Raag Hindustani
© 2011, Sādhana

An Overview of Indian Classical Music

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, 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 is mainly the result of the tanpura playing a combination of the tonic (sa) and the fifth (pa) or fourth (ma) in a fixed pattern in the background, somewhat like an arpeggiated chord. 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 (sarod)
Raag Durga

Jasraj (vocal)
Raag Darbari Kanada

The Language of Music

One of my favorite things about Indian 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 Indian 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

Superficially, a raga can be thought of as a scale – 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.

Scale: Bilawal The Bilawal scale (all natural)

Scale: Kafi The Kafi scale (flat 3rd & 7th)

Scale: Bhairav The Bhairav scale (flat 2nd & 6th)

Scale: Khamaj The Khamaj scale (flat 7th)

Scale: Todi The Todi scale (flat 2nd, 3rd, & 6th; sharp 4th)

The main thing Indian classical music does is explore the melodic and emotional potential of different ragas. About five hundred ragas are known or known of (including historical ragas) today. Sometimes ragas die out if people stop performing them, but then new ragas are born all the time, and some of them endure. So, the number of ragas is not fixed. Students first learn all the important ragas, then spend many years mastering the ragas of their choice.

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 of the colors in the spectrum, you get a ready-made theme to work with. Say you choose a color scheme including violet, indigo, green, yellow, and red. 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 Indian classical music performances are presentations of one raga or another (just search "raag" on YouTube, and it will give you over a million hits, mostly classical music performances). An 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 performance can go on for well over an hour and is spontaneously improvised for the most part. The only precomposed 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 many of the 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 simple and repetitive even when they are lively and colorful.

Rajasthani folk music (vocal)
Genre: Folk

Popular music forms may be based on ragas to a greater or lesser extent or borrow ornamentation techniques from classical music, but they are almost always precomposed and orchestrated, with lyrics and background music playing almost as prominent a role as the main melody line.

Khilte hain gul yahan by Kishore Kumar
Loosely based on Raag Dhani
Genre: Popular (movie song)

Semi-classical and light classical performances are like classical performances in that they involve considerable improvisation and minimal instrumental accompaniment. The difference is that they are less complex and much shorter than serious classical performances. They also usually feature lighter ragas.

Kaushiki Chakrabarty (vocal)
Raag Mishra Charukeshi
Genre: Semi-classical (Thumri)

Classical music performances showcase the heights of musical creativity achieved by individuals through decades of rigorous training and discipline. They are always extemporaneous and involve only rudimentary lyrics (mainly featuring as refrains) and the barest minimum of instrumental accompaniment (tabla for rhythm, tanpura for harmonic resonance). Some unassuming melodic instrument may also be used to shadow the main artist as best as possible and fill the gaps when the main artist needs to stop for breath or a drink of water. But nothing that could upstage or distract from the main artist's performance. The performance by Ravi Shankar below is set against the backdrop of Raag Pilu but features small samples of a number of other ragas weaving in and out deftly.

Ravi Shankar (sitar)
Raag Mishra Pilu
Genre: Classical

It is also important to recognize that there are two distinct traditions of classical music in India. The North Indian (Hindustani) and the South Indian (Carnatic) traditions. Both the traditions have a common origin but have grown apart over the centuries and developed very distinct styles. This website mainly focuses on Hindustani classical music, but here is an example of Carnatic classical music.

M.S. Subbulakshmi (vocal)
Raag Kapi
Genre: Carnatic classical