The musical worlds of Karnataka


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THE quintessential Kannadiga was familiar with more than one kind of music. I use the past tense, because this is a species that is now more or less extinct. And if at all it survives, it is perhaps more as a state of mind. The man of this rare species knew many ‘musics’, not only of Karnataka but also of neighbouring states. For instance, classical musicians of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu had a huge following in Karnataka and, needless to add, film music was closely followed with what one could refer to as an academic zeal. All this seems rather far-fetched at a time when cultural boundaries exist as deep chasms within a geopolitical space, as well as within one’s own self – as language, caste, class and identity. Perhaps more.

The reasons for decline could be ever so many: the absence of arts in our curriculum, as well as its diminishing presence in our world at large. Television now allows one to make specialized choices with hundreds of channels being beamed without a break; hence, one can enjoy the cushy comforts of a single world, in an insulated space, without having to hear or see the other. For instance, one need not listen to even a spot of Hindustani classical if one doesn’t wish to; earlier, when radio broadcast everything on a single channel, there was no choice but to hear different strains, even if indifferently.

I would like to recall a small incident. A few years back I met Charudutt Aphale, an extraordinary keertankar from Maharashtra. He was in Bangalore to sing for a Marathi play, Katiyar Kaalzaat Ghusli, that has seen hundreds of shows in every nook and corner of Maharashtra for sixty long years. A stalwart like Pandit Jitendra Abhisheki both composed music and sang for it. That is what attracted me to the play. To my surprise and joy, every song in this path-breaking production was a masterpiece that I had listened to a hundred times over.


A conversation with Charudutt ended up being an excited exchange of gems about the huge repertoire of Marathi natya sangeet: the many versions of a single song (there are songs that have been rendered by Hridaynath Mangeshkar, Mallikarjun Mansur and Bhimsen Joshi, each a different rendition), and the fantastic line of composers and singers. Of course, I could not restrain myself from informing him of the many Kannada counterparts of these songs. For Charudutt, all this came as a revelation. I can safely vouch that in the auditorium that day there were many Kannadigas who were fully conversant with what was happening on stage. The episode tells us a lot: mostly about the cultural environment of our growing up years – the seventies and early eighties – probably a watershed period carrying the last whiff of the best of such a plural approach to music.


The archetypal Kannadiga knew it all: classical, folk, film music, western, and natya sangeet. His interest for the music of the neighbouring states is easily explained as prior to unification, Karnataka was divided into several presidencies. In that sense, neither Charudutt Aphale nor the tradition he represented was ‘outside’ for the Kannada ear. But how does one explain the presence of Urdu, western classical music, jazz and pop? Or that only Karnataka has such a rich tradition of both Hindustani and Carnatic systems of music, not to forget its own distinctive, highly individualistic vachana sangeeta1 and sugama sangeeta.2 The theatre music of the state too goes back more than a century.

The foundations of such a democratic spirit were laid rather early. While it is impossible to plot the making of this vibrant musical tradition in precise terms, clearly the Mysore rajas were largely responsible in shaping and grooming the musical tastes of Karnataka. The shift from Tanjore, that is the dispersion of regional courts to Madras city, ‘was by no means an uninterrupted continuum – there was rupture at multiple levels.’3 The Tanjore music culture got absorbed into the Mysore and other smaller courts as many musicians migrated to the Mysore court with the Peshwa rule coming to an end.

The story goes that from the courts of Tanjore, Diwan Purnaiah invited Veene Venkatasubbaiah, a musician par excellence, who became the guru of the erstwhile king, Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar.4 The hundred years between 1850 and 1950 was a golden period of music in the court of Mysore. While much happened prior to 1850 as well, the Mysore rajas exited the scene after 1950. ‘The combination of royal patronage of individual musicians and the founding of institutions to teach music, a connection with European music publishers and record producers, and an articulated concern for the musical education of the public made Mysore’s court, especially after 1900, significantly different from the courts at Tanjavur and Travancore.’5 


Music played a major role in the life and people of those times. Veena players, percussionists, violinists and vocalists are supposed to have lived in separate colonies. The Mysore rajas’ understanding of tradition was spectacularly broad-based and, in a sense, very modern, considering that it included the study of western music traditions as well. Many of the rajas were themselves committed students of music and constantly sought to serve as a bridge between the various systems of music. Under Chamaraja Wodeyar X,6 for instance, the playing of the veena evolved into a distinctive style known as the Mysore Bani with Veene Seshanna as its major proponent.

Nalwadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar established the Royal School of Music at the palace. He also appointed several teachers at the music school to not only play drums and pipes but also teach western music. In 1920, he even organized the Beethoven centenary in Bangalore and invited Otto Schmidt, a German conductor, for the palace orchestra. Similarly, Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar7 was patron to the Russian composer Nikolas Medtner and formed the Medtner Society. This scholar-raja was passionate about western classical music. Nevertheless, around 1930, when he came in contact with legendary Carnatic musicians, he composed over 94 kirtanas, and was greatly influenced by Muttuswami Dikshitar.8 The palace had a Carnatic band which played the Carnatic repertoire on an ensemble comprising of violin, veena, flute, sitar, harmonium, mridanga and dholak. All this was far ahead of its times, a heady blend of European form and local content.


It is hard to trace the beginnings of the Mysore rajas’ interest in western music. The rajas of Tanjore and Travancore too were interested in western music, but the Mysore court was deeply involved. Given the futuristic vision of the rajas, they were interested in collecting books on music theory, were fascinated by documentation, and believed in formal music education. What may have initially started off as academic interest, eventually led to a passionate engagement. In fact, the Mysore palace has one of the largest collections of western instruments. Much of it continues to be preserved.

Interestingly, the Hindustani music tradition which has a history of only 120 years in Karnataka, has given us some of the country’s legendary vocalists. All the four major gharanas – the Agra, Gwalior, Jaipur and Kirana – took roots in Karnataka. Once again, it was the Mysore court, seen as the bastion of Carnatic music, which provided patronage to Hindustani music. Nalwadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar enticed the inimitable queen of thumri, Gauhar Jaan and maestro Nathan Khan from up North to Mysore.

There are stories of Veene Seshanna, the court musician of Mysore and Nathan Khan engaging in stimulating exchanges. Veene Seshanna was so inspired by Nathan Khan that he composed several tillanas which bear similarity to the tarana of North Indian tradition. Fiaz Khan, Abdul Wahid Khan, Rehmat Khan, Abdul Karim Khan, Neelkantabua Mirajkar and many other exemplary musicians came to the Mysore court and were treated with enormous respect and hospitality. On the way back, most of these musicians made a stop over at Hubli and Dharwad, which eventually became the seat of Hindustani music in Karnataka.


Mysore, under the Wodeyars, was truly a citadel of music. In fact, in every respect it was, as Gandhiji himself remarked, the ramarajya of his imagination. Many poets and thinkers of the period spoke very favourably of royal patronage and even endorsed it.

It was around this time that the secular musicologist and scholar of the Hindustani style, Vishnu Narayan Bhatkande (1916) gave the call: ‘The nation must sing one song.’ Music, in the nation-building process, was expected to align itself with the imagination of the emerging Indian nation state. Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, who too had embarked on his musical project for the Indian nation state by the end of 19th century, worked to ‘cleanse’ music of all other associations, and gave it the singular emotion of bhakti. Both these musicologists of Maharashtra were on a mission to homogenise music, suppressing the multiple musical voices, and thereby greatly diminishing the many khayal and thumri traditions in the North.


Meanwhile, in Tamilnadu, Periyar’s self-respect movement, confronting notions of caste and the role it played in every aspect of society, too had an impact. However, the Kannada world, that is the Mysore court, which despite being part of the Madras Presidency, remained fairly cut-off from what was happening in the North or even in Tamilnadu. The middle class elite advocacy of Carnatic classical music did not lead to a complete brahmin reading of the cultural heritage in Mysore or its surrounding regions and there continued to be a plurality of voices and expression. Possibly because, unlike the brahmin hegemony in the Madras music world, there were many non-brahmin musicians who were central to the world of music in Mysore.9 This may have been a historical coincidence, and fortunately, the secular vision of Mysore rajas remained comfortable with this tendency.

In North Karnataka, which belonged to the Bombay Presidency, questions of language and statehood had come up as early as 1890, with poets, artistes and musicians taking the lead in these movements.10 With dreams of a unified state acquiring energy, the sugama sangeeta form also gained momentum.

