Instruments in Carnatic Music (Percussion and Stringed)

Carnatic or Karnatak (as in the state Karnataka, India) music evolved from the Hindu traditions in Southern Indian between the Eastern Ghats and the Bay of Bengal. It remained similar to the musical traditions of the north for the early half of its existence.

Carnatic music generally involves an ensemble of musicians with the vocalist or melodic instrument playing the main role.

The main performer is accompanied by a rhythm section and a drone instrument.

We’ll look at the main instruments of the tradition with some recommendations to explore the music further.

Many people tend to simplify Indian Classical Music and often overlook the important distinction between its two distinct traditions:

  • Hindustani Classical Tradition (often called Indian Classical)
  • Carnatic Tradition

Carnatic music has inspired virtuosos like Jonas Hellborg, Victor Wooten, Steve Smith, Pete Lockett, and many others who have studied it to broaden their musicality. You can watch a fusion of Indian and Western genres in the acclaimed work of The 5 Peace Band featuring John Maclaughlin (guitar), Zakir Hussain (table), Selvaganesh (ghatam), U. Srinivas (mandolin), and Shanker Mahadevan (vocals).

Percussion Instruments in Carnatic Music

Mridangam

The mridangam (also known as tannumai) is one of the oldest percussion instruments in the Indian subcontinent. It has played a major role in the development of the Indian tala (rhythm) system. It’s low-end in a Carnatic ensemble, accompanied by other percussions.

References to the instrument date back to 200 BC and state that the original construction was made from clay. Today, this double-edged hand drum is made from 1-inch thick jackfruit wood with goatskin drum heads on each side. It plays the same role as a pakhawaj (that we featured in our other article) and is similar to the Gendang – another ancient Southeast Asian instrument.

Historians believe that the Mridangam was split into half to create the table percussions as we know them today. It is revered for its deep and resonant bass and loud projection. This video shows the capabilities of the instrument with various rhythmic variations.

Ghatam

The ghatam is a simple clay pot with a narrow mouth that can be found in Punjab as the ‘garha’ or Western India as the ‘Matka’. It looks exactly like an ordinary domestic clay pot used to store water but the process of making it is more laborious as it needs to be the right size with even thickness for musical application.

The pot is played with every part of the palm – includes the ball, thumb, fingers, and heel to create unique sounds. Ghatam players play fast patterns in a very rhythmic fashion in the ensemble. They use a similar system as the ‘bols’ used for mridangam or table.

The tonal quality of the ghatam varies with the origin of the clay and the ghatams of Manamadurai in India are revered for their rock-solid construction and unique tonality. You can watch a Carnatic ensemble in action featuring ghatam player and Grammy winner Vidwan Vikku Vinayakram in this video.

Morsing

The morsing is a horseshoe-shaped lamellophone with two parallel metal forks and a tongue in between. The tongue (called the trigger) can be played with one hand and bent to create sounds of varying pitch. It is identical to a Jew’s harp (or jaws harp) and has been used across India.

In Carnatic music, the morsing is found in ensembles and it closely follows the mridangam’s bol (syllables) throughout the performance. You may know this as konnakol – reciting the syllables vocally before playing them on an instrument.

Some ethnomusicologists believe that this instrument is the precursor to the harmonica. Its exact origins are not known but it is said to be at least 1500 years old. Variations of it can be found in various countries across Asia and Europe.

String Instruments in Carnatic Music

Veena

The Carnatic Veena differs from the North Indian versions. It is a pear-shaped lute with a long neck that houses 24 frets and seven strings: four for melody and three for droning. It is one of the most important musical instruments for vocal accompaniment since antiquity in the Hindu tradition.

The word Veena is the Sanskrit term for a ‘plucked string instrument’. References to the Veena can be traced back to the oldest texts of art and music in the Indian sub-continent. It has also been mentioned in the Hindu Vedas that were composed about 1500 BCE.

The Veena has a 3-octave range that is ideal for raga-based performances. They are played used generous amounts of portamento and legato embellishments. Among the current Carnatic virtuosos, Jayanthi Kumaresh is considered to be one of the best Veena players in India.

Mandolin

The Mandolin is, as you’d expect, not a part of the traditional Carnatic ensemble. It rose to fame in the 1980s with the emergence of U. Srinivas – a mandolin player & composed, touted to be the Mozart of Carnatic Music. As he was the pioneer of this style, the Carnatic mandolin is called the U. Srinivas Mandolin.

Carnatic mandolins are slightly different from the regular versions and require a special luthier to modify the instrument. They don’t need 8-strings like the regular version. Instead, they have five strings that are tuned CGCGC. The style is also modified with generous use of trills, slides, and fast single-string runs.

Prakash Hariharan, also known as Mandolin Prakash, is the best-known proponent of mandolin playing in Carnatic music. He made it a mainstay on many ensembles and inspired a new generation of players to follow in his footsteps through his Carnatic String Conservatory. You can watch U.Srinivas and Pandit Zakir Hussain (table) in action in this video.

Violin

The violin emerged in Carnatic music in the late 18th century and was widely accepted due to its ability to approximate the sound of human vocals. Today, violins are common in Carnatic classical concerts as primary instruments or as accompaniment.

As you can imagine, Carnatic violin playing is very different from any other avatar you’ve witnessed. Those who aspire to play it have to go through rigorous rhythmic training via mridangam lessons followed by training to learn the melody to hone their listening skills.

Carnatic violin soloists are essential vocalists who play through the instrument with notes instead of lyrics. They have superior bowing skills and high-quality techniques. MS Gopalakrishnan is considered to be one of the most revered names in the Carnatic Music tradition.

Carnatic Music Drone Instrument

Thanpura

Tanpura, also called thumpura or tambura, is a lute-like instrument with a long, fretless neck and a dried gourd-like resonator made from wood. It has four strings that are used for droning purposes to accompany a vocalist in Indian classical music.

There are two types of tanpuras a) Miraj Tanpura and b) Tanjore tanpura. The former is popular in the north (Hindustani Music) while the latter is used in Carnatic music. Their main differences are in the instrument’s construction, ornamentation, and uses.

Some Noteworthy Carnatic and Western Fusion Music Albums

Featured Image by: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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