The Rough Guide to World Music: Indian Classical Music | Songlines
Monday, January 21, 2019

The Rough Guide to World Music: Indian Classical Music

To enjoy a concert of Indian classical music, it helps a lot to have knowledge of the basic rules. Here, Robert Maycock and Ken Hunt introduce a rich musical tradition


How to listen – a route map of india

In August 1971, George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan were among the gala attractions of the the Concert For Bangladesh, held in New York to raise money for the stricken nation. Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan were to perform a jugalbandi (duet), and according to Indian classical practice, they began tuning up on stage. As the musicians finished, they were greeted with a ripple of clapping which swelled into full-scale applause. Good-naturedly, but with an edge, Shankar observed “if you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you’ll enjoy the playing more”. The story has been repeated enough times to have become a mantra, but the moral remains: don’t travel in Indian music reading a Western map. Robert Maycock and Ken Hunt get out the compass.


To enjoy a concert of Indian classical music, it helps a lot to have knowledge of the basic traffic rules. Most concerts are solo vehicles for an instrumentalist or vocalist, and unlike most Western music, which is harmonically based, Indian music is monodic, with a single melody line. At first, the soloist explores the road – or raga –alone, with just a drone accompanying; later they are joined by rhythm players – most commonly tabla drums. Throughout a performance, which may last for several hours, there is an altogether un-Western attitude to time. You may begin by staring at a rug on an empty platform – all part of the preparation.

Settling In

When they are ready, the performers come on in reverse pecking order: drone instruments first, accompanists (including percussion) next, the big name last. Tuning will take just as long as it needs and will sometimes merge imperceptibly into the first forays of the performance itself: a few notes played in earnest, some more tuning, then a leap forward.

If the accompanying drum is a tabla, the player’s first act is usually to bring out a hammer and tap obsessively at the tuning wedges at the edges – not a repair job, just making sure the high-pitched drum is exactly in tune with the soloist. Later on, tabla players frequently retune on the hoof, hammering away without losing the rhythm.

Underlying the main instruments will be a stringed instrument called a tanpura, which ­provides a steady drone through the performance. It is often played by a student of the soloist who is given the honour of learning at close quarters – compensation for having to strum thanklessly through a concert of several hours.

Setting Off

It’s one note at a time to start with – and a ‘note’ is a many-splendoured thing, approached from above or below and fantastically ornamented. Rhythm is a hidden asset. Watch the percussionist sit listening as the melody unfolds, often for half an hour or more. Gradually the pitch will rise; then fall, then move up again. The chosen raga, or theme (see below), is taking shape. You are listening to the initial exploration of a musical scale and a state of feeling, inseparably fused to make a raga. Each has its own way of ascending and descending, its special decorative features and its local variants, which depend on the performance tradition the musician belongs to.

In north Indian (Hindustani) music, a raga usually opens with the alap section; in south Indian classical music this is called alapana. Played by the soloist in free rhythm with tanpura or drone accompaniment, it is the alap which reveals most about a musician’s mastery and prowess. It’s the most bewildering part for an uninitiated Western listener, but the part that educated Indian audiences love best – its length is often contracted or extended accordingly. Since the alap is the distilled essence of the raga, it can also function as the sole movement in a recital.

In a fine alap the singer or player will conjure up phrase after phrase of intense beauty, vocally acclaimed by ardent followers. Singers reinforce the emotion by vigorously tracing shapes with their hands and gesturing towards the listeners – a visual translation of the music and the very act of communicating it. Feedback from the audience is important, and a gesture or eye contact returned from a listener who obviously appreciates the music is highly valued. Many musicians lament Westernized shows of approval (now encountered even in the subcontinent), when audiences will burst into applause during a solo as if they were in a jazz concert. Traditional etiquette calls for murmurs of approval like wa-wa (excellent) and the raising of hands.

As the alap progresses, ornamentation grows more complex or flamboyant, the intensity builds, and a climactic high note is achieved – a moment whose emotional and musical power is greater for the long, long delay. The music winds down briefly, and then introduces a slow, almost lazy pulse for the so-called jor section. The speed of articulation gradually increases, melody evolves, and the pace stirs. Rhythmic animation follows, and the speed steps up in discreet stages. There is a brilliant climax, the music stops and everybody applauds. Still, though, the percussionist sits silent. It’s just traffic lights – temporary halt.

