Carnatic music in Tamil cinema is attracting the youth

Playback singers like Shankar Mahadevan, pictured centre, have brought life to film songs with their classically trained vocals.

Playback singers like Shankar Mahadevan, pictured centre, have brought life to film songs with their classically trained vocals.

Published Dec 8, 2023


CARNATIC songs accompanied by jazz drums and electric guitars are attracting youth the world over, making this classical art form cool to young audiences.

Carnatic music is a South Indian system of music that evolved from the Hindu text, Samaveda. This classical style has 72 parent raagams (melodies) called Melakartha, with many branches of secondary raagams. These raagams form the basis for the composition of Tamil film songs.

Every song composed in Tamil cinema has a raagam structure. Some basic Carnatic elements that are always adhered to when composing for Tamil film songs include: raagam (melody), thaalam (timing), sruthi (tone/pitch), swara (sound of the musical note), gamakams and brigas (embellishments), aroganam (ascending) and avaroganam (descending) notes, which can be overwhelming for a first time listener.

According to international performing artist, award- winning South African Carnatic singer, musician and teacher, Isaiselvamani Karthigesan Pillay: “In the 5th century BCE, the classical text Silappathikaram first made mention of Carnatic music in a period when devotional and sacred hymns were set to pann (melodic mode). During the 14th century, Purandhara Dasa formulated and created a codified system of music called Carnatic Sangeetham. Thereafter the Carnatic trinity, (Muthusami Dikshitar, Thyagaraja Swami and Shyama Sastri) started composing songs to fit this formulated system.

“Later on, composers like Papanasasivam, Thygaraja Bagvathar and PU Chinnappa introduced Carnatic music in Tamil cinema followed by Illaiyaraja, MS Viswanathan and AR Rahman.

“The song Mettu Podu (from the movie Duet) is set to the raagam Ananda bairavi (which evokes love), Amma yenrazhaikaadha (from Mannan) is set to raagam Kalyani (which evokes empathy, gentleness and joy) and the song Maruvaarthai (from the movie Enai Noki Paayum Thota) has elements of raagam Desh (which evokes devotion). From then to now, the style has evolved. This Carnatic merge is the renaissance.”

Playback singers like Hariharan, Unnikrishnan, Shankar Mahadevan, Harini, Nithyashree and KJ Yesudas have brought life to film songs, with their classically trained vocals.

Durban based Carnatic vocalist and music teacher, Deeanum Muthulingam said: “As a music teacher, many of my students follow young artists and influencers who present Carnatic fusion on social media platforms. This enables the young student to easily identify Carnatic songs and its elements in film music. Even though this contemporary style does not have traditional accompanying instruments, it’s inviting to the young listener.

“Most children get bored listening to traditional Carnatic songs for a long period of time and will not sit through a concert, but through Tamil cinema many youth have their favourite songs on repeat.”

The truth is, the most popular Tamil film songs are composed using the traditional elements of Carnatic music, and the next time you listen to your favourite playlist, allow your senses to be awakened by the power of raagams.

Sivani Chinappan Moodley is an award-winning actress, radio and stage personality, international performing artist, director, choreographer and educator.


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