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by World Music Network August 23, 2010


The Music Of India

Sitar To Bollywood: Sounds Of The Subcontinent

What many people casually refer to as Indian music is actually the classical music of the north of the Indian subcontinent, embracing the expansive cultural and religious diversity of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and even Bhutan.Karnatic (south) Indian music is older and represents the Hindu tradition before the Afghan and Mughal invasions of the north created one of the great hybrid musical styles of the world.

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Raga is the fundamental organizing principle and melodic paradigm of both the Hindustani (north Indian) and Karnatic musical systems. In the south, it goes under the name ofragam.There are some two hundred main ragas, each defined by its unique combination of scale-pattern and dominant notes, by the specific rules to be obeyed in ascending or descending, and by certain melodic phrases associated with it. Both the Hindustani and Karnatic systems share a love of melodic invention within the routes and boundaries that each raga proscribes. Absolutely central to a great performance is the way in which the musicians imbue the raga or ragam with a sense of their own identity or personality while observing strictly defined rules. Improvisation occurs as a matter of course. This is coupled with a joy in the complexities ofrhythm. Karnatic music, for example, boasts the most sophisticated rhythmic organization on the planet inthaalam. The northern equivalent for such a rhythmic cycle is known astala. Each of the 100-plus talas builds over a specific number ofmatras(beats) before generally coming to a point of release called – in northern India – thekhali. Tension and release is a science in Indian percussion. 

In Hindustani tradition a performance consists of several sections. Played by the soloist in free rhythm with tanpura or drone accompaniment, it is the alap which reveals most about a musician’s mastery and prowess.The music winds down briefly, and then introduces a slow, almost lazy pulse for the so-calledjorsection.The gat is a fixed musical figure; the same melodic phrases can be heard again and again.In the jhala, quick-fire “question and answer” exchanges between instrumentalists can occur towards the end – a great opportunity for witty performers, especially when a drum imitates a melody instrument.

It’s a subtly different experience if the musicians belong to the traditions ofsouth India. Performances are shorter and they rarely linger in a slow tempo for any length of time. But the underlying principles and motivations have plenty in common, and the fundamental idea of profoundly exploring a mood and a set of notes still drives the music.

Hindustani Instrumental Music

Alongside Ravi Shankar himself,Nikhil BanerjeeandVilayat Khanare the best-known sitarists ofthe post-Independence years, responsible for innovationsin sitar design and exponents of a singingstyle of playing calledgayaki angwhich each seemsto have developed independently. Performers such as these have made Hindustani music a primary colour on the world music palette. For those that find the sitar’s incessant buzzing hard to take, thebansuri(bamboo flute) is a first-rate alternative introductory instrument, especially in the hands ofHariprasad Chaurasia,Ronu MajumdarorG.S. Sachdev. And so, too, is thesarod, an instrument which has a star equivalent to Ravi Shankar in the veteranAli Akbar Khan, a towering figure who provided the West with Hindustani music’s first major concert recitals and first long-playing record.  

Karnatic Instrumental Music

Karnatic (Carnatic, Karnatak) music was once the musical language of the entire subcontinent, grounded in Hinduism and boasting a history and mythology thousands of years old as the articulation of Dravidian culture.Its tenets, once passed on only orally, were codified in Vedic literature between 4000 and 1000 BC, long before Western classical music was even in its infancy. One of the four main Vedic texts, theSama Veda, is the basis for all that followed. The music and the faith which inspired it have remained inseparable. Visitors to the vast temples of south India are much more likely to encounter music than they would be in the north. It’s usually the piercing sound of thenagaswaram(shawm) and thetavil(barrel drum). More thanlikely it accompanies flaming torches and a ceremonialprocession of the temple deity.

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Nowadays, concerts will typically feature a named principal soloist (either vocal or instrumental) with melodic and rhythmic accompaniment and atanpuraor drone player. Percussionists of standing are often included in concert announcements and advertising as they are attractions in their own right. Female musicians involved in a principal role tend to be vocalists, vina (or veena) players or violinists. Male musicians have access to a wider range of musical possibilities as well as outnumbering female principal soloists or accompanists by roughly three to one. Both of the subcontinent’s two classical systems give pride of place to the voice while melodic instruments, to some degree, are played to mimic it.

