Sunday, November 04, 2007

On Kannada

Yes, yet another post on Kannada. But this time, it's on the raga -- not the language.

Kannada is a vakra janya of Sankarabharanam. The ArOha-avarOha: SGMDNṠ ṠNṠDPMGMRS

The avarOhana indicates that we can descend to D only from NṠ. Therefore, ṘṠD is invalid. It should be ṘṠNṠD. Of course, the same applies when we have to descend to R — we have to pass through GM first.

Here is a transition diagram of the notes. (Click on the diagram for a bigger version.)

(The notes in green are the rAga-chAyA swaras.) This diagram immediately reveals the important cycles of this raga. GMG, MDPM and ṠNṠ. This is an advantage of this representation. The cycles may not be readily apparent from the mere mention of the aroha-avaroha. This can be helpful for improvisation. (E.g., MDPM-GMDNṠDPM-GMRS)

As we saw in the avaroha, there are two 2-note cycles present - MGM & ṠNṠ. In addition, the raga permits three more 2-note cycles, which are however not "compulsory" (it is not mandatory to traverse these cycles): SRS, MPM & PDP. Indeed, this raga is wickedly vakra:

I have used dotted transitions to indicate that they are "non-compulsory" and can only form a 2-note cycle. That is, they cannot be used for forming a longer non-cyclic path. For example, the sequence MPDNṠ is invalid. But MPMDPDNS is legal. It is difficult to indicate such features using just the aroha-avaroha.

Some Kannada pieces:

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Kannada for the North Indian (Part II): Nada to Kannada

We now present the Spoken Kannada Bootstrap post. This takes you from a non-Kannada speaking person (a Can't-nadiga) to a Kannadiga in a single post. In this, we take advantage of the liberal definition of Kannada in the cities. We will discuss here the minimal disguise needed to pass off as a native speaker.

Wildcard 1: mADi

mADi is the respectful imperative "do" (kIjiyE). Words of any language, when combined with mADi, become Kannada. Scenarios:
  • You are on a bus and wish to get down at a signal; but the door is closed. How do you ask, in Kannada, to open the door? Ans: "Door open mADi."
  • You are a Hindustani-speaking owner of an FM channel. What Kannada slogan do you devise that urges your audience to enjoy themselves with your channel? Ans: "Mast majaa mADi."
  • You are in an autorickshaw and notice your boss a little distance in front of you. How do you harness your indepth knowledge of Kannada in order to avoid him? Ans: Say to the driver, "U-turn mADi!"
You can Kannadise your phrases a little further by throwing in the word swalpa ("a little") as in, "swalpa adjust mADi," or "swalpa A/C reduce mADi."

Wildcard 2: hOgi

hOgi is the respectful imperative "go" (jAyiyE). This is the magic word without which you should not hire an autorickshaw.
  • "Right hOgi."
  • "Left hOgi."
  • "Straight hOgi."
I just realised that, of the languages I can speak, I don't know the native word for "left" or "right" (or even if know the words, am not sure which means "left" and which "right") in a single one.

Wildcard 3: koDi

koDi (the vowel is a short O) is the respectful imperative "give" (dIjiyE). Useful for shopping.
  • "Dairy milk chocolate koDi."
  • "[Your favourite movie] DVD koDi."
  • "Nair, singal cup tea koDi."
You can substantially enhance the Kannada quotient of the koDi-sentences if you know the Kannada numbers. (Click here for a guide.)
"eraDu kilo apple koDi."
If you know the numbers, you can even eliminate koDi sometimes.
"Shivaji Nagar - mUru ticket." (Three tickets to Shivaji Nagar.)


In Kannada, all questions that elicit a boolean response end in the vowel -A. This fact can be exploited as in the following cases:
  • To ask "Is a day-pass allowed on this bus?" -- Bus pass allow-a?
  • To ask "Does this bus go to Majestic?" -- Majestic-a?
  • To ask if lunch/dinner is available at a hotel -- Meals ready-a?
Of course, to understand the responses to your question, you need to know the Kannada for "yes" (haudu) and "no" (illa). And you must now be able to guess what the friendly Udupi fast-food person means when he asks you "Idli sambar-a?"

The A-suffix is also used in framing multiple-choice questions, as below:
  • To ask if someone is coming by bus or auto -- "Bus-a, auto-a?"
  • To find out the mode of payment -- "Cheque-a, cash-a?"

