As we celebrate Asian-American and Pacific Islander Month throughout the month of May, is a great opportunity to reflect on the musical experiences that can help connect individuals to their ancestral heritage. Traditional music one way to grow both as a musician, as well as expand our cultural understanding. Carnatic music, a type of Indian classical music, originated from South India in the early 12th century. Symphony Orchestra’s Dhivya Chari is a talented violinist in both Western classical and Carnatic music. Social media team member and Concert Orchestra violinist Laney Kang recently chatted with Dhivya about the background, her experiences, and some advice for anyone interested in learning Carnatic music!
DC: My name is Dhivya Chari. I am 16 years old and a junior at Waubonsie Valley High School. I play the violin in both Western and Carnatic musical genres.
LK: Could you give a brief explanation as to what Carnatic music is?
DC: Carnatic music is a genre of classical music originating from South India. There are several Carnatic instruments such as veena, mridangam (a kind of drum), violin, flute, and voice. The structure of Carnatic music is based on ragam, which is similar to key signatures, and talam, which is similar to time signatures. The Carnatic equivalent of solfege consists of eight notes, but they can be uniquely combined in a variety of orders and structures to form the ascending scale of a ragam, an arohanam, and the descending scale, an avarohanam. The style of Carnatic music is made distinguishable by the frequent use of gamakam, which directly translates to “ornamented note” in Sanskrit; it can most closely be compared to a glissando or vibrato in Western classical music.
LK: How long have you been studying Carnatic music and what inspired you to start?
DC: I have been learning Carnatic music ever since I was five years old. I initially started as a singer, and then I began playing violin when I was ten years old. Both of my parents along with many of my other relatives study Carnatic music, so I’ve been listening to it ever since I was born. This kind of exposure gave me an inherent curiosity towards music, and I would often attempt to learn songs that I had heard my sister learning in her lessons. Shortly after my parents realized I was very passionate about music, they enrolled me in Carnatic voice lessons as well as Western violin lessons.
LK: In honor of celebrating AAPI month, how has studying Carnatic music helped connect you to your family’s heritage?
DC: As a first generation Indian American, I have always considered it a priority to ensure that I am knowledgeable of my family’s roots and able to preserve my culture. Because I only travel to India every other year for a couple of weeks in the summer, music allows me to make up for the interactions with my heritage that I miss out on. I feel fortunate that I am able to connect to my culture through music everyday as a form of practice. It also makes my grandparents and relatives in India really happy to listen to recordings and concerts because Carnatic music is one of the few shared passions that we can bond over. Furthermore, there is such a strong and growing community of Carnatic musicians in the Chicagoland area which I am really proud to be a part of and contribute to. I wish to continue developing my own understanding of Carnatic music and hopefully be able to educate future generations of Indian Americans about it as well.
“Because I only travel to India every other year for a couple of weeks in the summer, music allows me to make up for the interactions with my heritage that I miss out on. I feel fortunate that I am able to connect to my culture through music everyday as a form of practice.”
LK: What is your favorite part about studying Carnatic music?
DC: In addition to helping me feel connected to my heritage, learning Carnatic music has expanded my musical understanding and appreciation for various genres. It has completely shifted the way I listen to and interpret music. Because I learned both singing and violin, it was fascinating to integrate the violin technique I had learned with the Carnatic genre that I had also studied. It has been interesting to compare and contrast Carnatic music with Western and to implement skills I’ve learned in each genre respectively to the other. Because of my Carnatic background, I’m also able to explore fusion music and am more curious about other genres of music around the world.
LK: How long have you been playing the violin and how long have you been a member of CYSO?
DC: I have played violin for eleven years, and I’ve been a member of CYSO for eight years. I am currently a member of Symphony Orchestra.
“It has been interesting to compare and contrast Carnatic music with Western. Because of my Carnatic background, I’m also able to explore fusion music and am more curious about other genres of music around the world.”
LK: What are some similarities/differences between your experiences with Carnatic music and Western classical music?
DC: Both Western and Carnatic music have taught me musicianship and how to collaborate with other musicians because I have had the opportunity to participate in multiple ensembles in both of these genres. One way in which Carnatic music is different from Western is that improvisation is an important aspect of Carnatic music, and because of this, communicating with other musicians in ensemble performances is both challenging and intriguing. Another difference between my performance experiences is that I usually perform Western violin concerti with a piano accompaniment, but in Carnatic music, I am accompanied by a mridangam (drum). Working with multiple kinds of accompanists over the years has enlightened me into the perspectives of different instrumentalists.
LK: What advice would you give to students who want to start learning Carnatic music?
DC: I would recommend starting out by listening to popular Carnatic songs and artists. Learning Carnatic is a little different from Western music because it is taught entirely by ear and not through written sheet music. Carnatic music has been taught through generations solely relying on memorization. It is essential for all Carnatic musicians to develop the skill to identify a ragam and talam without being told because a significant amount of performing Carnatic music is improvisation; in my opinion, listening to music is the best way of grasping these distinctions and developing the creativity to compose on the spot. Overall, playing Carnatic music is definitely a worthwhile skill, and the kind of training it requires is unlike learning any other genre of music. I would highly recommend pursuing Carnatic music to anyone who currently plays Western music or to anyone who is interested in learning about different global genres of music.
Thank you again to Dhivya Chari for her enthusiasm and sharing your talent. Happy AAPI month!