Celebrated as the most authoritative reference on South Indian classical music, the Companion provides
an overview of the historical and cultural contexts of the music, its forms, instrument, composers,
leading practitioners, and schools.
Fully cross-referenced, the Companion describes and assesses the musical conventions,
instrumental music, intonation, embellishment, and tala and rhythm among a host of other topics, and
includes detailed biographical notes on composers and musicians. The highly accessible and insightful
Preface provides a broad outline of the subject and sensitizes readers to the intricacies of Carnatic
The rich artwork-comprising more than 100 photographs, colour plates and drawings by S.
Rajam, illustrations by V.C. Arun, and staves-add to the appeal of the volume. In addition to staff
notation for all the 72 scales (melakarta ragas), this volume carries a special guide to pronunciation and
transliteration. Additionally, the Companion comes equipped with a comprehensive bibliography an
further reading section, detailed indices of ragas and scales’ and ‘names’, and a glossary-cum-index.
An indispensable and enriching reference for the connoisseur, practicing musician and
dancer, interested amateur, impresario, teacher, and student, this completely revised, updated, and
enlarged edition will also inform and engage anybody keen on learning more about Indian culture.
Ludwig Pesch is regarded as an authority on South Indian classical music. Trained at
Kalakshetra College of Fine Arts, Chennai, he has performed both with his guru, the late H.
Ramachandra Shastry, and solo. He is the author of Ragadhana: An Alpha-Numerical Directory of Ragas
(1992) and Eloquent Percussion: A Guide to South Indian Rhythm (with T.R. Sundaresan, 1996).
Sangita Kalasikhamani S. Rajam renowned vocalist and musicologist, is credited
with giving Carnatic music its distinct visual identity.
V.C. Arun studied classical Carnatic music at Kalakshetra College of Fine Arts,
Chennai, and is the illustrator of Eloquent Percussion: A Guide to South Indian Rhythm (1996).
T.R. Sundaresan, the resource person for all sections pertaining to South Indian
rhythm and percussion, is a Carnatic drummer (mridanga vidvan) and teacher of international repute.
If there is any music capable of reaching people beyond its own cultural boundaries and even beyond
music, thereby enriching every sphere of life, it must be Carnatic music. It is with this idea that The
Illustrated Companion to South Indian Classical Music was first published a decade ago. This approach
was cherished by lay and expert readers alike. C.V. Narasimhan (1905-2003) described the companion
as ‘something to sing about’ and that it ‘should figure in the library of every rasika’ (The Hindu, 20
February 1999). For the former Under Secretary-General of the United Nations, his family and circle of
friends, having a good time meant to take vocal classes from Carnatic singers and to listen to their
concerts. The same can be said about other personalities with diverse backgrounds for whom the pursuit
of Indian classical music is more than a mere pastime. It is gratifying to know that as a result of their
efforts, South India has assumed its rightful place on the world map of music. For this reason, I have
retained the intercultural angle while updating several chapters in accordance with recent developments.
The enlarged Bibliography reflects the renewed interest in all aspects of Carnatic music. At the same
time, the discography has become redundant in view of the rapid growth of the Indian music industry: all
the relevant information is now available on the internet and in major libraries.
During my preparations for the revised edition of this book, a senior musicologist raised an
interesting point: is the cover image that adorned the first edition-a dancing Krishna playing the pungi
‘snake-pipe’, depicted in a glass painting-an appropriate choice for a book dealing with ‘classical’
music? After all, the pungi plays no role in Carnatic music or any other type of Indian classical music.
And indeed, the word ‘classical’ in the title of a companion to South Indian music is justified by the
definition found in The Oxford Companion to Music:
Although the above definition was written with Western music in mind, a similar field of
meanings emerged from Indian musicians and listeners whom I asked about their understanding of the
Sanskrit and Tamil words for Carnatic music, Karnataka sangita and (Karnataka) sangidam respectively.
This would make the depiction of a playful scene on the cover debatable but for the fact that it never
failed to evoke a smile. At the same time, this image exuded the very spirit in which the music and dance
repertories of South India evolved in tandem. To me, it expressed the openmindedness, warmth, and
sense of humour I have found among Indian musicians and scholars. Their ranks include the late L.S.
