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Strings, Winds & Beats- The Carnatic rhythm route



The unique thing about south Indian classical or Carnatic music is the emphasis it lays on percussion instruments. In north Indian or Hindustani music, a singer or instrumentalist is accompanied either by a tabla or pakhawaj player – though, in very rare instances, both appear on stage together.

However, in Carnatic music, musicians are accompanied by a mridangam and ghatam, besides a kanjira, morsing or at times thavil. An interaction between the percussionists is a highlight during the concluding part of a recital, be it vocal or instrumental. This part is known as the thani avarthanam (repetition of rhythm).

The mridangam, the main percussion instrument in Carnatic music, was discussed in the previous part on double-headed drums. In that write-up, we also talked of the thavil, which is generally used as an accompaniment to the wind instrument nadaswaram.

This time, let’s talk about the other three instruments:

Ghatam: Quite simply, it is a clay pot with a narrow mouth. While it has been very prominent in Carnatic music, one has seen variants in Punjabi, Rajasthani and Gujarati folk music, under the name of gharha and matka. Similar instruments played abroad, with different postures, include the udu in Africa and botija in the Caribbean.




Those following Carnatic music for years would have regularly seen it at concerts. However, for audiences in the north and even abroad, the instrument became famous thanks to T.H. ‘Vikku’ Vinayakram, who played with the Indo-jazz fusion group Shakti in the 1970s, along with guitarist John McLaughlin, violinist L. Shankar and tabla maestro Zakir Hussain.


Vikku Vinayakram_Copy


In Carnatic music, the percussionist sits on the floor and places the instrument on his lap, with one side leaning on his belly and the neck facing him. He plays it with his fingers, nails, palms or wrists, and sometimes even hurls the pot in the air, before catching it again. Since different parts of the ghatam have different tones, a variety of sounds can be produced.

While Vinayakram is the best-known practitioner of the ghatam, other well-known players include his brother T.H. Subhash Chandran, T.V. Vasan and Vikku’s son V. Umashankar. From the younger generation, Giridhar Udupa has established a name.


Giridhar Udupa_Copy


Kanjira: If Vikku Vinayakram popularised the ghatam among non-Carnatic audiences, his son V. Selvaganesh popularised the kanjira in the north and abroad, thanks to his association with Remember Shakti and other fusion groups. However, before him, it was G. Harishankar who established himself as one of the greatest rhythm players in south India.


G Harishankar_Copy


The kanjira is a frame drum resembling a tambourine. It is held with one hand and played with the other, making it one of the most difficult percussion instruments to play. Different parts of the head create different sounds, and it requires immense practice to master the kanjira. Moreover, its tuning can be affected by temperature and moisture, and hence many percussionists carry three or four kanjiras at every concert.

There have been numerous great kanjira players. Besides Harishankar and Selvaganesh, well-known players include H.P. Ramachar, Dakshinamurthy Pillai, Bangalore Amrit and N Ganesh Kumar, to take only some names.


Bangalore Amrit


Morsing: It is a percussion instrument played in the mouth, and is hence also called a jaw harp. Besides Carnatic music, it is used extensively in Rajasthani folk music under the name of morchang, and even in Assamese music. It comes under the family of lamellophones, which are prominently found in Africa, the Caribbean and Siberia.



The morsing is placed between the teeth, held firmly in the hand and struck using the other hand to produce sound. Movement of the player’s tongue, variations of the throat and blowing and sucking of air through the instrument produces different sounds or overtones.

Like other Carnatic instruments, there are many people known for the morsing. Srirangam Kannan is one of the most popular artistes.

The vocal way: Besides instruments, rhythm syllables are recited vocally in a typical manner known as ‘konnakol’. Whatever instruments they play, Carnatic percussionists are well-versed in this form. In some ways, konnakol is similar to the ‘bol’ of Hindustani music but plays a more prominent and frequent role in actual performance.

Besides pure Carnatic music, konnakol is being increasingly used in fusion and jazz. Shakti was the first to incorporate it in the 1970s. Drummer Ranjit Barot and percussionist Pete Lockett have also used it in their jazz and world music concerts, the former making it part of the repertoire of John McLaughlin’s group the 4th Dimension.

While these are some of the percussion instruments used in Carnatic music, it is remarkable how closely aficionados follow the style at concerts, often gesturing their hands to the beat or rhythmic cycle, specially during the thani avarthanam. In Tamil Nadu, this habit is often inculcated at a young age, and it enhances the quality of appreciation. The interaction between the musician and the audience is something that makes the experience even more enjoyable.



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Narendra Kusnur

Author: Narendra Kusnur

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