Mark Harbold, (Elmhurst College)


Nation & Culture.   Located in the Asian subcontinent, India stretches from the Himalayan chain in the north to the Indian Ocean in the south. Before independence and partition in 1947, it occupied nearly the entire subcontinent, but Pakistan and Bangladesh now take big bites out the northwestern and northeastern regions. South India, or peninsular India, is surrounded by water, the Arabian Sea to the west, the Indian Ocean to the south, and the Bay of Bengal to the east.

The Indian subcontinent is home to some of the world’s most ancient civilizations, beginning with the Indus Valley Civilization over 5000 years ago. India still honors the memory of Ashoka’s vast Mauryan empire (3rd century BCE): the Ashoka Chakra (Wheel of Dharma) is the central symbol in India’s flag, and the four-headed Lion Capital at Sarnath is India’s national emblem. Due to its wealth and location on the Silk Road, India saw many waves of invaders over the centuries, including the Mughals who arrived in 1526, and the British who usurped them in the 18th-19th centuries. Centuries of cross-fertilization have created a fascinating land of great cultural diversity.

Following independence in 1947, India fashioned itself as a secular constitutional republic, becoming the world’s largest democracy. India now competes with China as one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. The past 20 years have seen a startling degree of modernization, and the subsequent boom in the tourism industry provides many new opportunities for foreign guests. India’s population is now over 1.2 billion, making it the second largest nation in the world, and at the current growth rate its population will surpass that of China in just a few decades.

One of the most diverse nations on earth, India recognizes 21 official languages representing four language families, with Indo-Aryan and Dravidian families figuring most prominently. Each of India’s 28 states recognizes one or more official languages. Add to that innumerable dialects as well as the languages of 200-plus tribal groups. The main languages spoken in South India are Dravidian: Tamil (Tamil Nadu), Kannada (Karnataka), Malayalam (Kerala), and Telugu (Andhra Pradesh). English remains important, not only in Indian higher education, but also as a means for Indians from different regions to communicate with each other.

No less diverse religiously, India is home to four major faith traditions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism—but many other religions are also represented, including Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, the Baha’i Faith, and numerous other practices associated with India’s tribal groups.

While the caste system is not recognized by India’s constitution, it remains a powerful force in modern-day India. Caste roles allowed a degree of social mobility in the ancient Vedic period, but over the centuries they became more rigid and hereditary. The caste is beginning to break down in urban areas, but caste roles continue to have an impact on one’s social status, economic opportunities, who one marries, and so on. Caste continues to play a role in music-making as well; specific styles and instruments are often seen as most appropriate to one caste or another.



Features of South Indian (Karnatak) Music.

The crucial elements of music in the Indian tradition are raga, tala, and bhava (or rasa).

Raga—Much richer than the Western notion of a scale, each raga has its own melodic gestures and ascending and descending patterns, a sort of musical kit from which a work is constructed. The South Indian melakarta system consists of 72 parent ragas from which an unlimited number of ragas can be derived.

Tala—The Indian equivalent of Western meter, tala refers to time lengths that repeat cyclically. As short as a second or as long as forty seconds, these time lengths subdivide into various groupings of beats.

Bhava & rasa—In an esthetic context, bhava refers to emotion or feeling; rasa to the emotional essence of a particular work. Both imply a sense of devotion. Dancers in particular pay great attention to the 8 rasas (and their subcategories) laid out in the Natyasastra, an ancient treatise on dance and the performing arts.

Indian music functions in many contexts, ranging from a rich classical tradition to a vibrant commercial music scene (Bollywood, etc.) to various folk and traditional musics that often accompany dance and theater. While most classical music conforms to Karnatak traditions, a number of musicians are trained instead in the Hindustani classical tradition, especially in the state of Karnataka.


