Learning to Identify Swarasthanas

How would one learn to identify swarasthanas when listening to carnatic music? Are varisai exercises enough to gain this critical skill?

Illustration: Listening to Carnatic Swarams

A carnatic music student slowly gains swara gnanam mostly indirectly during various stages of learning. Only basic varisai exercises like Sarali, Janta and Alankarams focus directly on swarasthanas. In later lessons, due to the increased complexity, the student’s attention is directed towards so many other aspects in addition to swarasthanas. As the student fumbles through varnams, kritis and swara kalpana, (s)he gathers bits of knowledge on swarasthanams as an indirect outcome rather than as a fundamental skill required to learn music.

Limitations of Varisai Exercises

It is generally recommended that one should practice varisai exercises in various ragams to improve grasp on swarasthanas. However, varisais don’t drill swarasthanas sufficiently due to their inherent limitations:

Patterns are predictable

Varisai exercises have very simple and predictable patterns. So, our brain can trick us by going into a mimicking mode rather than thoroughly understanding and singing each swaram carefully.

Try this:
Ask a student to sing sarali in a ragam, say Mayamalavagowla, stop her in the middle and ask her to sing a specific swaram. For example, when she is singing something like pa-dha-ni-sa, stop her and ask her to sing ga or ri. Chances are she might fumble a bit before reaching correct swarasthanam, though she was able to sing the same swaram during its turn in the sequence.

This fumbling is very much similar to young learners struggling with multiplication tables. Ask them the multiplication table of 7, they can easily recite it from the beginning. But if you ask them what is 6 times 7 directly, they still have to recite the table from beginning to give you the answer. This means, they are yet to master this table. Similar is the case with students not able to hit any swarasthanam at will.

Only one variety of a swaram is worked out each time

If you are singing an alankaram in Mayamalavagowla, you are only concerned about Suddha Rishabam and not Chatusruti/Shatsruti Rishabams. Most students practice varisai exercises only in Mayamalavagowla and move on without even touching other swarasthanams. If you also practice the same exercises in Kalyani too, you bring some variety to Ri, Ma and Dha. Good. But how about the shift from one swarasthana to a different one for the same swaram?

Try this:
Sing one line of your favourite sarali exercise in Mayamalavagowla. Immediately, sing the same line in Kalyani. Were you able to switch to Kalyani swarasthanams from Mayamalavagowla without difficulty?

Many are not comfortable with this switch. You can observe this defect not just in beginners, but also in students of all levels and even in some teachers and professionals. They will have difficulty changing from the mood of Mayamalavagowla. Sometimes, they try to recollect or hum a line from a Kalyani kriti or geetham, thus transforming themselves to the mood of Kalyani, then they’ll be able to sing anything in Kalyani. This trick is not a solution but only an imperfect workaround, which underlines the lack of mastery over swarasthanams.

“Many carnatic musicians I myself know, they would be qualified to give a Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi in Todi correctly. But if we just ask them to sing Prati Madhyamam, immediately, they have to think a little bit. If someone asks you your name, you don’t have to hesitate, you’ll tell immediately. Like that we have to know all the 12 notes, not just the notes of one raga.”
Prince Rama Varma in his lecture Introduction to the 12 notes.

This switch from one ragam to another, fundamentally switching from one set of swarasthanams to other, is not worked out sufficiently in varisai exercises.

Varisai exercises are wonderful and quite unique to our system. They play an important role in freeing up the vocal range and setting foundations for fingering technique in instrumentalists. Imparting swarasthana knowledge is only one of their design aspects among many. Depending solely on varisai exercises for mastering swarasthanas is an ineffective approach due to the limitations explained above.

The solution

We need a practice system designed with exercises solely geared towards improving swara gnanam. It is also important that the exercises should not succumb to the same limitations discussed above. This means the exercises should have (a) certain level of unpredictability, (b) variations of a swaram within the same session of the exercise.

Sadhakam (android app) provides such a system. It plays short swara sequences and you have to identify the swarasthanams. For example, in the first exercise, it plays Sa followed by a Ri. You have to tell whether the Ri played is Suddha Rishabam (Ri1), Chatusruti Rishabam (Ri2), or Shatsruti Rishabam (Ri3). Once you answer, the app tells you whether you are right or wrong, it also shows you the correct answer. This way you start associating the swarasthanam with its sound in your mind. More details here.

The unique aspect of these exercises is that you are exposed to all swarasthanas of a swaram in quick succession and repeatedly. You hear all three rishabams—Ri1, Ri2 and Ri3—in the first exercise, several times in random order. This gives you opportunity to closely observe, compare and learn to distinguish different varieties of Ri. In later exercises the same swaram is presented in different contexts—in avarohanam, in conjunction with a different swaram, in thara sthayi, etc. This way you thoroughly work out various possibilities of the swaram and develop a solid understanding of the swarasthanams.

In conclusion, do continue to practice your varisais in different ragas. Also dedicate some of your time for focussed swarasthanam training, as provided by Sadhakam app.

P.S. This post is an elaboration of my quora answer on this topic.

Ananth Pattabiraman is a musician and co-founder of Kuyil Carnatic Apps, a startup dedicated to crafting apps for carnatic. You can checkout the apps below.