An Overview of Indian Music
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
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.
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
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,
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
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.
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
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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