An Essay on the Indian Classical Music

Music is a fact of life that we take for granted. A child starts crooning tunes long before learning to speak. From the beginning to the end of our life, we come across, appreciate and listen attentively to the form of music that appeals to us most. And unless one has an extremely inquisitive disposition, one naturally ignores investigation into something that permeates our daily routine from start to finish. We are attempting here to explore the origin of Indian music, and delve into the complexities that various forms offer.

Indian classical music vibrant and alive at Leicester's Darbar ...

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Investigation into the origins of Hindu scripts, and that of our civilization further corroborates the fact that chants go back prior to recorded history i.e. antecedent to 5000BC. Notes and scale of swaras, which are the basis of Vedic chants, could not have emerged suddenly during Vedic period. Deductive logic suggests aurally, there is ample proof that some form of music existed even before a script was invented.

Most of our Vedic texts had chants in three notes, but Sam Veda records more complex chants. The variation was in the notes it had three to seven notes. Vedic scholars had developed a very strict scale of swaras, notes and rhythm, and the chants did not deviate from this. Hence Vedic poetry was rather definitive and rigid. Gradually, as Vedic chants gave way to more leisurely notes, swaras as we know them today were developed. These are Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, and Ni. The swaras that preceded the more bourgeoisie Sa-Re-Ga-Ma were “Shadji, Rishabh, Gandhar, Madhyam, Pancham, Dhwavait, and Nishad”.


One discovers that language, chants and music were gradually adapted to a mode that could be followed by the masses, and the complexities gave way to lucidity.

The form of music developed by Vedic scholars withstood the passing of many centuries and civilizations, but naturally, there were Changes. Many treatises were lost; some could not weather the ravages. Many treatises were lost; some could not weather the ravages of time. But people held on to the primeval musical knowledge, enhanced it, and built upon it. It was the inherent purity of that pristine origin of music-the sound of Om, the Naadbrahma that inspired musicians to continue in their pursuit to perfect this art with their sadhana (practice).

Besides the developed practice, musicians continued research into, and evolved a strict grammar of music – a theory that later composers referred to. Early composers established the three sapthaks (octaves); mandra, the lower octave as the top and bottom ranges within which musical compositions could be authored. Additionally, the musical treatises established other concepts like taal (beat), and jati (how to apply notes).

As our Vedic age drew to close and India approached her medieval centuries, there was a sudden sput in interest in music. One of India’s taught sage Bharata wrote an authoritative treatise on the performing arts called Natyashastra. Just as prior Vedic texts like Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Atharva Veda and Sam Veda laid down socialite structure and conventions which were to be followed by the People, similarly, Natyashastra laid down rules and structures for composers and performers to adhere to, in theatre, dance and music.


Indian society had very rigid structures, especially as the Vedic ages drew to a close. There was rigid segregation between the pure (Arya Jan) and the impure (Shudra Jan), the rich and the poor, the Godly, and the mortals. Not only was there a restriction on the Shudras on singing, but a special embargo existed on their singing Gandharva music or ritualistic singing.

Muslims established their kingdom in the North of India. During these periods a musical grammar was already in existence, and at a rather evolved stage. India’s medieval history has been much better documented than the ancient history. Hence we are aware that music continued as a core area of interest, and it changed form as it changed hands.

Muslim invader destroyed land, property and culture. Scriptures, original treatises, temples, houses, and people were brutally massacred. To begin with, almost the entire span of India’s northern kingdoms was grazed. The South of India remained intact till the Muslim rulers established themselves in the north, and gradually began to expand to the South. This is one primary reason why the culture in the South of India has remained more “untarnished”.

By the time the Muslim rulers expanded in to the South of India, the invasions from Europe had already begun. The Southern kingdoms were usurped for a little over a century and a half, while the North remained in foreign control for over five centuries. This is the reason why the North of India is more appreciative of Ghazals – a predominantly Persian form of music while the Southern states remain more committed to Classical Indian dance and music. Even culture, but by force of necessity Hindu culture had to assimilate values and the culture of the new rulers.


The Indian classical music tradition is still there, having survived so many metamorphoses. There are still teachers and disciples all over the country who dedicate a major part their lives to the pursuit of this art, the sadhana of shastriya sangeet.

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