Western Instruments in Carnatic Music – A Quick Guide

The violin is a key instrument in Carnatic music. It is the accompanying instrument for a vocal concert and holds its own as a solo player. It was Baluswamy Dikshithar who was instrumental for the violin to make a transition to carnatic music.
The cello, piano and saxophone belong largely to western classical and popular music. Of these, the saxophone has made it to center stage in Carnatic music concerts, while the piano has been part of experimental collaborations with Carnatic musicians. A long series of western instruments, starting with the violin (or fiddle as old-timers like to call it in India), fretless and regular guitars, the mandolin and clarinet amongst others, have not only appeared but also flourished on the Carnatic stage. As with any change, audience reactions have ranged from curiosity and at times disdain and dismissal to surprise and kudos. Yet artists old and young have taken the risk of not merely trying out these instruments but in many instances promoting them by playing them exclusively and helping them thrive. This happened as music writer A Seshan eloquently put it, through a “process of adoption, adaptation and assimilation” to the Carnatic idiom.
Have these instruments influenced the Carnatic form and if so how?
These instruments, it can be argued, have brought not just new sounds but helped engage youngsters and at times jaded elders in the Carnatic music scene, by their very novelty. But have they helped the Carnatic kutcheri form to evolve? Carnatic music, as with any music tradition has evolved but not without rasikas or even artists at times being recalcitrant to change. For instance, when artists such as T.M. Krishna have attempted to innovate with nearly the century-old kutcheri or concert format, there has been a fair bit of criticism. T.M. Krishna himself in an earlier opinion piece in the Hindu had spoken critically of the adoption of Western instruments that are not capable of preserving the “aesthetic” of Carnatic music, most notably gamakas. Such conversations around change and innovation are both necessary and a part of continual evolution required for a musical tradition to thrive. Read the rest of my article in Sruti magazine here.
The piano made an appearance in carnatic concerts for several years due to the efforts of Anil Srinivasan. The debate on the instrument’s suitability in the genre continues even today. Here is a vocal and piano rendition of ragam Purvikalyani.
However the guitar, clarinet and saxophone has gained more traction in the carnatic circuit earning prime concert slots.
In his article on how western influence has manifested itself in different categories, Manohar Parnekar says that western influence in Hindustani music does not seem to extend significantly beyond the harmonium. How the harmonium which originated in Europe made a transition to Indian music is an interesting story to read. It was modified suitably to become an accompanying instrument in Hindustani music concerts. The main reason being that western classical music is based on harmony, while Indian classical music is based on melody. The nuances such as gamaks are also not possible to be produced by the harmonium.

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