Sunday, December 17, 2006

Intonation in Carnatic concerts

The term Intonation in music means, put simply, producing notes that are in tune. It is what we would call zruti zuddham. (Or, in other words, being a "suswaraM Ramjhi.")

The most important factor for producing a note in tune is possessing an accurate aural perception of that note. Once this is present, intonation is developed by practising to match the note we produce with this standard. (In Carnatic music, of course, we do not have an "absolute note" -- they are all relative to the chosen reference SaDja.) Thus, for perfect intonation, a keen sense of hearing is absolutely essential.

When performing in large halls, musicians hear their own instruments only very faintly. And there isn't enough echo either.* So, intonation becomes a big challenge. Now, an accompanying Carnatic artiste has a tougher problem -- he needs to be able to hear the main performer as well. Furthermore, an instrument that is initially tuned perfectly to the taMbUrA, may go out of tune during the course of the concert; and the musician needs to be able to detect when this happens and correct it based on the taMbUrA that is droning some distace away on the platform. (And, to repeat, "I can't hear no nothing!")

Usually, to enable the performers to hear themselves, a speaker system (called a monitor or "fold-back") that is directed towards the platform is provided. However, I have never seen one in a Carnatic concert. In addition, few concert venues are actually auditoria built with necessary acoustics for a music performance. Many are just open spaces with asbestos roofing (Ayodhya Mandapam, YGP Auditorium, etc.).

Given all these hurdles, I am amazed how our musicians perform with perfect intonation. They are practically performing deaf.

- - -
* An extreme case would be a recording studio, whose walls are built to expressly prevent any echoes. This is why (as we have seen in movies scenes featuring a studio recording) the artistes are supplied with headphones.

Update (20 Dec): I have found a related Wikipedia entry -- Foldback. Excerpts:

The provision of foldback (or monitor) speakers is essential to performers, because without a foldback system, the sound they would hear from front of house would be the reverberated reflections from the rear wall of the venue. The naturally-reflected sound is delayed and distorted.

... On stages with poor or absent foldback mixes, vocalists may end up singing off-tune or out of time with the band.

Update 2 (26 January): A post from an excellent blog (by Ramnarayan) I stumbed upon says:
Young vocalist Savita Narasimhan clarifies that the musician on the stage rarely asks for the volume to be turned up for the listeners. He or she is actually asking for help with the feedback (or fallback) so essential for the performer on stage. “Often the vocalist cannot hear the percussionist or violinist and vice versa. The musician’s request to increase the volume of the monitor is misunderstood and the technician increases the volume for the audience.”

Friday, December 01, 2006

Decongesting Usman Road

In Madras, the Usman Road/Panagal Park area (in T. Nagar) is a major bottleneck for vehicular traffic. The volume of traffic is itself high, but the place also has a number of popular shopping centres to add to the problem. During festive seasons, the place can rival the Kumbha Mela or the Mahamakham for the sheer mass of humanity that descends here to shop. And as we know, in India, festive seasons are spread all round the year. The situation has turned even worse since Saravana Stores opened a new branch, its second in T. Nagar, on Usman Road this year.

Saravana Stores is a huge shopping centre that sells everything -- clothing, footwear, home appliances, kitchen utensils, jewellery, sweets, etc. etc. etc. All at a low price. The (lower?) middle-class loves this shop. People flock to T. Nagar from all round the city (and from suburban areas too) to shop at Saravana Stores.

Decongesting this part of T. Nagar has been a tough question so far. The roads are too narrow to contruct any flyovers. Not that the Corporation (or is it the CMDA?) is interested in solving this issue, for it has permitted construction of huge shops here with no provision for parking.

But it looks like there is still some hope left: Walmart is coming to India, in partnership with Bharti Enterprises.

Some Indian blogs have been looking at Walmart as another grocery supermarket (like FoodWorld), but it's much more than just that. In my opinion, shops like Saravana Stores are a better approximation. If Walmart sets up shop in Madras in a well-connected place (maybe close to another local rail station) Saravana Stores is up for some competition. This is likely to draw away some percentage of the shoppers from T. Nagar.

Of course, "Walmart" is not the right name to have in Tamilnadu (Vaal = tail in Tamil). An alternative that can't go wrong is "Bhar(a)ti Murugan Stores" -- both Bharati and Murugan being immensely popular figures in the state. They can even have a logo with a laughing Sam Walton in it and call him Sami Annachi.

