On Indian music

Written by Ravi Shankar
(Condensed by Aditya Verma)

The system of Indian classical music can be traced back nearly two thousand years to its origin in the Vedic hymns of the Hindu temples. Unlike Western classical music, as much as 90 percent of Indian music may be improvised, depending on the artistic facility and creative imagination of the performer. Our musical tradition is an oral one taught directly to the student by his guru rather than by the system of written notation used in the West.

The very heart of Indian music is the raga: the melodic form upon which the artist improvises his performance. A raga is a scientific, precise, subtle, and aesthetic melodic form with its own specific ascending and descending movement consisting of either a full seven-note octave, or a series of six or five notes. Every raga is characterised by its own particular rasa, or principal mood. The acknowledged order of these nine sentiments, or emotions, is as follows: romantic and erotic; humour; pathos; anger; heroism; fear; disgust; amazement; and peace. Each raga, in addition to being associated with a particular mood, is also closely connected to a particular time of day or season of the year. Thus, via the rich melodies and rhythm of Indian music, every human emotion, every subtle feeling in man and nature can be musically expressed and experienced.

There is a unique intricacy and rhythmic sophistication in Indian music. There are tala, or rhythmic cycles of a raga, ranging from a 3-beat cycle to 108 beats within a cycle! The divisions in a tala and the stress on the first beat, called sum, are the most important features. The most exciting moment of a seasoned listener is when both musicians, after their individual improvisation, come back together on the sum.

On the Classical Recital

The improvisational nature of Indian music requires the artist to take into consideration the setting, time allowed for his concert, his mood, and the feeling he discerns in the audience before he begins to play, often deciding upon choice of raga just moments before the concert begins.

The traditional recital begins with the alap section – the stately and serene exploration of the chosen raga. After this slow, introspective, heartfelt, and sometimes sad beginning, the musician moves onto the jor. In this part, rhythm enters and is developed and innumerable variations on the ragaís basic theme are elaborated. There is no drum accompaniment in either the alap or the jor.

The alap and the jor evolve into the gat, the fixed composition of the raga. Here the tabla enter with the wonderful rhythmic structure of the gat and its time cycle, the tala. The gat can be in any tala, either in slow, medium, or fast tempo. The musician improvises on a variety of taans (musical phrases in different speeds) and todas (a combinations of plucked passages). The gat, which can be anything between four to sixteen bars of fixed composition, is the vehicle the artist must return to after his improvisation. While the musician has complete freedom to improvise as he wishes, he may do so only as long as he does not depart from the format of the raga and tala.

The step-by-step acceleration of the rhythm in the gat finally culminates in the jhala: the final movement and climax of the raga. Here the music becomes more and more playful and exciting. Sawal jabab, the dazzling interplay and rapid exchange between the sarod and tabla, has the power to enthrall and amaze even the most uninitiated listener as it brings the raga to its conclusion.

Often, at the conclusion of the recital, the musician may choose to play a thumri or dhun. This semi-classical style is much freer and completely romantic, sensual, and erotic.