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Indian Classical Music

Music World

Beginning with Rig Vedic chants of three "Swaras" music is closely woven into the fabric of Indian society - a glorious tradition of thousands of years. While the origin of Indian Classical music may be shrouded in mystery, its purpose is lucid. The purpose is not just to please the senses but to elevate the souls.

In India, apart from birds and animals, the deities are inseparably linked with their musical instruments. Lord Vishnu, the preserver of the universe holds a Shankha – conch shell in one of his four hands; Saraswati – the goddess of learning and the arts, plays the Rudra Veena, Lord Krishna is invariably seen with his Flute and Lord Shiva with his Damroo – a small two faced drum.

As per vedic scriptures, while Lord Shiva danced the Tandava Nritya he played on his Damroo fourteen times giving birth to the fourteen Maheswar sutras, the beginnings of Panini’s work on grammar. The Damroo is the precursor of the tabla.


CLASSICAL music is an English term that we use to describe a particular form of music. Indian Classical Music in the language of its birth, Hindi is referred to as ' Shastriya Sangeet' and that, translated into English means disciplined music, which is an apt description of the art. 'Discipline', yes; but discipline that allows the singer ample leeway to develop his voice, to perfect his technique to express his prowess in the art. But classical music is not merely exhibiting one's expertise at voice acrobatics. It is much more.

The Origins

LEGENDS on the origins of North Indian classical music abound. The real origin is shrouded in the hoary past. But we have a few interesting theories to reflect upon.

One legend has it that Brahma the Creator taught classical music to Lord Shiva, who imparted the same knowledge to Saraswati, the Goddess of learning. That is why Saraswati, in the ancient texts, is described as Veena Pustaka Dharini (one who has the musical instrument the veena and a book in her hands). Thereafter, the art was handed down in succession to the sage Narada, the celestial Gandharvas and Kinnaras, Bharata and Hanuman, who in turn propagated it to the people.

There is another legend that Shiva made a gift of music to Narada as a reward for his penance. According to yet another legend, Lord Shiva once saw his consort Parvati in a reposeful pose. The sight inspired him to create the Rudra veena (a specialised stringed instrument of the veena type). From the five mouths of Shiva, in the five directions, emanated the five raags -- Bhairav from the east, Hindol from the west, Megh from the south, Deepak from the north and Shri from the sky above. Parvati added one to this list: Kaushik.

All the legends have one fact in common - that music had divine origin.There are, however, a group of european writers who believe that man learnt to hum and sing in the course of his evolution and development. He absorbed music naturally, just the way a child cries or smiles of its own accord.

Modern North Indian classical music no doubt stems from ancient Indian music. But it seems to have acquired its present form after the 14th or 15th century A.D. The 'Natyasastra' is probably the earliest extant treatise on the dramatic arts. It has been dated variously from the 3rd century B.C. to the 5th century A.D. Musical theory is expounded in considerable detail in the 'Natyasastra'. Some of the technical terms in present day musical theory and practice derive their origin from this ancient source. Yet internal evidence shows that the musical system as described in the 'Natyasastra' is considerably different from the music we know today.

The Raag & Emotions

'That which charms is a raag’. Indian music follows the Arabic and Persian tradition of focusing on a single emotion. It develops upon, explains, and cultivates the emotion. If the musician is possessed of sufficient skill, he can lead his audience to a depth and intensity of feeling undreamt of in other systems.

The essential feature of a raag thus is its power of evoking an emotion that casts a spell upon the listener. A raag does imply a certain combination of musical notes. But more important than this is its capacity to induce the appropriate emotion to the fullest extent.

