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THE TRADITION OF INDIAN ART MUSIC
(A HISTORICAL SKETCH)

--- Acharya Dr. Chintamani Rath, Ph.D. (Music)


All over the world, music is a natural form of human emotional expression. Anthropologists tell us that musical activity was present even in very early times. It is not possible, of course, to determine what kind of music existed in those days, but intelligent conjectures have been made by scholars. It is not necessary here to dwell upon these interesting hypotheses. It is enough to know that in primitive times, on the one hand music was mostly rhythm oriented and on the other, it was primarily melodically descending in character. The purpose of this article is to briefly discuss the tradition of the formalised art music of India from early times till today. To understand the foundations of this music, it is necessary to understand the general historical background of India.

India is a truly ancient land. Today it is, politically, only a part of the cultural zone that the entire region known as south Asia comprises. But before the present artificially defined boundaries were drawn up, truncating this zone into several distinct political countries with tightly sealed borders, the entire region from the Himalayan mountain range in the north to the sea in the south formed a single cultural nation. True, there were many sovereign kingdoms here, but the borders were not sealed in the manner they are today and there was free flow of both commerce and culture. Indeed, the name “India” itself came from the Greeks. We first find this word in the writings of Herodotus, a Greek historian of the 4th century BC. The word derives from the Sanskrit word “Sindhu”, which originally meant a large body of water and was the name of the great river to the northwest of this nation of many free kingdoms with a single cultural ethos. “Sindhu” was “Hindu” in Persian, since in classical Persian there is no “S” sound, it becomes the “H” sound. And, in classical Greek, the “Haa” sound is softened to “Aaa”, so that “Hindu” became “Indu”. Thus the river Sindhu was, to Greeks, the river Indu and the land belonging to the river Indu was, in Greek, India. Similarly, the ancient Chinese words for India were “Shen-tu” and “Tien-chu”, both of which were merely Chinese forms of the Sanskrit “Sindhu”.

The earliest writings in India on all subjects are to be found in the Vedas. These are four in number and the earliest of these is the R’g Veda. There is a great deal of controversy about the date when this work was written. The present author subscribes to the theory that dates this Veda to about 6000 years before Christ. Each of these Vedas has an Upa-Veda. The Upa-Vedas are treatises on specific disciplines. One of these Upa-Vedas --- that of the Sama Veda --- is Gandharva-Veda, which is the science and practice of music. Gandharvas were people belonging to a tribe that lived on the high mountains, were of a scientific bent of mind and were artistic in temperament, being musicians, dramatists and so forth. We also know them to have been traders, particularly of spices, and expert horsemen. As everywhere in different times of history, there were in those early days too, different classes of people living in different areas and engaged in different activities, known by different names like Gandharva, Pitara, Mitara, Yaksha, Varuna, Muni, Rshi, Maharshi, Manava, Asura, Rakshasa, Mlechchha, etc. Of these, it was the Gandharvas to whom we owe the development, formalisation and transmission of our musical and dramatic culture.

Apart from the Gandharva Veda, there were many other texts written on the subject in Sanskrit by such ancient Gandharva musicologists such as Bramha, Narada, Kohala, Yashtika, Durgashakti, Anjaneya, Bharata and many others. Most of these very ancient texts have been lost as a result of depredations by conquering forces of medieval times. We know of the existence of such texts only because some later works contain quotations from the early writings.

What was the nature of music that existed in India in those early times? We can only conjecture, but cannot emphatically say what its exact form of expression was. That there was some form of cultural expression in those very early times cannot be doubted. Music is mentioned, together with musical instruments and dancing in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the two great epic poems of ancient India. The Mahabharata in particular mentions music in several places. This poem, which centres around the great fratricidal war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas (an historical event which this author believes to have occurred around 1500 BC), is the longest poem in the world and is eight times the size of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey put together. There are stories here of musicians and music making.

