Carnatic Beginner's List

The following list is an attempt to provide a starting point for people who are interested in listening to and learning more about Carnatic music. The idea behind the list is to provide a fairly broad introduction to the variety of Carnatic music in a manageable number of recordings. In addition, some consideration has been given to the sound quality of the chosen recordings, as one would not want a new listener to be overwhelmed by both the unfamiliarity of the music and the noisiness of the recordings. The choice of CDs only is also dictated by convenience.

The reader should keep in mind that Carnatic music is not nearly so well-represented on CDs as is Hindustani music, and that many of the best performances are found only on tapes or noisy discs. Some thought has also been given to how widely available a particular recording might be, although Carnatic performances are by no means as well-distributed in recording as the volume of the tradition might imply. Recordings which are more widely available have been given some preference for the list, but this is not always possible, unfortunately.

Carnatic music is the classical music of South India. Madras in Tamil Nadu is the leading center of the academic establishment, though many artists come from the neighboring states of Andhra, Kerala, and Karnataka, as well as some from other states of India or even abroad. As in Indian music in general, vocal rendition is the primary means of musical expression, and in fact most compositions performed by instrumentalists are exact copies of vocal works. Modern concert performances usually consist of a main artist, a melodic accompanist (typically violin) and a percussion accompanist (typically the two-headed wood & skin drum, mridangam). Concerts are usually heavily miked and then amplified.

Though there are a large number of fine compositions, performance practice dictates the incorporation of improvisational features by the artists within these compositional frameworks. An artist is not considered complete without the ability to improvise at any potential point during a rendition. The music itself almost always includes a devotional/spiritual content. The principal composers (called the "Trinity") are Thyagaraja (1767-1847), Muttuswamy Dikshitar (1776-1827), and Shyama Sastri (1762-1827).

Despite its short-comings, it is hoped that this list will represent a worthwhile and meaningful introduction for the beginner and that the variety of performers included will allow one to form preferences for further listening. The number ten seemed like a reasonable restriction on volume for an endeavor of this nature. It is important for the reader to note that these selections are by no means unanimous or unequivocal. Explanatory notes will be added to the list of recordings, and these can be used as listening aids in order to gain a better perspective on what is being heard.

1. An Anthology of South Indian Classical Music
by L. Subramaniam
Ocora C 590001/2/3/4 (4 CDs)

This anthology presents the broadest selection of song forms and instrumental performance that is available in one set. This includes the genres: Vedic recitation, Swaravali, Alankara, Gitam, Jatiswaram, Swarajati, Varnam, Kriti (the primary song form), Padam, Javali, Tillana, Thiruppukazh (musical settings of a specific poem, rather than an actual genre), & Ragam Tanam Pallavi (a largely improvisational format); and the instruments: voice (by far the most important), violin (the principal melodic accompaniment instrument), mridangam (the principal percussive accompaniment instrument), nagaswaram (or nadhaswaram), tavil, veena (the principal plucked-string instrument), gottuvadyam (or chitra veena), flute, clarinet, jalatarangam (melodic percussion), kanjira, ghatam, & moorsing.

The liner notes from this set are the best available in recorded Carnatic music, and include a discussion of melodic (raga) and rhythmic (tala) aspects of the music, as well as a description of the types of song compositions and instruments used; the instruments are also represented in photographs. The following selections are of particular interest and should be listened to carefully: Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer singing the Shyama Sastri swarajati "Raavey" in raga Todi; Smt. M. S. Subbulakshmi singing the Thyagaraja kriti "Rama nannu brovara" in raga Harikambodi; Trivandrum R. S. Mani singing the Thyagaraja Pancharatna kriti "Sadinchine" in raga Arabhi; and also Guruvayoor Dorai, V. Nagarajan, T. H. Vinayakram & T. H. Subashchandran performing in a traditional percussion ensemble, Tala Vadyam.

Finally, it is the opinion of many Carnatic listeners that L. Subramaniam is not a traditional violin player in solo performance, and hence the selections performed by him should not be regarded as entirely representative of Carnatic music. In particular, the final disc in the set consists almost entirely of L. Subranamiam performing a Ragam Tanam Pallavi in raga Hemavati. Many people would regard this addition as of dubious value, and indeed this set is often sold as four discs for the price of three. The reader should keep this in mind when listening to the set. However, the uniqueness of selection and excellence of liner notes does outweigh this negative point when considering the anthology as a whole. The sound quality is quite good.

