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Appreciating Hindustani Music

by Mohan D. Nadkarni

In this four-part feature to fine-tune your yen for classical Hindustani fare, music critic introduces the elements required to enjoy Hindustani music. 

First published as a four part feature in Femina during June-July 1985. 
Reproduced with author's permission and adapted for Kamat's Potpourri by Vikas Kamat.


Music was one of the earliest forms of non verbal communication.

Probably, in no other country has music enveloped man's entire in a world of melodic sound as in India. Nowhere else is it so delicately interwoven with the country's traditional culture. Apart from the divine origin ascribed to its music, it is undeniable that India's art-consciousness had its genesis in the socio-religious life of the early Aryans. They were singer priests and their songs of worship were composed on certain definite principles. These songs, which have come down to us as the Sacred Hymns of the Vedas, constitute melody and rhythm in their earliest form.

All music is based upon and conditioned by relations between sounds. It is obvious that long before the evolution of the musical scale, the musical observers of antiquity, with their amazing observation and uncanny sense of hearing, ascertained the different gradations of musical sound from the calls of animate nature. The process spanned many centuries, before they came to be grouped under notes or svaras.

Initially only three svaras were evolved and used for musical recitation of the metrical songs of the Rig Veda, which became the chants of the Sama Veda. The number of svaras rose from three to five and then to seven. Five of seven svaras were sub-divided into komal (flat) and tivra (sharp) variations. The spectrum, thus finally evolved covered a gamut of twelve svaras.

Although, incidentally, this scale of  twelve  notes recognized by Indian music also forms the international basis of music of the East and the west. What makes the Indian scale fundamentally different is that is twelve  svaras are worked out of wider span, consisting of twenty-two micro-tonal intervals, called shrutis. The development of music thus takes place through the use of these fine shrutis which lie between the svaras. If, therefore, the melody unfolds as an unbroken line, it is because even a particular komal or tivra svara acquires delicate shades of microtones in the process of unfolding. These are all aesthetically flavoured embellishments, which give the chose melody its unmistakable identity. This explains the basically melodic character of Indian music as distinct from that of the West, which has evolved on harmonic lines.

The concept of melody as embodied in what is known as raga, is by far the most distinctive feature of Indian music. A raga is cast in one mood, and only one chosen raga forms the basis for improvisation throughout a given piece of music.

What is a raga? Simply Put, it is the medium through which emotional experiences are expressed in terms of a succession of svaras. Although the term literally mean, ``that which enraptures the listener" and implies both melodic and aesthetic potentialities, each raga has an unmistakably characteristic personality of its own. These ragas, both in the Hindustani and Carnatic systems, present an amazing variety and diversity. Even when two ragas have the same set of svaras-these may be five, six or seven-they may well differ in the use of not only their komal and tivra variations, but also the more subtly shaded shruti variants mentioned earlier. One or more svaras may be omitted in aroha (ascent) or avaroha (descent) or there may be emphasis on certain specific svaras. Then again, there may be some svara-sangatis (combinations of notes) which have to be highlighted to spotlight the identity of a raga.

Above all, it is the types of movement from one svara to another, called gamakas, or the special graces and refinements, which ultimately project the true personality of the raga chosen for improvisation. These constitute the very soul of our classical music.

Equally vital to the concept of raga is tala (rhythm). In fact raga and tala together constitute classical music. The repertory of tala is as rich and varied as of ragas. Some of the talas often reveal great subtleties and complexities. A given piece of music, however, is rendered to a single uniform and strictly chosen time-measure. The song-texts of a raga presentation are composed within the framework of a specific tala cycle. Thus, in a sense, raga music embodies the very syntheses of melody, poetry and rhythm.

India's classical music has evolved into vocal and instrumental styles. The predominance of the human voice has, however, been always emphasized in the very concept of Indian music. This is because the human voice is regarded as the divine instrument, capable of being more intensively expressive than any other medium. Thus in the course of its migration from temple to court, vocal music underwent significant changes in its form, design, structure and treatment even while maintaining its form, design, structure and treatment even while maintaining its melodic moorings.

