Hindustani and Carnatic music Difference & Similarities : Indian Classical Music

Nowadays, it is fashionable to state that there are two different kinds of music in India the Hindustani or the North Indian, and the Carnatic or the South Indian. The difference or Similarity between Hindustani and Carnatic Music of Indian Classical Music is always a matter of discussion and debate. This topic is very important and part of the learning of both the tradition.

Before going to the technical discussion lets read below text :


Hindustani and Carnatic music Difference & Similarities : Indian Classical Music

शृङ्गारहास्यकरुणा रौद्रवीरभयानकाः ।

बीभत्साद्भुतशान्ताश्च रसाः पूर्वैरुदाहृताः ॥

The Romantic, the Humorous, the Compassionate,

the Wrathful, the Heroic, the Frightful,

the Repellent, the Wondrous and the Peaceful

are the nine Rasas, the aesthetic delights

as declared by the Ancients.


Hindustani and Carnatic Music :

Nowadays, it is fashionable to state that there are two different kinds of music in India the Hindustani or the North Indian, and the Carnatic or the South Indian. In fact, there is only one kind of music in India and that is Indian music. What makes the Hindustani and the Carnatic music one is that both of them are Raga-based.Hindustani and Carnatic music Difference & Similarities : Indian Classical Music

In ancient times, though the word ‘Sangeetam’ had a larger connotation, in modern times it has come to mean only music. It is a Sanskrit word meaning “perfectly sung music”, or “a perfect blend of all components of good music”.

These components are Bhava, the feeling or emotion, Raga, the melodic structure, Swara arising from within creating the inner facet of a note, with Shruti, it’s minute and right nuance, Laya and Tala, the appropriate lilt and pace of the music, Sahitya, the expressive text, Sakha, the skillful accompanist and Sabha, the gathering of enlightened listeners and connoisseurs. When these blend and fuse into an inseparable whole, then we have Rasa and Ananda, the aesthetic experience and delight of music.

These elements are common to both Hindustani and Carnatic music. No doubt, when one hears a concert of Indian classical music, there can hardly be any difficulty in determining whether the musician is performing in Hindustani or in Carnatic style. Yet, there is a basic identity which cannot be cancelled out by these stylistic variations.²

Geographical and Historical Perspective :

Geographically, the musical style prevalent in South India, that is to say, in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka is known as Carnatic music. The style prevalent in the remaining areas of India, which are in the North, is known as Hindustani music. In some places, where geographically the North and the South meet, such as Dharwar in Karnataka, both styles have been simultaneously popular. And some musicians of outstanding ability have freely borrowed from both systems without introducing into their music any element of incongruity.

In general, the lyrics of Carnatic music are in Telugu, Kannada, Tamil or Malayalam, while those of Hindustani music are often in Brijbhasha, an ancient form of Hindi, or in Urdu. But language alone has not been the point of divergence as Sanskrit is sometimes used in both the styles. In fact, the barrier of the Vindhya Mountains serves only to accentuate, and not differentiate, two facets of the same enduring tradition. And it is not surprising that it should be so for. historically, these variations do not reach back to the very roots of this hoary musical tradition.

Violin, Western instrument became integral part of Carnatic Classical Music
Violin, Western instrument became integral part of Carnatic Classical Music

It is only in the later centuries of the Middle Ages, at the time of the Vijayanagar empire that stood for long as a bulwark of the South against the powerful empires centered in the North, that Indian music branched off into two identifiable styles-Hindustani and Carnatic.

The word ‘Hindustani’ comes from Sindhu or the river Indus, which flows in the North-West of India, while the word “Carnatic’ comes from Karnataka, which was the name of the empire of the mighty king of South India, Krishnadevaraya who was a great patron of music. It is also believed that the word ‘Carnatic’ derives from Sanskrit, where it means “that which is pleasing to the ear”.

As a result of the invasions from across the Hindu Kush mountains and the consequent increase of interchange with other people, innovative trends grafted themselves to the mainstream of Indian music, in order to give a definite nuance to the music of North India. In the South, comparatively free from the disruptive influences which swept across North India, music retained, to a large extent, the nature of the older forms. Often musical activities were centered in and around the temples and their traditions and, from there, permeated all aspects of South Indian culture.³

The Fundamental Unity :

One must, therefore, never forget that though there are many differences between Hindustani and Carnatic music, they have the same origin and are two branches from the same trunk of Indian music. The similarities are striking. Both refer to the Vedas as the fountainhead of the musical tradition and, as it is quite common to the Indian temperament, both fall back upon the same mythology and religion, in order to provide a deeper and more stable foundation to this art.

