Indian music – Past, Present and Future

By Bhushan Toshniwal

Bhushan Toshniwal is a National Level Singer of Hindustani and Carnatic Classical and Semi-classical Music and a Motivational Speaker performing all over India. He is a graded artist of All-India Radio and Doordarshan.Has come first all over India in Sangeet Alankar all over India.

“O! What soothing music! Takes out all the toxin from mind.” I told my friend Arnav after listening to a music performance. “Ok. I also kind of liked it. But Abhinav, I do not understand what this person sang. This music is foreign to my ears. I am a fan of modern film music, and rock music, which stimulates the mind, and one feels like dancing on the bits of it.” “Ha-ha! You are right. Rock music makes your body dance, but our Indian music makes your mind dance.”

“May be because you have been listening to this music for some time now, you feel like it. I felt like I am watching a test match. This music started too slowly for my liking. Only towards the end it was fast and energetic. Especially in the beginning, I almost felt like sleeping.” “In the beginning, this happens.

A rendition of a raga is like building a long strong innings in a cricket match, or constructing a tall building with a solid foundation. An artist’s talent, technique and temperament are tested while he elaborates a raga. In a cricket match a good batsman takes his time to get used to the pitch and bounce of the ball, after settling a bit, he starts taking singles and twos and rotates the strike. Later, when he is completely settled, he increases his rate of scoring and also entertains the public by playing good cricket shots. Like that, an artist begins a raga performance, with a slow alap, in which he and the listeners start to get the feel of the raga. Then he takes a composition in{ a }slow tempo, and using his creativity, starts elaborating each note of the raga, according to its importance, keeping in mind various rules of the raga.

Now, he and the listeners have merged with the mood of the raga, so he starts increasing the tempo of the performance, and entertains the listener with his command over Laya, while playing with the notes of the raga. As you are not used to this process, you felt like sleeping {at} the beginning of the performance. But if you want peace of mind, relaxation from your daily stress of work, this music is the best medicine.”

Afterwards I asked Arnav to come to several music concerts, and slowly he too started liking Indian music. One day he asked me, “Hey Abhinav, I have started liking this music, and I have observed that this music is not just relieving my stress, but also is making me fresh and enthusiastic to work more. But what is there in this music, which the western pop music doesn’t have?”

“This music has evolved over a long period of time. Moreover, it is tailor maid for Indian climate.” “So is there a relationship between climate and music?” “Yes. In western countries climate is extremely cold, so those people need to create {bodily} heat and energy by dancing. That’s why their music is very vigorous and has fast speed. India has also several classical and folk dance forms, which require musical accompaniment, but their purpose is quite different.   We live in hot climate, so here is more need for relaxation of mind, so our music is more soothing.” “Ok. So you said this music has a long tradition. Can you tell me about it?”

“Indian music is the most ancient in the world. Sama Veda is the most ancient book written on music. Our music started with 3 notes, and by Sama Veda’s time, we had invented all the 7 notes VIZ. Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, and Ni. RE, GA, Ma Dha and Ni have 2 forms each, so the total number of notes became 12. These 12 notes form the {backbone} of any form of music in the world.”

“So these notes exist in all forms of music?”

“Yes. Only their names differ in various cultures. For example, in western music, they are known as Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, and T. In Iran there are different names for the same.”

“What is a Raga?”

“A raga is a set of notes, with a particular ascent and descent. These notes should be used in particular patterns. Some notes are given more importance, while others are not as important. Within these given rules, an artist has to improvise, which is called raga elaboration,”

So based on the importance of notes, can there be more than one Raga in a given scale?

“Yes. Let’s take a set of notes containing Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Dha, and Ni. While elaborating this scale if I project Re and Dha more, than it becomes one raga, however if I project Ga and Ni more, it becomes another raga. This is because when you project different notes in a scale, the mood or the emotion expressed through these notes, becomes different.”

This means, a Raga denotes certain emotions?

“Yes. While developing a raga, an artist is telling a story. He is trying to project certain emotions }through the notes.” Even while anyone forms a new raga, care should be taken that it should be appealing to the human ear and should be heart-touching.”

Is the Raga music, the only form of Indian music?

“No. In ancient times, Indian music was broadly classified in 2 types ,  Deshi “folk music”, and Margi “devotional music”. Folk music originated in different parts of India, and there are songs sung on every occasion right from the birth of a child, marriage, in various family functions, at wars, when there is good crop in farms, till the death of a person. Many of the ragas have BEEN derived from this folk music, while many folk artists used various ragas to compose their songs.  So we understand that Deshi and Margi Sangeet were exchanging a lot of things among themselves.”

So India has a rich tradition of classical as well as folk music. In medieval era, we had to face many attacks from Mughals and other foreign enemies. Did it impact our tradition?

“India always has been a country, which tried to borrow good things from others. With the exceptions of {THE British, whosoever came to India, became one of us. The Persian culture and Indian culture have always kept {on} exchanging various things with each other, and music was no exception. Based on our raga system, Persians invented their own system known as Makam system. In exchange, Indians borrowed various ragas like Todi, Sahana, Huseini etc. Ragas like Yaman are the result of the mix of Indian and Persian/Arabic music influences.”

I have heard that there are two styles of Indian classical music – Hindustani [prevailing in north-India], and Carnatic [prevailing in south-India]? How did this happen?

