Bhavan’s Journal, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai-400007. eSamskriti has obtained permission from Bhavan’s Journal to share. Do subscribe to the Bhavan’s Journal – it is very good.


Also read

1. Four Basic Elements of Carnatic Music

2.  What is a RAGA

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

4. Concept of Raga in Hindustani and Carnatic Music

5. Evolution and Synthesis of Hindustani Classical Music

6. Comparing Carnatic and Hindustani Music

7. Origin and Evolution of Indian Musical Instruments  

8. About Pandit N Bhatkande – Father of Modern Hindustani Music


To read all articles on Indian Music

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