India: ‘The Food of the Soul’

Music has a place of primacy in Indian culture: in traditional aesthetics, music is often allegorised as ‘the food of the soul’. It symbolises India’s remarkable diversity in cultural, linguistic and religious terms and embodies the historical tides that have shaped its contemporary pluralism. Desi culture (from the Sanskrit desa, ‘land’ or ‘country’) is prominent across the world today and has had an ‘exotic’ allure for centuries, from its cultural domination of China and Southeast Asia (from 1stC BCE) to its ascent in the ‘Oriental’ imaginary of the ‘West’, culminating in the New Age movement (late 20thC CE). Since the mid-20thC, there has been a great deal of interaction between Indian music and the West and Hindustani music, in particular, emerged as the fundamental archetype of ‘Eastern’ tradition in the ‘World Music’ phenomenon.

Country Profile

Covering most of South Asia, India, or Bharat, is one of the largest countries in the world and, with a population of more than 1 billion, it is the world’s second most populous country. It is a federal republic of 29 autonomous states and seven centrally governed Union territories. Its official languages are Hindi and English, although more than 200 languages and 1500 dialects are spoken throughout the region. In the interest of pluralism, India has no official religion, but religion is an important part of cultural life for most people across India: Hinduism is the majority religion and dominates most states, though it has a large Muslim minority that comprises the majority in certain states, and it also has large followings for other indigenous religions and sects (incl. Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Animism) as well as Christian, Baha’i and Jewish minorities. It is still a predominantly rural society, with a rural population of more than 65%, but, driven by its emerging status as a world economy and a potential superpower, its rate of urbanisation is extraordinarily high (around 30%), and it thus seems to be heading towards becoming a principally urban nation.

Cultural History

Ancient India was home to one of the world’s first advanced urbanised societies. The indigenous Indus Civilization (2500-1500 BCE) developed innovations in agriculture, technology, commerce and the arts. Urbanism declined as Aryan culture came to dominate the north of India (1500-500 BCE) and pastoral nomadism hegemonized the region. The Vedas, the earliest literary record of Indian culture, were composed in archaic Sanskrit and outline Indo-Aryan science, rituals, hymns and cultural aesthetics, including homa (sacrifice), polytheism and the use of yogic meditative postures, prototypal of Hinduism. It was during this period that the caste systememerged. The caste systemwas a social model of hierarchical social, occupational and spiritual rankings (made up of four overarching varna (classes) of Brahmin(priest), Kshatriya(warrior), Vaishya(merchant) and Shudra(menial)). Unlike other feudal class systems, casteswere organised around jatis (endogamous kinship groups) governed by fixed dharma (social and spiritual duties) that were inherited at birth, and were upheld by notions of social and ethnic purity that prescribed arranged marriages only within castes. As such, the caste system has been described as the most effective barrier to social change in global history and, though it was officially banned in 1947, it continues to exert a legacy in India, for example in maintaining the importance of lineages and inherited professional roles.

Subsequently, nomadic clan-based societies were consolidated into settled kingdoms, with the Magadhain the Ganges river valley rising to prominence (6thC BCE) and propagating Jainism and Buddhism in the region. Out of these kingdoms, the Mauryan Empire (4thC BCE-2ndC CE) emerged to colonise almost the entire subcontinent, inaugurating the first pan-Indian state. King Ashoka established the first major trade and cultural links with the Western world and this cultural period cultivated new, enduring concepts in Indian philosophy, including dharma(roughly ‘universal law’ or duty, order and righteousness) and a unifying ethic of nonviolence, religious tolerance, compassion and generosity. As the empire eventually fragmented, the Gupta Dynasty took control (4th-7thC), and initiated a renaissance in Indian culture and, with the rise of Brahmanism, temple worship and new rituals of bhakti (‘devotion’), reinforcing Hinduism at the heart of Indian philosophy.

Arab raiders attacked the northwest of India (from 7thC) and Muslim forces started to take control of the north of the country (from 12thC). At its zenith, the Mughal Empire (1526-1738) controlled vast swathes of the country and had an immense impact on Indian culture, especially in the north, where Arabic, Perso-Islamic and Hindustani Indian traditions blended into new cultural practices, with notable impacts on architecture, philosophy, cuisine and the arts. As the Mughal Empire declined, fragmenting into feuding states in conflict along religious faultlines, European mercantile invaders set their sights on India. Portuguese, Dutch, French and British forces all seized coastal territories to establish trade sites but, as the British East India Company expanded its efforts, founding Calcutta (1690) and annexing Madras (1748), it established the strongest foothold in the region. By force or by accord, it inaugurated the British Raj (‘rule’)(1818). After successive outbursts of civil unrest and a violent mutiny, the British Parliament passed the Government of India Act (1858), transferring power over India from the East India Company to the British Crown. During the ‘high period’ of the Victorian Raj, India, which then covered the modern territories of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, became integral to British imperial power as a trade centre, a source of raw materials and an overseas market for British industry and manufactured goods. The British impact on India during this period remains a controversial issue: on the one hand, it oversaw the construction of mass infrastructure in India (e.g. the railways), created the conditions for industry and enterprise and established a nationwide education programme; on the other, it plundered the country’s natural resources, allowed overcrowding and poverty to spiral out of control, developed systems of forced commercial cropping that were more prone to devastating famines (e.g. 1873-1874, 1899-1900, 1943), exploited faultlines between Hindus and Muslim to ‘divide and rule’, conscripted tens of thousands of Indian soldiers to fight in wars foreign to them in Europe and intensified the oppression of the caste system by injecting puritanical values into it (which, for instance, led to a far greater marginalisation of women).

