Know Your Raga - Your complete guide to Indian Classical Music
Know Your Raga - Your complete guide to Indian Classical Music

Indian Classical Music from a Student's Point of View

Indian classical music is a tradition nearly three thousand years old, the basis of which can be traced to the holy scriptures of the Hindus, the Vedas. According to Hindu mythology music originated from the first sound of the universe, the sound of ‘om. Om is also called the Naada Brahama (‘the first note’) as is supposed to be the purest sound ever produced. In fact, the correct rendition of it is believed to clear the system of the karmic cycle.

Sarasvati, the Hindu goddess of learning and wisdom, is often depicted as playing the veena, an ancient string instrument. Many musicians worship Sarasvati before a practice session or a performance. The Hindu god Krishna is often depicted as playing the bansuri (the north Indian bamboo flute) and there exist many a mystic legends around the romances of Krishna and his bansuri. It is not surprising then that the prime themes of Hindustani music are rasleelas (Hindu devotionals) of Krishna and Nature's splendor.

A listener coming from a background of Western music should not judge Indian classical music on the same parameters. Indian music does not have harmonies and is more of a solo-oriented form which relies heavily on melody and rhythm, and the ability of a performer to improvise on stage. Most performances are not rehearsed and the success of a performance relies on how well the performer can induce a certain mood in the minds of the listeners.

Technically, Indian classical music can broadly be defined in terms of two basic elements - the raga and the tala. The raga is the basis of melody. The term ‘raga’ literally means colour, andso the raga is 'that which colours the mind'. It is supposed to induce an emotion or a mood - tranquility, devotion, eroticism, loneliness, pathos, and heroism to name a few. The raga could be considered as a set of rules or constraints that binds a performance, constraints within which a performer is free to improvise.

Another fascinating aspect of the ragas is that most of them are associated with a time of the day in which they are to be performed - the time is generally specified by intervals of three hours and corresponds to the mood that is supposed to be associated with that time of the day. Some ragas, like raga malhar for example, are associated with specific seasons.

The raga is closely tied to the tala (the rhythm). The tabla, a unique kind of drum, serves as the main percussion instrument. The talas are often depicted as bolsor spoken words which are then adapted by the tabla player in his playing.

Indian classical music has developed into two distinct but related traditions. The north Indian tradition is generally referred to as Hindustani music and the south Indian tradition is called Carnatic(or Karnatak) music. The south Indian form has well defined, stricter rules, and is therefore more rigid than the north Indian style, which is comparatively more flexible.

The advent of Islamic rule under the Delhi Sultanate and later the Mughal Empire in northern India during the fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries caused the fusion of Hindu and Muslim ideas. This also marked the separation of the north Indian tradition from the tradition of the south, the Carnatic remaining untouched by other cultures, retaining its original form.

Amir Khusrau, a legendary musician and sufi poet is credited with the merging of Indian and Persian ideas and creation of forms such as the qawwali and the khayal.

Tansen, another legendary figure who was, consideredone of the nine jewels in the Mughal emperor Akbar'scourt, is reputed to have had such power in his music that he could light lamps and bring rain by his singing. Many current ragas like raga deepak are attributed to him.

A number of musical instruments are associated with Hindustani classical music. The veena is a string instrument which has traditional and mythological significance but very few play it today and it has largely been superseded by its cousins the sitarand the sarod. The santoor is another famous (plucked) string instrument. Among bowed instruments, the sarangi, esraj (or dilruba) and violin are popular. The bansuri (bamboo flute), shehnai and harmonium are important wind instruments. For percussion, the tablaand the pakhavaj are the most popular. Various other instruments (including the banjo and the piano) have also been used in varying degrees.

Indian classical music has always been an oral tradition. It has been passed on from the guru (teacher) to his shishya (disciple) through word of mouth. Therefore, there are not many written works available on the subject. There exists no sheet music or uniform written notation in Indian classical music as in the Western classical tradition. The basis of the tradition, the ragais supposed to be something that can only be felt by listening and feelings cannot be put down on paper.

The gurukuls and the Guru-Shishya parampara has been the soul of this oral tradition. The gurukul is a type of an ancient Indian school in which the students lived inside the premises, in close proximity to the guru. The student not only learns from the guru but also helps the guru in his day-to-day life, helps doing mundane chores such as washing clothes, cooking, etc. The guru is much more than just a teacher; he is a parent, a guide, even a philosopher, encouraging the pupil to imbibe crucial moral values.

Indian classical music has had many great performers. A lot of people in the west associate Indian classical music with Pandit Ravi Shankar and the late Ustad Allah Rakha who brought this tradition to the west during the late 60s and the early 70s. There are a lot of contemporary performers who are bringing popularity and fame to this ancient tradition including Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia, Ustad Zakir Hussain, Pandit Bhim Sen Joshi, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, Ustad Vilayat Khan to name just a few.

Compiled by Manu Mahajan. Last Updated on 2nd June '06.


Sarasvati the goddess of learning.
A poster depicting hindu goddess Sarasvati playing the Veena.

Sarasvati is the hindu goddess of learning and wisdom. Many performers worship Sarasvati before going on stage for a performance or before a practice session.

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