The Journey of Indian Classical Music Dr Meera Rajaram Pranesh


The murmur of water, the whistle of wind, the hiss of flames, the rumble of earth and the thunder of sky formed the elements of sound from which speech in turn music evolved. Singing marks the beginning of music in all nations. The cries of birds and beasts might have attracted the primitive man and the man imitated those sounds to denote alarm, passion, pain and joy. As the man began to produce these vocal sounds, to denote alarm, he also found that the claps or the drum beat could be effectively used to draw attention or to articulate rhythm. In this manner shout might have been the inspiration for vocal music and a clap for percussion instruments.

आत्माविवक्षमाणोऽयंमनःप्रेरयते मनः
देहस्थंवह्निमाहन्तिसप्रेरयतिमारुतं ।
ब्रह्मग्रन्थिस्थितः सोऽयक्रमादूर्ध्वपथेचरन्
>नाभिह्रुत्कण्ठ​मूर्धास्येष्वाविर्भावयतिध्वनिम् ॥

(Sangeetha Makaranda- Narada)

The atman (soul) desirous of speaking out of its intention excites the mind; and the mind operates on the vital heat of the body by setting the air in the Brahma granthi, rises up and produces sound through the navel, the heart, the neck, the head and the face”. This sound is the basis for the origin of vocal music.

The atman (soul) desirous of speaking out of its intention excites the mind; and the mind operates on the vital heat of the body by setting the air in the Brahma granthi, rises up and produces sound through the navel, the heart, the neck, the head and the face”. This sound is the basis for the origin of vocal music.

Classical music called Shastreeya Sangeeta in Sanskrit, means music that adheres to the principles or rules. Classical music is not just artistic or entertaining it also sublimates man’s mind, body and soul thus making him Jeevan mukta (liberated soul). The saying goes as just like Tapas (meditation) is for Krita yuga, Yagna (religious sacrifice) for Treta yuga, Pooja (worship) for Dwapara yuga, Sangeeta (music) is for Kali yuga. The ultimate goal of music is the union of Jeevatma (soul) and Paramatma (God). Apart from devotion, Indian music emphasizes morals through the medium of art.

The Indian scriptures call God as Naada Brahma and music as Naada yoga. Naada the musical sound give rise to Srutis (micro tones) and these to Swaras (notes) and in turn to raagas (melody). Naada is of two varieties:
(1) Aahata Naada which is heard with conscious efforts of man
(2) Anaahata Naada which is often referred to the music of the spheres heard without the man’s effort. This is audible only to yogis.

Indian music can be broadly studied under three major phases-

Ancient period- Vedic to 8th century AD

Medieval period- 9th to 15th century AD

Modern period- 16th to present day

Music is an integral part of Indian Culture and is as old as mankind. The evolution of music can be traced by a systematic study of Granthas (treatises) belonging to Sacred literature and Secular literature. There is no single ancient literature which does not speak about music. They give references to music with respect to spiritual, religious and sociological aspects.

Ancient Period

Music in ancient period was looked upon as sacred and religious form. According to ancient scriptures Sangeeta (music) and Saahitya (literature) are said to be the two breasts of goddess Saraswati.

Indian music traces its origin to Vedas (Veda meaning knowledge). The four VedasRig Veda, Yajur Veda, Saama Veda and Atharva Veda are the fountain heads of all knowledge. Indian music is derived from Saama Veda. According to the scriptures-

सामवेदादिदं गीतं सञग्राह पितामह​: ।

Brahma derived music from Saama Veda

Brahma, Sringeri

Lord Brahma, Vidyashankara temple, Sringeri, Karnataka

Music is also called Panchama Veda or Gandharva Veda as it was practiced by celestial nymphs called Gandharvas. The pranava naada (primordial sound) OM is said to be the source of music.

Lord Krishna in Bhagavatgeeta says-

वेदानां सामवेदोस्मि

Among the Vedas I dwell in Saama Veda

The recitation of Vedic hymns marks the beginning of classical music. Initially the chanting started with a monotonic recitation known as Archika gaana (singing). Later it paved the way to two toned – Gaathika followed by Saamika with a higher Swara (note) resulting in three toned recitation. Rig Vedic hymns were recited from one to three notes.

