A brief summary of Indian music

by Piero Scaruffi
excerpted from The History of Popular Music

TM, ®, Copyright © 2002 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.



Indian Classical Music

TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

Indian classical music is based on the ragas ("colors"), which are scales and melodies that provide the foundation for a performance. Unlike western classical music, that is deterministic, Indian classical music allows for a much greater degree of "personalization" of the performance, almost to the level of jazz-like improvisation. Thus, each performance of a raga is different. The goal of the raga is to create a trancey state, to broadcast a mood of ecstasy. The main difference with western classical music is that the Indian ragas are not "composed" by a composer, but were created via a lengthy evolutionary process over the centuries. Thus they do not represent mind of the composer but a universal idea of the world. They transmit not personal but impersonal emotion. Another difference is that Indian music is monodic, not polyphonic. Hindustani (North Indian) ragas are assigned to specific times of the day (or night) and to specific seasons. Many ragas share the same scale, and many ragas share the same melodic theme. There are thousands of ragas, but six are considered fundamental: Bhairav, Malkauns, Hindol, Dipak, Megh and Shree. A raga is not necessarily instrumental, and, if vocal, it is not necessarily accompanied. But when it is accompanied by percussion (such as tablas), the rhythm is often rather intricate because it si constructed from a combination of fundamental rhythmic patterns (or talas). The main instrument of the ragas is the sitar, although historically the vina zither was at least equally important. Carnatic (Southern Indian) ragas constitute one of the oldest systems of music in the world. They are based on seven rhythmic cycles and 72 fundamental ragas. The founder of the Karnataka school is considered to be Purandara Dasa (1494). Carnatic music is mostly vocal and devotional in nature, and played with different instruments than Hindustani music (such as the mridangam drum, the ghatam clay pot, the vina sitar as opposed to sitar, sarod, tambura and tabla). The fundamental format of Carnatic songs is the "kriti", which are usually set in the style of a raga (the raga serves as the melodic foundation). The golden age of Carnatic music was the age of Syama Sastri, who died in 1827, of Tyagaraja, who died in 1847 and who composed the Pancharatna Krithis as well as two "operas", Prahalada Bhakti Vijayam and Nauca Charitam, and of Muthuswami Dikshitar, who died in 1835 after composing the Kamalamba Navavarnams and the Navagraha krithis.

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Interest in Indian music (until then largely unknown in the west) was triggered by Bangladesh-born sarod player Ali Akbar Khan's 1955 concert in New York. Eventually, western curiosity for Indian music wed the hippy ethos and (thanks mainly to the Byrds' Eight Miles High) "raga-rock" became a sonic emblem of the Sixties. His album Music of India - Morning and Evening Ragas (1955), containing two side-long ragas (the traditional Rag Sindhu Bhairavi and his own Rag Pilu Baroowa), was the first Indian classical recording to appear in the West, and the first recording of ragas on an LP. The popularity of his and Shankar's concerts led to a stream of recordings in the Sixties, mostly featuring 20-minute long ragas: several EPs from 1961 to 1964, later collected on Sarod (1969), Traditional Music of India (1962), The Soul of Indian Music (1963), Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (1964), The Master Musicians of India (1964), Classical Music of India (1964), The Soul of Indian Music (1965), Sarod (1965), Two Ragas for Sarod (1967), etc. In 1967, Khan founded the Ali Akbar College of Music in the San Francisco Bay Area, to provide education in the classical music of North India. Among his later performances, there are still impressive ones such as Raga Basant Mukhari, off Artistic Sound of Sarod (1985). He remained faithful to his roots longer than other Indian performers, eventually experimenting with synthesizers on Journey (1991) and with instruments of the western symphonic orchestra on Garden of Dreams (1994), basically a raga symphony for a chamber orchestra.

