Music of India – a brief outline – Part One

21 Apr


Part One (of 22) – Overview


1.1. It is said; Music and musical thoughts are the expressions of a range of diverse emotions that co-exist within the hearts or in the inner worlds of a community. It has its roots in its total cultural context, in its traditions, in its philosophy of life and in its aspirations. A  Music can truly be understood and appreciated only when it is viewed as part of the integral experience of that community.

1.2. That is particularly true with regard to India where Music had been woven into the fabric of its various philosophical, religious, cultural and literary traditions for over long ages, stretching back to the forgotten periods of its un-recorded History. Apart from this, a special branch of study devoted to the theory and practice of Music (Samgita-shastra) was developed and enlarged, in stages.  Samgita-shastra, right from the ancient times, is deemed as an integral part of the broad framework of ideas that systematically explain the philosophical basis of sound (Nada); the Grammar and language of Music; and, the aesthetics of Music,

Thus, Music and its study have flourished in all the intellectual traditions of India. Here, Music was valued not only as a delightful sensory experience but also as a vision (Darshana) providing a glimpse of the reality that is beyond the reach of the senses. It is, therefore, held in high esteem and invested with an aura of spiritual pursuit (Sadhana) leading to liberation from earthly-attachments. It is said; for both the performer and the good-hearted listener (sah-hrudaya), pure-music (Samgita) can be a fulfilling blessed experience. Some traditions even elevate Music to the level of sacred lore, the Vedas; calling it as the fifth Veda (Panchama-veda).

1.3. Sage Yajnavalkya (Yajnavalkyasmrti-III-4-115) describes Samgita as the most sublime of all the fine-arts that pleases and has the potential to convey all shades of emotions (). It is a Vidya that, if practiced diligently, can lead the aspirant towards liberation.

The Kalyana Chalukya King Someshwara III (1127-1139 AD ) in his Manasollasa (also called Abhjilashitarta Chintamani )  describes  chaste Music as that which educates (Shikshartham), entertains (Vinodartham), delights (Moda Sadanam) and liberates (Moksha Sadahanam) – Shikshartham Vinodartham Cha, Moda Sadanam, Moksha Sadhaanam Cha.

1.4. Rabindranath Tagore speaking of the Music of India said: “To me it seems that Indian Music concerns itself more with human experience in its relation to God and nature, than with the day-to-day world of common living. The mystic world of Indian Music, like the starry night, has certain serenity, pure, deep and tenderness about it. The Indian Ragas stir our imagination and move us away from mundane towards the ideal. For us, Music has a transcendental significance. ”


2.1. The Music of India, over the centuries, has evolved in several stages. Samgita in the ancient context was a composite art comprising Gita (singing), Vadya (instruments) and Nrtya (limb movements). It was only much later that Nrtya began to develop independently. And, in Music, Gita (singing) had importance over Vadya (instrumental music); and, instrumental music generally follows the vocal styles and nuances. . Ahobala Pandita   in his Samgita Parijata pravashika (17th century) says it is because of that reason the singing itself came to be known as Samgita ( Samgita, Gita-vadhittra nrityanama trayam samgitam uccyate; Ganasytra pradhanatvat samgita mitiriyam).

The earliest form of singing  that we know about is the Sama-gana or the Saman, the musical way of rendering Sama Veda. That was followed by Gandharva or Marga, an ancient type of sacred music making a pleasant appeal to the gods. Gandharva or Marga or Margi, tended to be rather intellectual; leaving little room for flexibility and imagination. These limitations had to necessarily bring in several changes. Gandharva, therefore, underwent considerable transformation. And, more importantly, it gave place to Gana, a form of art-music (laukika) that aimed to entertain the spectators at the theatre.

2.2. Gana was the Music of the songs – Dhruva Gana – sung during the course of play by the actors on the stage as also by the musicians behind the curtain to the accompaniment of instrumental music. Natyashastra deals elaborately with the theoretical and practical aspects of the Dhruva Gana – its various types, structures, grammar, as also the type of songs to be sung in various contexts in a play.

2.3. Desi  category of music that flourished from around 5th century onwards , in contrast to Margi, was essentially a music springing out of inspiration derived  from various regional musical forms and tones , each having a unique flavour of the sub-culture in which it was rooted. Desi, which is enjoyed by all, is said to be the music of the people, as it is, relatively, free from strict adherence to rules. Desi Music flowered in various ways; it initiated or refined the concept of Raga; developed it further; classified Ragas according to the system of Mela or Melakarta (basic Raga) and its derivatives; and, it introduced new sets of instruments into musical performances.

2.4. For about a thousand years thereafter, which is till about the 17th century, the musical scene of India as also the dance-drama (geya-nataka) was dominated by a class of regulated (Nibaddha) Music called Prabandha, in its various forms. Prabandha is a variety of Khandakavya bound by certain specified elements (Dhatu and Anga). It is a tightly structured (Nibaddha Samgita) song format having specific characteristics that are governed by a set of rules. At times, the faithfulness to a prescribed format was carried to its limits. And, the Prabandha form, in due course, grew rather rigid; and, had to give place to improvised, easier and innovative (manodharma samgita) forms of music, such as Kriti and Dhruvapada (Drupad).

