A Brief History of Karnatik Music – Part 1

The Vedic Roots

The earliest roots of Indian Classical music can be traced back to Rig Vedic times where a scale of three notes was used in reciting the slokas. These three notes are referred by sage Panini in his Vyakarana (Grammar) sutra as ‘Udatta’, ‘Anudaata’ and ‘Svarita’, which is employed even to this date mostly in south Indian vedic chanting practice. These three notes (r-s-ṇ) correspond to Rishaba (ri), Nishadaa (ni), and Shadja (sa) notes of the present day Saptaswara (seven notes,  s-r-g-m-p-d-n).  The nishadaa (n) used here belongs to lower octave. The example below illustrates using the first Sloka (Hymn) of Rigveda. Recitation of the Sloka follows the rules set by sage Panini where the vowels acquire one of three basic pitch accents or svara: Notice some characters have special markings in example below in the form of vertical bar above or a horizontal bar below. Historically, interpretation of these markings has not been uniform accross various texts and minor variations exist § (See footnote for details)

अ॒ग्निमी॑ळे पु॒रोहि॑तं य॒ज्ञस्य॑ दे॒वमृ॒त्विज॑म्  होता॑रं रत्न॒धात॑मम् ॥  – Rig Veda [1.001.01]

agnimīḷe | puroḥ-hitam | yajñasya | devam | ṛtvijam | hotāram | ratna-dhātamam ॥ [1]

Below is an audio illustration following the Panini pitch accents corresponding to three notes (r-s-ṇ)

In his book “History of Indian Music” Prof. Sambamoorthy states as follows ”Later on ‘Gaandhara’ (ga) was added and placed above ‘ri’ and Dhaivata (da) was added below ‘ni’ to make it g-r-s-ṇ-ḍ giving rise to pentatonic scale. Subsequently, ‘Madhyama’ (ma) was added above ga and ‘Panchama’ (pa) was added below the dhaivataa. This resulted in a ‘Saama Gaana’ scale m-g- r-s;  s-ṇ-ḍ-p.  It may be noted that all these developments were centered around evolving the ‘lute’ instrument (a stringed musical instrument which was precursor to present day Veena). When s-ṇ-ḍ-p was sung one octave higher the ‘saama sapthaka’ [ṡ-n-d-p-m-g-r] was conceived which gave birth to ‘Shadja Graama’, the primordial scale of Indian music.” [1,2]


 §Following the rules of Panini in the formation of a word from its rudimentary
elements, the vowels acquire one of three basic pitch accents or svara:
(a) udatta, raised pitch, (b) anudatta, not raised, (c) svarita, a blend of the first two

Rigveda has udatta unmarked; the svarita is marked with a vertical line above the syllable and the anudatta is marked with a horizontal bar below the syllable

Table below illustrates the variances among various texts. For more details refer to http://www.evertype.com/standards/iso10646/pdf/vedic/Vedic_accents_doc.pdf

Rig Veda Accents Table

References:

  1. Wikipedia
  2. History of Indian Music by P. Samba Moorthy. PP35-36,1960

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