Another disciple of Ali Akbar Khan's father Allaudin Khan, sitar player Ravi Shankar, would become the star of Indian music. He first toured the west in 1956, when he was already a veteran and made friends among pop stars (George Harrison of the Beatles became his student in 1966). Among his historical performances are his masterpiece Raga Jog, from Three Ragas (1961), the Raga Rageshri, on Improvisations (1962), and the Ragas and Talas (1964), containing the Raga Jogiya and the Raga Madhu Kauns. Improvisations (1962), a collaboration with flutists Paul Horn and Bud Shank, was the first meeting of jazz and raga. Shankar pioneered the "east-west" fusion with West Meets East (1967), a terrible collaboration with British violinist Yehudi Menuhin containing both a raga and a sonata. Shankar was also instrumental in turning the raga into a product of mass consumption (he performed at both the 1967 Monterey Festival, the 1969 Woodstock Festival and the 1971 Concert for Bangla Desh), but he soon repudiated his "pop" period and returned to classical music. Nonetheless, he continued to experiment with western music (he performed with western symphonic orchestras and soloists), and, later, starting with Tana Mana (1987), even with electronic keyboards. He is a composer, not only a performer, including two sitar concertos (the second, Raga-Mala, debuted in 1980).

After relocating to Britain in 1952, Indian violinist John Mayer, had already composed Raga Music (1952) for solo clarinet, a Violin Sonata (1955), the suite Dances of India (1958) for sitar, flute, tabla, tambura and orchestra, and a Shanta Quintet (1966) for sitar and strings. He formed the mixed-race ensemble Indo-Jazz Fusions with jazz saxophonist John Harriott. Mayer thus predated Shankar with Indo-Jazz Suite (october 1965) and the Indo-Jazz Fusions (september 1966), two albums (mostly composed by Mayer) recorded by a double quintet: Harriott's jazz quintet and an Indian quintet led by Mayer plus Diwan Motihar on sitar, flute, tambura and tabla. He pursued this idea on Hum-Dono (1969), featuring Indian guitarist Amancio D'Silva, trumpeter Ian Carr and vocalist Norma Winstone.

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The same sitarist, Diwan Motihar, plus Keshav Sathe on tabla and Kasan Thakur on tamboura, recorded Jazz Meets India (october 1967) with a European quintet led by Swiss pianist Irene Schweizer and featuring German trumpeter Manfred Schoof and drummer Mani Neumaier.

Another precursor of the "east meets west" movement was Shankar's favorite tabla player Allah Rakha, who recorded a duo with jazz drummer Buddy Rich, Rich A La Rakha (1968).

Shankar frequently performed with tabla player Alla Rakha. His son Zakir Hussain, also a virtuoso of the tablas, came to the USA in the late 1960s and went on to star in two of the most progressive projects of world-music, Mickey Hart's Diga Rhythm Band: Diga (1976) and jazz guitarist John McLaughlin's Shakti. Hussain's Making Music (1987), featuring Hariprasad Chaurasia on bansur, Jan Garbarek on saxophone and John McLaughlin on guitar, was a milestone in jazz-Indian fusion.

In the 1970s Debashish Bhattacharya reinvented the Hawaian slide guitar as a raga instrument by addings resonating strings and droning strings and developing the lightning-speed three-finger picking technique displayed on recordings such as Raga Ahir Bhairav (1993).

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A younger influential sitar player in the "tantrakari ang" (the instrumental style of music) was Nikhil Banerjee (widely considered the century's greatest virtuoso), while "gayaki ang" (the vocal style) was represented by Vilayat Khan and, at the end of the 20th century, Shahid Parvez.

Instrumental masters (ustad) of other instruments included bansur (bamboo flute) player Hariprasad Chaurasia, particularly the Rag Ahiv Bhairav (1987) and the 69-minute performance of his Rag Lalit (1988), and violinist Lakshminarayana Subramaniam, devoted to jazz-Indian fusion on Garland (1978) and Spanish Wave (1983).

In 1989 John McLaughlin hired an Indian percussionist, Trilok Gurtu, the son of vocalist Shobha Gurtu, who had already played with Don Cherry and with Oregon. Gurtu's own Usfret (1988) offered an intense mix of Indian vocals, jazz-rock and world-music.

Ilaiyaraaja (born Gnanadesikan Rasaiya) experimented a fusion of Bach and raga on How To Name It? (1988).

Vocal music

However, Indian classical music is mainly a vocal (not only instrumental) art. "Khayal" emerged over the centuries as the vernacular (and romantic) version of "dhrupad" (the oldest extant vocal religious and aristocratic style). Both the sitar and the tabla were probably introduced (in the 18th century) to complement khayal singing.

