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Musing on Indian Music

Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, and Ni expanded respectively as Sadja, Rishaba, Gandhara, Madhyama, Panchama, Dhaivata, Nishada are the seven svaras of Indian music. They are like the seven colours of sunlight. As the reflection of these colours in the right proportion makes the entire world colourful  and dynamic, the svaras make the eternal vibrations which is a feast for sane ears. Svaras are the Indian equivalent to Solfege or the European major scale in Western music.

They may be elaborated with half tone of varying intervals. They are classified according to the number of Shrutis they contain. Shruti is the theoretical interval which contains a scale of 22. There are eighteen melodic modes called jatis. It gradually  gave place to the more specific ragas. Raga is a series of five or more notes upon which a melody is based. The rhythmic cycles in music is called as talas. Though they are quite complicated they have a rhythmic unity. The fundamental units of the Indian music structure are thisra (three), chatusra (four), khanda (five), misra (seven) and sankeertana (nine). There is a complex line from the simple 2/4 time (adi tala) and 3/4 (rupaka) to the fourteen units of a tala. Bharata, the music master of 4th century A.D in India mentioned 32 talas, but now there are over 120 formed by different combinations.

History of Origin of Music - the Vedas 

The earliest reference of music in India is credited to the Vedic period when the Vedas were compiled. Vedas mentions about the sound that pervades the entire universe i.e. Nada Bramhan. There are many theories and treaties considering ‘Om’ as the original word which give rise to various notes in Music. There are also reference to music in Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and the Brahmanas and Upanishads. The reference of ‘Nritya’ (dance) and ‘Gata’ (narrative stories sometimes in form of songs) in Jaiminiya Brahmana also testifies to the existence of such art forms in the post vedic period.

The clear elements of Indian Music could be traced from Samaveda, the third among the four Vedas. In Vedas, the seven notes of the raga in Karaharpriya arranged in descending order is mentioned. On the basis of these, earliest raga is speculated to be ‘Sama raga’. At first the saman recital had only three notes. Gradually the fourth and fifth came to be employed. Occasionally the sixth and seventh also came to existence. Therefore, all the music is considered to have developed from Sama Veda. As a later development, the science of music called Gandharva Veda became the upaveda of Sama Veda. All this shows a close association of Indian music with the Vedas and the post Vedic literatures.

This frames a clear question in ones mind- Why? The possible reason may be that the Vedas were handed down from generation to generation by an oral tradition. It requires a tremendous effort to memorise all this knowledge. Hence they were mostly conveyed in the form of poetry and songs which won’t tax ones memory much.  The thousands of stances which requires tremendous possibilities of interesting ways to memorise it, created the whole world of music around the Vedic literature much before Indian music developed into an independent subject.

The first written reference to music is found in the writings of the great Sanskrit grammarian Panini (500 BC). Later references to the musical theories are found in the Rikpratisakhya written in 400 BC. The period of Gupta dynasty is considered as the important period in the history of Indian Music. Bharata and Dattila were the important sages who propagated the Indian Music during this time. Bharata’s Natyasastra (300 AD) is the first work that clearly elaborates the aspects of music. It is the principal work of dramatic theory encompassing dance and music. It clearly emphasises the octave and divides it into 22 keys. An Octave in music is the interval between one musical pitch and another with half or double its frequency.

The next major work in the history of Indian music is Dathilam. It is composed by sage Dattila, a slightly earlier or contemporary composer to Bharata..It is written in 244 verses and considered as a synthesis of the earlier works. It represents the transition between the Sama-Gayan (ritual chants as in Sama veda) to what is known as Gandharva music. He endorsed the existence of 22 shrutis per octave. His understanding about Indian classical music went up to suggest that human body could only make 22 shrutis. He also refined the melodic structure, the scale and other aspects of Indian classical music.

In 9th century A.D, Matanga in his important work Brihaddesi attempted to define ragas. After two centuries Narada (11th century A.D) enumerates 93 ragas and classified them to masculine and feminine species, in his famous thesis 'Sangeeta Makaranda'. This views were acknowledged by Saranga Deva, the musicologist of 13 th century A.D. His works include Sangeeta Ratnakara which defined 264 ragas. These ragas include both Dravidian and Northern Indian. He described the micro tones and classified them into different categories.

