Appreciating Indian Classical Music - Part One: The History
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The recorded history of Indian classical music begins over three thousand years ago in the songs of the Samaveda, which are still sung by Hindu priests during ritual ceremonies today. However, the modern classical tradition encompasses a far wider range of influences from Turkish and Persian court music to Indian folk music. It can be enjoyed in concert halls worldwide, and through a wealth of recordings. It has influenced jazz and western popular and classical music, and of course the vast musical output of Indian cinema.
In this series of articles, I’ll introduce the history of Indian classical music and its instruments, styles and practitioners, with the emphasis on how to get the most pleasure and enjoyment out of it.
Indian classical music split into two branches: the northern Hindustani tradition, influenced by the musical traditions of the Mughals, and the southern Carnatic tradition which remained more or less culturally Hindu and devotional in nature
Apart from the Samaveda, our first glimpse of classical music comes from sculptures of musicians and dancers in Hindu temples and a Sanskrit treatise on the performing arts called the Natyashastra, written some time between 300 BCE and 300 CE. This discusses music in its role as an accompaniment to devotional performances including dance and music which retold stories from Hindu legend. This tradition developed into modern classical dance forms such as Bharatnatyam, Kathakali and Odissi, but the music which accompanies them is very different to that described in the Natyashastra. A profusion of regional folk music traditions, first documented in Matanga’s ninth century work Brhaddeshi, influenced the theory and practice of classical music to the extent that the earlier works were obsolete by the twelfth century.
The word “classical” is essentially a euphemism indicating that the music’s patrons and primary audience are the elites of society. Originally, these patrons would have been Hindu kings and their courts, who built and supported the temples where classical dancers and musicians (who formed a caste of low status) performed. Following the Muslim invasions of India from the thirteenth century onwards, classical music still formed a central part of courtly entertainment, with the prestige of rulers determined in part by the excellence of their musicians. Muslim emperors and the aristocracy became the patrons of classical music and musicians, the majority of whom were also Muslims either by birth or through conversion.
Musical knowledge was kept in the family, passed down from one generation to the next. Nevertheless it was not unusual for Muslim musicians, who remained low caste, to be taught by Hindus. Hence the sixteenth century emperor Akbar’s court musician Miyan Tansen, one of the most famous figures in Indian classical music, was taught by the Hindu mystic Swami Haridas.
Around this time, Indian classical music split into two branches: the northern Hindustani tradition, influenced by the musical traditions of the Mughals, and the southern Carnatic tradition which remained more or less culturally Hindu and devotional in nature. Both traditions differ from their ancestors and each other. However, even now they share the following common features. There is normally one principal performer, or sometimes two in which case the performance is known as a jugalbandi, which has elements of both a duet and a duel. There is accompaniment in the form of one or more percussionists, a drone instrument such as a tambura (traditionally played by one of the soloist’s students, but sometimes replaced with an electronic device due to the lamentable lack of an Indian Musicians’ Union), and optionally a supporting melodic instrument such as a sarangi or violin.
Perhaps the most obvious musical feature of a performance is that concept of harmony does not exist in the modern tradition: there is never more than a single melodic line, even when more than one singer or instrumentalist is playing together. The other major difference from Western music is that each piece remains for its duration in its prescribed raag and taal.
The overwhelming majority of each performance is improvised on the spot, making each performance melodically unique. The musicians will almost certainly never have practiced together, and it is unusual for any musician other than the soloist to have a clue what will be performed
The concepts of raag and taal (ragam and talam in Carnatic music) are fundamental to the Indian classical tradition, and hence require a brief explanation. The raag was first defined in Matanga’s Brhaddeshi, in a frequently quoted passage in which he describes it as “that particularity of notes and melodic movements, or that distinction of melodic sound by which one is delighted” (Bor, J (1999) The Raga Guide. Nimbus: London; p9). This definition is still accurate now — each raag has a prescribed upwards and downwards scale which uses five to seven notes, and one or more melodic sequences which allow listeners to recognise it instantly.
In addition, each raag has one or more notes which should be emphasised, and sometimes notes which are to be treated specially, perhaps through the application of ornamentation, or by making them slightly flatter or sharper than usual. Many raags share the same scale, but they are all distinguishable by one or more of these other features. In the Hindustani tradition, each raag has a time of day during which it is supposed to be performed. Some raags are also associated with certain seasons, and a few are credited with magical powers such as the ability to start fires or attract spirits.
A taal is a cyclical (in other words repeated) rhythmic pattern. Each taal has a given number of beats, and is divided into sections which vary in emphasis. In the Hindustani tradition every taal is defined by a series of drum syllables known as a theka. You have probably heard these in the spoken form used to teach them, since this sometimes crops up in performances — for example a common twelve beat cycle called ektal is defined as “Dhin Dhin DhaGe TiTaKiTa Tu Na Ka Ta DhaGe TiTaKiTa Dhi Na”. In the Carnatic tradition, the cycles are defined by stringing together a sequence of basic rhythmical units. However this sequence is usually expressed in terms of a pattern of hand motions or kriyas, a modified version of which are also used in the Hindustani tradition. In any Indian classical concert you’ll be able to spot a few connoisseurs moving their hands in the pattern prescribed by the taal — and you’ll sometimes see the performers doing the same thing. That’s it for the theory.
Probably the most striking difference between the western and Indian classical traditions is the importance of improvisation. The overwhelming majority of each performance is improvised on the spot, making each performance melodically unique. The musicians will almost certainly never have practiced together, and it is unusual for any musician other than the soloist to have a clue what will be performed. Given this, it is mind-blowing to see the speed with which incredibly complex passages are improvised by the performers, with soloists, percussionists and accompanists engaged in creating a multi-layered but unified interaction of rhythm and melody that is precisely calculated to bring out the essence of the raag and mood set out in the composition.
In the next article, we’ll take a look at the main styles of Hindustani music and their practitioners, and go into more detail on the structure of performances from this tradition.
Akbar and Tansen visit Swami Haridas, mid 18th century illustration (National Museum, New Delhi)
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