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Miyan Tansen, who lived at the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar in the 16th century, is credited with codifying Hindustani (north Indian) vocal music, notably the dhrupad style that he learned from his teacher Swami Haridas. He composed the Darbari Kanada, Miyan ki Todi, Miyan ki Malhar and Miyan ki Sarang ragas. Among the greatest Hindustani vocalists before the partition of India and Pakistan were Bade Ghulam Ali Khan from Punjab and Amir Khan from north-central India.

The greatest interpreters of "khayal" documented on record were probably the Pakistani brothers Nazakat Ali Khan and Salamat Ali Khan, who debuted in 1941.

A number of musical schools ("gharanas") developed in North India (Hindustan).

The Patiala Gharana of Punjab has been one of the most influential schools (Ali Bux in the early 20th century, his son Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, and, in the 1990s, Rashid Khan).

In the early decades of the 20th century Abdul Karim Khan created the Kirana gharana, while Alladiya Khan created the Atrauli-Jaipur gharana.

The austere, pure Pakistani-born vocalist Pandit Pran Nath, a master of the Kirana style since 1937, moved to the USA in 1970, performing the first morning ragas ever in the USA. His emphasis on perfect intonation and emotional subtlety influenced minimalist composers LaMonte Young and Terry Riley. He only recorded three albums: Earth Groove (1968), containing two traditional ragas, Raga Bhupali Maha Dev and Raga Asavari, Ragas Yaman Kalyan and Punjabi Berva (1972), containing his Raga Yaman Kalyan, Ragas of Morning and Night (1986), containing two 1968 compositions (Raga Darbari and Raga Todi). He also composed Raga Anant Bhairavi (1974), Raga 12-note Bhairavi (1979), Darbar Daoun (1987), and Aba Kee Tayk Hamaree (1989) for voice and string quartet.

Since 1973, the stormy voice of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan interpreted the hypnotic litanies of Pakistan's "qawwali" (sufi devotional music). His lengthy improvised vocal acrobatics are best represented by the colossal Ni Main Jana Jogi De and Yeh Jo Halka Halka Saroor Hai on The Day The Night The Dawn The Dusk (1991) and by the live performances of Intoxicated Spirit (1996). "Discovered" by Peter Gabriel, Ali popularized the style for the British audience with Shahen-Shah (1989). After the westernized format of Mustt Mustt (1990), basically electronic funk-rock with dub overtones, he delivered the four soaring tours de force of Shahbaaz (1991), accompanied only by droning harmonium and frenzied tablas, the Devotional and Love Songs (1993) with guitar and mandolin juxtaposed to harmonium and tablas, and The Last Prophet (1994), which focused on call-and-response group singing. He died in 1997, having recorded some 120 albums.

Vocalist Lakshminarayana Shankar has often wasted his talent in light, pop efforts, but at least Pancha Nadai Pallavi (1991), which features three fourths of Shakti, is a dramatic and austere work in the classical tradition.

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Recommended Discography (7/10 and higher)

  • Ali Akbar Khan: Music of India - Morning and Evening Ragas (1955)
  • Ravi Shankar: Three Ragas (1961)
  • Zakir Hussain: Making Music (1987)
  • Trilok Gurtu: Usfret (1988)
  • Hariprasad Chaurasia: Rag Ahiv Bhairav (1987)
  • Pandit Pran Nath: Ragas Yaman Kalyan and Punjabi Berva (1972)
  • Lakshminarayana Shankar: Pancha Nadai Pallavi (1991)
  • Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: The Day The Night The Dawn The Dusk (1991)
  • Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: Shahbaaz (1991)
  • Debashish Bhattacharya: Raga Ahir Bhairav (1993)
  • A lot of Indian music since the 1970s has been made for cinema. Among the best collections of film music are: Solla Solla - Maestro Ilaiyaraaja And The Electronic Pop Sound Of Kollywood 1977-1983 (Finders Keepers, 2011), that collects music composed by Ilaiyaraaja for film produced in Chennai's Kodambakkam studios, and Dance Raja Dance (Luaka Bop, 1992), that collects (electronic) soundtrack songs composed by South Indian composer Vijaya Anand.

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TM, ®, Copyright © 2002 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.

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