‘Modi’fy-a-Mantra to Mode!

Almost every book on Carnatic history mentions that our music began from a simple chant,  with its roots in Vedic chanting.  A chant is so simplified in its melodic content, how could one imagine a sophisticated form of Carnatic singing emerging from it. Or how did the chant idea evolve into what we know as Carnatic music? The chant-to-Carnatic evolution is fascinating, and the first node in this process is the idea of ‘mode’.

Turns out, not just Carnatic music, but a good amount of what we know as modal music today originated from chants. From chants emerged the musicological idea to group notes and create a grammar or a semantic around it. This also paved the way specific melodic behaviors. It brought in the idea of how certain ‘modes’ created certain sounds and feelings. Take the Gayatri Mantra, it revolves around a mode of ‘ Sa, Ni2, Ri1, Ri2’  with a tonal center of Sa. With a tonal center of C, the notes are: C, A#, C#, D.

This forms a ‘mode’ – a way of moving between these notes, with some rules. The tonic is used a circling point back, each note is unfurled, established and then you move back to Sa. Its a way of moving in circles around a central pitch. This is the simplest human ‘model’ of how to move with a set of notes and create musical structure. Notice in the recording that first two lines (Om Bhurbhuvasvah tatsaviturvareNyam) emphasize the group of C, A# and C#, while the last two lines (Bhargodevasya dhimahi dhiyo yonah prachodayaat) add the new note D to the the A#, C and C# group and resolve always to C.  .. and thats how a mantra was ‘modi’fied (no reference to Narendra Modi’s ‘modi-fying India’ movement here! )

Listen to Gayatri Mantra sung in swara: Gayatri Mantra in Swara!


How does a Carnatic taanam use the same idea? Watch out for my next blog post!

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