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Indian classical music

Indian classical music

Indian classical music is the classical music of the Indian subcontinent.[1] It is generally described using terms like Marg Sangeet and Shastriya Sangeet.[2] It has two major traditions: the North Indian classical music known as Hindustani and the South Indian expression known as Carnatic.[3] These traditions were not distinct until about the 15th century. During the period of Mughal rule of the Indian subcontinent, the traditions separated and evolved into distinct forms. Hindustani music emphasizes improvisation and exploration of all aspects of a raga, while Carnatic performances tend to be short composition-based.[3] However, the two systems continue to have more common features than differences.[4] Another unique classical music tradition from Eastern part of India, i. e. Odissi music has evolved since two thousand years ago.

The roots of the classical music of India are found in the Vedic literature of Hinduism and the ancient Natyashastra, the classic Sanskrit text on performing arts by Bharata Muni.[5][6] The 13th century Sanskrit text Sangeeta-Ratnakara of Sarangadeva is regarded as the definitive text by both the Hindustani music and the Carnatic music traditions.[7][8]

Indian classical music has two foundational elements, raga and tala. The raga, based on a varied repertoire of swara (notes including microtones), forms the fabric of a deeply intricate melodic structure, while the tala measures the time cycle.[9] The raga gives an artist a palette to build the melody from sounds, while the tala provides them with a creative framework for rhythmic improvisation using time.[10][11][12] In Indian classical music the space between the notes is often more important than the notes themselves, and it traditionally eschews Western classical concepts such as harmony, counterpoint, chords, or modulation.[13][14][15]


The root of music in ancient India are found in the Vedic literature of Hinduism. The earliest Indian thought combined three arts, syllabic recital (vadya), melos (gita) and dance (nrtta).[16] As these fields developed, sangeeta became a distinct genre of art, in a form equivalent to contemporary music. This likely occurred before the time of Yāska (c. 500 BCE), since he includes these terms in his nirukta studies, one of the six Vedanga of ancient Indian tradition. Some of the ancient texts of Hinduism such as the Samaveda (c. 1000 BCE) are structured entirely to melodic themes,[17][18] it is sections of Rigveda set to music.[19]

The Samaveda is organized into two formats. One part is based on the musical meter, another by the aim of the rituals.[20] The text is written with embedded coding, where swaras (octave notes) are either shown above or within the text, or the verse is written into parvans (knot or member); in simple words, this embedded code of swaras is like the skeleton of the song. The swaras have about 12 different forms and different combinations of these swaras are made to sit under the names of different ragas. The specific code of a song clearly tells us what combination of swaras are present in a specific song. The lyrical part of the song is called “sahityam” and sahityam is just like singing the swaras altogether but using the lyrics of the song. The code in the form of swaras have even the notation of which note to be sung high and which one low. The hymns of Samaveda contain melodic content, form, rhythm and metric organization.[20] This structure is, however, not unique or limited to Samaveda. The Rigveda embeds the musical meter too, without the kind of elaboration found in the Samaveda. For example, the Gayatri mantra contains three metric lines of exactly eight syllables, with an embedded ternary rhythm.[21]

Five Gandharvas (celestial musicians) from 4th–5th century CE, northwest South Asia, carrying the four types of musical instruments. Gandharvas are discussed in Vedic era literature.[22]

In the ancient traditions of Hinduism, two musical genre appeared, namely Gandharva (formal, composed, ceremonial music) and Gana (informal, improvised, entertainment music).[23] The Gandharva music also implied celestial, divine associations, while the Gana also implied singing.[23] The Vedic Sanskrit musical tradition had spread widely in the Indian subcontinent, and according to Rowell, the ancient Tamil classics make it “abundantly clear that a cultivated musical tradition existed in South India as early as the last few pre-Christian centuries”.[24]

The classic Sanskrit text Natya Shastra is at the foundation of the numerous classical music and dance traditions of India. Before Natyashastra was finalized, the ancient Indian traditions had classified musical instruments into four groups based on their acoustic principle (how they work, rather than the material they are made of) for example flute which works with gracious in and out flow of air.[25] These four categories are accepted as given and are four separate chapters in the Natyashastra, one each on stringed instruments (chordophones), hollow instruments (aerophones), solid instruments (idiophones), and covered instruments (membranophones).[25] Of these, states Rowell, the idiophone in the form of “small bronze cymbals” were used for tala. Almost the entire chapter of Natyashastra on idiophones, by Bharata, is a theoretical treatise on the system of tala.[26] Time keeping with idiophones was considered a separate function than that of percussion (membranophones), in the early Indian thought on music theory.[26]

The early 13th century Sanskrit text Sangitaratnakara (literally, “Ocean of Music and Dance”), by Sarngadeva patronized by King Sighana of the Yadava dynasty in Maharashtra, mentions and discusses ragas and talas.[27] He identifies seven tala families, then subdivides them into rhythmic ratios, presenting a methodology for improvization and composition that continues to inspire modern era Indian musicians.[28] Sangitaratnakara is one of the most complete historic medieval era Hindu treatises on this subject that has survived into the modern era, that relates to the structure, technique and reasoning behind ragas and talas.[29][28]

