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

1. Historical development of music notation in India

In Indian music improvisation and variation have always played a predominant role in performance practice. This may explain why in India music notation never became very popular and was hardly used in music education. At the beginning of the 20th century the North Indian musicologists Bhatkhande and Paluskar decided that the ancient Indian syllabic notation would be useful for the teaching of music in the new music schools and for the preservation of traditional compositions.

The limitations of this letter notation, which did not show melodic details of the raga and the styles of performing, could be compensated by individual teaching to complement the elementary music lessons in the classroom. In those days the traditional gurukula method, that is, learning while staying in the house of the master, was still possible. But in modern India general intellectual education is consuming so much time that only children up to the age of twelve can spend a few hours after school in private music schools. Recently I witnessed music classes in Chennai in the houses of the well-known South Indian singers Seetha Rajan and T. V. Gopalkrishnan, who are both very successful in their teaching and in public performances with their students.

Modern Indian musicians and musicologists are aware of the limitations of letter notation. Since rhythmic and melodic details are often not clear, reading scores in this notation is virtually impossible. This may be the reason why in the Indian film industry Western staff notation has become quite common.

However, in traditional Indian music, staff notation never became popular. The music publications of Tagore (1878, 1879, 1880) in this type of notation remain curiosities. When Chinnaswami Mudaliyar, a South Indian administrator and scholar trained in Western music, published traditional South Indian compositions in staff notation (Chinnaswami Mudaliyar 1893), his costly private enterprise did not receive the expected response, but it did have some impact on South Indian music notation. Mudaliyar's friendship and co-operation with Subbarama Diksitar, the grandson of Balusvami Diksitar - a brother of the famous South Indian composer Muttusvami Diksitar (1775-1835) - resulted in a fruitful exchange of knowledge of Indian and Western music and guaranteed the continuity of Chinnaswami Mudaliyar's project to preserve the South Indian traditional repertoire in notation, though not in staff notation.

In 1904 Subbarama Diksitar published a music book (Subbarama Diksitar 1961-83 [1904]), containing compositions of the Diksitar tradition, in Indian letter notation, in which he integrated several elements from Western staff notation, such as the flat and sharp signs, as well as the lines that link the crooks of quavers, semi-quavers, etc. in staff notation, to mark the rhythmic division. He also introduced a whole set of symbols to indicate musical ornaments (gamaka). Earlier attempts by Venkatesa Sastri (1892) had remained limited to the use of a few symbols, such as straight lines for the reduction of the time value of certain notes, a wavy line (varek) for the vibrato (kampita) and a curved line for the note of complement (orika).

1. kampitam (shake, vibrato) ~~~        7. vali (portamento) ~
2. sphuritam (lower appoggiatura)         8a. errajaru (ascending glissando) /
3. pratyahatam (pralltriller)          8b. irakkajaru (descending glissando) \
4. nokku (release from defection) W        9. odukkal (deflection) X
5. ravai (turn) ^        10. orika (note of complement) v
6. khandimpu (upper appoggiatura) V       

In 19th century music practice a different set of ten types of musical ornaments (dasavidha gamaka) was generally known:

1. kampita (fast vibrato)        6. tripuccha (turn)
2. andolita (slow vibrato)        7. dhalu (portamento)
3. sphurita (lower appoggiatura)        8. arohana (ascending glissando)
4. pratyahata (pralltriller)        9. avarohana (descending glissando)
5. ahata (mordent)        10. murchana (full scale)

Instead of adapting the traditional set of ten gamaka, Subbarama Diksitar selected his own set of ten relevant types of musical ornaments and explained how they should be performed on the South Indian vina. In the Introduction to his Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini (Subbarama Diksitar 1961, volume 1; see also Jayalakshmi 2003) he listed the gamaka of his own set and compared them with the fifteen medieval vocal gamaka described by the 13th century theoretician Sarngadeva (Shringy and Prem Lata Sharma 1989:171-174) and handed down by the 17th century South Indian musicologist Venkatamakhin (Subrahmanya Sastri and Venkataramaya 1934:32, verses 117-165).

Diksitar's comparative study of medieval and contemporary embellishments proves that the author adhered to his family tradition, in which the theories of Venkatamakhin played a predominant role. This may to some extent explain why Subbarama Diksitar ignored the Ragavibodha, an important musicological work by Somanatha (Subrahmanya Sastri 1945). In 1609, that is, eleven years before Venkatamakhin wrote his treatise Caturdandiprakasika (1620), Somanatha, a musicologist from Andhra Desa, had already systematically explained the various ornamentation techniques of the South Indian vina and illustrated them with music examples in his Ragavibodha. The symbols that Somanatha had invented to indicate these techniques never found their application in any other theoretical work or musical composition (te Nijenhuis 1976: I: 2). It is a pity that Diksitar disregarded the Ragavibodha, especially since Somanatha's definitions of the various vina techniques are very precise and correspond to the techniques of 20th century South Indian vina players of the so-called Karaikudi tradition, such as Karaikudi S. Subramanian and Vinai Ranganayaki Rajagopalan.

On the other hand, Subbarama Diksitar should be recognized for having studied musical embellishments in a wider perspective. Not only did he compare contemporary instrumental (vina) techniques with medieval vocal techniques, he also tried to classify the different gamaka according to their melodic function. Under the first category he listed all types of vibrato, under the second category the various types of stress ornaments, while he assigned the techniques of connecting the individual notes to the third category. He did not classify some medieval vocal gamaka, as, for example mudrita and namita, since he could not find their modern instrumental equivalents, while Somanatha had already clearly specified mudra as a special left hand stopping technique and naimnya as a heavy stroke by the right hand of the vina player.

In Indian music it is not easy to attribute a special melodic function to a group of musical ornaments, since one particular ornament may have different functions in the melodic context of the various raga. After Sarngadeva, the author of Sangitaratnakara, the famous 13th century work on music, no Indian musicologist provided any systematic treatment of phrase building (sthaya) technique. Since that time the application of the gamaka in characteristic phrases of particular raga could only be studied from musical practice.

Examining the gamaka systems of Sarngadeva, Somanatha and Subbarama Diksitar, it may strike us that some techniques of ornamentation can be listed under more than one category. For example, the odukkal and the nokku, respectively produced by deflection (that is, sideward pulling) and release of a string, may be regarded as stress ornaments, although they also represent the simplest form of vibrato. The most interesting example of a multifunctional ornament is the vali, a deflected pralltriller or inverted mordent, which could be regarded as a type of vibrato, although Diksitar places it in the category of stress ornaments. However, the vali may also function as an ornament of connection. In modern practice the traditional South Indian term vali and its North Indian equivalent mida or mind represent a favourite technique of portamento. According to medieval Indian musical theory vali was applied in a phrase technique called vahani, a Sanskrit word meaning "carrying", which corresponds to the literal meaning of the Italian word portamento. Among the various types of portamento phrases the medieval musicologists Sarngadeva (Shringy and Prem Lata Sharma 1989:177, verses 115-119) and Kumbha (Premlata Sharma 1963, chapters 2, 3, 4, verses 19-24) mention a special type of portamento named khutta, in which intermediate notes enter the interval covered by the portamento. In medieval musical theory a complex portamento, a "knotted" (granthita) vali, is called kurula. Subbarama Diksitar regarded the modern odukkal, the deflected single vibrato, and orika, the deflected note of complement or cambiata, as variants of this medieval kurula.