Magic Moments in Music: Solkattu (or Konnakol)

Posted on July 28, 2011

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I used to volunteer as an English teacher to a group of elderly ladies. One of them was quite the multi-tasker – she sang, danced, sewed costumes, organised tours and was also an active member in the local affiliate of the Soka Gakkai Association, a religious movement founded in the 13th century by the Japanese monk Nichiren. (Adherents practice Nichiren Buddhism.) This was quite an eclectic group, comprising members of different ethnicities and backgrounds. And so, apparently, cultural performances were regularly organized as bonding sessions.

That was why I found myself in possession of three tickets to some cultural event after English class one day. I was actually pretty bummed – the location sucked balls and to be honest, watching some over-lipsticked kids in homemade costumes warbling infantile folktunes on a Friday evening was not extremely appealing. Especially when the alternative was sitting in a pub getting smashed. But still, she was sweet, earnest, and clearly excited; and also, what kind of mud-smeared soul says no to a lovely old lady?

So on Friday my then-boyfriend and myself made the trek. I had three tickets as my brother was supposed to come along, but being morally decrepit, I didn’t even actually bother to ask him. Miz Lady was crestfallen about the “wasted ticket” when she met me at the entrance of the auditorium; I was ungracious enough to feel a flash of irritation at that. I made my way to the seats in the furthest corner of the auditorium and squirmed uncomfortably on the foldable plastic chair throughout the emcee’s introductions, which I don’t remember.

I also do not much remember the first performance, which was a Carnatic string quartet of four elderly men playing their instruments as though they were having a lively conversation, with twinkles in their eyes. It was highly enjoyable, but thoroughly eclipsed by what followed.

Preethi Ramaprasad dancing, photo by R. Shivaji Rao

Before watching this show, all I knew about Indian dance was limited to second-long glimpses of Bollywood movies, in which lead characters gyrated and thrust against a backdrop of many, many, many backup dancers. But this dance didn’t look like that. It was elegant, controlled, joyful. And, to my amazement, as I watched it dawned upon me that the dancer was telling me a story. Each footstamp, each curve of a bangled arm, each flick of henna-red fingers meant something. There were words, sentences, punctuations, in her movement. She narrated a paragraph just by moving across the stage.

And even though I didn’t speak the language she was relating her tale in, just looking at her was exhilarating. Her dance was pure and wholesome and natural in its beauty, like a mountain, or rainfall, or a blossom. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.

And the music that accompanied it! What was that? It was a crazy, deeply rhythmic.. rap-like sound. It was just one voice, but each spoken beat made my muscles twitch in response. It sounded ancient to the point of timelessness. And it went so perfectly with the dance. I couldn’t believe it. I was transfixed, transported. I forgot the wasted ticket, the plastic seat, the long ride, the sweet lady who gave me the ticket, my boyfriend, the room, everything. I had never, ever felt so immersed, so captured by anything before.

It was only much later that I discovered this dance was called Bharatanatyam, a classical South Indian temple dance. And the music the beautiful nymph moved so perfectly so was Solkattu.

The late P.S.Devarajan

Over the years, I have kept up with my love for Bharatanatyam, but have neglected Solkattu somewhat, although it is no less wondrous an artform. Solkattu is the rhythm language of the Carnatic music tradition of South India. It consists of spoken rhythms, hand-clapping and is usually accompanied with drums called the mridangam, a two-headed jackwood barrel drum. It’s also known as a vocal percussion, or an “onomatopoetic drum syllable language”. Two aspects are prevalent – the voice, and the beat. It really has to be heard to be believed. A skilled Solkattu performer has to pay extraordinary attention to musical time, rhythm and voice modulation.

The tala, or rhythmic cycle, reigns supreme in a Solkattu performance, and I love how world music site Ancient Future explains it:

The concept of the ever-recurring cyclic rhythms of the universe is one of the basic tenets of Hindu philosophy. The perception of the cyclic nature of life is reflected in Indian classical music through the device of tala, a recurring time-measure or rhythmic cycle. Just as in the Hindu religion, man is born, lives his life, dies and is then reincarnated to begin a new life, so the tala cycle begins, develops and then returns to the sam, the first beat of the cycle, anchor of all melody and rhythm and the leading beat to which all returns.

You keep the tala with claps, waves and fingercounts, the latter of which is precise to the point of dictating which finger taps on which palm.

Youtube isn’t exactly flooded with Solkattu performances (although there’s some white dude teaching it on his channel), but this is a good representation. It’s as beautiful to me as the first time I heard it four years ago.

Here’s what it sounds like:

And if you wanna learn it… there’s MATH involved. (but seriously, man. Just wait for the dude to start playing.)