The Uniqueness of Indian Classical Music

This article describes the Uniqueness of Indian Classical Music. This article became a bit big due to the in-depth analysis of the matter. We have created a TOC to help your reading.

No Written Score!

Comparisons are dangerous!
But to describe some of the substantive characteristics of our music it is necessary to place them against a rough and ready grid and a scale of values.

Our music has a very ancient beginning. Its history is overlaid with legends and miracles and the art itself has been an exclusively oral tradition. One of its most striking features is that very little of it seems to be literally written down.

The reason is, firstly, that it was not considered necessary.
For no one believed that there was any danger of our culture losing this tradition. Secondly, no one thought it worth the trouble of writing it down. For, what could be written down about our music was merely its vital statistics, like describing a man by giving his weight and height, the ratio of shoulder to hips, the length of neck, and hat size. Of course, such a description would have to do if nothing better were available.

But the real man, the flesh and blood man, the spirit and its identifying presence would always elude statement. So also with our music. While we do have the use of a notational technique of writing down Indian music, it gives only the barest clue of the song scored. The rest has to be added and kindled by the singer.

In Indian classical music, a note may have many nuances starting from or extending to other notes. The emphasis in the delivery of a note often varies widely as does the time gap between two notes. All these add up to make a musical phrase that may be notationally identical, yet totally new and unique every time it is executed by various musicians.

Thirdly, Indian musicians feel that if our music is written down and performed the mystery of the moment will disappear. It would be made up of memorized sequences, expressive graces which are reproduced rather than produced and, therefore, will never go beyond recitation or a kind of inspired mimicry.

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Always a New Creation!

In a certain sense, Indian classical music is always contemporary.
Although the use of notes in each Raga is governed by fairly structured rules, the rendering, elaboration, and interpretation of the Raga by the musician is always new, so that the music is, in a way, freshly composed every time it is sung or played. Each musician, therefore, becomes a composer and not merely an interpreter. The Raga takes birth in that form at the moment of performance.

The same Raga played by the same musician can feel very different on different days. When we listen to a concert we are participating in the birth of a piece of art. Even if we have heard the same Raga many times before we do not know what form it will take the next time.

1. Kumar Gandharva-Vocal-Raga Puriya DhanashreeDhanashree


This is one of the major reasons why musicians of an earlier era, resisted attempts not only to write down the music but even to record it. It was felt that this reluctance was because of an orthodox suspicion of technology. This is not true. Musicians merely felt that, when recorded, their music would become the music of the past, stale and dead and thus no longer true. The recording would be merely a mounting. Music’s life is at the moment of listening. This need for immediacy and the unknown is the essence of Raga music.

Even the selection of the Raga and the composition at the time of a performance is a result of the inspiration of the moment. For example, when Kumar Gandharva was once asked by a music critic, a few minutes before a performance, what Raga he had decided to sing, he is reported to have replied, “I don’t know yet. I shall wait for the Tanpura to tell me.” “It might sound strange but it was the bare statement of a living truth.²

[The Uniqueness of Indian Classical Music ]

Melody and Harmony?

Indian music, whether of the South or the North, can be called melodic music as distinct from Western music which can be called harmonic music.

Indian Raga music is mostly melodic, that is to say, Ragas are single-line melodies that go forward, in a seemingly horizontal direction, on and on, varying, changing, and reiterating emphasis. There is one single note produced at one time and the notes follow one another. As for example, listen to Bismillah Khan playing Raga Lalit on the Shehnai.

But if there are four different melodies being sung simultaneously, then the ear hears four different notes at the same time. And since the four melodies are traveling together, the togetherness of four melodies, heard simultaneously, is called a harmony. The simplest of polyphonies is heard when the two hands play different notes on the piano. If four notes are being played together we hear four sounds simultaneously. This is called a Chord and the direction is called vertical.”

The harmonic sounds of the notes of the piano are sharp and distinct. The two hands with the ten fingers produce a music of contrast and resolution.

But the true feeling of harmony becomes more expressive in a Symphony Orchestra where several instruments, sometimes more than a hundred, swirl in a pageant of sounds from which the main melody leaps out, like porpoises following a ship at sea, now underneath, now at the prow, then at the stern, leaping, flashing and sweeping past the ship in a trance of silver. Let us now listen to Beethoven and observe the difference between the melodic music heard earlier and the harmonic music of a symphony.5

It should, perhaps, be mentioned that Western music, with all its wealth of harmony, has however its roots in melody. Elementary musical thoughts and songs from a single human voice, in any system of music, are melodic-they just cannot be otherwise. Even in a harmonic passage, the component streams of music are all melodic and the main theme, more often than not, is composed on melodic lines.

3. Bismillah Khan-Shehnai Raga Lalit

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4. Piano Recital

5. Beethoven-Symphony

On the other hand, while it is true that Indian music is primarily melodic, to say that it has no vertical extension. whatsoever is not true. Because the Tanpura, which is a vital instrument of accompaniment in Indian music, sounds two notes which are heard together. And the singer, singing a third, creates a three-note chord which becomes a sort of vertical extension to the horizontal melodic motion of the Raga.”

[The Uniqueness of Indian Classical Music ]

The Rasas in Indian Classical Music!

It is said that there are nine Rasas, or aesthetic moods in Indian music, like Veera Rasa or the mood of heroism, Shringara Rasa or the romantic mood, Karuna Rasa or that of compassion. Certain Ragas may predominantly express a particular Rasa, but often the same Raga may embody various Rasas according to what the musician wants to express through it.