The first clear indication of these ancient forms of music is found in a musical text called Br’haddeshi, written by Matanga around the 5th or 6th century AC. There were texts written before this, of course, which have survived till today, such as the Naradiya Shiksha of Narada (not the Gandharva Narada mentioned earlier, but Narada Muni, a different category of person altogether), which was written in the 4th century BC, the Natya Shashtra of Bharata (2nd century BC to 4th century AC, and again not the Gandharva Bharata but Bharata Muni, indeed, a series of Bharatas, belonging to the Bharata Sampradaya or Bharata school), but these texts do not give us clear and concrete ideas of the exact form of music that was practised in ancient times. It is Matanga Muni who first tells us that there was music amongst the ancient people of the Indian nation, and that this music could be analysed scientifically and categorised melodically under specific Ragas or melodic formats. From the names of the Ragas described by Matanga, we can guess that they belonged to very ancient peoples of the region.

Here it is necessary to clarify a common misconception that many people have today. It is said by many that “classical” or art music originated from folk music. This was to a great extent true in Europe, but in India, this was not at all the case. In India, the tradition of the Vedas required the performance of “Yajnas”, which were community prayers organised for the common good. The general features of Vedic culture were that it was rural in nature, there were no temples and prayers were for the common good and not for individual gain. In the Yajnas, there was provision for music in the form of “Samagana”. This was merely the singing of the hymns of the R’g Veda according to set formulae and accompanied by a type of stringed instrument known as “Vana-Veena” --- in effect, a lyre. At first, Samagana employed only three notes called Udatta, Anudatta and Svarita. The lyre accompanying this would have three strings only, one for each note. Later, the number of notes increased to four, then five (which continued for a very long time), then six and finally seven, with the accompanying lyre having progressively additional strings to match the melody of the song. However, in folk music, which was music outside the sphere of the Yagna, there were seven notes right from the start. Thus folk music and Samagana did not even come from a common origin, nor did Samagana originate from folk music. The two developed independently. Folk music was regional and its character varied from region to region but Samagana was fixed everywhere, except for certain well establishes schools of performance, such as the Taittiriya Shakha, the Shandilya Shakha or the Ahrak Shakha or school of Samagana. And, the art music of India originated from the Samagana. Therefore, it is not true to say that folk music is the mother of classical or art music, as far as Indian music is concerned.

The institution of the Yajna broke up with the rising of the Buddhist movement (3rd century BC to 4th century AC), which was a rebel movement, being basically anti-Vedic, anti-Brahmin and anti-Sanskrit. As more and more kings embraced Buddhism, which was in those days a very violent force, believing in armed militancy against Hinduism, Yajnas and the classical Sanskrit theatre, which was also where art music found expression, died. This was when classical musicians became freelance. So far, they had a fixed and limited role to play, doing duty during Yajnas and in the theatre. In the Yajna they were secondary; the worship was primary. In the theatre the story or the play was primary. So in each case the music was fixed in nature and lacked variety. But when both the Yajna and the classical Sanskrit theatre went out of vogue, the musicians had to make their art more flexible and interesting so that people would listen to music on its own merit. Thus musicians began to adapt and employ those parts of regional or folk musical practices that could be conveniently incorporated into their pre-learnt and highly formalised, grammatically close-knit art music. At the same time, they began to imitate the way in which the plot in a drama unfolded: introducing notes one by one and developing melodic patterns little by little. Thus was born improvisation (called “Bhasha” by Matanga and “Alap” or “Badhat” or “Vistar” today) in Indian art music. Today improvisation is the very cornerstone of this music and the chief feature that makes this music perhaps the only music in the world that makes equal demands upon both the head and the heart for both performer and listener. All this is beautifully and technically discussed by Matanga in the Br’haddeshi. Needless to say, the musicians who effected these momentous modifications were all Gandharvas, known as Bhugandharvas as distinct from the Devagandharvas of the Yajna days.