Therefore, in Hindustani and Carnatic music as well, the lyrics sung are often in praise of Ganesha, or Saraswati or Krishna or Shiva. The authority of musical treatises like Natyasastra and Sangeet Ratna-kara is recognised by both. Both look upon music as Nadopasana, the worship of the primordial sound..

In fact, Indian music has never lost its real identity of being Raga-based. Whether Hindustani or Carnatic, both try to explore the hidden aesthetic possibilities of a given mood. Both follow the rules and structures of a Raga, even though they differ in the subtle details and nuances of presentation. Even the terminology and the names of the musical structures, as for example, for the ascending order, Aroha, and for the descend ing order, Avaroha, are the same. Both refer to the variations of the basic notes as Tivra, sharp, or Komal, flat.Hindustani and Carnatic music Difference & Similarities : Indian Classical Music

The similarities are so marked that a connoisseur of one system would not fail to recognize immediately the identity of many Ragas, even if they are being performed in the other system. Malkauns and Bhoopali are popular everywhere. Mutual borrowings have been made and are being made constantly. In recent years, Ragas, which are popular in the South, like Simhendra Madhyama, Narayani, Abhogi, Andolika have been taken up and included in their repertoire by Hindustani musicians.

Hansadhwani is another example that has become popular with North Indian musicians, who have preserved its inherent structure but changed its presentation to suit their requirements. Again Varnams, which are nature, are being used by Hindustani musicians. Similarly, many Carnatic musicians are incorporating of Hindustani style in their concerts. otherwise have not been possible but for the fact that there exists underlying unity transcending the differences between the two styles.

A new development, which has not been fully accepted by classicists, is the duet concert, where both the Hindustani and the Carnatic musicians, along with their accompanying instruments, play the same Raga together. That such joint performance is at all possible simply because not only are the Raga structures similar but even the Talas exhibit striking similarities.

The popular Teental of Hindustani music corresponds the Aditala of Carnatic music, just Jhaptal corresponds Jhampa Tala. Both styles satisfy one basic feature of the Tala, that being cyclical nature and the value the stress determined by the place occupies within the framework the cycle. Indian music everywhere finally Raga set to a definite Tala.

We thus see that though the details aesthetic conventions that go with both systems may vary marginally, the similarities are even more striking. But what more relevant that music, of North or the South, Raga music and imposes similar demand on votaries: the cultivation Swara, the Guru Shishya Parampara, development skill handling microtonal differences of musical notes and the discipline or Sadhana learning.

Let now listen to same Raga, the Raga Malkauns Hindustani music followed Hindolam Carnatic music.4

The Saint-Composers :

Having seen these great similarities between Hindustani and Carnatic music we must also note the variations and some distinctive elements which characterise the two styles.

Swami Shyama Shastri - oldest among the Trinity of Carnatic music
Swami Shyama Shastri – oldest among the Trinity of Carnatic music
Saint Tyagaraja - 2nd oldest among the Trinity of Carnatic music
Saint Tyagaraja – 2nd oldest among the Trinity of Carnatic music

Ever since the 15th century, one great difference between the two schools is the dominating presence of a number of highly gifted Vagyekaras, or lyricists and composers, in the Carnatic style on whom the music has come to rest. The most prominent among them are Shyama Shastry, Tyagaraja and Muthuswamy Dikshitar. Shyama Shastry was the earliest of the three. Beautiful rhythmic symmetry, rounded phrases and perfect structural delicacy are characteristic of his luminous genius.

Saint Tyagaraja stands unique among the composers of Carnatic music. Trained in Sanskrit, Telugu, which was hist mother tongue, and astrology, Tyagaraja is a profound force of majestic power. Literary power, Bhakti, Yogic insight and musical quality, all these fuse into one in this saint and cannot be separated in his creations.

The third of the trinity was Muthuswami Dikshitar who belonged to the school of Venkatamakhi. His spiritual pursuit took him to Banaras and Nepal from where he returned home and composed music of the highest quality to deities like Devi, Shiva and Vishnu, Ganesha, Subramania and Krishna. The double speed section in his Kritis, the virtuosity and skill of his clearly constructed note patterns, give his music a unique strength and power. In his music we glimpse an attempt to incorporate the elements of Dhrupad style into Carnatic music.

In all Carnatic concerts, the names of these composers occur again and again. The compositions of these great masters are always learnt by heart, their themes and variations are committed to memory from the very beginning of a child’s musical education. Carnatic music contains a very large number of such compositions; Purandaradas, Tyagaraja, Kshetraya, Saint Arunagiri Nathar and so many others are believed to have composed songs not in hundreds but in thousands.

