The origin of Indian music is enshrined in beautiful tales and legends. The goddess of music and Arts, Saraswati, who is also the goddess of learning, is portrayed as seated on a white lotus playing the vina. Shiva, also called Nataraja, is supposed to be the creator of sangita, and his mystic dance symbolizes the rhythmic motion of the universe. He transmitted the knowledge of cosmic dance to the rishi Bharata, through one of his ganas, Tandu. The dance is called tandava and Bharata thus became the first teacher of music to men, and even to apsaras, the heavenly dancers. Similarly, the rishi Narada, who is depicted as endlessly moving about the universe playing on his vina and singing, is believed to be another primeval teacher of music.
Curt Sachs (1881-1959), who played a leading role among early modern scholars in the study of musical instruments and their musical and cultural contexts, has said that the South Indian drum tambattam was known in Babylonia under the name of timbutu, and the South Indian kinnari shared its name with King David’s kinnor. The German scholar Walafrid Strabo (circa 809–849) referred to it, pointing out that the Greeks believed that their music, from the triple point of view of melody, rhythm, and instruments, came to them originally from Thrace and Asia. Arrian, the biographer of Alexander, also mentions that the Indian were great lovers of music and dance from earliest times. The Greek writers, who made the whole of Asia, including India, the sacred territory of Dionysos, claimed that the greater part of music was derived from Asia. Thus, one of them, speaking of the lyre, would say that he caused the strings of the Asian cithara to vibrate. Aristotle describes a type of lyre in which strings were fastened to the top and bottom, which is reminiscent of the Indian type of single-stringed ektantri vina. The well-known Arab writer Jahiz, recording the popularity of Indian music at the Abbasid Court, mentions an Indian instrument known as kankalah, which was played with a string stretched on a pumpkin. This instrument would appear to be the kingar, which is made with two gourds. Knowledge of Indian music in the Arab world is evidenced by an Arab author from Spain, who refers to a book on Indian tunes and melodies. The ancient kinnari-vina or kin, became known in China as thekhin, a stringed instrument said to have been played by the first Emperor, Fu-Hi (circa 3000 BC), The khin is further mentioned in ancient Chinese chronicles such as the Chi Ki (2nd century B.C.) in reference to events of the 6th or 7th century. According to the Li Ki, Confucius (551-478) always had his khin with him at home, and carried it when he went for a walk or on a journey.
Sir Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999), American-born violinist, one of the foremost virtuosos of his generation, has written: «We would find all, or most, strands beginning in India; for only in India have all possible modes been investigated, tabulated, and each assigned a particular place and purpose. Of these many hundreds, some found their way to Greece; others were adopted by nomadic tribes such as the Gypsies; others became the mainstay of Arabic music. Indian classical music... forms a complete perfected world of its own, which any admixture could only debase. It has, quite logically and rightly, rejected those innovations which have led the development of Western music into the multiple channels which have enabled our art to absorb every influence under the sun. Freedom of development in Indian music is accorded to the performer, the individual, who, within fixed limits, is free to improvise without any restraint imposed externally by other voices, whether concordance or discordant — but not to the basic style, which exclude polyphony and modulation» (Indian and Western Music).
Claude Alvares has said that the Indian system of talas, the rhythmical time-scale of Indian classical music, has been shown (by contemporary analytical methods) to possess an extreme mathematical complexity. The basis of the system is not conventional arithmetic, however, but more akin to what is known today as pattern recognition.
Sound (nada) is believed to be the heart of the process of creation. Sangita is an old as Indian contacts with the Western world, and it has graduated through various strata of evolution: primitive, prehistoric, Vedic, classical, mediaeval, and modern. It has travelled from temples and courts to modern festivals and concert halls, imbibing the spirit of Indian culture, and retaining a clearly recognizable continuity of tradition. Whilst the words of songs have varied and altered from time to time, many of the musical themes are essentially ancient.
The music of India is one of the oldest unbroken musical traditions in the world. It is said that the origins of this system go back to the Vedas. Sangita, which originally meant drama, music and dance, was closely associated with spiritual philosophy. The highest musical experience is ânanda, the “divine bliss”.
The Indian music tradition can be traced to the Indus-Saraswati Valley civilization. Alain Danielou, head of the UNESCO “Institute for Comparative Musicology”, has written: «Under the name of Gandharva Vedas, a general theory of sound with its metaphysics and physics appears to have been known to the ancient Hindus». The ancient Hindus were familiar with the theory of sound and its metaphysics and physics. The hymns of the Rig Veda contain the earliest examples of words set to music, and by the time of the Sama Veda a complicated system of chanting had been developed. By the time of the Yajur Veda, a variety of professional musicians had appeared, such as lute players, drummers, flute players, and conch blowers.