Friday, November 24, 2006

"Yaha to bilakula theeka hai"

Spoken languages tend to clip off syllables for ease of pronunciation. Hindi comes to mind immediately for its propensity to drop the lagging A's. somvaar (Monday), kalpnaa (imagination), din (day). But, this can be seen in other languages too, including the south Indian ones. In Tamil, eppadi (how) becomes ep'di and saayangaalam (evening), saay'ngaalam. No Kannadiga calls his capital Bengalooru, it's just Beng'looru. And in that city, any autodriver will gladly take you to Basavan'gudi.

However, the literary (or even plain written) language does not permit this latitude. The Tamil signboard on Dor'saami Road in Madras will only say Duraisaami Saalai. In Bangalore, the common man's Dom'looru is still, on paper, Dommalooru. The integrity of the syllables is maintained in the formal language.

Except in Hindi.

The Hindi newsreader will elide the lagging A's as eagerly as the rickshaw-wallah. The student at a college canteen and the scholar declaiming on a podium would both say, "Yeh to bilkul theek hei." Why is this so?

In my opinion, it's due to the influence of the Persian- and Arabic-speakers who migrated into northern India. And it's not so much due to their language as due to their script.

The Semitic scripts all share an interesting property -- they have no vowels. Their words are represented using only consonants. Such a script is called an Abjad. The word "Hindustan" (e.g.) would be written HNDSTN.

Contrast this with the Indian scripts: We do have vowels. In addition, every consonant character possesses an implicit vowel A. क is not K, but Ka.

Now let's take the word Mehel (as in Taj Mehel) and transcribe it in an Indian script, but with an Abjad spirit:
Mehel --> MHL --> Ma-Ha-La (महल)
Or take Neher (canal):
Neher --> NHR --> Na-Ha-Ra (नहर)
Or, Matlab (meaning; not the software):
Matlab --> MTLB --> Ma-Ta-La-Ba (मतलब)
Such a practice might have started with Arabic/Persian words, and eventually caught on with all words in Hindi.

Because of the Abjad influence, the letters, when at the end of a word, lost their implicit A vowel. And elsewhere, they picked up new sounds such as the short E vowel - as in Mehel or Neher. This vowel sound was not present originally in any north Indian language.

But for other vowel sounds already available in Indian scripts (such as i, e, u) the Persian/Arabic words must have been written in the traditional Indian way - Bi-La-Ku-La (बिलकुल).

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

On Celestial Pachyderms

Today, I was listening to a Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi by a yesteryear vidwan. The pallavi was in Tamil and went:
ten-pazhani vaDivElanE, devayAnai maNavALanE*
The pallavi refers to the deity Muruga/Karttikeya. He is considered a bachelor in the north** but is twice-married down south. His second wife is called dEvayAni in Sanskrit and dEvAnai in Tamil. Gods and goddesses in Tamilnadu have two names - one each in Sanskrit and Tamil.

In this pallavi, the vidwan wishes to refer to the deity in relation to his wife, i.e., "O Husband of such-and-such-a-person." But he confuses the two names, dEvayAni and dEvAnai, of the goddess and ends up with the hybrid dEvayAnai, which means "Divine Elephant" (yAnai = elephant, in Tamil)!

- - - -
* தென்பழனி வடிவேலனே, தேவயானை மணவாளனே
** Whether it's north of the Vindhyas or that of Tirutthani, I am not sure.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Language tidbits

A large number of Bangaloreans can speak Tamil. But there is a simple way to distinguish the native speaker of Tamil from a Kannadiga who learnt it: Where the former will use app'DiyA ("is that so?"), the latter will say AmAvA. As in:

"nALaikki Madras pOrEn." ("I am going to Madras tomorrow.")
"app'DiyA / AmAvA?" ("Is that so?")

This is because the Kannada equivalent of app'DiyA is audA. And audu ("yes") translates to AmA in spoken Tamil.

* * *

In my opinion, a Tamil-speaker can learn Kannada easier by comparing Kannada expressions to their equivalents in formal (rather than spoken) Tamil. This is because Tamil words are often shortened when used colloquially and the similarities between the two languages may not be readily apparent.

For example, vanduviTTu ("after coming") becomes vandu'TTu in spoken Tamil, but the Kannada bandbiTTu is closer to the first form. So also, vandukoNDu (becomes vandu'NDu) & bandkoNDu; vanduviDu (becomes vandu'Du) & bandbiDu.

* * *

Did you know that in Sanskrit, the letter व which now has the sound V, was originally W?

