Indian Music

The Vedic Period
Music, according to Hindu mythology, originated with the first sound ever to be heard in the universe, the Naadbrahma, or Om. This Naadbrahma pervades the entire universe and, being a manifestation of the divine power (or Brahma), is the purest sound to be heard. It is this purity that the musician attempts to achieve in his dedicated pursuit, or sadhana, of the music he is involved in.

Where Indian cultural history is concerned, the farthest one can go back is, perhaps, the time of the Vedas, approximately 5000 to 4000 BC. These are arguably the earliest written documents to have emerged from the Indian subcontinent. The Vedic chants themselves, though, would date back even further subcontinent. The Vedic chants themselves, though, would date back even further

because before writing, shruti, sound or speech in this case, and smriti, memory, were the only means of passing knowledge down the generations. The Vedic chants, set in three basic notes, formed a melody giving them a rhythm that probably made them easier to remember.Music, however, was obviously in existence and practice much before the Vedas were written. Research indicates that the Samveda had a rather complicated way of chanting that used more than just three notes as in the case of the other Vedas. Also, it has been found that a rather definite scale of svaras, notes, had been arrived at by scholars of the Vedic period.

According to 'Evolution of Indian Classical Music' by Neerja Bhatnagar (Publication Scheme, Jaipur, First Edition 1997), "In the early Vedic period, the svaras were called Krushta, Prathama, Dvitiya, Tratiya, Chaturtha, Mandra and Atisyarya. Later, these were called Shadja, Rishabha, Gandhara, Madhyama, Panchama, Dhaivata and Nishada." Or, Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha and Ni as they are sung.

Her book also makes mention of the fact that these notes, if played today, would start from the middle of the madhya sapthak, second octave, and go down to the mandra sapthak, lower octave. Also, the concept of shruti being intervals between the seven notes had been arrived at, as had the distinction between notes that are definitely musical and those that are not.

As the centuries faded into one another and civilisations like that of the Indus valley rose and fell, the writings of the Vedas endured. It is difficult to say how many manuscripts actually survived and how many took the beating of time then. However, the people of that time followed the way of life as propounded in the four books and most cultures and societies of the time continued studies in the realms started by the Vedic sages.

The 1st to 13th Century
The passing of the Vedic age in no way meant that studies by scholars and sages was stopped. Advancements, however slow, were definitely made in the spheres of study started in the Vedic age, music being of particular concern in this case.

According to researchers, by 600 BC or so the grammatisation of music evolved quite a bit. The three sapthaks, octaves -- mandra sapthak, the lower octave, madhya sapthak, the middle octave, and taar sapthak, the higher octave -- had been established as the ranges within which musical composition could function. Concepts like taal, beat, and jati, ways in which notes can be used, were being recognised and established.

It was around this time, between 200 BC and 200 AD, that Bharata's Natyashastra is said to have been written. One of the first authoritative texts on the performing arts, the Natyashastra was intended as the fifth Veda, laying down rules and structures that performers were to follow in theatre, dance and music.

When writing about music, Bharata makes the distinction between Gandharva music, ritualistic singing, and Dhruva Gana, music for theatre. He also provides excellent indications, through his writing, the high level to which studies in music had reached.

"Bharata's Natyashastra gives very significant information about Indian music, various concepts related to it, and musical instruments, and serves as an indispensable link between music during the Vedic period, music in the epics, Panini, Buddhist and Jain works, and the music during the time of Matanga and Sarangadeva." (Evolution of Indian Music, Neerja Bhatnagar, Publication Scheme, Jaipur, First Edition 1997)

For the first seven centuries or so, the Natyashastra functioned as the main doctrine to be followed in terms of music. Till Matanga, a scholar who lived somewhere in the 7th to 9th Centuries, wrote the Brhaddesi. Later, in the 13th century, Sarangadeva wrote the Sangita Ratnakar which, till today, is regarded as the most comprehensive treatise on ancient Indian classical music.

The Sangita Ratnakar elaborates a great deal on the significance that each of the seven notes has in evoking sentiment or feeling in the mind of the listener. It has been argued that the later concepts of the raga as we know it originated at about this time. In fact, some ragas were mentioned as well.

