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The History of Tamil Music

The History of Tamil Music
Item Code: NAJ410
Author: Dr. Salem S. Jeyalakshmi
Publisher: University of Madras
Language: English
Edition: 2003
Pages: 247
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 10.0 inch X 7.5 inch
weight of the book: 645 gms
About The Book

Dr. Salem S. Jayalakshmi is not only a performing artiste but an eminent Musicologist also. This work spans through several millinia reaching the pre-historic period Indus Valey Civilisation, Vedic Period, Sangam Period, Etc. She has probed through the subtle nuance of the music of Tamilnadu. Her search through the great epic chilapathikaram, Sangam Literature and other Western Books of history of music has really produced some good results. The highly controversial subjects of scales, music notes and their minute particles also have been dealt with. The book is really very valuable for music scholars of both East and West.


About The Author

Dr. Salem S. Jayalakshmi, an eminent musician of South India, in Carnatic and Tamil Music and Hindi Bhajans. She had her training from illustrious masters like Sangeetha Bhupathy Maharajapuram Viswanatha lyer and Sangeetha Ratnakara Mysore T. Chowdiah. She was invited by University of California, Berkeley as Post Doctoral Research Associate. She is on the Board of Studies of University of madras. She was on the Senate of University of Madras and Bharathidasan University. She has given number of L.P. Records through HMV and cassettes on various subjects through International Music Trust. She has videly toured U.S.A., U.K., Germany, South Africa, Malaysia, Singapore, Srilanka, Etc. She is the Founder Director of the Culture Centre of Performing – A College of Music, which is now developing an International Cultural Complex at Acharavakkam Village near Mamallapuram a well known Tourist Centre. Her research The Musical Treasures in Chilapathikaram (Tamil) was done for Tamil University and was published by International Institute of Tamil Studies. At present, she has been appointed as Advisor to all Government Music Colleges in Tamilnadu, by the Tamilnadu Government.



The University of Madras is very happy to bring out its publication, "The History of Tamil Music" by Dr. Salem S. Jayalakshmi. It is really a matter of great pride that we Tamils have a history as old as that of any other known civilization. The Tamil Language and Culture seem to have extended to regions North West of India, namely, upto the present Afghanistan. The Tamils had a Classical music system, independent of the North or the Sanskrit tradition and one developed as the Greek Music speaks highly of the artistic achievements of the Ancient Tamils.

Historical developments in the Tamil Country in the second millennium seem to have pushed the Tamil Music system to the background. It is only in the early 20th Century that the Ancient Tamil Music appears to have been rediscovered and scholars began to interpret the ancient writings and publish books and articles. However, writings in English seem to have been few and far between because of which the music world at large does not appear to have been aware of the existence of such a system. Seen in this perspective, the scholarly contribution of Dr. Salem S. Jayalakshmi on the history of Tamil Music written in English is greatly welcome. It is pertinent to mention here that this book is an outcome of the research undertaken by Dr. Salem S. Jayalakshmi under the auspices of the Institute of Traditional Cultures of South and South East Asia, housed in the Campus of the Madras University.

Dr. Salem S. Jayalakshmi has devoted all her life to the cause of Tamil Music, performing Tamil Music, organizing concerts of Tevaram, editing a journal for Tamil Music and bringing out educational cassettes in music for students. She has written a number of articles and books on Tamil Music System and has also given many a lecture. It is hoped that this book will be enthusiastically received by the scholars and students of Music and will help in spreading the knowledge about the Music System of the Tamils.



When there was a time when Tamil music required a revival and recogintion. In the last two centuries, there were great composers like Sri Thyagaraja (Telugu), Sri Syama Sastri (Telugu), Sri Muthuswami Dikshidar (Sanskrit) born in Tanjavur, the core of Tamil Nadu for its music and culture. They composed hundreds of songs in exquisite ragas. Tanjavur district excelled in classical music, the hundreds of ragas nourished mainly by nadaswaram vidwans, musicians and oduvars, the temple singers, and expert dancers and nattuvanars. The trinity followed the age old traditions and gave the ragas definite composed forms. No doubt the Tamil krithis and Thevaram songs existed. But when the burst of renaissance of the ragas by the trinity of Tanjavur swept the music world, the musicians started following their krithis and relegating Tamil lyrics to the background.