The triad comprised of a higher swara called Udatta, lower- Anudatta and the third sandwiched in between- the Swarita. Prachaya was the fourth lower note to Anudatta and this formed a tetra chord called Swarantara. The tetra chord was supplemented with three more notes and the group of seven swaras was named Yamas. Thus the full scale with seven notes evolved and were named in the descending order of pitch- Krishta, Prathama, Dwiteeya, Triteeya, Chaturtha, Mandra and Atiswaarya. The Saama veda hymns were recited from five to seven notes.

In due course of time the idea of Sthayi (octave) was conceived and the new names replaced the old names of Yamas. The new names Shadja, Rishabha, Gandhara, Madhyama, Panchama, Dhaivata and Nishada were assigned solfa names Sa, Ri, Ga Ma, Pa, Da, Ni respectively and was called Saama saptaka. The earliest music was the sacred music called the Sāman chants.

As per the ancient granthas (treatises) every swara is generated from a particular part of the human body-

Shadja (Sa) from Naabhi (Navel)

Rishabha (Ri)Jathara (Stomach)

Gandhara (Ga)Hridaya (Heart)

Madhyama (Ma) – Kaanta (Neck)

Panchama (Pa) – Naasika (Nose)

Dhaivata (Da) – Lalaata (Forehead)

Nishada (Ni) – Shiras (Head)

Various musical instruments like Veena (string instrument), Dundubhi, Bheri (percussion instrument), Shankha (wind instrument) were used as accompaniments during Vedic rituals. The transition of Vedic chant to song was a slow process. Saama gaana was adorned with trills and graces. The Saama saptaka gave birth to Shadja grama the primordial scale. Apart from Vedas references of music are amply found in Pratishakhyas, Brahmanas, Upanishads, Shikshas and Aranyakas. Puranas (epics) like Markandeya purana, Harivamsha, Vayu purana, Vishnu purana and many more mention about music.

Great works like Ramayana and Mahabharata have references of music like raagas, vaadyas (instruments), taalas, rendering songs in different speeds and musicians.

Lava and Kusha the children of Raama sang Ramayana melodiously in the latter’s court. Raavana the demon King of Ramayana is a said to be a great veena player.

Raavana the demon with ten heads was compressed under Mount Kailash. He sang Saama Veda playing Veena and pleased lord Shiva and Parvati who were seated on the mountain released him.

Ravana playing Veena Kailasa mountain on his head

Arunachaleshwara Temple, Tiruvannamalai, Tamilnadu

Mahabharata mentions three types of music- music of Gods, music of rich people mainly patronized by Kings and music of common people.

In Bhaagavata lord Krishna played flute.

Krishna playing Flute

Vidyashankara Temple, Sringeri, Karnataka

Apart from Sa and Pa which are called Prakriti swaras (notes which does not take variations), rest of the five notes Ri, Ga, Ma, Da and Ni called Vikrita swaras take two variations each thus producing twelve notes in an octave. The lower variety with lesser frequency is termed mridu (soft) or komal and the note with higher frequency tikshna (sharp) or teevra. The variations are denoted by solfa notes with numerical numbers in sub script.

Sa – Shadja Prakriti

Ri1– Shuddha rishabha Komal

Ri2– Chatushruti rishabha Teevra

Ga2– Sadharana gandhara Komal

Ga3 – Antara gandhara Teevra

Ma1– Shuddha madhyama Komal

Ma2– Prati madhyama Teevra

Pa – Panchama Prakriti

Da1– Shuddha dhaivata Komal

Da2– Chatushruti dhaivatha Teevra

Ni2– Kaishiki nishada Komal

Ni3– Kakali nishada Teevra

These 12 notes of an octave again gave birth to 22 Srutis or Microtones. It is the usage of these srutis which make Indian music special and have an individual status. It is difficult to notate Indian music as notations provide only the outline of a composition, but the actual melody of the music can be well expressed only by the usage of these minute divisions or srutis.

Music is comprised of Sruti (pitch), Raaga (melody), Taala (rythm), Laya (tempo), Saahitya (lyrics), Bhaava (emotion), Gamaka (grace or ornamentation). Any musical rendering should have a perfect blending of all these features. A quartertone or a microtone is also called Sruti. It is the usage of these micro tones that makes Indian music so special and unique.

