Indian classical music
Basics, history, sitar, sheet music, CDs,
Article added on October 2, 2005
A short history of Indian
Since Ravi Shankar became George
Harrison's guru in the 1960s, sitar music has become better known around the
globe. He has shaped the Western perception of Indian classical music like
nobody else. This article is largely based on his autobiography,
Raga Mala (Amazon.co.uk,
as well as on Robert Maycock's program note of Ravi Shankar's performance at
the BBC Proms on August 3, 2005.
The Raga Sangeet system of Indian music has a history of some 2000 years.
The roots of Indian classical music are religious and lay in the Vedic hymns
of the Hindu temples. According to the traditional teaching, sound is God -
Nada Brahma. Through music, human consciousness can be
elevated to a degree which allows one to understand the eternal essence of the
universe. Indian classical music has "an unbroken history of development,
and above all it is a living tradition that still is in the process of
evolution", specifies Ravi Shankar.
The Hindustani or North Indian style of music developed after the subcontinent was invaded by
the Moguls from the 13th century onwards. In the Mogul empire, cultures derived from Persia
and elsewhere merged with local traditions. The indigenous music of India, with its intricate systems of
ragas and talas, continued uninterrupted and has become the
Carnatic or South Indian style, dominant in the areas never conquered by
the Moguls. Whereas in the North, musicians from Persia and India
influenced each other and experimented with each others instruments.
Singers led the way in this musical fusion. Over the centuries, hybrid instruments such as the sitar
- attributed to Amir Kushroo in the 13th century and modified over the
following centuries - have emerged that can match the subtleties and emotional force of the human voice.
Initially a courtly music, the Northern style has lost the concise, mathematical perfection and social openness of the South Indian style,
but it gained new dimensions.
Originally, all Indian music was sung in Sanskrit. But after the two systems
divided, Hindustani music was centered around Hindi and its dialect
Brajabhasha, whereas the Carnatic system was mainly influenced by Telegu as
well as by Kannadese and Tamil.
Historically, the musical tradition was passed on in gharanas or
regional schools or styles of performance in the cities of Northern India,
especially through family dynasties of famous teachers and musicians,
frequently named after the place where it originated. Today, teaching has
often transferred to colleges and conservatoires, but the traditional system
through guru-shishya instruction persists, and so do the dynasties.
Family members of outstanding musicians such as sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan, flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia, sarangi pioneer Ram Narayan, santoor
player Shivkumar Sharma, tabla genius Alla Rakha, sitar player Ravi Shankar
and others continue the tradition of classical Indian music, some of them
creating a special style of playing an instrument (baaj).
The basics of Indian classical music
India's performing arts - music, dance, drama, and poetry - are
based on the concept of Nava Rasa (the nine sentiments). The
of these sentiments is as follows: Shringara (romantic and erotic),
Hasya (humorous), Karuna (pathetic), Raudra (anger), Veera
(heroic), Bhayanaka (fearful), Vibhatsa (disgustful), Adbhuta
(amazement), and Shanta (peaceful).
Indian classical music is based on ragas
(melody) and talas (rhythm), but not on harmony, counterpoint,
modulation, chords, dynamics and other
structural elements of Western (classical) music. Furthermore, the tradition
of Indian classical music is an oral one. The guru teaches it directly to
his disciples. There is no sheet music, no written tradition as in Western
The background drone tone accompaniment for the soloists for almost all
performances of classical Indian music is provided by the tanpura, a
string instrument with no virtuoso function.
The heart of Indian classical music - of both the Hindustani and the
Carnatic system - is the raga:
the melodic form upon which the musician improvises and which may take
hours to develop. The raga
framework is established by tradition and nurtured by the leading
musicians of the past and present, composer and sitar player Ravi Shankar being one of them.
Ravi Shankar defines ragas as follows: "Ragas are extremely difficult to explain in a few words. Though
Indian music is modal in character, ragas should not be mistaken as
modes that one hears in the music of the Middle and Far Eastern
countries, nor be understood to be a scale, melody per se, a
composition, or a key. A raga is a scientific, precise, subtle and
aesthetic melodic form with its own peculiar ascending and
descending movement consisting of either a full seven note octave, or
a series of six or five notes (or a combination of any of these) in a
rising or falling structure called the Arohana and Avarohana. It is the
subtle difference in the order of notes, an omission of a dissonant note, an
emphasis on a particular note, the slide from one note to another, and the
use of microtones together with other subtleties, that demarcate one raga
from the other."
