Issue 4, July 2004 - Emmie te Nijenhuis, Notation of South Indian Music

2. Influence of instrumental playing on ornamentation

The early 18th century Tanjore lute-vina, a descendant of the older pan-Indian bar-zither type of vina, gave rise to a vast development of musical ornamentation. The South Indian vina had a great impact on the contemporary melodic style, since it played a key role as a solo and accompanying instrument. After the new chromatic tuning system of the fretted South Indian bar-zither (rudra-vina) had consolidated itself during the 16th and 17th centuries and a new scalar system (mela) of raga classification, corresponding to the new musical temperament, had been introduced, South Indian musicians were inspired to create new melodic forms (raga).

During the 18th century the royal court of Tanjore became a famous cultural centre and place of shelter for intellectuals and artists, where new musical forms flourished. At this centre the rudra-vina, the traditional accompanying instrument of vocal music, was improved. By replacing the main gourd, which constituted the body of this instrument, by a wooden resonator, tapering into the neck like the body of a lute, the stability of this vina was secured and its tone volume was increased. The player's left hand technique was facilitated by rounding and smoothing the high and thin frets. This new Tanjore lute-vina enabled the instrumentalist to closely follow the singer and imitate the legato technique of vocal music. The improved resonance of its wooden body extended the duration of a tone. The new shape of its frets facilitated the left hand technique of deflecting, or sideward pulling, of the melody strings. In this way the vina player could perform the same types of legato, vibrato and portamento as the singer. For this reason the Tanjore style of vina playing was called the "vocal" (gayaki) style.

On the other hand, the vina technique may also have influenced vocal music, as appears from the works of Tyagaraja, Muttusvami Diksitar and Syama Sastri. These three great South Indian composers, born in Tiruvarur, the famous temple city near Tanjore, turned the devotional hymn (kirtana) into a classical musical composition. In many of his songs Tyagaraja (1767-1847) stressed the importance of the knowledge of music (for instance, "Svararagasudharasa" in the raga samkarabharana and "Sobhillu saptasvara" in the raga jaganmohini) and in the hymn "Moksamu galada" in the raga saramati the composer specifically mentions vina playing.

The majestic kirtana compositions of Muttusvami Diksitar (1767-1835), for the most part composed in slow tempo, provide ample scope for the performance of elaborate melodic ornamentation. In the well-known hymn "Minaksi me mudam dehi" in the raga gamakakriya (modern purvikalyani) the composer mentions the ten traditional musical embellishments of vina playing. In the kirtana "Balagopala" in the raga bhairavi Muttusvami Diksitar refers to himself (pseudonym: Guruguha) as a vina player and singer.

Syama Sastri (1762-1827), born into a rich family and destined to become a priest in the family temple, proved himself to be an inspired musician and composer after he had received musical training under the famous court musician and vina player Pacimiriyam Adiappayya, the composer of the well-known varnam "Viriboni" in the raga bhairavi. Syama Sastri acquired fame as a concert singer through his musical contests with contemporary singers. He used his concert experience and improvisational skills to enrich the kirtana with new musical elements by introducing rhythmic intricacies, such as inversion of the tala (4 + 3 instead of 3 + 4, that is, viloma misra capu) and cross rhythms in the setting of the words (for instance, "Marivere gati" in the raga anandabhairavi), by inventing new raga (for instance, "Devi brova samayam ide" in the raga cintamani) and by further melodic development of existing raga. He also improved the literary content of the hymns by adding a text to the solfa sections (cittasvara). The fact that his son Subbaraya Sastri, his grandson Annasvami Sastri and his great-grandson Syama Sastri II were not only good singers and composers but also violin players, may have helped to preserve the difficult repertoire of this composer, who did not have many students.

In 1947-8 the vina player Vidya Shankar, who had studied with the composer's great-grandson, published three volumes of the compositions of Syama Sastri (Shankar 1979 [1947-8]). She used practically the same ten symbols in her notation of the musical ornaments as Subbarama Diksitar had done more than forty years earlier in his Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini (1961-1983 [1904]). C. S. Ayyar, Vidya's father, who played the violin, reduced these ten symbols to seven, when he published compositions of Tyagaraja (Ayyar 1955, 1959).