With the upsurgeance of Hinduism during the period of the Gupta empire around the 5th century AC, musicians tried to recapture the essence of the Hindu musical practices of the Yajna and classical theatre times. This resulted in many new experiments in art music, with resultant innovations. New melodic formats or Ragas were created, as also new methods of expression. At the same time, with the upgrading of regional languages by means of Sanskrit grammar, songs began to be written and sung in regional languages. These songs were called Prabandhas. We find details of the music of these times in Nanyadeva’s “Bharat-Bhashyam” (9/10th century AC), Someshvara’s “Manasollasa” (10/11th century AC) and in the very authoritative and great work on music of the 13th century AC, the “Sangit Ratnakara” of Sharangadeva.

In 712 AC, the Arabs conquered Sindh, the western province of India. Thereafter, there was a relentless series of vicious and violent attacks by the Muslims from Arabia. Mention may be made of Mahmood of Ghazni, who sacked the city of Somnath in Gujrat, another western province of India, sixteen times, carrying away with him vast quantities of riches each time. It took him and his army sixteen raids to reduce Somnath to waste. His diary reveals great glee at the riches he amassed by this means. By the 13th century AC, the Muslims had captured key cities and areas in many places in north and east India. At this time, Allauddin Khilji, the Muslim emperor, and his minister Amir Khusrau, who was also a man of letters and a musician, began to systematically convert, by the sword, non-Muslims (especially Hindus), into Islam. In particular, Amir Khusrau tried hard to totally obliterate the Hindu foundations of the art music of that time. He adopted a variety of methods for this, such as giving Ragas and Talas (rhythmic patterns) Persian names, creating new Ragas based upon Persian melodic motifs, and many more. In Islam, music is prohibited. However, within Islam, there is a sect called Sufis who are mystics. They are divided into five categories: Suravardia, Nakshbandia, Murshidi, Marfati and Aulia. Among all these, the Aulias used music to sing the glories of Allah. Amir Khusrau and Allauddin Khilji were both disciples of the great Sufi saint Nizamuddin Aulia. Both went to great lengths to forcibly convert as many people as possible, one way being to try and destroy the existing classical culture of the soil. Nizamuddin Aulia sent more than four hundred disciples to the Deccan (the southern part of India, the word Deccan deriving from the Sanskrit word Dakshina meaning south) to convert people to Islam. Amir Khusrau came eastwards to Murshidabad in Bengal, which had been captured by Bakhtiyar Khilji in the 12th century AC, and he lived there for six months, when Nizamuddin Aulia died and Amir Khusrau returned. It is from that period that Bengal began to imbibe many Islamic influences.

As a result of all this, the art music began to change to keep pace with changing times. The musicians who had ancient Hindu conditionings would not reveal the secrets of their art to Muslims. Muslim musicians tried, therefore, to guess the foundations and principles of the indigenous and highly formalised art music as best as they could. The result was that music as practised by these uninitiated musicians was an ignorant copy of the ancient music. And, this was the music that was patronised by the Muslim king or nobleman in his court. This was the music that gradually came to the fore.

It was four hundred years later, in the 16th century AC, that, during the reign of the emperor Akbar, his court musician Tansen tried to bring back the art music of India to its Hindu roots. Tansen was the son of a Brahmin of the name of Makarand Pandey. His christened name was Tansen. He learnt music from both Hindu and Muslim teachers, thus grasping both the traditions. He was an expert vocalist and a Veena (Indian lute) player. At the same time, he was a scholar who studied ancient music texts. Also, and very importantly, he had the ear of the emperor himself, who in fact was his (Tansen’s) student. He countermanded the foundations forcefully laid down by Amir Khusrau and returned the music to its traditional Hindu roots to a great extent. We learn all this by studying medieval texts such as Ahobal’s “Sangit Parijata” (16th century AC), Harinayak’s “Hr’dayaprakash” and “Hr’dayakautuka” (18th century AC) and several others.

