Music instruments specific to Carnatic music include the veena (a stringed instrument), the mridangam (considered the most important percussion instrument in Carnatic music), and other percussion instruments like the ghatam, ganjira, and morsing, as well as stringed instruments like the venu and violin, while Hindustani music instruments include tabla (pair of drums), sarangi (bowed, short-necked string instrument), sitar (plucked stringed instrument), santoor (stringed instrument played with wooden mallets) and clarinet.
Students of Carnatic music start with geetham (simple songs) and progress to the more complicated repertoire of kriti. It takes them years to master the musical instruments. To be recognised as a vocalist or musician, students must stage a music arangetram (debut) with a full range of song repertoires to fill a concert programme. These kutcheri, or Carnatic music concerts, follow a programme of the following items: a varnam, or opening item that highlights the musical features of a raga (a melodic framework of fixed ascending and descending musical scales, characterised by musical motifs or how notes are emphasised in a melodic structure); various kriti, which typically consist of three sections in a progressive structure of variations, namely pallavi, anupallavi, and charanam; a climactic item comprising a prolonged piece with elaborate improvisations in a ragam-tanam-pallavi structure (improvisation without rhythm pattern, the addition of some rhythm, and finally the song with full rhythmic accompaniment); and conclude with a thillana, which incorporates rhythmic syllables in its melody.
Local innovations include the formation of “Indian orchestras” that incorporate both Carnatic and Hindustani musicians and instruments, and Western musical elements like choirs. For instance, the People’s Association’s Singapore Indian Orchestra and Choir has performed Carnatic music, Hindustani music, incorporated acapella music and orchestral works of fusion pieces, as well as the use of traditional Chinese and Malay instruments. The formation of such orchestras has increased the importance of a conductor’s role, which is non-existent in Carnatic music as musicians simply follow the talam or beat when performing. It has also demonstrated the multicultural aspects of Indian music traditions in Singapore.
This trend of cross-cultural performances of Carnatic music is highly sought after, with musician Mr Ghanavenothan Retnam noting a trend of “fusion music” since the 2000s. While he prefers to term them as music “collaborations” rather than “fusions”, these developments reflect the multicultural context of playing Carnatic music in Singapore.