The founding of the Indian National Congress (1885), a national non-partisan political party, represented the start of formal opposition to the Raj and fuelled the fires of Indian Nationalism. Over the next two decades, the INC expanded into a mass organisation that, despite its diversity, managed to establish a great deal of consensus. Yet, in the early 20thC, divisions started to splinter the movement into factions along lines of aims (‘pro-changers’ who hoped to work within the Raj to change it versus ‘no-changers’, who planned to overthrow it); strategy (e.g. non-violent direct action ‘moderates’ versus ‘extremists’ who advocated violent rebellion; and religion (Hindu and Muslim). The INC organised mass protests, and some were marred with outbursts of violence, which provoked brutal repression from the administration in both policy (e.g. the Rowlatt Act which sanctioned imprisonment on ‘terrorism’ charges without any required legal substantiation) and action (e.g. the Amritsar Massacre (1919) where British troops fired on unarmed peaceful protesters, killing around 400 and injuring more than 1,300). A unifying figure emerged in Mahatma (‘Great Soul’) Gandhi, a determined lawyer-cum-politician who promoted the approach of satyagraha (‘truth’ or ‘soul force’; a form of non-violent civil protest founded in spiritual values such as self-purification and self-restraint), mobilised the masses through major nationwide non-violent protests and marches and raised international sympathies for Indian independence through a visit to Britain (1931). Yet, Islamic separatism ascended during this period and leaders of the Muslim League repeatedly disavowed Gandhi and called for the partition of India through the creation of the Muslim state of Pakistan (first advocated at the annual session of the Muslim League in 1930).

During the 1930s, the British administration conceded elements of devolution, gradually increasing the representation of Indians in the government. Yet, with the onset of World War II (1939-1945) and the British call for Indian soldiers to fight in Europe again, Gandhi demanded that Britain ‘Quit India’ in return, and the government retaliated by imprisoning him and his wife (who died in prison), which sparked mass protests and the unanimous resignation of all Indians involved with the government. The unrest deepened with the suffering inflicted by the ‘man-made’ Bengal famine (1943), which historians have variously claimed the lives of between 1-4 million people (‘man made’ because policies designed to avoid famine were ignored in India and relief efforts were directly thwarted by British PM Winston Churchill, who expressed hopes that the famine would kill off Gandhi and the ‘beastly’ people of India). With the accelerating costs of the British Empire starting to outweigh its yields and with the post-war election of the Labour Party (1945), who were outspoken supporters of Indian self-rule, the move towards de-colonisation started, and Lord Louis Mountbatten was appointed as the last viceroy to oversee the transfer of power. India gained its independence (1947), but hasty negotiations and the agreement to partition the colony into India and Pakistan involving forced population exchanges meant that its liberation was tarnished by controversy, religious division, mass unrest and violent terrorism,; at least one million were killed in the chaos, including Gandhi himself, who was assassinated by a Hindu extremist. Since then, India has attempted to reconcile these divisions and strengthen its economic and social development through intermittent phases of socialism and capitalism. It has remained troubled by internal religious strife as well as civil unrest based on opposition to striking economic inequalities and the caste system. Today, India has become a dominant global economic force and, as it has been for thousands of years, it continues to exert its cultural influence as one of the world’s leading cultural superpowers.

Music Culture

A Tapestry of Traditions

Music permeates all aspects of cultural life in India: song and dance have a visible role in the home, on the streets, at the temple, at social events and in festive celebrations. India is extraordinarily diverse in its religious and ethnic composition, and, as these two streams flow through virtually all Indian culture, traditional music in India encompasses an immense and intricate tapestry of classical and folk musics. To address the complexities of style, cultural purpose, social context and metaphysical values across all traditional Indian music would require more than a lifetime’s work; its diversity refuses generalisation and its profound ‘difference’ from ‘Western’ musical aesthetics resists simplistic parallels. As such, this article focuses mainly on Hindustani Classical music, while addressing some commonalities in musical and religious/cultural aesthetics and tracing the threads of a handful of other pertinent classical and folk traditions, to offer a modest starting point for appreciating the vast patchwork that is the music of India.

Unity in Devotion: Vedic & Early Hindu Cultural Aesthetics

Indian classical music has a strong claim as (one of) the world’s oldest living musical traditions (N.B. ‘Indian classical music’ is used in this article to refer to the unified tradition which later, between 13th-16thC, splintered into the divergent, albeit interrelated, traditions of Hindustani and Karnatak classical musics) (see below).

The ancient roots of this music can be traced at least as far back as the Vedas (the ‘knowledge/wisdom’; the four religious books that constitute the foundational doctrine of the Vedic and Hindu religions, believed to have been transmitted via oral tradition since time immemorial and committed to text in ancient Sanskrit (c. 1500-1000 BCE). Its remarkable longevity and continuity is testament to the rigour of its pioneering pedagogies that combine both oral and written transmission: orally, it centers on the demanding apprenticeship model known as guru-shishya (‘master-disciple’; this mirrors the intensity of the parent-child relationship, requiring total commitment from the shishya who lives with the guruto receive uninterrupted holistic musical, cultural and spiritual training from dawn until dusk); and, textually, it adds legitimacy to these principles through shastra (doctrine). Hence, Indian classical music is known as sangita-shastra (‘music-doctrine’).

