World on Stage, Namaskaar Foundation, Music, Dance, Theatre

Indian Music

By Birendra Shankar

Once a King asked a sage how to make sculptures of the Gods. The sage said, “Someone who does not know the laws of painting could never understand the laws of sculpture. Someone who has no knowledge of the principles of instrumental music cannot know the laws of dancing. Someone who does not understand the art of vocal music cannot understand the principles of instrumental music”. Then the King eventually bowed in acceptance. “If vocal music is the source and goal of the Arts then please reveal to me the laws of vocal music”.

The music of India and its history are too complex to be described briefly. Nevertheless a brief introduction will help those who are new to Indian music; they will no doubt be more influenced by what they hear than by what they read but a foreknowledge of certain theoretical points may assist their appreciation.

Indian music has a very long, unbroken tradition – the accumulated heritage of centuries. The origin can be traced back to Vedic days – nearly two thousand years. The culture of India today is an outcome of the interaction and interweaving of races and cultures, both indigenous and foreign; and it is the study of the contribution of these various races and tribes that gives us the picture of the evolution of Indian music. The Negrito, the Mongoloids, the Dravidian, and the Aryan, have all contributed to the complexity of Indian culture.

North Indian music is popularly known as Hindusthani music and South Indian as Carnatic; their origin is the same. Only the approach and style are different. When and how the two main schools crystallized would be an interesting study but the earliest treatises of Indian music do not make any distinction between Northern and Southern schools.

One of the strongest and most significant influences has perhaps been that of Islam (and of Persian music); a few centuries of Muslim invasion and rule brought in its wake a changed perspective in the style of Northern Indian music, rather than in its structure. Not being part of the religious ritual it was necessarily fostered outside the places of worship; hence an element of physical pleasure, particularly of the courtier, became predominant.

It is interesting to note the influence of Indian music on sculpture and particularly painting. Painters have portrayed the theme of the Raga and they have named their paintings after the Ragas and Raginis. Both paintings and sculpture concentrate on creating contained, volume-filled forms. Great care is taken to keep the basis simple. The moving line and contained space complement each other, giving each other meaning. This is exactly analogous to the character of Indian musical melody, which moves in smooth united motions, including within its curves definite units of musical form.

Long continuity of growth is the outstanding quality of Indian music. It developed definite laws of theory, practice and comprehensive appreciation, and scholars carefully studied its aesthetic aspects.

The tradition of Indian music should be understood in the context of Indian life and thought. The theory and practice of Indian music are the logical result of a consistent development, a distinctive process, which plays an integral part in Indian history and culture. One should not listen to Indian music and judge it in terms of Western music or any other musical system. It would be like judging Beethoven or Brahms in terms of Raga (the basis of Indian melody) and Tala (the basis of Indian rhythm). Ideally, the western listener is requested to forget counterpoint, harmony, and mixed tone colours and to relax into the rhythmic and melodic patterns of a great cultural heritage.

Each melodic structure of Raga has something akin to a distinct personality subject to a prevailing mood. Early Indian writers on music, carried this idea further and endowed the Ragas with the status of minor divinities, with names derived from various sources, often indicating the origin or associations of the individual Ragas. In theoretical works on music each Raga was described in a short verse formula, which enabled the artist to visualize its essential personality during meditation prior to the performance. This borrowing of the meditational technique used in Hindu worship enabled the musician to enter into the mood of a particular Raga and thus perform it successfully.

Raga is neither a scale, nor a mode. It is, however, a scientific, precise, subtle, and aesthetic melodic form with its own peculiar ascending and descending movement which consists of either a full octave, or a series of six or five notes. An omission of a jarring or dissonant note, or an emphasis on a particular note, or the slide from one note to another; and the use of microtones along with other subtleties, distinguish one Raga from the other. There are 72 ‘Melas’, or parent scales, on which Ragas are based.

Raga has its own principal mood such as tranquillity, devotion, eroticism, loneliness, pathos, heroism, etc. In Indian music there is above all an awareness between man and nature, each acting and reacting on the other, and hence each Raga is associated, according to its mood, with a particular time if the day, night or a season. Improvisation is an essential feature of Indian music, depending upon the imagination and the creativity of an artist; a great artist can communicate and instill in his listener the mood of the Raga.

