Arun Ramamurthy’s Carnatic Primer

September 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

CARNATIC SUNDAYS, curated by Arun Ramamurthy, is a series which presents traditional South Indian classical music and innovative projects influenced by it. We sent these questions to Arun, a singular apostle of Carnatic music, in the hopes he could shed light on the genre, its origins, and the trajectory of its growth, in India as we all as in New York and around America…

How would you define Carnatic music? Is it played specifically on a certain set of instruments, or could one conceivably play Carnatic music on anything?

Carnatic music is the classical music of South India. It’s current form goes back hundreds of years to the 16th century, when the classification of ragas and teaching patterns began. It’s based in compositions, a majority of them written in the 18th century by the trinity of Saint Thyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar, and Shyama Sastri.

Like Hindustani music, it’s a heavily improvised music where artists play with aspects of the raga (melody) and tala (rhythmic cycle) in context of the composition being performed. Carnatic music has its own way of playing with rhythm, using mathematical patterns in all kinds of combinations (called korvais) that are very complex, but remain aesthetically beautiful.

There are certain instruments which are considered conventional in Carnatic music. You’ll see violin, flute, veena as main melody instruments. And mridangam, ghatam, kanjira, morsing, tavil as percussion instruments. But nowadays there are musicians bringing different instruments to the stage. Electric guitar, mandolin, chitraveena (like a lap steel guitar), and saxophone have been made quite popular.

Really, any instrument that can produce the gamaka, or bends btwn notes, can be a good instrument for Carnatic music. This is why fretless instruments like the violin have been so successful. Musicians have adopted techniques on other instruments to make them work in Carnatic music, like Kadri Gopalnath with the saxophone. I currently play with cellists, bassists, drummers who all are playing Carnatic music with me.

Are there traces of the Carnatic in contemporary Indian music today? What about in other genres elsewhere in the world?

Definitely. The basis of almost all Indian popular music is in Classical music. Bollywood singers are very often trained in Indian Classical music, carnatic or hindustani. When you hear singers sing “Sa, Ri, Ga, Ma…” you’re hearing classical syllables come through. Many pop songs, which are usually film songs in India, are based in some raga or combination of ragas. The arrangements are of course different and include chord changes which Carnatic music does not, but the melodies are still often coming from a classical background. Thyagaraja’s “Nagumomu” was used in a 1964 Telugu film Vivaha Bandham. And major classical artists have sung or played in feature films because of their popularity as classical artists.

You may hear traces of Carnatic music in other genres around the world, but you’ll only recognize it if you know Carnatic music!! 🙂 I personally hear things in all kinds of music that strike me as similar to something i’ve learned through the years. Lots of times, rhythmic patterns will be reminiscent, or scales used (like in some Irish music) will come across similar. In the end, music is music. Depending on where you’re coming from, you can hear your own experiences in someone else’s…without them knowing it.

What is the audience like for Carnatic music in India today? What has been the reception so far to Carnatic music in New York & the broader US?

There’s a pretty big audience for Carnatic music in South India. Much of it centers around Chennai in Tamil Nadu. Chennai is basically the home of the major Carnatic season which takes place every year in December. I would say the audience tends to be older in age, as the music is quite religious and spiritual.

There are new artists coming up now that are innovative and fresh, which draws a younger crowd but overall the audience remains older. Bangalore, another major city in the South has a vibrant Carnatic scene as well. There are some young musicians there also bringing a freshness to the music. Mixing it up with different genres tends to bring newer audiences that aren’t schooled in Carnatic music, which usually is a prerequisite to enjoying a concert.

New York City surprisingly doesn’t have the most robust scene. Many times, artists touring from India skip over the city and perform in NJ, where there is a very intense Carnatic community. I don’t think it’s due to a lack of interest, more a lack of concerts here for people to attend and get hooked into. This Cornelia Street series, CARNATIC SUNDAYS, has shown me that there is in fact a community of young Indian-Americans that crave this culture, but just couldn’t find it anywhere. To a 20-something audience, the venue where you can get a drink and some food also helps considerably in whether or not you’ll attend. Going to the Hindu Temple in Queens is sometimes too daunting a task to push them over the hump. Fact is, Indians living in NYC tend to be younger, which in itself affects the Carnatic audience.

What I’m trying to do is create an atmosphere and package the music in a way that’s authentic and real, but more approachable. With this said about NYC, Carnatic music does have traditionally strong centers throughout the country. New Jersey, the Bay Area, and Dallas area have very big communities that are developing good musicians. Cleveland hosts a big Thyagaraja festival that is known around the world as one of the major Carnatic events. Personally, I think Carnatic music is in good hands in this country and will continue to grow, and develop multicultural and multi-genre musicians.

What’s it been like collaborating with US musicians coming from different musical disciplines? Who out there should we be listening for in terms of drawing on or integrating with Carnatic music?

It’s been amazing. I’ve been fortunate to play with many great musicians from various genres, who i’ve learned alot from. I feel my style has developed in this time, influenced by phrasing or ideas that some of these musicians are bringing. Sometimes you don’t realize it, and sometimes you consciously try to incorporate it. But each musician has his/her own sound and that in turn affects the way you’ll play. I think those type of experiences build one’s style.

Tons of great Carnatic guys out there. For starters, check out Mysore Manjunath, my guru. He’s absolutely ridiculous. Technical virtuosity, passion, all wrapped up in one violinist. Abhishek Raghuram is a young vocalist who is taking over the scene right now. He’s bringing new flavor to a music that’s centuries old. You must check him out. Lalgudi Jayaraman is a classic violinist, much older now and not performing, but you’ll find plenty of his recordings online. One of this generations true geniuses. He’s composed a lot of songs as well, which are all performed by contemporary musicians. Mandolin Srinivas, Ganesh & Kumaresh, M.S. Gopalakrishnan…all worth checking out.

Roopa Mahadevan takes stage on Sunday, September 18th at 830pm. A vocalist trained under Smt. Astha Ramesh, disciple of the late D.K. Jayaraman, Roopa received the highly-regarded Fullbright Scholarship in 2007 to study Carnatic music in Chennai, India and built a name for herself performing in major venues. Call 212/989-9319 or visit for reservations. 


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