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Book Chapter

Handwritten notation in Karnatak music: Memory and the mediation of social relations


Pearson,  Lara       
Department of Music, Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Max Planck Society;

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Pearson, L., & Ramanujacharyulu, T. K. V. (2023). Handwritten notation in Karnatak music: Memory and the mediation of social relations. In F. Celestini, & S. Lutz (Eds.), Musikalische Schreibszenen (pp. 285-303). Paderborn: Brill | Fink. doi:10.30965/9783846767146_012.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-000D-B009-2
In the South Indian musical tradition known as Karnāṭaka Saṅgīta, or Karnatak music, notation is often handwritten during lessons by either the teacher or student. This tendency to write music notation out by hand persists despite the existence of published notation for many compositions. In this paper we argue that the practice of handwriting notation has important affordances for musicians that likely account for its persistence: affordances relating to memorisation, ideals of musical lineage, authenticity, value and creativity in the style. We show how each of these features are supported by current notational practices and explore the interrelationships between them.

This reflection on the practice of handwriting music notation is a collaboration between the well-known Karnatak violinist T. K. V. Ramanujacharyulu,1 based in Srirangam, Tamil Nadu, and one of his students, Lara Pearson, who studied with T. K. V. in Srirangam for long periods between 2010–2012.2 In addition, we draw from an interview conducted with another of T. K. V.’s students, Srirangam A. K. Shruthi Ranjani, with her kind permission. In a series of online discussions in late 2021 we explored aspects of Karnatak music notation of interest to each of us, and from this we distilled a number of key topics that will be elaborated on in this paper: namely, how notation is used (and not used), the skill of writing music notation, the ways in which handwritten notation assists in comprehending and assimilating a composition, the preservation of compositions across generations while also affording performer creativity, and the creation and maintenance of social connections across musical lineages. These topics intersect in various ways with wider themes of creativity, memory, material culture and the mediation of social relations, which will also be discussed in this essay. We propose that handwritten notation in this style is best understood as a prompt for memories, both of music and of people and events, and that, as a result, the notation can contribute to the forging and articulation of social connections. Music notation in general has previously been interpreted as mediating social relations,3 but here we explore the particularly embodied case of handwritten notations, where the notations involve physical acts of inscription that take place in a specific social context. We explore this through an (auto)ethnographic methodology: as a case study that is based on our collective experiences.