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Indian Music - Everything You Need to Know about Music of India

28 Oct 2021


12 min read


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Indian Music

The ever-expanding treasure trove of Indian music traditions is as diverse as the country's cultures, languages, and people. There are many different musical genres, such as classical, semi-classical, folk, and modern music, all of which are diverse in their procedures, renditions, and appeal, yet all of which are unified, like pearls strung together on a thread.

Exploring the various genres and traditions of Indian music and learning about them from the ground up would be a rewarding experience in and of itself. There are fascinating stories that every music fan either already knows or would like to hear.

Here is where I take my first steps into the intriguing world.

Will you come with me? Let’s go...

Tracing the roots of the Indian music 

What makes the music of India so vivid and vibrant?

Broadly, there are two schools of Indian classical music - Carnatic music and Hindustani music. The Mughal courts contributed significantly to the development of Hindustani music in the northern half of the country.

Carnatic music arose in South India, and it is thought to have preserved the old approach to music.

However, there is much more to the history of Indian music than these two classifications. Here are a few snippets from the past, as well as a humble attempt to get to the root of Indian music traditions.

The first word that defines the music of India

Much before the Mughals set foot in the Northern part of India, Indian classical music primarily had three fundamental elements - the ragas, talas, and pada. 

The ragas - reiterating at least five or more Swaras (notes or micro notes) to form a baroque of melodious pieces or musical composition. 

The talas use the time cycle to abide this musical piece into a rhythmic frame. It is the unison of Sur (tune) and tala that enhances the beauty of a musical composition.

The pada refers to the text that complements and adds substance to Swara and tala. It renders profoundness to the musical composition.   

Earliest Mentions

The concepts of Nritya, Vadya, and Geeta, out of which ‘Sangeeta’ evolves as a genre, find mentions in Yaksha’s ‘Nirukta’ studies - one of the six Vedangas. Besides, ancient Hindu texts such as Samaveda and Rigveda are composed of rhythmic and melodious verses.

However, the most ancient texts that formally laid out the grammar for classical music of India include Natya Shastra written by Bharatmuni and Sangita-Ratnakara by Sarangadeva. 

Gandharva and Gana

Bharata classifies music into two types - Gandharva and Gana. Gandharva was defined as the Marga music that sang praises of Lord Shiva. 

Legend has it that Lord Shiva used to teach the Marga music in his veena. In due course of time, Gandharva music, which was more formal in its composition and rendition, would be revered as the highest and the most chaste form of music. 

Indian classical vocal and instrumental music in its purest form, and the way ragas evolved over time have their roots in Gandharva music.

In due course of time, Gandharva evolves into several other features for example sruti, jaati and gitika.

While Gandharva was meant to be staunchly composed for devotional purposes, Gana was meant for entertainment.  Literally meaning song, Gana was meant to be a part of natya or drama. 

Both Gandharva and Gana were different in their svarupa (structure) or the way they deployed swara, tala, and pada, phala (overall outcome of the composition and rendering), kaala (occasion and pretext), and dharma (a distinctive characteristic that defines both.) 

Indian musical instruments - Classification on the basis of acoustic principles

The musical instruments of India can be further classified into four categories on the basis of acoustic principles, which include:

  • Chordophones or string instruments, for example, Veena, Tanpura, Ektara, Sarod, Sitar, Sarangi, Behala, and Violin - to name a few. 
  • Aerophones or hollow instruments, for example, Harmonium, Flutes, and Saxophones
  • Idiophones or solid instruments, for example, cymbals, xylophone, glass harp, jal tarang, etc 
  • Membranophones or covered instruments for example drums, dhol, mridangam, tabla, and pakhawaj. 

While the melodic feature of music or raga evolved through vocal, chordophones, and aerophones, tala or timekeeping features of music developed with the help of idiophones and membranophones. 

The Progressive Feature of Indian Classical Music

Western classical music is harmonic. It involves several instruments being played together in sync with each other, for example - an orchestra or an opera. This involves a pre-composed structure that every performer has to follow. There is no scope for individual improvisation or contribution. 

The scene with the classical music of India is different...      

Firstly, Indian music is melodic and secondly, it supports solo performances. The melodic nature of Indian music supports continual enhancement and improvisation. It allows every performer or music composer the freedom to experiment with sur, lay, and taan, and thus add their valuable inputs to the raga.

From Gandharva and Gana - Branching out to the varied types of Indian music

Is it possible to count the foliages of a tree that has its roots deep into the very core of human civilization and its tips ripping the sky apart and still reaching up and beyond all limits for possibilities to grow and prosper more? That is how it feels when it comes to mapping the types of Indian music.