Of the consonants in the Sanskrit alphabet, य, र, ल and व (which make up the penultimate row of the Varnamala) are considered to be "semi-vowels," as each of them is formed when two vowels combine. य (ya) arises out of the sandhi of the vowels इ (i) and अ (a). That is,
इ + अ -> य
ऋ + अ -> र
ऌ + अ -> ल
उ + अ -> व
When the vowels उ (u) and अ (a) combine to form व, as you can see, the resultant sound is better represented by W. I am curious how it evolved into a V. I find this surprising since the W sound is after all easier on the mouth than V.

And the preponderance of W's in the names of Sri Lankan cricket players (Wickremasinghe, Samaraweera) makes me wonder if, in Sinhalese, the letter has retained the original sound.

* * *

Hindi has a number of dialects - Khadiboli, Braj-bhasha, Awadhi, etc. But few may know of the existence of a southern dialect of Hindi. It's called Carnatic Hindi, the language as sung by Carnatic musicians!

The main languages of Carnatic music are, of course, Telugu, Sanskrit, Tamil and Kannada. A share of the pie was given to Hindi by the royal composer Swati Tirunal, who created 36 songs in the language. One of them begins:
रामचन्द्र प्रभो, तुम बिन
जाने कौन खबर ले मेरी!
A Carnatic musician would pronounce it thus:
rAmachandra prabhO, tuma bina
jAnE kauna khabara le mErI!
... without eliding the 'a' sounds as a Hindi-speaker would do (tum bin jAne etc.)!

And I approve of it. Such a pronunciation gels with that of the south Indian languages (including Sanskrit) that a Carnatic aficianado is attuned to.

Meera bhajans, when pronounced in Carnatic Hindi, appear an integral part of the Carnatic repository:
morE to giridhara gopAla
dUsarO na koyI...
... while a playback of MS Subbulakshmi's Hanuman Chalisa
SrI guru charaNa sarOja raja
nija mana mukura sudhAri
... runs seamlessly from that of any south Indian household regular such as the Siva Panchakshara Stotram.

- - - -

PS: I apologise to all readers for the long silence.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Good Manners and Language

Germans can be grumpy, unpleasant people—and it's not because of post-Nazi guilt or a diet filled with bratwurst, says one American researcher. It's because of their vowels. Hope College psychology professor David Myers says saying a vowel with an umlaut forces a speaker to turn down his mouth in a frown, and may induce the sadness associated with the facial expression. Myers added that the English sounds of "e" and "ah" naturally create smile-like expressions and may induce happiness. [Link]
Quite a few buses in Bangalore do not have a conductor. In such buses, of the two entrypoints, the one closest to the driver would only be open. As we board the bus, the driver himself would issue tickets. Soon a crowd would build up at the front, due to their inexplicable fascination to hang out near the doors. And the driver would be walled in by a human fortress around him, rendering him unable to issue tickets to the new passengers. And he can't resume driving until the tickets are given out. Besides, he also has to deal with the honking massive traffic build-up behind the bus. In such an unenviable scenario, the driver would plead with the people around him repeatedly, "Ulagada hogi! Ulagada hogi!" (Please move inside! Please!)

I cannot imagine such a scene happening in Madras for two reasons:

1. No driver would have agreed to the additional work of issuing tickets. All proletariat would have united in a strike.
2. Let's assume the drivers (by some miracle, or threat of arrest by Amma) consented. Now, if the passengers suffocated him at his seat, he would eliminate the problem by a simple technique of hurling a volley of expletives at them.

What is the cause for the Kannadiga drivers' politeness?

A friend took an autorickshaw from his home for a long ride in Bangalore, at the end of which he realised he was... without his wallet. Had this occurred in Madras, the aatokaaran would have combined with others of his ilk to perform my friend's last rites -- after collecting everything of value on his person. All the Bangalorean, on the other hand, did was to offer to collect the amount from my friend's house the next day.

Now, here I must add that there are many autorickshawmen in Bangalore who are quite as skilled at fleecing us as the famed ones of Madras are. But they do so with that good grace that makes getting fleeced a much less unpleasant experience.

What makes the Kannada-speaking autodrivers more mannered?

While a student, if Mysore Vasudevacharya (the celebrated composer and musician) committed a mistake in his lessons, his guru would upbraid him severely but referring to him throughout with the honorific Acharyare. (Harken gentle sir, may I declare thee a blundering moron?)

Now consider this.