2. Swara Bushani
Compiled with Balamurali Krishna
Oriental AAMS 166/167 (2 CDs)

This set is another compilation of performances by various artists. In this case, the substance of the set is entirely in vocal performances. The reader should keep in mind that voice is by far the most significant instrument in Indian Classical Music and in Carnatic music in particular. In fact the vast majority of instrumental performances are based exclusively on vocal compositions or vocal forms. In other words, instrumental performers draw on the same song repertory as vocal performers and present the song in a similar manner (lacking words of course). The extent to which these performances differ from vocal performances is due only to the individual style of the artist, and is in fact no greater than the variation in style between different vocalists. Hence, this set presents a very valuable introduction and cross-section of the immense Carnatic repertory.

The following vocalists are represented: Sudha Raghunathan, D. K. Pattammal, B. Rajam Iyer, K. V. Narayanaswamy, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, D. K. Jayaraman, Maharajapuram Santhanam, M. Balamurali Krishna, Bombay Sisters, R. K. Srikantan, Charumati Ramachandran & Trichur V. Ramachandran, T. N. Seshagopalan, and Lalgudi Jayaraman. The first disc is devoted primarily to compositions of Muthuswamy Dikshitar, and the second primarily to compositions of Thyagaraja. There are also three compositions by Purandara Dasa (15th century). This dual selection will allow the listener to gain an appreciation of the differing compositional approaches of Purandara Dasa (a much earlier composer), Thyagaraja and Muthuswamy Dikshitar, as well as to hear many of the top vocal artists in one set.

There are again negative points to keep in mind: first of all, the compositions are presented in a straight-forward manner and do not include the improvisational elements which are typical in performance, and in fact constitute a major part of Carnatic music; second, there are instrumental invocations and interludes included in the set which are not in any way traditional. However, these negative points are not terribly damaging. The spurious invocations and interludes are a small part of the recording and can easily be skipped, and the lack of improvisational features does not prevent one from gaining an appreciation of the various vocal styles or from enjoying the spiritual majesty of these fine compositions. The liner notes are also extremely minimal.

3. Ramnad Krishnan: Vidwan, Music of South India
Elektra/Nonesuch: Explorer Series 9 72023-2

The late Ramnad Krishnan was a highly esteemed vocalist, known for his fine renditions and musicological knowledge. He was one of the early South Indian academics to bring his knowledge to the United States, and was teaching at Wesleyan University when this recording was made. This recording is probably the most widely available Carnatic vocal disc, as well as one of the best. It includes three kritis, and a Ragam Tanam Pallavi with track markings for the different sections of this format. The liner notes are also quite informative, and although recorded in 1967 the sound quality is good. Ramnad Krishnan was able to achieve an approachable surface quality, combined with a depth of expression.

4. Maharajapuram V. Santhanam
Music Today: Maestro's Choice C 91016

The late Maharajapuram Santhanam was one of the most sincere and approachable vocalists in Carnatic music. He was possessed of an illustrious musical heritage, as well as a fine ability to communicate with beginning listeners. For some people, his style is not as traditionally oriented as it might be, and in some respects he sacrifices strict execution for warmth of tone. However, his geniality and sincerity more than balance for inclusion in this list. The recording in question is particularly valuable, as it contains compositions by six different composers including one each from the all-important Trinity of Carnatic music: Thyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar, and Shyama Sastry. The sound is modern digital.

In addition, a more generally available program is available on Auvidis Ethnic 6746, although the program does not make as good an introduction.

5. M. S. Subbulakshmi
EMI India CD PMLP 5306/7 (2 CDs)

This set consists of a live performance at the United Nations on 23/10/66 by the most famous female vocalist in Carnatic music. Her fine voice and wonderful rhythmic pacing make this disc a joy to hear. Though the recording is old, the sound quality is better than many of the Carnatic CDs available. There are still some negatives: The liner notes are virtually nonexistent, and there are introductory speeches by UN dignitaries (although these can be programmed out) as well as modest audience noise. Nonetheless, the historical significance of this recording and the quality of the renditions themselves more than outweigh these factors.

There are a couple of short songs composed especially for the occasion (including one in English, which is not Carnatic in any way). Also, the first song "Rama Nannu Brovara" is a very similar performance to that on the South Indian Anthology (item #1, above). Finally, the extended performance of the Syama Sastri kriti "Saroja Dhala Netri" is a good example of a vocal piece rendered with all elements of improvisation, from opening unmeasured introduction on voice and violin (alapana), to interpolations between lines (niraval & kalpana swara), to concluding percussion duet.

An alternate selection is a related recording from the same era, the more recently issued late M. S. Subbulakshmi at Carnegie Hall.

6. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer
Oriental AAMS 186

Dr. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer was long considered the most widely respected Carnatic living vocalist. He was particularly renowned for his vast musical knowledge and strict style of singing. The reader should keep in mind that on this recording he is advanced in age and that his tone might not have the surface beauty of other singers, but closer attention will be rewarded by traditional performances of stunning depth and expressive power. The recording listed is also fortunate to include the great mridangam artist Palghat T. S. Mani Iyer in accompaniment. He is known for his forceful tone and rhythmic sophistication. Finally, this recording also includes L. Shankar on violin. He is famous for his fusion work, and here the listener will have a chance to hear him perform a traditional accompaniment.

An alternate recording selection of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer is the 2CD set Oriental AAMS 163/164. This last is perhaps a more approachable performance, but the single disc was selected for brevity, uniqueness of accompanists, and expressive depth.

7. Aruna Sayeeram: Chant karnatique
Auvidis Ethnic: B 6747

This disc might be the perfect place for the truly novice listener to learn to appreciate Carnatic song forms. Aruna Sayeeram is a singer in the lineage of the great Veena Dhanamal, and is known for her exceptionally clear tone. In particular, the combination of singing and recording quality (the best in this list) on this release makes it easily the best example of audible note-perfection among Carnatic recordings. The purity of held notes and the overall effect of combination (voice & tanpura) overtones are stunning. This disc contains some older song forms of lesser complexity, as well as kritis. The improvisatory aspects are very restrained and straight-forward, making it easy to hear exactly what is happening.

All in all, this recording is very compelling, but the more experienced listener might not find the interpretations themselves to be complex enough.

8. Karaikudi Subramaniam: Sunada
Music of the World 127

The veena is a large, resonant, fretted plucked string instrument which is very important to Carnatic music. To distinguish it from other plucked string instruments, it is sometimes called the Saraswati veena, but it is by far the most popular plucked instrument in Carnatic music. Karaikudi Subramaniam belongs to one of the most illustrious lineages of Carnatic music, the famous Karaikudi brothers, and to a modern school of veena playing which is among the richest and most accomplished. His playing is traditional and precise. Along with fine performances of typical compositions, this recording includes an extended performance in Raga Simhendramadhyamam which features a Tanam. Tanam is basically the rhythmic articulation of raga outside the context of a song, and is particularly well-suited to the veena as an instrument. In addition, the verse-form Tiruppugar features the unusual Chanda tala. The sound is modern digital.

A fine alternate suggestion is the Nimbus 5639 program by the increasingly prominent Ravikiran on chitraveena, a related (but more obscure) unfretted instrument. This recording should be readily available around the world, although recorded at maddeningly low volume.

9. Dr. N. Ramani: Classical Carnatic Flute
Nimbus 5257

Beside the veena, the bamboo flute is the most important solo instrument in Carnatic music concerts. This is mostly because of its closer relationship to the voice, and partly because of its brilliant sonic appeal. N. Ramani is a highly respected, traditional performer and this recording is very representative of flute playing in general. It includes not only compositions, but a Ragam Tanam Pallavi Ragamalika which is an almost ubiquitous showpiece in Carnatic concerts, as well as a concluding piece by N. Ramani himself for the larger bamboo flute typical of Hindustani music.

In general, N. Ramani is a very restrained performer in contrast to some of the more effusive flute players, and the somewhat dim sound of this recording (something which is characteristic of Nimbus CDs, which are otherwise some of the best-recorded of Indian Classical music, complete with good liner notes) does limit the sonic appeal and tonal brilliance which are so much a part of flute playing. Nonetheless, the merits of this disc, such as its wide availability and particularly N. Ramani's careful articulation, outweigh this disadvantage for inclusion on this list. A more virtuosic approach to flute playing can be found on the late T. R. Mahalingam's 2CD live recital, Oriental AAMS 183/184.

10. Violin Virtuoso: Lalgudi G. Jayaraman
Oriental AAMS 125

The violin is a western import to Carnatic music (though there are arguments that bowed string instruments have been used all along, with only the latest design being of european origin), and is found in almost every concert as an accompaniment to the main artist. This is also true of the performances listed above. Lalgudi Jayaraman was one of the artists primarily responsible for establishing the violin as a solo instrument. He is renowned not only for his beautiful tone and traditional playing, but for his many original compositions. He is perhaps the only living artist who has achieved almost universal acclaim for his ability to combine tradition and innovation. This recording contains a few short pieces, including Lalgudi Jayaraman's famous varnam in raga Valaji, as well as an extended Ragam Tanam Pallavi in raga Simhendramadhyamam. The fine articulation and tonal control of this performance will serve the listener well in comparison with L. Subramaniam's performance listed above.

My hope is to eventually provide a coherent and comprehensive list on which each selection is readily available. At this point, that hope remains ephemeral.

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Dr. T.M. McComb
25 September 1993 ; Text last modified 31 October 2003
HTML-ized 5 May 1995