Muthuswami Dikshitar, last among the Trinity of Carnatic music
Muthuswami Dikshitar, last among the Trinity of Carnatic music

Such a profusion has made a Carnatic musician a repository of a large collection of songs which are called Pathantaras. Each of these compositions has its own identity, style of presentation and individual tempo, as well as its emotional content, Bhava, and its musical form. The forms which are used in musical concerts are also highly developed and each one has its own distinctive name such as Varnam, Kriti, Swarajati, Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi, Padam, Ragamalika, Jawali, Tirupugazh, etc.

Carnatic music is permeated by the dominating influence of the Saint-composers and therefore, comparatively, the compositions are more fixed in Carnatic style. Thus, in a concert of Carnatic music, there is a happy blending of both pre-composed pieces and the extempore and personal creativity of the musician. On the other hand in the Hindustani tradition there is very little music which is precomposed. The musician has to rely entirely on his inspiration and skill and, right from the beginning of the concert, the musical twists and turns are very much his own.

Here is a piece from a famous Kriti of Tyagaraja.

The Swara in Carnatic and Hindustani Music :

The compositions of the great masters are inspired, elaborate, and complete in themselves. Hence traditionally, in Carnatic music, if a musician could contribute the right chemistry of a Surel voice, motivation, rapt belief and love, if he could cultivate virtuoso skill, swift Neravals, flashing Swaraprastharas, his music could be of a very high order and would not sink below a certain level of aesthetic excellence and enjoyment.

The compositions would still retain their intrinsic value without the musician having to recreate them from his own being and without realising a personal transcendence. For, in a certain sense, the Saint-composers had already achieved this for him by proxy.

In the Hindustani tradition, the predicament has been somewhat different. Since the impact of the great composers was not so direct, the need to develop Swara was not an optional condition. It was the only reason. Without Swara, North Indian classical music was almost always banal.

It is impossible to hold listeners with virtuoso accomplishments alone, or with mere skill and speed or cleverness. Sooner or later the absence of spirit shows through and then it is more of the same thing, again and again, forever. The musician, with no other support to lean on, had to seek after the Swara.

But, whether it be Hindustani or Carnatic, if the music had to rise above technical accomplishments that dazzle, which are merely the result of practice and not of Sadhana, then what was required was the finding of the Swara.

Some Forms of Carnatic Music :

A Carnatic music concert usually begins with a prayer to Lord Ganesha or with a Varnam. A Varnam is usually a closed-form and is constructed in order to elucidate the qualities of the Raga.

In Carnatic music the treatment of the Raga is relatively more phrase-based than note-based. The Kriti, which is a major item in any concert, is often made up of three parts: the Pallavi, the Anupallavi and the Charanam.

Sarangi - Indian Musical Instrument
Sarangi is used a alternate to Violin in Hindustani Classical Music

The Pallavi is the opening section of the composition and its repeating refrain returns each time after the Anupallavi and the Charanam. If the Pallavi travels in the lower and middle regions of the scale, the Anupallavi follows and treats the higher notes. The Charanam joins the two together in a tight musical embrace.

Carnatic music reaches its highest level in another form of musical presentation called Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi. A Ragam Tanam-Pallavi begins with a detailed Alapana, covering the entire length of the scale, in all the three octaves.

The Alapana is followed by Tanam in which, in a slightly faster tempo, every kind of rhythmic and phrasing technique is elaborated in the exposition. Then comes a Pallavi which is a lyric set to a particular Tala. Some believe that in Tala, in accomplishment, in variety and extemporisation, the Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi is the peak of Carnatic music.



Some differences in Styles :

Carnatic music, having been close to the ambience of the temples, is almost entirely devotional in its lyrical content, while the lyrics in Hindustani music are often based on secular and mundane themes. These, however, sometimes have also a deeper hidden implication.

Carnatic music uses extensively devotional hymns and the words with their philosophic implications are extremely important. Hence its appeal is as much to the intellect as to the heart. On the other hand, Hindustani music often uses mundane themes and relies upon its appeal to the heart and the emotions.

In the Carnatic style, the lyrics play a comparatively greater role than in the Hindustani style and for the Carnatic musician, Sahitya or the words and phrases are as important as melody and are generally used fully with the breaks at the right places. In contrast, the Hindustani musician is almost solely concerned with the melody, and the words and the lyrics are almost incidental in their value.

Therefore in Hindustani music, the words are more loosely tied together, capable of being stretched or shortened according to the artist’s taste and distributed as needed in the rhythmic cycle. The same musical phrase may be repeated many times with several variations while in Carnatic music the repetition is less and the presentation is shorter and crisper.

