Carnatic vs hindustani? Which music style should my child learn

SaPa music Session

“My child has decided to learn vocals/instrumentals. But we are confused about whether to choose Hindustani or Carnatic classical Music.” Many parents have this dilemma. Are you one of them? If this is something you have been mulling about, let’s explore these two beautiful musical styles/systems. 

A ‘note’ on music 
Music is about silence and sound. Silence is the basis for music. Sound is produced by vibrations in the medium – air. Music is organised, systematised, and coordinated sound. Music is produced and enjoyed orally and aurally. It pleases the heart and calms the mind. Even animals and plants respond to music. Music, creative in itself, catalyses creativity. People involved in intense intellectual work as well as hard physical labour find music rejuvenating.
Children benefit intellectually, socially, and creatively when they are provided a musical environment at home. It also helps them develop taste when they start learning music early on.

Which is better Hindustani or Carnatic music?

Let’s clear the air about one thing right at the outset. Whichever way you go, you will have an incredible journey because both these classical forms are simply mesmerising! Let’s also quickly look at other forms of music your child could be exploring in India – filmy, folk, rock, pop, and rap, if you will. All these are definitely genres your child could explore. However, learning any classical style of music is a good idea because the method of learning is very structured – and will help you later regardless of which type of music you want to explore.  

So, let’s learn more about Indian classical music and all that it offers.

Sign up for Carnatic Music classes at SaPa!

North and South

India is uniquely musically endowed – we are probably the only nation to have two classical musical forms. If you have been raised in the South of India, there is a good chance that you would have been more exposed to Carnatic music – you would have heard the music in temples, bhajans, schools, and various assemblies, while those who have been brought up in the North are likely to have more exposure to Hindustani classical music. 

Is there a difference between these systems of music? Yes, there is, though they both have a common origin. 

Here’s a snippet of what they sound like:

Carnatic music:

Hindustani music:

History of classical music in India

Till about the 13th century, India had a common classical music system. It was after the arrival of the Mughal rulers that a split gave us two forms as Hindustani music imbibed Afghan, Arab, and Persian influences while Carnatic music developed indigenously since the invaders did not establish rule south of the Vindhyas. Thus the development of two distinct systems. It will help to know how these two systems of music came to be.

Development of Carnatic music 

Great composers like Annamacharya with his kritis (with the pallavi (refrain), anupallavi (stanza), and charanam (foot)) in Telugu, Arunagirinathar with his Thiruppugazh in Tamil, and Purandara Dasa with the scale exercises – saralai varisai and exercises to expand vocal range – tara sthayi varisai. He also

created gītams – simple compositions set in a particular rāga. These form the base of what Carnatic classical music students learn today. Govindacharya developed the Melakarta ragas –  which has categorised the basic or janaka (parent) ragas into 72. All other ragas are considered derivatives (janya ragas) from one or the other of these 72. It is Govindacharya’s classification that we follow today.

Sapa Students singing

It was in the 18th century that Tyagaraja (1767-1847), Śyama Śastri (1762-1827), and Muthuswami Dikshitar (1775-1835) – the Trinity of Carnatic music – composed the majority of the songs that are sung and played by Carnatic music performers today.  This was the golden age of Carnatic music. 

  1. Śyama Śastri was responsible for many great compositions; he also composed navarathnamalika, a group of nine kritis for goddess Meenakshi of Madurai. 
  2. Tyagaraja’s Pancharatna Kritis are sung around the world. You may like to play MS Subbulakshmi and M Balamuralikrishna’s renditions of this to your children. 
  3. Muthuswami Dikishitar sang kritis in praise of all the deities. During his stay in Varanasi, he was exposed to North Indian music, including the Dhrupad style. So, he introduced some North Indian rāgas into South Indian music and made compositions such as the kriti Akhilandeshwari in Rāga Dwijavanti. He also adapted western melodies. Despite these additions, he retained the identity of South Indian music, in fact making South Indian classical compositions even heavier. 