‘Tala’ is the second important factor on Indian music. These are rhythmic cycles ranging from 3 to 108 beats. The division on a Tala and the stress on the first beat, called ‘Sum’, are the most important features of these cycles. Talas having the same number of beats may have a stress on different beats, e.g. a bar of 10 beats may be divided as: 2-3-2-3, or 3-3-4, or 3-4-3. Within the framework of the fixed beats the drummer can improvise to the same extent as the principal artist. The most exciting moment for the seasoned listener is when both artists after going their separate ways, come back together with an accent or stress on the first beat. Thus, the ‘Sum’ becomes the most important beat of emphasis throughout a recital of Indian music, since this urge for unity and its fulfillment are the most rewarding experience.

ALAP is the first movement of the Raga. It is a slow, serene movement acting as an invocation and it gradually develops the Raga.

JOR begins with the added element of rhythm which (combining with the weaving of innumerable melodic patterns) gradually gains in tempo and brings the raga to the final movement.

JHALA is the final movement and climax. It is played with a very fast action of the plectrum which is worn on the right index finger.

GAT is the fixed composition. A gat can be in any Tala and can be spread over from 2 to 16 of its rhythmic cycles in any tempo, slow, medium or fast.

A gat (or fixed composition), whether vocal or instrumental, has generally two sections. The first part is called “pallavi” – South Indian term – or asthayi – North Indian term – which opens the composition and is generally confined to the lower and middle octaves. The following part of the composition is called the “anupallavi” (or antara) which usually extends from the middle to upper octaves. In South Indian music further melodic sections called “charana” follows the anupallavi.

Dadra rhythmic cycle of 6 beats divided 3-3.
Rupak rhythmic cycle of 7 beats divided 3-2-2.
Jhaptal rhythmic cycle of 10 beats divided 2-3-2-3.
Ektal rhythmic cycle of 12.
Adha-Chautal rhythmic cycle of 14 beats divided 2-4-4-4.
Teen-Tal rhythmic cycle of 16 beats divided 4-4-4-4.

Dhrupad compositions have four parts pr stanzas, viz. Asthayi, Antra, Sanchari, and Abhog. Dhrupad is accompanied only by the tanpura and pakhawaj. Dhrupad is considered to be the oldest classical vocal form of Hindusthani music.

Hori Dhamar: These compositions are akin to Dhrupad and enjoy identical status. Despite the variations in the themes of these compositions, all of them are associated with the festival of Holi (playing of colours) and the compositions are all of 14 beats time cycle.

Khayal: The Dhrupad style of music was replaced by the romantic Khayal (the word Khayal means imagination, idea). The most important features of a Khayal are ‘Tans’ or the running glides over notes and ‘Bol-tans’ which clearly distinguish it from ‘Dhrupad’. The slow (Vilambit) and fast (Drut) styles of Khayal are the two recognized types today.

Tappa: This is a distinct style having its origin in the Punjab. Its beauty lies in the quick and intricate display of various permutations and combinations of notes. It is strange that even though the Tappa lyrics are in Punjabi, Tappa is not sung in the Punjab. Banares and Gwalior are the strongholds of Tappa. Bengal has also been greatly influenced by the Tappa style.

Thumri: Thumri originated in the Eastern part of Uttar Pradesh. Its most distinct feature is the erotic subject matter picturesquely portraying the various episodes from the lives of Lord Krishna and Radha. The beauty of Thumri lies in the artist’s ability to convey musically as many shades of meaning as the words of a song can bear. It is a much freer form than ‘Khayal’.

VARNAM: A composition usually sung or played at the beginning of a recital. It reveals the general form of the Raga. The Varnam is made up of two parts: (1) The Purvanga or first half and (2) The Uttaranga or second half. The two halves are almost equal in length.

KRITI: A composed song set to a certain Raga and fixed Tala (rhythmic) cycle. It is a highly evolved musical form.

