During the 18th Century, the music of Southern India crystallized itself into a more structured compositional format under the three geniuses largely termed as the Trinity- Thyagaraja, Dikhsitar and Shyama Shastri. Carnatic music has a more structured lyrical format of Kritis.
In the early decades of the 20th Century, Carnatic music made another shift in its content and structure with the locus of activity shifting to the metropolitan Madras and the weaning away of the art-form from the devadasi performers to the upper castes and institutions. A new Kacheri paddhathi or concert format came to be adopted as the 'Golden Mean' of performances.
Other major forms associated with Carnatic music are Varnams, Padams, Javalis, Virutthams, Devaranamas and Thillanas.
Both Hindustani and Carnatic styles are enriched by a plethora of instruments classified under: Stringed Instruments (Veena, Sitar, Sarod, Gottuvadyam, Santoor,Tambura, Chitraveena etc), Bowed instruments (Violin, Sarangi) Wind instruments (Flute, Shehnai, Nadaswaram etc.) and Percussion Instruments (Mridangam, Tabla, Ghatam, Pakhavaj, Kanjira, Morsing, Dholak, Chenda, Maddalai etc).
Veena Dhanammal (1867-1938)
Dhanammal was the torchbearer of the rich school of Carnatic music that goes by her name. Born in George Town in Madras in a family of professional singing and dancing women, Dhanammal made the Veena, the National instrument of India, her mode of expression and created a unique style or bani of playing it. She played the veena without a plectrum and like in this clip, sang along as she played on it.
Apart from her mother Sundaramma she was trained by several musicians like Dharmapuri Subbarayar and Baladas Naidu of Wallajahpet among other. Apart from a rich classical lineage tracing discipleship to Shyama Shastri, she gained a vast repertoire of Padams and javalis, the romantic poems that were characteristic of the Devadasi art. Several stalwarts of the world of Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam like T Brinda, T Muktha and Balasaraswati belong to her lineage.
Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar (1890-1967)
Born in Ariyakudi town of Tamil Nadu, Ramanuja Iyengar was an outstanding Carnatic vocalist known for his unique style known as the Ariyakudi Bani. He made his debut at the Thyagaraja Aradhana in I918. With Palghat Mani Iyer, the Mridangam maestro, he formed a formidable partnership on the concert platform and a remarkable friendship born out of mutual respect Ariyakudi is often credited with creating a foolproof formula for the Carnatic concert or Kacheri.
Though this concert format was fashioned for himself, such was its popularity that it became the accepted norm for all musicians and continues to be the pattern of a Carnatic music concert till date!
This ‘Golden Mean’ was his hallmark and paying tribute to this the Hindu Newspaper had said that the maestro “knew that to present the ingredients of Carnatic music in proper proportion giving to each aspect its due share of concert time would be the surest way of widening the circle of the listening public. He also knew that only by elegant exposition he could hold them.”
For someone like him who fashioned a concert in a way as to appeal to all, his gramophone recordings too display the same sense of proportion where in the limited 3 minutes duration of a record he has tried to present all the aesthetic aspects of the raga, the song and other arithmetical jugglery associated with Carnatic music in a very precise and pleasing manner.
Popularly known as GNB, he was undoubtedly the Prince of Carnatic music. It was said few of his contemporaries could match him in his raga delineation, laya control and his supersonic musical phrases laden with glides or brighas that characterized his music. Born in Gudalur in Tanjore, he was among the few musicians of the time who even completed his Bachelor’s degree in English Literature.
With his debut on the concert stage in I928, his climb to the dizzying heights of Carnatic music was almost meteoritic. His performances with accompanists like violinists Mysore T Chowdiah and Lalgudijayaraman and Mridangam maestro Palghat Mani Iyer were legendary.
He was a charming, charismatic and handsome man who starred in several Tamil films too like ‘Bhama Vijayam’ and ‘Shakunathalai’ with stars like Vasundhara Devi and MS. Subbulakshmi. His disciples included several illustrious musicians like M L Vasanthakumari and Tanjore S Kalyanaraman among others.
Mysore T Chowdiah (1893-1967)
Born in Tirumakudalu in Mysore State, Chowdiah became a disciple of the royal court musician of Mysore Ganavisharada Bidaram Krishnappa. He was a gifted violinist who experimented with the instrument and created his famous 7-string violin by adding three additional strings to the existing one.
In the era when there were no microphones this was his experiment to make the violin audible in the last rows of a concert hall. He used this instrument while accompanying his guru in a concert. Krishnappa had glared at him (Disapprovingly for using the ‘contraption’ and it was the intervention of the noted Vainika Shikhamani Veena Seshanna that won the day for young Chowdiah.His violin revolutionized the world of music. He composed nearly 50 compositions in Kannada and Sanskrit.
T R Mahalingam (1926-1986)
Mali, as he was fondly known by music lovers, was an ace flautist who created his distinctive style of playing the flute. A child prodigy, he impressed stalwarts in his maiden concert in Madras in 1933. His breath control enabled him to give great volume to lower and higher octaves. He introduced a new fingering technique and redesigned the flute. He was admired and criticized in equal measure by his fans and detractors respectively, but he remains a pole star in the world of Carnatic music.
Hailed as the voice of the Nation and as the Nightingale of the country, Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi, or MSS as she was called, was the icon of Carnatic and devotional music. Her voice and songs won appreciation from several people ranging from Mahatma Gandhi and Rajaji to Pt Nehru and Sarojini Naidu and others.
Born in Madurai as Kunjamma, she started learning Carnatic music under her mother and in no time created a sensation in the musical world with her soulful concerts. She gave her first concert at the age of 13 at the Madras Music Academy after which there was no looking back. She also acted in several films like ‘Shakunatalai’, ‘Meera’, ‘Sevasadanam’ and ‘Savitri.’
Pt Nehru had famously declared ‘Who am I, a mere Prime Minister before a Queen of Music’ and Ustad Bade Chularn Ali Khan gave her the title of ‘Suswaralakshmi’ or the Goddess of the perfect note.
M.S.Subbulakshmi took Indian classical music to different corners of the world including to the UN General Assembly in I966, Edinburgh International Festival of Music and Drama in 1963, Royal Albert Hall in 1982 etc. She was the first musician to be awarded the Bharat Ratna and the Ramon Magsaysay Award.
Enjigudi K Pichakanu Pillai and E P Kandasamy were legendary Nadaswaram musicians of the last century. Unfortunately not much is known about their lives. Like the Shehnai in the North, the Nadaswaram is considered an auspicious instrument and is played at weddings and in temple rituals in South India.
Founder Trustee, Archive of Indian Music — Vikram Sampath