A Brief History of Karnatik Music – Part 4

The Vijayanagara Empire and Pre-Trinity Period (1500-1750AD)

The ascension of Krishnadevaraya as emperor of Vijayanagara (1506-1532AD) is marked as golden period owing to unprecedented levels of patronage he accorded to the advancement of arts and music. As was the practice during those times, the Vijayanagara empire had established several administrative regions and Tanjavur was one among them. Gopala Nayaka was appointed as its ruler in 1520AD who was succeeded by Achutappa Nayaka. During this time Govinda Dikshita, a kannada speaking hoysala karnataka brahmin was appointed as the chief administrator of Tanjavur. He eventually continued under the successor king Raghunatha Nayaka. After the last king of Vijayanagara was defeated in 1565AD the smaller kingdoms of erstwhile Vijayanagara state such as Mysuru, Chitradurga, Tanjavur, Madurai & Gingee declared independence. As history would reveal, it went on to have significant impact on the evolution of Indian music and arts.

Govinda Dikshita, a great visionary, was instrumental in developing Tanjavur as a seat of music and created a welcoming atmosphere for scholars from various regions to settle down in Tanjavur and flourish. This eventually led Tanjavur region to transform into a magnet that attracted great scholars including the 18th century musical trinities (Thyagaraja, Shyama Sastri & Muthuswamy Dikshita) who took Karnatik music to great heights with their brilliant compositions. These works form the epitome of Karnatic music to this date.

Govinda Dikshita also deserves rich credit for setting the tone and atmosphere for a robust formal treatment of musical theory. Evolution of musicology entered an interesting period during his time. For his contribution, the people of Tanjavur have constructed a temple which can be visited to this date. Popularly known as ‘Periyar’ during his times, streets and towns are named after him in and around Tanjavur.

Later in 1550AD ‘Ramamatya’ authored ‘Svaramela Kalanidhi’ wherein there is a mention of 20 different melas. His work is counted among the sangita shastra navaratnas or the nine ‘gems’ of the theory of Karnataka Music. Later Pandarika Vittala in his ‘Sadraaga Chandrodaya’ systematized the evolution of mela by introducing mathematical combinations showing 90 possible melas. Author Somanatha of ‘Raga Vibodha’ took it even further and worked out 960 possibilities.

Other notable works during this period includes ‘RagaTalaChintamani’ by Poluri GovindaKavi and contributions by great composer Bhadrachala Ramadasa from Andhra (1620-1680AD), Veerashaiva saint Nijaguna Shivayogi and Ratnakara Varni, a Jain saint, from Karnataka.

The entry of Venkatamakhin, (1633AD), son of Govinda Dikshita, through his treatise ‘Chathurdandi Prakashika’ dramatically influenced the future evolution of music theory. He made key contributions that would streamline the framework of music theory. For his contributions to music theory he is considered as the most important musicologist in South India. His views differed radically from that of his father. He followed the lead of Somanatha in theoretically computing melas. He placed ragas in 18 of 72 melas and left 53 untouched. He accepted twelve swarasthanas within an octave with sixteen swaras, (see Table 1 below) computed 72 melas which is in practice to date.

Octave Insert 1


During this period the ‘Shahji of Tanjavur’, 1684 to 1712AD, a maratha king through his work ‘Ragalakshanamu’ written in telugu language introduced the term ‘Melakartha’ but it was still a ‘Janya’ (derivative) of a ‘theoretical’ mela. He also introduced the concept of raga classification based on aesthetics such as ‘ghana’ (rigid & dense), ‘naya’ (soft & fluid) and ‘deshiya’ (from other regions).

In many ways the 16th and 17th century turned out to be the renaissance period for Indian classical music.


*Note: The term Swara denotes a musical note, which is a single frequency commonly measured in Hertz (cycles/second). The ‘sapthaswara’ includes seven basic notes S, R, G , M, P, D, N. Their frequencies are interrelated. In other words, if the frequency of S (Adhaara Shadja) is fixed then it is possible to mathematically determine the frequencies of the other remaining notes. Same applies to ‘Dwadhasha (12) Swaras.

Swarasthana:  Swarasthana refers to the placement of the note within an octave. Sthana = Place. 

Shruthi: Shruthi’s are microtones within an octave distinguishable by humans and they are 22 in number. Therefore Swaras are movements or envelopes of Sruthis, with a final resting Sthana,