RAGAM: A melodic improvisation in free rhythm played without mridangam (drum) accompaniment.

TANAM: Another style of melodic improvisation in free rhythm.

PALLIVI: This is a short pre-composed melodic theme with words and set to one cycle of Tala. The pallavi has the following main features – around the words of the Pallavi. Here the soloist improvises new melodies built around the word pallavi. Neraval means ‘filling up’.

TRIKALAM: Is the section where the Pallavi is played in three tempi keeping the Tala constant.

SWARA-KALPANA: is the improvised section performed with the drummer on medium and fast speeds.

RAGAMALIKA: This is the final part of the Pallavi where the soloist improvises freely and comes back to the original theme at the end.


Sitar is the most popular stringed instrument of India and has been in use for about 700 years.
It is fashioned from a seasoned gourd and teakwood and has twenty metal frets with six or seven playing strings and nineteen sympathetic strings below. It is played with a plectrum worn on the finger.
Sitar has a long and complex heritage; its origin goes back to the ancient Veena. In the 13th Century Amir Khusru, in order to make the instrument more flexible, reversed the order of the strings and made the frets moveable. Ravi Shankar, the great musician-artist brought changes and a new perspective.

Sarod is another popular stringed instrument. The body is carved from a single piece of well-seasoned teakwood and the belly covered with goat skin. There are four main strings, six rhythm and drone strings and fifteen sympathetic strings, all made of metal. These are played by striking with a plectrum made of a coconut shell. The sarod has no frets. Sarod as been found in carvings of the 1st Century in Champa temple and also in paintings in the Ajanta caves. It also has a similarity with the Rabab of Afghanistan and Kashmir. The instrument was modified by Amir Khusru in the 13th Century. A definite change was made by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan in the shape of the instrument for improving the tonal quality.

The name derives from Sau Rangi meaning 100 colours. Sarangi is played with a bow and has four main strings and as many as forty resonant strings. It is generally used to accompany singers but can also be a solo instrument.

Tanpura is a four or five stringed instrument which gives the essential drone background to all Indian music.

Esraj is played with a bow and has many strings. It is one of the major instruments of North India.

Santoor is a North Indian instrument originating from Kashmir. It has more than a hundred strings which run across a hollow rectangular box and the strings are struck by a pair of slim carved walnut mallets.

Vichitra Veena is a comparatively recent addition to the veena family. It is a fretless stringed instrument with four main strings, three drone and rhythm strings and eleven to thirteen resonating strings. The strings are plucked by a plectrum on the index or middle finger of the right hand.

"Violin was introduced into India about 300 years ago and is a very important string instrument in the South of India. It is played in a sitting position and is held between the right foot and the left shoulder.

"Tabla is the overall term for two drums, which are played as accompaniment to North Indian music and dance. The musician uses the base of the palm as well as the fingers to produce great variation in sounds. The right-hand drum is tuned to the tonic dominant or sub-dominant and the left-hand drum acts as a base.

"Pakhawaj is a long bodied wooden drum with both ends covered in skin and is the most traditional drum of North India. Played horizontally with the fingers and palms of both hands, the right hand surface is tuned to the pitch required and the left hand surface provides the base.

"Mridangam is similar in appearance to the Pakhawaj but the ends have a different texture. It is the most used drum in South Indian music.

"Dholak is a side drum, cylindrical in shape, bored out of solid wood. Its pitch is variable and is an essential accompaniment for folk music of North India.

"Jal Tarang is essentially a water-xylophone. It is made up of a series of china bowls of varying sizes and they are filled with varying levels of water. These are then played with two light sticks.

"Pung is a long bodied drum with both ends covered in skin and plays an important role in Manipuri dancing when it is played by men and women, either in a sitting or standing position.

"Flute is found in every part of India, carved from bamboo it is mad in every possible size. It is usually played in a vertical position.

"Shehnai is a double reeded wind instrument with a widening tube towards the lower end. There are eight or nine holes, the upper seven for playing, the lower ones for tuning. The Shehnai is considered auspicious and is played on all festive occasions in India.

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