The Indian music known best in the West is the sitar playing of Beatles-collaborator Ravi Shankar and hip-gyrating dance music of Bollywood musicals. But Indian music is much more than that. It has a long history and is closely linked to Indian spirituality. The instruments, melodies and rhythms are mostly unfamiliar to Western ears, and for Westerns requires a whole different approach and understanding of music to appreciate. [Main Source for this article: “Rough Guide of World Music”]

Classical Indian music concerts have traditionally been built around a single vocalist or instrumentalist. Classical Indian music itself is based on single melody lines, often with great attention given to single notes. By contrast Western music is harmonically based. Indian music performances often last for hours and build slowly, with stages of exploration and improvisation, and ascending and descending, before reaching a climax and then winding down. Westerners, as Ravi Shankar pointed out George Harrison’s Bangladesh concert, often have trouble determining when the tuning ends and the performance begins. Often time one instrumentalist will come and play and the other performers will come in at a different time and join when they are ready. Holding it all together is a steady droning noise.

Music-making is regarded primarily as a male activity. Women are traditionally allowed to sing only on three occasions: while working in the fields, while attending all-female wedding parties and while attending shrines during annual women's festivals.

A performance is a relaxing and meditative experience, often with very personal, one-on-one interactions between musicians and listeners. Audiences have traditionally shown their appreciation by raising their hands and murmuring “”wawa”.” Clapping is regarded as a modern form of appreciation. Indians make a distinction between a "love audience" and a "ticket audience." Some concerts in India are more like family get-togethers and have an audience of only 20 to 30 people. The small stage where Indian musicians perform is called a “takht”. Indian musicians like to perform on a takht covered by a rare Kerman rug which helps create a relaxed, Eastern atmosphere for performances and recordings. These days you often see rock groups practicing on an oriental rug.

Early History of Indian Music

Classical Indian music evolved from the Vedas, the sacred Hindu chants of ancient India. The ancient Indians believed in the divine origin of music. The purest form of sound was considered equal to cosmic energy. As a result music and religion were always closely intertwined. Classical Indian music probably evolved from the religious poems and chants of the Vedic period. One of the four main Vedic texts, called the “Samaveda”, written possibly before 1000 B.C., is the source of many musical forms. Music was later codified by Bharata Muni. [Source: “Rough Guide of World Music”]

The Karntak style of southern India is closest to music of the vedas. Speculating on the first Indian music, musicologist S.D. Pillai told AP, "People used clay pots that stored water as musical instruments. Drums were used to send messages during war. String instruments came later with devotional music played in temples."

As Indian music developed over time, it absorbed musical style forms around south and central Asia, particularly from various locations around India, Persia, and the Mughal homeland in present-day Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. The Hindustani music of northen India is the result the fusion of the Hindu music of the Veda and Muslim influences from the west. Amir Khusrau (1253-1325) is regarded the father of Hindustani music. He melded Persian, Hindu, Sanskrit and Islamic influences and is regarded as the founder of qawwalki and khayal and the inventor of the sitar.

Later History in the Middle Ages

During the Mughal era and the feudal era, Indian classical music thrived in the courts of kings, maharajahs, princes and wealthy noblemen, who often tried to outdo each other in the patronage of the arts. Many people regarded music as an entertainment form reserved for the wealthy. In Mughal times a performances sometime lasted all day and all night. It was designed to be performed for a relatively small group of people in a relatively small luxurious chamber room not among a large audience in a concert hall. [Source: “Rough Guide of World Music”]

The most famous singer was Tansen, a Rajput princess married to the Mughal Emperor Akbar. It was said that her voice was so beautiful and powerful it could ignite oil lamps. The Mughals never conquered the south and Hindu Veda music remained alive there in temples and villages and has endured as Karnatak music. While Hindustani music was a court music for elites, Karnatak flourished as a music close to the people. Much of it was never written down until recently. Instead it was passed on using a system the defined rhythmic units using mathematics.

Europeans were enchanted by some of the music they heard from India. According to legend one Indian musician ripped open his instruments at Queen Victoria's coronation to prove that the "seemingly superhuman sounds he produced didn't come from a concealed mechanical device." The greatest impact of European music on India was the introduction of brass bands by the British. Brass band music is very much alive today. Most towns have several competing bands, Brass bands are fixtures of wedding processions.

