Sunday , September 25 2022
What is Indian classical music

What is Indian Classical Music?

What is Indian classical music

Music has various facades. Its divinity and effectiveness is like a boon. Some may even say that it works as protein for our soul. It encourages our spirit. Its astonishing effect and melodies leave a great influence. We can see the presence of music everywhere. We can experience whistles in wind. We can sense it in rain-drops. We can be mesmerized by the music of sea tides. Rustling of leaves create a heaven-like atmosphere. Thus, music plays an important role to take away the boredom of our day-today life. If you start thinking of music varieties, you can come across a range of music styles. To enlist a few of them are POP, Rock, Jazz etc. In them, Indian Classical Music has been maintaining its inimitability for centuries. Indian Classical Music has left the entire world hypnotized. Therefore, the word ‘Sangeet’ for music in Indian culture has a powerful meaning in comparison with the other prosperous musical cultures in the rest of the world. The word ‘Sangeet’ is a blend of singing, playing musical instrument and dancing. Therefore, in Sanskrit, this word is defined as ‘गीतं च, वाद्यं च, नृत्यं च, त्रयम् संगीतमुच्यते’. Indian Classical Music has such a wonderful power that it takes us to the path of God. As far as I’m concerned, this is the basic difference between other musical schools in the world and Indian Classical Music. Billions of billion music-lovers in every corner of the world have an ever-growing curiosity, ‘What this Indian Classical Music actually is?’  Through this article, I’m trying to satiate in detail all this curiosity.

If a satisfactory answer to the question ‘What this Indian/Hindustani Classical Music actually is?’ is to be offered, it can be stated in few words as a matchless musical school that takes us to the path of mental peace and ultimately to God, with its history of thousands of years. Many references can be put forth as evidence that Indian Classical Music has its birth in the singing of hymns of the Vedas. Going further, diverse mythological stories from Indian Puranas can be studied for the references of music and musical instruments. Some of the musical instruments mentioned there can today also be seen in practice, e.g. the Veena, the Mridingam. A separate article will be dedicated in future for the comprehensive history of Indian Classical Music. If one has to understand Indian Classical Music, he needs to identify with the key principles and concepts on which it is based. Apparently, this music is divided into three broad categories as Hindustani Classical Music, Carnataki Classical Music and Dhrupad. We shall discuss these three types separately. Before we discuss on it I would like to explain some common concepts.

Concept of Swar and Saptak in Indian Classical Music

Indian Classical Music has seven swaras, with their identities as below:- Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni. (सा, रे, ग, म, प, ध, नी) These seven swaras are further sub-divided as ‘Teevra’ and ‘Komal’. Sa and Pa are ‘Achal Swaras’, which means that they can’t be sub-divided into Teevra and Komal swaras. Thus, there are 12 swaras that include Shuddha, Teevra and Komal swaras.

Indian Swaras

On the other hand, in western music, these swaras will be as mentioned in the chart below. Now, to understand the phenomenon of ‘Saptak’, we shall use harmonium keyboard. Indian Classical Music has three Saptaks, viz. Mandra, Madhya and Taar Saptak.

Indian Classical Music Swaras and saptakas

Concept of Raag

With no intention of any exaggeration, I can say that Raag exists as the soul of Indian Classical Music. If it is to be defined in simple words, a Raag means a sequence of melodious swaras that fits in a framework of certain rules. Or in other words, a Raag means a group of a certain swaras from above mentioned 12 swaras that is organized in a structure of rules to make it enjoyable by the listeners. We witness, how these Raagas have created an un-erasable impression of Indian Classical Music on the minds of music-lovers. These Raagas have a remarkable power of engagig a human mind. However, there is a set of rules to sing them, e.g. they are sung at a given time-frame. With creativity and the apt use of Aalaap, Taan, Alankaar, a singer can beautify a Raaga. A prescribed time-frame and a Raaga have an unbroken relation. There are concrete rules, with which a Raaga is sung at a certain time of a day, noon, evening or night. This can be mentioned as a salient feature of Indian Classical Music.

Click here to know more about What is Indian Classical Ragas? 