K.L. Kamat/Kamat's Potpourri
Musicians of Mogul Period
Musicians of Mogul Period
Detail from a Moghul miniature painting

To say this is not to deny the high degree of sophistication achieved by instrumental music in theory and in practice. There was a time when India could boast of a repertory of over 500 musical instruments, each with a distinct name, shape and construction, technique and quality of tone. The varieties have covered the string, wind and percussion groups. The string and the wind instruments were designed to reproduce what is sung by the human voice, while the percussion instruments regulated the rhythm and time-measures. All these formed an indispensable accompaniment to singing, although several of them were found suitable for solo performances in their own right. For example, instruments like veena, sitar, flute and shehnai, when played in solo, can depict all the minutiae of a raga as beautifully as in singing.

India is the only country in the world to have two traditions of classical music. Originally, though there existed one common system, its bifurcation in to the two systems of the north and the south, that is, the Hindustani and Carnatic traditions, respectively, was the result of the reaction of Arabic and Persian influences on the indigenous art. While Carnatic music could largely preserve its tradition almost independently of all alien influences, the cultural streams from Arabia and Persia brought about a rich cross-fertilisation of the northern region of the country.

Hindustani Music and Carnatic Music

Hindustani music, as we know it today, is but a fusion of the old forms and the new, in which old values have been transmuted and even ancient themes informed, by the new spirit. So much so, that that we have no such thing as Hindu music or Muslim music today. It is Hindustani music of North India, which forms the basis of this series.

Although, two different systems of Classical music, Hindustani and Carnatic, are prevalent, respectively. In the North and South a India, their basic principles are almost identical. The variations are, by and larger, regional and linguistic. What is more, both the classical tradition have always aimed at developing the creative ability of the performer. In a sense, therefore, the Indian classical musician is at once a composer and an Interpreter, too, For, even as he interprets the essential formulae and mnemonics of his art, as imparted to him by his guru, he weaves his melodic became to suit his innermost urges and creative imagination and there by seeks to express the very essence of his inward being to listeners through the medium of his raga. And this is precisely what makes Indian classical music-Hindustani or Carnatic unique.

But the challenge faced by an exponent of Hindustani music is, to my mind, possibly far greater than that of a Carnatic performer. For the beauty of Hindustani music lies in its relatively more flexible structure and in its much greater emphasis on extempore improvisation. This quality is reflected in the Process of its evolution in the perspective of the social, Cultural and political history of North India. The chequered history of its evolution from the pristine dhrupad and dhamar to ornate khayal, lilting tappa to erotic thumri and raga-based ghazal is one of assimilation, adaptation and creation, with its roots in the Past. Each of these style, bears the impress of its era even while showing its susceptibility to the impact of changing times.

It is pertinent in this context, to attempt a closer study of these forms of presentation. The beginnings of Hindustani music is traced to the temple music of North India. There is no unanimity, though, among musical historians on this point. But there is something to be said for the view that raga-based sacred music was in vogue in all the places of Hindu worship for centuries earlier, and that from it, emerged the darbari (court) variety of dhrupad, which sought and obtained ready patronage from princely courts in the middle ages. Raja Man Singh Tomar is generally credited to have reshaped temple dhrupad into court dhrupad, even while retaining the distinctive features of the former variety.

Dhrupad is metrical in form-in the nature of an invocation or prayer or a theme in glorification of heroism. It is austere in form and Coherent in structure, with no embellishments like tanas, alankars and murkis.

The name itself Indicates the style which is marked by vilambit (slow) tempo, with an element If constancy in its pace. It is developed in four phases; first, asthayi, restricted to the mandra (lower) and madhya (middle) saptakas (octaves). Then follows antara, rendered in the madhya saptaka, in which one or two svaras from the tara (upper) saptaka can be employed. The third phase, sanchari, covering madhya sanchari, covering madhya saptaka, begins and ends, with the vadi svara (sonant note) of the raga, while the final section, known as abhog, starts in the tara saptaka and covers the madhya and mandra saptakas. Dhrupad is rendered with a prefatory alap, unaccompanied by rhythm. The composition that follows is accompanied by the percussion instrument pakhawaj (similar to mridangam in Carnatic music) The tala employed is choutala, a cycle of twelve matras (beats).

Dhamar is similar to dhrupad. But it composition has no metrical character and is therefore less austere in its build-up. Songs narrate stories of raas-leelas of the ever youthful Lord Krishna. The songs, known as hori, carry a romantic element and are rendered in the tala, known as dhamar of fourteen matras. The pace of rendition is almost double that of dhrupad and provides scope for interplay between melody and rhythm.

