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  Jagannatha, Lord of the universe, in His Form in the great 10th century temple at Puri, Orissa, India

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INTRODUCTION TO INDIAN ART MUSIC

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

(Click on Indian terms for explanation in a new and resizable window)


Hyperlinked Indian terms used in this article
Hindustani music Notes (in Hindustani music) Andolan, Meend, Gamak, Sparsha Svara, Krintan Alap Tanpura Gharana
Carnatic music Shruti Raga Laya, Vilambitlaya, Madhyalaya, Drutlaya, Tala, Sam, Bandish, Gat, Tihai, etc. Specific Raga like Marva, Bhairav, Bhairavi, Todi, Darbari, Shree, etc. Sampradaya


India has two systems of classical music: one prevalent in its northern part and the other in its southern part. The former is called Hindustani music while the latter is called Carnatic music. This brief write-up is about Hindustani music, which is the subject of my particular specialisation.

Hindustani music has its roots in religious practices in vogue since very ancient times (from about 6,000 BC to about 1,500 BC) to the turn of the Christian era. It grew as a formalised discipline independent of other music of those early times, such as folk (based on agrarian and allied life) or tribal (based on life supported by forests) music. Unlike western art music, which is said to have grown out of folk music, Hindustani music had its own idiom totally free from that of folk or tribal music. Thus the earliest form of this music used only three notes whereas even in those early times seven notes were already known and used in folk music. Of course, in time and on account of many historical influences, it accepted and imbibed parts of folk and regional musical traditions, but without changing its own formalised structure as already established. It is for this reason that Hindustani music is “grammar-based” music. It has a rich tradition of ancient and medieval theoretical treatises codifying and explaining this grammar. At the same time, it also has a highly developed oral tradition. It was used primarily during religious functions and in classical Sanskrit theatre. Later, it also found patronage in the courts of the royalty and the nobility. These interesting phenomena make for a fascinating study in musicology but are beyond the scope of this article. See Dr Rath's article "The Tradition of Indian Art Music" for a brief historical sketch of the course of Indian art music.

What are the salient features of this music? For the purposes of this article, I will consider only melodic music and not percussion music (which is a highly developed branch of this music on its own right) or dance (which is included as a branch of music in Indian treatises, ancient and medieval).

First, it has a distinctive sound. The melodic notes of Hindustani music are produced quite unlike the manner in which notes are produced in the western classical tradition. In Hindustani music, the notes are often approached and quit through a characteristic glissando or slide.

Second, the ornaments or embellishments used in this music are very important. In western music, the theoretical accuracy of the music does not depend upon the ornaments used. But in Hindustani music, the ornaments are as important as the notes of the music – remove the ornaments and the music itself dies. There are many kinds of embellishments used in Indian music, such as various types of portamenti (called Meend), slow oscillations upon a single note (called Andolan), moving away from and returning to the true pitch of the note (in effect, fast oscillations, called Gamak), grace notes (called Sparsha Svara or Krintan) and many more. Musicological texts categorise and describe over one hundred ornaments in Hindustani music.

Third, Hindustani music is primarily melodic and not harmonic. Again, the melody is extemporised. The performer is therefore the composer too, at the same time. He or she composes anew and presents the music from moment to moment in the course of the performance. Such composition is based upon principles of the grammar referred to earlier. The most important rule in the book is that the melodic development must be contained at all times within the framework of a particular Raga.

What is a Raga? It is a complex and composite melodic concept that comprises, among other factors, the following:

Certain predetermined notes. Each Raga has its own unique set of notes that can be employed. No notes other that these may be used in the development of the Raga. To assist the performer maintain accuracy of intonation, a drone is provided at all times upon a stringed drone instrument called the Tanpura. This instrument is, like all Indian stringed instruments, hollow from end to end, that is, the two ends of the vibrating string rest upon hollow parts of the instrument and there is no solid part between these two hollow parts. This is a special characteristic of all Indian stringed instruments, in contradistinction to European stringed instruments where one end of the vibrating string rests upon the hollow part of the instrument and the other upon the solid part of the instrument. The Tanpura has four strings (sometimes five or even six, but mostly four). Three of these are tuned to the Sa note and one is tuned to the Pa, Ma, Dha or Ni note according to the Raga being presented. It is strummed endlessly in the background, not only providing the soloist a reference for maintaining accuracy of pitch but also creating a quiet, meditative and introspective mood.

