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Where is the ‘Karnataka’ in Karnāṭaka Music?

The classical music of south India, also known as Karnāṭaka saṅgīta, is mistakenly termed as “Carnatic music”. This article is an endeavor to show the rationale for the name Karnāṭaka saṅgīta (or Karnāṭaka music), and to show why the term “Carnatic music” has no traditional backing but is a contribution of the colonial hangover and the ignorance of many practitioners of this music about the history of our own great art form.

If you are interested in this music, you would have noticed that, although called Karnāṭaka saṅgīta, it is popular in all the five major states of south India, and not just in the state of Karnataka. The artists and listeners speak several different languages. Many popular composers of Karnāṭaka saṅgīta, including those who are called the Trinity of Music (Tyāgarāja, Muttusvāmi dīkṣita and Śyāmāśāstri) were neither from Karnataka nor were Kannada speakers. Even some very well known composers such as Mysuru Vasudevacharya hailing from Karnataka, mostly composed in Telugu or Samskṛta, with just one or two compositions in Kannada. Leaving aside the compositions of Haridāsas, most examples from the most well known genre of compositions called “Kṛti” are in Telugu or Samskṛta, and somewhat rarely in other languages such as Tamizh. Since the original musical structure of most of the Haridāsa compositions has been lost, what we listen today as Haridāsa compositions are mostly from times later than Tyagaraja in their musical content. So naturally the question arises – Where is Karnataka in Karnāṭaka saṅgīta, and what is the status of the Kannada language in Karnāṭaka saṅgīta? A quick answer is that although one may not see Kannada superficially, when looked in a little deeper, it can be seen how Kannada is intertwined with Karnāṭaka saṅgīta.

It must be noted, that although our music has a long history, the name Karnāṭaka saṅgīta is not very old. We can estimate that the name became popular about 150 years ago. The first time when we see the reference to Purandara dāsa being called as Karnāṭaka saṅgīta pitāmaha is in the Saṅgīta Sampradāya Pradarśini of Subburama Dikshitar, published in 1904. What we can gather is that the belief that Sri Purandara dāsa set up the scheme for early lessons for music students was well known in the areas around Thanjavur in the early 18th century. Tulajaji Maharaja, King of Thanjavur, mentions this fact in his book Saṅgīta sārāmṛta. So there is not much doubt that the nomenclature Karnāṭaka saṅgīta, for the music of south India arose, or became popular in Tamizh speaking areas to begin with.

It is very clear the classical music of India was somewhat more uniform across the subcontinent until around the 12th-13th centuries and later split into two rather main streams after the Islamic invasions from the west, with some of the influence of the Persian and other Middle Eastern music that came with the people from the west. This divergence can be very clearly seen from the traditions of musical texts in India. And for the southern stream, which is what we call the Karnāṭaka saṅgīta, the contribution of authors and musicians from Karnataka is very significant.

Indian classical music is not a stagnant art. Rather it flows like a grand river that experiences confluence at different points in time with streams of innovation that influence artistic practices. Therefore, without scholars who document the changes that occur or have occurred in music , it would be impossible to chart the evolution of the art form. To the pool of scholars and writers who have charted the evolution of what we call Karnāṭaka saṅgīta, today, it is beyond doubt that the contribution from Karnataka is very significant both qualitatively and quantitatively.

A notable point here is that many of these scholars were from Karnataka, but their works are not in Kannada language. There is a good reason for that too. The intent for writing a musical work was to reach out to all the practitioners of the music, even beyond language boundaries of Kannada since this music had a far wider reach. So, these authors mostly chose Samskṛta as the medium for their works which was understood across different states. We can compare this to how scientists who hail from different countries use English as the language for writing their scientific papers.