Indian music is based upon a system of “ragas” and is improvised or composed at the moment of performance. The notes which are to convey certain definite emotions or ideas are selected with extreme care from the twenty-five intervals of the shruti scale and then grouped to form a raga, a mode or a melodic structure of a time. It is upon this basic structure that a musician or singer improvises according to his feeling at the time. Structural melody is the most fundamental characteristic of Indian music. The term raga is derived from Sanskrit root ranj or raj, literally meaning to colour but figuratively meaning to tinge with emotion. The essential of a raga is its power to evolve emotion. The term has no equivalent in Western music, although the Arabic maqam iqa corresponds to it. Oversimplified, the concept of raga is to connect musical ideas in such a way as to form a continuous whole based on emotional impact. There are, however, mixed ragas combined in a continuous whole of contrasting moods. Technically, raga is defined as “essentially a scale with a tonic and two axial notes”, although it has additional characters.
The word raga appears in Bharata’s Natyashastra, and a similar concept did exist at the time, but it was Matanga (5th century) who first defined raga in a technical sense as «that kind of sound composition, consisting of melodic movements, which has the effect of colouring the hearts of men». This definition remains valid today. Before the evolution of the raga concept in Bharata’s time, jati tunes with their fixed, narrow musical outlines constituted the mainstay of Indian music. These were only simple melodic patterns without any scope for further elaboration. It was out of these jati tunes that a more comprehensive and imaginative form was evolved by separating their musical contents and freeing them from words and metres.
Indeed a raga is basically a feeling, the expression of which has come to be associated with certain notes and twists of melody. A musician may compose in the same raga an indefinite number of times, and the music can be recognized in the first few notes, because the feelings produced by the musician’s execution of these notes are intensely strong. The effect of Indian music is cumulative rather than dramatic. As the musician develops his discourse in his raga, it eventually colours all the thoughts and feelings of the listeners. Clearly, the longer a musician can dwell on and extend the theme with artistic intensity the greater the impact on the audience.
Raga is the basis of melody in Indian music and a substitute for the western scale.
Indian ragas are also supposed to be able to reproduce the conditions and emotions associated with them.
Alain Danielou wrote: «Unlike Western music, which constantly changes and contrasts its moods, Indian music, like Arabic and Persian, always fixes in one particular emotion which it develops, explain and cultivates, upon which it insists, and which it exalts until it creates in the hearer a suggestion almost impossible to resist. The musician, if he is sufficiently skilled, can lead his audiences through the magic of sound to a depth and intensity of feeling undreamt of in other musical systems» (North-Indian Music).
Ananda Coomaraswamy has written: «Indian music is essentially impersonal, reflecting an emotion and an experience which are deeper and wider and older than the emotion or wisdom of any single individual. Its sorrow is without tears, its joy without exultation and it is passionate without any loss of serenity. It is in the deepest sense of the word all-human» (The Dance of Shiva).
The possible number of ragas is very large, but the majority of musical systems recognize 72 (thirty-sixjanaka or fundamental, thirty six janya or secondary). New ragas, however, are being invented constantly, as they have always been, and a few of them will live to join the classical series. Many of the established ragas change slowly, since they embody the modes of feeling meaningful at a particular time. It is for this reason that it is impossible to say in advance what an Indian musician will play, because the selection of raga is contingent upon his feelings at the precise moment of performance.
Indian music recognizes seven main and two secondary notes or svara. Representing definite intervals, they form the basic or shuddha scale. They can be raised or lowered to form other scales, known in their altered forms as vikrita. The chanting of theSama Veda employed three to four musical intervals, the earliest example of the Indian tetrachord, which eventually developed into a full musical scale. From vaguely defined musical intervals to a definite tetrachord and then to a full octave of seven shuddhaand five vikrita was a long, continuous, and scientific process. For instance, Bharata’s Natya-Shastra, the earliest surviving work on Indian aesthetics variously dated between the second century BC and the fourth century AD, in its detailed exposition of Indian musical theory, refers to only two vikrita notes, antara and kakali. But in the Sangita Ratnakara, an encyclopaedia of Indian music attributed to Sarngadeva (1210-1247), the number of vikrita is no less than nineteen.
The scale as it exists today has great possibilities for musical formations, and it has a very extensive range included in the microtonal variations. The microtones, the twenty-two shrutis, are useful for determining the correct intonation of the notes, their bases, and therefore their scales (grama). The Indian scale allows the musician to embellish his notes, which he always endeavours to do, because grace plays the part in Indian music that harmony does in European music.
Whilst Indian music represents the most highly evolved and the most complete form of modal music, the musical system adopted by ore than one-third of mankind is Western music based on a highly developed system of harmony, implying a combination of simultaneously produced tones. Western music is music without microtones and Indian music is music without harmony. The strongly developed harmonic system of Western music is diametrically opposed in conception and pattern to the melodic Indian system.
The fundamental and most important difference between the European and Indian systems of rhythm is respectively one of multiplication and addition of the numbers two and three. The highly developed tala, or rhythmic system with its avoidance of strict metre and its development by the use of an accumulating combination of beat subdivisions, has no parallel in Western music. On the other hand, the Indian system has no exact counterpart to the tone of the tempered system, except for the keynote, of Western music. Consequently, just and tempered intonations are variously conceived which eliminate the possibility of combining the melodic interval theory of the shruti system with the Western modulating, harmonic, arbitrarily tempered theory of intervals. With its tempered basis, larger intervals, and metred rhythms, Western music, is more easily comprehended than Indian music, which seems to require a certain musical aptitude and ability to understand its use of microtones, the diversification of the unmetred tala, and the subtle and minutely graded inflection.