2.5. In the Music of South India, the churning of the Prabandhas and the Padas gave rise to a music format called Kriti (sometimes also called Kirtana, though there is a subtle difference between the two). Though several composers of repute prior to 17th century experimented with the Kriti format, it was the celebrated Trinity of Karnataka Samgita that, later, perfected it during the 18th century.  A Kriti which is explained as that which is constructed (yat krtam tat kritih) is primarily a pre-composed music (kalpitha Samgita), comprising pallavi, anu-pallavi and charanas, set to Taala.  And, it is the most advanced form of musical composition in Karnataka-samgita.

A Kriti is also the ultimate test of a composer. The Raga of Kriti should be in harmony with its structure, its lyrics and its musical content. Generally, a Kriti should strikes a good   balance between its words, its structure and its music (Mathu and Dhathu). A good Kriti should succeed in not only capturing the essence of its Raga, but also in aptly bringing out the inner meaning, the Bhava, of its lyrics (Sahitya).

Such a Kriti provides ample scope to the performer to delineate the true nature of a Raga in all its vibrant colours and also to draw out his creative (Mano- dharma), innovative expressions in Raga and Laya. The Musical performances of the present day are dominated by Kriti-rendering along with expanding on Raga-Alapa and Laya vinyasa (Taala or rhythmic patterns).

Along with the Kriti several other song formats with special reference to dance (Varna, Svarajit, and Javali etc) have come into being.


3.1. A landmark step towards the evolution of the Raga was taken when the concept of Raga was introduced into Music of India by Matanga and others. The music-treatises of the second half of the 17th century were concerned primarily with the iconography of the Raga and were eager to connect the Raga with a deity or a season or a mood or even an environment.

3.2. The Music of Ragas, as we know it today, is the culmination of a long process of development in musical thinking that aimed to meaningfully organise melodic and tonal material. During the earlier times, Sama-gana gave way to Gandharva – gana as the mainstream of the sacred music. And, by the second half of the 17th century the ancient Gandharva Music that figured in Natyashastra was no longer in practice. The system of 17th century was closer to the one we have in the present day.

A familiarity with the traditions within the larger canvas of musical changes over centuries will help us to gain a better understanding of our Music.




4.1. As said before, the evolution of Music of India in all its forms, including the sacred music, art music, dance music, opera, instrumental music and other recognized forms (Gita prabandha, Vadya prabandha, Nritya prabandha and Lakshana prabandha) is a long process spread over many centuries. It took a long time for music to come to its present-day form. What we have today is the result of a long unbroken tradition and the fruit of accumulated heritage of centuries, stretching from the notes (Svara) of Sama-gana to the Mela-kartas of Govindacarya.

4.2. What is remarkable about the Music of India is its systematic way of developing musical thinking that aimed to organise and arrive at a golden mean between melody (Raga) and the structure of the compositions (Sahitya). This has lent our music an inner-strength and an identity of its own.

4.3. There followed a very long period stretching over a thousand years – from Natyashatra to Chaturdandi prashika – which produced most wonderful texts providing substance , structure and a sense of identity to what we now call as Classical Music. These texts on Samgita-shastra (Musicology), classified as Lakshana-granthas, brought together the various strands of the past Music traditions; established a sound theoretical basis for the structural framework Music, its related issues and practise.  Each genre of these texts also provided a model for the subsequent treatises to elaborate on music-theories and practices (Samgita Shastra).

4.4. The authors of ancient Indian musical texts seemed to be concerned with precise ways to describe Music as it should be; how it should be taught, learnt and performed; and, how it should be experienced and enjoyed.  It was an evolutionary process cascading towards greater sophistication.

5.1. The most notable among the texts of ancient and medieval India that deal with Music, briefly , are:

: – Bharatha’s Natya-shastra (Ca.200 BC) – though it treats Music as ancillary to theatre production;

: – Dattilam (around first century), which follows Bharatha closely, ascribed to Dattila marks the transition from Sama-gana to Gandharva, describing musical elements of Svara (scales), Sthana (base notes) and Grama (tonal framework) in terms of Sruti (micro-tonal intervals);

:- Brihadesi ascribed to Matanga (around 5th century) , a landmark text, that established the concept of Raga , dealt with Raga as a special subject,  spoke of Nada as (sound) in metaphysical terms , recognized Desi Music and established it in place of Margi , and became the source-text for the musicologists of the later periods for developing Mela-karta (parent scale) system of classifying Music;

: – Sangeeta Makaranda by Narada (11th century), is virtually a compendium which enumerates 93 Ragas and classifies them into  Raga (masculine) and Ragini ( feminine)  species;

: – Manasollasa (also called Abhjilashitarta Chintamani) ascribed to the Kalyana Chalukya King Someshwara III (12th century) covers a wide range of subjects related to Music (e.g. the desired qualities of a singer, voice culture, ways of elaborating a song etc) besides clearly stating the structure and the components of a class of Music called Prabandha which dominated Indian Music till about the end of 17th century;

: – Sangita-Cudamani of Jagadekamalla (1138 to 1150 AD ) –   son of king Someshwara ,  author of Manasollasa –  covers many topics related to music , such as  : Alapana  and Gamaka;   the desired qualities of a singer, of a composer; the voice culture; design of  the auditorium, and so on .

