What is Carnatic Singing?

So you want to see Abhishek Raghuram at Purdue University on November 10, but don’t know anything about the Southern Indian Carnatic music he sings? Rohith Chandrasekar, president of the Indian Classical Music Association of Purdue and a Carnatic singer himself, recently gave Convocations director Todd Wetzel a tour through the tradition—including a demonstration.

Carnatic music was written to be sung, but the voice acts as an instrument, recreating, in a way, the sound of the veena—a stringed instrument typically used in Indian classical music, which you might compare to the sound and effect of a slide guitar. Written in the 12-note chromatic scale, subsets of notes are called rāgas. As the scale and oscillation of notes changes, so do the rāgas, which are so difficult to notate that the tradition has been passed down orally.

Swara are the vocalese notes sung in Carnatic compositions, analogous to the familiar do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do. Tālas are the complex rhythm cycles of the tradition, including the common time signatures of 7/4, 5/4, and 6/4. Singers tap the rhythm to count the cycles, though they are also accompanied by an electronic drone, the violin, and a two-headed drum called a mridangam. The musicians often improvise during a performance, with the vocalist recreating an innovative instrumental twist. Performances typically begin with short, simple pieces and move to longer, improvisational pieces.

Many Carnatic compositions were written in ancient Sanskrit or Telugu, so without study, even Carnatic singers can’t understand them. Different rāgas are sung at different times of day, however, with tones and oscillations working to inspire different emotions. An afternoon raga might be pleasant and light, whereas a raga for putting you to sleep would have long, drawn-out notes. Ultimately, says Chandrasekar, simply letting the music work its inspiration on you is one of the best ways to enjoy the performance.

Stacey Mickelbart, guest contributor