East meets West: Western instruments in Carnatic music
- A Seshan, Mumbai
e-mail: anseshan@gmail.com

April 4, 2010

The debate
There has been a controversy on the suitability of Western instruments like piano, saxophone, etc., for use in Carnatic music. The main objection is that they do not capture the essence of our system - the microtones and the embellishment or ornamentation of notes, called gamakas. Thus, it is said that while Western music is linear, ours is curvilinear. This is best illustrated in the case of veena that can capture the quintessence of all the gamakas through shakes, oscillations, deflection of strings, etc., that is not possible in the case of many Western instruments. "Viriboni" in Bhairavi has all the ten gamakas in its composition, one of the several reasons for its highest rating among varnams. Is it possible to play it on, say, piano, in the same way as it could be done on the veena?

Harmonium and related issues
Harmonium has been at the receiving end of criticism ever since an official in the then All India Radio during the colonial period, banned it on the ground that it was not capable of producing microtones. It got further bashing from Jawaharlal Nehru of all persons, who is reported to have called it a hideous instrument! The ban was lifted later after Independence and two eminent harmonium players, namely Appa Jalgaonkar and Tulsidas Borkar, received the Sangeet Natak Akademi awards. It was an official recognition of the instrument as well as the artistes. Despite its limitation, the instrument is preferred over sarangi by Hindustani musicians, though their system is also known for gamakas. The case for gamakas and the objection to harmonium could be overdone. Unfortunately, the importance of harmonium as a pedagogic instrument has not been recognised. In the first place, a student needs to have a firm grasp of the pure or plain notes (or "naturals" as they are called in Western music) before he graduates to ornamentation. The late musician and musicologist S Rajam, was among those who held this view. This is particularly important since our pitch is relative and not fixed as in the case of Western music. The singer has to be constantly alert and be aware of his adhara sruti (basic pitch) in his singing for which he has the support of the drone instrument (tambura or the sruti box). And the ragas, or kritis, could vary in the extent to which they have the gamakas embedded in themselves. Thus, we have Sankarabharanam and Kalyani with a large number of gamakas. Pallavi Gopala Iyer's "Needucharana" in Kalyani, literally drips with all the gamakas of Kalyani. Can a harmonium do justice to this piece? The answer is obviously 'no.' On the other hand, we have ragas like Kathanakutuhalam which have plain notes. A competent harmonium artist can certainly play "Raghuvamsa Sudha" in that raga beautifully to the satisfaction of the audience. In fact, one vainika has expressed a preference for this raga in teaching the first varnam to a student on the ground that it has plain notes.

The older generation will recall the Nadamuni Band attached to the court of the Mysore Maharajah. It had many Western instruments playing Carnatic melodies. The 78 rpm records cut by the Band were very popular in those days. Often they were featured in the 'Listeners' Requests' programme in the Southern stations of All India Radio. The question of the use of Western instruments is relevant to Bharatanatyam (BN) also. Recently, we had a concert in Chennai where, besides Sikkil Gurucharan, a leading vocalist, Anil Srinivasan, an outstanding piano player, provided support at the performance of the Dhananjayans, a famous BN dancing couple. The Balasaraswati School believes in the philosophy that for a programme to be successful, music should be seen and dance heard. What does it mean? It means that all the sangatis, gamakas, brigas and other fine nuances of singing should be transmitted to, and get reflected in, the dance movements. (See http://www.narthaki.com/info/rev09/rev791.html. Thus the role of Western instruments is important in BN also.

Process of Adoption, Adaptation and Assimilation
Violin
The use of Western instruments in Carnatic music goes through the process of adoption, adaptation and assimilation. It is best illustrated by the case of violin. Some scholars consider it as a native instrument on the basis of the prototypes found in sculptures and say that it was called Ravanastram. Prof. P Sambamurthy points out that such sculptures of bowed instruments are found in the Agastyeswara temple in Tirumakudalu, in T Narsipur and Hale-Alur in Karnataka and in the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu. According to him, "the Kurma Vina of ancient India paved the way for the development of the modern violin. It may be noticed, that when the violin is placed upside down, it resembles roughly a tortoise with the head projecting upwards." (South Indian Music, Book IV). Veena was a generic term for many stringed instruments in the past like mridangam for percussion instruments. When violin first attracted the attention of Baluswami Dikshitar (1786-1858), brother of Muthuswami Dikshitar, it was considered an alien instrument. Probably the ancient bowed instrument found in sculptures had gone into disuse over the centuries and been forgotten by the people. Baluswami heard it in the European band attached to the Thanjavur court and was fascinated by its timbre. He learnt from a member of the band to play it. Muthuswami Dikshitar composed his nottu swaras in Sankarabharanam to help him in practising on the instrument. They were plain notes. Probably Dikshitar wanted his brother to master the plain notes before moving further to gamakas. Dikshitar preferred Sankarabharanam over Mayamalavagaulai, traditionally the first raga taught to a student. It is my guess that he might have been influenced by the fact that Sankarabharanam was close in structure to the major diatonic scale of Western music (C Major) played by the royal band.