Gharanas of Indian Music

A significant distinguisher or path-definer of traditional Indian music is the set of Gharanas. The Gharanars are very typical of the north Indian musical lineage or Hindustani music. 

Hindustani music was primarily cultivated in the Mughal court. And after the fall of the Mughal empire, this musical lineage fell apart and got constricted to the houses of the practitioners. The music practitioners dispersed in several Princely states including Gwalior, Agra, Hyderabad, Lucknow, Rampur, Patiala, etc.

The word ‘gharana’ comes from ‘ghar,’ the hindi word for house. Several vocal and instrumental musical ideologies such as Khyal, Thumri, Dhrupad, Tabla, Sitar and Sarod were each cultivated in such distinguished ‘Gharanas.’ These Gharanas take their names from the place of residence of the practicing families of these musical ideologies.  

Facilitators of Growth for the Gharanas  

Each of these musical ideologies or ‘gharanas’ gets more refined and distinguished in their musical compositions and renditions in due course of time. There are certain principles that are staunchly followed by these Gharanas. The two prime factors are mentioned below:

Guru-shishya Parampara

Guru-shishya Parampara has been at the core of the Gharana tradition in Indian classical music. The early doyens of each Gharana were extremely guarded regarding their musical ideologies and styles. 

The skillset was handed down only to their own off-springs or extremely worthy and deserving kids within the family or their relatives.

If at all these masters taught anyone outside their clan or from some other Gharana, it would be a crucial decision. The aspiring student would have to pass through several tests to prove his worth. Other than that, marital alliances also facilitated the exchange of knowledge between these Gharanas.

Seasoned masters of these traditional Indian music gharanas always emphasize a few attributes that every learner should have –

First, music is a Guru-mukhi vidya. The student sits in front of the master and observes his style as he performs a recital. Thus, the students immaculate and repeat after him to internalize the skill and the styles.

Second, you must have an ‘ear for music.’ It implies that you should be able to identify whether a tune is perfect or not just by listening to it.

In the Guru-shishya Parampara, the masters used very stringent criteria to select their disciples. And having this ‘ear for music’ is one of the topmost criteria for selecting a deserving pupil who will take the tradition ahead.  

Last, but not least, learning music calls for complete surrender, dedication, and commitment to the mentor. It was a completely teacher-centric approach. And it was the student’s prerogative to make the teacher happy so that he would be generous in imparting the knowledge.    

Coming from the conventional education system, it is very difficult for us to appreciate or even comprehend the virtues of guru-shishya parampara. However, this is one of the significant contributors to the unadulterated magnanimity that Indian classical music has been able to maintain even today.  

Oral Tradition

Having spoken about Guru-shishya Parampara, the other factor that contributed to the way Indian classical music has shaped up is its oral tradition. Be it vocal or instrumental, music was practiced by singing or playing the instrument.

Once again, this practice was observed to keep the learnings within a close circle of people who had been trained and trusted to preserve the sanctity of the musical tradition.    

However, in the process, the oral tradition also facilitated improvisation and contribution from each practitioner. It helped in making the Gharana grow and flourish continually through the generations.

And thus…

We have come a long way tracing the pug marks right from the time music sprouted in the soils of India. And it is only a lifetime of bliss to trace its evolution further as it foliages into the magnanimity as it is at present. 

At present, both the schools of classical music - the Hindustani and Carnatic co-exist alongside several other genres that have been established in different parts of the country. Just like the vivid languages and cultures of the country, Indian music traditions display distinct flavors and characteristics.

From pure classical, the music further diversified into light classical, regional, and folk songs. Indian musicians have learned, explored, and contributed to the incremental growth process of the music of India. 

Indian music artists, across all music genres, have put the country’s name on the world map. Further, they even collaborated and embraced foreign styles with the styles and types of Indian music. The treasure trove only brimmed with several foreign contributions, starting with the medieval era experienced several Islamic influences to be followed by European influences starting from the mid-19th century. 

Moving ahead, the dialogues with foreign cultures only helped Indian musical traditions to grow richer and more opulent. In the subsequent chapters on ‘Different Musical Traditions in India,’ we will delve deeper into each facet of Indian music and map their growth trajectory further.

If you really like this article and share the same passion for music as we do, join explore Indian music online classes at ipassio.com. The platform offers the opportunity to take Hindustani music classes and many other vocal and instrumental classes from some of the best teachers from all over the world. 

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