Concept of the Tanpura (Tambura) in Indian Classical Music

TanpuraMany music-lovers might have a doubt, ‘Why an Indian Classical singer is accompanied by two Tanpuras?’ The application of two Tanpuras makes sure that a continuous resonance should be realized by the classical singer, which later helps him to arrange Swaras. (In simple words, arrangement of two Tanpuras helps the singer to identify ‘Sa’ continuously, which helps him to prevent any misunderstanding of swara) Now, to begin with, I must salute this Tanpura, which is a sole quality of Indian Classical Music and can’t be seen in any other form of music in the rest of the world. This musical instrument is never played solely, yet accompanies in singing and playing other instruments. The Tanpura has four strings. In them, two at the center are arranged in harmony with the same swara that the singer will be singing at, with ‘Sa’ of Madhya Saptak. The first string is in chorus with Mandra Pancham and the forth with Mandra Shadja. For the further information about the Tanpura, don’t miss our article The Tanpura: An essential element for Indian classical singers. You can also find useful and information here

Concept of Taal

Indian Classical Music sees ‘Raag’ and ‘Taal’ as two sides of a same coin. As soon as an engaging quality of a Raaga gets an assistance of rhythm, the singer and the listeners experience divinity through a Raaga. There are six chief Taals in Indian Classical Music. We already have discussed all of them in one of our earlier articles ‘Taal’. This Taal is always played on a Taal instrument (percussion instrument). Indian Classical Music implements a set of Tabla, Mridingam (Pakhvaj) as Taal instrument (percussion instrument). Thus, manifestation of Indian Classical Music can be experienced with the minimum requirements like a singer, musical instruments each for swara and Taal and the Tanpura.

Divisions of Indian Classical Music

Unless we understand divisions and sub-divisions of Indian Classical Music, we can never understand the soul of this music. This type of music has three divisions: Dhrupad, Hindustani or North Indian Classical Music and South Indian (Carnatik) Classical Music. In them, Dhrupad is an ancient and powerful style of Indian Classical Music, which was very popular in olden days. This style of singing supports the emotions like Veer Ras (expression of gallantry), Shant Ras (expression of peace) and Shringar Ras (expression of love or physical intimacy). Dhrupad style of singing is suitable for singer’s manly voice. This style has no Taan, yet uses Dugun, Tigun etc. The Veena and Rudra Veena are the instruments that are fitting for Dhrupad singing. Like various Gharanas in Indian Music, Dhrupad singing also has four Baanis, which are called as ‘Dhrupad Baani’. They are Gaubarhaar (Gaudiya) Baani, Khandaar Baani, Dagur Baani and Nauhaar Baani. Dhrupad method of singing is comparatively less practiced/popular in Indian Classical Music. There are very few singers who sing this style, viz. Dagar Brothers, Gundecha Brothers, Uday Bhavalkar.
North Indian or Hindustani Classical Music is another branch of this music which has various sub-divisions like Hori, Khyaal, Thumari, Tappa, Tarana etc. If a singer or a player wishes to sing Khyaal style, he initially expands Raag through singing. Then he starts Khyaal Cheej in Vilambeet Laya. Then bit by bit, he sings this Cheej in Asthayee and Antara. Once the Raag is beautified with Aalaap Taan and Bol Taan, he then joins Chhota Khyaal in the same Raaga, but in Druta Laya. To end Khyaal, Taanas are sung  noticeably.

Hori: These are the songs sung at the time of celebrating Holi in the Hindu month of Falguna, which describe activities of Radha-Shrikrishna’s expressions of love and physical intimacy. This is popular in the parts like Mathura, Vrindavan. 

Tappa: Poetry full of expressions of love and physical intimacy is its salient feature. Murkee, Meend, Taan with Gamak are used in this brand of singing that is sung in Jalad Laya (fast). Khamaaj, Kafee, Bhairavee, Pilu are Raagas that are chiefly employed in this style of singing.

Thumri: This approach of singing is as popular as Khyaal singing, which describes activities of Radha-Shrikrishna’s expressions of love and physical intimacy and the grief of a woman who is agitated by the parting of her lover. This method of singing becomes entertaining by the use of small Khatake, Murkee etc.

