Indian Classical Music

The classical music of India sounds very different from that of Europe, which is what most Western listeners imagine when they hear the word “classical.” Whereas Western classical music is traditionally all written out ahead of time, with very little room for improvisation, in Indian music a performance is typically based on a fixed melodic framework called a raga, which is governed rhythmically by a tala. Within the structure of the raga and the tala, the instrumentalist improvises both melodically and rhythmically; the improvisation itself represents the substance of the performance. In this sense Indian classical music is more closely related to American jazz, and as in the case of jazz, the quality of a performance is judged significantly by the musician’s skill at responding creatively to the music while working within the rules of the melodic and rhythmic structure.

Another significant difference between Western classical music and that of India is that whereas Western classical music (especially prior to the 20th century) focuses strongly on harmonic development, while leaving melody relatively simple and rhythm very simple indeed, Indian classical music foregoes harmonic development entirely, while developing both melody and rhythm to a very high degree of sophistication. To Western ears attuned to melodies constructed from the diatonic scale, with occasional excursions into the chromatic, the microtonal ornaments and melismas of Indian classical improvisation may not even sound like melody at all; and to those used to counting in 4/4, 3/4, and 6/8 time, it can seem impossible to keep track of the long and complicated rhythmic cycles of a tala

It is worth noting that each raga is written with an emotional purpose in mind: particular ragas are intended to be performed at specific times of day or year, and are intended to evoke specific moods. An Indian musician can sometimes court controversy, for example, by playing a morning raga during an afternoon or evening performance. Audiences tend to be well educated and knowledgeable, and concert listeners can often be seen marking the beats of a tala by quietly tapping different fingers together or turning their hands up and down along with the rhythm. During a concert, the audience may react with applause to particularly exciting or skillful passages of interpretation.

There are two main schools of Indian classical music: that of the North (Hindustani) and that of the South (Carnatic). The differences between them may not be immediately apparent to the casual listener, but are still quite significant. For example, there tends to be more rhythmic intensity in Carnatic music, and more of the music in a performance will have been composed ahead of time rather than improvised on the spot. Hindustani music can itself be subdivided into two broad subgenres, khayal and dhrupad; the former is a more modern form and the latter much more ancient. The Hindustani and Carnatic styles have somewhat distinct instrumental traditions: you are more likely to hear the sitar, the bansuri, the shehnai, and the tabla in Hindustani music, while Carnatic musicians favor such instruments as the veena, the mridingam, the venu, and the gottuvadyam. Singing is much more common in Carnatic than in Hindustani music.

To those approaching it for the first time, the classical music of India may seem dauntingly complex and foreign. But, just as with all other musical traditions, it’s completely possible to enjoy it without fully understanding it; the structure and rules of the music create patterns that anyone can simply relax and enjoy. And the richness and complexity of this music mean that one can always learn a little more about it, and thereby gain even more pleasure from it.

Slide Guitar Ragas from Dusk Till Dawn cover

While Dhebashish Bhattacharya is not the first musician to have adopted the slide guitar as an instrument for use in Hindustani classical music (that distinction probably belongs to Brij Bhushan Kabra), he is by far the foremost living exponent of the instrument. He has designed unique instruments suited to Indian music (with lots of drone strings, among other innovations) and has demonstrated how classical tradition can continue to thrive within a context of modern expansion. On this album he plays a series of original raga-based compositions, each oriented towards a different hour of the day or night. Occasionally you will hear slightly hints of Western influence (an apparent blues lick here and there, for instance), but this is music that balances a progressive outlook with deep respect for tradition.

Nine Decades, Vol. 1: 1967-1968 cover

Sitar player Ravi Shankar was such a prolific and widely beloved musician, and recorded in such a wide variety of musical styles, that it can seem impossible for the newcomer to know where to begin. I would suggest beginning at the beginning: this is the first volume in a series of recordings that trace Shankar’s long career decade by decade. Its program centers on Raga Gangeshwari, which Shankar elaborates over the course of a 48-minute-long performance recorded on a handheld microphone during a concert on the banks of the Ganges in 1968. The sound quality isn’t ideal, but the music itself is exquisite and provides a unique window on the mind of a musician who is just setting out to change the world.