The transition of Vedic chant to song was a slow process. Saama gaana was adorned with trills and graces. Scales were expanded by a method called Graha bheda (Model shift of tonic) which resulted in getting new scales or melodies.

Many were the treatises which mentions about the development of music.

Natya shastra the monumental treatise written approximately between 2nd century BCE and 2nd century CE by Bharata covers all aspects of Indian drama, dance and music. Indian music had developed well by then in the aspects of melody, rhythm, instruments and orchestra.

The treatises Naradiya shiksha by Narada, Kashyapa’s Kashyapa, Kohala’s Sangeeta meru, Dattila muni’s Dattilam, Nandikeshwara’s Bharatarnava are some important that have contributed in tracing the development of Indian music. There are sufficient references about the sangeeta acharyas (music preceptors) like Anjaneya, Shardula, Durgashakti, Yashtika, Kirtidhara, Kambala and Ashwatthara.

Silappadikaram which speaks about music exhaustively is a classic in Tamil written in 2nd century CE by King Illango Adigal belonging to Chera royalty. This speaks about music exhaustively.

Medieval Period

During 7th century CE philosophers and religious teachers composed simple songs in the regional languages. Tevarams and Divya prabandhams of Shaiva and Vaishnava saints composed in tamil respectively can be recorded as one of the earliest forms of practical music.

The advent of Raaga was a major milestone in the evolution of music. Though the term raaga had occurred in earlier works, it never carried a specific musical definition. It was Matanga muni of 6th century CE, the author of the treatise Brihaddeshi who gave the description of Raaga in an exquisite manner. This definition was well received by everyone both during his period and the subsequent generations that it is followed in Indian music even to this day. He mentions about Raagas and its varieties; maarga and deshi sangeeta; introduced sa ri ga ma notation and the musical form prabandha.

The Pallava king Mahendra Varman of 7th century CE, was well versed in playing Veena. He got a musical inscription carved on huge boulders in Kudumiyamalai situated in Pudukkottai district, Tamilnadu. Kudumiyamalai inscription which highlights the music prevailed during that era is believed to be one of the oldest inscriptions on music.

Kudumiyamalai inscriptionInset of  kudumiyamalai inscription

The Raaga concept happened to be the most important aspect of Indian music which got framed by Matanga muni, underwent many improvisations over the centuries. Various raga classifications were mentioned by Narada of 11th century CE in the treatise Sangeeta Makaranda. Raagas were classified into Purusha- male, Stree- female, Napumsaka- neutral system; Raaga, Raagini, Putra system; on the basis of time – ragas that have to be sung early in the morning, morning, noon, afternoon, evening and night and some more.

Someshwara Bhullokamal the ruler of Deccan in the early 12th century who authored the treatise Manasollasa called the music of South India as Karnataka Sangeeta. Astonishingly even after eight centuries the same name is being continued for South Indian music. One of the greatest works during early 13th century was that of Sharangadeva who wrote the treatise Sangeeta Ratnakara. This treatise deals with almost all aspects of music like ragas, talas, rasas, the compositional form prabandhas, instruments, practice and performances, physics, physiology and psychology of music which became the guiding lamp to the present music system.

Indian music which had its origin from Sama Veda prevailed in the whole country as one music system till 13th century CE. The beginning of Islamic rule in the northern parts of India not only changed politically but also resulted in the cultural exchanges. With the influence of Persian music in northern part of the country, Indian music got bifurcated into North Indian and South Indian music. The most popular poet and musician Amir Khusro served the Sultans of Slave dynasty. It is believed that under Amir Khusro’s influence, Indian music absorbed many features of Persian music in North India and this branched off into North Indian or Hindustani music and South Indian music or Karnatak music systems. But South Indian music did not undergo any changes and purely adhered to its origin of Vedic tradition.

Amir Khusroo

Gopala Nayaka was the well known musician who was in the court of Devagiri King. It is believed that he inspired Amir Khusro to compose the musical form Taranas in Hindustani music.