Culturally, Indian classical music has taken on a primarily devotional and fundamentally spiritual role in society. This role is derived from the Vedas, specifically the Samaveda(‘The Wisdom of the Songs/Chants’), which made two important and lasting contributions to the cultural aesthetics of this music: it established the fundamental religious significance of music; and it embedded the primacy of the human voice. Itplaces sangita (literally ‘sung together’; ‘human sound’; music) at the centre of Vedic (and thus Hindu) metaphysics. The particularities of this metaphysics are highly complex, especially due to the interpretive nature of the text itself, but it essentially advocates the spiritual power of sangita by tracing it to nada (‘mystical sound’; the essence of humanity) and, from there, to ॐ[Om] (‘cosmic sound’; the essence of Brahman(the ‘Supreme Cosmic Spirit’). The Samaveda is itself not so much a text to be readas religious verse to be sungand heardthrough sama (song/chant) and it includes sakhas (melodies) and stobha (non-lexical vocables) in archaic transcription for this purpose. This conceptualisation of sangita established a pervasive cultural aesthetic in which all musical practice was deemed both inherent spiritual (even if not explicitly devotional) and intrinsically vocal (even if instrumental). Though, contrary to popular discourse, there is insufficient evidence to corroborate whether Vedic chant had any significant influence on the musical style of Indian classical music, the Samaveda clearly had a powerful impact on its cultural aesthetics: it encouraged the development of devotional repertories for the purposes of direct religious worship and elaborate vocal traditions but, more than this, it established the spiritual significance of all musics within the tradition and the cultivation ofallmusic, including instrumental musics, in terms of embodying the human voice. Indeed, Indian classical music pedagogy reinforced these aesthetics in its elevation of musician as guru (master; also teacher/guide), who harnessed the power of music to embody spiritual nourishment and envoice spiritual values.

Over the turn of the century, Vedic/Hindu aesthetics became embedded across the region through the pan-Indian state of the Mauryan Empire (4thC BCE-2ndC CE). The influential Hindu epics of the Ramayana(written c. 4thC BCE) and Mahabharata (complied c. 4th-2ndC BCE; the longest poem ever written) are testament to the maintenance of the spiritual value of music in burgeoning Hindu culture. Various tales involving Krishna (the god-child of love, beauty and guidance) depict him playing the venu(ancient transverse bamboo flute with eight holes), delighting in the praise songs of his gopi(cow herding women who were his consorts) and dancing with his thousands of female devotees. Narratives relating to Saraswati (the goddess of knowledge/wisdom, music and learning; the ‘mother’ of the Vedas) affirm the spirituality of music, and actually portray heroes using devotional song, music and dance as a vehicle for spiritual transcendence and a channel for communicating with the gods. They make specific reference to the venu and the veena (ancient plucked chordophone with a resonating gourd) and also to dance (Arjuna,one of the protagonists of the Ramayana, even becomes a professional dancer in one story). These epics deepen the association between music and the divine, and especially between musical and spiritual education, and convey a sense of the use of music as a conduit for devotional and ecstatic worship at this time. In addition, more than historical sources, the stories and verses from these epics became a prominent feature of all Indian song, dramatic dance and drama, and have remained dominant ever since.

In the ‘golden age’ of Hindu culture (4th-7thC), Indian classical music and the arts received strong patronage from the Gupta dynasty. It became prominent in rituals in their rising network of temples and in ceremonies in the royal courts. The status that classical music enjoyed in this period can also be attributed to two influential shastras: the Natyashastra(compiled c. 200 BCE-400 CE) and the Brhaddesi(compiled c. 8th-9thC). These important texts updated the aesthetics of sangita in line with new Hindu ideals: the former advocates sangitaas a symbolic embodiment of, and a cultural path towards, the purusharthas (the four goals of life: kama (pleasure/desire); artha (selfless prosperity); dharma (righteousness/duty); and moksha (enlightenment)) and the latter conceptualises it as a cultural form of bhakti(devotion). By once again affirming these aesthetics, these texts secured the devotional role of Indian classical music in the religious worship and social ceremonies of ascending Hindu society.

Historical texts during this time are also the first to address folk traditions, and thus we also gain a clearer picture on the uses and function of traditional musical forms in Indian culture. In fact, the Brhaddesi is the first to actually establish the distinctions between marga (‘[spiritual] way/path’; classical music) and desi (‘of the land’; folk music) traditions. Many temples had their own song ensembles that sang devotional repertoires to honour the local deity: the Tamil vil pattu (‘bow songs’), for example, did so through responsorial singing between virtuoso-ornamented improvisations from a soloist and simple repetitive refrains from a chorus accompanied by the vil (musical bow) as well as drums and idiophones.

Traditional ritual songs and dances played an important role in rites of passage, and continue to maintain many of these functions to date. Birth songs celebrate a new born child and wish them luck and prosperity; folk songs and dances for wedding festivities, which in many parts of India take place over multiple days, utilise specific repertoires for specific rituals (e.g. dances for the father’s giving away of the bride, songs to celebrate body-painting the bridge, songs for teasing the couple at hazing rites, processional drum-based musics for the baraat (the groom’s procession to the wedding)); and funeral rites regularly involve ‘crying songs’ where the bereft mourn the departed but also engage in social comment and censure.

Similarly, festive songs and dances come to life at various points in the annual cycle of seasonal and religious celebrations: harvest songs laud an abundant crop and give thanks and praise to the local patron deity and the other gods; and praise songs and festive dances, many featuring percussive drumming from the percussive combination of dhol(stick-beaten double-headed barrel drums) and jhal (cymbals), feature at auspicious occasions like the springtime ‘festival of colours’ of Holi. Narrative songs were also popular across India, and relate stories of the gods in local languages, and also of kinship and of poetic tales (often stories of love; though still primarily told through a devotional lens e.g. by relating human love to epic marriage of Rama and Sita), which use simple strophic melodies, lilting (X.X..) rhythms and declamatory voice in order to foreground their storytelling purpose.