Baluswami Dikshitar and Vadivelu (1810-1845) of the Thanjavur Quartet popularised the new instrument by introducing them on the concert stage. Prof. Sambamurthy refers to the evolution, over the years, of the jaru style of playing. The success of violin in the Carnatic system is no doubt due to its structure, tonal quality and ability to maintain continuity in music. And today, no one thinks of it as an alien instrument. It is an inseparable part of our vocal concerts besides being a solo instrument. We have seen Western masters like Yehudi Menuhin paying tributes to the virtuosity of our violin maestros. Thus the violin has gone through the process of adoption, adaptation and assimilation in our system. But it took several decades for the process to be completed. Thanks to the progress in technology, communication and cultural exchanges between the East and the West, the process is shortened now. One finds such exotic instruments as clarinet, saxophone, mandolin, guitar and piano being accepted by rasikas and popular in the concert circuit. The artistes have contributed to this outcome through their innovative ways to improve the suitability of the instruments to suit the idiom of our music through structural changes and in blowing, plucking and striking techniques. The structural changes have sought to enhance the volume, quality of timbre, harmonics, etc. of sound. The interesting point is that even traditional Indian instruments like gottuvadyam or chitra veena and santoor have gone through such changes in the hands of maestros.

Clarinet
Clarinet is another instrument of the West that has gone through the same stages as violin and has got absorbed in our system. Its compass of 3 octaves, keys enabling performance on any sruti and its tone colour enabled it to displace flute in the orchestra for dance programmes for a long time (Ibid.). Mahadeva Nattuvanar was the first to introduce it in chinna melam (Sadir). Prof. Sambamurthy points out that "although it is graduated to the European tempered scale, yet when a musician plays it, he intuitively produces the scale of just intonation by adjustments in blowing." (Ibid) However, the flute has come into its own again in BN programmes. The reason for the decline of clarinet on the dance stage is not known. However, it has gained wide acceptance as a solo instrument and the last word on its professional status was said when the Music Academy conferred the Sangita Kalanidhi title on its outstanding performer AKC Natarajan in 2008.

Saxophone
At the Conference on wind instruments held at the Chembur Fine Arts Society in Mumbai in 2000, Kadri Gopalnath explained the structural changes he had made to the saxophone to adapt it to the requirements of our system.
(See http://www.carnatica.net/sangeet/saxophone1.htm).

Despite the substantial success achieved in his effort, he said that some difficulties persisted. For instance, there was a problem in playing prati madhyamam and sadharana gandharam. Further, he had knowingly accepted a range reduction effectively, which he found was good enough for almost all kritis. Another feature was that he played generally on B-flat, which is a convenient key on the saxophone. All the salient features of the saxophone as well as the modifications made by him were demonstrated during the conference to show how the gamakas and other nuances peculiar to Carnatic music could be effectively produced. In a reversal of roles, now Kanyakumari provides accompaniment to saxophone played by Kadri.

Should the difficulty with prati madhyamam prevent the musician from playing ragas with that note? Not necessarily. At a lecture demonstration organised by Sri Shanmukhananda Fine Arts and Sangeetha Sabha in a Carnatic music appreciation programme in 2002, Jayashri Aravind, a vainika and student of KS Narayanaswamy, demonstrated how the essence of Kalyani could be brought out without touching the prati madhyamam fret! Going back to the last century, there was an episode involving Tiger Varadachariar and relating to the Experts' Discussion in the mornings at the Music Academy during the December music festival in Chennai (then called Madras). A heated discussion was going on about Begada. The point at issue was whether kakali nishada or kaisiki nishada should be used. The basic question related to the parent Melakarta raga. Was Begada a janya of Dheerasankarabharanam or Harikambodhi? The two opposing sides of equally eminent musicians were passionately arguing about the subject. Enter the Tiger. He enquired as to what was going on. He was informed of the contentious issue and was requested to give his views. He cleared his throat and just sang the raga without saying anything. In his brilliant rendition of Begada, neither nishada featured! It settled the matter in a conclusive manner exposing the futility of such controversies in Carnatic music. (See "On Appreciating Carnatic Music", Shanmukha, July-October 2002).

Mandolin, Guitar and Piano
Mandolin's current status on stage in Carnatic music is due to the pioneering effort of U Shrinivas in adapting the instrument to the requirements of the system. There is no doubt that he has been tremendously successful. The ultimate accolade to him was paid by the late S Balachander when he said in one felicitation function for the former, that whereas sometimes one hears the complaint that some vainika played mandolin on his instrument, he played veena on mandolin! The adaptation of mandolin, guitar and piano to Carnatic music was demonstrated by three eminent musicians, viz., P Nagamani, Sai Subramaniyan and Anil Srinivasan, respectively, at a seminar in Mumbai on March 6, 2010, referred to later.