Amrtavahini: Live Concert at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha cover

Although there is some dispute about the details, the violin seems to have been adopted for use in the Carnatic school of Indian classical music at some point in the early 19th century. Because it has no frets and is therefore capable of great microtonal subtlety, the violin is ideally suited to the needs of this music, and many Indian musicians have adopted it. This live recording finds two leading exponents of Carnatic violin playing together on a series of compositions in a variety of rhythmic patterns or talas, accompanied by the mridingam and a small frame drum called a kanjira. The sound quality is excellent, and both Krishnan and Vijayalakshmi play with admirable invention.

Heritage India (Kala Utsav Concerts, Vol. 4) cover

Among European instruments, the mandolin is not the most obvious fit for use in Indian classical music: it has a very short neck and extremely limited sustain. But the young virtuoso U. Srinivas was drawn to its sound, and made some adaptations: instead of stringing it in the typical way with eight strings in four courses, he equipped his mandolin with five single strings, and added an electric pickup to increase its sustain. Playing through an amplifier with subtle added effects (notably reverb), he created a new and unique sound in Carnatic music. This live album, recorded with a warm and intimate acoustic, finds him working in jugalbandi format with a violinist, and their sound is magnificent. U. Srinivas was consistently one of the most exciting musicians working in the Carnatic tradition, and this is a fine example of his artistry.

Felicitation: A Bouquet of Melodies cover

The Indian santoor is more or less the same instrument as the Western hammered dulcimer: a trapezoidal box on which multi-coursed strings are stretched across individual bridges, and are struck with light wooden hammers to create a bright and percussive but highly lyrical sound. Ulhas Bapat is one of the foremost exponents of this instrument in Indian classical music, and on this album he is accompanied by tabla player Vishwanath Shirodkar on a selection of lovely melodies that show off the santoor's unique tonalities. Since the instrument is relatively inflexible — there is no way to play any pitches between the notes of the scale to which it’s tuned — the santoor poses particular interpretive challenges, which Bapat overcomes masterfully.

Tabla: The Zakir Hussain Way cover

As one of the world’s greatest tabla players, Zakir Hussain has been in demand as a session musician for decades. And he hasn’t limited himself to the classical music for which his instrument is most famous; he has played on countless movie soundtracks and with jazz and world musicians all over the globe. This album provides a great introduction to his artistry in the classical style: he performs three common talas, or rhythmic patterns, with extended elaborations. As a pure listening experience this may not be an ideal recording, but it makes a great resource for those who want to get a sense of how the tabla works and of the general rhythmic structure of classical Indian music.

Indian Architexture cover

Ali Akbar Khan was one of the greatest Indian classical musicians who ever lived, and was widely regarded as the greatest exponent of the sarod, an important instrument in the Hindustani tradition. A fretless lute-like instrument with a broad fingerboard and a relatively mellow tone, the sarod is an exceptionally difficult instrument to play well, and Khan mastered it to an unusual degree. On this album he is accompanied by tabla player Sri Swapan Chaudhuri on a set of four ragas, each of which he follows on a journey from meditative exploration to thrilling, virtuosic improvisation.

Masterworks from the NCPA Archives cover

The Carnatic singer Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi was born into a musical family and began training as a singer while still a small child. This recording from 1978 (remastered for digital release from the original master tapes — it sounds amazing) finds her at the peak of her powers, performing sixteen ragas with the astounding vocal nimbleness and richness of tone that were the hallmarks of her style. She is accompanied on some tracks by by a violinist and a mridingam player, and on others by what sounds like a sarangi. This is a magnificent album overall.

Archives 17.02.1992 (Collection Théâtre de la Ville) cover

Hariprasad Chaurasia is widely considered the finest living exponent of the bansuri, the bamboo flute that is used extensively within the Hindustani tradition of Indian classical music. In Chaurasia’s hands, the instrument yields an unusual degree of nimbleness and flexibility, and his ability to generate new musical ideas within the structure of a given raga really is unparalleled. This live recording from 1992 makes an excellent introduction to his art, and the fact that he’s accompanied by the world-class tabla player Zakir Hussein just makes it that much more exciting; second flute player Rupak Kulkarni also provides able backing.

Taras: The Longing cover

The sarangi is an interesting instrument—visually it’s kind of squat and ugly, but it produces a unique and lovely sound, somewhere between a violin and an erhu. If you want an introduction to the instrument, you could hardly do better than this recording of Raga Puriya Kalyan played by sarangi master Ustad Sultan Khan, accompanied by the great Zakir Hussain on tabla. The raga is performed in an highly extended arrangement, the initial alap section being followed by two gats in the same raga, each almost half an hour in length. The interaction of these two internationally-renowned virtuosos must be heard to be believed, particularly on the thrilling Drut Gat in Teental.

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