However, beyond these somewhat universal uses, music was organised in line with the caste system. Like any other practice or profession, music was conceptualised as a dharma, stratified in terms of jati, and so the right to learn the oral traditions and become practitioners of different musical traditions were organised hierarchically and maintained along hereditary lines. It seems ‘professional’ musicians of marga were generally higher in castethan the musicians of desitraditions; marga became an embedded functional activity in the labours of the higher castes (e.g. as a component of temple worship for the Brahmins) while desi tradition performed various roles in the local community amongst lower castes; and men dominated margaand most desi traditions since women, in line with devi (goddess) norms, were generally excluded from the public sphere, though they did have their own elaborate repertoires of domestic music traditions. As such, many traditions were associated with, or perhaps more accurately confined to, particular kinds of labour: Brahminsrecited mantras (literally, ‘instrument of thought’; sacred vocables/chants e.g. Om itself is sung as a mantra on a drone) for religious worship and Vedic chant for ritual ceremonies like the homa (a votive rite involving casting offerings into consecrated fire); temple musicians performed bhajan (devotional hymns)(e.g. in Tamil Nadu at this time, oduvar (a (relatively high) caste of temple singers) specifically sang Tevaram (a collection of devotional hymns to the god of destruction Shiva) in the temples and court musicians sangthe Nalayirativviyappirapantam (a collection of ceremonial songs to the god of preservation Vishnu) in the courts; Baul mendicants sang melismatic songs accompanied by various kinds of lutes and drums to incite spiritual healing; Yadav herders sang their loud and high khari biraha (‘herding hollers’) as recreation and as a means to communicate over vast distances; and lower caste agricultural workers sang ‘grinding’ tunes tailored to the rhythm of the task and to help the time pass faster. These examples show how the sonic and social structures were aligned in traditional Indian culture, and how music played a key role in reinforcing the social norms of the caste system, and are also testament to the important spiritual status of music across all castes in early Hindu society.

Barhat: Music Aesthetics

The musical style of Indian classical music, like the practice itself, is a unique combination of learned stylistic practice and doctrinal aesthetic frameworks.The Natyashastraand Brhaddesi started to explicate the complex workings of the style. The former examines its holistic artistic conception of music as gita (song/chant),vadya(instrumental music) and three aspects of dance: nrtta (abstract dance), nrtya(expressive dance) and natya (drama). It also explores the concept of rasa (literally, ‘essence’; roughly, taste/mood/emotion). The Brhaddesi outlines prototypal models of raga and tala (see below). As such, they highlight the interrelatedness of music and the arts and the importance of emotive expression in performance practice in Indian classical music, and start to touch on some of its key structural principles.

However, it was the Sangitaratnakara(variously metaphorically translated as ‘The Jewel Mine of Music’, ‘The Ocean of Music and Dance’ and other titles; compiled during the 13thC) that served as the seminal shastra that illuminated the orally-transmitted stylistic practices and aesthetic frameworks of Indian classical music in text; it remains the most influential of all doctrines on Indian classical music. It is impossible to know for how long these practices and frameworks might have been practiced in this way; it is certainly possible that they had been orally transmitted for generations, even since the inception of the tradition. It is also difficult to ascertain the extent to which this text may have somewhat ‘standardised’ far more fluid approaches. What we do know is that, by the time of this text, the musical conventions of Indian classical music had been formalised in a more established mould. Importantly, this musical style is pertinent for appreciating not just marga traditions (e.g. Hindustani and Karnatak classical traditions) but also many desi traditions (provincial folk traditions), as a great number of the latter, albeit generally in freer ways, utilise similar frameworks and textures (e.g. the term dhal refers to the melodic principles of Gujurati desimusic and sits somewhere between the rigour of raga (see below) and the freedom of melody). From the Sangitaratnakara, we also know that marga music in this time was primarily still the devotional practice of Brahminsin the temples but that it had also started to be performed as a form of, albeit spiritual, entertainment for Hindu rulers in ceremonial and festive contexts, and that desi music performed similar roles in localised community contexts for those of lower caste.

Musically, the style of Indian classical music is often misunderstood as ‘improvised performance’ and in fact both these words somewhat miss the point: the boundaries of ‘composition’ and ‘performance’ are far more blurred in Indian classical music than in Western classical music; and, while composition/performance certainly involves spontaneities that could be labelled as ‘improvisation’, its practices are very different to the notion of ‘improvisation’ in Western popular music and even to the (albeit closer) modal ‘improvisation’ of the Near Eastern maqam. The central concept of Indian classical music is barhat (‘growth’, musically, though also personally and spiritually). This captures the structured-but-creative, stringent-but-organic, fated-but-free nature of the style. Essentially, it involves strict adherence to aesthetic frameworks including raga(‘to colour’; emotion/affect; melodic framework) and tala (‘clap’; metric cycle) but the structures themselves (in their open scope and vast choices) are designed for spontaneous composition/performance; the frameworks provide the ‘seed’ for the ‘growth’ of a composition spontaneously created in the moment of performance yet deterministically prefigured in the stylistic conventions of the frameworks themselves.

The core frameworks of Indian classical music are raga andtala. It is important not to conceptualise these simply in textualterms as ‘melody’ and ‘rhythm’ but as structuralframeworks embodied across all textures of the composition/performance (e.g. the raga can grow not only with the lead melodic instrument but with the percussion instrument and the raga flows through all lines).

Eachraga comprises: a set of swaras (notes) which are microtonal with at least 22 possible ‘notes between the notes’ of the ‘octave’andare often different for arohana (ascending) and avarohana (descending) in any given raga; intervallic relationships, with patterns based on ‘just intonation’ where pitches are altered to exploit certain relationships between certain swaras; motivic predispositions including specific touches and stresses for each swara and idiomatic contours, clusters, tendencies, etc.; and motivic embellishments (set patterns of alankara(ornamentations) e.g. 15 different kampita (shakes) and 96 different sthaya (shadings) as well as slides, runs, oscillations, pitch/rhythmic bends, and dynamic effects. Each usually contains some combination of fixed precomposed melody, specific but flexible pakad (motives) and scope for motivic improvisation (based on the notes, relationships, predispositions and embellishments) that are realised through spontaneous composition/performance.

Each raga also includes its own conventions around pada (poetic text/verse setting) for vocal composition/performance and its own extramusical associations including its connection to a particular rasa(shringara (‘love/attraction’), hasya (‘joy/humour’), adbhuta (‘wonder/mystery’), shanta (‘peace’), raudra (‘anger/rage’), veera(‘courage/pride’), karuna (‘sadness/compassion’),bhayanaka (‘fear’) or vibhatsa(‘disgust/dissatisfaction’)); and often also a link to a particular time of day, season or ritual (e.g. raga asaveri was for late morning performance and raga bahar was for midnight performance).