The precise pitch of the notes may vary from Raga to Raga. That is to say, Hindustani music uses microtones, called Shruti. For example, the Raga called Raga Marva ( Ragas are uniquely identified by names assigned to them) and the Raga Shree use the Komal Re (R) note. So do Ragas Bhairav, Bhairavi and Todi. However, the R used in Ragas Marva or Shree is somewhat sharper in pitch than that used in Bhairav, Bhairavi and Todi. Again, the Ga of Raga Bilaval is sharper than that used in Raga Bhairav. The Raga Darbari Kanada uses two different forms of Komal Ga (G). The examples are so numerous that it is routine for the teacher to explain the special pitch characteristics of the notes in a particular Raga to the student at the beginning of the study of that Raga. This is, inter alia, one reason why Hindustani music is difficult if not impossible to learn properly without a knowledgeable teacher who has himself imbibed its intricacies according to time-honoured and tested pedagogy. Again, this is also a reason (among others) why Hindustani music cannot be accurately rendered upon a keyboard instrument.

The order in which these notes may be used is predetermined and unique for each Raga. This gives rise to particular note combinations that must occur to define specific Raga. For example, the correct way of progressing from Sa to Pa in the Malhar group of Raga is to go to Ma from Sa, descend straightaway to Re and then go to Pa. However, in the Sarang group of Raga, the correct order is Sa-Re-Ma-Pa. In Raga Jaunpuri, the ascent from Sa to Pa is similar to that in the Sarang group of Raga but G is used only in the descent. Thus, after sounding Sa, it is incorrect to sound the G and proceed to Ma. This another reason why, to ensure correct performance of Hindustani music, it is essential to have a knowledgeable or qualified audience who can pull up the performer in the event of error or, failing this, satisfy oneself without doubt as to the “pedigree” or background of the performer before placing unreserved trust in the accuracy of his or her performance. Certain notes of a Raga are more prominent than the others and the performer must be careful not to highlight the less important notes. For example, Ga is used only as an auxiliary in the Raga Kedar; the Ma and Pa notes are much stronger. A performer who dwells upon the Ga in this Raga will distort it out of all recognition. Similarly, Raga Bhairav and Ramkali are distinguished (apart from a particular phrase used in the latter not used in the former) because in Bhairav, the Ma is predominant while in Ramkali it is the the Pa note that is so. Raga Marva and Puria use the same notes; however, in Marva it is Dha that is all-important while in Puria it is Ni and Ga and never Dha.

Many Ragas demand particular ornaments to the exclusion of others. For example, the Raga Bhoopali will be utterly ruined if performed with slow and grand Meends while the Raga Shuddha Kalyan, which uses practically similar notes, demands such Meend and will be ruined without them.

Some Raga are to be executed using relatively lower pitched notes while other Raga need high-pitched notes. The musician will be making a grave error if he tries to use low notes to improvise upon a Raga that is supposed to use only high notes. Raga like Darbari Kanada come into their own in the lower registers while Raga like like Adana, Bahar and Sohini are characterised by their dwelling in the upper registers (centring more or less around the upper Sa) to the exclusion of the lower-pitched notes. Once a “low-register” Raga has been sufficiently elaborated in the lower and middle registers, it may be, within limits, also developed in the higher register but a “high-register” Raga must on no account be developed in the lower register or, sometimes, even in the first half of the octave of the middle register. (The word “octave” is used here merely for the convenience of the non-Indian reader: in Indian musicology, it is usual to think in terms of the seven notes serially forming a heptad rather than adding the note an octave above the first of the seven and completing the octave). Similarly, there are Raga that are supposed to be developed at slow tempo; others must use faster speeds. Thus Darbari Kanada is slow while Adana is fast. The “slow” Raga may be rendered, after sufficient slow development has taken place, at higher speeds, but the “fast” Raga must never be rendered at slow tempi.

