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Introduction to the Music of India

Published by the Centre of Indian Arts, London
during the Sanskritik 7th Festival of Arts of India
under the artistic direction of Birendra Shankar

(Posted on RMIM by Vandana Sharma)

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."

It is through the medium of the arts that people of different nations and backgrounds are able to communicate and understand each other better. The West is becoming more familiar with Indian music - it is no longer merely an exotic expression of the East, but is reaching an ever growing and more knowledgeable and appreciative audience.


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 heritge 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 Mongoloid, the Dravidian, and the Aryan, have all contributed to the complexity of Indian culture.

North Indian music is popularly known as Hindustani music and South Indian as Karnatic; their origin is the same, only the approach and style are different. When and how the two main schools crytallized 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.


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 distintive 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 form. 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 pattens of a great cultural heritage.

Each melodic structure of Raga has something akin to a distinct personality subject to a prevailing mood. Early Indain 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 artiest to visualise 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 is 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 subleties, 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 tranquility, 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, andhence each Raga is associated, according to its mood, with a particular time of 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 isntill in his listener the mood of the Raga.

'Tala' is the second important factor in Indian music. These are rhythmic cycles ranging from 3 to 108 beats. The division in 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 diferent 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 artisits 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 thougout a recital of Indian music, since this urge for unity and its fulfilment are the most rewarding experience.

GLOSSARY (General)

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 grains 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 cab be spread over from 2 to 16 of its rhythmic cycles in any tempo, slow, medium or fast.

A Gat (for a 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 rththmic 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.

(Northern Form)

Dhrupad compositions have four parts or stanzas, viz. Asthayi, Antra, Sanchari and Abhog. Dhrupad is accompanied only by the Tanpura and Pankhawaj. Dhrupad is considered to be the oldest classical vocal forms of Hindustani 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 colors) 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 recognised 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'.

(Southern Form)

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.

Pallavi: This is a short pre-composed melodic theme with words and set to one cycle of tala. Here the soloist improvises new melodies built around the word pallavi.

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 in medium and fast speeds.

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

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