Each tala encompasses similar parameters but for metre: it includes a set number of matras(beats, ranging from 3 to more than 120) with patterns of emphasis, starting with the strongest, sam (‘together’; the first beat of the tala cycle) that delineate the matras into vibhags (sections) which together constitute a full avartan(cycle); each tala can, of course, be realised at a vast range of different tempos (from ati vilambit (very slow) to ati drut (very fast)). Crucially, tala embodies the cyclical,rather than linear, structure of Indian classical music; talagrows for as long as needed through the perpetual metric cycles of tala. Common tala include: tintal (16 matras cycle split into four equalvibhags (4+4+4+4)); jhapta (a10 matras cycle split into four irregular vibhags (2+3+2+3)); and rupaktal(a 7 matras cycle split into three irregular vibhags (3+2+2)). Importantly, patterns and stresses within each vibhag are unique and so each beat of the cycle has to be learned with absolute precision (e.g the 4+4+4+4 of tintal is not 4 sets of identical vibhags; the cycle in full isdha, dhin, dhin, dha; dha,dhin, dhin, dha; dha, tin,tin, ta; ta, dhin, dhin, dha. Avartan are learned through non-lexical spoken vocables known as bol (‘speak’ or ‘measuring rod’; e.g. ‘dha’, ‘dhin’, ‘tin’ and ‘ta’) and through symbiotic hand gestures, and both indicate a specific theka(‘support’; emphasis and percussion stroke) for each matras of the tala. Accomplished musical gurusat this time had mastery over a couple of hundred raga: the Sangitaratnakara sets out its own 250 core tala, while other historical sources suggest the cultivation of more than 2000 different talaacross India by this point.

The basic texture of Indian classical music performance is melody, rhythm and shruti (drone), usually provided respectively by a lead melodic instrument, a percussion instrument and a drone instrument, though often also including secondary pitched accompaniment instruments and with melodic and percussion instruments swapping their roles (see below). The texture is thus largely monophonic, driven by the horizontal growth of the raga (rather than by functional vertical harmony as in Western classical music) over the constant tonal centre of the vibrant drone. The drone is continuous but not monotonous; its fundamental tone resounds a whirling cluster of overtones and its sound is made to ebb and flow.

The melodic instrument has the status of ‘first-amongst-equals’, taking a leadership role in initiating, fashioning and managing the composition/performance but also in guiding the other musicians, for instance indicating when the percussion instrument should assume the melodic role. Melodic instruments include the voice, venu, veena, bansuri (side-blown transverse bamboo flute with six holes), sitar(lute with long scalloped neck featuring melody and drone strings with sympathetic strings and half gourd resonator, plucked with mizrab (wire plectrum)), sarangi(bowed string instrument with sympathetic strings) and santur (hammered dulcimer).

Percussion instruments include the pakhawaj and mridangam (both large barrel drums) and the tabla  (a pair of tuned hand-struck goblet drums with large black spots made from a mixture of rice paste and metal shavings in the drumheads; the dayan (the smaller, right-hand drum) made of wood, is tuned with a bright and clear pitch whereas the larger, left-hand drum (bayan) usually made with metal, has a deep and resounding tone).

Unlike in many other parts of the world, percussion assumes a prominent melodic, as well as rhythmic, role, as all instruments are tasked with maintaining tala, so Indian classical and traditional drumming is notably expressive and virtuosic.

The quintessential drone instrument is the tambura (a long-necked plucked bowl lute with fundamental tones and sympathetic strings).

Most instruments are designed to emulate the voice: the scalloped neck of the sitar facilitates microtonal variation simply by pressing the strings as well as by facilitating fluidity between notes and rapid ornamentation; and the tabla produces deep guttural sound as the pitch of the bayanis bent by pressing the base of the hand into the drum while the fingers strike the head.

Finally, the formal structure itself, in which raga, tala and texture are combined, embodies the concept of barhat, flowing from abstract explorations to the realisation of its melodic substance. The archetypal form for this, though there are a huge variety of variations, is alap-jor-jhala-gat. Alap involves a slow, unmetered ‘improvisation’ from the lead melodic instrument over the drone to explore the melodic essence of the ragaand establish its rasa. The Jor continues this exploration but starts to form spontaneous motives with a greater sense of pulse and the Jhala takes this further, presenting virtuosic embellishments of the motives that become increasingly metrical and gradually start to embody thematras, vibhags and avartanof the tala. TheGatis marked by the firm entry of the tala, usually inaugurated after a melodic flourish from the percussion instrument, which then repeats cyclically as the melodic instrument plays a fixed precomposed melody in alternation with flexible pakad (‘catch’; motives) and/or motivic improvisations in dialogue with the percussion (and pitched melodic accompaniment if applicable). Embellishments become more virtuosic and the precomposed melodies and motivic improvisations start to merge into a distinct and spontaneous motivic phrase that heralds the jugalbandi, a final rapid responsorial section that passes and embellishes the phrase as call-and-response between melodic instrument and percussion instrument, culminating in tihai,a unison recitation of the phrase by melodic instrument and percussion instruments repeated three times to finish on the last samof the tala cycle.

Hindustani/Karnatak Divergence: Musical Traditions

With increasing Arabic and Perso-Islamic influence in the north of the country (13th-16thC), Indian classical music started to splinter into two divergent traditions: Hindustani classical music in the north and Karnatak classical music in the south. This divergence was reified under the Mughal Empire (1526-1738) and, in many respects, prevails to this day. A detailed exploration of distinctions between the two is beyond the scope of this article but some key commonalities are the religious significance of sangita, the primacy of the human voice and adherence to raga and tala frameworks, while key differences include the impact of Islamic influences (high in Hindustani, low in Karnatak), including vocal timbres, new elaborate forms of improvisation (though still transplanted into the raga framework) as well as cultural tropes, the development of specific distinct traditions and the use of specific distinct instruments (e.g.sitar in Hindustani and veena in Karnatak).

