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  • Divya Vydhianathan

The Sound of Sangeetham: Learning about Carnatic Music from Dr. Vaidehi Kannan

February 26th, 2023

Dr. Vaidehi Kannan performing on stage at a temple.

Carnatic music, also known as Karnataka Sangeetam, is one of two primary classical music subgenres in India that originates from ancient Hindu scriptures from over 2000 years ago. It consists of various melodies and devotional lyrics from the southern Indian states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamilnadu, and Kerala. It consists of seven notes: Sa, Ri, Ga, Ma, Pa, Da, Ni. The various permutations and combinations of these notes create innumerable raagams (melodies). The fascinating grammar structure creates precise rules for raagams and taalams (rhythms or beats). The melodies evoke various emotions and are suitable for different times of the day, and the beats are measured mathematically, making the songs flow seamlessly. Culture writer Divya Vydhianathan has been learning Carnatic vocal music for many years from her guru (teacher), Dr. Vaidehi Kannan, at VK Music School. She interviewed her music teacher to learn more about the history and theory behind Carnatic music. This conversation explores the beauty of classical vocal music from southern India and the art form’s expression of culture from the perspective of an accomplished vocalist, teacher, and composer.

Q: Of the different methods of learning Carnatic music, what specifically led you to start learning Carnatic vocal music?

A: “As a child, I sang a lot, even at three or four years old. My entire family was very interested in music; my older sister started learning music when I was three, and my mother was a Carnatic violinist and vocalist who sang very nicely. In southern India, many families with the means to afford music lessons wanted their children to learn Carnatic music, and they especially wanted their daughters to learn Carnatic vocal music. I would sit in the corner of my sister’s music lessons when I was five years old and listen to her lessons while I sang the songs to myself. There was a time when I sat in the class when my sister had her first music exam, and some students in her class did not sing well. I laughed at them and told the teacher that they sang the song incorrectly. The teacher and students were offended that a little kid was criticizing their singing, and the teacher told me to come to the front and sing the song myself. According to my sister, I sang it picture perfect despite not having a formal lesson for the song. My sister’s teacher was interested and called my father to say, “This kid can sing, put her in music lessons.” I got into learning Carnatic music partially because of the music culture I grew up with and partially because my sister influenced me to learn Carnatic music.”

Q: After learning and performing Carnatic music for years, what inspired you to start teaching Carnatic music?

A: “I did not have much time to teach and thought I would never teach. Some people in my local area started asking me to teach their children, but I told them that I have no time to teach. A couple of these mothers [of my students] were my inspiration, and I got multiple phone calls from them. One of the mothers said (and this is what inspired me), “You have the talent, but won’t you be willing to share it with our kids?” When she said that, something happened to me, and I said, “Yes, that is true. I have to give it back. It is not enough just to receive and I want to give it back.” That phone call inspired me to start teaching Carnatic music.”

Q: How is teaching similar or different from being a student of Carnatic music?

A: “I am still learning because Carnatic music is an ocean. I would never say that I know everything. But teaching is different from learning. With learning, the teacher tells you what to do and you do exactly what the teacher tells you, and they correct you all the time. While teaching, I learn from my students when they ask me questions that I may not know the answers to. I go back and search for the answers, or sometimes I call my teacher and ask her, “What is the difference between this and that?” I also bought books and started reading about Carnatic music. I am a doctor and did not major in music, so I had to self-learn several music theories. To teach, I had to observe a few things and bring them out. I did not know that I had that knowledge, but I had to bring out that music knowledge to guide my students. There are lots of stuff that you may know but you take for granted and you just sing. When a student asks you, “Why this, Why that?” you have to reflect on that and find the reasons. I did not know that I knew so much until I started teaching. For the sake of students who ask me to teach them songs that I may not know, I have to listen to the song, learn it, write the notations down, and then teach them the song. It is a great experience.”

Q: What rhythmic or melodic features distinguish Carnatic music from Hindustani music (classical Indian music from northern regions of India)?

A: “I did my homework for you! Carnatic music originates from the southern part of India, while Hindustani music originates in northern India. Carnatic music has more lyrical complications, and it is extremely important to have clarity when singing those lyrics. That is why I correct your pronunciation often when you sing, because it is extremely important in Carnatic music. If you even slightly change the pronunciation or the letters, the meaning of the song changes completely. This makes the style very lyrically rich. Carnatic music is Vedic in origin [originates from the Vedas, ancient Hindu scriptures] and it evolved in Hindu temples. Hindustani music has a few Indian origins but mostly has Arabic and Persian influences from the Mughal empire, as most of their music were sung in the courts of Mughal kings and sultans. Carnatic music has more spiritual emotions, with themes which are extremely devotional towards Hindu deities in most songs. Hindustani music expresses more human emotions, like love and sadness, so their music explores melodies more than lyrics. The local patrons of Carnatic music in south India were all related to the temple, so everything was in praise of Hindu deities and did not need to be in praise of a person. Even one of the greats in Carnatic music, Saint Thyaagaraaja, refused to sing in a king’s court in praise of the king. He said that he would only sing in praise of God, and refused any sum of money to change his mind. Carnatic music has 72 mela karta raagams (major melodies), from which thousands of smaller raagams are derived from those, and the scales are very strict. Mathematically, we have more raagams, and they cannot flow into each other. In Hindustani music, there are only a few raagams but they flow into each other and create variety that way. Carnatic music starts the lyrics almost immediately after the taalam starts, while Hindustani music often has longer introductory beats before starting the song. Carnatic music has lots of gamakams (oscilation of the voice) within notes where the voice vibrates, while Hindustani music has lots of longer notes that flow into each other. Carnatic instrument accompaniments is usually mrdangam and violin, while Hindustani music has harmonium and tabla.”

