December Ragas

The most common way of looking at the classical systems of India has been as one classical system that split into two forms: Hindustani music and Karnataka (referred to commonly as Carnatic) music. In reality, most changes and developments in society were far more complex and movements take place through a process of multiple influences.

I hope that, in the next few weeks, we can look at the musical forms of different eras in relation to Carnatic music. This is not to create a historical hierarchy but more to give us an insight into the complexity of metamorphosis. The journey will be through the eyes of musical treatises and singing traditions that we are aware of.

Over the coming weeks we will move from the Natya Shastra to the development of the Desi Tradition, peep into the music of the Silapadigaaram in Tamizh heartland and its singing traditions, moving on to the Vijayanagara Empire, to Thanjavur and finally, the citadel of music today, Chennai.

The most revered text in Indian performing arts is the Natya Sastra. The period given to the text varies from 200 BC to 200 AD and the geographical location is debated among scholars, with some believing that it was written in Kashmir but some do believe that it could be somewhere in the southern part of what is India today. The word Bharata is not only a name but also means an actor; therefore some scholars believe that the Natya Sastra was not authored by one individual but is a work of many actors and evolved through centuries; similar to the belief regarding the Mahabharata and the meaning of Vyasa.

Natya, the form

The term Natya itself does not refer to dance but to the form of presentation that includes Natya (Natya here is a component of Natya the form), melodic music (Gana) and percussive instruments (Vadhya). In order to avoid confusion we shall refer to the component Natya as Abhinaya.

Abhinaya includes, gesture, speech, involuntary reaction, costumes and accessories. Therefore, this is an amalgam of what we call dance and drama in the modern context. This is a very different aesthetic expression. The elements that constitute drama and elements that contribute dance belong together as one form.

Bharata refers to two types of music: Gana and Gandharva. Gana refers to the music that forms part of Natya, and Gandharva, which we may call ‘Art music’, has an independent identity beyond the triumvirate of Natya.

Music does not refer only to singing but also to the playing of wind and stringed instruments that can produce a melody. It seems that all that can produce melody, whether human or instrumental, come under music. The focus is on the production of melodic variations.

The songs sung as part of Gana in the Natya presentation were called Dhruvas. The language of the songs that have texts is Prakrit. These were sung for various situations in the drama including entry or exit of a character, heightened emotions, to divert audience’s attention who are experiencing a certain Rasa and songs for pure dance movements or steps. While the melody was played Cymbals (Ghana) accompanied them. Some of the stringed instruments mentioned are CitraVina, Vipanchi and a secondary category comprises Kachchapi, Ghosaka. Among the wind instruments, Bharata talks about the Vamsa, Nadi, Tudakini and Samkha. Unfortunately there are no details on their construction.

Vadya referred to instruments made of stretched membranes. This category refers to percussion and those instruments that are not melody producing even if they can be tuned to a note. Some percussive instruments mentioned are the Mrdanga, Panava, Dardara and some secondary instruments like Bheri, and Jhallari.

How do the three parts come together to form Natya? How do different parts make a whole? Are they just collections put together or do they give the whole a character? What is the basis of the relationship between the parts and whole? Abhinavagupta raises questions of this nature in his commentaries on the Natya Sastra regarding the relationship of the three elements of Natya. The three elements of Natya, though having separate entities, come together sacrificing their independent forms to provide Rasa in the form of Natya wherein there is a seamless relationship between what we perceive today as independent forms in dance, drama and music (both melodic and percussive). Today’s Koodiattam or Yakshagana seem to have a similar Natya form.

Aesthetic experience

An important aspect of Natya was to evoke Rasa. Rasa is expressed as an aesthetic experience of the audience, which is the result of a context, a reaction and a transient feeling in the drama, expressed through Abhinaya resulting in a dominant or permanent mood. This experience is obviously beyond emotion and is aesthetic in nature. The Natya Sastra talks about Rasa as being derived only from the Natya form i.e. the coming together of Gana, Vadhya and Abhinaya in the presentation of Natya. Yet, when removed from this form of Natya, they don’t evoke Rasa. It is interesting that Rasa is related to a visual representation of emotions (Bhava) within a story backed by Gana (melody) and Vadhya (percussion). We have later on related even poetry in terms of Rasa. So is this Rasa evoked from the Bhava born out of the poetry? Similarly, does pure art music sans lyrical content evoke a Rasa? This would be an interesting subject for discussion. There are some scholars who believe that it should be inferred that Rasa does include other arts.