Karnatak Classical Music.   History—The foundations of modern Karnatak music were laid in the 16th century in the Vijayanagar Empire where Purandara Dasa was a major Karnatak composer/musician. After the destruction of the capital city, Vijayanagara, the center of musical activity shifted to Thanjavur, a Vijayanagar viceroyalty ruled by the Nayaks, and later by the Marathas. Karnatak music reached a golden age in Thanjavur during the reign of Serfoji II (1798-1832) when the great Brahman composers Tyagaraja, Muttuswami, Dikshitar, and Syama Sastri modernized the tradition. As Madras grew in size and importance during the years of the British Raj, the center of musical activity gradually migrated from Thanjavur to the capital of the Madras Presidency. Modern-day Chennai is still the center of the Karnatak tradition with its mammoth December Season festival, featuring over 1200 concerts in a six-week span. Thanjavur remains the spiritual center for this music, however; performances at the annual Tyagaraja Aradhana in nearby Tiruvaiyaru commemorate the death-anniversary of the great composer-saint.

Genres—Karnatak music relies much more heavily on pre-existing compositions than does Hindustani music. Devotional genres include the bhajan, an outgrowth the Bhakti movement of the medieval period, and the padam that accompanied temple dance. The kirtana also began as a devotional genre popularized by Annamacharya, but in the 19th century Tyagaraja and the Trinity turned it into a more elaborate concert genre known as the kriti. The most elaborate song-form is the varnam, often used for training purposes due to its difficulty. Improvisation (manodharma) plays a more significant role in large-scale concert genres—varnam and kriti—and especially in the extended ragam-tanam-pallavi that serves as the ultimate test of a performer’s skill. These long forms begin with a freely explorative alapanam, and the RTP adds virtuosic niraval and swara-kalpana improvisations.

Classical ensembles & concerts—A typical South Indian classical ensemble consists of a solo voice or melody instrument (veena, violin, flute, etc.), a secondary instrument that plays with or against the primary melody (usually a violin), a drum (mrdangam) that provides rhythmic counterpoint, and a plucked string drone (tambura). An auxiliary percussionist is often used, playing the ghatam, morsing, or kanjira. Classical concerts often begin with a varnam and several short kritis, include an extended kriti as well as the ragam-tanam-pallavi, and conclude with lighter padams, javalis, and perhaps a bhajan.



Film Music.  “Bollywood” has long served as the primary source for India’s popular music. India’s film industry is second to none in sheer quantity, producing in excess of 1200 films annually. Bollywood refers to the Hindi film studios in Mumbai (Bombay), but each of the four southern states has its own film industry producing movies in the local language. Between them, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka produce roughly half of India’s films! Bollywood’s “Golden Age” (1940s-1960s) featured lush Western-influenced orchestral accompaniment to Indian-style melodies and singers. More recent films reflect the influence of dance-oriented Western popular styles—particularly Michael Jackson, rap, and hip-hop. Song and dance have always figured prominently in Indian film, and the high-energy dance numbers that accompany hit songs are tailor-made for the music video genre. In many cases a film’s hit songs become more popular than the movie itself.


Folk and Traditional Music.  Scholarly investigation of South Indian folk music has lagged far behind the study of North Indian traditions, so this is an especially fertile field for future research. Folk traditions vary enormously between states, regions, language groups, castes, and tribal groups. Many of these traditions are rooted in devotional practices and rituals that frequently combine elements of music, dance, and theater, though elements of protest also emerge in songs of the Dalits and low-caste Indians. A few examples of particular interest:

Devotees often gather to sing bhajans, kirtanas, and other devotional songs. These might be children at a local temple before dawn, boys walking down the street, or men pulling a small cart housing a deity in the streets around the Mylapore temple during the holy month of Margazhi.

A nagaswaram (double-reed)-tavil (barrel drum) ensemble often accompanies temple festivals, wedding rituals, etc., as these are considered auspicious instruments.

Narrative performance traditions take many forms, often including dance elements. These may tell stories from the great Indian epics—the Ramayana and Mahabharata—but they are just as likely to deal with local heroes and goddesses. Especially colorful are the shadow puppet dramas prevalent in many regions of South India.


