An Overview of Indian Music

Bharat Gupt


The author is an associate professor of English, University of Delhi, and well-known cultural exponent. This general introduction to Indian music is reproduced here with Dr. Bharat Gupt’s permission.


Music-Indian is the most dominant form of Asian music. Its influence extends beyond the subcontinent into China and the Far East on one side and through Iran, Iraq and Turkey up to Greece on the other. It is still preserves the oldest tradition of playing the monophonic melodic line untouched by the use of vertical harmony and tampered scale. It has the most complicated and varied system of rhythmic cycles and is still based upon the ancient concept that the human voice is the foremost expression of musical emotion and therefore all instruments should also be played to imitate and accompany it. Consequently, it also preserves the lyric and its literary content as a major feature but does not maintain a system of a written notational score to be followed while performing. Except for the lyrics, most of the structure and score of the music is created by the performer during performance along certain traditionally accepted norms.

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Historical-Cultural Roots

The earliest kind of Indian music consists of the Vedic mantras or chants (various scholars dating it from 2nd to 5th millennium BCE) in ancient Sanskrit verses employed in the religious rites of sacrifices offered to the gods. These chants were tritonal in the recitation of the Rigveda but later employed seven notes in the descending order in the singing of the Samaveda. Descriptions of the non-ritual music of the times do not survive but some later texts like the Nardiyashiksha do state the differences between the Vedic chants and the non-Vedic music of the times.

A more detailed description of the secular music is found in the classical period in the great work of theatre theory called the Natyashastra (5th cent B.C.) by Bharata Muni. Here we find an extensive musicological account of the grammar and practice of Indian music which prevailed in ancient India and lasted till medieval times. Music is called “gandharva” in the Natyashastra after the region of “Gandhara” (modern Kandahar in Afghanistan) which must have been a great centre of music in the past to name the art after it. Even in the Natyashastra, a category of celestial musicians were called Gandharvas. It has been suggested that the Greek Kentauros, also adept in the arts, are a version of Gandharvas, indicating thus the musical links between Greek Ionia and western India.

During the age of the formulation of the Natyashastra certain melodic tunes called the Jatis were in vogue all over India. This fund of Jatis was used to formulate scale-groups (gramas), scales (murcchanas), notes (svaras) and note intervals or microtones (shrutis). The Indian septette was not made of the tetrachords like the Greek one, but consisted of two trichords. Shadja, rishabha, and gandhara was one trichord, while pancama, dhaivata and nishada was the other. They were placed on either side of the middle note called madhyama. In short signs the notes could be put as:


sa, ri, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni.


A sequence of any seven notes was called a murcchana. Unlike the universal practice now, the first note of the septette (or scale) was not always the tonic, that is sa or 'do'. Any note of a murcchana could be made the tonic. In their so called natural positions in a septette, shadja and madhyama made a consonance of fourth, as did madhayama and nishada. Shadja and pancama made a consonance of fifth. This septette was also fixed as the first murcchana of the Shadjagrama. By placing the tonic on one note at a time, that is for the first murcchana at sa for the second at ri, seven murcchanas could be obtained. This scale-group was called the Shadjagrama and its seven pure murcchanas.

The other generic scale called the Madhyamagrama was obtained in the following manner. In the fourth murcchana of the Shadjagrama, that is the scale ma, pa, dha, ni, sa, ri, ga, an alteration was made. A consonance of fourth was created between pa and ri (which would mean that pa was lowered slightly by what is called a diesis (Pythagorean) thus changing the scale. And then seven murcchanas were obtained by placing the tonic each time at one note. Thus all the scale-group of the Madhyamagrama and its seven pure murcchanas had a consonance of fifth between pa and ri notes. In other words, all scales that had a consonance of fifth between sa and pa were categorised in the Shadjagrama and all the scales in which there obtained a consonance of fifth between pa and ri were put in the Madhyamagrama. Sadjagrama contained seven Jatis, namely, Shadji, Arshabhi, Dhaivati, Naisadi, Sadjodicyava, Sadjakaisiki and Shadjamadhya. Madhyamagrama contained eleven Jatis namely Gandhari, Madhyama, Gandharodicyava, Pancami, Gandharapancami, Raktagandhari, Madhyam-odicyava, Nandayanti, Karmaravi, Andhri, and Kaisiki.

All the prevalent tunes of the times, i.e. the jatis were put into either grama and by further flattening or sharpening of ga and ni more variations were made. The Natyashastra has classified eighteen jatis, seven as pure and eleven as hybrid. The pure could make 146 modified forms. The hybrid also had many variations. Besides, a third grama called Gandharvagrama was believed to have been in vogue but was said to have gone out of use very early.