By convention, particular Raga are associated with particular times of the day or night or even with particular seasons. This is an ancient custom and has its origin in the days when classical music was used in the classical Sanskrit theatre. In those days, particular Raga would be sounded according as the setting of the story was in the morning or the night or in the spring or rainy season. There were also Raga associated with particular Deities. Today the institution of the Sanskrit theatre has become extinct but the convention of linking Raga with the time of the day or night or with particular seasons remains. This however, is unique to Hindustani music. Carnatic or south Indian music has no such convention, since it did not directly emanate from the Sanskrit tradition but was created much later by scholars from the south of India who went to north India and studied under north Indian teachers, later coming back and creating new systems of music in their original homelands in south India.

Fourth, Hindustani music employs a cyclical rhythmic pattern, called Tala. Such cyclic rhythm is provided by the percussion accompanist. A melodic theme may be set to a specified number of beats or pulses and this number remains unchanging throughout the performance of that piece. Thus there are seven, ten, twelve, fourteen, sixteen beat (and many more) rhythmic cycles. The beginning of the cycle is easily recognised by its naturally occurring accent in the melodic theme. The performers --- main artiste (vocalist or instrumentalist) and accompanying atriste (percussionist, i.e., drummer) --- must keep a count of the cycle in their minds at all times and must so improvise that the improvised passage ends on the first beat of one or more rounds of the rhythmic cycle. The tempo of the music may change at the discretion of the main artiste. However, the speed may not decrease after having increased.

Fifth, the presentation conventionally follows one of a few set patterns. As has been said earlier, the performer is the composer, creating and communicating musical ideas and, through them, emotional and spiritual feelings, on the spur of the moment. Such creation and communication must follow predetermined rules, laid down as part of the abovementioned grammar. Although there are several ways in which this may be done, there is in general a common feature that all such ways exhibit, thus:--

Stage I – The Raga being presented is unfolded in gradual stages, note by important note or phrase by characteristic phrase. The recognised order is to begin with lower-pitched notes or phrases and gradually progress to higher-pitched ones. At the same time, it is correct to begin with simple and small ideas or figures and gradually progress to more complicated and lengthy ones. In doing this, the tonal centre of the elaboration shifts gradually higher up the octave until all the major notes and phrases are established. It is as if a plot or a story is being unfolded in a dramatic play: characters, situations and events are introduced one by one and a step-by-step building up takes place, according to an understandable logic and leading to a climax. This stage of the presentation is without any accompaniment by the percussionist and is called the Alap, which itself may be of different kinds. If the development of the Raga is done note by note, the Alap is called Svar-alap and if it is done phrase by phrase. It is called Rag-alap. If it is a very short exposition, it is called an Auchar-alap. If it is extended and includes ad-lib and rhythmic (but generally speaking – there is an exception here that need not be discussed now – without accompaniment by the percussionist) parts, it is called Poornang-alap.

The performer is required by the rules of grammar of Hindustani music to follow the procedure set out above. A performer who does not follow this model of development but flits willy-nilly from one phrase to another up and down the octave(s) merely demonstrates some pretty sounds; he or she does not demonstrate the methodical and traditional development of the chosen Raga. Such an elaboration, however pretty as to the sound produced and individual phrases created, is a failure as a musical exposition The educated audience is acutely dissatisfied with it and actively frowns upon it.

Stage II – Either the same or another Raga is now presented it with percussion accompaniment. While rhythm in the Alap is almost always “linear”, meaning that the nature of each pulse in the rhythmic flow is identical to every other, rhythm on a percussion instrument is always “cyclic”, that is, different pulses have different qualities, such as weak and strong pulses, and further, these pulses occur endlessly in cycles (see the fourth point above). For this purpose, a frequently repeated theme or subject is presented; this is called the Bandish or, in the case of an instrumentalist, the Gat. It is set to a particular Tala, having a particular number of beats. In this stage of the performance, the tempo of the chosen Tala is slow, called Vilambit Laya, Vilambit meaning slow and Laya meaning tempo. Having established the Bandish or Gat, the performer proceeds to create episodic material of different kinds, all within the Raga framework. After each episode he/she returns to the Bandish or Gat, thus developing the music in a very extended rondo form. In a performance, it is the soloist – whether vocalist or instrumentalist – who is always the main artiste and in command of the proceedings.