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Yehudi chala sukhama, Paganini sannidhi seva sukhama

I have read about the Western classical violin maestros: Yehudi Menuhin, Jascha Heifetz, David Oistrakh and others. Today I was absolutely thrilled when I found their videos on YouTube.

Yehudi Menuhin playing Paganini's Perpetual Motion. It simply takes your breath away.

More Menuhin delights.

Jascha Heifetz playing the Paganini Caprice No. 24.

More Heifetz videos.

I always thought of the violin virtuosi as thin folks with long and lean fingers. With Menuhin and Heifetz, I was proved right. However, when I found David Oistrakh, I realised chubby multi-chinned people could be maestros too.

More videos of the Ranatunga of the violin world.

Other maestros:
* * * *

A couple of days back, I came across the show Italian: The Language That Sings on NPR, which said:
Even when it isn't sung, the Italian language sounds like music...
This programme reminded me immediately of the position of Telugu in Carnatic music. Telugu is also considered a musical language and has been hailed as "the Italian of the East." The poet Subramanya Bharathi famously called it sundara teluGgu.

The musicality of the two languages has been attributed to:
... the fact that most words end in a vowel. Not only does this make it a very suitable language for opera, it also means that once you are familiar with its rhythms, it is a comparatively easy language to pronounce. [Link]
On coming to Bangalore, I observed that Kannada words end in vowels too. Sample:
nArAyaNA ninNna nAmada smaraNeya sArAmRtavenNna nAligege barali [mp3]
Doesn't that sound as sweet? Does it not bleed when pricked?

Probably, their vowel-ending does not fully explain their status as musical languages. On Italian, the NPR programme explains:
So many of these musical forms—sonata, cantata, aria—started in Italy," Hoffman says.

"Plus, Italian musicians were in positions of prestige all over Europe, so it became the lingua franca."

Possibly similar reasons exist for Telugu too?

Thursday, August 09, 2007


As the frequency of posts would indicate, the last six months was a tight period at work. This had forced me to shelve (among other things) a particular pet project of mine. During a lean stretch, I was able to work on translipi, the embedded-text transliteration tool. (See the sidebar to try it out.) Though worthy of an independent existence, translipi was originally conceived as a component of this project. Finally, it is now ready enough for release: (Beta).

Targetted at Carnatic Music enthusiasts, students and professionals, is a wiki for all things concerned with Carnatic lyrics, usually called sAhityam. Its goal is to facilitate accurate pronunciation and understanding of the lyrics as well as to serve as platform for everybody to collaborate in creating such a repository.

While the software is ready to use, there isn't enough content and documentation yet. This can be built up over time together with everyone interested. I invite your participation in the wiki. Anybody can edit a page, but creating new content requires registration (which is a simple process).

So, please do have a look and let me know any comments for improvement.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Kannada for the North Indian (Part I)

A reader Sohan Mahanto submitted the following comment at my post Language Tidbits:
I wish you could help new Bangaloreans like me on how to pickup the local language (Kannada). Some basic practical examples like talking to autodrivers, busconductors, maids, the dukaanwalah etc. Most of my colleagues are North Indians or non-locals and are all in the same boat. As for the locals, they all know Hindi. So [there is] no chance for people like us to learn Kannada.
I was myself planning to put up a Kannada tutorial sometime. Sohan's comment spurred me on to actually get down to the task.

Disclaimer: Kannada is not my mother tongue. (Fortunately, that turns out to be an advantage since I can then suggest ways to learn the language as a non-native.) And I am no scholar either. So if you try the "Kannada" learnt by supposedly following my tips on your maid-servant and get slapped on the cheek, you have my sympathies; but I assume no legal responsibility.

I plan to do this tutorial in a series of posts; and these are targetted primarily at the folks from the northern states. But fellow peninsular Indians may also find something of value.

So here we go.
- - - - -

Kannada is a part of the Dravidian family of languages. North Indian languages, as we all know, belong to a separate clan, the Indo-European. Now, this might give an impression that Kannada is very different from the North Indian languages and that learning it might be a daunting uphill task. This is not true: I would like to point out that it took (in 1816) the scholar Alexander Duncan Campbell 30 whole pages of his grammar text to demonstrate that South Indian languages are a different family vis-a-vis the North Indian languages. If it took so much effort to distinguish the two families, there must indeed be a lot of similarities between them. So even if the task of learning Kannada is not easy, it may not require a Himalayan effort. Perhaps just a Vindhyan one.

While the Kannada language may belong to a different family-tree, the Kannada script is descended from the same ancestor as are all the other Indian scripts — Brahmi. And this is where we will begin our study from. I will compare the Kannada script with Devanagari to highlight the similarities, but the same can be done with any other northern script too.