Many treatises were authored by great scholars who highlighted the features of both systems of Indian music. Many commentaries on the earlier treatises were written. Vidyaranya known to be the king maker of Vijayanagar dynasty wrote the treatise Sangita Sara. This treatise mentions for the first time the word Mela a technical term for janaka raga. The Bengali author Subhankara’s treatise Sangita Damodara explains about Salaga suda prabandhas.

The practical section of Indian music was also progressing simultaneously. Gita Govinda one of the earliest available evidences of Indian operas was composed by Jayadeva of 12th century CE. The story revolves on the love play of Radha and Krishna on the surface level. But it actually shows the deep philosophy of Jeevatma- the individual soul pining for surrendering to Paramatma- the ultimate God. Gita Govinda which is in Sanskrit consists of twelve chapters divided into 24 cantos and each canto consists of eight couplets called Ashatapadis. These ashtapadis are sung and danced all over India even to this day.

Indian Music witnessed a revolution from 12th century onwards. The compositions which were in Sanskrit language till then, were brought out in their respective regional languages. The core of veda and upanishads which had an access only by one set of intellectuals, were made available for common people. Scholars and philosophers embedded the essence of these scriptures in simple songs composed in regional languages like Kannada, Hindi, Marati, Telugu, Tamil, Bengali and other Indian languages.

In the region of Karnataka, scholars who followed shaivism composed thousands of simple songs in Kannada called Vachanas meaning that which is said. The lyrical core of these vachanas is upanishadic values and social reformation. The composers of vachanas were called Vachanakaras. Devara Daasimiah, Basavanna, Akkamahadevi, Allamaprabhu, Maadara Chennaih and Sarvajna are some of them who have contributed to the Kannada literature as well as music.

Basavanna

Philosophers/ composers who followed Vaishnavism were called Haridasas. Their works which were composed in kannada come under the broad heading Daasa sahitya. Narahari Teertha was the first composer among Haridasas. He was followed by a row of Haridasas like Sripadaya, Vyasaraya, Vadiraja, Purandaradasa, Kanakadasa, Vijayadasa, Jagannathadasa and others. Daasa sahitya reached to its peak during 15th and 16th centuries especially in the ruling period of the emperor Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagar dynasty. The musical forms composed by these Haridasas comprised of thousands of kirtanas also called padas or Devaranamas, Suladis, Ugabhogas, and Vrittanamas, thus contributing significantly to practical music.

Purandara DasaKanakadasa

Purandaradasa’s magnificent contribution to the field of music earned him the title Karnataka Sangeeta Pitamaha. It is believed that he has composed in thousands, but the available compositions are only few hundreds. He felt the need for a strong basis for music education, and composed an extraordinary system of exercises with sarale, janti, alankara and pillari geethe which are followed by the music teachers even to this day as basic lessons. Vachanas and devaranamas are renderd by both Karnatak and Hindustani musicians of South India.

Annamacharya also a 15th century bard was a native of Tallapakam village in Andhra Pradesh. Being a scholar in Telugu language he was extraordinarily talented as musician and composer. He has composed more than three thousand songs comprising of Sankirtanas and Padas in both classical and folk tunes. The compositions composed in Telugu and Sanskrit are on lord Venkateshwara of Tirupathi and his consort Alamelu Mangamma. These were later engraved in copper plates and are preserved till date. Chaitanya Maha Prabhu’s sankirtans became popular in Bengal regions.

The period of post 15th century pulsated with a new spirit and an enlarged vision. This era contributed more towards the practical side but strictly adhering to the shastra or guidelines mentioned in the treatises. Bhakti movement which took its birth in the previous eras swept throughout India in the post 15th century. Great devotees like Vallabhacharya, Surdas, Meera Bai, Kabirdas, Tulsidas and Haridas Goswami Baiju composed hundreds of Kirtans which were mainly sung in central and northern parts of India. Bhajans in Marathi language called Abhangs were composed by Saints like Namdev, Dhyaneshwar, Eknath and Tukaram.

Modern Period

Akbar one of the Mughal emperors patronised many artists in his court. According to Ain-i-Akbari the work which documents the administration of Emperor Akbar, there were 36 musicians including Tansen who adorned the court. Swamy Haridas a devotee of lord Krishna, said to be the music teacher of Tansen, has many compositions to his credit Pundarika Vittala the author of the treatises Sadraga Chandrodaya, Ragamanjari and Ragamala was invited by Akbar to Delhi. Pundarika Vittala a south Indian who was an exponent in both Karnatak and Hindustani styles of music was appreciated by Akbar so much that he performed the golden Tulabhara which means weighing Pundarika Vittala against gold and bestowed upon him the title Akabariya Kalidasa.

