Skip to the content.

Classical Music of South India

Dr. L. Subramaniam and Viji Subramaniam

The Classical Music of South India is a book written by virtuoso violinst Dr. L. Subramaniam (Dr. LS) with Late Viji Subramaniam (ex-wife). It is a short book that gives an introduction to the vast ocean that is Carnatic Music (South Indian Classical Music). This was written as a book called Euphony in the 1990s and now published with some updates.

Four Periods

Dr. LS divides the history of Indian Music into four periods.


I have always wondered how the chanting of the vedas came about to be. I got my answer here.

The Rig Veda was at first recited in a monotone known as archika gana. This was later developed into a two-toned chant, the gathika, to be subsequently replaced by a three-toned chant, or the samika. In the samika, there was one main tone (swarita) and two accents, one higher (udatta) and one lower (anudatta).

(Eventually) the chants had evolved to two main tones and two accents forming a tetrachord (first four notes).

The Sama Veda laid the foundation for Indian music. It added three more tones to the existing tetrachord, resulting in the first full scale of seven notes.

There are lots of ancient texts cited all over. I wished there were more passages quoted and translated as well as linked. Oh well, at least the names are here for us to “Google”.

Dattilam (c. fourth to first centuries BCE) is an ancient Indian musical text ascribed to the sage Dattila.

Dattilam expounds concepts of swara (note), sthana (position), murcchana, alankara (embellishment, elaboration), tana (combination of note sequences) and grama (groups of notes), which contain twenty-two microtones or shrutis in an octave. The melodic structure consists of eighteen groups called jati, which predates the raga system.

A pleasant finding was the Tamil names for the seven notes.

The seven notes were called kural, tuttam, kaikkilai, ulai, ili, vilari and taram and the microtones were called alagus. The parent scales were called panns and the derived scales were called tirims.


The book then covers the famous composers in almost chronological order.

A few of the greatests from the blessed list.

Dr. LS goes on to describe some main difference between other forms of music and Carnatic music. And above all, the foundation of “‘Shruthi Mata Laya Pita’ — Shruthi (pitch) is the mother and Laya (rhythm) is the father”.

Instrument Types

Interesting to note the names for these different types of instruments.

Bharata’s Natyashastra puts musical instruments into four categories:
  - Tata vadya (stringed instruments)
  - Susira vadya (hollow instruments)
  - Avanaddha vadya (covered instruments)
  - Ghana vadya (solid instruments)

Similar classification of instruments published in 1914 by Erich von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs, as follows:
  - Chordophones
  - Aerophones
  - Membranophones
  - Idiophones

Some fun Tukkadas I read.

Interesting to note that his father was the first (he says first) to play a Varnam in lot many speeds and innovate playing techniques to facilitate that. He cited his own performance of playing the Mohanam varnam in 15 speeds. He pointed out to two more works to illustrate the talas and nadais. I hadn’t listened to these before so I noted them down.

I have composed a pancha-nadai varnam in Kannada to showcase all the different nadais in the same varnam.

I composed a tillana in Vasanta that uses all the five nadais along with other rhythmic syllables.

Overall a very nice book but just too short. This felt like a glossary to me.

There is a good section devoted to the various instruments but the book goes on to explain each and every single famous instrument used in Indian music. What would have been more awesome is a picture, where a picture is worth a thousand words and a one minute demo video worth 3.6 million words! (60 seconds * 60 frames per second * 1000 words per frame/picture = 3,600,000).

I can see this easily being translated to a full fledged one semester course.

I wish that he publishes his current work soon with even more enriching educational information and of course, lots of demo videos too. An interesting personal find for me while looking up on his wikipedia article - Dr. LS and I share the same birthday! (although, years apart in age and light-years apart in music).

Happy reading!