Apart from the emotion aspect, there are certain laws which a raag must conform to. The construction of raag must take into account the following features:

I ) Thata or sequence of notes. Every raag is derived from a thata or scale.
2) Tatis or classification. Raags are placed under three categories.
(a) Odava or pentatonic: a composition of five notes .
(b) Sadava or hextatonic: a composition of six notes .
(c) Sampoona or heptatonic: a composition of seven notes.
3) Vadi Samvadi relation. The principal note on which the raag is built is referred to as the vadi note. Its importance is emphasized in several ways. One stops on the note more frequently, stresses it a little more, etc. The Samvadi is the second important note in the raag.
4) Ascent and Descent. Every raag possesses an Aaroha (Ascent) and Avroha (Descent).
5) Important cluster of notes. By means of this group of notes, one is able to differentiate even between similar sounding raags.
6) Pitch. Certain raags move in a certain pitch. If the pitch is changed the raag does not create the mood and sentiment peculiar to it. The pitch determines the character of a raag.
7) Speed. Some raagas are sung in a slow tempo (Vilambit), some in a medium (Madhyani) and some in a fast (Drut).
The rendering of a raag begins with the alaap. The alaap establishes the basic character of the raag. The upaj is an intermediary stage leading to the taan. The taan is the use of notes in order to make the rendering lively. Words are used to express the emotion (khyal) of the raag.

The Thata

EACH raag is derived from a particular thata. A thata may be regarded as the parent raag.

An ordinary Sargam comprises seven notes (Sa, re, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni).

Every raag has a fixed number of komal (soft), teevra (sharp) or Shuddha (pure) notes. A particular arrangement of the seven notes, with a change of the shuddha, komal, and teevra is referred to as a thata.

According to Pandit V.N. Bhatkhande, there are ten thatas in all. All the raags have emanated, so to speak, from the ten thatas.The ten thatas are as follows:

1) The Bilawal Thata. All notes are Shuadha (pure). Some raags which have emanated from this thata are Bihag, Durga and Shankara.
2) The Khamaj Thata. Ni is komal (soft). Some common raags from this thata are khamaj, Jayajavanti and Des.
3) The KafiThata. Ga and Ni are komal. Some raags from this thata are Bageshri, Bahar and Miyan ka Malhar.
4) The Asavari Thata. Ga, Dha and Ni are komal. Asavad (raag), Jaunpuri, Durbari Kanada are some raags from the Asavari thata.
5) The Bhairavi Thata. Re, Ga, Dha and Ni are komal .Some common raags: Bhairavi (raag), Malkauns.
6)The BhairavThata. Re and Dha are komal, Some common raags: Bhairav (raag), Kalingada, Ramkali.
7) The Poorvi Thata. Re and Dha are komal, Ma is teevra (sharpJ.
8) The Marva Thata. Re is komal, ma is teevra. Some common raags from this thata are Sohni, Marva, Puriva and Lalit.
9) TheTodi Thata. Re, ga and dha are komal, ma is teevra. Some common raags areTodi (raag), and Multani.
IO)The KalyanThata. Ma is teevra. Some common raags are Bhopali, Hamir, Kedar and Hindol.

Out of each of these ten thatas, several raags have emerged.Therefore, when the beginner mistakes one raag for another, chances are that both raags emerge from the same that

A Time For Each Raag

EVERY raag is assigned a specific time of the day for rendering it. There is a reason for this.

The cycle of sounds is ruled by the same laws as rule all other cycles. There are natural relationships between particular hours and the moods evoked by the raags. Further the cycle of the day corresponds to the cycle of life which also has its dawn, its noon and its evening. Each hour represents a different stage of development and is associated with a certain kind of emotion.

There are certain characteristics which indicate the time of rendering the raag. Raags to be rendered between mid-day and midnight have their predominant note (vadi) in the lower tetra chord (purva anga). They are called purva raags. Raags to be rendered between midnight and mid-day have their predominant note in the upper tetrachord (uttara anga). They are referred to as uttara raags.

Lalit, Vabhas, the Bhairavi group, the Todi group - all these raags are early morning raags. The Bilawal groups of raags are sung in the late morning. Noon and afternoon raage include the Saranga group and Shri group. Pilu, Purvi and Dipak are evening raags. The Kalyan and Khamaj group of raags are raags of the early night. Malkauns, Bihag, Shankara are raags of midnight and late night. Besides these, there are also seasonal raags like those of spring and those of the rainy season; Basant & Malhaar.


THERE are six principal styles in North Indian classical music. A raag may be rendered in any of these styles.
1 . Dhrupad - The peculiarity of original Dhrupad compositions is that they give the essence of a particular raag in a nutshell. In learning vocal music one has to memorise these compositions. They give a complete idea of the raag and of how it should be systematically improvised on.