Drum-maker, Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh (photo: Simon Broughton)

Drum-maker, Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh (photo: Simon Broughton)

Gear Changes

Once the pace drops, solo and percussion start to interact. If the percussionist is a respected virtuoso, the soloist will briefly turn accompanist and let drumming skills take centre stage. Then the soloist steps on the gas. This part of the performance will usually be based on a gat (a fixed musical figure), and you will hear the same melodic phrases come back again and again. It is also based on a rhythmic cycle with hugely long “bars” of four, seven, eight, thirteen – anything up to sixteen beats.

First beats of a cycle are key moments, and you will see performers glance or nod at one another to keep in touch, or using a system of downturned and upturned palms of the hand to count. Listeners to recordings learn to pick up the shape of the cycle by ear alone, usually from the emphases of the deeper-toned drum strokes. When the music is playing with intricate patterns and cross-rhythms, the first beat is always the point of culmination, especially thrilling when reached after a process that has lasted for some time.

As the speed and excitement grow, the musicians become spontaneous and competitive as they move into the climactic jhala section. Quick-fire “question and answer” exchanges between instrumentalists can occur towards the end – a great opportunity for witty performers, especially when a drum imitates a melody instrument. Somebody may launch another composition or change ­rhythmic cycle if there’s a chance of heightening the action still further. Tabla players often rattle off compositions as a speech-song – a virtuoso performance in itself – and then imitate themselves on the drums. To round off, the performers will usually deliver a set-piece cadence which plays elaborately with threefold repetitions – emphatically conclusive when played with panache.

Southern Routes

It’s a subtly different experience if the musicians belong to the traditions of south India. Performances are shorter and they rarely linger in a slow tempo for any length of time. Rhythmic patterns, melodic decoration and the instruments themselves are different, and the moments of high excitement are more evenly spread through the music. More is fixed and calculated; improvisation is more subtle. Body language varies too: whereas a north Indian performer will acknowledge a colleague’s passing inspiration with a gentle shake of the head, nothing less than a full-scale wobble from shoulders upward will do in the south. But the underlying principles and motivations have plenty in common, and the fundamental idea of profoundly exploring a mood and a set of notes still drives the music.

The opening piece, called a varnum, is comparable to an étude in western classical music and allows the musicians to warm up. An invocatory piece ordinarily follows, both devotional and a request for a blessing. The pace of a recital builds with contrasting ragams and thaalams (see below), often of increasing complexity and always of increasing intensity, using short kritis (Hindu hymns), of between three and ten minutes.

The exception is the fuller ragam-thanam-­pallavi form. This sequence opens with pure, unmetred melody (confusingly, ragam is alapana by another name) before moving into thanam (the jor equivalent). The sequence concludes with rhythmically measured improvisations on the pallavi theme,the heart of a composition whose voiced or unvoiced lyrics inform the performance.

The pallavi may be unfamiliar to the percussionist and the principal soloist therefore states the theme, following that with lines based around it which are bounced back by the percussionist or the violin player, who usually accompanies the main melodicist in Karnatic music. The ensemble elaborates on the theme before the principal soloist restates the main theme to bring the pallavi to a close. After the ragam-thanam-pallavi, musicians will frequently perform tillana (a text of meaningless syllables, often voiced as rhythm mnemonics, similar to scat singing in jazz) or javali (an erotic song form), both of which are far lighter than the kriti form.

The Highway Code: Raga and Tala

Raga is a word woozy from the anaesthetic of familiarity – borrowed and adapted by many ­languages. The word is of Sanskrit origin, meaning “that which colours the mind”, and it is the fundamental organizing principle and melodic paradigm of both the Hindustani (north Indian) and ­Karnatic (south Indian) musical systems. In the south, it goes under the name of ragam.

Raga is an immensely intricate system of scale-like melodic patterns and their various ­permutations. There are some two hundred main ragas, each defined by its unique combination of scale-pattern and dominant notes, by the specific rules to be obeyed in ascending or descending, and by certain melodic phrases associated with it. Both the Hindustani and Karnatic systems share a love of melodic invention within the routes and boundaries that each raga proscribes. This is coupled with a joy in the complexities of rhythm. Karnatic music, for example, boasts the most sophisticated rhythmic organization on the planet in thaalam. The northern equivalent for such a rhythmic cycle is known as tala. Each combines mathematical intellectuality with rugged muscularity.