Vocal Music

More than any other classical genre,dhrupadis regarded as a sacred art – an act of devotionand meditation rather than entertainment. It isan ancient and austere form which ranks as theHindustani system’s oldest vocal music genre stillperformed. Traditionally, dhrupad is performed only by men, accompanied bytanpuraand thepakhawaj barrel drum. Nowadays it is most often set in atalaof twelve beats calledchautal. A dhrupad lyric (usually in a medieval literary form of Hindi called Braj Bhasha) may be pure panegyric, praising a Hindu deity or local royalty, or it may dwell on noble or heroic themes. The twist is that this most Hindu of vocal genres is dominated by Muslims.

This bhajan is the most popular form of Hindu devotional composition in north India. Lyrically, bhajans eulogize a particular deity and frequently retell episodes from the Hindu scriptures. In the South, bhajans tend to retain their original Hindustani raga but are set in Karnatic talas, as the Karnatic violinistV.V. Subrahmanyam’s exquisite recordings for the Gramophone Company of India 

Folk Music

Folk music in India is often described asdesi(ordeshi), meaning “of the country”, to distinguish it from art music, known asmarga(meaning “chaste” and, by extension, classical). Desi, a catchall term, also embraces folk theatre and popular music of many colours. While there is extraordinary folk music to be found all over India, there are three areas where it is particularly rich and easy to access as a visitor – Rajasthan, Kerala and Bengal, where the Bauls are the inspirational music providers. Rajasthani groups and Baul musicians are popular performers on the world music circuit.

The harvest is celebrated in every culture and in the Punjab it gave rise tobhangra, a folk dance which, in its British commercial form, has transmogrified into a form of Asian pop. Following on from the crossover success of bhangra,dandiya, a new folk-based genre, has emerged as a new phenomenon with a club-based following in India.

Film Music - Bollywood

Indianfilms often succeed because of their songs. Stars get stereotyped and rarely find roles outside, say, romantic lead, swashbuckler, comic light relief, baddie and so on. What’s more, these highly paid actors and actresses lip-synch to pre-recorded songs sung by vocal superstars such as Lata Mangeshkar andS.P. Balasurahmaniam, off-camera. After these superstars,Kavita Krishnamurthy,Alka YagnikandUdit Narayanare among the crowd-pulling names.

The leading trio which dominated the Hindi cinema for over thirty years wereMukesh(1923–76),Mohammed Rafi(1924–80) and Lata Mangeshkar (b. 1929). Dreamy strings provide the lush backings, an Indianized account of Hollywood strings, but bursting with touches that could only come from the subcontinent. The Los Angeles of the Indian film industry isMumbai, the decolonialized Bombay, hence the common shorthandBollywood– a film industry in-joke that stuck and went international.

East-West Fusions

All stories are approximations and East–West fusions didn’t entirely begin with The Beatles. India exerted influences on Western classical music over the course of the entire twentieth century. The ideas that India planted ranged from the philosophical and religious to the organizational (melody and rhythmicality) and organological (the use of Indian instruments). Among the composers of note touched in this manner were John CageHenry CowellJohn FouldsPhilip GlassGustav HolstOliver Messiaen andKarlheinz Stockhausen. It was a two-way street, however. Certain Indian composers steeped in both Indian and non-Indian classicism, such as JohnMayer and Naresh Sohal, made sure the traffic flowed in two directions. During the 1960s India’s music, philosophies and culture touched signal jazz musicians like John ColtraneDon EllisJohnHandy and Sonny Rollins.One jazz player, however, stands out above all others in these fusion experiments. JohnMcLaughlin had become hooked on Indian music, and after his stint in New York with Miles Davis had become a follower of the Bengali mystic Sri Chinmoy (1931–2007). It was in the acoustic group Shakti that his exploration of Indian music found its greatest expression.

Interested in learning to play Indian music?

You can now study these genres through our partner site World Music Method. Click HERE to view the list of courses.