2. Dhamar - Usually sung after a Dhrupad, it generally depicts incidents connected with Holi. Dhamar compositions usually describe the pranks played by the playmates of Lord Krishna and his devotee Radha.

3. Khyal - Khyal is an Arabic word which means 'thought'.. The Khyal recounts various incidents in a woman's life: her entreaties to her 'balam', her 'sajan', her 'priya' (all mean her lover). Also, her conversations with her loving 'sakhi'. The Khyal is graceful, elegant, and replete with embellishments.

4. Taranas - Taranas are said to contain monosyllables like dir, da, na, tun, dar, din, valili, yala, bum and yalatum. Taranas go to prove that even monosyllables can be effectively employed for the exposition of a raag. Taranas naturally call for a great deal of tongue-twisting, and expert tabla accompaniment.

5. Tappa - This style was invented by a certain Pt. Shorey Miyan of Lucknow. It is so called because it abounds in a variety of twists, curves and jumps, all set to a fast rhythm. The compositions have evolved on the theme of love and romance. Only persons with a highly flexible voice can aspire to sing a tappa.

6. Thumri - The art of dancing progressed alongside music. The thumri came into vogue. The songs in thumri are so modeled that they synchronise with the actions of the dancer. The poetry of the composition is interpreted through action.

What are Gharanas ?

ONE often comes across by this term when exposed to North Indian classical music. Gharanas came about some time in the eighteenth century. The objective was to preserve the traditions of music and the compositions of the few great musicians of Northern India. A gharana has a particular discipline, system and style of rendering. Liberal thinkers among musicians today are opposed to the system as it is said to channel or restrict the style of a singer, and prove a hindrance to further improvisation.

What It takes to Learn Classical Music ?

If one wants to learn North Indian classical music in all seriousness there are a few guidelines one must adhere to. These steps do not guarantee the making of a maestro, but being a maestro is not so important. Learning and enjoying the art is.

Continuous exposure to classical music is essential. Opportunities to sing, play, modify and create are important too. A sensitive and creative companionship with the teacher is an important requisite. And nothing is better than possessing the ability to develop creative modes of singing.

Indian philosophy stresses the existence of a reality behind the appearance of all physical objects. The same element lies latent in classical music too. According to one scholar, the use of ivory, bone and earth colors in the ornamentation of musical instruments lends the objects a subdued luster whose beauty belongs to another world, as opposed to the obvious smartness of mass produced instruments. In this sense therefore, music is meant to give God to man, make accessible that mysterious reality which evades man in all worldly, achievements.


Abbog - Summing up of the entire development of a raag.

Aaditala - Played at a 1/2 speed measure, with 8 matras on a 4-2-2 ratio.

Aalaap - Introductory movement with irregular pulse, unaccompanied and without rhythm.

Anupallavi - In Carnatic music, it is the second section of the raag.

Antara - Second section of a raag. Register above and including upper tonic.

Aroha -The ascending scale of a raag.

Ati-Drut - Very fast tempo.

Avaroha - The descending scale of a raag, slightly changed from the ascending scale.

Baaz - Style of playing an instrument.

Barhat - Gradual progression in a musical exposition.

Bhatiyali - Folk song of the boatmen of Bengal.

Bol-tans - Musical phrases interlinked with bols (words).

Chakradar Tihai - A tihai in three sections, each section consisting of a smaller tihai.

Chikari - Drone strings of a sitar.

Dhatnar - A style of Classical vocal music, using more grace notes than Dhrupad. It is set to a taal of 14 beats.

Dhrupad The most 'massive and sublime musical form in Indian Classical vocal tradition. Its form strictly follows a fixed pattern of four stanzas: the sthayi, antara, sanchari & abhoga having rigid notes, words & majestic talas, usually in chautala of 12 beats.

Dhun It represents a light tune, a mixture of sweet melodies, free from the disciplines of a raag. Usually played in a fast tempo and creates a mood of ecstasy.

Drut Fast tempo.

