The joy of music. (Image: Pexels)

On (Carnatic) music.

Srikar Mutnuri
5 min readJan 6, 2018

Sadhinchene O Manasa…

I remember those days as a child when I used to wake up to the voices of MS Subbulakshmi and other stalwarts of Carnatic music on the All India Radio, wafting through the aroma of breakfast and filtered coffee. It defined many a morning for me, and above all, it gave a sense of being home. I would, in my partial sleep as often one would be in the mornings, take it all in, overwhelming myself with the sheer beauty of the moment.

Obviously, the numerous expressions and nuances of those keerthanas I heard went above my head. All I could identify was the inexplicable calmness and at times, euphoria associated with them. Although over the years I’ve learnt the astounding depths and the beauty hidden, I still prefer to be that kid when I go to a concert. It gives me a sense of belonging (and longing), maybe because of the way I grew up or even something deeper. Ignorance is bliss, perhaps?

In a way, I consider myself fortunate: growing up in a family of classical music aficionados, I’ve grown to appreciate it in ways sometimes even I can’t comprehend. Being partially trained vocally, and having dabbled with getting a diploma (still going on, FYI), I’ve come across a lot of raagas and the various moods associated with them. Whether listening over the radio (over the phone, nowadays) or in person, the music still manages to bring about the feelings it was supposed to, dutifully.

The soothing tones of Kaapi with its distinct swaras, the bold Bhairavi with all its infinite beauty and the fluid Kharaharipriya with its mellifluous gamakas; perhaps the list could go on and on, describing all the 72 melakartha raagas of the Carnatic class and their infinite children. All these together allow for the expression of diverse moods and feelings, giving the singer and the audience a sense of satisfaction and happiness.

Of course, this level of immersion also depends on the acumen of the singer, who in conjunction with the percussionists, the violinists and a cohort of other instrumentalists, would try to conjure each of the raagas to their fullest extent, and give the audience a rich ride of emotions. These explorations, much like taking rides into chartered yet still unknown waters, rely entirely on the years experience bagged by the performer. With the possible combinations the Carnatic raaga system gives one, it is not easy to alight on exploring one raaga and stay on the course. Swap a daivatham here and you’d end up in another region altogether. Sneak in a different nishaadam, and lo! you have just left the raaga you came for. Though not serious, sometimes such deviations could mean certain not-so-good moments as one would feel an alien presence.

The novice singers would indeed, in all their wisdom, stick to the big raagas mostly, and when confident enough explore the others. But as you grow, you learn more, and more than anything else, you learn the art of performing. This is especially important because Carnatic music, like all its classical peers from across the world, has been a medium of bringing people together. True, when left to ones own devices, an exploration of a particular raaga could lead to rapturous moments, when fully immersed. But when performing in public, adding those little accentuations and those extra gamakas in the right places: that’s really something.

While a good singer would just show the audience the beauty of the raaga, the seasoned performer would make the audience a collective entity, seeing that they glide through the waters gracefully. Listening to such a performer is like being a first person player. You get to experience everything there is to experience all by yourself, and not through a proxy. Now that, is what anyone would love.

For seasoned rasikas, as the audience are called, grasping the faint wisps of the raga as the singer alights on to its exploration is not that difficult. You’ve heard it a lot, so by being diligent enough, you get to identify the raaga maybe well ahead of your peers and take it in better. But even for a novice, the excitement of having a tantalising, yet unknown raaga, as the singer builds and constructs it, materialise before oneself is an experience of a different class altogether. I’ve often found myself trying to discern from the aalapana which raaga is being sung. Though my vocabulary is limited, I tend to match it with the ones I know. Sometimes I can’t remember the specific name of the raaga, but I relate to it like that Bantureethi raagam (it is Hamsanada, if you are interested), or that “song I heard back at this concert” raagam, making the whole endeavour a memory onto itself. It’s like fitting pieces of a puzzle: you try to find out where things fit in the grand scheme of things and get to experience the sense of achievement when proven right (Some singers announce the raaga before singing, and I personally find it to be good too, in some scenarios. That, I’ll perhaps leave for later).

Being a pseudo-trained Carnatic, and in fact classical, vocalist has also had another advantage: you get to appreciate other forms of music as well. Whether its spelt Sa Re Ga Ma or Do Re Mi, the inherent essence of any music remains the same. I [think I] can equally appreciate composers like Beethoven, Mozart & Bach, and artists like Freddy Mercury, Led Zeppelin and many more wonderful musicians of the West, both old and modern. I find the same joy in listening to musicians like MS Subbulakshmi sing Bhavayami, the Philharmonic orchestra perform Vivaldi, the wonderful choirs of the Abbey sing Silent Night, and to the many moods of the Bohemian Rhapsody or Sweet child o’ mine.

More than anything else, what excites me more is the prospect of delving into the unknown, while listening to a new song. You get to hear it all, and the true thrill comes from identifying the underlying swaras, hidden behind a veil of gamakas and neravals. This task, sometimes herculean if the raaga in question is very much unfamiliar, is rewarding in the sense that you get to appreciate the magic a few tones can do. Research has shown that music has certain therapeutic benefits as well. Combine the swaras in one way, you get to experience happiness. Permutate them in another, its sadness. Change again, you’d end up with chaos. What a beauty!

At the risk of deviating from topic heavily, let me conclude this way. While the musician in me gets excited about the raagas, the science nerd in me thinks about how it’s all possible. What makes the same music good and bad depending on the mood? What differentiates order from chaos? Entropy, perhaps?






Today (6th January, 2018) is the 171st Aaradhana of the Saint Thyagaraja.

For those interested, here’s me singing Bhavayami, by Saint Annamacharya.