Carnatic Music is a peculiar name for an art form that lays claim to a lineage stretching back over many centuries. But why the term ‘Carnatic’ music, or its more Indian version ‘Karnatak’ music ? It certainly had nothing to do with the eponymous modern state in south India that has its capital as Bangalore.
Several reasons have been given as to why the name Karnataka Sangita for the music of south India. Many have opined that the region south of the Vindhyas was referred to as Karnatakam and hence the name. The word Karnatakam also stands for ‘that which is very old’ and scholars have interpreted it to mean that this music form is an old one. Yet another explanation is that the word derives from Karna (the ear) + Ata (to haunt) or ‘that which haunts the ear’. That would certainly be an apt description for Carnatic Music.
It appears that in the period prior to the Sangita Ratnakara, a 13th Century work on music by Sarangadeva, there was only one stream of music across the whole of India. By the 15th Century, Kallinatha refers to the music of south India as Karnataka Sangita and records its practice between the rivers Krishna in the north and Kaveri in the south. Several treatises made their appearance from this time onwards, but as is always the case in an art that encourages imagination, extrapolation and interpretation, the theorists were soon overshadowed by the practitioners. Foremost among these was Purandara Dasa, who lived in Vijayanagar and died a year before the fateful battle of Talikota (1565) which destroyed the empire.
Purandara Dasa, who belonged to a sect of Vishnu worshippers called the Haridasas (also referred to as Dasa Kootas), is referred to as the Pitamaha (Grandsire) of Carnatic music. It was he who codified the beginners’ lessons and also gave the art a concrete syllabus for learning that is followed till date with very minor variations. Purandara was a prolific composer, but unfortunately in the chaos that prevailed in the years after his death owing to the break up of the Vijayanagar empire, the tunes of most of his works were lost though the lyrics of many songs have survived. These are now sung in various tunes by present day musicians.