North Indian Classical Music (Hindustani sangita)
Music from the Indian subcontinent is one of the non-Western repertories that has fascinated Western musicians and audiences in recent decades. Improvisation is central to the performance of North Indian classical music (Hindustani music) and is mastered only after years of study with a guru. The skeletal elements from which the improvisation springs are the raga, an ascending and descending pattern of melodic pitches, and the tala, the organization of rhythm within a recurring cycle of beats. Rather than the 12-semitone octave of Western classical music, Indian music divides the octave into 22 parts. Although only some of those 22 pitches are used in a particular raga, the complexity and subtlety of Indian melody is attributable in part to this relatively large vocabulary of pitch material. With respect to temporal organization, Indian music organizes spans of time into cycles of beats, somewhat comparable to the Western concept of meter. But whereas Western composers have worked predominantly in a framework of time spans divided into repeated cycles of two, three, or four beats, the time span of a tala is comprised of units of variable length, for example, a 14-beat tala of four plus three plus four plus three beats. A tala may also be of enormous duration in comparison with a Western measure, which rarely exceeds a few seconds in length.
There are hundreds of talas and thousands of ragas. Each raga has specific extra-musical associations such as a color, mood, season, and time of day. These associations shape the performer’s approach to and the audience’s experience of an improvisation, which can last from a few minutes to several hours. Indian music also has an important spiritual dimension and its history is intimately connected to religious beliefs and practices. As stated by the great sitarist Ravi Shankar, “We view music as a kind of spiritual discipline that raises one’s inner being to divine peacefulness and bliss. The highest aim of our music is to reveal the essence of the universe it reflects….Through music, one can reach God.”
The typical texture in Indian music consists of three functionally distinct parts:
- A drone, the main pitches of the raga played as a background throughout a composition
- Rhythmic improvisations performed on a pair of drums
- Melodic improvisations executed by a singer or on a melody instrument.
One of the most common melody instruments is the sitar, a plucked string instrument with a long neck and a gourd at each end, six or seven plucked strings, and nine to thirteen others that resonate sympathetically. The melody instrument or voice is traditionally partnered by a pair of tablas, two hand drums tuned to the main tones of the pitch pattern upon which the sitar melody is based. The drone instrument is often a tambura, a plucked string instrument with four or five strings each tuned to one tone of the basic scale and plucked to produce a continuous, unvarying drone accompaniment.
A raga performance traditionally opens with the alap, a rhapsodic, rhythmically free introductory section in which the melody instrument is accompanied only by the drone. Microtonal ornaments and slides from tone to tone are typical elements of a melodic improvisation. The entrance of the drums marks the second phase of the performance in which a short composed melodic phrase, the gat, recurs between longer sections of improvisation. Ever more rapid notes moving through extreme melodic registers in conjunction with an increasingly accelerated interchange of ideas between melody and drums produces a gradual intensification as the performance progresses to its conclusion.
South Indian Classical Music (Karnataka sangita)
South Indian classical music (Karnatic or Carnatic music) evolved from ancient Hindu traditions and is relatively free of the Arabic and Islamic influences that contribute to Hindustani music. Karnatic music is primarily vocal and the texts devotional in nature (often in Sanskrit). The instrumental music consists largely of performances of vocal compositions with a melody instrument replacing the voice and staying within a limited vocal range. It is important to note that the vocal style is so advanced that it seems almost instrumental in nature. One could say in Karnatic music that vocal and instrumental styles merge into one. Works in this tradition are normally composed, as opposed to the improvised Hindustani tradition, with new compositions being written every day. Four Karnatic composers of great importance are Purandara Dasa (1494 – 1564), Shayama Shastri (1762 – 1827), Tyagaraja (ca.1767 – 1848), and Muttusvami Dikshitar (1775 – 1835).
Karnatic music uses the same system of raga (scale) and tala (meter) as found in the north, but the systems for classifying raga and tala are more highly developed and consistent, thanks to a long period of growth with a minimum of influence from the outside.
Just as Hindustani instrumental music often follows the formal outline of an alap (slow meditative section exploring the raga), followed by a gat (faster section with percussion accompaniment), many Karnatic compositions are in the form Pallavi: (Opening Section), Anupallavi: (Middle Section), Charanam: (Concluding Section) with an abbreviated pallavi serving as a refrain between subsequent sections and concluding the piece. Towards the end of the composition an improvised section, called the svara kalpana, is often inserted where the vocalist expands on the pitches in the raga while singing with “sa re ga ma” syllables instead of the text. This improvised singing may alternate with a melody instrument, such as a violin,imitating the singer.
Two Western instruments have become a standard part of Karnatic music, the aforementioned violin for melodic use and the hand-pumped harmonium for playing the sustained drone pitches. A present-day concert ensemble might include a lead vocalist, a violin, a mridangam (a two-headed drum functioning as the tabla does in Hindustani music), a ghatam (a large mud pot reinforcing the tala) and one or two tambura (large string instruments performing the drone pitches).