:- Sangita Samarasya of Prasavadeva, a Jain (monk?) of 12-13th century, which discusses various topics relating to Nada (sound), Dhvani (pitch), Shaarira  ( resonating musical voice) , Gita (song), Alapti ( free flowing elaboration of Raga), Sthaya (phrases), Varna ( lines) , Taala (rhythm) and Alamkara (ornamentation)  . It is said; Prasavadeva explained Gamaka as: “When a note produces the colour of Sruthis other than those which are its own, it is known as Gamaka.”

:- the 13th century monumental text Samgita-ratnakara of Sarangadeva ( perhaps the last of the integral Music texts of India before the distinctions of North and South appeared) , which brought together various strands of the past music traditions, defined almost 264 Ragas, established a sound theoretical basis for music and provided a model for the later musicology (Samgita Shastra);

:- Swaramela-Kalanidhi  by Ramamatya (Ca.1550) a poet-scholar in the court of Vijayanagar , which laid the foundation for the theoretical framework for classifying Ragas according to 19  Mela (parent scale) and 166 Janya (derived ) Ragas – this is said to be an improvement over Sage Vidyaranya’s  (1320 – 1380)  initiative  , in his Sangita-sara , to group (Mela ) about 50 Ragas according to their parent scale;

:- Raga-vibodha of Somanatha (1609 A.D) pays special attention to Alamkara (ornamentation) or Vadana-bedha – the techniques of plying on stringed musical instruments (Veena) – such as deflections, slides and others. His exposition of Vadana-bedha (finger-techniques), emphasizing the subtleties of the instrument, is said be based mainly on the vocal techniques of Gamaka-s and Sthaya-s (components of a raga) as described in Sangita-Ratnakara of Sarangadeva (13th century). He is also said to have brought into vogue the practice of writing notations (Raga-sanchara).

:- the fundamental treatise of present Music, Chaturdandi-Prakasika  by Venkatamakhin (ca. 1635) corrected Ramamatya’s Mela system from 19 to 17  and  , more importantly , in its appendix (anubandha) introduced the  possibility of classifying Ragas (Kanakangi to Rasikapriya) under a  72 Mela-karta scheme made into two groups of 36 each (Shuddha Madhyama and Prathi Madhyama)  ;

:- Sangraha Chudamani  by Govindacharya (late 17th – early 18th century),  which  expanding on Venkatamakhi’s  Chaturdandi-Prakasika introduced the  Sampoorna Melakarta scheme as well as delineating  Lakshanas for 294 janya  ragas, many of which were till then unknown, with their Arohana and  Avarohana , and also refined the Katyapadi prefixes  by linking the Mela Ragas to their first two syllables;

:- and, the voluminous  Sangita Sampradaya Pradarshini by Subbarama Dikshitar (1839-1906) , the grandson of Sri Mutthuswami Dikshitar , running into about 1700 pages is a source-book on Music of India , tracing the history of Music from Sarangadeva to the 20th century through a series of biographies of noteworthy musicians and music-scholars ; and also providing exhaustive details on 72 Melas  as also tables of Ragas, Ragangas, Upanga-s, Bhashangas with their Murcchanas, Gamakas, in addition to details of the  Taalas.

In addition, there were numbers other Lakshana-granthas of great merit that were written by musician-scholars spread over long periods.

5.2. These works, with the exception of Sangita-parijata, follow the Mela system of classifying the Ragas. For this reason, these texts are closer to the present day than those that were rooted in Murchanas, the important Amsa and the final note Nyasa (which is followed in Sangita-ratnakara).

{We will briefly talk about each of these texts, separately, later in the series]

6.1. As can be seen; the 16th and 17th centuries were of great importance for Music-texts of India. Several important texts touching upon the Music of North India were also written during this period. Of these, the Raga-tarangini of Lochana Kavi (?); Sad-raga-chandrodaya and other works of Pundarika Vittala; Hrdaya-kautaka and Hrdaya-prakasha of Hrdaya–Narayana (Ca.1660) and Sangita-parijata of Ahobala (Ca.1665) are considered important for their bearing on the present day music.

Continued in Part Two

–  Overview (2) continued



Sources and References


Music and Musical Thought in Early India by Lewis Rowell

The Traditional Indian Theory and Practice of Music and Dance-  Edited by Jonathan Katz

Early Indian musical speculation and the theory of melody by Lewis Rowell

Abhinavagupta’s theory of musical transcendence

Important Treatises on Carnatic Music by Harini Raghavan


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Posted by on April 21, 2015 in Sangita


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