Tarana: This type of singing is exclusive in its own way, as it uses poetry full of powerful words. This brand of singing makes use of words like Nadir, Tundir, Dir Dir.

Karnataki Classical Music is a one of the big branch of Indian music. A special and separate article has been proposed to describe this branch of Indian Classical Music.

Accompaniment instruments in Indian Classical Music

You might have attended an event of Indian Classical Music, where you see that only certain types of musical instruments are being used. These instruments consist of Taal instruments (Percussion instrument) and Swara instruments etc. We already have understood the concept of Tanpura. In Taal instruments (percussion instrument), a set of the Tabla and Mridingam are chief auxiliaries. Khyaal style of singing mainly brings into play Tabla. On the other hand, in Dhrupad and religious Bhajans, the Mridingam is used. As mentioned above, Taal instruments (percussion instrument) increase amusing quality of Raagas, when they are played according to Raagas. They render a wide range of Laya to singing. We also notice Swara instruments in Indian Classical Music, which consist of Harmonium and Sarangi. In South Indian Classical Music, Violin is mainly utilized. These Swara instruments pursue Raag or melody sung by a singer and thus augments enjoyable quality of Raag singing. Thus, though Indian Classical Music is sung with the accompaniment of minimum musical instruments, yet its innate wealth captivates every music-lover.

Read Also: Role of the Harmonium in Indian Music

Gharanas in Indian Classical Music

School of Indian Classical Music has many distinctive ideas that can never be seen in any other musical institution in the world. ‘Gharana’ is one of them, which is nothing but an ‘only one of its kind’ style developed by some singer dignitary/dignitaries of the past. His/Their disciples have maintained it as it was all over these years. In most of the cases, the titles of these Gharanas are the names of Guru’s/Master’s towns. In a nut shell, a ‘Gharana’ means a special method of arranging voice, Raag, Swaras, Layas, Bandeesh, Aalaap, Taan to maintain an age-old tradition of singing. Gwalior, Kirana, Jaipur and Agra are four main Gharanas.

Gist of the article

Thus, after reviewing Swaras, Raagas, Tanpura, Taal, Gharana, chief divisions of Indian Classical Music and musical instruments used for accompaniment, I’m sure you’ll now find it easy to understand ‘What Indian Classical Music is?’. Without doubt, when you’ll be listening to any Indian Classical Music, you’ll think about all these concepts.

We encourage you to share your views about this article, and any of your doubts in the form of comment. We would be glad, if you share this article with your friends.


About Kuldeep Thopate

Hello Classicals, Welcome on Swarmanttra! Basically I am from engineering background but hardcore classical lover. Due to madness about classical music I try to be connect with same in various mediums, like attending concerts,endlessly reading about it,learning Mridunga,collecting records and many more other things. During these activities I gather many information about Indian music. Through "Swarmanttra" I will trying to share it with all of you. Hope you will like all this stuffs.

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  1. Nice article. What about shrutis? You have made no mention of shrutis. Shrutis are fundamental to a deeper understanding of Indian Classical Music.

  2. Subhash A. Karmarkar

    My warm compliments to you for writing such an informative educative article.. Thank you…

  3. I love this article and I will share it with others. I’m wondering if you could do something on tabla tarang. I never see Indian classical music sites feature it and it is still played professionally.

  4. Ur effort nd love fr classical music is commendable nd awesum.Kindly bring some article on Musical therapy.I m also a classical vocalist nd teacher wil lyk to share it with my students regarding Musical therapy.

  5. Swapan Kumar Ghosh

    I would like to thank you very much for having published such a beautiful article on Indian Classical Music. The article is highly informative and useful to the learners as well as lovers of classical music. I would request you to bring out such articles in an organised and serialised manner for the benefit of the learners.

  6. Sumanta Chakraborty

    Very good article and lot of thanks for sharing the details of the Indian music.

  7. Super helpful content here

  8. Thank you for sharing such an informatics article! Really this is a nice read.
    As a classical music lover to get this kind of description about Indian Classical music am feeling so glad.
    Yes, India is the birthplace of many world famous music, art and dance form.
    Indian classical music is love, emotions, sentiments. Will be waiting for more information like this.

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