Among the Kannada speaking musicologists who wrote in Samskṛta, we should include Vidyāraṇya (Saṅgīta Sāra), Kallinātha (Saṅgīta kalānidhi, a commentary to Śārṅgadēva’s Saṅgīta Ratnākara), Rāmāmātya (Svaramēḷa Kalānidhi), Paṇḍarīka viṭhala (Sadrāga Candrōdaya, Nartana Nirṇaya) Gōvinda Dīkṣita (Saṅgīta Sudhā ), Veṅkaṭamakhi (Caturdaṇḍi Prakāśikā) and Muddu Veṅkaṭamakhi (Rāgalakṣaṇa). We can not forget that even though Śārṅgadēva’s forefathers came from Kashmira, he lived and wrote his work Saṅgīta Ratnākara in the courts of Yadava Singhana, a Kannada speaking king who ruled from Devagiri. Padmasri Mahamahopadhyaya Sri R Sathyanarayana opines that one of the reasons for the name Karnāṭaka saṅgīta, to get attached to the southern stream of music was the profuse contributions of scholars and writers who documented our traditions through the centuries and kept them going until recent times.

To summarize, the name Karnāṭaka saṅgīta, was given not by Kannadigas, but was given outside current day Karnataka. There is no surprise in that as well. For example, a few decades ago, when most of the locally produced cooking oil in Karnataka was groundnut oil, it was just plainly referred as “oil”, but other oils would be called out as “coconut oil”, “gingelly oil”. “Mustard oil” etc. Similarly the classical music of Europe is just called “classical music” in Europe, but we tend to call it Western classical music to show where it is coming from. In a similar manner, the name Karnāṭaka saṅgīta, was given to the music, and became popular in the Thanjavur region, due to the number of earlier contributors to the music traditions. We should also keep in mind that many of the authors of musical works written in Thanjavur, Gōvinda Dīkṣita, Veṅkaṭamakhi and Muddu Veṅkaṭamakhi were kannada speakers as indicated by Veṅkaṭamakhi in his work. Gōvinda Dīkṣita came from Vijayanagara and settled down in Thanjavur along with the first Nayaka king, Chevvappa, who was instated there by Vijayanagara kings. This background, as well as the teaching system introduced by Purandara dāsa getting universal acceptance wherever this music was in vogue are the very likely reason why the music was termed Karnāṭaka saṅgīta. We should also consider the entire areas that were under the control of the Vijayanagara Kings was termed Karnataka kingdom, and that is where this stream of music has historically thrived and continues to thrive. Ekoji, the first Maratha king who took the reins of the kingdom after the Nayakas, came from Bengaluru. His son Shahaji, who composed the musical Telugu work Ragalakshanamu, was born in Bengaluru as well. So it is not at all surprising to see the nomenclature Karnāṭaka saṅgīta, take shape and get established first in the Thanjavur region.

The current state of Karnāṭaka saṅgīta, today and the types of compositions played or sung today are heavily influenced by the Musical Trinity who lived in the Thanjavur region. The musicological text written in this region just a few decades before this trinity was King Tulajaji’s Saṅgīta sārāmṛta The books that Saṅgīta sārāmṛta cites are mostly by the other Kannadiga scholars and musicologists, who’s contributions were discussed in previous paragraphs.

Besides these, we also can observe many technical terms used in Karnāṭaka saṅgīta in the Kannada language. The initial lessons of music include saraḷe, jaṇṭi varase, heccusthāyi varase, taggusthāyi varase, dāṭu varase etc. Usually these lessons are taught in the raga Māyāmāḷavagauḷa to begin with then followed up with other ragas, and the same method of teaching is in vogue all over south India. As you can notice there is a Kannada component in these names. Among these the name saraḷe, the name of the very first lessons comes from svarāli or svarāvali with origin in Samskṛta. Given that even in Tamizh/Malayalam speaking areas these lessons are known by the same or very similar names, and given the fact all music practitioners in these regions considers Purandara dāsa to have given this progression of lessons, it is very likely that the names first originated in Kannada and they were adapted into other languages as is.

Let us now take the examples of Haridāsas who used Kannada as the language for their musical compositions. There are primarily three types of compositions – pada, suḷādi and ugābhōga. The padas far outnumber the other two types of compositions.