The transition of Hindustani music from dhrupad dhamar to khayal reflects a significant change in the tastes of the people. If dhrupad-dhamar typified the dignity, discipline and restraint of their age, khayal, with its freedom in melodic elaboration, ornateness to unfoldment and sensuousness in approach, embodied a rich imagination and also the temper of its age. It is regarded as a product of common endeavor of the Hindu. Persian and Arabic cultures. And, since its inception almost two centuries ago, it has grown popular with musicians and music-lovers alike. Even today, it is the main style of classical singing in North India. So much as, that dhrupad and dhamar have almost gone out of vogue.

Much of the khayal's enduring popularity comes from its unlimited potential for improvisation. Its innovation is credited to Sultan Hussaini Shirqi, a celebrated musician-composer and poet. The song-content of a khayal generally revolves around romantic themes based on the agonies of separation of a beloved from her lover or the ecstasics of their reunion. The song consists of only two parts, asthayl and antara, and affords ample scope for a variety of melodic and rhythmic graces in the scheme raga exploration like alap, bol-alap, upaj, bol-taan, gamak, sargam, taan.

In concert presentation, a raga exposition begins with a khayal composition in vilambit (slow) laya (tempo) and devoted to melodic elaboration. This is followed by another khayal song, set to drut laya (fast tempo), in which the performer displays his virtuosity through taans and rhythmical surprises. Tarana, a compositional type consisting of non-semantic words.

Tappa and thumri cannot be deemed strictly classical styles, like dhrupad, dhamar and khayal. Yet, if they form part of the classical tradition, it is because the styles are based on ragas. Tappa originated in Punjab and evolved from songs of camel-drivers. It is said that Shourie Miyan, a celebrated vocalist, beautified and embellished the original songs and elevated them to the classical status. Tappa-singing is marked by a fast tempo, with a surfeit of intricate, complex and super-speed taans.

Thumri, Dhrupad and Alaps

The tappa has now almost gone out of fashion.

Thumri marks yet another significant phase in the evolution of Hindustani music. It came Into vogue in eastern Uttar Pradesh during the reign of  Wajid Ali Shah, the last nawab of the 18th century. Unlike dhrupad, dhamar and khayal, it Is the expressive aspect of the song content that is vital to thumris depiction. Its rendering calls for a 'feeling' heart, a fecund mind and a delicate expression on the part of the singer. The singer has freedom to conjure a variety of vocal modulation in order to vivify lyrical import of a thumri.

Not surprisingly, therefore, it was once the exclusive preserve of female singers, as it lent itself naturally to their temperamental make-up and relatively sweeter voice. Over the years, though, there have been several male as well as female virtuosi who have excelled in thumri-singing. There are numerous popular variations of thumri, like chaiti, kajri and barsati, but no less vivacious and titillating in their appeal to audiences today.

The ghazal style was known to be invented by Amir Khusro, the versatile musician, poet and composer, who flourished in the court of Allauddin Khiiji in the 13th century. Like the thumri, its appeal rests on the text of the poetic theme. Ghazals are couplets in Persian or Urdu, and love and romance, as expressed by the lover, form their lyrical content. Because of their popularity with audiences, even noted classical maestros like Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Faiyaz Khan often made ghazals a part of their performing fare.

Compared to vocal music, it has to be conceded that instrumental music is not as varied in point of styles and vogues-and that, too, with all the tremendous variety of instruments. One obvious reason is at vocal music comes through verbal expressing. Instrumental music is, in this sense, non-verbal, coming as it does through a medium other than the human voice. Besides, as mentioned in the opening article in the series, musical instruments were designed to provide accompaniment to singing.

In time to come, however, several of these instruments were found to lend themselves to solo performances. But the styles they developed for solo presentation corresponded, in a broad way, to the modes of singing. These fall into three distinct movements, known as alap, jod and jhala, all of which are rendered without rhythmic accompaniment. These are then followed by gat, a fixed and rhythmical composition.

Alap, like in dhrupad, marks the beginning of a raga composition in instrumental music. It is designed to unfold the salient features of the chosen raga through the use of its important svaras, combination of such svaras and the like. Alap is very slow in tempo. Jod comprises the second phase of the raga unfolding. Though it is an extension of alap, it sounds different because of its inherent rhythmic element and increase in tempo. Jhala which follows Jod, representing the third part of the raga exposition, is marked by, a heightening tempo that culminates in a climax. In gat, a percussion accompaniment, like pakhavaj or tabla, comes into play. A gat can be presented in any chosen tala and to any chosen tempo.

