What should I expect from seeing a Carnatic singer?

Melody is king in Carnatic music – in South India, the singers reign supreme. Their fluid, instantly recognisable approach is now finding millions of new listeners through YouTube and Bollywood, but the home of the music remains the traditional kutcheri (concert). So if you go along to a vocal performance then what might you find there?

Carnatic singers generally favour a powerful style, generally hitting lower tones than their Hindustani counterparts. They are renowned for extraordinary vocal ranges – many compositions alternate between thick, sustained tones in the low register and swirling melodic ornaments up high.

These ornaments, known as alankara, lie at the heart of what makes Carnatic singing so distinctive. India’s ornamental aesthetics has a long history – the Natya Shastra, a 2,000-year-old Sanskrit work, includes a short poem to illustrate their importance:

“A song without any alankara, would be like a night without a moon, a river devoid of water, a vine without flower”.

So try listening out for how they add to the music. You don’t have to know the song, or to understand anything about the rules of the raga it is set to. Just focus on the intricate movements of the melody, and let the tunes pull your mind into new shapes. You’ll quickly ‘zoom in’ over time, hearing the fine details in clearer and clearer focus as your ear acquaints itself to the patterns. The satisfaction of this process never really relents, however much you keep on listening.

Vocalists carry the music forward with strong – and often oddly catchy – melodies, and are supported in their strenuous efforts by various instruments. A slack-tuned violin and/or veena may follow along with the same basic tune as the singer, varying it slightly by dragging the timing around and overlaying different alankara. The drums, usually a mridangam and ghatam, work together, giving momentum to the melodic interplay. 

Much of the performance may focus on kritis – songs with three lines of text, elaborated in all manner of ways. Many of today’s favourite kritis were written by three Carnatic saint-composers from the 18th century – Shyama Shastri, Muthuswami Dikshitar, and Tyagaraja, collectively known as the Trimurti, who united themes from everyday life with vivid scenes of the divine.

Aside from the kriti, there is the varnam, used to set the tone of the performance, and the ragam-tanam-pallavi, home to long improvisations. Shorter forms are often sung towards the end of the concert, including thillanas – rhythmic songs with dramatic turns – and tukda – small pieces borrowed from folk music or even Western traditions.

Carnatic audiences don’t hesitate to show when they’re having a good time, shouting for their favourite songs and applauding moments of particular beauty, inventiveness, or virtuosity. The music is spiritual, but also a lot of fun. And a full Carnatic vocal group can be surprisingly loud!

● Read nextThe Carnatic violin: sliding strings of South India – Western in basic design, but idiosyncratically reimagined in Carnatic music

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