Rajagopalan who had raised the question about this image in the first place. Looking at it, I was
reminded of their openmindedness, the diversity of India’s arts, and the subtle undercurrents of all
civilization discussed by E.T. Hall in Beyond Culture. His ideas have never lost their relevance although
his book does not deal with Indian culture in particular. The proverbial 64 arts mentioned in Tamil and
Sanskrit literature, leave no room for doubt concerning ‘man’s relationship to all the art forms’. This
relationship, whenever it is most intensely felt by an individual and also finds congenial conditions to
manifest itself in the public sphere, rarely favours the pursuit of music in isolation. It is for this reason
that music has formed an integral part of ‘total theatre’, the ‘complete and compelling live experience’
as modern theatre makers call it, for the greater part of known history. This concept is, of course, firmly
established in India’s performing arts traditions, beginning with the dance drama described in Bharata
Muni’s Natya sastra. Apart from the inner circle that attends regular stage performances, there is the
common experience of music, not seldom of a high caliber, amidst the visual and other delights
accompanying the festivals of India today just as in the remote past.
The boundaries between devotional art, ‘high art’ or ‘classical music’, and popular
entertainment can hardly be drawn in a rigid manner. In Carnatic music, this fact has been underlined by
Balamurali Krishna, the versatile singer and instrumentalist who is also known as a prolific composer in
his own right. Although many of his songs are based on classical models, he refers to the Sangita
Ratnakara and declares that ‘there is nothing called “Karnatic” music. It is south Indian music… Karnaha
Atati, Iti Karnaataha goes the saying, which means, any music that pleases the ear is Karnatic music. So,
every music sung with passion and devotion is mellifluous, and so is Karnatic!’ (The Hindu, 13 October
If similar considerations apply to the living music of most other cultures, it is rarely as
evident as in Carnatic music. My partiality to the cheerful picture seen on the front cover of the first
edition is therefore justified by the freedom all Carnatic musicians enjoy within the framework of their
respective traditions. What I see in this picture and also hear in any successful Carnatic concert or
recording has been expressed by the noted art historian and dancer Stella Kramrisch (1896-1993), an
associate of Rabindranath Tagore at Santiniketan, in a single sentence worth pondering.
Indian music has never been much removed from the other arts and the emotions that bind
them together. This unity, underpinned by the theoretical frameworks concerning sound, colour, form,
proportion, and movement, could well explain why India’s performing arts have come to play a major
role around the world today: it demonstrates the scope for integrating traditional motifs, themes, and
techniques within the sophisticated experimentation that appeals to creative artists generation after
generation. If their outlook characterizes the history of Indian performing arts over a long period of
time, the same can be said about the beginnings of modernism in the West when artists first challenged
the attitudes prevailing in the ‘academic’ art world in the early 20th cent. Looking beyond their own
cultural roots, members of the Blue Rider group of artists sought to reach out to other manifestations
of art and music. In India, it was Rabindranath Tagore who, in the same period of modern history,
pointed to the importance of an intercultural dialogue on equal terms in the domains of the arts, science,
social reform, and education. He succeeded in putting his ideals into practice against all odds at a time
when the rest of the world descended into chaos. Several forward looking movements in East and West
have since benefited from Tagore’s achievements and those of several other pioneers whose institutions
are guided by similar ideals.