It should be noted that there was no concept of a fixed pitch for the notes in ancient India as there is still none in Indian music. The tonic was shifted from the one note to another to create a different murcchanas but the actual tuning of the harp which always accompanied the singer would not be altered so drastically.

The fundamental concepts needed to expand upon a melodic structure were well formulated by the time of the Natyashastra and they continue to practised till date albeit with change of names. The ten characteristics of a jati that gave shape to its presentation continue to do so for a raga today. Amsha was the most dominating note of the melody and was also the tonic. Graha was the note with which an exposition was begun, and nyasa the note to which the performer returned each time on the completion a melodic phrase. Apanyasa was the note auxiliary to nyasa. Tara was the upper register and mandra the lower. When only six out of the seven notes of the scale were used for a melody, the usage was called shadava and when five it was named audava. Abundant usage of certain notes was named bahutva and sparing usage was named alpatva.

In modern times, amsha, graha, nyasa, apanyasa are practiced but vernacular terms used for these usages.

From the descriptions of these and concepts it seems that the jatis were sung pretty much as are the ragas today. The preliminary wordless expansion of the melody called alapana was made and then compositions to the accompaniment of the drums rendered. The embellishments were also quite the same. There is however, no clear indication, that any instrument or a set of voices produced the tonic and its consonant as a constant drone in the way the modern instrument tambura does for all kinds of Indian music today.

Another distinct feature of Indian musical theory, the relationship between melodies and emotions like fear, pity, courage, erotic desire etc., was also postulated in this period. Specific notes were mentioned as capable of arousing specific emotions and a system of their use in melodies was explained.

In ancient times, the analysis of notes and their intervals was facilitated by harps (vinas). The system of Vedic chants was kept insulated from this musical system of Gramas and Jatis and no interaction was allowed between the two. No Vedic verse would be sung in a secular scale or a non-Vedic text be sung in the Vedic tones. This insulation has been kept till just about a decade ago. The Gandharva system was used for all the spiritual, ritual, liturgical, theatrical, aesthetic and social needs and a very wide variety of instruments (strings, pipes, drums and cymbals) were used.

Besides ritual practices music was used widely in ancient Indian theatre, dance and poetic compositions in many languages. Besides Sanskrit, a large number languages like Pali, Magadhi, Avanti, Shaurseni, Tamil and others used for all purposes. A variety of songs (gitas, prabandhas) from all over the country are recorded. All ancient string instruments were harp like, similar to kithara. The zither was also known but used very sparingly. From 2nd cent A.D. records show that music acquired a central place in the temples and monasteries or the ashrams as they were called. It was also highly patronised at the royal courts and the abounding courtesan-houses.

By the sixth century CE, the older system of grama-jati expanded into the more and more of mixed scales for creating melodies called the grama-ragas and bhasha-ragas etc. The ancient jatis came to be reserved for the more esoteric music. After a few centuries the ragas emerged as the basic scales without the gramas and and murcchana classifications.

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Medieval Transition

With the Turkish invasion in India in the beginning of the twelfth century CE and the establishment of the Islamic governments in most part of the country a major change in the environment of the performing arts was ushered in. As a consequence of the puritanic denunciation of the Islamic clergy music was patronised by the royalty as a deviation. Most of the Indian dancing and its music, which was either temple worship or theatrical repertoire (mostly centering around Hindu myths) had neither any place in the royal courts nor could be funded by the Islamic rulers who were often rabid iconoclasts. The fury of temple destruction that raged for nearly four centuries in most parts of India except the deep South, rendered all the arts supported at temple-complexes, theatres and courtesan houses homeless. Only the concert repertoire of vocal and instrumental music presentable largely as chamber music could be patronised by those rulers who could afford to disregard the censure of their clergy. This was the genre of music that survived and even flourished and drew performers of other genres. It also came into a major interchange with the musicians from Iran and other Middle Eastern nations. Besides the royal court, the Indian musicians found the many sects (silsilas) of Sufis saints and their camps (dargahs) sites where music was valued as a legitimate method of worship. But such places being mendicant could provide less material patronage more of audience. Vernacular songs for ecstatic dancing (samah) and in praise of the prophet and his sayings (qawali) were cultivated and acquired great popularity.

The Indian musician thus turned in a big way to the Hindu monastic centres (ashrams) of saints and mendicants located more often outside towns and villages. For the average Hindu devotee the ashrams were replacements of the great temple complexes as spaces of spiritual, cultural and aesthetic activity. But the music that developed here was largely devotional, hymnical and other-worldly supporting the great flowering of devotional poetry in modern vernaculars. In Northern India, earlier vernacular compositions called Prabandhas were first replaced by new compositions in Brijbhashas Hindi called Dhruvapadas and later by Khayals, Thumris, Dadras etc.In the South devotional compositions in many vernaculars also abounded and are now known as Kritis, Varnams, Pallavis, Jawalis etc. They are all in praise of the gods like Krishna, Rama, Shiva, Devi, the power of Nada (sound as a cosmic principle) and yogic consciousness. This music cultivated in the ashrams was also patronised at the royal courts both Islamic and Hindu.