The huge influence of Marathi songs in North Karnataka was instrumental in shaping the sugama sangeetha form. The very first documented instance of Kannada sugama sangeeta goes back to 1937. Seeta Mulki, a student of Hirabai Barodekar, is credited with the first rendition, Gida gidadali haaraaduva giliye, nudi nudi Kannadava (paraphrased as: the parrot flying from tree to tree, speak Kannada), composed by N.K. Kulkarni. But what is etched in the memory of Kannadigas, is an early song that whipped up Kannada nationalism – Nadagudiyanerisuva haarisuva baanige (‘Let’s hoist this land, our temple, up in the sky’) by Vijaya Desai, her unforgettable clear voice with a lovely nasal twang. With HMV making inroads into Karnataka through the Bombay Presidency, many of these early voices were imprinted on the gramophone as well.


Sugama sangeeta in its early years had no distinct idiom of its own: it displayed a hybridity of styles – Hindustani classical and natya sangeet. Keerthinath Kurthukoti’s Aralada Premada Mrudu Kusuma and Bendre’s11 Nanna Harana Ninage Sharana are early instances. Bhimsen Joshi’s Shrungara Maasa and Naanu Badavi captured the imagination of the Kannadigas. In fact, Mallikarjun Mansur sang Teraneleyutaare Tangi, a Shishunala Sharif12 song as early as 1933 and listeners all over Maharashtra loved it, much before the mystic poet and his songs became a rage in Karnataka, almost five decades later. The other everlasting melody was Udayavaagali Namma Cheluva Kannada Naadu sung by Krishna Hangal, Bhimsen Joshi and Sharada Hangal.


In 1950, when All India Radio was established in Dharwad, sugama sangeeta gained enormous popularity. Though Mysore had a radio station since 1936, which was doing its bit to propagate music, it was eventually moved to Bangalore as All India Radio in 1955. A large chunk of its activity was dedicated to music, and legendary artistes like R.K. Srikantan and Veene Doreswamy Iyengar, torch bearer of the Mysore style, soon became household names.

Sugama sangeeta had its beginnings in Mysore around 1931 when V. Seetaramaiah’s poems were sung for the first time. These renditions had their basis in the gamaka style, which is classical Kannada poetry sung in the Carnatic mode. When Sampatkumar Acharya, trained in both Hindustani and Carnatic traditions, sang Seetaramaiah’s Emmamaneyangaladi and poet B.M. Shrikantaiah’s Karunaalu Baa Belake, the form began to break away from heavy classicism to gain its own identity. Though composers like H.K. Narayana and Padmacharan had a distinct stamp of Carnatic classical, with composers like P. Kalinga Rao and Mysore Ananthaswamy coming into their own, the songs began to transcend bounds of a particular form or a geographical landscape.

These two extraordinary composers, with their rich understanding of both music and literature, took the form to hitherto unknown heights. Their orchestra was rich and elaborate and borrowed heavily from the western arrangements. Their soft and gentle music captured the persona of the Kannadiga: mellow and understated. So, even when Kalinga Rao ecstatically sang Barayya Beladingale or the solemn Aluva Kadalolu Teli Barutalide, there was no melodrama in it. Similarly, Anantaswamy’s rendition of Ella Maretiruvaga or the complex Yaava Mohana Murali, with its many layers of meaning, triggered contemplation. Ashwath, who came after these two significant singer-composers, celebrated both voice and emotion. In him, every expression was emphatic. When he occupied centre-stage, the image of the quiet Kannadiga, as reflected in the songs of yore, also underwent a change. His songs were a spectacle, something akin to the drama of street theatre – catching the attention of every passer by. His is the most modern musical voice of the Kannada world, capturing the aspirations of 21st century India. It was no longer merely Kannada.


Significantly, though sugama sangeeta started off with distinct identities in North and South Karnataka – bearing the aspirations of a unified state in the former, and becoming the musical expression of Kannada poetry in the latter – it eventually came to have a common vision, which was to popularize the works of Kannada poets.

Similarly, Kannada film music directors, despite diverse backgrounds of caste and language, successfully resisted the pressure to go ‘national’. The best of them, for instance, T.G. Lingappa with his traditional Carnatic music background, or Vijayabhaskar and G.K. Venkatesh who had extensive western classical training, made tunes that one could identify as distinctly Kannada. For that matter, even L. Vaidyanathan who had an overt folk sensibility, made tunes that had a flavour of the Kannada soil.

