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Origins of classical music in India
A quick non-comprehensive overview of how we got to the current state.
The Indian subcontinent has been inhabited by peoples (humans) for over 50,000 years. The earliest known civilization with roads, sanitation, and houses, was about 5000 years back. We knew they had music. Given the ethnolinguistic diversity of the area, it’s possible there were several forms of song and dance prevalent in the area.
Why is it called Indian “classical” music?
Two reasons: Traditional - meaning the art form itself is many centuries old and the basic structure (form) of composition has been defined, documented, and templatized for a few centuries now. Some of the compositions sung today are songs written centuries ago, sung exactly note to note. While modern classical musicians generate new templates, they’re derivative of the original.
Central to understanding the traditional performing arts in India is the 5th century BCE Sanskrit encyclopedic treatise on performing art called Natya Shastra. I quote:
It (Natya Shastra) is also notable for its aesthetic "Rasa" theory, which asserts that entertainment is the desired effect of performance arts but not the primary goal, and that the primary goal is to transport the individual in the audience into another parallel reality, full of wonder, where (s)he experiences the essence of their consciousness; and reflects on spiritual and moral questions.
The book outlines dramatic performances, songs, dances, and also includes a list of instruments and rhythmic structures - in essence, the archetypes for “the performing arts”. A modern-day screenplay with sheet music and choreography. Many of the traditional dance forms from India still find their origins in this treatise.
Natya shastra defines the harmonic scale, with fixed intervals and they form the backbone of all Indian classical music. There are folk song forms that emerged in local communities but have not been documented, and therefore not considered “classical” for that reason. The (western) classical style of music matches this definition. Unlike the Western scale, Indian classical music is not centred around 440Hz but is relative to the root note (Sa). Modern arrangements of Indian classical music rely on guitars and synthesizers, so both can co-exist in the same musical dimension.
You can see the “Svara” or notes - Sa, Re, Ga, Ma and their equivalents in western music.
The Sa, Ri/e, Ga ma correspond to the C Maj scale on the Piano.
5ish min 🎶 reco - Raag Bhupali / Bhup / Bhoop
Listen to this Bandish by Vid. Kishori Amonkar in the Raag Bhup/Bhoop. It’s one of the first Raags taught to students with Raag Yaman (Aiman) and Raag Bhairav being the others. This is one of the best compositions in Bhoop with a performance to match.
Here’s what you got to know about Bhup. It’s a pentatonic scale with all Major notes. Most songs in this Raag (mode) is set to the “Bhakti Ras” - meant to evoke spiritual or devotional feelings. A sense of intoxication where “They forget themselves and long only to be in the presence of the Lord.” (#)
I was curious once to see which was the oldest form of music that was played/sung verbatim. The answer to the question is The song of the Seikilos. Listen to that song, played exactly the way it was written 2000 years back.
Disclaimer: I’m fact-checking as much as I can and also learning constantly. If you find an error or know more about these topics, please write to itsmeritesh @ gmail dot com.