With the decline of Indian nobility patronage of classical Indian music has been taken over by wealthy members of the Indian community in India and abroad and by the paying public.

Indian Music Schools: Hindustani and Karnatak

There are two main schools of Indian classical music: the Hindustani style of the North and the Karnatak (also spelled Carnatic and Karanatic) of the South. The Hindustani style features a number of Turko-Persian musical elements not found in the more varied and, in some ways, complex Karnatak style. Well-known Hindustani styles include Dhrupad, Dhamar, Khayal, Tappa and Thumri. [Source: “Rough Guide of World Music”]

A “gharana” (literally meaning "extended family") is a school of music. Certain ones have good reputations. Gharanas are more like philosophical schools than formal institutions. There are ones for singing and various instruments and they often distinguished by style and mode of thought. They have usually been founded by famous musicians.

Traditionally musical traditions have been passed on orally and musical skills have often been taught from father to son or teacher to pupil. Students pay respect to their instructors by kissing their feet. The relationship between teachers (known as “pandits” and “gurus” among Hindus and “ustaad” among Muslims) and their pupils is very important in Indian music. Teachers and pupils are often related, and the spiritual element of the instrument is often as important as technical virtuosity. In northern India, the spiritual relationship is symbolized by a ceremony in which a teachers ties a string around the wrist of a pupil.


A “mahfil” (derived from the Persian word for "gathering" or "assembly") is modern version of a traditional private instrumental and vocal performance. Musicians at a marphil have traditionally been forbidden from performing pieces they have played in public. [Source: “Rough Guide of World Music”]

Marfils are the dominion of the elite. It is considered a great honor for someone to play at, host or even attend one. It is almost impossible for ordinary people to attend one unless they know the right people. Those who attend seem be divided between the socially ambitious and true music lovers who prefer the atmosphere of a small intimate performance to a concert in a large hall.

"The evening's cost are sometimes shared among the guests, who contribute to the collection, which is taken up at the beginning of the evening; if the mahfil features qawwali then the listener gives the money directly to the singers. It is not unusual for musicians to earn over £2,000 in a mahfil of about fifty listeners...Where qawwali is concerned the amount itself, ideally, is insignificant—the gesture of getting up often and placing a small coin or note into the hands of the singer is a devotional act in itself.

"Nautch girl" mahfil feature a dancing girl performing before an all-male audience, who throw money at the dancer and fight among themselves for her attention. "A large number of helpers, usually female, crowds into the kitchen to prepare halftime-snacks" and "dinner, to be served after the performance at around two in the morning.” Most of the dishes for this meal have been prepared and bought by the guests themselves.

Description of a Marfil

Describing a marfil, Jameela Siddiqi wrote in the Rough Guide to World Music, "The build-up for a marfil is in itself a major performance...guest-listeners...rush back and forth with final preparations—washing the hot-sweet betel leaves and wrapping them around sweet spices to make “paan” to be chewed, sucked at spat out." [Source: “Rough Guide of World Music”]

"The large drawing room still retains its grandeur—the furniture has either been moved back against the wall or removed from the room altogether...The fragrance of joss sticks fills the air...The "stage" is clearly marked with rich weavings and bolster cushions. Both musicians and audience sit on the floor...There is no amplification."

At true mahfil gatherings, "the audience don't merely recognize the forthcoming raaga as the instrument is being tuned , but actually call out the taal they would like the musicians to use...The intensity of the music is sharpened by the interaction between audience and performer. Those listeners who are most apt to respond are soon noted by the musicians, who are close enough to see the expressions on their faces and play to their emotions....There is no applause at any time, for clapping is considered undignified and only fit for large concert halls where there is no other practical way of showing appreciation."

Classical Indian Music

Classical Indian music blends rhythm, harmony and melody in a subtle and intricate way that is unfathomable to many Westerners. It is largely improvised but is done so within very strictly defined boundaries. According the Rough Guide of World Music, "Where Western music starts at a particular point and then progresses from it. Indian classical music revolves around the point, probing it from every angle, yet maintaining a dignified restraint. It is this restraint that distinguishes Indian classical music from the carefree abandon of Indian pop and film music." [Source: “Rough Guide of World Music”]

Classical Indian music unfold over a long period of time. A typical Indian raga begins slowly, sometimes sounding as if the musicians are warming up and practicing, then builds and gains momentum and complexity, and finally climaxes with a "dizzying display of dexterity.” Improvisation is an important aspect of classical Indian music but is has to be in such as way that it does not violate the mood or the structure of the piece. A lot of the improvisation is in the form of embellishments and ornamentation.

