Evolution of Indian Classical Music

Congregating Notes

By Rajiv Trivedi


It is both a misconception and a deliberate mis-statement that India has historically been a mere agrarian economy. Agricuture has always been a strong point and in part it supported the trade India made with nations across the seas, in east and west. Though a healthy village base stabilized social and cultural mores, India aways had cities. Kashi, is one of the oldest cities in the world. The urban centers have been the seat of power – the still center or axle from where energy, control and order flows out to various points on the mobile wheel. The hubbub, activity and produce on periphery, in turn, orders sensibilities at the center. And so, the village-based warrior, scholar, smith or artisan who excelled in his craft was likely to be summoned to capital of the kingdom.

In the rural environ a singer may sit on temple platform and begin singing for himself (Swantah Sukhaya). His friends may accompany him on string, percussion. A housewife on her way back from temple might confide to friends and relatives about the music-makers. In time, interested and the curious, and those with time on hands, would surround the performers. The singer, probably disturbed but unoffended by the presence of an audience, would begin to sing, both for himself and the audience. In another scenario, the audience gets familiar with the singer and presses him to present songs of choice. The singing of the artiste, gathering of people, and their mutual bond through music – all takes place naturally. The whole happening is unique and without any external order. Yet, it is a concert; unintended, still a concert.

It rests upon how we define a concert. In essence, it is a congregation of listeners who devote full attention to the musical presentation. When one envisages ‘musical concert’ today, the image that emerges is of Artistes sitting under glittering lights on well-arranged chairs, or standing on stage in dazzling outfits holding instruments in their hands; performing music. In west, classical concerts, which present basically orchestral compositions, have the same arrangement except for visual rigors engaged in by popular musicians. It is now common to see a violinist dance and run across the stage as she plays. In India, ‘classical music concerts’ are very different in term of presentation – simply because nature of the two music styles is founded on different motivations.

The modern concert essentially has visual elements. The placement of artiste is intended both, for visual impact and for ensuring desirable sound. The seating of audience too has bearing on receptivity and thus a concert hall is designed and built after study. The history of public performance of Indian classical music is less than hundred years old. Earlier, it was confined to the royal courts and private sittings at rich people’s places.  Both, because they could support the artistes, and create appreciation amongst a class of people. With decline of the feudal system, these patrons disappeared. Musicians were forced to turn vagrant or seek shelter in dance-houses.

Gradual political and social changes had eroded the original acceptance of music and other performing arts in an open, appreciative manner. Pt. Vishnu Digamber Paluskar endeavored to restore regard and esteem of music, with the result that public concerts started taking place. He infused awareness in public by composing, performing and singing good lyrics in classical forms that enthralled audience all over India. In several places ‘Prarthana Sabha’ were organized where Mahatma Gandhi himself, was a regular visitor. With the rising awareness of national pride and changes in political system, young artistes came out to adopt music as their career.

Still, most of these gatherings differed from strict definition of concert in that they were held in open spaces instead of concert halls. Yet, several were organized by connoisseur patrons and held in closed halls. These gatherings came to be recognized after the patrons – like Lala Babu Conference in Calcutta, Dhakku Babu conference in Kanpur etc. – and gained national repute. In several places like Mumbai, Lahore, Calcutta, Allahabad, Varanasi, Agra, Gwalior, Brindavan-Mathura, Baroda etc., musicians par-excellence, performed and popularized Indian classical music that changed the perception and taste of Indian audience, forever. It was a beginning of a new era.

Indian concerts were unique on account of accessibility that was provided to everyone by arranging them open-air. Passers-by would listen, hesitate, sit down and join the audience. Gradually, this instilled a love and appreciation for classical music. With efforts of Pt. Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande (August 10, 1860 – September 19, 1936), Pt. Vishnu Digamber Paluskar (August 18, 1872 – August 21, 1931) and their disciples, several music institutions were established which provide a definite place and adequate training to lovers of Indian classical music. With several experimentations and creative geniuses new wave of demonstration in the field of music and dance gripped the entire nation.