But there was always a query to which science and tradition this sublime music belonged; how the subtle nuances of these ragas were arrived at and on what scientific basis?

Abraham Pandithar of Tanjavur renowned physician in indigenous medicine was also well versed in astrology, astronomy, mathematics etc. He was very much interested in South Indian Carnatic music. He had extensive lands to grow medicinal herbs. Through his medical profession he got much fame and wealth. As a patron of musicians he invited many top vidwans of his time like Harikesanaloor Muthia Bhagavathar, Veenai Seshanna of Mysore and many others and listened to their music and discussed with them about the science of music. Even expert musicians were not able to give satisfactory explanation for their music with subtle nuances. After going through many Sanskrit and Telugu works on music, Pandithar at last came in contact with the great epic Cilappatikaram. During his research, he was struck by the mention of zodiac, the Rasi names, in connection with the musical notes. As he was an astrologer he made a deep study with the help of the commentaries on Cilappatikaram. He found out that the twelve Rasi houses were made into a circular form according to the formulae given in the commentaries, with each house allotted with a note from the twelve-semitones of an octave. Again their relationship with each other etc. had been clearly discussed. More than that, the scientific canons for the origin of notes: the full tones, the semi tones and Vattapalai system of quarter-tone music was first discovered by Pandithar only. The contribution of his study on the subtle and micro tones found in Carnatic music was the classic "Karnamirda Sagaram" a matchless work. The musical treasures in Cilappatikaram which were buried in darkness was brought to light by him. He also made a thorough study of Bharatha's Natya Sastra and Saranga 'Deva's Sangeetha Ratnakaram Pandithar gathered all the musicians, musicologists and patrons of classical music of his time and held big conferences. One such conference held at Baroda under the presidentship of the king of Baroda established that Tamil music in its earliest work Cilappatikaram gave the basic canons for the excellent celestial music of Tamil Nadu and also described the subtle nuances of ragas. People of later times with a much changed pattern of musical performances and rather with much diminished knowledge were not able to understand the significance of the theory of music, but simply followed the oral tradition with full faith. Of course there was much controversy over his conclusions but many Vidwans of repute accepted his opinion. It was a great pity that the theorists of later period did not follow his footsteps but got stuck to the twelve noted music and the same old blind adherence to the oral traditions as ever.

My search on subtle tones and tonal values of South Indian classical music relies heavily on the revered Pandithar because it was his hard work which opened the gateway to the musical treasures in Cilappatikaram. I have extensively quoted from Karunamirda Sagaram; sagaram means ocean; and the book is certainly an ocean of musical science.

My research owes much also to the great Swami Vipulananda. He was born in Batticaloa in Ceylon. He was a great scholar in Tamil, English, Sanskrit, Logic etc. and served in educational institutions. He joined Sri Ramakrishna Mission and became a monk. From his early days he was very much fascinated with the epic Cilappatikaram and was eager to know about the musical nuances. In the middle of his life as monk he took a few years to devote to research on this issue and came to Annamalai University. There he met Tanjavur Ponnaiya Pillai, a great Vidwan who was the head of the music department of the University. In consultation with such vidwans he wrote his famous 'Yal nool' a work on the stringed instrument of Yal. He also found that even before Cilappatikaram period, there existed a highly developed form of music. The different kinds of Yal, kulal (flute), drums etc. were profusely referred in the Cangam literature - the allocation of pans according to five-fold lands etc. The tradition continued in Thevaram period also i.e., 6th to 9th century A.D. I have benefitted from his valuable analysis of all these points.