Music in its purely art form is known as Gandharva. It is considered a very sacred form with the music meant only for the gods. It’s considered a ritual and has a lot of rules and regulations regarding performance. There is no question of pleasing an audience or looking for appreciation. The benefits of performing this form is said to reach only the performers. These forms are presented before the start of a Natya presentation. The compositional forms mentioned in Gandharva are Gitakas and Nirgitas. Gitakas, as compositional forms, seem to be more determined by the Tala and are complex in nature. There are seven types of Gitakas mentioned. The language used in these compositions is Sanskrit and the content is mainly on Shiva. The Nirgitas are more oriented towards instrumental melody. They are two parts wherein one is the playing of the melodies on Vinas and the second is singing linguistically meaningless syllables, for example Jhantum, Jagatiya. There are many varieties of these forms.

The presentation of Natya had preparatory parts called Purvaranga, which included Gandharva music (pure music sans Natya), and then a Tandava Vidhi (a special presentation we will discuss next week) followed by a Sutradhara coming in reciting verses followed by rituals of removing all the obstacles carried out and then the events that lead to the Drama.

Different structure

What was the structure of the music? On a very fundamental level, the music was not based on a fixed tonic. That would mean that we would not have a constant fixed pitch to which the Thambura can be tuned irrespective of whatever music is performed. The music was based on various scales (Murchanas), which took their Svara intervals from one of two Svara groupings called Shadja-grama and Madhyama-grama. There was also another grouping known as Gandhara-grama.

A Svara had its identity along with the interval from its lower Svara and the interval was measured in terms of a unit called Sruti. There were also Jaathis, based on which melodies could be structured that had intervallic arrangement derived only from the Shadja or Madhyama gramas. Each Jaathi had more characteristics described like the note on which a tune had to begin in it (Graha Svara), its tonic note (Amsa Svara) and the note at which a melody must end (Nyasa Svara) and a few more features. Two Svaras, Ga and Ni had possible variants named Antara Gandhara and Kakali Nishada but these positions were not treated as full-fledged Svaras. All music in both Gandharva and Gana were sung on the basis of Jaathis as melodic sources.


The rhythmical aspects of music have also been dealt with at both an intellectual level and at the level of execution. Ghana instruments (Cymbals) were directly related to maintaining of Tala. Talas had three basic time units Laghu, Guru and Pluta. A notional time interval known as Matra is given and defined on the basis of the time taken to utter five short syllables. Each part of the Tala mentioned above was measured on this basis. Lagu was one Matra, Guru was two Matras and Pluta was three Matras. Laya is defined as the period of rest or the time duration between two actions. Talas were divided by Kriyas that were the divisions of the Tala shown through hand and finger movements of both the silent and non-silent types. The length of the Tala was defined by Marga, which is the total duration covered by the Tala, determined by the duration of each Kriya in the Tala, this obviously would affect the speed of the Tala. Bharata mentions three Margas. He also deals with extensions of Talas. This is a process of increasing Kriyas (divisions) in the Tala from its basic Kriya equals syllable form. This extension increases the total duration of the Tala but does not create any change to the Laya of the Tala, as the duration between every Kriya remains the same.

As we can see, the music of the Natya Sastra was highly evolved, defined and sophisticated and definitely centred on theatrics being the heart and soul of its presentation even though Gandharva as a form did exist. There were few more texts post the Natya Shastra that enumerate this same form of music.

Though some terms mentioned in the Natya Sastra are still used, their context is different. Therefore we should not conclude that since these terms are present now the music we perform now is connected with the Natya Sastra. One aspect that is important is that there is no mention of improvisation, as we understand it in Indian classical systems today. This music seems to have died on its own and other traditions took over. It can also be speculated that, may be, some parts of this tradition with influences of local regions where it was practised gave rise to another system that took over the reins, so to speak.

Originally written for The Hindu

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