Duet Partnership in vocal or instrumental music has been in vogue since the day of Dhrupad. Presentation of instrumental duets by Pt. Ravi Shankar and Ustad All Akbar Khan started a new era in the history of Classical music. Indian concert stages, so far dominated by only soloists, assumed a new colour & dimension when the great musical pairs started playing 'Jugalbandi'.

Gamak Grace note, a form of embellishment on musical notes.

Gat All sections in a tala and accompanied by Tabla.

Gayaki A certain style of singing following a gharana to which the musician belongs.

Gharana A school of music, representing a specific musical tradition. Each gharana is famous for certain individualistic style of renderings. Some famous gharanas are Gwalior, Rampur, Lucknow, Baroda, Patiala, Kirana, Maihar etc.

Ghazal A love-lyric in Urdu, of Persian Muslim origin.

Guru-Shishya Guru, a teacher, shishya, a pupil. A teacher-pupil relationship, creating a Parampara person-to-person tradition.

Jati Combination of matras to form unit of any tala.

Jhala Melody interpolated with strokes on the chikari strings. Final section & the climax of the Alaap.

Jor (Jod) Movement with rhythmic accompaniment on chikari strings (without Tabla).

Jugalbandi See 'Duet'

Khayal In Urdu 'Khayal ' means 'creative thought' hence, less rigid than dhrupad singing. It is the most popular classical type of Hindustani vocal music. Sometimes instrumentalists play in Khayal styles. There is no time-measure.

Kirtan A devotional song, theme associated with Lord Krishna, does not strictly adhere to the raga scale, musical value subdued by sentimental emotion.

Krithi A devotional type of set composition in Caranatic music. As rigid as Dhrupad. A fixed pattern is as follows: Pallavi, Anupailavi and Carana.

Laraj Lowest octave.

Laya Rhythm, the overall tempo of the raag.

Layakari Rhythm virtuosity.

Madhya Medium tempo.

Matra A specific musical beat within the cycle of the tala.

Mattatal A 9 beat cycle divided 2 + 2 + 2 + 3.

Meend Sliding over notes.

Pallavi The first section (asthayi) of a composition in Carnatic music which follows ragam and tanam.

Pandit Learned one, a master-musician.

Raag The raga is an Indian scale which utilises varying ascending & descending patterns certain notes on the way up & certain notes on the way down-but always in the set sequence. The raga never has less than five notes-the minimum required for a tune.

Ragam Alaap in Carnatic music.

Ragamalika A composition in Carnatic music. In this composition one raga leads to another forming a 'malika' (garland) of ragas.

Samvadi The next important, concordant note after the vadi.

Sanchari It is the third movement in the development of a melodic line.

Sargam sol-fa syllables - Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni.

Shadja The beginning note.

Shloka A Sanskrit verse, devotional or philosophical.

Shruti To hear (Sanskrit). A microtonal interval less than a semitone.

Shuddha A pure note.

Sthayi Register above middle tonic.

Taal Same as Tala.

Tala Rhythmic cycle.

Tan A rapid succession of notes.

Tanam Carnatic alaap in medium tempo.

Tappa Muslim love song, reconstructed & refined by Shouri Mian who introduced it to Lucknow in 19th entury. Before him they were simply folk songs of Punjabi camel drivers.

Tarana A fast moving popular melody using nonsense syllables like 'ta' and 'nu'.

Teentaal A 16 beat cycle divided 4+4+4+4.

Thillana A lively musical form, usually set to and rendered in brisk pace. It is the Carnatic counterpart of the North Indian 'tarana'.

Thumri Described as the expression of the singers soul and tempe rament, thumri is purely romantic or devotional in its content. It came into Vogue in the eastern region (Purab) of Uttar Pradesh towards the close of the 18th century as an accompanying song of dance. Nawab Waiid Ali Shah of Avadh was probably the greatest known patron of thumri. Lucknow and Varanasi (Benaras) are the two centres from where thumri evolved into several varieties.

Tihai Short phrases played three times, ending on the first beat of the rhythm cycle.

Tora Fast runs. And repeated note passages.

Ustad A learned one, master-musician.

Vadi The predominant note of the scale.

Vilambit Slow tempo.

Vigstara Improvisation or elaboration upon the note.

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