Hindustani classical song, music, dance and drama flourished under Mughal patronage. With cosmopolitanism as its policy, the Mughal rulers permitted Hindu, Muslim and Sikh musicians all to perform in the darbar(royal courts), nurturing the intercultural creativities that came to define the tradition. Beyond the courts, music in the north during this period was characterised by changes in the social role of music; as the Mughal rulers weakened the hold of the caste system, talented musicians from lower castes were permitted to become court musicians and helped to drive the emerging Hindustani classical tradition. While the khandan (family lineage) model, instituted to maintain the rigour of the guru-shishya system, still emphasised hereditary inheritance for musical tradition, this nevertheless broadened the social orientation of Indian classical music. As many of these musicians retained multiple positions as local village performers as well as court musicians, it also helped to spread devotionalmarga forms across society. This included Hindustani bhajans (hymns) and gita-govinda (24 songs set in verses concerning love of Krishna) as well asthe ‘songster’ tradition, which were extensive vocal competitions in villages across North India in which singers performed different forms of classical song, singing different ragas to suit the appropriate time as the evening progressed.

These social changes also enabled women to participate in Indian classical music for the first time, and, revered for their musical talents, sensual performativity and social graces, the tawaif (female courtesans) became the most empowered women in society, performing publicly in an otherwise exclusively male cultural realm.

Beyond this, Mughal patronage also helped to raise the status of desi traditions and resulted in the development of syncretic ‘light classical’ forms. This is because many of the lower caste court musicians, though immersing themselves in world of the Mughal courts and the styles and techniques of Hindustani classical music, took on double positionalities, retaining their role as village performers and maintaining influences from their folk musics (especially in terms of dances and instrumentation).

A prime example in the Punjabi context, in which a significant number of lower caste village performers managed to become celebrated Mughal court musicians, is bhangra (from bhang, ‘hemp’; a major crop of the Punjab harvest), a traditional harvest folk dance, associated especially with the Sikh festival of Vaisakhi. Bhangracomprised an energetic 4/4 group (often circle) dance with vigorous acrobatic movements (kicks, leaps, bends, etc) and semiotic (meaning-laden) gestures enacting specific harvest-related actions and expressing thanksgiving for the harvest supported by an arresting idiomatic swung rhythm thundered on the dhol drums (X.xX.xX.xX.x), accompanied by other percussion (e.g. dholak (a small hand-struck double-headed drum)) and by shouts from the dancers (‘hoi’ on beats 2 and 4 (..X…X.)). It also featured boli (sung poems in Punjabi, both devotional and romantic repertories) and simple ostinato melodies from instruments like the tumbi (plucked high-pitched single-stringed instrument) that accentuate the syncopation (e.g. melodic phrases of repeated notes with conjunct motion on 1, 3 and 4½). It rose to prominence with the ascent of some of its practitioners to the Mughal courts, becoming a processional music tradition for all kinds of festive events across the Punjab and influenced ‘light classical’ entertainment forms played in the courts and devotional forms used in Sufi (a mystical sect of Islam) worship. The rise of bhangra embodies the greater mobility of traditional musics in the Mughal period. It was not only significant in its influence at the time but it also has become a staple of Bollywood filmi music and dance and, more recently, served as the roots of a British-Indian hybrid popular music and dance form that is now popular amongst young people across the Indian diaspora.

The core forms of Hindustani vocal tradition that emerged under Mughal rule were dhrupad,khyaland qawwalisong and kathak dance.Dhrupad emerged at the start of this period and features slow and austere melodic style accompanied by pakhawaj and tamburaand it generally gives equal attention to alap, jor, jhala and gat sections.

Khyal (from Arabic, ‘imagination’) developed towards the end of the Mughal period to take up the mantle from the declining dhrupad as the premier song form of Hindustani classical tradition. It developed in parallel with kathak  (from Sanskrit, ‘story’) dance, and the two were often paired together. Khyal employs a notably free melodic style and its compositions/performances nurture expansive gat sections, featuring extensive melodic elaboration and improvisation and impressive displays of vocal virtuosity and creativity. Kathak is an expressive dance form performed by a solo dancer with ghungru (around 100 ankle bells). Its stylised movements and semiotic gestures tell stories (often relating to love) and its performance growth through a variety of dance sections that mirror raga structures (e.g. an opening salami (salutation) of gliding head, eyebrow and wrists movement sets the mood; sections focused on the talamirror its metrical cycle in movement, emphasised by the jingles of the ghungru and also often by the dancer exclaiming the tala in bol; and sections focused on performativity use complex footwork and virtuoso gestures and movements, featuring a signature move known as chakkar (pirouettes in threes)).

Qawwali (from the Arabic qaul, ‘utterance’; prophetic message in song), though sometimes excluded from classification as Indian music due to its dominance in modern-day Pakistan, is part of the Hindustani classical tradition both in its musical style and in its cultural history. While its orally-transmitted Sufi (mystic Islamic) religious poetry is believed to have been cultivated in the Middle East under the so-called ‘Islamic Golden Age’ (8th-13thC), qawwali tradition emerged in the 13thC by fusing Indian classical music aesthetics with Arabic and Perso-Islamic influences. It ascended through famed mystic/musician Amir Khusrau (the ‘father of Qawwali’) who established the tradition as a dominant devotional form in Delhi. During the reign of Emperor Akbar, Miyan Tansen, a prodigious court musician (16thC) who converted from Hinduism to Islam, helped to popularise the genre across North India, and especially in the Punjab, with his transcendent compositions/performances and his vocal talents that were so otherworldly they were deemed to incite supernatural occurrences. Qawwali features a lead qawwal singing in a highly virtuosic style supported by a ‘party’ of chorus singers. It follows the melodic, rhythmic and textual conventions of Indian classical music, but features its own idioms, including incredible vocal virtuosity, elaborate melodic improvisation, variation and ornamentation, complex responsorial singing between the soloist and members of the chorus, use of ostinato in the percussion for a hypnotic rhythmic effect and zikr (the incessant repetition of God’s name (Allah) as an act of remembrance).