Carnatic music has more to offer than lilting tunes combined with exciting rhythms, the feats
for which its exponents were first noted internationally as they became ‘frequent flyers’ in the last
quarter of the 20th cent. Wherever they choose to perform and teach, Indian musicians and dancer have
been welcomed and increasingly receive the recognition they deserve. They have seized every
opportunity to collaborate with openminded colleagues on equal terms. If mutual understanding is to be
fostered and sustained in the long run, a modicum of knowledge about the ‘other’ culture is needed on
both sides of the cultural divide. Such a dialogue requires forward looking participants rather than
nostalgia or exotic stereotypes. The essays by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen are worth discussing
whenever mutual appreciation of cultural achievements is placed on the agenda of a festival, school
project, or conference:
Musically minded scientists, educators, and cultural ambassadors from India have seen to it
that Carnatic music has indeed become part of a global migration of people and ideas. This development
facilitates both the pursuit of Carnatic music on traditional lines and a quest for musical knowledge that
can be described as ‘universal’. In other words, it is increasingly regarded as being suitable for the needs
of our ‘digital age’. At this stage the question arises whether conforming with the demands made by the
world music industry-the catering to real and imagined audience expectations might turn out to be
Against this background, the characteristics that distinguish each musical tradition
(sampradaya, gharana, or bani) have become premium assets again. This development is significant
considering the demands made by music of a high caliber, be it on its practitioners, their pupils or
listeners. The distractions associated with urban lifestyles do not, after all, favour untiring practice at
any day or night time (sadhana or Hindustani riaz) as a traditional preceptor (guru) would demand; and,
depending on a master musician’s temperament and outlook, obedience if not outright servitude while
living within one’s teacher’s household over a period of many years (gurukulavasa). The latter has, for
obvious reasons, become a rare exception in the present generation of aspiring musicians. Discerning
appreciation of classical music, on the other hand, requires a commensurate commitment to
concentrated listening over a long period of time. Yet a rapidly growing community of performers and
listeners is prepared to make every effort to live up to these expectations again. Theirs is a lifetime
quest for good music.
Innovation is now cherished rather than seen as a threat to the continuity and integrity of
classical Indian music. This also means that there are opportunities for musicians and tutors to play a
greater role in society. Good music fosters a sense of empathy, self-confidence, and dignity in those
who can afford taking lessons from a competent teacher. Carnatic music readily lends itself to active
participation y individuals as well as groups of people from any age group. The distinction between
‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ musicians has rarely been rigid. The popularity of congregational singing
(bhajana) is a case in point. It is for these reasons that Carnatic musicians enjoy a place of honour
wherever they live, travel, or migrate. This is important considering that many among them spend a
greater part of their adult lives on the move before settling down to teach their younger relatives and
other pupils and prepare some of them to become their worthy successors. I have often been amazed and
inspired by the youthful energy of senior Carnatic teachers, and also moved by their eagerness to go on
learning and creating themselves, undeterred by advancing age.
Heinrich Zimmer (1890-1943) ends his Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization
with a Jewish parable and confides to his readers that it had led him to an unexpected revelation as
regards his own work and personal life:
The beauty of this approach is expressed in the lyrics of a krti by Muttusvami Diksitar
(Mayetvam yahi) that was taught to me by my Carnatic flute teacher, H. Ramachandra Sastri:
So many years later, I continue to marvel at the fact that Carnatic music beckons us to enquire
into the very nature of music; and I derive inspiration from the ways it can be transmitted and
experienced by different individuals.
If there is anything like an essential quality shared by all the arts, anywhere in the world and
since the very beginnings of civilized life, it must be that-a real sense of wonder such as conveyed
through the above lyrics by Muttusvami Diksitar and, of course, the majestic music to which they
belong. The same applies to the thoughts and feelings conveyed in another song:
This composition, so delightfully sung by Aruna Sairam and appreciated by countless
listeners in and outside India, has a message for our times. A hymn in praise of the greater reality we are
part of, it makes us aware of the beauty of the ‘one world’ we all inhabit and should care more about.
Like other song lyrics bequeathed by Tyagaraja, Paramatmudu points to the lofty heights where Carnatic
music transcends the limits imposed by outdated modes of thinking and superstitions. The vast and
varied repertory of South India offers plenty of food for thought irrespective of our religious
background or humanistic outlook. Several wonderful teachers and generous guides have taught me that
good music is there to be shared as widely as possible, and unconditionally.
The opening statement by E.T. Hall is as bold as it is verifiable. It holds true in the brightest
moments of civilization and illuminates the darkest of times. Our relationship to the arts should
therefore not be limited by the culture in which we happen to have been brought up. Otherwise this book
would neither have been written nor published. I hope that the second edition of The Oxford Illustrated
Companion to South Indian Classical Music conveys this spirit in a manner that readers find thought
provoking and enjoyable.
Back of the Book
‘Something to sing about: a most informative, thorough, and scientifically accurate companion to our
classical music…should figure in the library of every rasika.’
-Music and Letters: A Quarterly
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