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Carnatic, Hindustani

North and South: One country, one music, two classical traditions

  • Author: Jameela Siddiqi

A very gradual and long-drawn out evolution through complex historical and social factors eventually led to two distinct traditions associated with two different ethnicities. The people of North India are, broadly, defined as Aryan whilst the southerners are known as Dravidian – with the latter believed to be the original inhabitants of the Indian sub-continent.

Many differences between the two traditions come from the fact that the languages of the North and South belong to two entirely different language groups, meaning that the same raags and musical concepts are often known by entirely different names. But the largest musical differences between the two traditions stem from Muslim rule in North India (from the 12th to the middle of the 19th century).

This resulted in many Turko-Persian elements being introduced into what had been the ancient and sacred classical music of the Hindus of India. South Indian music remained relatively free from external influences. It was also largely during the period of Muslim rule that Indian music came into the royal courts with performance taking precedence over devotional ritual.

The two traditions share a great deal in common – with raag (melodic structure) and taal (rhythmic cycle) at the centre of both traditions – but the result is markedly different so that even a relative novice can usually distinguish between the two distinct sounds. Many raags are shared between the two traditions – albeit often under different names – but there are many that are unique to either North or South Indian music.

Although there are always exceptions to the rule, certain instruments have come to be the mainstay of one or the other tradition. For instance, the violin, introduced into South India during the 18th century, is very rarely heard in North Indian music whilst it is predominant in the South both as a solo instrument as well as melodic accompaniment. Similarly, the sitar and sarod – the two most popular string instruments in the North – are almost never used in the South.

In the vocal genres, Carnatic music is heavily text-laden and many songs are composed with dozens of verses whilst in the equivalent North Indian genre, four to six lines of text can suffice for a performance of an hour or more.

South Indian classical music has its own array of percussion instruments too – mridangam (a barrel-shaped drum with a deep resonant sound) and ghatam (clay water-pot), whereas in the North, the most usual percussion accompaniment is the tabla, played in two 'halves'.

In the last 200 years or so, there has been a growing trend towards mixing raags from both traditions of music and there has been considerable give and take between performers in terms of working together to create innovative styles of North-South fusion. 

Listen to the music | Pandit Kushal Das and Shashank Subramanyam, two virtuosi from the North and South respectively, meet to trade their cultures' ideas over a dual tabla-mridangam drum lineup. Live from Darbar's stage at Italy's Ravenna Festival in 2017.

Jameela Siddiqi is an author, linguist, and BBC cultural commentator, specialising in postcolonial fiction and the devotional music of South Asia. 

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