The ghazals from pre- and post-partition India too made a huge impact on Kannada film music. Composers like M. Ranga Rao attempted to innovate on the narrative styles of ghazal maestros like Mehdi Hasan and Ghulam Ali in their music. Yet, even as these talented composers had a sound knowledge about other systems as also their own preferences, they never failed to capture the Kannada spirit. One must mention the iconic actor-singer Dr. Rajkumar, who was a true representative of the Kannada tradition. Trained in Carnatic classical, groomed in a theatre company and its music, Rajkumar sang film songs of every style with élan.


We have come a long way since; times have changed, performers and listeners have undergone a change, our attitude to music has itself changed. Today, there is a boom in music. As Sheila Dhar observed in her book, Raga ‘n’ Josh, never before have there been so many concerts, a flood of recordings, so many musicians, and never before did we have so many ‘prodigies’. Technology has done wonders to recording, preservation and education. Learning music is now far easier than before. One doesn’t have to run away from home in search of a real guru; you can now find a virtual one at the push of a button on the internet. Often, there are two or more music schools in each neighbourhood that teach different instruments and styles of music. The Carnatic music world is replete with very competent young musicians and the Hindustani world too is not far behind. In that sense, there continues to be a lot of music around us.

Accompanying the growing access to music, is also a smugness. One no longer has to serve the guru night and day, for years, before he makes up his mind to teach that exquisite bandish. The contemporary guru knows well the demands of the market, and trains his students to impress audiences. Hence, the musician of today is constantly gearing up to display his virtuosity, which is not necessarily a natural extension of his creative process. Under pressure to captivate the audience, more often than not, the performer is a lonely creature who has largely to fend for himself. The listening community now treats the performance like a spectacle and no longer dialogues with the artiste. Myth has it that Pandit Bhimsen Joshi would look for writers Bendre or Shankar Mokashi Punekar13 in the audience, insisting that they sit right in front of him. He had to look into their eyes as he sang; he had extensive discussions with them; they were his well-wishers and hence unsparing critics as well. Now the musician is left to the mercy of impresarios.


Sadly, much of contemporary music has become far too compartmentalised. There is little healthy exchange between forms; at best we have jugalbandis and fusion concerts. The leisurely pursuit of knowledge for its own sake no longer exists. Music, like everything else, has to reap material dividends. This is true not just of Karnataka – music across the country is in a state of transition. An entire value system that was once associated with music is fast disappearing. In the process our music is slowly being homogenized.

The true blue Kannadiga was crazy about the music of his land, and could switch with ease from Brochevarevarura to Hakki Haarutide Nodidira. He knew Veene Seshanna as well as he knew Padmacharan. He also knew M.S. Vishwanathan and R.D. Burman. He is today an endangered species.



1. Vachana is poetry written by the radical, mystic poets of the 12th century. This was set to music and sung to propagate progressive, secular ideas across the state. Hence Vachana Sangeeta.

2. Sugama Sangeeta is lyric music, Kannada poetry set to music.

3. Performing Pasts: Reinventing the Arts in Modern South India, edited by Indira Vishwanathan Peterson and Davesh Soneji, OUP, 2008.

4. Splendours of Royal Mysore: The Untold Story of the Wodeyars by Vikram Sampath, Rupa and Co., 2008.

5. Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern: The post-colonial politics of music in South India by Amanda J. Weidman, Seagull Books, 2006.

6. Ruled Mysore between 1881 and 1894. A great patron of music and arts and himself played the violin.

7. He (1919-1974) was the last raja of the princely state of Mysore. He was a composer, musicologist, and philosopher.

8. One among the Carnatic composer trinity.

9. T. Chowdiah, Devendrappa, Arunachalappa, Honnappa Bhagavatar, and several others.

10. Huyilagola Narayan Rao, Shamba Joshi, Alur Venkata Rao, Bendre, N.K., Patil Puttappa… became rallying points.

11. Among the most important Kannada poets.

12. He was a saint poet, philosopher and social reformer of the state (1819-1889). Considered the first Muslim poet of Kannada literature his poems had metaphysical dimensions.

13. Writer and critic.