So much for the styles of singing and playing in Hindustani music. Mention needs to be made now about what is known as the gharana parampara, without which no account of north India's classical music can be complete. The gharana system is so much part of the tradition that while performers are known by their gharanas, connoisseuurs broadly identify their musical lineage from their distinctive manner of presentation, such as difference in intonation, musical idiom. and aesthetic appeal.

Indeed, the proliferation of Hindustani music into several performing styles has its genesis in the distinctive quality of the voice of the gharana founder. And it is this quality that has broadly determined the style and approach of a particular vocal style-a development unparalleled in any other music tradition.

The Gharana System

The term gharana literally means "family tradition". In time to come, it came to connote a school of musical education and culture, at which instruction was initially restricted to members of a common family from generation to generation.

It is noteworthy that the gharana system has made its most significant contribution to the evolution and development of the khayal style. True, the tradition of dhrupad-singing, the precursor of khayal, had its own gharana, known as banis-which also indicated different styles of singing. But the distinction between them, it would appear, was not so well-defined as in khayal. The same can also be said to be the case with the styles of playing.

Among the most prominent khayal gharanas that have evolved over the centuries are those of Gwalior, Agra, Atrauli-Jaipur, Kirana and Patiala. The first is the most ancient and rightly called the `mother' of all other gharanas. The Gwalior gharana is know for open-throated singing, simplicity of form and straight, linear transitions from svara to svara. This vocalism is said to have been pioneered by Naththan Pir Baksh of Gwalior.

The Agra gharana, made so famous by Faiyaz Khan, is marked by its dhrupad oriented disciplined execution, dramatic contrasts, rhythmic syncopations as much as its lyrical warmth and color. The Atrauli Jaipur gharana, which enjoys tremendous popularity even today, was pioneered by Alladiya Khan, who gave us disciples of the eminence of Kesarbai Kerkar and Mogubai Kurdikar, among others. 'The style reveals monumental weight and architectonics, with emphasis on slow and steady raga unfolding and judicious use of bol-taans which culminate in intricate, odd-shaped taan patterns.

The Kirana gharana, which is as popular as the Atrauli-Jaipur style, had Abdul Karim Khan and Abdul Wahid Khan as its founding fathers. This style is known for its utterly sweet and feeling manner of elaboration, immaculate svara intonation and sensitive, delicate, gamak-taans.

The Kirana gharana generally avoids dramatic contrasts and tensions. The Patiala gharana is no less sweet, serene and soothing, but the pace is slightly faster, with emphasis on rhythmic virtues and lightning sargam patterns. And it was Bade Ghulam Ali Khan who brought this gharana into the limelight.

Apart from these leading gharanas, there are quite a few other styles which are, in most cases, either offshoots of the older gharanas or an intelligent amalgam of them. The instances in point are the gharanas of Rampur, Indore and Mewati. These vocalisms have also thrown up exponents with exceptional gifts of talent and Imagination and won popularity.

The gharana parampara is now gradually on the wane, in keeping with the changing needs of 20th century living and thinking. Yet,the vital part it still continues to play for the preservation and enrichment of Hindustani music cannot be overlooked or ignored. For that was how the genius of classical music found its expression in such a splendorous way. Whether it was solemn temples, princely courts or aristocratic homes, patronage of classical music game from the intellectual and sophisticated audiences-the type of of audiences described by Milton as ``fit though, few".

Public concerts were simply not in vogue in those times, nor did the musicians themselves find any need to look to the masses, as the latter had their own tradition of folk music which permeated their life. The general environment for classical music was such that its evolution in terms of variety of styles and vogues proved worthy of the refined tastes and sensibilities of its votaries. They were, in fact, part of the grand process, in which the problem of understanding and appreciating their creative art did not arise, as it does today.

How to listen to classical music or, any music for that matter, is a question that cannot elicit an easy answer. For music is an abstract art. It is aural, intangible and evanescent, indirect contrast to other creative arts like dance, drama, sculpture or painting which are visual and concrete. As such, these are capable of providing what may be termed `models' or 'tools' that may help in the understanding and appreciation of their individual excellence. Not so is the case with music.

It is far more difficult to understand and appreciate classical music than any other type of music. Listening to classical music in this country is regarded as an art in itself; an art that calls, for a long training of the ear and the soul. More importantly, it is as much a matter of participation as of performance, in which a discerning and actively responsive audience has a vital role to play in the creative process.

