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The Sound of Indian Music

The origin and inspiration of music in India, like that of all other classical arts, is attributed to divinity. Shiva is considered to have created sound, rhythm and dance which he revealed to the ancient sages who in turn taught them to men. The sage Narada was the most accomplished heavenly musician and singer who is said to have written Naradasiksa the great treatise on music. Sage Barata was the master of dance and wrote the Natyasastra which elaborates the laws of music, dance and drama which were all closely related. Both these works have been written in the early years of the Christian era but are traditionally believed to be much older. They continue to be referred to by scholars even today.

A tradition which from its origin has been purely oral, is difficult to evaluate and trace. The sources of Indian music however can be traced back to the Sama Veda. This work is a compendium of hymns which were chanted by a special category of Brahmin priests during the worship of vedic divinities. It belongs to the later Vedic Period (around 100 B.C. – 600 B.C.) The Sama Veda makes references to the scale of seven notes and three instruments – the vina (a seven stringed instrument), the veni (flute) and the dundubhi (drum). All three came to be associated with deities of the later Brahmanical pantheon. The vina, believed to be invented by the sage Narada, became the instrument of Saraswati, the Goddess of music, culture and learning. The flute and drum were both deified as Krishna’s murali with which he enchants the world and as Shiva’s damaru which he plays while dancing the cosmic dance which destroys the world and create a new one. It is from the sound of this damaru played by Shiva that Panini, the great Sanskrit grammarian, is believed to have heard all the possible sounds which he then systematized into consonants, vowels, semi-vowels and dipthongs on which the Sanskrit language is based.

The flute and the drum are even today the most popular amongst the people. The vina, however has remained a classical instrument and one that can be played by only the most accomplished musician.

After the Vedic period came the Classical Period when theories of grama (scales), murcchana (modes) and Jati (species) came into existence. Music gradually became specialized and more complex. Before the beginning of the Christian era it was already highly developed as a secular art. There are six ancient ragas believed to be of divine origin – five formulated by Shiva and the sixth by his consort, Parvati. Many new ones have been added since. These new ragas had their source in folk music or were the compositions of musical seers.

A raga is the basis of melody in Indian music and a substitute for the western scale. It constitutes the ground plan of a song and it is this that the ‘guru’ communicates to his pupil who then has to learn to improvise upon the theme thus defined. The word raga suggests the idea of mood and each composition is based on a particular raga. In some cases it can be based on two or more ragas as well. Every raga represents a universal emotion, one which is not limited to any particular country or people. The purpose of the song is to express and arouse particular passions of body and soul in nature. Some ragas are associated with particular seasons or have definite magic effects. Others have fixed hours of the day for their performance and this rule is never broken by musicians.

A raga has three important notes: the graha or the note on which it begins, the nyasa or the note on which it ends and the amsa which is the predominant note of the raga and which, in fact, constitutes the soul of the raga. A raga is introduced by alap – a slow, ever-unfolding exposition of the raga which prepares the ground for further elaboration of the melodies in the succeeding movements. Since Indian music is unwritten, the exposition and colouring of a raga depend entirely on the creative powers and inspiration of the performer. So, in reality, the Indian musician is both a composer and a performer. In the case of vocal music, the words of the song or the quality of the voice are not of primary importance. They are just the vehicles of the music whose purpose is to crate a mood rather than narrate a story. The words of the song are used to support the music with little regard to their own logic.

To this Classical period of music are attributed a number of treatises on music. Besides the famous Natyasastra of Bharata and Naradasiksa of Narada, we have Sarangadeva’s Sangitratnakara, and Subhankara’s Sangita Sagar, to name just a few.

With the establishment of Muslim rule in India a new phase began in the history of Indian music. Indian music was divided into two schools, the north Indian or Hindustani school and the south Indian or Carnatic school. In the north, the Muslim rulers brought a new culture which left its imprint on traditional Indian arts. In the field of music, there was a fusion between the ancient music of India and that of Arabia, Persia and even Egypt. Many new ragas were created. New instruments and new forms of music came into being. Amir Khusrau, poet, musician and statesman at the court of Alauddin Khalji, invented the sitar which is a modification of the vina. The sitar has become one of themost popular instruments in north Indian music. Tansen, the court musician of the great Mughal Emperor Akbar, and one of the greatest musicians of medieval India, created the instrument rabab and his son, also a gifted musician, and his descendants adapted the rabab and became founders of the “Rababi School”. His daughter Saraswati and her husband, vinaplayer Misri Singhji, took up the vina as their family instrument and became known as the “Vinkars”. These two branches of the Tansen family founded the two most important north Indian schools of music and some of India’s greatest musicians of later times are found amongst their descendants and disciples.

Based on the vina and the rabab, other instruments such as the surbahar, the sarangi, and sarod were also created. New forms of music were introduced, such as the Kawali by Amir Khusrau, and the Sankirtan and Nagarkirtan which were influenced by the development of the Bhakti movement. The Dhrupad style was introduced by Raja Man Singh of Gwalior. Another important development of classical music was the delinking of vocal and instrumental music and dance. In the preceding centuries, all three arts were closely linked and were also intimately related to drama.

Perhaps one of the most interesting developments of this period is the association between music and painting. The Indian mind which so easily personified the river, trees, the sun and the Himalayas, now personified or rather characterized in pictorial images each different raga and a new category of miniature paintings – the ragamala – was born. In the words of a western scholar, a raga is “ a work of art in which the tune, the song, the picture, the colours, the season, the hour and the virtues are so blended together as to produce a composite production to which the west can furnish no parallel.”

In south India, the arts continued to develop outside the sphere of foreign influence. As a result, south Indian classical music retained its purity and ancient traditions. The close link between the different branches of music – vocal, instrumental and dance – remained. Even today, all south Indian songs can be adapted as accompaniments to dance. The pure scale which underwent change in the north continued in the south as the Kafi of the Sama Veda. There are differences in the theories of ragas in the two schools of music and in the nomenclature of the theories of tala or time-measure. But in both cases, music remained an oral tradition with its very; special relationship between the guru and the shishya.

South India also produced its great masters such as Tyagaraja and Govinda Marar. Several important treatises on south Indian music were compiled such as the Manikkavachakar, the Paripadal and the Svaramela-Kalanidhi of Ramamatya.

In modern times, no new innovations have revolutionized Indian music. Rabindranath Tagore did give it a certain impetus with his compositions of some 2000 songs earlier this century. Although he founded a new school of music, the ‘Rabindra Sangeet’ which continues to exist today, it remains a product developed within the traditional framework.

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