The performance in closed or open-air gathering largely follows a simple scheme. The main singer sits in the centre; on his left are instrumental accompanists and right, percussionists. Close behind him Tanpura players take their positions holding the instruments, so the Shadja is always audible to vocalist and other players. The variations may be in type of instruments and percussion. The vocalist sometimes plays the Surmandal or harmonium. Vocalists of medieval temple tradition play Jhanjh or Manjira instead. Ghan-Vadya (struck idiophones) were often used for rhythm.  Sarangi has long been a choice instrument as it produces human-like tone. Violin and harmonium are next preferred. Traditionally, the accompaniment was on Veena (generic term for string instruments), which is still the staple choice in form of Tambura or Tanpura. Dhruv-pad invariably required Pakhawaj (also called Mridang) but later Tabla became the ubiquitous percussion.

Development of instruments, changes in style of singing along with regard of music in society gradually brought the recital to present shape. If we categorize Indian classical concerts it may show three stages of change.

1. Pre Bhatkhande - Vishnu Digamber era (1820 - 1900)
2. Bhatkhande Impact (till 1980)
3. Modern / Postmodern era (1980~1990 - till date)

Pre Bhatkhande - Vishnu Digamber era 

Evolution in Indian music had already taken a new turn with concretization of Gharana or music-schools that developed in a particular court. Curiosity of the British – their questions about the origin of Instruments, forms of classical singing, grammar of Indian Raga music etc. (see Capt. Willard’s extensive work, ‘Music of Hindustan’) affected Indian thinkers and practitioners as well. They realized the power of institutionalization and this gave an absolutely novel dimension to Indian classical music.
As mentioned before, it was the time where most of the musicians were either living under the patronage of kings (These kings were only called king because they represented old dynasty of their ancestors without having any political power as such) or had taken refuge in dancer’s Kothas. Public performances were not in vogue. This was the time when percussion like Tabla was gradually becoming popular. Tabla had acquired new shape by pasting of black ‘masala’ on ‘Dagga’. Due to this new-found resonance, sweetness and sound-flexibility were enhanced; by including ‘Bol-s’ of Dholak and Pakhawaj, Tabla gained rapid popularity. In response to varied sound of Tabla, string instruments like Sitar and Surbahar, through development in structure, too began to gain popularity.  With opening up of the listening class – limited earlier to courtiers and wealthy connoisseurs – new forms in singing like Khayal, Thumari, Tappa etc. began to surface. These lighter styles that allowed greater creative freedom than Dhruva-Pada, attracted youth and things started to change by the beginning of the 20th century.

Bhatkhande Impact

After establishment of institutions for music education Pt. Vishnu Digumber Paluskar and Pt. Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande launched awareness programmes. These modern saints of Indian music aided by enthusiasts from affluent backgrounds, arranged open air public concerts all over India. Their main purpose was to bring classical forms close to masses so they can listen and understand to the divine living heritage of India. To reach this goal Pt. Vishnu Digumber Paluskar had taken in several talented young students (which itself was difficult) trained them for eight to ten years and then sent them to different parts of the country to spread music among young Indians. On request of Pt Madan Mohan Malviya, Pt. Omkarnath Thakur was sent to Banaras Hindu University to start the Music College. Pt. Bhatkhande also started Music colleges in Lucknow, Baroda, Gwalior etc. Indian scholars too, started studying Indian music bringing to light purity of its scales and guiding mathematical principles. Pt. Uday Shankar exposed Indian music to the world taking his Dance Ballet troupe along with Indian Orchestra and giving performances all over world. It is said that people in several countries recognized India more for Uday Shankar than for Mahatma Gandhi.

After 1920s concerts of Indian classical music had gained popularity. Gharana-s were getting identified in a different manner. Concerts which brought their representatives to common platform, clarified their distinct manner of performing a particular Raga. Performance graduated from being appreciated aesthetically to being evaluated critically as well. This perhaps is the greatest contribution of public concerts to Indian classical music.

