The musical arts of India, like those of China, date back over 3000 years and are among the oldest traditions in the world. During the twelfth to sixteenth centuries, Indian classical music developed along two distinct lines: Carnatic music from south India and Hindustani music from Northern India and Pakistan. Carnatic music was mainly found in temples whereas Hindustani music thrived in royal courts. For our snapshot of traditional Indian music, we'll focus on the Hindustani genre.
Indian Woman Playing Tambura, c. 1735 | Ink, opaque and transparent watercolor, and gold on paper | The tambura (tanpura) is used to provide a drone like background in classical Indian music | Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Hindustani style appeared during the 12th century, branching out from Carnatic classical music. Hindustani music was strongly influenced by Persian music since most northern courts were ruled by Persia nobility. After India came under British rule in the 19th century, Hindustani classical music continued to thrive in the nearly 600 royal courts. When India won independence from Great Britain in 1947, most royal courts were abolished and suddenly thousands of classical Indian musicians were unemployed. Instead of fading into the mists, these musicians learned to market their art to the general public and, eventually, to the world. The result was wide spread popularization of a once elite musical style. Today, classical Indian music has been integrated into popular Western music, film scores and concert halls around the world.
Jonah and the Whale | Folio from a Jami al-Tavarikh, c. 1400 | Northern Indian art and music were influenced by Persian culture from the 12th through 19th centuries | Metropolitan Museum of Art
Elements of Style
Hindustani and Carnatic styles are based on a melodic structure for improvisation known as raga and performed within rhythmic cycles called tala. The theories behind raga and tala structures are ancient, initially codified in Indian musical treatises during the second and third centuries AD.
Indian Woman Playing Sitar, c. 1800 | Ink and opaque watercolor on paper | The sitar, a lute-like plucked chordophone, is an important solo instrument in classical Indian music | Metropolitan Museum of Art
The word raga is derived from a term meaning color or atmosphere. Raga is a melodic structure or pattern of notes defined by the number of notes, called swaras, and the intervals between these notes.
Like a scale, each raga has an ascending and descending form but, unlike a scale, has characteristic melodic motives and ornamentation known as alankar. Individual ragas are associated with a particular mood or feeling, e.g., love, tranquillity, seasons, times of day, etc.
Finally, the melodic material of the raga is microtonal, i.e., uses pitches in between Western notes. Like the Chinese, Indian musicians divide the octave into 22 tones called shrutis, roughly equal to a quarter tone in Western music. The smallest Western interval is the half step, double the size of a quarter tone.
Raga Maru Bihag | An example of a 17 swaras (note) evening raga.
Tala refers to the rhythmic structure of classical Indian music, typically a repeated cycle of beats. Tala vary in length from 3 to 100 beats, with 6 to 10 beat tala as the norm. There are hundreds of tala so each one has a unique name and organization of its beats into groups. For example, the 10-beat tala known as shultal has 4-2-4 beat groups while another 10-beat tala, jhaptal, is organized as 2-3-2-3 (used in the raga Maru Bihag video below). Like the downbeat in Western meter, the first beat of the tala is the most important, although there are secondary accents as well.
While my description is simplistic, the rhythmic structure of Indian classical is complex compared to most Western music. Listen to the Ravi Shankar, renowned Indian sitar player and composer, explain and play the raga and tala of raga Maru Bihag:
Raga Maru Bihag (11:45) | Ravi Shankar (1920-2012)
The most important instruments in Hindustani classical music are tabla, sitar, and tambura. Both the sitar and tambura are plucked chordophones belonging to the lute family: the tambura provides drone accompaniment while the sitar solos. The sitar evolved from the Indian veena, modified to conform with the tastes of India's Mughal rulers. Early variants of the sitar flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries and developed into its present during the 18th century. The sitar's distinctive sound comes from the use of sympathetic strings, high frets and an extended resonance chamber consisting of a long hollow neck and gourd-shaped chambers. The sitar's appearance is similar to the tambura (tanpura), except that it has frets.
Sitar | 18th century Indian sitar | Metropolitan Museum of Art
The tabla is a South Asian membranophone similar in size to bongos. Tabla are played as a set of two drums and used in traditional, classical, popular and folk music of South Asia. Pressure from the heel of the hand is used to vary the pitch of the drums. Since the 18th century, the tabla has played a pivotal role in Hindustani classical music.
Tabla | 19th century tabla from Northern India. Players normally perform with a set of two tabla. | Metropolitan Museum of Art
Like American jazz, improvisation is an integral aspect of the style. However, it is not a free for all because improvisation occurs within the framework of the raga and tala. Furthermore, the improvisation is interactive with performers speaking musically with one another, i.e., tossing intricate phrases back and forth between instruments. Listen to Anoushka Shankar, daughter of Ravi Shankar, as she and her ensemble improvise and trade licks like a jazz band:
Raga Joug(9:23) | Anoushka Shankar | Raga Joug in an eight beat tala | Indian instruments are often intermingled with Western instruments such as violin and guitar.
Since the 1960s, there has been considerable collaboration between Indian and Western musicians—from Broadway to metal—with perhaps the Beattles and Ravi Shankar being best known early collaborators. Although the details of East and West fusions are beyond the confines of this course, I would be remiss not to offer a taste of such a delightful integration of styles. Listen to this wonderful collaboration between Norah Jones and Anoushka Shankar:
Anoushka Shankar - Traces Of You ft. Norah Jones (3:46) | Anoushka Shankar and Norah Jones are half sisters, both daughters of Ravi Shankar.
Carnatic, Hindustani, shruti, swaras, raga, tala, microtonal, sitar, tambura, tabla