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About Tamil Isai

Dr Radhika Jaidev

(Excerpts From her book ‘An Introduction to Tamil Classical Music’ that was published in 2018)


Indian music has been said to be rooted in Hindu, Vedic literature. According to Ayyangar (1972, 1993), “the origin of music is not easy to trace” (p.1) but Nada Vidya or science of sound is an offshoot of the Vedas and its study leads to “Nadopasana, a self-realisation through contemplating Nada” (p.3) or sound. We see “the principles underlying this music in the Sama Veda, the third of the sacred vedas that dates back to 1700 BCE” (Thompson, 2014). The Sama Veda comprises three types of sounds- Stobha, Pratishta and Saptaka and of these, the Saptaka was the most important as the full scale of seven notes, known then as Krushta, Prathama, Dviteeya, Tritheeya, Chathurtha, Mandra and Atisvarya, were born from it. These names were later replaced with Shadja, Rishabha, Gandhara, Madhyama, Panchama, Dhaivatha and Nishadha.

These notes came to be identified with sounds of birds and animals in nature (Ayyangar, 1972, 1993, Kumar, 2012). Ranee Kumar (2012) expresses that the swaras or notes were later refined and formalized as musical notes with accents to mark pitch, register, count and mode of emphasis.

The basic notes provide the foundation structure of the two main sub genres of Indian music as we know today, namely Hindustani and South Indian classical or Karataka Sangitam (Carnatic Music). However, Carnatic music as it is taught and performed today is influenced to a large extent by the Bhakthi Movement and the religious themes of that era and to a lesser extent by the Persian and Mughal influences that resulted from the influx of people from the North and North West. Additionally, Carnatic music includes influences of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. Another important Sanskrit treatise on music was the Natya Sastra or Bharata Sastra, a Sanskrit text of some 6000 couplets on dance and drama composed, arguably, some 2500 years ago.

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