Music can be a social activity, but it can also be a very spiritual experience. Ancient Indians were deeply impressed by the spiritual power of music, and it is out of this that Indian classical music was born. So, for those who take it seriously, classical music involves single-minded devotion and lifelong commitment. But the thing about music is that you can take it as seriously or as casually as you like. It is a rewarding experience, no matter how deep or shallow your involvement.
Most music has at least three main elements - melody, rhythm and harmony. Because of its contemplative, spiritual nature, Hindustani (north Indian) classical music is a solitary pursuit that focuses mainly on melodic development. In performance, rhythm also plays an important role, giving texture, sensuality and a sense of purpose to melody. Harmony in Indian classical music mainly takes the form of a harmonic resonance field supplied by instruments like the tanpura or swarmandal. More complex harmony can also be found with instruments like the santoor, and often as the inadvertent result of the harmonium trying to shadow the main vocalist or instrumentalist with a delay of a split second. The semi-melodic quality of the tabla adds a third dimension of harmony. Harmony in the Western sense, however, is not a part of traditional Indian music, and it is important not to look for it.
Partho Sarothy on the sarod
Pundit Shivkumar Sharma (santoor) and Ustad Zakhir Hussain (tabla)
Raag Kaunsi-Kanada, Rupak taal
One of my favorite things about Hindustani classical music is that you learn it very much the way you would learn a language. With language, once you've learned certain basic things like grammar and vocabulary, you start making your own sentences. In Hindustani classical music, once you have learned the basic notes, you are introduced to ragas (which are like musical themes), and then you are encouraged to start improvising and making your own melodies. It's really not that difficult to improvise melodies in a raga you're familiar with. I have nowhere near the level of talent it takes to become a performing artist, but I can make spontaneous music, and that's an inexhaustible source of delight.
So, it doesn't take much to improvise little bits of melody here and there, but it gets more difficult when you try to improvise in coordination with the rhythm, and becoming an artist capable of hour-long extemporaneous performances is a different story altogether. A performance must have a clear structure, it must feature certain elements, it must progress coherently, attain climax, and be brought to a conclusion, and it must measure up to certain standards. Achieving all that takes many decades of study and training, and only rarely will you find an artist who can be taken seriously before the age of 40.
Raga (also "raag") and Raga Performance
Very simply, a raga is a musical theme created by choosing a specific set of notes from within an octave. Music has the power to move us because it can speak to our deepest emotions through the moods it creates. Different sets of notes evoke different moods and inspire different feelings. Here are a few examples.
Here is an analogy to help you visualize a raga. If you think of the octave as being like the light spectrum, the musical notes would be like the colors in the spectrum, and ragas would be like color schemes. By restricting yourself to only a few out of all the colors in the spectrum, you get a ready-made theme to work with. Say you choose a predominantly blue-green color scheme, also including violet, gray and white, plus a slight hint of yellow. You could come up with any number of creative ideas for how to combine these colors for a beautiful effect. Every time you paint with this color scheme, the result could be something different. Give the same color scheme to someone else, and they would add their own imagination to the equation and create a whole new dimension of variety. The possibilities of what can be done with any given color scheme are endless, and yet, all paintings in that color scheme would share an easily-recognizable underlying quality that is distinct from paintings based on other color schemes. And that is how it is with a raga.
All Hindustani classical performances are presentations of one raga or another. Just put in "raga" in the search box in YouTube, and it will come up with thousands of hits for Hindustani classical music performances. The artist chooses a raga, which is the musical equivalent of a color scheme, and proceeds to paint a musical picture based on that raga for the audience. A Hindustani classical music performance can go on for well over an hour and is spontaneously improvised for the most part. The only pre-composed portions are the refrains, which provide a structural framework for the performance.
Defining "Classical music" in the Indian Context
Many of the Indian classical ragas are derived from (but much more evolved versions of) folk tunes from various parts of India, and most of the other popular and light-classical music forms in India are based on classical music, so how does one distinguish between classical and folk or popular music?
Folk tunes tend to be quite simple even when they are lively and colorful. Often they have a limited pitch range of less than an octave.
Rajasthani folk song
Hum Tujhse Mohabbat Karke Sanam from the movie Awara (1951) by Mukesh
Thumri by Kaushiki Chakrabarty
Raag Mishra-Charukeshi (= mixed Raag Charukeshi)
Pundit Bhimsen Joshi