Ramamatya’s Swara Mela Kalanidhi, Somanatha’s Raga Vibodha, Ahobala’s Sangita Parijatha, Nijaguna Shivayogi’s Viveka Chintamani, Govinda Dikshitar’s Sangita Sudha contributed a lot towards the Mela Raga system and evolution of modern Veena. The 72 Mela systems which is the forte of Karnatak music was designed by Venkatamakhi in the early 17th century. Venkatamakhi author of the treatise Chaturdandi Prakashika classified melas (janaka or parent ragas) through the permutation and combinations of sixteen notes in an octave. Sixteen notes are obtained by the variations of five notes Ri Ga Ma Da Ni which are called Vikriti swaras and the two Prakriti swaras Sa and Pa. Venkatamakhi classifies melas as shown below-

Given are the sixteen notes that are derived from sapta swaras or seven notes of an octave:

S – Shadja

R1– Shuddha rishabha

R2– Chatushruti rishabha

R3– Shatsruti rishabha

G1– Shuddha gandhara

G2– Sadharana gandhara

G3 – Antara gandhara

M1– Shuddha madhyama

M2– Prati madhyama

P – Panchama

D1– Shuddha dhaivata

D2– Chatushruti dhaivatha

D3– Shatsruti daivatha

N1– Shuddha nishada

N2– Kaishiki nishada

N3– Kakali nishada

The 72 melas are divided into 12 chakras or cycles and each chakra has six melas totalling to 72 melas. The chakras has been designated with a bhuta sankhya The two madhyama variables act as an important factor in the distribution of 72 melas. First 36 melas are with shuddha madhyama and remaining 36 with prati madhyama. Every mela has combination of seven notes with shadja and panchama as constant notes.

1st Chakra called Indu means Moon which is only one in number

1 S R1 G1 M1 P D1 N1

2 S R1 G1 M1 P D1 N2

3 S R1 G1 M1 P D1 N3

4 S R1 G1 M1 P D2 N2

5 S R1 G1 M1 P D2 N3

6 S R1 G1 M1 P D3 N3

2nd Chakra Netra means eyes- which are two

7 S R1 G2 M1 P D1 N1

8 S R1 G2 M1 P D1 N2

9 S R1 G2 M1 P D1 N3

10 S R1 G2 M1 P D2 N2

11 S R1 G2 M1 P D2 N3

12 S R1 G2 M1 P D3 N3

3rd Chakra Agni means fire- three types of fire

13 S R1 G3 M1 P D1 N1

14 S R1 G3 M1 P D1 N2

15 S R1 G3 M1 P D1 N3

16 S R1 G3 M1 P D2 N2

17 S R1 G3 M1 P D2 N3

18 S R1 G3 M1 P D3 N3

4th Chakra Veda- Vedas are four

19 S R2 G2 M1 P D1 N1

20 S R2 G2 M1 P D1 N2

21 S R2 G2 M1 P D1 N3

22 S R2 G2 M1 P D2 N2

23 S R2 G2 M1 P D2 N3

24 S R2 G2 M1 P D3 N3

5th Chakra Baana which means arrows- Cupid’s arrows are five in number

25 S R2 G3 M1 P D1 N1

26 S R2 G3 M1 P D1 N2

27 S R2 G3 M1 P D1 N3

28 S R2 G3 M1 P D2 N2

29 S R2 G3 M1 P D2 N3

30 S R2 G3 M1 P D3 N3

6th Chakra Ritu means season – seasons are six

31 S R3 G3 M1 P D1 N1

32 S R3 G3 M1 P D1 N2

33 S R3 G3 M1 P D1 N3

34 S R3 G3 M1 P D2 N2

35 S R3 G3 M1 P D2 N3

36 S R3 G3 M1 P D3 N3

Remaining 36 melas follow the same combinations but with a change in Madhyama swara