The hallmark of the subcontinent’s two classical music systems is the judicious management of melody and rhythm in the form of raga and tala, ragam and thaalam. In a concert, a convention (attributed toRavi Shankar) is for the principal soloist to announce the raga’s name, and to give information about it and the tala or talas about to be played.

Absolutely central to a great performance is the way in which the musicians imbue the raga or ragam with a sense of their own identity or personality while observing strictly defined rules. Improvisation occurs as a matter of course. Great musicians capture the spirit of their age as certain ragas capture the mood of their optimum time. Their art is not so much to describe a mood as to create and explore it with renewed sentiments and inspiration.

Raga Road

All ragas stem from 72 parent ragas known as the janaka or melakartha ragas. Each of these boasts a character so developed and distinctive that the attuned ear can discern the raga’s mood or moods. Identifying or naming the raga may take longer – paralleling the experience in European music when it comes to naming a particular polka or concerto. Ragas have counterparts called raginis whose alliance to a primary raga corresponds to a Hindu deity’s female consort. Mathematicians have calculated that some 34,776 raga permutations can be developed from this melakartha raw material. Even if mere hundreds are in common circulation, the nightmare is compounded by the variants that can be factored in.

A raga must have a minimum of five notes in a fixed sequence in ascending and descending order. This order is immovable. Within each raga certain notes are stressed and, in a music without harmony, it’s the relation of the notes of the raga to each other, and to the “tonic” sa, that defines its mood.

Traditionally, many ragas have a set time of day for playing, the product of age-old analysis and scrutiny, especially from studies in the south. The evening raga Marwa, for example, has a range of moods: it touches upon devotion, peace and heroism. The psychological characteristics of particular notes combine to develop a personality – perhaps a feminine blush, a sky blue or an uplifting sensation. In raga the seasons too carry cultural resonances. Megh means cloud and hence Raga Megh belongs to the monsoon season, while another popular raga, Hemant, simply means winter. Down the centuries the sense of a raga belonging to a particular hour or season became codified.

An example of the creative use of these moods is The Call of the Valley, the best-selling album by Shivkumar Sharma (santoor), Brijbushan Kabra (guitar) and Hariprasad Chaurasia (flute). In this recording’s scheme the day’s course is matched by a cycle of ragas. Todi’s mood reflects the early morning. Bhairavi’s time is late morning, Shri is of the afternoon, Pilu is day turning to evening and Kannada suits the night. It is peculiar how rarely raga names are explained and listeners tend not to observe such niceties as the time or season appropriate to a raga. Diehards lament this erosion of tradition.

Mishra, another commonly encountered word, indicates a mixed raga conventionaly requiring a less formal exposition. Other names give clues to authorship: for example, several variants of popular ragas are popularly attributed to Miyan Tansen, a pre-eminent musician in the court of the Mughal EmperorAkbar.In tribute their names include Miyan or Miya to indicate the variant’s author. The surbahar maestro Imrat Khan’s Rag Miya ki Todi and Rag Bilaskhani Todi album (on Nimbus) illustrates this principle with two variants of Todi, the first credited to Tansen, the second to Tansen’s son, Bilas Khan. For a thorough guide to Hindustani ragas, invest in Nimbus’s invaluable Raga Guide.

Tala: Make Way for Rhythmic Cycles

Tala – also tal or taal – is the northern name for a rhythmic cycle corresponding to the southern thaalam. They are terms heard at nearly every concert or read in most CD booklets. Tala combines with raga to make music somewhat as cadence joins with words to create speech; it does not mean rhythm. Each of the 100-plus talas builds over a specific number of matras (beats) before generally coming to a point of release called – in northern India – the khali. Tension and release is a science in Indian percussion.

The south’s mathematicians pondered thaalam permutations for centuries, but in general only a dozen or so favourites will pop up in a performance. although in percussion summits the number of variants used can be bewildering. Initially listeners may find the time periods over which talas unfurl baffling so the best approach is to treat them as opportunities for stretching the imagination – even a newcomer can experience multiple rhythmic frissons during a tabla solo.


A raga’s notes are inviolate, with a prescribed order of ascending and descending. If an errant note slips in, the mood may shift, be dissipated or shatter. The performer’s melodic invention must stay strictly within the codes – a Western parallel might be the way jazz players have to make their melodic invention fit the harmonic pattern of the song they are improvising on. On some occasions great virtuosi will raise the game by deftly quoting from, or alluding to, another raga, so long as doing so adds or heightens insight into the mood or exposition. More often they will introduce set melodic compositions that have been passed down through their tradition, or which they have composed themselves.