From the 16th to the 18th centuries, there were several important changes in the art music of India. New Ragas were created. Many of these were based upon fanciful theories borrowed from Tantra. This was the time when male and female Ragas and Raginis, their pictorial representation in paintings and many other fantastic creations were made. New song forms were also created. One such was the Dhrupad, created around 1550 in the court of Man Singh Tomar of Gwalior in central India. The ancient Prabandha slowly went out of vogue. New instruments came into use, such as the Sarengi, which was previously used only in light music. The Sitar and the Veena, together with the Sarengi began to have sympathetic strings. The former two instruments began to use metal strings, unlike strings made of gut, silk or grass as used earlier. The Tanpura as we know it today came to be used, with metal strings. Metal strings resonated for a much longer period that did the earlier gut, silken or grass strings. As a result, the acoustic properties of the music changed and hence the nature of Ragas and songs, too.

With the coming of the Europeans as powerful political players in the arena, music changed once again. The Europeans, especially the English, who came last but quickly drove out the other communities (French, Dutch and Portuguese) previously on the scene, needed a class of people to act as go-betweens between them, the merchants from a distant land, and the local rulers, labourers and clerks. This class grew quickly and won the favour of their European masters and also became super-rich very quickly. However, these people had no tradition of culture, unlike the kings and noblemen of ancient and medieval times. Yet, they kept large households and entertained their masters with all sorts of cultural activities, art music included. The musicians quickly saw that all they had to do was please these patrons with a show of virtuosity, regardless of the purity of the music, i.e., regardless of its adherence to its grammatical foundations. Hence grammar was sacrificed at the altar of popularity, for who would understand grammar in that set-up? The result was, music suffered.

At the turn of the twentieth century, there was an intellectual and cultural renaissance throughout India. Many scholars and noblemen felt the need to preserve the real tradition of India. In the field of music, scholars like Sourendramohon Tagore and Kshetramohan Goswami of Bengal, Vishnu Digambar Palushkar and Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande of Maharashtra and many others studied ancient and medieval texts on music and opened institutions of various sorts to bring the music back on its true ancient grammatical foundations. Seminars, conferences, lectures, publications, institutionalised teaching --- all methods were adopted and a systematic campaign launched to this end. This mighty effort paid dividends to a great extent and today, happily, a good deal of the art music of India is back, more or less, upon its foundations. Of course, there are great problems still, the chief being the resistance of unlettered musicians to the great written texts on music. These musicians contend that since music is a practical and performing art, how can books be of assistance in learning it? The answer is, these ancient and medieval texts contain the basic principles upon which this music stands and without which the practical performer is utterly rudderless.

Undoubtedly, there is today a dichotomy between the textual tradition of learned music on the one hand and the oral tradition of the unlettered musician on the other. This is sad, because really there is no serious clash between these traditions. It is unfortunate that the musicians of the oral tradition, perhaps in their insecurity at not knowing the texts, resist these great texts to such an extent. Yet, the irony is, they do not hesitate to prefix their name with a word like “Pandit”. We hear of Pandit so-and-so performing, and we are expected to be awed by the fact. The truth of the matter is, the word “Pandit” has become utterly abused in the hands of these unlettered musicians. “Pandit” is a Sanskrit word that means a person who is able to reinforce or support his arguments or contentions by referring to the Shashtras or authoritative texts. It necessarily implies a person who is a scholar in both Sanskrit and practical music and who has studied the great texts on music. How can, then, a musician in the oral tradition be a Pandit? Yet he is, because he says he is and no one understands the implication of the word. It is humbly but earnestly submitted that the lay listener ought to try to acquaint himself/herself with the basic grammatical rudiments of the art he/she is being exposed to. This will only increase his/her capacity to appreciate this sublime art. And, it will also discourage the artiste from taking unwarranted liberties with the art.



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