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, 


A Brief History of Karnatic Music – Part 3

The Medieval Period – [1100AD – 1500AD]

By late 12th century, the Indian classical music and dance in a combined form had evolved into a distinctive art form with a firm theoretical foundation contributed by eminent scholars from many regions of present day India. At this juncture there was not any distinction between Hindustani and Karnatic styles of music and it was just known as ‘Sangita’ (Music of India).

These developments took place during favorable times in the Indian sub-continent with rich patronage from various native kings and dynasties in power during those times. However, soon India was about to enter a new era of the Muslim kingdoms: – The ‘Sultanate of Delhi’ was established in 1206AD. Later on, Moghul invaders from foreign lands occupied the Indian subcontinent in 1526AD who ruled large swathes of present day northern and some parts of central India. Their kingdoms declined and perished towards 1707AD.  From a cultural perspective these developments altered the course of natural evolution of native arts and culture. To a certain degree it impacted the vibrant academic atmosphere that was nurturing the evolution of native Indian classical music. However, in retrospect, as historical evidence shows, the impact did not majorly affect the enthusiasm of scholars – even though it may have altered the course of evolution of arts and music.

Another great treatise of early 12th century in the form of encyclopedia was the ‘Mānasollāsa’, also known as ‘Abhilashitartha Chintamani’. The Mānasollāsa encyclopedic treatise was written in Sanskrit in a Kannada language speaking region by the South Indian king Someshvara III of the Kalyani Chalukya dynasty. Organized as five books, among a multitude of topics, it extensively discusses arts with focus on music and dance.

It was also during this time Sarangadeva (1175AD–1247AD), the 13th-century Indian musicologist authored ‘Sangita Ratnakara’ – the classical Sanskrit text on music and drama. To this day, it is considered to be the authoritative treatise in Indian classical music by both the Hindustani music and the Karnatic music traditions.[1]

Sarangadeva was born in a Brahmin family of Kashmir. In an era of Islamic invasion of the northwest regions of the Indian subcontinent and the start of Delhi Sultanate, his family migrated south and settled in the Hindu kingdom in the Deccan region ruled by the Yadava dynasty near Ellora Caves (Present day Maharashtra). [1]

Sarangadeva presented his ideas on music and dance in seven chapters of Sangita Ratnakara, but integrated it with philosophical context. He systematically presented his ideas on the nature of sound, register, the smallest distinct sounds that humans can hear and musical instruments can produce (shruti), musical scales and modes, 264 ragas, beats and role of time (tala), prosody (Chandas), relation between performance arts and human emotions and sentiments, musical and vocal ornaments, the composition of drama and songs, and the limitless opportunities available to the artist to express and affect her audience. [1]

To date, SarangaDeva’s Sangita Ratnakara is considered as a major mile stone in the evolution of music. Poet Jayadeva’s ‘Gita Govinda’ in the form of Ashtapadi was composed during this period. (1175-1200AD)

By this time, cultural influences from Persia and Arab had started influencing the evolution of Indian music in the northern part of India. Amir Khusro, a poet and musician under many Delhi Sultanate kings introduced Persian and Arabic elements to Indian music. He originated the ‘Khayal’ and ‘Tarana’ style of music which is now integral part of Hindustani music. A mild distinction was slowly building up in the overall style and practice of Indian music practiced in the northern part of India which eventually led to birth of what is known today as “Hindustani Sangita” while music in south of India came to be known as “Karnataka Sangita” relatively less influenced from outside cultures. The word Karnataka is a combination of ‘Karna’ (ears) and ‘ataka’ (pleasant) meaning that which is pleasant to hear.

In 1336AD, during a tumultuous period during which wars and invasions on neighboring kingdoms by Muslim kings to expand their territory was common, Sage Vidyaranya, a brilliant scholar, visionary, philosopher and a statesman, emerged on the scene as a powerful force who was the key architect in founding and establishing the ‘Vijayanagara Empire’. This empire, also known as ‘Karnata Rajya’ would eventually expand into most of southern and western regions of India. It successfully stemmed the advancement of Muslim invasions into southern India thereby shielding the native culture and traditions from the influences of Islamic culture. For the next 250 years, various emperors and kings under Vijayanagara empire and its successor kingdoms would provide unprecedented levels of patronage for the advancement of music and arts.  It was during this period Thanjavur began to emerge as a seat of music.

Sage Vidyaranya also authored a music treatise called ‘Sangita Saara’ introducing new concepts to the music theory including the concept of ‘mela’.

Note: The term ‘mela’ was coined as an attempt to group and classify in some logical fashion the numerous musical scales (phrase based Ragaas) that had evolved by then. Mela was meant to be a parent scale under which musical scales confirming to a set of rules could be grouped under. Mela was still a theoretical concept and not an actual scale in practice.[1]

Other iconic works during 14th and 15th century was ‘Sangitaraaja’ authored by Khumbha Maharana of Mewar and a commentary on Sangeeta Ratnakara authored by Kallinatha.