The centrality and significance of music in ancient and early medieval India is also expressed in numerous temple and shrine reliefs, in Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, such as through the carving of musicians with cymbals at the fifth century Pavaya temple sculpture near Gwalior,[30] and the Ellora Caves.[31][32]


The post-Vedic era historical literature relating to Indian classical music has been extensive. The ancient and medieval texts are primarily in Sanskrit (Hinduism), but major reviews of music theory, instruments and practice were also composed in regional languages such as Braj, Kannada, Odia, Pali (Buddhism), Prakrit (Jainism), Tamil and Telugu.[33] While numerous manuscripts have survived into the modern era, many original works on Indian music are believed to be lost, and are known to have existed only because they are quoted and discussed in other manuscripts on classical Indian music.[33][34] Many of the encyclopedic Puranas contain large chapters on music theory and instruments, such as the Bhagavata Purana, the Markandeya Purana, the Vayu Purana, the Linga Purana, and the Visnudharmottara Purana.[35][36][37]

The most cited and influential among these texts are the Sama VedaNatya shastra (classic treatise on music theory, Gandharva), DattilamBrihaddesi (treatise on regional classical music forms), and Sangita Ratnakara (definitive text for Carnatic and Hindustani traditions).[7][33][38] Most historic music theory texts have been by Hindu scholars. Some classical music texts were also composed by Buddhists and Jain scholars, and in 16th century by Muslim scholars. These are listed in the attached table.

Major traditions[edit]

Indian classical music performances

The classical music tradition of the ancient and medieval Indian subcontinent (modern Bangladesh, India, Pakistan) were a generally integrated system through the 14th century, after which the socio-political turmoil of the Delhi Sultanate era isolated the north from the south. The music traditions of the North and South India were not considered distinct until about the 16th century, but after that the traditions acquired distinct forms.[3] North Indian classical music is called Hindustani, while the South Indian expression is called Carnatic (sometimes spelled as Karnatic). According to Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy, the North Indian tradition acquired its modern form after the 14th or the 15th century.[42]

Indian classical music has historically adopted and evolved with many regional styles, such as the Bengali classical tradition . This openness to ideas led to assimilation of regional folk innovations, as well as influences that arrived from outside the subcontinent. For example, Hindustani music assimilated Arabian and Persian influences.[43] This assimilation of ideas was upon the ancient classical foundations such as ragatalamatras as well as the musical instruments. For example, the Persian Rāk is probably a pronunciation of Raga. According to Hormoz Farhat, Rāk has no meaning in modern Persian language, and the concept of raga is unknown in Persia.[44]

Carnatic music[edit]

Purandara Dasa (1484–1564) was a Hindu composer and musicologist who lived in Hampi of the Vijayanagara Empire.[45][46] He is considered Pithamaha (literally, “grandfather”) of the Carnatic music. Purandara Dasa was a monk and a devotee of the Hindu god Krishna (Vishnu, Vittal avatar).[45] He systematised classical Indian music theory and developed exercises for musicians to learn and perfect their art. He travelled widely sharing and teaching his ideas, and influenced numerous South Indian and Maharashtra Bhakti movement musicians.[47] These exercises, his teachings about raga, and his systematic methodology called Suladi Sapta Tala (literally, “primordial seven talas”) remains in use in contemporary times.[46][48] The efforts of Purandara Dasa in the 16th century began the Carnatic style of Indian classical music.[47]

Saraswati is the goddess of music and knowledge in the Indian tradition.

Carnatic music, from South India, tends to be more rhythmically intensive and structured than Hindustani music. Examples of this are the logical classification of ragas into melakartas, and the use of fixed compositions similar to Western classical music. Carnatic raga elaborations are generally much faster in tempo and shorter than their equivalents in Hindustani music. In addition, accompanists have a much larger role in Carnatic concerts than in Hindustani concerts. Today’s typical concert structure was put in place by the vocalist Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar. The opening piece is called a varnam, and is a warm-up for the musicians. A devotion and a request for a blessing follows, then a series of interchanges between ragams (unmetered melody) and Tanam (the ornamentation within a melorhythmic cycle, equivalent to the jor). This is intermixed with hymns called krithis. The pallavi or theme from the raga then follows. Carnatic pieces also have notated lyrical poems that are reproduced as such, possibly with embellishments and treatments according to the performer’s ideology, referred to as Manodharmam.[citation needed]

Primary themes include worship, descriptions of temples, philosophy, and nayaka-nayika (Sanskrit “hero-heroine”) themes. Tyagaraja (1759–1847), Muthuswami Dikshitar (1776–1827) and Syama Sastri (1762–1827) have been the important historic scholars of Carnatic music. According to Eleanor Zelliot, Tyagaraja is known in the Carnatic tradition as one of its greatest composers, and he reverentially acknowledged the influence of Purandara Dasa.[47]

A common belief is that Carnatic music represents a more ancient and refined approach to classical music, whereas Hindustani music has evolved by external influences.[49]

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