Dance Music.  Classical and local traditions both figure prominently in South Indian dance. The leading form of classical dance is Bharatanatyam, rooted in Tamil temple practices. Classical dance-dramas from Kerala include Kathakali, featuring elaborate makeup, and Mohiniattam. From Andhra Pradesh comes the Kuchipudi dance-drama genre. As with folk music, folk dance traditions vary widely from region to region. Notable are the yakshagana dance dramas of Karnataka and the terukkuttu ritual dramas of Tamil Nadu.


Notable South Indian Classical Musicians

Historic Figures

15th-16th Centuries—Annamacharya, Purandara Dasa

18th-19th Centuries—Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar, Syama Sastri

20th Century Artists

Singers— Dr. M. Balamuralikrishna, G.N. Balasubramaniam, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Mallikarjun Mansur (men); Gangubai Hangal, D.K. Pattammal, M.S. Subbulakshmi, M.L. Vasanthakumari (women)

Instrumentalists—T. Chowdiah (violin); T. Viswanathan (flute); Chitti Babu, S. Balachander (veena); Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman (mrdangam)

Contemporary Artists

Singers—T.M. Krishna, T.N. Seshagopalan, Sanjay Subrahmanyan, K.J. Yesudas (men); Sudha Ragunathan, Aruna Sairam, S. Sowmya (women)

Instrumentalists—Lalgudi Jayaraman, A. Kanyakumari, Nagai Muralidharan, L. Subramaniam (violin); N. Ramani (flute); N. Ravikiran (chitravina); U. Srinivas (electric mandolin); Kadri Gopalnath (saxophone); Arjun Kumar, Neyveli B. Venkatesh (mrdangam); Dr. S. Karthik, Thetakudi Harihara Vinayakram (ghatam); Srirangam Kannan (morsing)


Music in Schools.   For many centuries, Indian music was taught using the traditional gurukulam method in which the shishya (student) literally lived in the guru’s household. With the greater prevalence of Western models of secondary and higher education in the modern day, the gurukulam has become increasingly impractical, and students with an interest must squeeze in music lessons outside of school hours. Many elementary schools will include singing as a regular part of the day’s activities, but the focus will be on popular songs, folk songs, well-known Western songs, and even religious songs, but rarely on classical songs. The inclusion of these musical activities drops off markedly as students move into secondary schools.


Music in Higher Education.   Surprisingly few colleges and universities have music departments in South India. Given the historic preference for one-on-one music education (the gurukulam) and the lack of large-ensemble traditions equivalent to Western orchestras, bands, and choirs, these programs have not caught on in Indian academia. Further, some of South India’s finest universities are oriented narrowly towards business or technology, as with Chennai’s famed Indian Institute of Technology. That being said, there are several universities with music degree programs. In Chennai, the University of Madras houses an Indian Music Department that offers degrees in classical music and dance. Similar departments can be found at Telugu University (Hyderabad) and Andhra University (Visakhapatnam) in Andhra Pradesh and at Bangalore University and Karnatak University (Dharwad) in Karnataka. There are occasionally even classes on Folk Music at places like the Madurai Kamaraj University which offers a major in Folklore. Of special interest are conservatory-like schools that specialize in music, dance, and/or theater. Notable among these are the renowned Kalakshetra (Chennai), the Kalai Kaviri College of Fine Arts (Tiruchirapalli, Tamil Nadu), Sri Swathi Thirunal College of Music (Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala), the famous Kerala Kalamandalam (Cheruthuruthy, Kerala) and the new Gangubai Hangal Music and Performing Arts University (Mysore). K.M. Music Conservatory (Chennai) is unique in its emphasis on Indian classical, Western classical, and world music.



Dr. Hanumanna Nayak Dore, Vice-Chancellor, Gangubai Hangal Music and Performing Arts University, Mysore, Karnataka

Dr. Nagaraj Rao Havaldar, Sunaada Arts Foundation, Bangalore, Karnataka

Dr. R. Kausalya, Marabu Foundation (Thillaisthanam), Former Principal, Rajaraja Government Music College (Tiruvaiyaru), Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu

Srinivas Krishnan, Miami University (Ohio), Former Provost, K.M. Music Conservatory, Chennai, Tamil Nadu

Dr. M. Premeela, Indian Music Department Chair, University of Madras, Chennai, Tamil Nadu


Recommendations for Listening.

