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
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.