7th Chakra Rishi means Sages- great sages are seven

37 S R1 G1 M2 P D1 N1

38 S R1 G1 M2 P D1 N2

39 S R1 G1 M2 P D1 N3

40 S R1 G1 M2 P D2 N2

41 S R1 G1 M2 P D2 N3

42 S R1 G1 M2 P D3 N3

8th Chakra Vasu- Vasus are eight

43 S R1 G2 M2 P D1 N1

44 S R1 G2 M2 P D1 N2

45 S R1 G2 M2 P D1 N3

46 S R1 G2 M2 P D2 N2

47 S R1 G2 M2 P D2 N3

48 S R1 G2 M2 P D3 N3

9th Chakra Brahma- Brahmas are nine

49 S R1 G3 M2 P D1 N1

50 S R1 G3 M2 P D1 N2

51 S R1 G3 M2 P D1 N3

52 S R1 G3 M2 P D2 N2

53 S R1 G3 M2 P D2 N3

54 S R1 G3 M2 P D3 N3

10th Chakra Dishi- directions are ten

55 S R2 G2 M2 P D1 N1

56 S R2 G2 M2 P D1 N2

56 S R2 G2 M2 P D1 N3

58 S R2 G2 M2 P D2 N2

59 S R2 G2 M2 P D2 N3

60 S R2 G2 M2 P D3 N3

11th Chakra Rudra- Rudras are eleven

61 S R2 G3 M2 P D1 N1

62 S R2 G3 M2 P D1 N2

63 S R2 G3 M2 P D1 N3

64 S R2 G3 M2 P D2 N2

65 S R2 G3 M2 P D2 N3

66 S R2 G3 M2 P D3 N3

12th Chakra Aditya means sun – twelve are the Sun each for a month

67 S R3 G3 M2 P D1 N1

68 S R3 G3 M2 P D1 N2

69 S R3 G3 M2 P D1 N3

70 S R3 G3 M2 P D2 N2

71 S R3 G3 M1 P D2 N3

72 S R3 G3 M2 P D3 N3

This scientific method became so popular that this system of raga classification prevails in Karnatak music even to this day. Later Venkatamakhi’s 72 mela system was improvised by Govindacharya the author of Sangraha Chudamani in 18th century. Most of the names of the melas differ in the two schools- Venkatamakhi and Govindacharya but with the swaras designated for the melas being same. Thousands of ragas are derived from these 72 melas.

Hindustani music which prevailed in North and central part of India also underwent many progressions. Pandit Vishnu Narayana Bhatkande the great musicologist of early 20th century conceived the idea of Thaat or Thaata system for raga classification. This system of ten thaats with its derivatives is in vogue even to this day. In Hindustani music the twelve notes of an octave with their variations:

Shadja- S

Komal Rishabh – Rk

Tivra Rishabh – RT

Komal Gandhar – Gk

Tivra Gandhar – GT

Komal Madhyam – Mk

Tivra Madhyam – MT

Pancham – P

Komal Dhaivath- Dk

Tivra Dhaivath – DT

Komal Nishadh – Nk

Tivra Nishadh – NT

The ten thaats conceived by Bhatkande can be listed as-

Bhairavee S Rk Gk Mk P Dk Nk S

Bhairav S Rk GT Mk P Dk NT S

Asaavaree S RT Gk Mk P Dk Nk S

Kaafee S RT Gk Mk P DT Nk S

Khamaaj S RT GT Mk P DT Nk S

Bilaaval S RT GT Mk P DT NT S

Thodee S Rk Gk MT P Dk NT S

Poorvee S Rk GT MT P Dk NT S

Maarwaa S Rk GT MT P DT NT S

Modern period witnesses a systematic development in raaga system. Seventy two Melas or Janaka raagas (parent ragas) in the Karnatak music system formulated by the great scholar Venkatamakhi followed by ten Thaats system in Hindustani music conceived by Vishnu Narayan Bhatkande were one of the major contributions of modern period. Thousands of compositions were composed in these janya (derived) and janaka ragas in both the systems. The great composers of karnatak music- Shyama Shastry, Thyagaraja and Muthuswamy Dikshitar composed hundreds of Kritis- a compositional form which happens to be the nucleus of Karnatak music.