Each raga is principally dominated by one of the nine rasas
(sentiments) mentioned above,
although the performer can express additional emotions in a less
prominent way. The closer the notes of a raga translate one idea or emotion, the
more resounding the effect of the raga. Ravi Shankar adds that "90 percent
of Indian music may be improvised", that "a raga is the projection of the
artist's inner spirit, a manifestation of his most profound sentiments and
sensibilities brought forth through tones and melodies", and that "The spiritual quality and manner of expression
[of a Raga] cannot be learned from any book."
Ravi Shankar refers to the Sanskrit saying Ranjayathi iti Ragah,
establishes, that a raga, in order to color the mind of the listener, should
be created "not only through the
notes and the embellishments, but also by the presentation of the specific emotion or mood characteristic of each raga."
In this way, melodies of Indian classical music allow accomplished musicians
to express and experience "every human emotion, every subtle feeling in man
In addition to expressing a particular mood, each raga is
also associated with a particular time of day or a season of the
year. Each time of the day - before dawn, noon, late afternoon, early
evening, late night - is associated with a definite emotion. The cycle of day and night as well as the cycle of the seasons
are supposed to be analogous to the cycle of life.
Ragas are based on 72 melas or parent scales. With all their
permutations and combinations, one estimates that there are over 6,000 ragas.
In addition to the ascending - descending structure (Arohana - Avarohana),
a raga has a specific chalan - or characteristic note pattern. This
pattern is defined by its principle important note (vadi), its second
most important note
(samavadi), its main feature known as jan (life) or mukhda
(face), and the cluster of a few notes by which a raga is immediately recognizable.
It takes a student many years of sadhana or dedicated practice and
discipline under the guidance of a guru to be able to put the breath of life
(prana) into a raga. Among the secrets of a vibrant and incandescent
performance a teacher imparts to his pupil is the use of shrutis
(microtones; Indian music uses smaller intervals than Western music: 22
microtones within an octave), gamakas (sort of glissandi) and
andolan (a sway, but not a vibrato).
The talas or rhythmic cycles of a raga are another essential element
of Indian classical music. Talas range from cycles of 3 beats to cycles of
up to 108 beats. The most popular talas use cycles of 5 to 16 beats. The
most important rhythmic factors are the stress on the first beat (sum)
and the division in a tala. Talas with the same number of beats my differ
from each other in that they use other divisions and accents. For instance,
the tala Dhamar has 14 beats, divided into 5+5+4 beats, whereas the
tala Chanchar is divided into 3+4+3+4 beats. The most common North
Indian cycle, teental, consists of 16 beats in four groups of four
Robert Maycock explains that cycles may "begin and end on the first beat -
in Western terms, they run over into the first downbeat of the next, so that
the rhythm flows seamlessly. They are the springboard for fantastical games
of cross-rhythms, playing against the regular pattern, overlapping and
ear-tricking. The intricacy, far beyond anything encountered in European
music, becomes second nature to trained performers." He adds: "Once the peak of excitement has been reached, there is usually a formal ending or
tihai, a threefold repetition of a short series of phrases within which the final phrase is itself repeated three times."
Ravi Shankar explains: "In vocal music, a drummer will accompany a singer either in slow,
medium, or fast tempo at the start of a song in whatever tala the
singer chooses. He will do the same when he accompanies an
instrumentalist in the gat section of a composition" He adds, that
the two-faced drum known as pakhawaj accompanies the traditional Dhrupad-Dhamar form of singing and
instrumental performances on the veena, rabab, surbahar, etc.
However, today, most vocal and instrumental music is based on the
contemporary form called khyal, which is accompanied by the tabla,
two-piece drum. It consists of the right-hand, wooden-bodied tabla and the
left-hand, metal-bodied bass-drum bayan or dugga.
