musings on music and life

May 9, 2012

about sankirnam (part 1)

Filed under: Carnatic Music, Uncategorized — sankirnam @ 11:22 am

I thought I would talk a little about the name of this blog, that is, sankirnam. But first, a little background is required.

In Carnatic music, there are two main aspects: raaga (melody) and taala (rhythm). When you delve into Carnatic thalam theory, you will find there are hundreds of thalams, or beat cycles, but only a few of them are used with any frequency. These thalams are: Dhruva, Matya, Rupaka, Jampa, Triputa, Ata, and Eka. In concerts you will also see the thalams misra chapu and kanda chapu used; those are shortened 7 and 5 beat cycles adapted from folk music, respectively.

The seven thalams mentioned above are collectively referred to as the suladi sapta thalams (sapta means 7). Every student of Carnatic music learns fundamental exercises in these thalams, called alankarams. Each one has a unique structure, as shown below:

Dhruva: beat+finger counts (called laghu), beat+wave (called drutham), beat+finger counts, beat+finger counts

Matya: laghu, drutham, laghu

Rupakam: drutham, laghu

Jampa: laghu, single beat (called anudrutham), drutham

Triputa: laghu, drutham, drutham

Ata: Laghu, laghu, drutham, drutham

Ekam: laghu

These are simply frameworks. The actual thalam cycle can be further defined by the introduction of jaathi bedham. In the laghu, one can vary the number of finger counts for further variety. There are 5 variations possible: tisram (3), chatusram (4), kandam (5), misram (7), and sankirnam (9). The number refers to the total number of beats in the laghu, not just the finger counts. So, a chatusra jaathi laghu would be a beat followed by 3 finger counts, while a misra jathi laghu would be a beat followed by 6 finger counts. Taking this further, chatusra jathi triputa thalam would be an 8 beat cycle: 4 beats in laghu, 2 in each drutham. In fact, this is the formal nomenclature for “Adi thalam”, the first thalam cycle that is introduced to students of Carnatic music.

There are several reasons why Adi thalam is introduced first. One is due to the 8 beat structure; units of 4 or 8 are fundamental in almost all systems of music. Adi thalam is also a symmetric 8 beat cycle, with the structure 4+2+2. Other 8 beat cycles are possible, but they are not necessarily symmetric like Adi thalam.

In addition to jaathi bedham, nadai (or gathi) bedham is also possible. This involves varying the number of counts (called matras) in each beat (also called aksharams). Again, the terminology of tisram, chatusram, khandam, misram, and sankirnam is used here to indicate the number of matras per beat. The majority of compositions in Carnatic music are set to chatusra nadai (4 matras per beat), just like in other systems of music. Tisram is the next most common mode (3 per beat; this is akin to 3/4 time in Western Classical music).

I guess I will have to talk about sankirnam later, probably after going through all the nadais in detail first. This is just the basics of laya (rhythm) in Carnatic music. If it seems like a lot, that’s because it is. There is a steep learning curve to being able to understand and appreciate the music at some level, and an even steeper curve to becoming proficient. This is probably one of the reasons why Carnatic music remains a niche art form to this day, even among south Indians.


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