The spiritual significance of music remained paramount in the Hindustani classical tradition. In fact, aesthetic affinities between these cultural and religious systems helped to further bolster the spiritual status of music. Indeed, the Sufi (mystical Islamic) concept of sama (literally ‘listening’; the embodiment of spiritual ideals in song and capacity for song to enact spiritual communication and embody spiritual transcendence) shares notable similarities with that of sangita. Orthodox Muslim communities in Mughal society had an ambiguous relationship with music: some only permitted sung recitation of the Qur’an and the chanting of sacred poetry, considering all other music haram (‘forbidden’) for its ‘intoxication’ of a devotee’s religious commitment. Yet, most Muslim communities nurtured their own musical Islamic Indian traditions, such as the tassa tradition used in holy processions like the festival of Hosay which combines melismatic Arabic vocal song with polyrhythmic percussive drumming that evidences Hindustani influences as a ‘full’ tassa drum plays out the tala metre and a ‘bass’ tassa drum beats out the steady processional beat while another drum improvises intricate ‘melodies’ over the top while other drums add layers of cross-rhythms; and Muslim musicians were amongst those at the forefront of the development of Hindustani classical music, a legacy which prevails in the religious diversity of the tradition today.

In South India, the Mughal rulers delegated control over society to compliant Hindu leaders, and so traditional desi musics and the emerging Karnatak classical music tradition developed with far less extraneous influence and continued to be organised more strongly around cultural roles ordained by the caste system. For example, higher caste singers and instrumentalists dominated the cultivation of the Karnatak kriti tradition (a devotional vocal genre focused on the expression of sahitya (religious verse) and madhurya bhava (‘tender emotion’ of consecrated love) and the bharata natyam dance (a dance form from Tamil Nadu combining nrtta (abstract dance) and natya (drama) with a series of highly complex mudras (semiotic gestures derived from codified priestly signs that express stories (incl. details of seasons, identities, environments, actions and emotions)).

Kriti vidwan (concert composers/performers like Tyagaraja, Syama Sastri and Muttusvami Diksitar) were almost exclusively from the Brahmin caste, and so its concerts were often referred to as kutcheri (courts of religious law) as they were so focused on religious worship. Yet, musical excellence took hold in the ragam-tanam-pallavi tradition, perhaps the most demanding embodiment of the musical spontaneity and responsorial practices set out by the raga system. Two musicians (asthana vidwan (expert concert musician) and a challenger) enter into a heated competition where a composed musical phrase forms the basis of extensive virtuosic melodic and rhythmic improvisations that are passed back and forth (i.e. each musician not only takes turns as lead in devising spontaneous improvisations but also has to flawlessly imitate the improvisations of the other musician as an immediate response to each of their statements).

However, despite this social stratification, some light classical Karnatak music forms did draw on traditional desi practices. For instance, the prominentMalayalam Kathakalidance-drama tradition of Kerala drew on devotional Sanskrit kutiyattam (classical dance-drama) but also on folk theatre practices for its intricate dramatic performance of Hindu epics, its mudra (complex semiotic gestures) and stylised makeup (e.g. ‘green’ for Sathwika(hero) and ‘red’ for Kathi (villain)) and its music essentially follows the aesthetics of Indian classical music but using local instruments, especially a range of percussive folk drums (e.g. chenda (stick-beaten double-headed barrel drum), idakka (stick-beaten hourglass pitched drum which can be squeezed to bend the pitch) and madalam (large hand-beaten barrel drum).

Indian Musics and the West

As power transferred from the imperial rule of the Mughals to European colonisation, traditional and classical musics in India underwent significant transformations. While the musical styles and genres of existing forms were not substantially affected by the British Raj, the profound sociocultural changes of the period radically altered the practices and purposes of the music, especially in the north of the country. Yet, this (albeit initially exploitative) contact with the West, along with the rise of new technologies, instigated the development of new modern hybrid cultural forms that became dominant in post-emancipation India and international journeys for Indian music traditions have since brought Hindustani classical music, amongst other forms, to global fame.

While British colonists revered some aspects of Indian culture (e.g. architecture), their attitudes to Indian music were generally dismissive. Despite this, the British administration in India also did little to impose their own culture or religion on the Indian people (contrary to earlier colonial conquests in other parts of the world). As such, the British Raj actually made little impression on the styles and genres of Indian musical tradition (in contrast to the drastic syncretism of the Mughal period). Yet, the profound sociocultural changes, most notably the withdrawal of robust court patronage for the arts, the extension of the caste system with Victorian puritanical morality and the promotion of divisions between Hindus and Muslims had a significant impact on the practices and purposes of the music. This was severely detrimental for Hindustani classical and light classical musics, which had become wholly reliant on court patronage and, with its social mobility and cosmopolitanism, did not sit comfortably with bolstered caste and religious divides. On the other hand, desi musics, though certainly derided and in no way promoted by the British administration, generally managed to thrive under the British Raj as they were well supported by systems of caste and by religious practice.

A prime example of the damage these changes caused to classical forms is the destruction of the tawaif (courtesan) tradition. The fall of Mughal social systems not only removed their social locale and their immediate cultural purposes but, moreover, puritanical misinterpretations of their performances as erotic (rather than sensual) and of their function as prostitutes (rather than artisans) resulted in rapacious harassment and suppression. The most empowered women in Indian society became amongst the most marginalised and, eventually, the role of female courtesan was outlawed altogether, dismantling the social mobility that music had previously afforded and leading to a sheer decline in khyalsong and kathak dance. Thus, under the British Raj, Hindustani classical music became dominated by the higher castes, especially by members of the Brahmin caste.