Pada” is an important type composition in Karnāṭaka saṅgīta. Although the word pada is of Samskṛta origin, the meaning of this term in music is very different from the literary or the general meaning of the word pada. (It means a word, in Samskṛta). In music it refers to a specific type of composition with a pallavi, an anupallavi and several charanas. The pallavi line is repeated after the anupallavi and each of the charanas. The earliest Haridāsa from Karnataka is Narahari tīrtha from the 14th century and there are two padas attributed to him. So it is very likely the type of composition pada originated in Kannada too.

Later on, during the 15th century, more padas were composed both in Kannada and Telugu by Śrīpādarāya and Annamayya respectively who were contemporaries. After Śrīpādarāya, we have a tradition of hundreds of Haridāsas beginning with Vyāsarāya, Purandara dāsa and Kanaka dāsa composing thousands of padas in Kannada. These padas vary in their content and have themes based on Śṛṅgāra, Adhyatma and Bhakti (love, philosophy and devotion are but a poor translation of these terms). By the 18th century, the term pada got itself restricted to refer to only those with Śṛṅgāra as the main theme. This may be due to the 17th century composer Kṣētrayya who composed only Śṛṅgāra padas that became very popular after his time. These evolving changes in classical art traditions are very common and not at all surprising.

Haridāsas also composed suḷādis. These are compositions set in a single raga and multiple talas, and generally have a pallavi, several charanas (usually 5 or 7) and end with 2 lines called jote. The meaning of the word suḷādi is not completely understood – there are conflicting views about the names among scholars. While some suggest that it comes from the Kannada phrase “suḷuhu hādi”, or “sūḷ hādi” (“a good path”) , others consider that it derives from another type of musical composition called sAlaga sUDa prabandha from earlier times. If the first argument is correct, then the name suḷādi is of Kannada origin too. The name “jote”, used for the last two lines of the composition is a Kannada word. It means a duo, a pair, and is a commonly used term in Kannada.

The term for the third type of compositions, ugābhōga, is very likely not of Kannada origin, and the etymology is not settled. Structurally they are close to Vachanas of Shiva Sharanas of Karnataka, but unlike Vachanas, ugābhōgas were definitely meant to be sung. Although vachanas were occasionally sung, they were mostly ‘spoken’, for want of a better word.

Let us now discuss some names of ragas used in Karnāṭaka saṅgīta. Some of the raga names come from regions of India. Three regions are prominently seen in raga names -Karnāṭa (Karnataka), Baṅgāḷa/Gauḍa (Bengal) and Gurjara/Saurāṣṭra (Gujarat). So we find raga names such as Gurjari, Saurāṣṭra, Suraṭi, Baṅgāḷa, Śud’dha baṅgāḷa, kannaḍa, Sindhu kannaḍa, Kannaḍa gauḷa, Kannaḍa baṅgāḷa, Māruva kannaḍa etc. While it is impossible to say why or how these names have come to use, it is a good guess that such ragas became popular in those regions and then spread to other parts of India.

There have been lots of discussions whether the name Karnataka (for the region) came from the name of the language Kannada, or vice versa. While some scholars opine that Karnata(ka) referred to the region and Kannada to the language, others consider the word Kannada (which referred to both the language , and the region) got translated as Karnataka in Samskṛta, again to refer to both the language and region. The latter hypothesis has more support. The names of ragas used in Karnāṭaka saṅgīta, also support the latter hypothesis. In musical works from around the 14th century, the words Karnata and Kannada have been used interchangeably. For example the same raga has been called Kannaḍa baṅgāḷa or karnāṭaka baṅgāḷa; kannaḍa gauḷa or karnāṭa gauḍa indicating the interchangeability of the words.