"The Sangita Ratnakar marks a watershed in the evolution of Indian Classical Music, a standard from which any deviations or new developments in the field of music can be identified and examined." (Evolution of Indian Music, Neerja Bhatnagar, Publication Scheme, Jaipur, First Edition 1997)

The Persian Invasion
By the time the Muslims established their rule in India, Indian music had already attained its classical form through the dedicated works of the Vedic saints and sages. Later, scholars like Bharata, Dattila, Matanga, Narad, and Sarangadeva contributed their own knowledge and wisdom in music to the scriptures and developed the field further.

With the Persian invasions came a lot of destruction, not just of land and property, but of the very way of life in Northern India. While most of the Southern states (South of the Deccan Plateau) managed to resist the invasions, the kingdoms of the North suffered a great deal. The Hindu culture that had been in existence and had been evolving since the time of the Vedas had now to assimilate all the values and traditions of the Muslim rulers.

The Persian kings brought with them their own entourages of artists, singers and scholars and thus their own evolved styles of music. The music of India, though, did not suffer and in fact managed to survive with most of its own identity fairly intact.

The reasons for this were many. Not only had centuries of the guru- shishya parampara, teacher-student tradition, established a set way of learning and passing on information down the generations, the very qualities of Indian music helped it survive. These qualities would include the very highly scientific structure within which a musician could operate with total freedom, the aesthetic appeal of the music, the melodies and the unmistakable spiritual aspect of the music.

Also, it has been pointed out that while a lot of Hindus did convert to Islam at that time, most of them grew up with Indian music and perhaps felt more comfortable with it than with Persian music.

Apart from these social factors, research has uncovered that even during these turbulent times, Indian classical music was flourishing in various kingdoms all across the country like Rajputana, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Devagiri in the South. Gwalior was fast emerging the stronghold of Indian classical music and many later renowned musicians came from this state including the famous Tansen who sang in Akbar's court.

It was around this time that the Bhakti movement started and various contributions by saint poets like Alvaras, Jayadeva, Vidyapati and Chandidas were made, further enriching the tradition of Indian music.

Developments During the 13th and 14th centuries
With the Muslim rulers came the mehfil, gatherings of musicians, singers, dancers and poets at the homes of noblemen and royals. These gatherings were for the express purpose of patronising artistes and performers in their skills and giving them platforms to display their talents. In fact, for many performers these mehfils were a way of earning their living. For if they pleased the nobleman or royal, handsome rewards were to be received in the form of precious jewels or sovereigns, rewards that would see them through hard times and that would help build a legacy for their descendants.

One such poet to emerge from the artistic ambience of the mehfil was Amir Khusrau during the reign of Sultan Jalal-ud-din-Khalji. Amir Khusrau was a prolific poet who, it is said, in his young days wrote one new ghazal every day. His poetry is famous even today and many still enjoy its timeless lyricism. In his later years he turned towards Sama, mystic music sung by Chishtia Sufis.

Khyal, though not initiated during this time, found its origins in this period and the superstructure of the Khyal was formed in these years. These were also the years in which Dhrupad as a distinct style of singing emerged. However, the most popular forms of singing in the 13th and 14th centuries, were ghazals and qawwalis.

The Reign of Akbar
By the time Akbar's rule came about in the 16th century, the music of North India had evolved into an entity rather distinct to that of South India. The courts kept musical traditions alive and the darbar was a place for many a musician to nurture his talent.

It was during Akbar's reign that Abul Fazl's two works, Akbar Nama and Ain-i-Akbari were written. In addition to describing the music of the day, the latter dealt a little with the classification of ragas as well. Scholars, however, do make note of the fact that while Abul Fazl was, no doubt, a great thinker and knew a lot about music, most of his texts were based on enquiry and the questions he asked of various musicians and people he met.

During Akbar's time, a lot of work was done with respect to critically analysing and understanding the Sangita Ratnakar. Stories abound of Tansen testing the musical talents of other musicians in the court by asking highly technical questions of them, questions that could only be answered by someone who had deeply studied music. Simultaneously, in other kingdoms across the country, vast amounts of research and enquiry was being done in the field of music in an attempt to better understand the form.