This decline started to turn around through patronage from the Indian National Congress in the late 19thC. The establishment of a national education system led to the emergence of an erudite middle class, for whom classical tradition offered a symbol of Indian identity, taste and resilience. Thus, as the independence movement rose in prevalence in the 1920s, classical forms flourished again and a series of gharanas(music schools) were instituted as the heirs to the Mughal khandansystem. In many respects, they functioned in a similar vein to the khandan, with an emphasis on hereditary lineage and some diversity in terms of representation of different castes, but the gharanas were unprecedented in their emphasis on developing distinct performance styles and practices for each school. The renaissance also encouraged new academic work in classical music aesthetics, which led to the pioneering work of Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande, who travelled the country to study raga and tala systems (1910-1932) and consolidated thousands of systems into a common set of around 25 ragas and 15 tala that have formed the core of Hindustani classical music composition/performance ever since. His works were also amongst the first to explore comprehensively the implicit performance aesthetics of Hindustani tradition in a similar vein to the pre-Mughal shastras. In a sense, these developments represented the appropriation of Hindustani classical music by the middle class and did little to attempt to change the social stratification and religious exclusivity that had manifested under British rule, but it nevertheless saved the tradition from decline and secured its cultural relevance in the independence movement.

The early 20thC also brought new technologies and Western influences that nurtured the rise of perhaps the most important development in modern Indian culture: Bollywood. Centred in Bombay (modern-day Mumbai), the Bollywood cinematic industry produces films that place popular songs and dances at their heart. In its early period, composers, or ‘song directors’, of filmi sangeet(film songs) tended to utilise light classical style (especially dramatic forms) with desi (song and dance) influences and actors who sing their own songs. From the 1930s, filmi sangeet were pre-recorded using talented ‘playback singers’ and dubbed into the film, allowing films to feature actors valued for their dramatic  and dance talents (and indeed for their glamour). The style also changed, integrating new Western popular music influences (especially in terms of harmony, instrumentation and technological effects). In this period, filmisongs were the only commercial musical form in India and primarily served as a form of entertainment, though it is worth noting that some filmi songs voiced social comment and political critique as part of the nationalist movement (e.g. Pradeep’s ‘Door Hato’ (1943)).

Since emancipation and partition, Hindustani classical music, along with some devi traditions, became prominent in the ‘Hindu revival’ which sought to elevate cultural forms associated with the religion which had been present in the rise of the independence movement. Though the popularity of all classical and traditional musics paled in comparison with the burgeoning Bollywood genre, the gharanas prospered and diversified in terms of style and practice and the All-India Radio and strong concert networks were established to present the music to middle class audiences and aficionados, enabling musicians like Ravi Shankar and Zakir Hussain to achieve widespread fame and recognition. From here, classical, traditional and popular forms, in their own ways, demonstrate increasing contact with the West. Hindustani classical music performances in the UK (e.g. by Hazrat Inayat Khan, Uday Shankar, Allaudin Khan, Ravi Shankar, Alla Rakha, Zakir Hussain, Ali Akbar Khan, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan) helped to raise its profile around the world and spawned ‘the great sitar explosion’, instigating a global fascination with Indian music and culture and encouraging intercultural collaborations of varying degrees of success (e.g. Ravi Shankar collaborated with Yehudi Menhuin in the 1950s, with a number of jazz artists and with the Beatles in the 1960s and subsequently with George Harrison, John McLaughlin and others).

Similarly, a number of desi traditions (most notably, bhangra) have formed the basis of (Westernised) popular music and dance forms, filmi songs have tended to move more in line with Western popular music than with domestic trends and subsequently ‘World Music’ fusionists (e.g. Anoushka Shankar and Trilok Gurtu) have experimented in wildly eclectic intercultural mixes. Yet, Westernisation is far from pervasive in India, especially in the national intuitions founded for the maintenance of folkand classical traditions alike. In many respects, Indian music is amongst the most poignant representation of the tangled web of opportunities and risks in intercultural communication and collaboration between the West and ‘others’ in its capacity for new musical directions and horizon-expanding experiences but also exoticised stereotypes and prejudicial misunderstandings; the celebrations and anxieties of ‘World Music’ writ large.

James Nissen (The University of Manchester), April 2017

Sources & Reading Suggestions 

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Nada Yoga: The Healing Power of Sacred Sound [Documentary Film] (Sacred Mysteries, 2004).

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Sources of Images

Header Image: Flickr

Map of India: Britannica

Gandhi leading Salt March: Britannica

Vedas: Kanchi Kamakoti Seva Foundation

Guru Shishya Parampara: Raja Ravi Varma, 1904

Krishna plays his flute: Giriraj dasa, 2015

Baraat Procession, New Delhi (2014): James Nissen (2014)

Homa votive rite: Kauai’s Hindu Monastery

Sangitaratnakara: Sinha Bhupala Svaradhyaya, Kalivara Vedantavagisa,Sarada Prasada Ghosha

Raga Times of Day

Sandip Bhattacharya playing Pakhawaj: Sandip Bhattacharya, Tabla and Percussion

Tabla drum set: Sandip Bhattacharya, Tabla and Percussion

Tambura – Victoria & Albert Museum: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Tawaif musician: Chandrakanth’s Music of India

Bhangra dancers and dhol players: Band baja Brass

Rinku Bhattacharya – Kathak dancer: Artists-India Gallery

Sher Miandad Khan – Qawalli: Faizan Hussain, The Nation

Qawwali musicians leading worship at Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, Delhi (2015): James Nissen (2014)

Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri: Raagtime| Samanth S, 2008

Bollywood Actress Vyjayanthimala: DNA India

Ravi Shankar: David Farrell

Trilok Gurtu: Kalamu ya Salaam