The Kannada Script

The Kannada varNamAlA is represented in the same format as the Devanagari one. First the vowels a to au, together with the anuswAra and the visarga. Next come the consonants falling into different rows - beginning with ka, ca, Ta, ta, pa, ya, za and terminating in ha.

The extra letters (not present in the northern scripts) are:
  • the short vowel e (pronounced like the E in "get")
  • the short vowel o (pronounced like the O in "poetry")
  • the retroflex consonant La (equivalent of the Marathi ळ)
A large number of Kannada characters bear such a close resemblance to their Devanagari counterparts that I believe that the script can be learnt in a week. Only a little amount of imagination is needed to discern the similarities.

Let's consider, for instance, the Kannada character ka (). First, take the Devanagari ka and remove its "helmet." Next, rotate it by 90 degrees anticlockwise.
And lo behold, the Kannada ka!
Character kha is as easy. Take the Devanagari kha, remove its inner circle and its helmet too. Next, circle up the bends.

And here it is:

Some more examples: Ga.






You get the idea now. I leave the other characters as an exercise. (Link: The complete alphabet.) As I said before, all that is needed is a little imagination.

Using other mnemonics:


(1) In Devanagari, a number of letters are formed out of the following shape:
... such as:
Similarly in Kannada, the following template:
... gives rise to:
(2) In Devanagari, some letters are written the same way, except for the fact that in one, the "head" touches the helmet, and in the other, it does not. For example, in the letter (ma), the head touches the helmet. But in the letter (bha), it does not. Otherwise, they both look alike. Another example is the pair, (gha) and (dha).

Similar cases exist in the Kannada script too. The letters na () and sa () are written alike except that the latter's head does not touch the helmet. So also, the letters va () and pa (). In the non-touching cases, note the small circle in Devanagari and the dot in Kannada.

(3) When the letters get together to form words in Kannada, their helmets do not merge into a common roof (as it happens in Devanagari). The helmet of each letter retains its independence. That is:
व + न = वन (The helmets merge.)
ವ + ನ = ವನ (The helmets do not merge.)
(4) A very important note on pronunciation. In Indian scripts, every letter has an implicit "a" sound. क is "Ka," not "K." But in North Indian languages, the letters sometimes lose this vowel depending on their position in the word. E.g., in the word सोमवार, pronounced somvaar, the letters म and र lose the implicit "a" vowel.*

This does not happen in Kannada (or any other South Indian language, for that matter). In the example above, the correct pronunciation in Kannada would be so-muh-vaa-ruh.

For a lot of North Indians, this tendency to clip off the implicit A vowel is a difficult habit to unlearn. But practice, practice. Every time you catch yourself saying Kor-mang-laa, go to your company pantry and punish yourself by consuming a cup of caffeine. And then say aloud a hundred times, Ko-ruh-mang-uh-luh.

As another example, consider the following word:
It is correctly pronounced va-nuh. Not van. The word means, as you may have guessed already, forest.

Exercise: What's written here?

Vowel Marks (mAtrAs)

The Kannada vowel diacritical marks. These are quite simple too. There isn't much for me to say here.

Conjunct Consonants

(1) In Devanagari, when two consonants combine, it is the first consonant that is modified. The second remains unaffected. For example,
ध् + व = ध्व
In Kannada, the opposite is true. The first is unaffected:
ಧ್ + ವ = ಧ್ವ
The second consonant is written as a subscript to the first; but otherwise there is no change in its form.

(2) Besides becoming a subscript, some consonants have a totally different form when participating as the second. These are listed here. Some examples:
  • ದೊಮ್ಮಲೂರು (dommalUru or Domlur)
  • ಬನ್ನೇರುಘಟ್ಟ (bannErughaTTa or Bannerghatta)
In their modified forms, these consonants resemble their Devanagari counterparts much more than in their simple forms.

(3) As in Hindi, the anuswāra is used as a substitute for nasal consonants. E.g.,
  • ಇಂದಿರಾ ನಗರ (iMdirA nagara)
  • ಬನಶಂಕರಿ**(banazaMkari)
- - - - -
Other parts of this series:

* Bengali and Oriya are probably exceptions. jana gaNa mana, Bengali names like Aurobindo, Subroto and Oriya names like Satchidananda Mohanty, etc. suggest a Sanskrit-like pronunciation.
** In Dravidian languages, words do not end in a long "I" vowel.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Anuswara (or) How usability trumps grammar

The anuswAra is a curious beast. Though it is grouped with the vowels in the alphabet, it is not one. Nor is it a consonant. It is non-aligned, taking no sides in a bipolar world.