It was the great Tamil scholar Sri. U.V. Swaminatha Iyer, who edited and published most of the Cangam works and Cilappatikaram. Particularly his publication of Cilappatikaram with commentaries and his own notes and with all textual variations is invaluable. Though at that time, the musical portions in Cilappatikaram were not clear he thought it best to record all the variations in the hope that some one in future may correctly interpret the facts. He established that Cilappatikaram was an original work in Tamil. He had also mentioned that there was a reference about a Tamil text 'Bharatam' which had become extinct.

Prof. P. Sambamurthy a pioneering musicologist brought out a number of books on South Indian Music. But for him, the world would have never known much about that music. He was the sole authority on Carnatic music theory. But he dealt with the music of l S'" century A.D. onwards and confined himself to Sanskrit and Telugu works on music. But when he came in contact with Pan Araichi conferences held by Tamil Isai Sangam of Chennai, he found that music of excellence existed before the time of Purandaradasa i.e., l S" century A.D. and started discussing about Tamil music too in his later works. His commentary on Kudumiyanmalai inscription regarding vowel signatures on the swaras is a very valuable proof for the existence of quarter and micro tones in the earlier music before T" century A.D. When I approached him for guidance in my research on Tamil music and Cilappatikaram, he blessed me gladly and said that being a performing musician myself, the research would be certainly very valuable.

Some others who did research in Tamil music were Dr. S. Ramanathan, Kudanthai Sundaresanar and others. They kept up the spirit and enthusiasm regarding research on Tamil music.

The Tamil music movement was initiated by eminent personages like Rajah Sir Annamalai Chettiar who founded Annamalai University at Chidambaram, Sir R.K. Shanmugham Chettiar of Coimbatore, Rajaji, the first Governor-General of India, Kalki Krishnamurthy the renowned writer and novelist, and others. The musicians sang mostly in languages other than Tamil to the utmost dissatisfaction of the public. Music can please the ear as it is by the instruments like Violin, Nadaswaram but when one hears a music with song and that too in his own language which he can understand, the happiness is boundless. As for the sacred songs in Tamil spun in the beautiful melodies of ragas; who could ever think of losing the great tradition. Hence the Tamil Isai Sangam was started by these eminent people, Rajah Sir Annamalai Chettiar opened department for Tamil music in Annamalai University and appointed eminent vidwans as heads of the Department like Tiger Varadachari, Tanjai Ponnaiya Pillai, Chittoor Subramania Pillai and Dandapani Desigar a very eminent Oduvar and nourished Tamil music.

My Studies on Tamil Music Research:

When the Second International Conference of Tamil Studies was held at Chennai in January 1968, Father Xavier, S. Thaninayagam asked me as a noted musician to present a paper on Tamil music at the Conference. As a performing artist I was able to give concerts with Tamil lyrics but I lacked theoretical knowledge of Tamil music. My impression then was that Tamil music was the same as Carnatic, governed by same theories. Hence I was not able to present a paper on Tamil music. Even after two years for the next conference at Paris though I was invited, I was again not prepared. Only thereafter I came across 'Karunamirda Sagaram' which revealed the treasure of Tamil music. "Yal nool" also provided me with additional knowledge and understanding.

I was further motivated to undertake research on the theory of South Indian music when western professors of music, expressed to me their inability to understand the swara locations in Indian Ragas which never adhered to the twelve note system of harmonium, but were located either above or below the standard notes. But at the same time they marvelled at the beauty and subtlety of our Raga forms. Though majority of the western musicians did not pay attention to the thin lined delicate form of Indian music, Professors, who had an ear for subtle music admired the nuances of the ragas. Even then they could not comprehend the structure of the ragas and the underlying canons thereof. Some eminent musicologists like Profs. Alain Danielou, Harold Powers, and others were not satisfied with the present theory of Carnatic music which seemed to them short of scientific principles. They inferred that there sould be some deeper principles constituting the foundation of this most ancient system of music.

