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September 16, 2002

Concert to explore South Indian music

By Deborah Monroy

Indian classical music concerts are complex presentations that can run more than three hours, but on Sept. 21 at 8 p.m., vocalist and Department of Music Lecturer Prema Bhat will present a relatively brisk, 90-minute Indian classical recital in the Performing Arts Studio.

Bhat joined the music department in 1997 and started its Carnatic music program two years later. Carnatic music is the classical music of South India, and Bhat is dedicated to exposing more students and community audiences to this ancient musical tradition. While she has been active in giving her own recitals, she also brings to campus other musicians representing both her tradition and that of North India.

Bhat has been a champion of Indian music not only through concerts but also by presenting lecture-demonstrations on the Carnatic tradition at schools, interfaith gatherings and even the United Nations. She also has served as a host to the classical Indian music program at the Princeton University radio station.

“The idea is to reveal the richness of Indian classical vocal music—the basis for all instrumental music in India—and to introduce the variety in Indian music to the mainstream,” Bhat said. One of the highlights of her career, she added, was singing to His Holiness The Dalai Lama at Emory’s Cannon Chapel in 1998. He later publicly spoke of his appreciation for her music.

Carnatic music recitals are held without intermission, to avoid any interruptions in the mood created as the concert progresses. A selection of various, sometimes contrasting, “ragas” (melodies) unifies during the presentation and forms a continuity of mood and sonic image. There are several colors at play, but in the end one picture emerges. In Bhat’s recital, she will set the tone and then her accompanists elaborate, embellishing the mood with their own improvisations.

In the Carnatic music tradition, a composition (kriti) begins with an improvisation (alapane) of the raga by the vocalist and is based on ideas created by the composer. This improvisation does not have a “tala” (rhythm), but eventually the formal composition begins along with the tala set by the composer. The musician may further improvise using a set of words from the song (neraval) and notes while keeping the tala. Many people listening in the audience, familiar with these beats, will keep tala with their right hand. The concert will include a translation of the songs in English. The performance is a spiritual presentation and the common belief among those of the Carnatic tradition is that upon listening, the spirit of “bhakti” (devotion) should fill the listener.

The centerpiece of Bhat’s recital is a longer piece incorporating elaborate improvisation. This is likely to be the longest raga presented during the recital. “Something unusual always happens,” Bhat said, remarking on the unrehearsed nature of her performances.

Bhat practices several hours each day, but she will not have worked with her accompanists until the actual recital. Violin, mridangam (South Indian percussion) and tamboora (a string instrument which keeps the pitch) provide instrumental support for the vocalist.

Carnatic music is both devotional and aesthetic. It is an overall spiritual experience with beginnings around 1500 B.C., although the roots of the tradition are derived from the Vedas and go much further back in time.

In North India the Hindustani tradition included such elements as input from Islam. In South India, the original Indian classical music was conserved in the form of Carnatic style and thus is more reflective of indigenous elements from the Hindu cultures. South Indian music also is rich in written compositions, adding elements of human response along with praises to the gods and goddesses.