Published On: Wed, Jan 21st, 2015

The Sound of India: Classical Music and Instruments

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Classical Indian music is the iconic sound produced in the Indian subcontinent. Classical music is believed to have originated in the Vedas – the sacred scriptures of the Hindu tradition. Hymns known as Samaganas were sung by Udgatar priests during worship. This unique chanting style gradually evolved into jatis and then ragas. Indian classical music has been influenced by Indian folk music. In fact, it was the Bharat Natyashastra that is responsible for laying down the fundamental principles of music, dance and drama.

Musical Instruments

Classical Indian music can be divided into 12 semitones, 8 of which are basic notes in ascending tonal order – Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa for Hindustani music and Sa Ri Ga Ma Pa Da Ni Sa for Carnatic music. Classical instrumental music has been influenced heavily by the British as well.

However, Indian music makes full use of just-intonation tuning, which is quite different to what western classical music uses. The latter uses the equal-temperament tuning system. Indian classical music also stresses on improvisation as opposed to western classical music.

The two main branches of Indian classical music are:

Hindustani Music

Hindustani music has been heavily influenced by Persia especially where instruments, ragas and style of presentation is concerned. It has assimilated well with folk tunes. Ragas like Kafi and Jaijaiwanti have their basis in folk tunes. The stringed tanpura is also a common instrument used in this type of classical instrumental music. It is usually played as a drone with a background sound accompanying it. The other instruments that are used as an accompaniment include the harmonium.

Carnatic Music

This musical form hails from South India and is more structured and rhythmic as compared to Hindustani music. It should be noted that Carnatic raga elaborations have a faster tempo, and shorter equivalents than Hindustani music. It is interesting to note that accompanying artists have a bigger role to play where Carnatic concerts are concerned as opposed to Hindustani concerts. A typical Carnatic concert structure of today has been elaborated by Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar.

An opening piece, called the varnam, usually helps the musicians to warm up before the start of the concert. Then, the musicians on stage ask for blessings from the Gods and teachers before they start performing. This is then followed by ragams (unmetered melody) and thaalams (the ornamentation, equivalent to the jor) interchangeably. Hymns called krithis are also sung during the course of the concert. What follows next is the pallavi or theme from the raga. It is also important to note that this music also comprises of notated lyrical poems that are reproduced over the course of the concert. It could be played with embellishments and treatments in accordance with the wishes of the performer.

Indian Instruments

There are a number of instruments used in the performance of Hindustani music. Some of the more well-known instruments in Hindustani music include the sitar, sarod, tabla, santoor, and even the violin, among others. Instruments used in Carnatic concerts include the venu, mridangam, kanjira, ghatam and violin, among others. These Indian instruments have been used for a few years now.

21st century

In the 21st century, Indian classical music seems to be slowly dying a natural death with the arrival of Pop music that has captivated audiences around the country. The Indian film industry has also helped promote other genres of music. The arrival of fusion music like khyal and western pop music appeals to a wider audience. Indian instruments are being used collaboratively with western instruments to create interesting sounds. However, this does not diminish the fact that the very roots of Indian classical music are firmly entrenched for generations to come as it forms the very basis on which


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