In the case of an instrumentalist, it is usual to permit the percussion accompanist to show his skill on the percussion instrument he is playing, when he presents his own improvised individual rounds. At that time, the soloist plays the Gat endlessly, acting as timekeeper. The whole thing is in the form of a dialogue between the melodic soloist and the percussionist-accompanist. It often takes the shape of a duel in which each tries to outdo the other. The important thing to keep in mind is that each must end his own episodic improvisations in such a way that the Gat occurs exactly synchronised with the Tala, as it was when it was originally sounded. That is to say, the note of the Gat that coincided with the first beat of the Tala (this beat is the one where the natural main accent of the Tala exists and is called the Sam) must always coincide with the first beat of the Tala. If it falls, after an episode, on, say, the second beat of the Tala instead of the first beat as originally established, the improvising artiste has made an unforgivable mistake.

A variety of rhythmic tools is employed by the soloist and the accompanist in the rhythmic development of the music. The tools include rhythmic figures, cross rhythms, mixing different rhythms in a single episode and so on. One device sometimes used to conclude an episode is called Tihai, which is playing the same or almost the same sequential phrase three times so that the last note or beat of the last phrase coincides with a desired point in the Tala, often but not necessarily the Sam.

Stage III – Traditionally, two or three Gats are performed in the same Raga. The first is slow of tempo while the other or others are faster. In this stage, another Gat is presented in a faster tempo. If the tempo is medium, it is known as Madhya Laya, and if it is fast, it is known as Drut Laya. If the new Gat is in Madhya Laya, a third Gat in Drut Laya will usually be presented. However, it is acceptable to present a Drut Laya Gat without presenting a Madhya Laya Gat. The Tala chosen for the first (Vilambit) Gat may or may not be the same for the subsequent Gats, the choice is that of the soloist. An instrumentalist usually ends a Drut Gat presentation with a “Jhala” which is a very fast coda culminating in an elaborate Tihai.

Stage IV – This stage is optional. Here, the artiste presents “light-classical” music, known as “Thumri”, “Bhajan” etc. for vocalists and “Dhun” for instrumentalists. The mood now is lighter and more lyrical. The ornaments used here create a completely contrasting mood compared to the previous “classical” mood, as does the frequent mixing of different Ragas. The Tala used is quite different, too. Again, a story is being unfolded, but this time it is not expressed in so profound a manner. The subject remains, as in all Indian art music, profound, but the vocabulary used is less “learned” or intellectual and more pastoral in nature.

There is yet another, and very important, consideration that the listener may well bear in mind when following a recital of Hindustani music. This is the musical lineage or Gharana of the performer: whether vocalist (Khayal etc.), melodic instrumentalist (Sitar, Sarode, Veena, Bansuri, Shehnai, Sarengi, Violin, Esraj, etc.), percussive instrumentalist (Tabla etc.) or dance. [Dance is traditionally included as a branch of music in our ancient and medieval musical treatises but is not discussed here as being outside the scope of an article like the present one]. To realise the background / school / tradition in which the performer has been trained and the chief characteristics of that particular background / school / tradition is extremely important if one is to properly appreciate the music presented by the performer. This background / school / tradition is generally referred to as Gharana. The Gharana system started in the eighteenth and ninteenth centuries. In ancient times, musical lineage was recognised and referred to as Sampradaya. The rise and decline of Sampradaya and the later predominance of Gharana constitute a fascinating study in the musical history and sociology of India. Be that as it may, there is no doubt that, although many, including musicians, will have us believe that the Gharana of yore have so eroded away today that they are no longer relevant, an appreciation of the Gharana of the artiste is nevertheless a fundamental element in the proper appreciation of a performance of Indian art music. The fact is, Gharana are very, very relevant even today, and even a superficial comparison of a few different performances or recordings will not fail to impress the relevance.


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