Wednesday, April 27, 2011

On Indian Classical Music (Part 2)

See Part 1

In order to highlight a little more the differences between Hindustani and Carnatic music, I feel it is necessary to illustrate through audio samples.  Well, in this case, I'll use some video, but this should at least give you some ideas.

I'm starting off with some samples of the raga Madhuvanti.  I chose this one to begin with because it is one that is actually quite similar across both systems, and yet in spite of that, you can still hear the difference across the two styles.  Madhuvanti was originally a Hindustani raga, and went over to the Carnatic system maintaining a lot of its original character.  Also, I should note that this raga has the same name in both systems, which is not often the case.  It's more common for the two systems to maintain different names, especially if the ragas were originally Carnatic, or if both systems developed the ragas independently.  For instance, Malkauns in the North is called Hindolam in the South.  Kalavati in the North is called Valachi/Valaji in the South.  It's also all the more confusing because, for instance, Hindustani has a raga called Thodi, which has no relation whatsoever to the Carnatic Todi, and is in fact closer to the Carnatic raga Subhapantuvarali.

Because of the quantity of content I'm likely to use (and also because some of these videos have embedding disabled), I'm giving you direct links to the videos rather than embedding them inline.

Here's a sample of Madhuvanti in Hindustani by the Ali brothers --

For comparison, here's Madhuvanti in Carnatic style by Thanjavur S. Kalyanaraman (aka SKR) --

As a third point of comparison, I offer a rendition of a song in Madhuvanti by Voleti Venkateswarulu.  Now while he is technically a Carnatic vocalist, it is worth noting that his style of rendering here has a hefty Hindustani flair to it, and so it's really a performance that blurs the line between the schools --

First big difference you'll probably notice is the pacing.  Particularly when it comes to the pitch bends.  They feel a great deal more linear and drawn out in the Hindustani style.  One of the things about pitch effects in Hindustani music is that it is generally not limited to a minimum or maximum speed, which allows you to glissando very fast in high speed progressions or very slowly in slow progressions.  This is also what gives Hindustani music that characteristically "meditative" or "hypnotic" quality that people often describe it as having.  By contrast, the Carnatic performance keeps its pitch effects within a certain pace, which means that it can't generally get any slower than some X speed.  This means that if you are going at a slower pace than X, you have to hold some notes dead still and perform your glissando after some delay.  This does mean you may lose some "hypnotic" quality, but you also have the ability to highlight the shape of the pitch effects.  This is why Carnatic music, by its nature, needs and has a wider variety of pitch effects than Hindustani in order to sharply define the character of a raga (what is called "bhaavam").

A finer detail worth noting is that the improvisation in the Hindustani performance is far more free-form.  The vocalists are throwing out fairly arbitrary* phrases and coming back to the primary song theme when the time cycle comes back around (and part of the role of a Tabla player is to keep time so that the performer knows when that is if necessary).  In both the Carnatic performances, even the one which blurs the borderlines, the vocalists are keeping in time with the structure and rhythmic parsing of the song lyrics (which is significantly more complex).

A common sentiment I see in textbooks is to analyze this difference to mean that Hindustani music offers a far greater improvisational aspect than Carnatic.  I have to disagree with this to point out the fact that what is really happening is that Carnatic music has a different set of variables it is working with, so it improvises in multiple axes.  What that means is that it can appear as if there is less overall improvisation in one aspect because you're dealing with multiple scales.  Moreover, this is the level of pre-composed songs.  Both systems have forms of performance which are meant to be more free-form by nature and that's where you see the real levels of what performers are capable of.

By extension, I can look at samples of the percussion solos in both systems.

Take a Tabla solo by Zakir Hussain --

And a Carnatic Tani Avarthanam with Srimushnam Raja Rao on Mridangam and B.S. Purushottamam on Kanjira --

Now both of these performances are completely improvised on-the-spot, but fairly short.  I have been to performances where Raja Rao has done percussion solos as long as 45 minutes.  I think it should be fairly easy to see that the complexity of calculations in the Carnatic counterpart is several notches more complex.  Does this automatically mean that each of these Carnatic percussionists is superior to Zakir Hussain?  Not necessarily.  The real point here is that many of the types of calculations performed in the tani avarthanam are simply not even allowed for a tabla player.  Syncopation across count boundaries and using gaps and overlaying entirely different beat cycles inside the same root cycle is something you just can't do in Hindustani music, but in Carnatic, it's all but a requirement.  A Tabla player simply isn't at liberty to do those same types of things.  Also, it is worth noting that percussion solos are comparatively new in Hindustani music.  While they've been around in Carnatic music for at least 4-5 centuries, it didn't really exist in Hindustani music until Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha brought it in, so perhaps there is time for it to develop still.

Again, the point is that for the same reason that I can't say that Hindustani is weaker on improvisation because its rhythmic complexity is held back, it is also unfair to say that Carnatic music is weaker on improvisation because it has more knobs to tweak in order to improvise on the melodic level.

* 'Arbitrary' here means that the phrases have no direct connection to the song itself and are purely germane to the raga and tala.  There's a certain "feel" aspect to them being appropriate, but that is also heavily dependent on what other phrases were done recently.