It is only through a strenuous cultivation of such listening that an untaught lover of music gradually learns to recognize the qualities which have made classical music a truly deliberate art. Initially, he takes to it as a medium of simple entertainment. In time to come, he listens to it as a medium of artistic enjoyment. From such a continuous listening there emerges a sense of true appreciation of its aesthetic values, which adds to the sum-total of his delight as by then, he matures into a perceptive connoisseur almost unconsciously.

What are known as aesthetic values in classical music (as also in dance and drama) are nothing but the virtues that have been recognized as basic to rasanishpatti (evocation of mood) which lead to true appreciation. This implies that complete rapport between the performing artiste and the audience is vital to proper listening and appreciation. According to Bharata, author of Natya Shastra and originator of the rasa theory, rasa is an artistic enjoyment which should culminate in complete relaxation. Although he has expounded his theory in relation to drama, it can lend itself to classical music with remarkable aptness.

Music Maestro Tansen Ustad Allauddin Khan Mallikarjun Mansur
Maestro Tansen Ustad Allauddin Khan Mallikarjun Mansoor

Equally appropriate is his description of an ideal audience which comes to witness a dramatic performance. Of a spectator at a drama, he says: "He should be one, with no obvious faults, one who is attached to drama, whose senses are not liable to distraction, who is clever in guessing, who can share others' delight..." Complete involvement of the audience is as vital as continuous exposure for a true understanding and appreciation of the whole range of classical performing arts, including music.

No longer does one find such ideal conditions on the contemporary musical scene. Specially during the last five decades, it has undergone radical changes which are both qualitative and quantitative the like of which were never in evidence in the chequered history of Hindustani music. No doubt, the changes are part of the quickening tempo of life in general. But their interaction has not been an unmixed blessing.

On the credit side, scholastic education in Hindustani music, which has now reached university standards, has helped in no small measure in educating the public taste for whole, some music, so that lay music lovers, who take the benefit of learning from music schools and colleges, can mature into perceptive connoisseurs and good teachers, if not leading performers in their own right. No less welcome is the emergence of the gramophone, radio, and television to regale us with music in the privacy of our homes.

On a wider plane, concert music is purveyed to a wide range of rasikas at different levels. First, there are music circles which cater to the needs of the regular members, mostly representing the middle and higher middle classes, by holding programs of classical music at specified intervals practically round the year. It is at such concerts that one still finds the old-world atmosphere which helps to create and foster an intimate relationship between the performer and the listener.

On the debit side, mention has to be made of those organizations and individuals mushrooming on the cultural scene with their plethora of sangeet sammelans throughout the fair season between October and May. So pervasive is their influence on the general musical activity that the music circles, mentioned earlier, seem to be on the verge of banishment in no distant future.

Although it is true that classical arts were primarily meant for the delectation of a few and not intended for mass enjoyment. the time two now come to create `classes' of listeners from out of the `mass'.

And it is indeed something to be grateful for that among today's mass audiences, there is a sizeable proportion of lay music-lovers which is keen to reach the level of higher enjoyment by cultivating the quality of intelligent listening.

Continuous listening, as emphasized earlier, is the sine qua non appreciation of classical music. Training in the basics of classical music will go a long way towards developing the innate sensibilities of uninitiated listeners.

The performing musicians also have an equally crucial role to play in this task. If only they acquaint their listeners with the basics of classical music whenever they perform, they will find that the rewarding. In the first place, the performing artistes should announce the name of their ragas, their svara structure and other distinguishing features like avaroha-avaroha, vadi-samvadi etc. If it is a vocal recital, the singer should recite the complete text of the musical composition and explain to the audience its meaning. And when he begins to perform and proceed with his raga elaboration, he will see that his listeners lend their ears to his presentation with a new-found interest and delight which, in time to come, will make them knowledgeable and capable of true conception of things beautiful. The official mass media organizations can do much more towards educating their listeners on sound lines. The announcements that presently precede and succeed classical broadcasts are rather incomplete and indifferent. They should be more informative. Introduction of a regular feature, giving lessons in classical music, will also be a step in the right direction. It is admirable that Hindustani music finds place in the Vividh Bharati network. But the programs featured deserve better representation in terms of time as well as variety. And finally, there is a fairly large body of literature on the art, science and aesthetics of Hindustani music in English and various Indian languages. There are also definitive works dealing with its history and evolution. Knowledge and information acquired from musical literature will always be an added asset to a true rasika.

See Also:

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