An interesting point to note here is that before Akbar's reign, gharanas have very rarely been referred to. It was only after Tansen died that his descendants were referred to as belonging to the Senia Gharana from the Gwalior school of music. However, some do feel that during the development of Dhrupad, the vanis, styles of singing Dhrupad, were akin to gharanas as we know them today. Akbar's court was said to be the liveliest in terms of patronage of the arts. A lot of this was also due to the fact that Akbar himself was avidly interested in the arts and did a lot to promote good artistes. With the passing of Akbar, it is said that a golden period in Indian classical music passed away.

After Akbar (16th to 18th centuries)
Akbar was the most celebrated of Mughal rulers not only because of his patronage of the arts but also because he was a strong king. His descendants, though they favoured art, never found as exalted a place in history as Akbar did.

However, as long as there were kings and courts, music flourished. Musicians from the various states were constantly improving their gayaki, styles, and were continuously innovating and studying deeper aspects of music.

In the 17th and early 18th centuries, the Dhrupad was still the king of the courts. However, by the 18th century, the Khyal was becoming more and more popular with singers. By the 19th century, the Khyal had fairly embedded itself in the minds of musicians and the Thumri, too, was coming up, especially in the reign of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah (1847-56).

The Rise of the British (18th to 19th centuries)
By this time, though, the British had fairly established their presence in the country. Bahadur Shah Zafar was the last Mughal emperor to rule North India. After the Revolution of 1857, the British deposed him, took control and did away with the independent princely states. All Rajas and Nawabs began owing allegiance to the British Empire. The taxes they formerly collected for themselves were now a part of the British exchequer and they, in turn, received a Privy Purse out of which they had to maintain their expenses. Smaller nawabs had a rough time and most had to give up their lavish lifestyles.

The rise of the British Empire spelt death for court arts. With their wealth gone, the nawabs and noblemen no longer had rewards to lavish on performers. Most had to move to other occupations. Yet, a few gharanas managed to survive the ravages of this period to emerge strong after Independence.

The 20th Century
By the time the 20th century dawned, the Indian populace was gradually awakening to the fact that it no longer wanted to be ruled by a foreign government. The early years of the century saw the beginning of efforts made by people in different parts of the country to get independent.

From a macro perspective, it would seem that the field of classical Indian music reached a point of rest. With the patronage of the noblemen and royals gone, very few Indian classical artistes survived. Interest seemed to fade and classical music became the prerogative of the intellectuals.

Then, newer forms of media started to emerge that brought with them sounds from all over the world. The airwaves were coming alive and a vast variety of western influences crept into Indian music. Popular music, which was mainly folk music till now, began to take on a different meaning altogether, especially with the advent of cinema. Also, as the nationalist movement gained momentum, music that the general populace all over the country could relate to was more in demand. Which is not to say that classical artistes were not -- musicians who were very deeply rooted in the classical tradition composed a lot of popular tunes.

The gradually growing film industry began attracting professional musicians and the middle of the century saw many efforts made by the government to revive the classical arts that had suffered at the hands of the British. However, the trend set by the movies completely turned the face of Indian music around.

Within the field of classical music, it was a different kind of development that started taking place in the 60s with Pandit Ravi Shankar taking classical music out of the country to audiences abroad. He was also the first to experiment with mixing western music with the Indian classical form to arrive at what is called fusion, or world music, a genre that is exceedingly popular today.

However, popular music was still only film music. Pop music, disco music by independent artistes, did make something of an appearance in the late 70s and early 80s with singers like Nazia Hasan and Runa Laila. However, the trend didn't quite catch on and it was only a few years later that pop artistes Alisha Chinai and Sharon Prabhakar broke the ice. Now, in the 90s, there's one new pop star practically every month.

For a long time, the popular perception of classical music was 'too cerebral' or 'too heavy'. However, recent years have seen a resurging interest in the field. An increase in the number of artistes indulging in fusion and a growing number of organisations dedicated to spreading the richness of the tradition has helped revive interest in classical music. Also, younger, media savvy artistes realise the potential of the 'Channel [V]-MTV' platform and are working more towards attracting the younger listener.

The Indian classical music tradition, however, has by no means faded. There are still teachers and disciples all over the country who dedicate a major part of their lives to the pursuit of this art, the sadhana of shastriya sangeet


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