It was also during this time the Haridaasa movement was taking roots in the Kannada speaking regions (present day Karnataka) of the Vijayanagara Empire. It was primarily rooted in the ‘Bhakti’ concept. In this lineage was born sage Purandara Dasa who was a vaggeyakara (composer-performer), a lakshanakara (musicologist), and the founder of musical pedagogy. For all these reasons and the enormous influence that he had on present day Karnatic music, musicologists call him the “Sangeeta Pithamaha” (lit. grandfather) of Karnatic music.  Purandara Dasa systematized the method of teaching Carnatic music which is followed to the present day. He introduced the raga Mayamalavagowla as the basic scale for music instruction and fashioned series of graded lessons such as Swaravalis, Janti-Swaras, Alankaras, Lakshana-Geetas, Prabandhas, Ugabhogas, Dhaatu-Varase, Geeta, Sooladis and Kritis. Another of his important contributions was the fusion of Bhaava, Raga, and Laya in his compositions . Purandara Dasa had great influence on Hindustani music. The foremost Hindustani musician Tansen’s teacher, Swami Haridas was Purandara Dasa’s disciple.

Tallapaaka Annamacharya, also popularly known as Annamayya (1408–1503AD), was a saint who composed songs in Telugu called ‘Sankirtanas’ in praise of lord Venkateswara.

Meanwhile, in the ensuing period between 1336AD – 1509AD the Vijayanagara empire emerged as a formidable empire ruling much of southern India and reached its peak by 1509AD.


  1. Wikipedia

A Brief History of Karnatic Music – Part 2

The Early Period [2000BC – 1100AD]

Drawing from the roots of the music in the vedas, the interest in arts expanded into other aspects of artistic expressions which included dance and drama. ‘Natya Shastra’ is the earliest known text in Sanskrit to systematically document the evolution of arts during this time. It consists of 6000 sutras [stanzas] organized into 36 distinct chapters. It is also widely believed that sage Bharata is its author, and approximately timed around between 2BC-2AD. Here the author discusses two types of music.

  1. Gandharva – Music with strict grammatical rules.
  2. Gaana – Grammatically more liberal form of music.

Eventually, many centuries later, it was the ‘Gaana’ form of music that evolved into ‘Marga Sangita’.  This form of music continued to evolve and later towards 900AD, further evolved to a codified art form that was simply called as ‘Sangita’. Later on it may have given rise to another form of music known as ‘Deshi Sangita’ A key distinction to note here is that the term Sangita in Deshi form was more leaning towards music while during the “Marga’ period it included both music and theatre.

Among many important contributions, Natya Shastra introduces the key concept of ‘Shruthi’ as notional sounds contained within seven swaras in an Octave. According to Bharata, Shadja has 4, rishaba 3, gandhara 2, madhyama 4, panchama 4, dhaivata 3 and nishada 2 for a total of 22 shruthis (pitch) within an octave, discernible to human ears. [1]

Note: Some historians believe that the composition ‘Natya Shastra’ is a work of several persons under the generic name Bharata. It has been suggested that Bharata may be an acronym for the three syllables: ‘bha’ for bhāva (mood), ‘rā’ for rāga (melodic framework), and ‘ta’ for tāla (rhythm). However, in traditional usage Bharata has been iconized as muni or sage, and the work is strongly associated with this personage.[1]

Roughly in the same time period of Natya Shastra, ‘Dattilam’ was another pioneering work authored by sage Dattilla which is dedicated to ‘Gandharva’ form of music. Taking it into one level higher in formal definition, Datilla categorized the melodic structures into eighteen groups called ‘Jaatis’ which are fundamental melodic structures. The Jaatis may have laid the foundation for the future evolution of the concept of ‘Raaga’ as we know today.

Brhaddeshi is yet another important classical Sanskrit text dated somewhere between 6th to 8th century attributed to sage Matanga. Besides clarifying several terse statements in Natya Shastra,  Matanga muni, for the first time, speaks about ‘Raaga’ . He formally distinguishes the ‘Marga’ as evolving into classical music and treats the ‘Deshi’ form of music as folk music practiced in those times. Some historians think that ‘Deshi Sangita’ may have evolved from ‘Marga Sangita’. Also Brhaddeshi was the first text to define ‘Adi Taala’ (Rhythm) in the form of one laghu, which is of a different form than what is practiced today as Adi Taala.

Later around late 10th century and early 11th century a great scholar from Kashmir by name Abhinava Gupta wrote a text called ‘Abhinavabhāratī’. It was in the form of a commentary to Natya Shastra.

He was a philosopher, mystic and aesthetician and also considered an influential musician, poet, dramatist, exegete (interpreter of scriptures), theologian, and logician – a polymathic personality who exercised strong influences on Indian culture.[1]

His most important contribution was that to the theory of ‘Rasa’ (aesthetic savour). ‘Rasa’ is a term used to classify Indian classical musical compositions into different categories based on the mood it sets. There are a total of eight ‘Rasas’ identified as shown below with their descriptions.

  • Karunaa – Compassion, 2) Shingaara- Love and Romance, 3) Veera- Bold, 4) Bhayanaka – (fear) Scary, 5) Raudra- Anger, 6) Vhibatsa – Revulsion, 7) Hasya – Humour 8) Adbhuta – Amazement.

[It is stated that as tradition of Alankara Shastra developed from sixth through tenth centuries, a ninth rasa called ‘Shanthi – Peace’ was endorsed after much philosophical and aesthetic theoritization by Abhinava Gupta. Subsequently the nine rasas were accepted by majority of Alankaarikas and expression of ‘Navarasa’ came into vogue.]


  1. Wikipedia