S. Balachander (veena). Veena Vidwan S. Balachander in Concert. Swathi Soft CD.

Kadri Gopalnath (saxophone). December Season 2002. Charsur CD.

A. Kanyakumari (violin), Dr. S. Karthik (ghatam). The Lilting Violin of Ms. A. Kanyakumari. Oriental CD.

K.V. Narayanaswamy (voice) & Dr. N. Ramani (flute). Live in Concert. Charsur Paddhatti CD.

Sudha Ragunathan (voice). Mohana Kalyani: Tamil Melodies from Amutha Isai Vani. Amutham CD.

N. Ravikiran (chitravina). Latangi: Ragam Tanam Pallavi. Charsur CD.

Sanjay Subrahmanyan (voice). December Season 2012. Charsur CD.

L. Subramaniam (violin). Anthology of South Indian Classical Music. Harmonia Mundi CD.

K.J. Yesudas (voice). Thyagaraja Krithis, Vols. 1-4. Bharath Sangeeth CD.


Recommendations for Viewing.

Dr. M. Balamuralikrishna (voice), Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman (mrdangam), et al. Varistha. Swathi Soft DVD. Concert.

Dr. M. Balamuralikrishna (voice). Rendezvous Dr. M. Balamurali Krishna. SEA Records DVD. Documentary.

JVC Video Anthology of World Music and Dance. South Asia Vols. I-II. Vol. I contains Bharatanatyam and Kathakali; Vol. II has a yakshagana dance-drama and a bhajan.

Kathakali: Reliving Epics Through Dance. Doordarshan Archives DVD.

Dr. N. Ramani (flute). Sangeetha Kalanidhi Dr. N. Ramani, Flute: Excerpts from Concerts. Jass Visions DVD.

Sadguru Thyagaraja’s Pancharatna Kritis. Doordarshan Archives DVD. Broadcasts from the Tyagaraja Aradhana in Tiruvaiyaru.

Sudha Ragunathan (voice). Sudha Madhuri. Amutham DVD. Concert.

Aruna Sairam (voice). December Season 2004. Charsur DVD. Concert.

Leela Samson, Vishnus Narayansamy, Lata & Gita, Kalakshetra Group (dancers). When the Gods Dance: Bharatanatyam. Geethanjali DVD.

M.S. Subbulakshmi (voice). Swaralaya Puraskaram Award Concert. Saregama DVD. Concert.

Sanjay Subrahmanyan (voice). Aarar Asaipadar (Desired Melody): The Music & The Man. Charsur DVD. Documentary.

Sanjay Subrahmanyan (voice). December Season 2004. Charsur DVD.


Recommendations for Reading.

David Bolland. A Guide to Kathakali: with the Stories of 35 Plays. Sterling, 1996.

Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Vol. 5: South Asia: The Indian Subcontinent. Routledge, 1999.

Ananda Lal, ed. Theatres of India: A Concise Companion. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Walter Kaufmann. The Ragas of South India: A Catalogue of Scalar Material. Indiana University Press, 1976.

Ludwig Pesch. The Oxford Illustrated Companion to South Indian Classical Music, 2nd edition. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Indira Viswanathan Peterson & Davesh Soneji, eds. Performing Pasts: Reinventing the Arts in Modern South India. Oxford University Press, 2008.

Geetha Rajagopal. Music Rituals in the Temples of South India, Vol. 1. D.K. Printworld, 2009.

Krishna Sahai. The Story of a Dance: Bharata Natyam. Indialog, 2003.

Lakshmi Subramanian. From the Tanjore Court to the Madras Music Academy: A Social History of Music in South India. Oxford University Press, 2006.

T. Viswanathan and Matthew Harp Allen. Music in South India. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Bonnie C. Wade. Music in India: The Classical Traditions, rev. ed. Manohar, 2004.