When ragas rock

Come December, Carnatic music becomes the rock star, as it were, in these parts. The lilts of this quaint musical tradition fill the wintry air, thereby hastening the global warming process. The Chennai Carnatic Music season has no parallel anywhere else in the world, and this may be down to the fact that Chennai is here and not anywhere else.

Forgive the levity; the world of Carnatic music has no place for the pranksters and dilettantes. To be a vidwan, one needs to be extremely sincere and dedicated and shouldn’t mind turning up in public platforms in a pantomime parody of gaudy attire and hideous make-up.

It’s obvious that many people don’t venture anywhere near Carnatic music due to the misgiving that their knowledge to appreciate its finer points is inadequate. This is patently a wrong strategy. For instance, I have not let my total ignorance of the many intricacies of Carnatic music to come in the way off this piece.

Few lines of caution: Some of terms that you encounter below may sound too technical to some of you. Some of it may not make much sense to you. But don’t let that worry you. Because the whole purpose of the article is just that.

Few more lines of caution: The smart among you would have found the previous paragraph and the one preceding that to be similar in overall meaning. Well, you are the true ones made for Carnatic music, which, if you get down to it, is all about doing the same thing in assumed differentiation.


This is the freelance prelude to the actual song wherein the singer attempts to croon it in a manner as if he were dumb or at least laid low by a sudden paralysis to the face —- that is basically incapable of articulating even a single word normally.

For the uninitiated, an alapanai may seem a strange cross between a child’s incoherent blubber and a drunk’s indecipherable drawl. During the alapanai section, a singer employs, mostly, either of the vowels ‘a’ or ‘e’ and proceeds to disembowel it in a clinical manner through a convoluted process of stretching, chopping, mincing, mixing and, yes, blabbering.

Many lay fans may also wonder why the vidwan doesn’t come out straight and begin attempting the lyrics of the number. But this is just not on, because the whole idea of the alapanai section is to musically plot the barebones-contours of the ragam and thereby smother even the elementary chance of the listener figuring out what that ragam is by at least the song. Guessing the song and ragam (and mostly getting it wrong) is technically one of the highpoints of any Carnatic concert.


Every song in a concert is a krithi, and they are so called because it’s in the tradition of Carnatic music to make things complicated for everyone.

One of the complaints laid against Carnatic music is that it’s filled with songs whose language is not understandable to both the performer and the listener. But top musicians have provided a fitting answer to such misplaced criticism by vocalizing in a manner that all the remnants of any identifiable language in the lyrics are butchered beyond recognition. In a Carnatic concert, ‘Oye, V channel’ may be the rough version of ‘Odi Vilayadu Pappa’.


This provides the song with all its unique personality traits, which the performers go ahead and suffocate and strangle out with their own unique personality traits. The rule of the game is simple: No two performers shall thresh out the same ragam in an identifiably similar vein. This has been laid down with the explicit intent of keeping the audience awake, and in a state of suspended animation, also classically defined as utter confusion.

In a typical concert, it is not uncommon to go through sustained periods wherein no one in the auditorium, many times this certainly includes the performers too, having a clue as to what ragam is being attempted at that moment.

Sometimes the difference between two ragams can be so nuanced, like for example between Dwajavanthi and Sahana, that the variation becomes apparent only when an extremely skilful person is performing their names in writing, that too in English.


The special beauty of rhythms and the staccato backdrop in Carnatic music is that you can pretty much manage a concert without it. For most of a typical concert, the accompanists are seen to just sit around the main performer, not unlike the yawning slip fielders in a cricket match, doing little work, which is technically even lesser than that of the vice-president, whose main job technically is to physically occupy a chair.

Many singers go about banging their thigh in a simulation of the thalam pattern, but in their ferocious enthusiasm they more or less drown out the accompanying percussionists.


We now move into one of the finer aspects of Carnatic music, and begin to contemplate a situation wherein the musician, for some inexplicable reason, is struck with a single phrase or motif of the song and is unable to move beyond that.

If in the alapanai part, the performer loses the skill of articulation, then during the niraval session, he seems to suffer Ghajini-like a short-term memory loss, absolutely incapable of recollecting the rest of the words that make up the song. To hide the desperation and embarrassment, he or she then attempts the same line in different riffs, lulling the listeners into believing that it’s all an organic part of the concert.

There seems to be some technical wizardry involved in this, but, all the same, niraval is simply exalting art to a new level of incomprehension and indecipherability.


Swaram rendition, clustering in patterned profusion the welter of seven syllables that are deemed to make up all music, is an important aspect of Carnatic singing based on the belief that alapanai and niraval alone are not enough to confound the listeners.

The lattice of swarams for each ragam is unique and special, and is usually delivered at breakneck speeds so that they all fall on the ears of the listeners in a mangled heap of incoherent syllables.

Thani Avarthanam

In a typical auditorium concert, this is the period when the main performer screeches to a close the swaram part and the accompanying artistes, as represented by the canteen staff, take over.

With nobody around, the percussionists belt it out on their hapless instruments, feeling so low, thereby creating a misleading picture that it is a solo act (thani avarthanam). But even the face of such heightened commotion, the tanpura player sits stoically as if he has no connection with what is happening around. Look closely, he could be auditioning for the post of Governor. Or else, he could be the vice-president.

Tailpiece or Tukda

These are sung in the closing moments of a concert. But out of work post-modernists reckon that Tukda is the portmanteau short-form of Thool Pakoda that are so famous in Sabha canteens.

By all of this, it is clear that a cutcheri is more about canteen and less about concert. In other words, it is, ragam, thanam and ‘palvali’.