There is much that is common to both the Hindu and European systems. Arthur Witten writes: «Their[Hindus] scale undoubtedly resembles our diatonic mode, and consists of seven sounds, which are extended to three octaves, that being the compass of the human voice. Their voices and music, like ours, are divided into three distinct classes. The bass, called odarah, or lowest notes; the tenor, called madurrah, or middle notes; the soprano, called the tarrah, or upper notes. The similarity of the formation of the ancient Hindu scale to our modern system is noteworthy».
Sir William Wilson Hunter (1840 -1900) says: «A regular system of notation was worked out before the age of Panini, and seven notes were designated by their initial letters. This notation passed from the Brahmins through the Persians to Arabia, and was thence introduced into European music by Guido d’Arezzo at the beginning of the eleventh century».
Leopold Stotowski, Yehudi Meuhudin and others have spoken in glowing words of the subtle intricacies of Indian rhythm.
The ancient Western world was aware of the existence of a highly developed system of Indian music. Musical time in India, more obviously then elsewhere, is a development from the prosody and metres of poetry. The insistent demands of language and the idiosyncrasies of highly characteristic verse haunt the music, like a presence which is not to be put by. The time-relations of music are affected both by the structure of the language and by the method of versification which ultimately derives from it. Until late, there was practically no prose in India and everything had to be learnt through the medium of verse chanted to regular rules. Both in Sanskrit and in the vernacular all syllables are classified according to their time-lengths, the unit of time being a matra. Very short syllables of less than a matra also occur. Great stress has always been laid by Indian grammarians upon giving the exact value to syllables inverse; and as there is no accent at all in Indian verse the time-length is all important. This may account for the great development of time-measures in Indian music.
Many of the great musical cultures outside of Europe and North America not only are of equal rank with Western music, but surpass it in certain fields. In terms of rhythm, for example, the music of Africa and that of India are far richer than almost anything brought forth in the West.
Curt Sachs considers India the possible source of eastern rhythms, having the oldest history and one of the most sophisticated rhythmic development. It is probably no accident that Sanskrit is the one language in which there is no pre-determined accent upon the long and short syllables; the accents are determined by the way in which it falls in the sentence. Each section of the Rig Veda has a distinct rhythm associated with each section so that the two aspects are learned as one.
The two earliest Greek scales, the Mixolydic and the Doric, have an affinity to early Indian scales. There are parallels between the two systems, which may or may not be connected. It is certainly true that the seven note scale with three octaves was known in India long before the Greeks were familiar with it. Pythagoras scheme of cycle of the fifth and cycle of the fourth in his system of music is exactly the same as the sadjapancama and sajamadhyama bhavas of Bharata.
Many technical terms for Arab music were borrowed from Persia and India. Indian music, too, was influenced in return, incorporating Persio-Arab airs, such as Yeman and Hiji from Hijaz. At the beginning of their rise to power, the Arabs themselves had hardly any musical system worth noting and mainly practiced the existing system in the light of Greek theory. Since Indian contact with western Asia had been close and constant, it would appear likely that the Arabic maqam iqa is the Persian version of the Indian melodic rhythmic system, traga tala, which had existed for more than a thousand years before maqam iqa was known.
In Hindu mythology the various departments of life and learning are usually associated with different rishis and so to one of these is traced the first instruction that men received the art of music. Bharata rishi is said to have taught the art to the heavenly dancers — the Apsaras — who afterwards performed before Lord Shiva. The Rishi Narada, who wanders about in earth and heaven, singing and playing on his vina, taught music to men. Among the inhabitants of Indra’s heaven we find bands of musicians. The Gandharvas are the singers, the Apsaras, the dancers, and the Kinnaras performers on musical instruments. From the name Gandharva has come the title Gandharva Veda for the art of music.
Sound is said to be of two kinds, one a vibration of ether, the other a vibration of air. The vibration of ether, which remains unperceived by the physical sense, is considered the principle of all manifestation, the basis of all substance. It corresponds with what Pythagoras called the “music of the spheres” and forms permanent numerical patterns which lie at the very root of the world’s existence. This kind of vibration is not due to any physical shock, as are all audible sounds. It is therefore called anahata, “unstruck”. The other kind of sound is an impermanent vibration of the air, an image of the ether vibration of the same frequency. It is audible, and is always produced by a shock. It is therefore called ahata or “struck”.
Thus, the Sangita Makaranda (I 4-6) says: «Sound is considered to be of two kinds, unstruck and struck. Sound produced from ether is known as unstruck. In this unstruck sound the Gods delight. The Yogis, the great spirits, projecting their minds by an effort of the mind into this unstruck sound, attain liberation».
«Struck sound is said to give pleasure, ‘unstruck’ sound gives moksha» (Narada Purana), the liberation from all the discordances of the lower nature.