Culture & Music
11:33 am
Mon April 1, 2013

Indian improvised music still fresh at more than 2,000 years old

Prapancham Sitaram
Credit The Hindu

Kalamazoo College student Kiran Vangipuram started drumming on the mridangam after he saw an Indian Carnatic concert when he was little. What drew that 8-year-old to a roughly 2,000 year old art form? The crazy fast beats of course.

“And so I thought ‘Hey, I want to play that. That sounds really cool,’” says Vangipuram. “And it really didn’t occur to me until many years later that ‘Wow, I’m actually getting pretty good at this.’”

On Sunday at 4 p.m., Vangipuram will perform a Carnatic concert with award-winning Indian flautist Prapancham Sitaram at Kalamazoo College in the Dalton Theatre. Carnatic music is an ancient Indian art that’s as much to honor the Hindu gods as entertainment.

At a typical Carnatic concert, a singer takes the lead with a violinist and one or more drummers as backup, but Sunday’s concert will be instrumental. Sitaram says unlike vocals, the flute can cross cultural barriers.

“The [Carnatic] instrumental music is far, far advanced and can be expressed far, far better in instrumental music. And especially when we are presenting the Carnatic music performances in Western countries other than India,” he says. “Only instrumental music can be understood much easier than this vocal music.”

Though Carnatic musicians do a lot of improvising, concerts are pretty structured.

“It would start with a varnam. Varnam is a type of composition,” says Vangipuram. “They would usually have next a small piece on Lord Ganapati or Ganesha—the elephant God. And that mainly to, a prayer in a sense to remove all obstacles.”

Vangipuram says that’s followed by a few smaller songs, then a fast-paced song leading up to the main theme. After the main song, musicians play lighter, less complex music.

“You end it with a mungalum,” says Vangipuram. “A mungalum is pretty much a ‘Thank you’ and I mean in a sense…for lack of a better word ‘See you later.’”

Each song in traditional Indian music stays within a raga, which is kind of like a scale, only each note can be tuned up or down a half step.

“On top of that, you can also bend the notes,” says Vangipuram. “And bending the notes is very important in Carnatic music—that’s called gamakas. And that is what actually defines how the raga will be sung.”

Carnatic musicians can also skip notes, go down the scale differently than how they went up it, and of course, add their own style to the raga.

In some ways, Carnatic music is a lot like jazz. It has a basic foundation, but everyone gets their own improvised solos. And Kiran Vangipuram says you really have to tune in to the main singer or musician who’s playing.

“He could play the same song, but it could sound completely different just based on different nuances. And that’s where the drum comes in. A good drummer has to pick up on that and see ‘Oh, this is where he’s going with it. This is where she’s going with it,’ and be able to pick up on it on the spot."

It takes musicians years to learn Carnatic music before they’re ready to perform. The style of playing is complex and musicians are expected to know all the songs from memory. And because they have it memorized, only the leading musician—in this case the flautist—knows what songs the group will play. But Prapancham Sitaram says once a musician learns Carnatic music, the sky’s the limit.

“If one goes through that kind of systemic learning, he can handle any kind of music in the world,” says Sitaram.

You can get a sense of what a traditional Carnatic concert is like at Kalamazoo College’s Dalton Theatre Sunday at 4 p.m. Though Carnatic music is complex, Vangipuram says don’t be afraid to give it a listen.