I started probing into books on Western music, works by Western scholars on Indian music and began comparing the tenets of these two systems of music. When going through the history of music in ancient civilisations such as Greek music, Egyptian, Chinese etc. I was struck by the similarities between ancient Tamil music and Greek music. Many phrases which were obscure in Cilappatikaram got clarified by the corresponding terms in Greek music and many hitherto hidden mysteries became clear. Even to Tamils Cilappatikaram was a hidden mystery on musical aspects, because many Tamil music works got extinct. The practice of music has very much changed during the long span of 2000 years and more. But the availability of Greek theory of music came to my rescue, which very clearly upholds the musical theories of ancient Tamils and is also proof of the close contact between the two peoples millennia ago.

Then I was able to draw my conclusions on principles of employing the canons for using the quarter-tones, micro tones etc. thanks to our living musicians and the great composers of the past and present, who had saved the hundreds of raga forms, through their celestial immortal songs.

I was invited by the Department of South and South East Asian Studies of the Berkeley University, California as a Post Doctoral Research Fellow in 1982. Professor George Hart was in charge of the Department. He assigned me the project of "The History of Music in different Nations". Prof. Hart was at that time translating Kamba Ramayanam into English. When I stressed the antiquity of Tamil music and culture which was prior to the advent of Sanskrit, he would not agree and referring to the findings of a host of German scholars of 19th century advised me to attempt an authentic history of Tamil music. Due to commitments in Chennai, I returned to India after a short stay at Berkeley. I was assigned a project "Cilappatikarattil Isai celvam" (Musical Treasures in Cilappatikaram) by Tamil University, Tanjavur under the distinguished Vice-Chancellor Dr. V.l. Subramoniam. Dr. N. Mahalingam leading Industrialist, philanthropist and a great patron of Tamil music and culture also sponsored a Research project on the History of Tamil music by me in English through the Madras University's "Institute of Traditional Cultures". He was particular that all these valuable informations should reach foreign scholars also. The then Vice-Chancellor Dr. A. Gnanam kindly approved the project and Prof. Hanumanthan, Director of the Institute of Traditional Cultures gave me full guidance and encouragement. Prof. N. Subbu Reddiar the present Director is continuing benevolent support.

The History of Tamil Music has been completed by the grace of Almighty though it took a long time due to various unavoidable reasons. I earnestly hope that once this book is released and made available to music scholars and musicians, many doubts and vague concepts on the theory of first scale, values of Sruthis particularly South Indian ragas will be revealed clearly. Moreover the concepts in Bharatha Sastram and Sangeetha Ratnakaram will themselves definitely get illuminated by these explanations since really they also are rooted in the principles of Tamil music. The proof for the greatness of this tradition is its survival through millennia justifying its designation as "Aliya marapu" the indestructible or Eternal Tradition by the great Ilango Adigal.




  Preface i-v
1 Need for research in this area 1
2 Pre-historic period 4
3 Indus Valley Civilization 7
4 Vedas and Music 17
5 Cangam period 23
6 The stringed instrument of Yal 38
7 Melodies (Panns) according to seasons & times 48
8 Book on theory of music 55
9 Music - East and West 61
10 The great epic of Cilappatikaram 69
11 Four systems of ancient Tamil music 77
12 Seventy two Mela Kartha System 94
13 Musical science in Cilappatikaram 104
14 Pennicai (The tradition continued) 115
15 Aichiyar Kuravai 125
16 Vattapalai 134
17 First Six Scales in Greek music 158
18 The Four Jathis 160
19 Sangeetha Ratnakaram and the 22 Sruthis 162
20 What is Grace Note (Gamakam) 173
21 Bramma Melam 181
22 The three Genera of Greek music 185
23 The Stone inscription of Kudumiyan Malai in Padukkottai District of Tamil Nadu 189
24 Tirikonappalai 209
25 Caturapalai 212
26 Ragas in Ayappalai, Vattapalai, Tirikonapalai and Caturappalai 216
27 The tables showing different systems of music--Thanjai Abraham Pandithar 223

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