Both the melodicist and rhythmist will tap into rhythmic cycles of astonishing finesse based on centuries of musicological and mathematical study. Talas may be alternated to create variety. As with melody, improvisation is not the only kind of spontaneous performance. Short, fixed rhythmic compositions are often presented by percussionists in the course of a recital, particularly when the tabla is itself the solo instrument. South Asian extemporisation, by being so highly structured can make Western improvisation appear airy-fairy.

Indian music also has a lighter performance form called ragamala (ragamalika in Karnatic terms), meaning “garland of ragas”, in which a ­performer moves through a series of different ragas in one piece (see box overleaf on ragamala paintings). In order not to detract from the seriousness of a recital, a ragamala performance will tend to end a concert. A soloist may similarly close a concert with a dhun, or a deshi (folk) air, characterized by a lightness of mood or emotion and fewer intellectual strictures. Typically dhuns will be set in core repertoire Hindustani ragas such as Bhairavi, Kafi, Khammaj or Pilu. Hariprasad Chaurasia’s Four Dhuns (Nimbus) is unusual in being an album focusing on these.

Driving School: Gharanas

Indian musicians are expected to employ their musical wit to reveal new insights, even within core repertoire items, but an individual’s interpretative style will generally adhere to rules handed down the generations. Before notation or recording this was exclusively oral, often transmitted down bloodlines. If a child showed promise, more accomplished teachers would be sought out to round and develop the child’s education.

The southern system is renowned for producing child prodigies, often with whispered agendas of reincarnation. In the north the oral transmission of knowledge went from guru to shishya, teacher to disciple. The teaching could be severe, as indicated by shishya’s root in the Sanskrit for “punish”. This system gave rise to the Hindustani gharana tradition.

Traditionally gharanas (schools) took their names from their location – examples being Bhendi Bazar (a district of Mumbai), Kirana (near Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh) and Maihar (Madhya Pradesh). Gharana means a “school of playing” in much the same way as people talk about schools of painting. Each gharana’s particular playing style was jealously guarded and its musicians were highly proprietorial about their tradition. For all that, Hindustani music is changing, with some musicians’ names now being cited rather than the name of their gharana.

So Where Are We?

Clearly in the democratic, technological India of today, the gharana system has certain disadvantages. Budding musicians of great brilliance may not have the means or inclination to spend years of their life cloistered away in a fusion of a medieval guild and a Victorian apprenticeship. The system can be seen as nepotistic, although defensible when considering the gifts of a child who has lived, breathed and slept the life of a musical family. The northern system is undeniably sexist, and women have a hard time getting anywhere except as singers; even daughters of famous players have been rare on the scene until Aruna Narayan and Anoushka Shankar. Some have not even tried to get in, but instead have gone to the West to study Western music.

Schools of music and a more open, conservatoire-like system look like the way ahead, as they have been in the West where it is now possible to study at least the elementary stages at one or two colleges in the UK and, particularly, the Netherlands. Traditionalists will deplore their development as undermining the intense master-and-pupil relationships that the virtuosi of the past knew. Perhaps they should take heart from the experience of Western classical music, where a more open system has led to far more musicians with a far wider spread of abilities, but no ­apparent drop-off in skill and imagination at the top of the tree.

The gharanas are likely to keep going alongside newer methods, but these have already affected the way classical Indian music is performed. There are more instruments, for one thing. The Kashmiri folk zither, the santoor, has been made a ­classical concert instrument almost single-handed by Shivkumar Sharma, one of the great players by any measure. The sarangi was liberated by Ram Narayan from its subservient role in supporting singers. Saxophones, mandolins and guitars have followed.

In the twentieth century the existence of limited-length records and fixed half-hour broadcasts by All India Radio brought a new awareness of clock time into performers’ minds. Short, event-packed alaps are one outcome; so, less happily, is the growing number of performers who seem able to fill an hour with continuous music but not to deliver a coherent, impactful realization of musical imagination. There is also concern about a perceived attitudinal undercurrent among musicians, whereby a minority of performers believe that when they perform abroad before non-Indian audiences anything goes and they will be applauded no matter how they play. However, what is also quite clear is that serious international interest is at an unprecedented high, and the top players are now taking their art to the world’s capitals to be applauded and appreciated without so much as an ounce of artistic compromise.

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