Durga Krishnan's New England School of Carnatic Music
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Learning Carnatic Music

When one starts to learn Carnatic music one has to follow a certain order. There are tables to learn the ragas, talas, to train the voice for the vocalists and to get to know the fingerboard for the instrumentalists. These are called ABHYASA GANA(literally means practice music) and are forms, therefore they are intended for practice or to acquire the necessary technical skills to perform in front of an audience. The music that is performed in front of an audience is called SABHA GANA (the word sabha literally means audience). There are several forms to go through in the Abhyasa Gana:
1)SARALI orSWARAVALI VARISAI - Scales and different combination of the notes to get to learn the RAGA.
2) JANTAI VARISAI - Scales and different combination of the notes, but in doubles for voice training and to learn different fingering techniques.
3) DATTAU VARISAI - Notes go back and forth to teach the swarasthanas or placement of the notes.
4) UPPER STHAYI VARISAI - Teaching the next or higher octave.
5) ALANKARAS - To get to learn the 35 basic TALAS.

These are practiced in 3 speeds. Then the students move on to little composed pieces with lyrics called GITAMS - literally means songs. These are very simple musical paragraphs that have no divisions and sung or played in a uniform tempo from the beginning to the end without any variations. The melody is very simple and outlines the Raga and the Tala in which it is based on.

The next part of the Abyasa Gana is called SWARAJATHIS- These prepare the students for the more complicated forms that come later. The swarajathis are composed to nice beats and are divided into three sections called PALLAVI, ANUPALLAVI, and CHARANAMS.

After this come VARNAMS - literally means color. It is also performed at concerts as a starting piece. The varnams are divided into two sections. The first part has PALLAVI, ANUPALLAVI(both with lyrics or sahithyam) and MUKTHAYI SWARAM(meaning ending) and the second half has CHARANAM(this also has lyrics) and CHITTAI SWARAMS(meaning composed and set swara patterns). There are two different kinds of varnams. One is called TANA VARNAM (the above variety) and the second one is called PADA VARNAM. Used primarily in dance programs. These varnams have lyrics throughout, so the dancer can do her ABINAYA or miming for them. Varnams are also practiced and performed in two or sometimes in three speeds. There is also the third variety called DARU VARNAM that have lyrics, swaras and syllables.

Then the students move on to learning the Sabha Gana items.The first one on this section is called KRITI. This is a composed composition set to a certain Raga and fixed Tala and has PALLAVI, ANUPALLAVI, and CHARANAM and also sometimes CHITTAI SWARAMS. The performer might do a little improvisation called RAGA ALAPANA or expanding the scale of the raga before starting the song and SWARA KALPANA or improvised swara patterns at the end of it.Once the students become skillful in all of the above they move on to what is called RAGAM, TANAM, PALLAVI

RAGAM- this consists of free improvisation without the rhythmic accompaniment. The students learn to develop the scale or the raga in stages while staying within the framework of the raga. The raga alapana or delineation of the raga starts slowly bringing out the beauty and mood of the raga and is slowly built up ending with fast runs or PHARANS, so the performer can show of his/her technical prowess and demonstrate his/her virtuosity.

TANAM - This is a continuation of the alapana but introduces an element of rhythmic pulse and each phrase section ends with a stereotypical rhythmic cadence pattern to show the end of that particular section.

PALLAVI - This is usually a single cycle of lyrics that gets repeated several times in several speeds and nadais and will be followed by swarapatterns. Sometimes the swarapatterns are also done in RAGAMALIKA or garland of different ragas to enhance the beauty of the Pallavi.

There are also items called JAVALIS ( mostly songs that look like of a love sick maiden, but it always signifies the divine love), THILLANAS (used primarily in the dance performances as a crown piece, they have rhythmic syllables in the Pallavi and Anupallavi, but have lyrics or sahithyam in praise of Gods in the Charanam and followed by more rhythmic syllables