Development of Hindustani music

After Hindustani music split from Carnatic music in the 13th century, there were many elements of improvisation in the songs. In the 16th century, Sufi composer Amir Khusro and Tansen, commissioned by Emperor Akbar, helped codify Hindustani classical raga. After the 16th century, the singing styles diversified into different gharanas patronized in different princely courts. A gharana was a community of performers with a distinctive musical style of a particular instructor or region.

In the 20th century, the gharana became an effective system for the transmission of classical music. Through these gharanas, musicians could maintain their artistic authority as court patronage declined over time. Typically, three generations of musicians must have passed down the vocal and instrumental traditions and ideals of the lineage before it can be considered a gharana. Today, these gharanas are still a potent force in Hindustani classical music. Like the Gwalior vocal gharana.

In the early 20th century, Vishnu Narayan Bhatkande consolidated the Hindustani ragas into thaats – there are 10 thaats in all. Kalyan (Kalyani in Carnatic) Bilaval (Shankarabharanam in Carnatic), and Kaafi (Karaharapriya in Carnatic) are some of the famous thaats. You might like to explore Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Amir Khan, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, and Pandit Jasraj with your child for a truly spellbinding experience. 

Technical similarities in Carnatic and Hindustani music

Both Carnatic and Hindustani music have 12 swaras or notes Sa Ri Ga Ma Pa Da Ni and then the variations of Ri, Ga, Da, and Ni. Both forms have defined beats or taal/talam for every song. All songs must maintain a set beat. This also enables instrumental accompaniments. Many of the ragas in one form are there in the other form as well.  

So, what is different in these styles of music?

Difference between Hindustani & Carnatic classical music

While Carnatic music lays a lot of emphasis on composition and lyrics, Hindustani lays a lot of stress on the plain notes (swaras). The notes are long-drawn in Hindustani music and are held for a longer time than in Carnatic music. Carnatic uses a lot of oscillations (gamaka/gamakam) in between the notes. Hindustani also has gamakas but they are not as involved. In both systems, a very sound knowledge of the swara is required – both to maintain and to oscillate. 

Instruments played

Carnatic musicians play mridangam, ghatam, violin, veena, flute, tambura, and khanjira. 

Hindustani musicians play the tanpura, tabla, sarangi, sitar, santoor, and harmonium.

Language of compositions

Carnatic is mostly sung in Telugu, Tamil, Sanskrit, and Kannada. Hindustani is predominantly sung in Hindi, Sanskrit, and Brij bhaasha.

Interesting elements in both forms of music

How do you use the same notes and create two different ragas? Hindustani classical will teach you about vadi (the most important note), samvadi (second most important note), and anuvadi (lesser notes). Which swara can you use gamakam on, which are the ones you hold, on which swara does the composition rest (nyasa swara), which swara gives life to the melody (jeeva swara). Carnatic classical will teach you all this. 

Carnatic also has vadi and samvadi swaras. The difference is in the way the notes are used in both forms of music that differentiates the melody.

As you can see, there is a world of knowledge out there for your child to learn!

How to choose between Hindustani and Carnatic musical instruments for your child

Finally, when you are making the choice between Carnatic and Hindustani music, a little homework from your side can help:

  • Expose your child to both forms
  • Cultivate a habit of listening regularly 
  • Your preferences make a huge impact in the beginning stages as you would have exposed them to your choice of music
  • It is important that you, as a parent, take active interest in nurturing their talent
  • Even while learning either form, you must expose them to concerts and festivals whenever possible and play songs at home – the sources are multifarious and innumerous today

This will help your child pick up the subtle nuances of the art form that cannot be explained but must be experienced. Listening regularly will help your child develop a taste for either one or both. Of course, if your child has a preference already, nothing like it! However, if you are oscillating between the two, you could consider making a choice based on how connected your child feels with the teacher in either form. 

SaPa offers you a session with our teachers to help you understand your child’s interest and aptitude and also offers you trial runs to give you a chance to get a practical perspective. We welcome you to come and discuss your passion with us to take it forward to newer levels! Sign up for Carnatic Music classes at SaPa!

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