In (colloquial) Kannada:

SingularRespectful (Plural)
Go hogu 2 syllables hogi 2 syllables
Do: madu ,, madi ,,
See: nodu ,, nodri ,,
Put: haku ,, hakri ,,

Contrast this with (colloquial) Tamil:

SingularRespectful (Plural)
Do: sei 1 syllable seyyunga 3 syllables
See: paru 2 parunga 3
Put: podu 2 podunga 3

or Hindi:

SingularRespectful (Plural)
Go: ja 1 syllable ja'iye3 syllables
Do: kar 1 keejiye 3
See: dekh 1 dekhiye 3

or even Telugu:

SingularRespectful (Plural)
Go: vellu 2 syllables vellandi3 syllables
Do: chei 2 cheyyandi 3
choodu 2choodandi3

There it is, friends. Being polite and respectful is much easier on the mouth in Kannada. For every verb spoken, you are spared 1 syllable or more, compared to the other tongues. And in addition, employing the respectful plural takes the same effort needed for the casual singular: Same price, more value.

The Chief Architect of Kannada (let's call her Kannada Thayi, or KT for short), when she sat down after a hearty meal of bisi-bele-huliyanna to create the language, must have had respectfulness as one of her major design goals. And she achieved it by the simple (yet ingenious) method of making verb plurals user-friendly.

Therein lies another important lesson for all of you: If you seek to create a language that should escape degeneration with time, keep it easy on the mouth. Yes-sir, "easy on the mouth, easy on the mouth" - that's the cry. Or you will find that the resounding "Avarai azhaithukondu varungal" ("Please bring him along" - Tamil) would end up as the tepid "Adha itnu va" in the tongues of the hoi-polloi.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Blogger stumbles upon Indian grammatical law

Today, blogger Amit Varma independently invents rules of euphonic combination, present as the laws of Sandhi in the Indian languages.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Ah, Bliss.

My room-mate and I both are from Madras; so when we go to our respective homes, we travel together. But the last weekend, he stayed put in Bangalore while I went.

On meeting him on my return,

Me: It was Ratha Saptami yesterday.
Room-mate: What is Ratha Saptami?
Me: It means my mother makes sweets. I had Chakkara Pongal and Carrot Halwa. You?
Room-mate: @#$%& you.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

A Delta of Fertile Minds - Thanjavur's Contribution to Music

At different times in history, certain regions become centres of immense creative output: Madurai in the Sangam Age (Tamil literature and music), Vienna in the 17-18th centuries (Western classical music) and Bengal in the 19th century (literature, science, etc.).

Similarly, the Cauvery delta region of Thanjavur seems to have been the happening place in the 18-19th centuries, as far as Carnatic music is concerned.

Ruled successively by Vijayanagara (Nayaka) chiefs of Karnataka/Andhra and Maratha kings of Maharashtra, this Tamil area saw an immigration of Telugu-, Kannada- and Marathi-speaking people. Such diversity resulted in a glorious cross-pollination of culture, one of whose fruits is the Carnatic classical music.

A slew of composers emerged, creating works in different languages (Telugu, Tamil, Sanskrit and Marathi). The important names are Seshaiyengar, hailed as "mArgadarzi" or Pathbreaker; Uthukadu Venkata-kavi, whose Tamil and Sanskrit works include the famous alaippAyudE; the Tamil composers Arunachala-kavi, creator of the rAma nATakam and Gopalakrishna Bharati, whose magnum-opus is the nandanAr caritram. The pinnacle was reached with the Trinity of Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri, who are known too well for me to go into details.

These compositions were created in various formats. In addition to the well-known kRti, is the Natakam (opera), exemplified in the bhAgavata mELA form. It consists of plays in Telugu and Marathi which are performed by an all-male cast of Telugu speakers from Melattur village in Thanjavur.

Of all these works, the ones that deal with Krishna-bhakti are always... erotic! One such is the kRSNa lIlA taraGgiNi, composed by Narayana Teertha (who moved in from Andhra). And Tyagaraja, who was as orthodox as they came, created the zRGgAra-laden opera naukA caritram. Other “madhura-bhakti” formats are the padam and jAvaLi.

Besides the intense composing activity, important strides were made in musicology as well. Venkatamakhin wrote the caturdaNDI prakAzikA, that deals with the 72 melas. This was refined into the Mela-karta raga system as we know it today by his grandson Muddu Venkatamakhin. Some of the kings were scholars themselves: Tulaja wrote the treatise saGgIta sArAmRta.