Keyboard
The Indian Musicological Society held a Seminar on 'Some New Scientific Approaches to Music' on January 15, 2010 at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai. One of the presentations was made by PS Krishnamurthy, a multi-talented vidwan with a command over a number of instruments besides being a composer, on the 'Role of Electronic Instrument in Classical Music.' Using a Yamaha keyboard equipped with a device called 'bender,' he showed how gamakas could be produced. With the help of three girl singers, he took the audience from sarali varisai (initial solfa exercises) through geetam, varnam ('Evari Bodhana' in Abhogi) and kritis 'Vanchatonuna' (Karnaranjani) and 'Endaro' (Sri). In particular, the rendering of Karnaranjani was superb. Due to the limitation of time, he could give only glimpses through excerpts from the songs but he proved his point that the keyboard could be melodiously employed in Carnatic music with all its nuances. There is a child prodigy, who has been presenting innumerable Carnatic music concerts successfully on the keyboard for quite some time. He is the 15 year old K Sathyanarayanan, who has also cut many albums that are popular. As in the case of other goods and services, eventually it is the market that decides!

The Seminar
Despite the general criticism that Western instruments are not good for the gamaka-oriented raga system of Carnatic music, they have become popular on the concert circuit in recent years. It was in the context of the controversy that Sri Shanmukhananda Fine Arts and Sangeetha Sabha, Mumbai, organised a seminar on March 6, 2010 on the 'Use of Western Instruments in Carnatic Music.' The objective was to examine their adoption, adaptation and assimilation in Carnatic music to suit its idiom, the problems faced and the solutions sought. The idea was primarily educational and not entertainment. The following artistes participated in the seminar.

ER Janardhan - Saxophone
Nagamani - Mandolin
Anil Srinivasan - Piano
Sai Subramaniyan - Guitar

Dr. Sakuntala Narasimhan, a leading musician and musicologist in both Carnatic and Hindustani music, was the moderator. It was a unique event in the sense that it was the first of its kind bringing saxophone, mandolin, piano and guitar together on the stage for the purpose of lecture demonstration to answer specific questions.

The Keynote Address was delivered by V Shankar, the President of the Sabha, who traced the origin of our music system and described how it had absorbed the good elements from foreign sources over time. The speakers dealt with the following questions.

1. What was the genesis of the introduction of the instrument? Any specific episode triggering the interest of the pioneering artiste? Initial difficulties experienced. In the absence of teachers, how did the artistes who first played the instrument, do it?

2. Is the training process similar to what it is in respect of established instruments like veena (sarali varisai or solfa exercises, etc.) or is it different?

3. What are the differences in plucking, blowing or striking in order to distinguish between the swara (note) and the sahitya (text of the song)?

4. What are the problems in adapting the instrument to the idiom of Carnatic music? They would relate to such characteristics as the use of gamaka, karvai, etc. Are there specific gamakas that cannot be expressed? Any experimental attempts at enhancing the volume, quality of timbre, harmonics, etc., of sound?

5. Role as solo and accompanying instrument. The instruments under reference have been seen mostly as solo ones. Why is it so?

The artistes explained the changes they had made to their instruments to make them suitable to play Carnatic music. They also covered the nature of training which is broadly on the same lines as in the traditional syllabus (sarali varisai, etc). Further they explained the techniques employed for distinguishing swara from sahitya. Janardhan demonstrated the double tonguing (blowing) technique used for producing gamakas despite the instrument having keys. However, jaru cannot be as effectively produced as on the violin. It is also somewhat difficult to play misram and sankirnam. Nagamani said that as sruti is around one and one-and-a-half kattais, the instrument could be used as an accompaniment only for those vocalists who have a similar pitch. The problem with higher pitches is that the tension of the strings would increase, making it difficult to play. Its inability to sustain the sound and provide continuity is another reason for being not good as an accompaniment to vocal music. Initial training is in plain notes up to varnam. Once the student masters them, gamakas are introduced, all of which are possible with the caveat that kampita requires some special effort. Anil Srinivasan played on a digital piano. He made four points. Firstly, it could not be used as a solo instrument as it cannot replace voice. It could, however, be utilised to enhance vocal music by providing a harmonic framework. He demonstrated this with Sakuntala Narasimhan singing 'Sarojadalanetri' in Sankarabharanam and a padam in Sahana. Secondly, in view of its popularity and that of keyboard among the youth, it could be a way of attracting them to Carnatic music. Thirdly, it could provide percussive support to vocal music. Fourthly, it could be a good pedagogic device to introduce the student to plain notes.

Sai Subramaniyan said that his training was similar to the traditional one but without gamakas. He could introduce gamakas like sphuritam, ravai, etc., only after he had started taking lessons from Kanyakumari. In her introductory remarks as well as in summing up, Sakuntala Narasimhan drew on her vast experience from both the Carnatic and the Hindustani systems, to emphasise the need for a broad approach to the current experiments. She pointed out how some of the features like swaraprastara, pallavi, etc., were all introduced over a period of time during the evolution of the system. One view that emerged was the need for appreciating plain or straight notes also besides gamakas purely from the aesthetic point of view. There was absolute integrity in the presentations with each speaker describing what could be accomplished within the grammar of the system while acknowledging the limitations.

Seminars may not settle controversies decisively. But they do help in clarifying issues and in enlightening the musicians and rasikas on matters of which they may not be fully informed. The questions mentioned earlier will continue to be relevant in any future seminars on the subject conducted by other organisations.


The author, an Economic Consultant in Mumbai, is a music and dance buff..