Over the last four years, I have learnt Carnatic music—sporadically, I regret to admit—from two teachers, their methods of instruction as different as the cities they lived in. The first of these teachers, in Chennai, would begin every new song by directing me to notate it in my journal. That writing process was the first, important step towards internalizing the music—a way to get acquainted with a composition’s structure and metre before any singing happened. But my other teacher, in New Delhi, would urge me to launch immediately into song; only towards the end of each class would she grab my notebook and scribble down the notation for me. I didn’t need to know how to transcribe the notes, she would insist. The notation was at best an aide-memoire; what mattered was how my ears understood the music, not my eyes.
In one way, the difference in these methods reflects the ambiguous status of Carnatic notation itself. Unlike in Western classical music, there is no universally accepted representation of Carnatic music in writing (the subtleties of Indian classical music, Pandit Omkarnath Thakur once said, make it “near impossible to express it accurately through notation”). My teachers’ notations varied in small but significant aspects, and both systems—and others I’ve seen—strike me as being jury-rigged solutions in the absence of a more consensual, scientific standard.
For instance, these systems tend to awkwardly import the concept of musical bars from Western classical notation, even though a Carnatic song’s more obvious divisions come by way of lyric. Inevitably, also, a song’s libretto has to be written in a particular script, but even the notes underlying those lyrics rely on the alphabet. I wrote these notes in English—“S” for “Sa” and so on—but a student in Kerala might well write them in Malayalam (on the other hand, via the Western staff notation—developed centuries ago by a Benedictine monk named Guido d’Arezzo—a score written in Hungary can be read and played easily in Japan). Crucially, Carnatic notation can indicate the note that is to be sung, but not always how it is to be sung—and as Carnatic music is built heavily on the gamaka, the bent or shaken note, this is a crippling deficiency.
Illegible: Western music has a universally accepted representation. Jeff Pachoud / AFP
Perhaps for these reasons, notation has never become an integral part of Carnatic music instruction; some old-school teachers refuse, even today, to commit their lessons to paper. But to be sure, musicologists have attempted to conquer these inadequacies. Most famously, over a century ago, a musician named Subbarama Dikshitar compiled the Sangeeta Sampradaya Pradarshini (SSP), an invaluable resource of songs that might otherwise have been lost to history. T.M. Krishna and R.K. Sriram Kumar, a leading vocalist and violinist, respectively, have been working to interpret, sing and archive the songs in the SSP, and Krishna observed, in an interview, that the text’s notations are as simple as Western staff notations, explaining “every movement of the swaras (notes)”. In which case, perhaps we should be striving to make Dikshitar the Guido d’Arezzo of Carnatic music, and to regard as his most lasting contribution not the songs he transcribed, but the manner in which he transcribed them.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org