“This is because the Mughals couldn’t conquer southern India. In north India people like Tansen were instrumental in popularizing Dhrupad singing, in which the compositions were made in Hindi, Punjabi, Farsi, etc.  While in south India saints like Purandardasa, Thyagaraja, Shyama Shastri, Muthuswami Dikshitar composed various songs in languages such as Sanskrit, Telugu, Kanada, Tamil etc. . Both styles used devotion to different gods as their subjects. Dhrupad style also contains some compositions, which praise the Mughal kings. With the mix of Indian dhrupad and Persian Qawwali, the Khayal form of singing came into existence around 18th century AD. By this time, Mughal emperors were not interested in devotional music, they started enjoying the music performed by courtesans, due to which the khayal compositions contain poetry about love between man and woman, family difficulties faced by women, etc, along with devotional songs.  This khayal form of singing is popular in present times in the north Indian classical system. In Carnatic the songs composed by the above-mentioned saints are called Krithis, along with another form called Ragam Tanam Pallavi, [similar to dhrupad} are popular.”

What are the similarities and differences between north and south Indian systems?

“Both have the same base of the above mentioned 7 notes. Both have the concept of ragas, and talas. Sangeet ratnakar, a book written by Sharangadev in 12th century AD, forms the { base for both the systems. However the singing techniques, the method of elaborating THE raga are a bit different in both the systems. There are certain common ragas in both systems, but their names are different. For example, the raga known as Malkauns in north India, is known by the name Hindolam in south. Yaman of north is known as Kalyani in south etc. Now due to easy availability of music through internet, and because of the more open mentality of musicians from both the systems, there is a lot of exchange taking place. The south Indian ragas like Abhogi, Hamsadhwani, Sarasvati, {Keervani have become popular in THE north, while north Indian ragas like Jog, Madhuvanti, Rageshri, Patadeep, darbari kanada, Desh have become popular in south. South Indians look up to the north Indians for their tonal quality, while the rhythmic aspect of south is becoming more accepted in north. Having said all this, the process is just beginning.”

If Raga music is so soothing and so melodious, why is it not as popular as Bollywood music?

“Because to understand raga music one needs to understand the language of musical notes, in other forms of music, more importance is given to the words of the song, so a common man can easily understand it. In classical music, even though there is poetry, it takes a back stage. The Story is told through notes, who’s language is universal, but totally different from the spoken languages like Hindi, English, Marathi etc. just like western classical artists like Mozart or Beethoven convey certain thoughts through their symphonies, Indian classical artists like Pt. Bhimsen Joshi, Dr. M Balamurali Krishna, Pt. Ravi Shankar, MS Subbalakshmi  etc project certain emotions in the minds of the listeners. But to understand this one needs to put in some efforts. To put it in a spiritual language, other forms of music like film songs, ghazals, Qawwalis, Bhajans are Saguna [easily understandable] while raga music is Nirguna [abstract]. When a devotee is on the path of Bhakti, his Sadhana starts from Saguna, wherein he sees god only in temples i.e. in physical form. As his sadhana increases he starts seeing god in everything. Like that in other forms of music, one enjoys the words along with music, which makes it easier to understand. But to understand emotions without words, one needs to have some patience and willingness to put in efforts.”

“True. Another tragedy of us Indians, is that we don’t like what is Indian. We try to imitate westerners, which is good in their countries but not for us.”

“With the exception of the government channels no one is interested in promoting Indian classical music. Many channels broadcast the programmes of classical music late night, when most people go to bed. Music is not taught at the schools, so our children do not know about the great exponents of Indian music like Ustad Amir Khan, Ustad Bade Gulam Ali Khan, Pandit Jasraj etc. so, to popularize this music is not just the responsibility of the government, but everyone who is associated with this music in some or the other capacity.”

One last question. How can we make this rich tradition move forward?

“Just like I introduced you to this music, you can tell some of your friends to come for music concerts. Now there are a lot of lecture demonstrations, through which one can learn about music. Websites like YouTube are playing a good role in taking music to masses. Ironically, our Indian music is becoming more popular in western nations. Various private channels should try and promote this format through informative programmes. Also it is the artist’s responsibility to explain audiences about what they are performing. Where the audience is not much into understanding music, the artists should make their rendition compact and catchy. The poetry used in khayals and other formats should be on modern, or social subjects, to which people can relate. We should realize that classical music is not the form for entertainment, but it is the meditative path for self-discovery. Basic music should be taught through schools or colleges. If people are made aware of the power of various  ragas to cure bodily and psychological diseases, more people would get attracted towards it. I hope, that as inheritors of this rich tradition, we would be able to do our bit towards this noble cause.”

“Sure. “Said Arnav. You have opened my eyes today, and have made me aware of our rich tradition and various challenges. I don’t know about others, but I would certainly try and do my bit to keep this tradition alive. If I can do even a little bit towards this cause, I would think that I have served my country well.”

Note- the characters of Abhinav, and Arnav are entirely fictitious.

I have tried not to get {into much} THE  technical details of music. Being a singer of Hindustani and Carnatic classical music, it is my humble effort to take music to masses. For helping me research this article, I would like to thank musicologists and singers DR. Ramakrishna Das, and DR. Nagaraj Hawaldar.

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