Carnatic Music

The origins of South Indian music are traced to prehistoric times. Musical instruments form a favorite subject for sculptors, painters and the authors of ancient Tamil and Sanskrit texts.

Carnatic music owes its name to the Sanskrit term Karnātaka Sangītam which denotes “traditional” or “codified” music. The corresponding Tamil concept is known as Tamil Isai. These terms are used by scholars upholding the “classical” credentials and establish the “scientific” moorings of traditional music. Besides Sanskrit and Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam have long been used for song lyrics.

Purandara Dāsa (1484-1564), a prolific poet-composer and mystic of Vijayanagar, introduced a music course that is followed to the present day. Since the 17th century, hundreds of rāga-s (melody types) has been distributed among the 72 melakarta rāgas (scales).

Carnatic Music

Figure: Statue of Purandara Dasa at Hampi

Purandaradasa was a Haridasa philosopher and a follower of Madhwacharya’s Dwaitha philosophy. He is believed to be born in the district of Shimoga Purandara Dasa is noted for composing Dasa Sahithya, as a Bhakti movement vocalist, and a music scholar. His practice was emulated by his younger contemporary, Kanakadasa,  Purandara Dasa’s Carnatic music compositions are mostly in Kannada, though some are in Sanskrit. He signed his compositions with the ankitanama (pen name) “Purandara Vittala”

Venkatamakhi is regarded as the grand theorist of Carnatic music. In 17th century AD, he developed “Melakarta”, for classifying south Indian ragas. There are 72 Melakartas presently.

The birth of the Musical Trinity – Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri – at Tiruvarur between the years 1750 to 1850 A.D. ushered in an era of dynamic development in Carnatic music.

Some of the salient features of this form of classical music are:

  • It is an indigenously developed style of classical music
  • The Melakarta scheme is a highly comprehensive and systematic formula which includes within its fold all the modes used in ancient as well as modern systems of music of the different parts of the world.
  • It is strongly kriti-based
  • Unity of raga, tala and shruti in every piece
  • The system gives equal importance to melody and rhythm.
  • Mixing the three degrees of speeds
  • Fewer instruments are used in Karnatak than in northern Indian music, and there are no exclusively instrumental forms.
  • There is an even balance between re-creativity (soulful interpretation of the compositions of great masters) and creativity (on the spot improvisations).
  • Some of the important Carnatic music compositions are- Gitam, suladi, svarajati, Jatisvaram, varnam, kritanam, kriti, pada, javali, pallavi etc

Some of the most important Carnatic compositions are:


  • It is the simplest type of composition
  • It is very simple in construction, with an easy and melodious flow of music.
  • It is sung without repetition from the beginning to the end.
  • The theme of the song is usually devotional, though there are a few gitas in praise of musical luminaries and Acharyas.
  • Gitas have been composed in Sanskrit, Kannada and Bhandira bhasha.


  • It is very much like Gitam in musical structure and composition
  • The Suladi is a talamalika, the sections being in different talas.
  • The sahitya syllables are fewer than in the gitas and there is a profusion of vowel extensions.
  • The theme is devotional.
  • Suladis are composed in different tempos vilambita, madhya and druta.
  • Purandaradasa has composed many Suladis.


  • More complicated than the gitas
  • It consists of three sections, called Pallavi, Anupallavi and Charanam.
  • The theme is devotional, heroic or amorous.
  • Syama Sastri, one among the Musical Trinity, was famous for the use of svarajati


  • It is noted for its rhythmical excellence
  • This is a musical form belonging to the realm of dance music. In some Jatisvaram, the Pallavi and Anupallavi are sung to jatis and the Charanas are sung to a mixture of svaras and jatis.


It is a complete composed piece, designed to show the characteristic phrases and melodic movements of a raga and is usually performed at the beginning of a concert


Clothed in simple music, the kirtanam abounds in Bhakti bhava. It is suited for congregational singing as well as individual presentation.


It is a highly evolved musical form. Kritis form the mental backbone of any typical Carnatic music concert and is the longer format of Carnatic song.


Padas are scholarly compositions in Telugu and Tamil. Though they are composed mainly as dance forms, they are also sung in concerts, on account of their musical excellence and aesthetic appeal.


It is a composition belonging to the sphere of light classical music. They are songs which are sensuous in concept and spirit. Javalis are composed in Telugu, Kannada and Tamil. This form resembles the Thumris of Hindustani Music.


It is mainly a dance form, but on account of its brisk and attractive music, it sometimes finds a place in music concerts as a conclusion piece. It usually begins with jatis.


This is the most important branch of creative music. It is in this branch of manodharma sangeeta, that the musician has ample opportunities of displaying his or her creative talents, imaginative skill, and musical intelligence.


It is one of the methods of raga improvisation (manodharma) in the Carnatic classical music tradition, suited mainly for vocal, violin and veena. Tanam is the second part of a Raagam Taanam Pallavi, and comes immediately after the raga is sung but before the pallavi is about to begin.