Browsing through a copy of the very new, extremely handsome, second edition of The Oxford Illustrated Companion to South Indian Classical Music, compiled by Ludwig Pesch, I came upon an intriguing diagram. In a chapter titled “The Voice in South Indian Music”, there is a line sketch of two furrow-browed men, each a mirror image of the other. Under the left-hand man is the caption: “Cakra concept—Indian voice culture and its centres of energy”; under his counterpart: “Placing the tone—Western voice culture based on anatomy”.
Also See Diagram (PDF)
The two voice cultures developed independently, but the illustration points to keen similarities. In the West, the lower registers of the scale are thought to emerge from the area around the lower spine, where the attendant qualities of energy and sensuality reside. The scale then moves up the body, passing the heart (calmness, cordiality) and mouth (projection, flexibility), ending with its upper registers hovering around the crown of the head.
This anatomical scale, Pesch says, is often used by opera singers and those who sing the romantic song-cycles known as Lieder, and they associate specific spots in the anatomy with specific notes. For example, the resonating chamber of the human chest produces the vowels “a” and “o”, while the throat produces the vowel “u” and the consonant “m”.
The Indian system of voice, on the other hand, is based on the system of cakras (or chakras), centres of energy that run up and down the longitude of the human body. At the base of the spine is the muladhara cakra which, according to Pesch, is “thought of as the source of primordial sound”. In one lyric of his song Shobillu Saptaswara, the composer Thyagaraja strung together these bodily origins of the musical notes. “Naabhi hrut kantha rasana naasaadhula yandu,” he sings—the notes “glow in the navel, the heart, the neck, the tongue and the nose of the human body”. These are, Pesch says, “more than poetic images if understood in the light of other traditions of voice culture”.
A couple of years ago, a music teacher introduced me to this concept, and she urged me to try it for myself by paying attention to the physicality of my slow ascent up the scale. She started me off half an octave below the base note of “Sa”, which had to be dredged from the pit of my belly. I sensed the note of “Sa” itself reverberating around my chest, and one octave higher, the upper “Sa” felt like it was trying to escape through the bridge of my nose. Three or four notes higher, and sure enough there was a fizzing around the edges of my scalp (that was as high as I could go; beyond that, it was all supersonic).
The sage Bharata considered the voice an instrument in itself, calling it the sharira vina, or bodily lute. In that light, the similarities between the cakras and the Western anatomical scale are satisfyingly unifying, but they aren’t, if we think about it, surprising. Indian or European, we have, after all, the same instrument: the human body.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org