In Raga elaboration, in the earlier stage of Alapana, the Hindustani musician normally starts with the lowest note and gradually brings in the higher notes, one by one, in his presentation. On the other hand in Carnatic music, the musician directly begins with typical phrases and nuances which indicate the Raga under elaboration.

Again, in Hindustani music, for each Raga there are two notes, the Vadi and the Samvadi, which are more important than the other notes and play a special role in the elaboration of the Raga. In Carnatic music this concept and this relationship between notes is modified and broadened in its application and the compositional structure permits the musician to lay emphasis on several possible notes.

If one tries to compare the total impact of a concert of Carnatic music with a concert of Hindustani music, we could perhaps say, keeping in mind that this is only an image, that the work of a Carnatic musician appears to be more as a chiselled, carved finished piece of a beautiful sculpture, whereas the work of a Hindustani musician is of the nature of a nebulous musing, a musical reverie. Because it is like a reverie, Hindustani music is basically more fluid and rounded in its sound.

But Carnatic Music is more definite. It is also more staccato, as is obvious from the Alamkars, the graces that it uses, as for example, the Kampita Gamaka and the Sphurita Gamaka, which are more vigorous and sharp in their vibratory resonances. In contrast, the Hindustani musician revels in the fluency and the flowing movement of the Meends, the glides, and the soft oscillations of the Andolan.

The Accompanying Instruments :

In Carnatic music, the basic accompanying instruments are the Violin and the Mridangam which provide the rhythmic base. In Hindustani music, the accompaniment is often done by the Sarangi. The percussion instrument, which is most popular, is the Tabla. The background drone for both styles is provided by the Tanpura.


In Carnatic music, since the main musician keeps time himself or maintains the Tala visibly by gestures, the accompanying players on the Mridangam and the Violin find greater scope for presenting their skill and enjoy more freedom in providing a positive accompaniment. On the other hand, in Hindustani music, as the Tabla player has the added work of keeping time, the scope of free expression is somewhat curtailed though, even here, the tabla player is nowadays encouraged to display his virtuosity.

T S Nandakumar Mridangam, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0
T S Nandakumar Mridangam, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

In a Raga presentation, the Hindustani musician usually starts in the Mandra Saptak, the lowest octave [12]. On the other hand, in Carnatic music, the musician starts a Raga in either the lower or the middle octave, according to its traditional and aesthetic exigencies and not necessarily in the lower octave alone.

The Carnatic musician adopts a fast to slow sequence. The opening is generally a brisk fast-paced Kriti, while those which are long and elaborate come towards the middle as the centrepiece. On the other hand, the Hindustani music begins with an unhurried pace establishing the predominant mood and the ground plan of the Raga and then passes on to faster improvisations. The Hindustani musician increases the tempo gradually. The Carnatic musician builds up the pace by geometric progressions, as for example the pace may be doubled or quadrupled.

In Hindustani music, the role of the Sam, the main beat, is very important and there is a freedom of improvisation up to the point of reaching the Sam. In Carnatic music, the Sam is the beginning of the composition, which can be either on the beat or off-beat.

Tabla - Indian Musical Instruments

In Carnatic music, the Talas or the rhythmic patterns, are very highly developed. In fact, many listeners find the complex play between the percussionist and the musician to be the most interesting aspect of Carnatic music. Indeed nowhere else has Rhythm acquired such magic and complexity as in the South.

We may perhaps conclude by saying that, at the highest level, the historical and traditional differences between Hindustani and Carnatic music fade into the background and both styles reach that level of true and spontaneous creativity which are the hallmarks of the Raga and the Swara from which the Raga is born.




l. a. Bholanath Mishra-Vocal-Raga Malkauns

2. b. K. Vageesh Vocal Raga Hindolam

2.a. K. Vageesh Vocal Raga Hindolam

2.b. Bholanath Mishra-Vocal-Raga Mal

3. Violin-Raga Hindolam

4. a. Bholanath Mishra Vocal Raga Malkauns

4. b. Vageesh-Vocal-Raga Hindolom

5. V. Doraiswamy Iyengar Veena-Raga Nirostha

6. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer-Vocal-Raga Poorvi Kalyani

7. a. K. Vageesh-Vocal- Raga Hindolam

7. b. Bholanath Mishra-Vocal-Raga Malkauns

8. K. Vageesh Vocal-Raga Hindolam

9. Bholanath Mishra-Vocal-Raga Malkauns

10. K. Vageesh-Vocal-Raga Hindolam.

14. a. K. Vageesh-Vocal- Raga Hindolam

15. b. Bholanath Mishra-Vocal-Raga Malkauns.

Hindustani and Carnatic Music : Indian Classical Music
Hindustani and Carnatic Music : Indian Classical Music

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