viLari and tODi rAga (was Re: Q: Tamil literature)

Vidyasankar Sundaresan vidya at CCO.CALTECH.EDU
Wed Sep 17 03:13:29 UTC 1997

I think Palaniappa is right in saying that the word narampu refers to the
individual note/string. Besides the straightforward linguistic meaning,
there is a practical matter which should decide the issue. Let us leave
the comparison of the octave to the zodiac signs aside, as it could just
be poetic in origin, and not have anything practical to do with music. How
does one execute the vaTTappAlai or the kural tiripu in real life?

The conceptual difference between the kural tiripu (standard shifting of
the tonic) and the vaTTappAlai is this. When shifting the tonic, you
maintain the interval relationships within an octave, but redefine them
with respect to the pitch of the new tonic. In the vaTTappAlai technique,
you keep the tonic constant, and directly change the distribution of
intervals within the octave. From the excerpts of aTiyArkkunallAr that are
given in S. Ramanathan's thesis, this seems possible only if each string
is tuned to an individual note. Then, kural tiripu can easily be done by
choosing a reference string, and retuning all other strings with respect
to it. The tuning of the kural string would change in the process. On the
other hand, vaTTappAlai would be done by keeping the kural string at a
constant pitch and retuning the other strings as dictated by the various
consonance relationships of a scale. In either case, the verbal
description implies the retuning of strings. Surely, the practice must
have predated the time of aTiyArkkunallAr's text itself.

The interchangeable use of the word yAzh to mean both an instrument and a
scale (e.g. marutayAzh, neytaliyAzh) is also explained thereby. Simply, a
given scale and an instrument that was tuned to that scale were both
referred to by the same name. Similarly, in the nATya SAstra, bharata's
demonstration of the shaDja and madhyama grAmas on the cala and acala
vINAs can only be done with multi-stringed instruments, with each string
tuned to a different note.

Now, this brings into question the standard notion that the vINA-s of
bharata and the various yAzh-s in Tamil literature were fretted
instruments. (Some contemporary musicologists insist that the yAzh-s were
fretted instruments, and that they are the ancestors of today's vINA-s.)
These instruments were probably more like harps/santoors/svar-maNDals.
If so, the old story in which nIlakaNTa yAzhpANar was unable accompany a
singer on his yAzh is also explained. The melody got the name yAzhmuRippaN
(nowadays identified with aTANa), on account of this. If the yAzh were
anything like a modern fretted stringed instrument, there should have been
no problem in reproducing any of the standard vocal features on it. On the
other hand, if the yAzh were more like a harp, the task would have been


ps. Contemporary Indian music seems to have followed in the tradition of
the vaTTappAlai, more than the mUrchana scheme described in early Skt
texts. The tonic is kept constant, and in an instrument like the Sitar,
the frets are moved around, in order to play a different rAga. If at all
it is attempted, mUrchana within the elaboration of a rAga is quite brief,
and drifting completely to the new scale is avoided.

More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list