Improvisation in Carnatic Music

By Mohan Ayyar, June 2002

Whilst a considerable portion of a Carnatic music concert consists of music that has been composed, the true challenge for the musician lies in aspects of improvisation. For the discerning audience too, the improvised aspects like raga alapana, neraval and kalpana swara reveal the talent and skill of the performing artistes.

Pre-composed aspects

Kalpita sangita is music that has been already composed. This includes the various compositions such as varnams, krithis and tillanas. The majority of the compositions rendered in concerts today have been composed by illustrious composers such as Thyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar, Shyama Sastri, Swati Tirunal, Purandaradasa, Annamacharya, Oothakadu Venkatasubbiar and Subramanya Bharathi. The compositions of more recent composers like Mysore Vasudevacharya, Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavathar, Papanasam Sivan, G. N. Balasubramaniam and Lalgudi Jayaraman are also popular.

By learning more and more pre-composed compositions an artiste gets greater insights into the melodious and rhythmic aspects. Learning varnams, for example, can help students to understand the structure and approach to singing kalpana swaras, while learning several krithis in the same raga assists in getting an in-depth understanding of the raga and in raga alapana and neraval.

Improvised aspects

The improvised aspects of Carnatic music are called manodharma sangita – imaginative music. The creative ability of a musician finds full expression in manodharma sangita. It consists of music which is in effect composed on the spot without previous preparation. There is ample scope in Carnatic music for improvisation through raga alapana, tana, neraval and kalpana swaras. These are detailed below.

Raga alapana

The terms alapana, raga alapana, alap and raga vistara are synonymous. In the alapana, the phrases of the chosen raga are sung in various ways according to the lakshana (grammar) of that raga. There is no beat or tala associated with the alapana but it is rendered in differing speeds. Alapana is sung as a prelude to a krithi or a pallavi exposition.

During the alapana, syllables such as tadarinana, tadarinanam, tadana, tanna are commonly used. The vowel sound of ‘ah’ is used extensively allowing ample scope for resonance. Typically in a full length concert the artiste will present alapanas in three or four different ragas. The length and depth of the raga alapana depends upon the creative ability of the performer. Great masters could render a raga alapana for hours at a stretch – concentrating on a small section of the raga, then elaborating on the various graces of the chosen notes before moving on to the next section. There should be naturalness in the sequence of phrases presented and even though the alapana is not pre-composed listeners anticipate the rendering of phrases that are characteristic of the raga that has been chosen.

Lengthy renditions of an alapana are usually divided into three parts. The first part is a short introductory section (the akshipthika) which gives the audience an idea of the whole framework of the raga; secondly there is the ragavardhini section where the artiste gives step-by-step elaboration, pausing at each major note in the raga. This is the major section of the alapana. The last section is called makarini which is the concluding section. While fast passages are interspersed throughout the alapana, towards the end of the exposition the artiste can often dazzle the artiste by singing brisk passages (brigas) scaling across the entire range of the raga. G. N. Balasubramaniam was a master in lengthy raga alapanas laced with lightning fast brigas.


Tana or Tanam is usually sung as part of the central ‘ragam-tanam-pallavi’ piece. Sometimes veena artistes will play tana as a prelude to a krithi as is the practice during the Navaratri Festival that takes place in the Royal Palace at Trivandram, Kerala. Tana has no tala as such but has a distinct rhythm or laya. The music is usually in the medium tempo. The artiste can introduce complicated rhythmic patterns in counts of 3, 4, 5, 7 and 9 while singing tanam. Syllables such as tanamta, anamdamta, nomtomta and namta are often used. As these syllables are sounded, Anandam (bliss) is said to reverberate in the listener’s ears.


Neraval or sahitya prastara is when the artiste takes a composed line from krithi and sings this line over and over, with fresh music each time. Since neraval is sung with percussion support, the artiste has to keep track of the tala (rhythmic cycle) being used and ensure that the main words of the line occur in the correct position with respect to the tala. As all aspects of music, the sequence of phrases must flow naturally according to the raga. As the neraval progresses, the artiste introduces brisker passages. Neraval is the main aspect of the pallavi section of the ragam-tanam-pallavi piece. K. V. Narayanaswamy was greatly respected for his neraval singing.

Kalpana swara

In kalpana swara the musician presents the various phrases of a raga through the swaras or solfa syllables namely Sa – Ri – Ga – Ma – Pa –Dha – Ni . Kalpana swaras are sung around a chosen line. The artiste will sing the several swaras and finish on the same line every time, ensuring that swara exposition has ended on the exact position in the tala where the line starts.

The choice of the swaras used must adhere to the grammar of the raga. For example, when singing kalpana swaras in the raga Hamsadhwani (which consists of only the notes Sa, Ri, Ga, Pa and Ni), the artiste cannot sing a Ma or Dha. Some ragas have more complicated grammatical structures. Rithigowla permits the pattern Sa Ga Ri Ga Ma Ni Ni Sa in the ascent. As the raga is rendered whenever the artiste is ascending the scale Ma must be followed by ‘Ni Ni’. Accordingly, a phrase like ‘Ma Pa Ni Sa’ is not permitted in this raga.

Some artistes introduce mathematical permutations and combinations into their kalpana swara singing. This becomes extremely challenging for the accompanying artistes to anticipate and respond to what the main artiste has rendered. Artistes often practice set patterns of swarams (korvais) to conclude a swara exposition in an enthralling fashion. Madurai Mani was an expert in kalpana swara singing using melodious free-flowing patterns of notes. T. N. Seshagopalan is considered a master in the mathematical aspects of kalpana swaras.

Ragam Tanam Pallavi

The ragam-tanam-pallavi is the central item of a Carnatic music concert. It is highly improvised. In its grandest form, it consists of a detailed raga alapana followed by tanam in the same raga. The pallavi section is basically a single (pre-composed) line that is elaborated in the neraval form. Most artistes will introduce complex mathematical phrases into the neraval singing also, often rendering the line in three speeds (trikalam). After a lengthy neraval, kalpana swaras are sung in the same raga. Most artistes will supplement this part by singing kalpana swaras in different ragas (ragamalika swaram).

By listening to live concerts and recordings of great artistes, students can get ideas as to how to structure alapanas and to develop tanam, neraval and kalpana swara. Constant listening also trains the ear to recognise the intricacies and subtleties inherent in the music. With a broad understanding of the various aspects of manodharma sangita, the listener can gain a greater appreciation of the beautiful art that is Carnatic music.

 © Mohan Ayyar, 2002