In classifying the musical ornaments according to their melodic function Vidya Shankar (Shankar 1979, vol. I:5) recognized only two categories: 1. gamaka-sambandha, that is, ornaments of the wavy type in which oscillations of a note appear, and 2. janta-sambandha, that is, ornaments approaching a note with a slide or a stress.

category I          category II
kampita, vibrato          etrajaru, ascending slide
pratyahata, deflected pralltriller          errakkajaru, descending slide
odukkal, deflection          khandippu, upper appoggiatura
nokku, release          sphurita, lower appoggiatura
vali, complex portamento          ravai, turn
          orika, note of complement

Vidya Shankar informs us why she prefers to use symbols for the notation of the musical ornaments (Shankar 1979, vol. I: 3-8, Gamakas I and II). She argues that in notation the melodic line of the main notes (svara) should not be obscured by secondary notes (anusvara). Traditionally, musical ornaments (gamaka) should be used in conformity with the "inherent form" (svarupa), that is, the characteristic sound pattern, of the raga. However, a performer's knowledge of raga theory alone would not suffice, because the gamaka for a particular note of a raga might differ from one phrase to another and unusual gamaka could have been chosen by a composer for a particular raga phrase. Under such circumstances the exact notation of gamaka becomes imperative. In vocalizations, such as cittasvara, muktayisvara and kalpanasvara, the grace notes are sung to the syllables corresponding to the main notes (sa, ri, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni). Therefore it would be recommended to replace all notated syllables representing grace notes by symbols. In this respect the notations of Subbarama Diksitar and Vidya Shankar may be regarded as a great improvement on the traditional Indian syllabic notation.

Rangaramanuja Ayyangar's Sri Kriti Mani Malai, an impressive series of music books containing the traditional South Indian repertoire, shows how confusing it is when the syllables indicating the main notes and the secondary notes are all written in letters of the same type and size (Rangaramanuja Ayyangar 1965-67 [1947-53]). Such valuable editions of classical South Indian music end up on bookshelves, where nobody looks at them anymore.

On the other hand, one cannot totally ignore the value of syllabic notation, because South Indian composers often used tone syllables as creative tools. According to South Indian musical aesthetics it is considered to be rhetorically beautiful when a syllable of the song text (aksara) corresponds to a tone syllable (svara) in the melody.

It is a pity that the analytical studies of Subbarama Diksitar and Vidya Shankar as well as their attempts to introduce uniform symbols for the notation of embellishments found little response. Respected 20th century musicologists and music teachers such as Sambamoorthy used hardly any symbols, excepting the wavy line for the kampita vibrato, in their teaching materials. Even T. K. Govinda Rao, the famous 20th century singer and representative of the Umayalpuram tradition, which has preserved the compositions of Tyagaraja in an authentic way, does not favour gamaka symbols in his music notation. In the prefaces to his three major music publications (Govinda Rao 1997a, 1997b, 1999) this author repeatedly states: "For those who do not have sufficient jnana (that is, knowledge of the raga) these symbols may fail to make any sense and ironically, for those having sufficient jnana, they do not require any symbols". T. K. Govinda Rao restricts his use of symbols to a slash and small letters representing the grace notes.

We may ask ourselves why 20th century South Indian instrumentalists, especially vina and violin players, show a greater interest in identification and notation of the gamaka than vocalists. Does the mind of the former more easily accept and produce graphic images of melodic details, because in performing their fingers continuously cover distances on the fingerboard? Recently the violinist Akella Mallikarjuna Sharma developed a series of twenty-four signs consisting of graphic elements that correspond to the rise and fall of the notes (Mallikarjuna Sharma 2001).

At present, advanced computer programs enable us to make a digital analysis of musical performances. However, digital graphics as well as traditional analogue staff notations show too many details to be useful in music education. The versatile German musicologist Josef Kuckertz used traditional Western tone symbols and a number of special graphic signs incorporated in the staff in his elaborate descriptive notations of vocal and instrumental performances of North and South Indian music (Kuckertz, 1970, Band II: Transkriptionen).

These detailed staff notations lend themselves very well to musical analysis, but can hardly be used for other, more practical purposes, since the main notes in the staff are obscured by too many additional signs, such as straight and wavy lines, slashes, etc. Karaikudi S. Subramanian, a South Indian traditional Vina player who at present runs Brhaddhvani, a private music institute at Chennai, designed a complex scheme of parallel, synchronic notation systems, in which he combines prescriptive and descriptive Indian letter notations and their transcriptions into staff notation with an "impressionistic graph", imitating a digital frequency graph, and special signs indicating some actions of the performer, for instance, right hand plucks of the vina player (Subramanian 1985, vol. 2: Transcriptions, p. 289 f).

It is obvious that only a limited set of graphic symbols can be used in music practice, because an excess of signs obstructs music reading. Sight-reading requires an easily understandable notation, which the brain can instantly convert into sound images. I for one think that staff notation combined with simple graphic signs for musical embellishments lends itself best to this purpose. Indian musicians, embedded in the oral tradition, may prefer the traditional Indian syllabic notation, because they only incidentally need music notation to refresh their memory, while sight-reading is seldom used in this musical culture.