Indian music is based on two pillars: 1) the “raga”, the melodic form; and 2) the “taal” (or tal or tala), the rhythmic form A lot of Indian music features a constant drone, produced by an instrument called a “tambura”. It creates a reference point for musicians and listeners and is usually produced by advanced students in a school. The “taal” is a time measure that can be clapped out by hand. The rhythmic equivalent of a raag, it is derived from the word “tali”, meaning "hand clap." “Taals” are made of “matras” (numbers of beats) and “bols” (unique sets of patterns). There are hundreds of taals. Most drummers have a few favorites.


“Ragas” (or “ragan” or “raag”) are traditional Indian melodies that attempt to evoke the interaction of man’s emotions and his environment. They refers to a complex scale pattern and notes arranged in numerical ratios associated with things like moods, colors, seasons and even hours of the day "as well as a certain philosophical and moral ideas used to generate a performance in that particular raag." Raga is the classical term; raag is colloquial. The word “raga” is derived from a Sanskrit word that means “that which colors the mind.” [Source: “Rough Guide of World Music”]

Raga is the mainstay of both the Hindustani classical music of northern India and Karnatak music of southern Indian music, where it is known as the raga. It is defined by ascending and descending scaled of 7,6 and 5 notes that work like jazz, creating a structure off of which the musicians improvise. The rhythm structure is called the taal, which is guided by a main beat called the “sum,” that provides a focal point for the numerous counter rhythms to meet.

Ragas can feature a singer or solo instrument like a sitar. There are some 200 main ragas, defined by unique combinations of scale patterns, dominate notes, ascending and descending patterns, and specific melodic phrases. Some are linked with different seasons or times of the day. Others are regarded as masculine or feminine. By one count 95 percent of the music is improvised but the improvisations are done within fairly strict parameters.

Raga arrangements generally have a characteristic mood that is repeated in many compositions. Musicians, however, have considerable freedom to improvise within the framework, and performances are often judged by the brilliance of the improvisation. Improvisation, though, is done within certain boundaries. If the performer strays too much from the raga it is not regarded as classical music.

Phases of a Raga

The first form of the raga, the “alaap”, is a slow invocation in a meditative style with free rhythms accompanied by solo instrument improvisations and the constant drone of the tamboura. There is generally no drumming and the notes of the raga are introduced one by one. In the old days an alaap could last a couple of hours. Now it lasts only a few minutes. Indians often find this phase the most stimulating while Westerns are often bewildered by it. It is regarded as opportunity for the musicians involved to best show off their skills.[Source: “Rough Guide of World Music”]

Later, a more rhythmic style, called the “jor”, develops with many variations. This is followed by the “jhala”, in which the rhythm increases and repeated notes from the plectrum are introduced. Only in the last phase of the raga, the “gat”, are percussion instruments such as the tablas or pakhavajas introduced. A gat is a fixed musical figure. It features melodic phrases that are repeated again and again and provide a basis for the musician to improvise off of.

With the gat providing a slow, medium or fast tempo structure the sitar or singer generates melody and weaves intricate counter rhythms. The gat often ends with a “jihala”, a crescendo of rapid repeated notes filled out by rhythm.

Classical Indian Singing

According to the Rough Guide of World Music, "Singing is considered the highest form of classical music...Instruments are regarded according to their similarity to the human voice...The degree of musical purity is assigned according to a scale which has music at one extreme and words at the other. As word become more addible and thus the meaning of the lyrics more important, so the form is considered t be less musically pure." [Source: “Rough Guide of World Music”]

Serious listeners of Indian music often refer to two kinds of sound: one physical and audible to human ear; the other is spiritual and inaudible. The later is said to be formed from ether and liberates the soul. It reportedly takes great devotion and concentration to perceive it.

In the Agra area, singers chew on tamarind seeds near the grave of the famous singer Tan Sen to improve the quality of their voices. Tan Sen was a Rajput princess married to the Mughal Emperor Akbar. It was said that her voice was so beautiful and powerful it could ignite oil lamps.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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