Q: Is there any particular method or tradition that you follow to tailor your music curriculum for different students of all ages and learning capabilities?

A: “Age alone is not a factor. No matter how old or young students are, to begin with, I always insist on starting with the fundamentals. In Carnatic vocal music, this means starting on various vocal exercises where students master swarams (notes), taalams (rhythms/beats), and how to sing in the correct shruti (pitch) for their vocal range. Once the foundations are strong I build up from small songs like geetams (short songs with notes) and bhajans (devotional, lyrical short songs), to swarajatis (longer songs with lyrics that glide with the notes), then varnams and keertanais (longer songs with complex lyrics and note variations), and finally into manodharmams (songs like the previous ones except they take more than 10 minutes to sing). My younger students around four to six years old often feel content with learning small bhajans that are around four lines long and vocal exercises on the side to build their fundamentals. No matter the age, my method is the same: building a strong foundation from which you can build up the vocal skills.”

Q: Whenever a trio contributes something memorable to a craft or game, they are often known as “The Big Three” or “The Holy Trinity.” Can you briefly describe who the “Big Three” composers of Carnatic music are and how their compositions are still influential even today?

A: “Before mentioning these three, I must mention the work of Sangeeta Pithama (Grandsire of Music), and Shri Purandara Dasa. He lived in the 1500s and gave us the modern structure of Carnatic music fundamentals like swarams and taalams to help newcomers enter Carnatic music. Another man who was an important part of music classification is Venkatamukhi. He laid out the classification system for the 72 major melodies called melakarta raagams, which are still used today. After them came the Carnatic Trinity in the 1600s, who composed several pieces on various Hindu deities in different taalams and raagams in various different languages. The main three composers of Carnatic music are Shyama Sastri, Muthuswami Dikshitar, and Shri Tyaagarajaa. Although they were from different south Indian states, they composed songs in various languages. These include Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, and Sanskrit.”

Q: What are your favorite raagams (melodies) and taalams (beats), and why? Can you explain qualities about them that make them special to you?

A: “Oh I love all of them! Regarding taalams, all the taalams are good taalams, I am not going to pick one versus the other. I like several raagams, including Kalyani, Hindolam, and Charukeshi. Kalyani is very joyful and very majestic, Hindolam is very serene and soulful, and Charukeshi just makes me happy.”

Q: When you give your students vocal exercises with various improvisations of different swarams (notes) in a raagam, what is your process in creating different scales for them to listen to and repeat? Is it on the spot or do you plan them ahead of time?

A: “I do it on the spot, it is spontaneous. That is what is called improvisation. I internalize the raagam in my mind before I teach a song to students. What I sing to you to initiate the raagam is different from what I sing for another student when I am teaching the song. It just comes to me at the moment, I do not think about where the patterns come from. Knowing the notes in my head helps me write the notations for a song. It is truly a great gift.”

Q: In your professional opinion, what are the characteristics of a devoted Carnatic vocalist compared to the average vocal student?

A: “A devoted Carnatic student goes beyond just practicing what they are told to do. They not only practice regularly, they also listen to a lot of other Carnatic music by other musicians in addition to what their teacher sings. An average student will just do what needs to be done, they just sing the required songs that they are asked to sing by their teacher. A below-average student will just show up to class with little to no practice.”

Q: What is some advice that you have for any Carnatic vocalist to prepare well just days and minutes before an important performance? What is your advice to overcome feeling nervous before a performance?

A: “Before any performance, you must practice and rehearse your pieces well, but on the stage, your performance must look like it was spontaneous. You do need to put extensive effort into it but it should not look like there was much effort involved when it is time to present the song. This advice applies not just to music, but elsewhere as well. I have given several medical conferences and spoken at several universities. My mentor always told me to keep practicing but on the stage, don’t show that your efforts were pre-meditated. To overcome nervousness, meditate for a few minutes and say a positive affirmation to yourself before heading on stage to build faith in yourself. Listen to the shruti for a few minutes to internalize it completely before you start. When you start singing and hear your feedback from the audio system, your energy will immediately increase since you typically do not sing with a microphone. Once you feel that confidence boost after the first line, everything else will work out. Finally, get the blessings of your loved ones and your teachers before you start.”


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