Khyal is a further development of dhurap and dhamar and
dates from the 13th century. Its origin is attributed to Amir Kushroo. It
was further developed by Sultan Hussain Shirki and brought to its ultimate
respectability by Sadarang. It has gained in popularity since the late 19th
The traditional recital of Indian classical music begins with the alap section,
the stately and
serene exploration, the gradual and meditative unfolding of the structure,
theme and rasa of a chosen raga. It is considered the highest form in Indian
music. This slow, introspective and
heartfelt beginning is followed by the jor, which
adds rhythm to the music and develops the raga's basic theme in innumerable variations.
Neither the alap nor the jor are
accompanied by the drums. They evolve into the gat, the fixed composition of the
raga. The drums enter the rhythmic structure of
the gat and its time cycle, the tala. This section is based on the Khyal
form. The gat can be anything between 4 and 16 bars of fixed composition. It
becomes the vehicle for the musician to return to after his improvisation. The gat accelerates step-by-step and culminates in the
jhala portion, which is playful and exciting. The interplay, the
dialogue between between
sitar and tabla is called Sawal jabab. At the conclusion of a recital, the musicians
often choose to play a thumri or dhun, an air or melody in a semi-classical
or folk style. It is much
freer than the classical one and
completely romantic, sensual and erotic.
The Indian classical music artist can only improvise within the format of
the raga and tala. "This is why one cannot rightfully
compare the improvisation in Indian music with the improvisation of jazz",
Ravi Shankar adds, since improvisation in jazz is based on Western harmony
and chords. "In Indian classical music one improvises on a theme, either in
the form of a song or in a gat based on a chosen raga..., being bound by
rules and observing the complex rhythmic structures and time cycles..."
Read also the articles about
Shyam Sundar Goswami and
by Ravi Shankar.
Ravi Shankar: Raga Mala - the autobiography of Ravi Shankar. Edited and
Introduced by George Harrison. Additional narrative by Oliver Caske. Afterword:
Yehudi Menuhin. Several editions, 336 p. Get it from Amazon.co.uk,
A must for anybody interested in Ravi Shankar and sitar music. This book
is the major source for this article. -
by Ravi Shankar.
Classical Indian sheet music.
Ravi Shankar: Ragas & Talas. Angel, 2000. Get the CD from Amazon.com,
Sitar sheet music.
Ravi Shankar: Three Ragas. Angel, 1956, remastered in 2000. Get the CD
One of my favorite CDs.
Ravi Shankar: Live at the Monterey International Pop Festival. Angel
Records, 1967, remastered 1998. Get the CD from Amazon
Ravi Shankar: Improvisations. Angel, 1962, remastered 1999. Get the CD
Ravi Shankar, Yehudi Menuhin: West Meets East. Angel, remastered 1999.
Get the CD from Amazon.com.
Ravi Shankar, Yehudi Menuhin, André Previn & London Symphony Orchestra,
Zubin Mehta & London Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI, 1976, 1982. Remastered
1998. EMI 2005. Get the CD from Amazon.com,
Ravi Shankar: Genesis. Milan/BMG, 1995/2001. Different covers. Get it
Ravi Shankar: Full Circle-Carnegie Hall 2000. Live-recording. Angel,
2001. Get it from Amazon.co.uk
In 1938, 17-year-old Ravi Shankar made his first appearance at New York's Carnegie
Hall as a dancer and musician in his brother Uday's troupe. Some 60 years
later, the leading sitar player and composer returned to NYC, this time with his
19-year-old daughter and sitar pupil Anoushka. They performed the nighttime
rag "Kaushi Kanhara" as well as the romantic rag "Mishra Gara",
in which Shankar introduced elements from outside the Hindustani tradition. The
two tablas were played by Bikram Ghosh and Tanmoy Bose. -
by Ravi Shankar.
Ravi Shankar: Chants of India. EMI, 1997. Get it from Amazon.co.uk,
Double DVD Set by BBC Opus Arte: Ravi Shankar 'Between Two Worlds'.
Running Time 190 minutes. DVD
1: Documentary. Ravi Shankar filmed in India and American during two years. The
master remembers his childhood and his career, illustrated by archive footage. DVD 2: Includes footage of Ravi Shankar live in concert at Union Chapel
in London in 2002 as well as a short introduction to Indian classical music and
to the sitar by the master. Get the Double DVD Set from