Coming to the classification of ragas that is in vogue now in Karnāṭaka saṅgīta, we can hypothesize it had the beginnings in the region of current day Karnataka too. The early examples of such classification of ragas into several mēḷas (groups) can be seen in the 14th century work of Vidyāraṇya. We learn that Vidyāraṇya classified 50 popular ragas into 15 mēḷa groups. Although the complete text of Saṅgīta Sāra of Vidyāraṇya is not available, we get to see excerpts from this work cited in later texts. In the following centuries the mēḷa scheme was further expanded by Paṇḍarīka viṭhala. He wrote works on both Karnāṭaka saṅgīta, and Hindustani saṅgīta ragas while he was at Akbar’s court. Bayakāra Rāmāmātya, the minister of Aliya Ramaraya, the last king of Vijayanagara has also described another system of mēḷa classification.

The final form for the mēḷa system was classification which is still used today was given by Veṅkaṭamakhi who was a minister of the Nayaka kings of Thanjavur. Veṅkaṭamakhi tells that he is a Kannada speaking person in his Chaturdandi Prakashika. The 72 mēḷa scheme envisioned by Veṅkaṭamakhi, which he prophetically claimed as one that would be able to classify any of the ragas in vogue at his time and any future ragas, has turned out to be very true.

We can also see many Kannada technical terms in Karnāṭaka saṅgīta. Gamaka, (usually translated as ornamentation) is a very important concept of Indian music. There are many types of gamakas used in Karnāṭaka saṅgīta, and there are multiple systems of classification with 10 types of gamakas, 15 types of gamakas, or even more. Of these gamakas, some names like hommu, jāru, rave, orike, originate in Kannada or Telugu. Since these are words used in both languages, it is hard to say where the naming occurred but since the Karnataka kingdom based in Vijayanagara had both Kannada and Telugu speaking areas, we can hypothesize these names for these gamakas were given somewhere here.

Apart from the very early lessons, most compositions of Karnāṭaka saṅgīta, have two components – one musical and one lyrical. The musical part is called dhātu and the lyrical (words) part is called mātu (which is the Kannada word for speech).

The works we saw in this article are mostly post 13th century, just because they are the post-split in the Indian music system. However, we cannot forget very important works before the split, such as the Saṅgīta Ratnākara (13th century) and Br̥haddēśi (6th-7th century) which were also written in the Karnataka region .

All these show that although compositions of different languages are sung, and the music is widely in practice in a much larger area than the current day state of Karnataka, it is fair and correct to call it Karnāṭaka saṅgīta. Using this name does not limit this music to the current state of Karnataka, but it is the most appropriate name given the history of this form of music.

These days, people have started calling it “Carnatic music” even while speaking Indian languages. This is an unwanted legacy from the British colonial age. The misplaced spelling “Carnatic” for Karnataka is a mistake phonetically, and also the region called “Carnatic” by the British, was neither the current state of Karnataka nor the entire Karnataka kingdom of the Vijayanagara times. This name was wrongly associated with the areas of present day northern Tamil Nadu and southern Andhra Pradesh (around Velur, Chittur etc). Historically this region has not given any special contribution to Karnāṭaka saṅgīta, like Vijayanagara, Mysuru or Thanjavur regions did. Hence this highly inaccurate term should be avoided not only while speaking in Indian languages, but also while speaking in English. Did we not get out of the colonial area spellings of Madras, Trivandrum and Bombay and make them Chennai, Thiruvanantapuram and Mumbai to be in line with what they are called by the people locally? It is high time for us to shun the term Carnatic music and embrace Karnataka music or Karnāṭaka saṅgīta. Correcting a past mistake or misconception and making the future generations aware of the history of our music is the duty of every lover and listener of Indian classical music.


  1. Vīṇā Lakṣaṇa Vimarśe – Dr R Sathyanarayana
  2. Karnāṭaka  Saṅgīta Vāhinii – Dr R Sathyanarayana
  3. Caturdaṇḍi Prakāśikā – (Kannada & English translations) – Dr R Sathyanaryana
  4. Ragas of Saṅgīta sārāmr̥ta  – Dr S R Janakiraman

(This is the English translation of an article in Kannada by the same author, with a few additions added for clarity. Some of the keywords are given in IAST to indicate the accurate pronunciation, although some commonly used words are not spelled that way)

(Image credit: Rakesh Awaradi,

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author. Indic Today is neither responsible nor liable for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in the article.

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