In our epics we have read of celestial beings that can assume any form according to their whim — now a hideous monstor, now a bewitching damsel and now a piece of rock. The anuswAra has turned into such a creature. Sometimes it seems like Ga (gaMgA), sometimes Ja (paMcAyat). Elsewhere it sounds like Na (pAMDava), or na (zAMti) or ma (paraMparA).

The anuswAra has now ended up as a wildcard placeholder for any nasal consonant. Correctly, in all the examples above, the respective nasal consonant should have been used. (gaGgA, paJcAyat, pANDava, zAnti, paramparA). In fact, in Tamil, where the concept of anuswAra is absent, this is how these words are written*.

So then, what exactly is an anuswAra and where should it be used? Being neither a vowel nor a consonant, the anuswAra does not have an independent existence. It is a product of sandhi. (This implies that it cannot be used at the end of a sentence or a stand-alone word.) Let's explore this with some more examples.
sam +
gIta = saGgIta
cAra = saJcAra
darbha = sandarbha
pradAya = sampradAya
That is, when m is followed by any consonant from the first four rows of the varNamAlA, it (the trailing m) is converted into a nasal of the same type as that consonant.

It is only when combining with the remaining consonants (semi-vowels, sibilants, etc.) that the trailing m becomes an anuswAra.
sam +
yOga = saMyOga
rakSaNa = saMrakSaNa
vatsara = saMvatsara
sAra = saMsAra
zaya = saMzaya
hAra = saMhAra
How does the anuswAra sound like? In other words, is it Simha, Sinha or Singha? None of the above. The pronunciation is as follows:
The anuswAra is an after-sound, a nasal sound following a vowel. It is sounded through the nose only and should be independent of mouth position. [Wikner (PDF)]
The anuswAra is one of the simplest symbols that can be written (or read) — it is represented in most Indian scripts as either a dot or a circle. Since it is also a nasal sound, it has become a comfortable substitute for all the nasal consonants: It is easier on the hand (and the eye) and one doesn't have to remember which of the four (Ga, Ja, na, Na) to use in a particular context.

Usability wins everytime.

- - -
* Therefore, this post may not make sense when viewed with Tamil transliteration.

PS: I owed Manjunath a post on anuswAra for a long time. (See the discussions at these posts: One, Two, Three.) Finally, here it is.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Introducing translipi

English is inadequate to correctly represent Indian-language words. This problem is especially painful for me, since this blog often deals with subjects whose vocabulary abounds in Indic terms. "Mayamalavagaula." "Kadanakutuhalam." "Nadanamakriya." I rest my case.

I could write these terms in (say) Tamil, but this would put non-Tamil readers at a loss. The script each of us is most comfortable in, is different.

This problem is now solved.

translipi (see the side-bar, if you have not noticed it already) transliterates these terms into the language you are most familiar with. For now, there is dEvanAgari, kannaDa, malayALam, tamizh and telugu. For folks like me who are most comfortable in English, there is also the Roman script with enough diacritical marks stuffed in to specify (almost) every Indic character uniquely.

Do let me know your thoughts!
* * * * *

A doubt: Is the pronunciation of the Tamil characters ந and ன identical (as I have always believed)? If so, is there any grammatical rule which specifies when to use one and when the other? For instance, ன is never used at the beginning of a word and ந never at the end.
- - - - -

Update [3 Mar]: Once Ambarish (see the comments) pointed out how ந and ன are different, it seemed so obvious and logical that I wished to kick myself for not figuring it out before. So we use:
  • ந at the beginning of words (நலம்) and when immediately followed by a dental consonant (தந்தை).
  • ன elsewhere (தினம்).
But on further cogitation, I am a bit confused. Now, by the rules above, how do we explain குடிநீர் (which is unlike தன்னீர் — or is it தண்ணீர்)? Help!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Audava-Audava Raga Sangraha

The mELa-karttA classification system has served the sampUrNa rAgas well. However, the janya rAgas are still a wilderness; they deserve a Periodic Table of their own.

I have put up a scheme for the Audava-Audava (pentatonic) ragas at

Update [19 Feb]: A question. Can anyone tell me the basis on which a (janya) raga's parent is decided? E.g., why is the janaka-rAga of nAgasvarAvaLi considered harikAmbhOji and not, say, cakravAkam or zaGkarAbharaNam?