Around the fourteenth century CE, a major shift occurred in the musical grammar of India. The grama-murcchana system which provided for shifting of the tonic from one note to another (a sort of a plagal system) was abandoned to evolve a new system which came to be called the melas in which the tonic was fixed on the first note of the septette, the sa. Instead of allowing the modification in the position of all seven notes as in the earlier system, now five notes were added to the septette, that is flat ri, sharp ga, sharp ma, flat dha and sharp ni to make a series of twelve notes. Sa and pa, at a consonance of fifth, were made unchanging notes. This is first stated by Lochana in his Ragatarangini (circa 15th cent. CE). The development of the fretted zithers and the impact of the Persian maqam system is said to be the major cause of this change. The mela system is called thaat in Northern India.

Around the same time, the Indian music came to acquire some diverse and distinctive characteristics along the geographic division of the North and the South. In the North for classical music most lyrics were composed in Brijbhasha Hindi and in the South in Telugu. Differences in stylistic renderings, names of the ragas, and beats, use of instruments and nature of embellishments and methods of training and modes of performance also contributed to give them different identities in spite of a common base. Northern music (also called Hindustani) still concentrates on the expansion of the melodic structure through alapana and improvisation, progression of rhythm from slow to fast and the work off the lead performer. Its compositions are also on erotic themes, descriptive of seasonal and natural beauty besides being hymnical. Southern music (also called Karnataka) has reduced alapana, preserved better the lyrical composition, centers on the middle beat, emphasises group work and rhythmic variety. The content of all its lyrics is nearly always religious.

Malkaus, Todi, Kalyana, Jaijaiwanti, Bihag, Piloo, are some of the popular Hindustani ragas and Kalyani, Hindolam, Sauviri, Malayamarutam, Bhoop are some of the Karnataka ones.

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Its Present State

The variety of music performed in the length and breadth of the nation is still staggeringly large. From the thousands of years old chanting of the Sanskrit mantras of the four Vedas, to the latest film hits, there are tribal and ritual songs of marriage, birth, naming, clothing, bathing, leaving home and death etc. in 28 languages and 600 dialects across the subcontinent. The traditions of Hindustani and Karnataka are moving closer in a healthy interchange. After the independence of India from British occupation in 1947, for three decades classical music was a major source of encouraging national pride at home and abroad.

In spite of its very archaic features Indian music has adapted with ease to the modern technical innovations from the microphone to the microchip without altering any of its content adversely. The technological revolution actually helped its spread within India and over the world to influence the music of many nations. The process of notating and printing the lyrics, so far handed down only orally, began early in the early twentieth century. This was followed by taking the folk and classical performer to the modern concert hall and the radio. Artists were recorded for the gramophone as early as in the West. Indian film industry, which also found its feet very early, consolidated the immense variety of music from all parts of India and transmitted it to the global listener. Through films, it is a major influence on the countries like Iran, Iraq, Turkey, the Gulf and states of Central Asia. In spite of the emergence of global pop, it has succeeded in maintaining its very distinct identity and independence from Western music. Its classical performers have taken it alive to all corners of the world and abounds increasingly in private collections.

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Bharatakosa (1951): A dictionary of technical terms with definitions collected from the works on Music and Dramaturgy by Bharata and Others. Compiled by M. Ramakrishna Kavi. Tirupati: Tirupati Devasthanam.

BHARATAMUNI. Natyasastram with Abhinahavabhi. Ed. Ramakrishna

Kavi. 4 vols. Gaekwad’s Oriental Series. Baroda: Oriental Institute, vol. I (1956), vol. II (1934), vol. III (1954), vol. IV (1964).

GASTON, A. Krishna's Musicians (1997). Delhi: Manohar Publishers.

GUPT, Bharat (1996). Natyasastra, Chapter 28. Ancient Scales of Indian Music. With Sañjivanam commentary by Acarya Brihaspati. Introduced and Trans. by Bharat Gupt. Delhi: Brahaspati Publication.

GUPT, Bharat (1994). Dramatic Concepts: Greek and Indian. A Study of Poetics and the Natyasastra. Delhi: D.K. Printworld.

GAUTAM, M R (1980). The Musical Heritage of India. Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

SWAMI PRAJNANANDA (1965). A Historical Study of Indian Music. Calcutta. Anandadhara Publication.

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