On other hand, these Sammelan-s were also engaged in nation-building by providing platform to people of a caste-bound rigid society to loosen up and act as free individuals. While today, eateries or snack-vendors surround a theatre, the organisers arranged for eatables as ‘Prasad’ which people would willingly accept forgetting all differences. Till recently Sankat-Mochan festival in Varanasi would provide all listeners with Malpua-s and Rabri in the morning just as the all-night gathering approaches fulfillment. Concerts of Indian music are unique due length of performance. They often start in evening between seven to nine, and continue till dawn. Each artiste in the early days, was granted three to four hours and they would give recitals one after other. The senior-most would present the final performance, ending it all with a morning Raga – often, Bhairavi. Even today this unstated rule of senior artiste performing after younger ones still persists. The performance time, in an all-night concert has come down to two hours. The artiste during his creative life-time grows from being first performer to final one. And thus, all artistes first perfect Raga Yaman – suitable for early evening performance – and progress to Kalyan, Kanhada, Malkauns and finally Bhairavi and other morning Raga-s. In a way, public concerts helped in establishing the Raga-Time relationship.

Postmodern Trends

By 1980s gramophone records had been replaced by cassette tapes. The far-east countries – Japan, China, Korea etc. – made available the new western technology at affordable cost to Indian listeners. Recitals broadcast regularly from Akashvani had disciplined the presentation to uncomfortable packaging of 28 minutes. It peeved the artistes to compress their presentation to still smaller slots of 14 minutes. Several of these stalwarts had refused to record on gramophone. The early records allowed just three minutes, which was less than warm-up time for Alap. The transition from cassette to compact disk was smoother, as it allowed a total time of 72 minutes.

The real change was Television going national, followed by Digital Video Disk. The age of visuality had begun. Open-air gatherings were now being covered on radio and television. Corporate houses discovered classical music an attractive channel to highlight their social responsibility. Gradually, the classical concert edged towards glamour. Now the appearance of artiste and the ensemble became important. As if his talent qualifies only to bring him to stage and now it is the appearance that would grant acceptance to his recital. In urban centres today the number of classical recitals has increased manifold.  Numerous auditorium and theatres have come up – from small capacity halls of about 60 to massive ones to seat thousands – in cities and town across India.

Not all of these changes have fared well for music. In a way, the essence of Indian art – art as worship, the artiste as nameless worshipper – has been put to sleep. Instead of art-form, it is the individual in limelight. Organizers experiment with new ideas for making concerts a hit. Never-ending quest for novelty pays little heed to need of integrity and continuance of tradition in art. Events are no longer governed by art, they are controlled by money. Senior (read, expensive) artistes belonging to various traditions are invited to perform together in a session as short as 30 minutes. The six or eight stalwarts roughly get two or three minutes for their individual piece.

Yet, they do not refuse, because the concert-event is too prestigious to be turned down. These strategic performances are geared more towards making classical music exciting than mesmerizing. Creativity has yielded to experimentation. The instruments too have responded to innovation. Often, the direction taken tends to lower their innate quality. Too many pseudo-veena-s opt for tinny tonal quality shunning their original depth. Result of such commercialization is that Indian classical artiste instead of focusing on music has begun to pay attention to sound. This reflects in the style of performance where instead of integrity of notes, it is the skill that has become important. The young artiste today devotes his time to practice only a few Raga compositions. After all, to an artiste on stage for countable minutes of glory, it is the immediate applause of audience that counts, not the muttered, restrained commendation of a senior musician or connoisseur.

The concert, thus has been instrumental in shaping Indian classical music. Individualy, as people grow old, demographically the poulation may grow younger. When such becomes the case, change in taste gets accelerated. The reduced patience of audience has begun to affect the artiste who, no longer playing for his own fufillment, is forced to experiment with bizarre and counter-productive. As of now, it has driven many earlier Indian instruments like Esraj, Dilruba, Surbahar, Rudra and Vichitra Veena to name a few, away from the stage and accepted western and equally-tempered-scale instruments like piano, cello into consonance-based Indian music. So, in the postmodern era of globalization, the notes ready themselves for a congregation where they may end in faceless amalgamation.


Evolution of Indian Classical Music - 1: From Sound to Notes

Evolution of Indian Classical Music - 2: From Note to Raga

Evolution of Indian Classical Music - 4: Timless Notes

Evolution of Indian Classical Music - 5: Why Classical not Art?

Problems in Contemporary Music: An Essay by Dr. Lalmani Misra

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