But what is important to remember is that the Rasas or the moods have two aspects – one outer and physical and the other inner and psychological. In Indian classical music, very often the stress is on the inner and the psychological. Let us try to understand the difference between these two by first listening to the theme music from the film Dr. Zhivago.7

The tune we have just heard is called Lara’s theme and is the orchestral theme of the film Dr. Zhivago, composed and conducted by Maurice Jarre. It is played in various keys, as the composition travels through the story, going through a brace of transpositions serving several contrasting purposes.

It sets the physical atmosphere of the story and its locale, the vastness and loneliness of continental Russia, its desolate wilderness of snow and ice. It hints at despair and loss, with a backward glance at the ambiguity of elapsing time. It controls the pacing of the story, providing narrative drive and subtle understatement to the fated lives of the story’s principal characters.

6. Sound of the Tanpura

7. Lara’s Theme from the film Dr. Zhivago

Now let us turn to Indian music and listen to a Raga which is often supposed to express the Veera Rasa or the mood of heroism. As for example the Raga Malkauns.

It is obvious that the heroism of this piece is certainly not the heroism of the battlefield. It is not the march and the martial music to which troops charged in Crimea or on D-Day on the ravaged beaches of Normandy. The Veera Rasa here is closer to the triumph of reaching an inner state of certitude, through the passageways of doubt, the joy of a clearer vision free from ambiguity and distraction.

So too Raga Bahar may be the Spring-time of bees and flow ers and buds and butterflies. But it could also be closer to what can be called a psychological Springtime, a feeling of joy in a new birth.

Now let us listen to a Raga which is frequently sung during the rains. This Raga, Miyan Ki Malhar, might sound better against a threatening sky and a lashing monsoon shower. But, that is beside the point.

The physical event may merely serve as a catalyst for the creation of a psychological state. The Raga in itself does not necessarily depict the chaotic random viol ence of the monsoon or its pervading dampness. It could be closer to the tragic need to wait in life or a state of expec tancy. The search of Indian music is directed inward and else where.10

8. Omkarnath Thakur-Vocal-Raga Malkauns

9. Bismillah Khan Shehnai Raga Bahar

10. Ustad Amir Khan Vocal Raga Miyan

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The Origin of Indian Music!

It is said that our music, the music of the Raga, has emerged from a mythical past. A past that was before recorded history. In the past gods and goddesses were the makers of our music. The concept of Nada Brahman belongs to this past. It was described as a vibration that filled the uncreated void, featureless and undifferentiated, from which music emerged, embodied as Raga. The Pranava Mantra, “OM”, is believed to belong to this category, a mysterious vibratory presence, the embodied creative power of the One. ¹2

It is perhaps just as well that Indian music has this legendary past, a past that lies beyond physical verification. For while we all agree that legends are not facts, we also know that this does not mean that they cannot be true at some other level. They can still be true to inner experience and the truths towards which inner experience points, are always the same. 13

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The Deity in the Raga!

The [14] Raga we have just heard, in the voice of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, is called Bhoopali. If we are asked what is Raga Bhoopali, we shall describe it as belonging to the Kalyan That. We shall say that it is pentatonic, that is, it has only five notes Sa, Re, Ga, Pa, Dha. And we would perhaps add some more significant facts about this Raga.

But the Raga is not a sum of these facts and rules. Observe the way Bhoopali traverses the notes. This special kind of movement from one note to another, as prescribed for this Raga, does not come from the literal application of the rules and constraints of the Raga, the facts of the Raga in short. For we cannot create anything living simply from facts which are fixed and can never change.”

11. Shubha Mudgal-Vocal-Chanting of ‘OM

12-13. Shubha Mudgal-Vocal-Chanting of ‘OM

14. Bade Ghulam Ali Khan-Vocal-Raga Bhoopali

The Raga is always new, it lives and grows. Each Raga leads the musician to discover some secrets of life, and his emotions and experiences find their expression and fulfillment in his music.

But there are still profound mysteries. It is believed that inside each Raga there are truths and presences which form the flaming quick of life in them. This is often called the Deity in the Raga.”

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The Spiritual nature of Indian Music!

Indian music is intimately linked to the need to discover a certain kind of truth in itself, an unchanging eternal center within. In fact, this music is so devised, its structure so formulated, that any serious involvement with it would bring us straight up against this search for truth. And like all truths that are glimpsed by man, if even once, it would leave us unsatisfied until we have made the truth our own. This is one of the reasons why the word “spiritual” is frequently used in describing Indian music. Great Indian musicians have often been exceptionally gifted men and women of the spirit and have been looked upon as saints.

All great music has some spiritual content in it. But Indian classical music lays upon it a very special emphasis. This is why it has often been closely associated with religion, with Bhakti, even with the entanglements of ritual. But each time it escapes from the grip of these trappings and turns spiritual again. For example, through the interstices of a Tyagaraja Kriti, which is looked upon as religious music, spiritual glimpses escape from within the singer in moments of unguarded awareness and enrapture the listener in another and a stranger way.

This brings us to something vital and basic about Raga music. Indian music may not have the rich structural complexity, the strength, and impact of Western harmonic and orchestral music. What it does have is something very tenuous and subtle, which grows in us gently as in a trance. It can become a passageway leading us to a still and luminous center. This seems to have been the constant search of Indian music throughout the ages.”

15-16. Bade Ghulam Ali Khan-Vocal-Raga Bhoopali

17. Kumar Gandharva Vocal Raga Todi

The Uniqueness of Indianan Classical Music
The Uniqueness of Indianan Classical Music

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