This article introduces you to the fundamentals of Carnatic music. It also tells you the relevance and importance of practising the beginner lessons such as sarali varase/varisai as part of your everyday practice.
An introduction to swaras
Swara is the most fundamental concept in Carnatic music. It plays a similar role to that of a ‘note’ in western music, but has a distinct character. There are seven swaras in Carnatic music: S for Shadja (sung as Sa), R for Rishabha (sung as Ri), G for Gandhara (sung as Ga) , M for Madhyama (sung as Ma), P for Panchama ( sung as Pa), D for Dhaivatha (sung as Da) and N for Nishadha (sung as Ni). The ascending order of the swaras, i.e. SRGMPDN, is called aarohana and the descending order, i.e. SNDPMGR is called avarohana. Aarohana and Avarohana together make a moorchana. Nishada is followed again by a Shadja from the higher octave. The frequency of higher Shadja is twice that of the Shadja. An octave spans all the swaras from Shadja until, but not including the higher Shadja.
Shadja and Panchama are achala (immovable) swaras. The other five swaras, viz Rishabha, Gandhara, Madhyama, Dhaivatha, Nishadha are swaras with two or three variations each. The variations are listed below:
- R has 3 variations: shuddha (R1), chaturshruthi (R2), shatshruti (R3)
- G has 3 variations: shuddha (G1), sadharana (G2), antara (G3)
- M has 2 variations: shuddha (M1), prathi (M2)
- D has 3 variations: shuddha (D1), chaturshruthi (D2), shatshruti (D3)
- N has 3 variations: shuddha (N1), kaishiki (N2), kaakali (N3)
Sri Purandaradasa is referred to as Pitamaha of Carnatic Music. He is the one who has composed the baala paata or the beginner’s lessons in Carnatic music. These basic lessons serve as the building blocks for more advanced performance forms like alapana, neraval and swara prastara.
Beginner lessons in Carnatic music
The beginner lessons are the sarale varase (sarali varusalu), janti varase (janta varusalu), dhaatu varase, taggusthayi varase, taarasthaayi varase and alankaara. Regular practice of these basic lessons helps us to:
- Set the voice range (see this article to find out how you can do this)
- Get a good grip on tempo when practised in various speeds
- Increases the ability to traverse swaras through various octaves with ease
- Empower us to handle different speeds in different octaves, while maintaining the laya
- Aquire ability to sustain on a single swara for a longer duration and linger around swara without fatigue
The practice of beginner lessons in music is equivalent to prepping the body for an intense workout. The basic lessons are designed to prep the voice for singers and fingers for instrumentalists, but mainly – the mind for all the artists. These lessons help us understand the swaras and swara sthaana (exact variations of swaras). Each lesson is designed to make us sing the combination of swaras as in sarale varase, stress and repeat swaras as in janti varase, traverse to higher octave as in taarasthaayi varase, traverse to lower octave as in taggusthaayi varase, skip from swara to swara as in dhaatu varase and finally see the structure of these swaras as a whole in alankaara. Initially, these lessons are taught in raga Maayamalavagoula. However, it is advisable to practice these lessons in ragas like shankarabharana, kalyani, kharaharapriya etc to familiarise oneself with the ragas and its swaras.
How do they help you?
As the saying goes, the only way to become a better musician is by practising these initial lessons in various ragas and speeds every day. The aakaara saadhana (singing the swaras in aaa sound without referring to their respective symbols) of these lessons help us in getting a firm hold on the swarasthanas and at a later point of time, aids in alapana rendition. Any stellar musician like Late Padmashri Vidwan Mandolin U Srinivas, Bharat Ratna Vidushi M.S.Subbulakshmi had the basic lessons as a part of their everyday practice because they believed that was the only way to keep getting better each day as a musician. It gave them the much required strong foundation as the basics involve a lot of saadhana for swarasthana perfection and voice training.
There are various methods to practice these lessons. Some of them are listed below:
- Start by holding onto aadhaara Shadja for as long as possible. This forms the base for the practice because without the foundation being set correctly, the building tends to collapse. Hence, if the Shadja is sung correctly adhering to shruti, rest of the swaras fall in place automatically.
- Hold on to each swara as long as possible in one breath. This helps in improving the breath control and brings stability while singing the swara.
- Practice the lessons in different speeds using “aakaara”, ”eekaara”, ”uukaara” to perfect the pronunciation of sahitya.
- It is advisable to practice these basic lessons early in the morning as these serve as warm-up exercises for the voice and the lower octave is brighter and more induced at that time of the day. Starting from mandarasthaayi Panchama (or also called lower octave Panchama) swara, sing these lessons up to madhyasthaayi panchama (or the middle octave panchama; Pa to Pa) swara in both aarohana and avarohana manner. If one is practising these early in the morning, it is advisable to reach till madhyasthaayi and not strain the voice by reaching the taarasthaayi immediately. However, once the voice is warmed up enough, gradually reach the taarasthaayi and extend these basic lessons swara combination from mandarasthaayi Pa or however lower the voice tends to reach, to taarasthaayi.
- Once we are through with these lessons, the complexity of these swara patterns can be increased depending on the creativity of the individual. For example, the simple dhaatu varase like SGRG, RMGM, GPMP etc can be extended as SGR SMGRG, RMG RPMGM etc.
- Sarale varase, dhaatu varase, alankaara can be practised in trishra gati to get a firm hold on laya and tala.
- Initially, these lessons can be practised for 15 to 30 minutes and then extended depending on one’s creativity in increasing its complexity.
- Always start the practise with the voice exercises or the warm-up exercises and then proceed with the day’s practise. This must ideally become a routine to any student of music, be it a beginner or a performing artist.
Riyaz already comes with a set of free basic exercises in Carnatic music, and also a premium course for building strong fundamentals with sarale, janti and dhaatu varases. Here is what you can expect from the course, in the words of the course instructor, Vidwan Vignesh Ishwar.