Ramamatya in 16 th century and Venkitamakhi of 17th century made their contribution to the carnatic music. Ramamatya’s book Svaramelakalanidi is an authentic introduction to carnatic music of modern times. This has altogether 328 couplets divided into four chapters. Veena, mela and raga have been defined clearly in it. Here he uses mela in the sense of genus. The demarcation of mela and raga depends on the technique and structure of veena. Three types of veena has been referred. Suddamela veena, Madhyamela veena and Achyutarajendra veena. Madyamela veena is considered as originated from a product of imagination of raga. He described twenty melas, beginning with Mukhari and 64 janya ragas. The veena with 24 frets is the final stage of Ramamatyas technical strategy of Suddamela, Madyamela and Reghunada mela. He speaks of 70 ragas under 20 principal scale of melas. Several other techniques of music have been elaborated in his book Sangeeta Ratnakara.


Venkitamakin or Venkateshwara of 17 th century in southern part of India, wrote the famous work Chaturdandi Prakasika. The word chaturdandi refers to the four parts of raga - they are satayi, sanchari, aroha and avaroha. It also mentioned about 72 mela karta scheme divided in ten chapters. The first and comparatively the most important one is Vinaprakarana, which could not be traced. The theme which are highly focused upon by Venkatamakin are Gita, Prabanda, Taya and Alapa. From this important work one gets an idea about how the 17 svaras of Chaturdandi could be played on a veena and how they could be executed by the Vocalist. In his work Ragaprakarana, he elaborates the raga which originates from mela. He made an attempt to codify ragas under melas. According to him, by mechanically manipulating the svara it is possible to derive 72 melas.

Two brothers - Hindustani and Carnatic.

The two styles in Indian music came to be known as Hindustani and Carnatic. Popular belief is that the famous musician Amir Khusrau is the cause of the separate development of the Hindustani music. Hindustani music began to strictly observe a time theory of ragas. It took six ragas as primary and also arranged them in the analogy of family relationship i.e.. husband and wife, son and daughter etc. The six primary ragas are Bhairava, Kaushika, Hindola, Dipak, Sriraga, and Megh. These are composed in such a way suitable for the mood in different times of the day. For instance, Bhairava is suitable for performance at dawn, Mega in morning time. Dipak and Sriraga in the afternoon, Hindola and Kaushik at night. One of the external influence of the Indian music may be from the Persian music. It brought about a changed perspective in the style of Morth Indian music. In 15th century  due to the Royal patronage given to the classical music, the devotional Dhruvapad transformed to the dhrupad form of singing.

The Khayal developed as a new form of singing in the 18th century. Khayal is a word developed from the Persian language. It means idea or imagination. Its origin is attributed to Amir Khusrau. Unlike the dhrupad, kahyal is more delicate and romantic, and more freedom in structure and form. The Gharana system in Khayal was much influenced by the decline of Mughal empire. As the musicians of the Mughal empire moved to settle in different Princely states, different Gharanas were formed. Thus the Indian classical music developed from a religious tradition to an independent secular tradition. It also has the influence from the folk and regional music traditions which helped the Indian music to develop its own characteristic. It is since then that the two school of music Hindustani and Carnatic got its status. But in Carnatic music though there are indications in regard of time , the rigour is not strictly adhered to. In the scientific line of Carnatic music, the melakarta system conceives of janaka (parent) raga and janya (derivative) raga. Chaturdandi prakashika of Venkitamahin became the bed rock of Carnatic system. He made it in such a way that any raga, old, obsolate, current,or even of the future could be brought in.

Both this traditions started to have its distinct features from the 15th century onwards. Though both of the music traditions have their elements derived from the Natyashastra of Bharata, the Carnatic music is kriti based and sahitya oriented. The Hindustani music emphasis the musical structure and the possibilities of improvisation in it. Hindustani music adopted an octave of natural notes or a scale of ‘ Shuddha Svara Saptaka while Carnatic music retained the traditional octave. Both of them assimilated constantly from the folk tunes and regional tilts. It helped to elevate many regional folk tunes and tilts them to the status of ragas.

Yoga Musci

Indian music is the part of the spiritual consciousness in the Indian subcontinent. Earlier the temples were the places of musical orchestrations. The spiritual ecstasy, the devotee reached in participation of the musical consorts became the feature of temple pilgrimage. The Royal patronage for the musicians were so tremendous that it led to the development of the music in accidence with the geographical areas. The influence of the western music also has its effects on the Indian music. But the structure of Indian music became so dynamic that it accommodated all the positive vibes from all spheres of life and went on with its unique identity.



  • Basham, A.L (1975), A cultural history of India, Clarendon Press, Oxford
  • Vatsyayan, Kapila (1996), The Natyasastra 6; Sahatya Akademy, New Delhi
  • Rajaram, Kalpana (2013), Facets of Indian culture, Spectrum books, New Delhi
  • http://www.nadsadhna.com