The voice in South Indian classical music (also known as Carnatic music) is versatile and expressive. Decades of training are required to meet the demands of the tradition, including the ability to sing at least three octaves (the typical opera singer has about a two-octave range). Professional singers typically learn hundreds of compositions in six languages (Sanskrit, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, and Hindi) and in a variety of musical forms, including bhajan, slokam, varnam, keerthanam, kriti, padam, javali, ragamalika, ragam-thanum-pallavi, and thillana. Each of these forms has its own musical structure with some requiring improvisation. Whereas Western music employs two main melodic modes (major and minor) on 12 pitch centers, Carnatic vocalists typically learn dozens of ragas (a group of five, six, or seven pitches that go together as a set), which they perform on a single pitch center.
Similar to the way Western classical music singers learn scales using the solfege syllables Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do, South Indian classical vocalists use a system of syllables called sargam: Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa. The three-octave range is notated with dots below (lower octave) and dots above (higher octave) as follows:
There is no system of fixed pitches in South Indian music, so each singer chooses his or her own central pitch (Sa), one that will allow their voice to cover three octaves. They typically use this pitch for their entire careers. During a performance, that chosen pitch is sustained as a drone on a tambura (plucked string instrument) or, in the modern era, on a sruti box (a bellows-blown reed instrument, now often electronic). All learning is done traditionally by ear and by memory as repertoire and style are transmitted from guru to disciple. Instruction may involve daily lessons and practice for an intensive period of ten to twenty years before reaching a professional level. Even then, study typically continues over a vocalist’s entire lifetime.
Concert performances in South India can take three to five hours with a vocalist presenting several types of compositions all from memory with little or no rehearsal with the accompanying musicians, who typically include a percussionist and a melodic accompanist who follows and echoes the vocalist’s lead. About three-quarters of the way through a concert, a main piece, lasting anywhere from 45 minutes to one hour, will be performed to showcase the improvisational abilities of the vocalist and accompanying musicians. The vocalist’s improvisation can involve singing many musical pitches on a single syllable, singing in three octaves or more with the sargam syllables, or choosing on the spot a portion of the song’s lyrics and melody and varying those. Carnatic vocalists have a distinctive virtuosity that both marks their musical identity as South Indian and contributes to the great diversity of traditional musical cultures in the world.
See the renowned 20th century artist M.S. Subbulaksmi performing Jagadodharana (“Supporter of the Universe”), a composition by Purandaradasa (16th c.) and Pakkala Nilabadi (“Standing by the Side [of Lord Rama]”), a composition by Tyagaraja (18th–19th c.).
K. S. Resmi is a performer and teacher of Carnatic music. N. Scott Robinson, Ph.D., percussionist and ethnomusicologist, is chair of the Music Department at San Diego Mesa College.