Furthermore, the bhajana sampradAya took shape here around this time. The primary gurus of this tradition were Bodhendra Saraswati and Sridhara Venkatesa (popularly known as "ayyAvAL"), a local of Telugu ancestry. (The late Swami Haridas Giri was the most visible face of this sampradAya in recent times.) This system was made rich with contributions from the earlier Kannada as well as Marathi (abhang) bhajana movements.

The Marathi settlers (thanks to their rhythm-dominant abhaGgs) also helped develop the mridangam techniques. This is evident from the Carnatic terms, chapu (as in the tala "Khanda Chapu") which is probably from the Marathi "chhaap" छाप; and mora (rhythmic patterns) from "mohra" मोहरा. (In fact, their influence can be seen in other spheres too - the original name of Bharatanatyam "sadir" and the famous "sambar" come from Marathi.) One of the foremost mridangam exponents was a Thanjavur Marathi, Nanasama Rao (aka Narayanaswami Appa).

Thus evolved our music - in a cultural melting-pot that was Thanjavur.
- - - - -

Other recent blog-posts on Carnatic Music that are great:

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Cry "Wolfgang!"

The world celebrates the 250th birth anniversary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the great Western Classical composer, this Friday (27th January). Thousands of people are gathering at Salzburg, Austria, his hometown.

On this occasion, an excellent set of concerts, tributes and other audio programmes are featured on the non-profit radio station NPR. Check them out!

[Link via Yossarian Lives. Pic: Wikipedia.]

More links on Music:

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Harmonium - Sarangi Wars, Redux.

A while ago at a Hindustani concert by Padma Talwalkar, seeing the accompanying harmonium unable to keep up with the fluid voice of the singer made me wonder why this instrument was preferred to the sarangi or the violin. I expressed my thoughts in the article How the Harmonium Came on the Hindustani Stage.

I didn't know it when I first wrote this article, but the harmonium was banned in AIR concerts for 30 years from sometime in the 1940's. This is surprising. Though the instrument can't probably reproduce the high-speed taans or certain types of gamakas, it's got a rich continuous tone that only a very good violinist with impeccable bow control can match. This is a very desirable quality for an accompanying instrument. Banning the harmonium, I feel, was draconian.

In the late 1960's, the Sangeet Natak Akademi invited experts to a seminar to discuss this ban. Excerpts from the seminar proceedings were posted in the group and make a very interesting reading. V.H. Deshpande, an AIR artiste, while presenting his case for the harmonium, brought up the important topic of the role of an accompanist in a concert:
[W]hat is the role of an accompanying instrument? I submit it is to create a musical atmosphere, and inspire the artiste by bringing him into his best singing mood. Further, the accompanying instrument must keep the continuity of singing to heighten the musicality of the performance and make it more more entertaining and in effect more pleasing. This it is expected to do by following the main artiste closely with or without a little time lag and also at times being played independently in the interludes, generally calculated to excite and inspire the principal to do better than before. I dare say that the Harmonium by its powerful, constant and sustained notes not only abundantly satisfies all these requirements but satisfies them in a far greater degree than any of the stringed instruments...

It is said that Sarangi can reproduce the exact tonal nuances and meends and gamaks. This is alright only if the resonating strings allow it to remain in accurate intonation. But let me ask, whether exact reproduction is at all necessary for an accompanying instrument, whose role is only complementary?
A certain P. V. Subramaniam from Delhi makes an eloquent case for the harmonium as well:
It is not realised that as in the case of other aids to music the Harmonium has undergone great refinement. Today's version of the Harmonium is capable of providing a whole range of tonal excellence unavailable in other musical instruments... Present-day Harmoniums have three-reed-boards joined together with provision for air-release in a zig-zag fashion ensuring softness of tone and melody.

In the far South, before the days of cant and dilettantism, Perur Subramanya Dikshitar, the Harmonium Wizard, used to accompany the great classical vocalists... Dikshitar played on a highly sophisticated Harmonium. There are many gramaphone records testifying to his instrumental excellence while accompanying a maestro of the calibre of Palladam Sanjivi Rao. These records have also been broadcast over the Radio. The heavens have not fallen. They are in one piece.
This gentleman, P. V. Subramaniam, is none other than the much-feared Carnatic critic Subbudu!

Read the whole thing.

More on the Harmonium vs Sarangi debate:
In the For Sarangi team: Kishori Amonkar.
In the For Harmonium team: Rajan Parrikar.

Who doesn't love a good fight?