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Indian Classical Music

Background Info by Yogendra
(January 2012)

Indian classical music and its instruments are the basis for the work of India Instruments. But what's so special about this tradition? Yogendra is giving an introduction for beginners.

1. Spirituality - Colouring the Mind
2. Raga and Tala - Heart and Soul
3. North and South India - Two great traditions
4. Form - Dhrupad, Khyal, Thumri and Instrumental Style
5. Performers - Masters of Raga
6. Instruments - Magic of Sound
7. Tradition & Renewal

1. Spirituality - Colouring the Mind

Nada Brahma - "God is vibration" or "the world is sound" - is a central concept of ancient Indian philosophy. The view that the fabric of the cosmos is an interactive dance of finest vibrations is already expressed in the Natya Shastra, a basic work of Indian art theory, written probably between 200 BC and 200 AD- and is now impressively confirmed by modern physics.

Audible and inaudible vibrations

The finest vibrations, Anahata Nada ("unstruck vibration") can only be experienced within in deep meditation after many years of practice, according to the tradition. The audible sounds, Ahata Nada ("struck vibration"), provide easier access to the vibrational level. Music is Nada as well, and so man can get an awareness of his embeddedness in the fabric of the cosmos throughmusical experience - no matter whether he is an active musician or simply a listener.

Emotions as a gateway to the essence

According to the Natya Shastra, all human emotions can be traced back to eight essential emotional qualities: love, joy, pity, terror, courage, fear, disgust and surprise. In everyday life we go through these emotions continuosly in different mixtures. But when an essential emotion is expressed in music, it is possible to experience it without personal involvement in its pure form. Through this experience, called Rasa (literally "juice" or "essence"), the usual identification with our individual personality can be loosened and we can get access to transpersonal bliss. In this process it does not matter whether the Rasa is a "pleasant" (e.g, joy) or an "unpleasant" (e.g. disgust) one - if the experience touches upon the essence, each rasa has the transforming power of dissolving our limited everyday self and merging us with the larger whole.

The power of the raga

The key to the mystical experience of unity in Indian music is called Raga. A well-known definition of Raga says, it is "that which colours the mind". In the classical music traditions of North and South India, there are hundreds of ragas. Many of them are known to music lovers in general, but some are passed on only in oral tradition from student to teacher. Each raga has a distinctiveunique melodic shape that is clearly recognisable for the initiated. This melodic shape is formed by an elaborate set of rules that specifies for each raga exactly, which notes can be played in upwards and downwards movements, where to start or finish a melody line, what ornaments are used, which notes are strong or weak, or completely forbidden, etc etc. If all these rules are followed and if the performer succeeds in deeply tuning in to the specific character of the selected Raga, if the time and place are chosen correctly as well, then a Raga performance can become a mystical experience. Under special circumstances, a Raga may even influence the forces of nature in a magical way: The Mallik family of musicians reports that their ancestors ended a dangerous drought and thus averted a famine in Darbhanga in 1788, simply by singing a monsoon Raga that caused heavy rainfalls totally out of the blue.

From silence to ecstasy

Colouring the mind with Rasa takes time - one hour for the performance of a single Raga is quite common. First, the stringed instrument tanpura, played continuosly throughout the whole performance, creates a shimmering tapestry of drone sound. This drone is the reference for musicians and listeners alike, and the foundation for building the Raga. Then the first melody notes are played or sung, initially slowly and meditatively, phrase by phrase exploring the shape of the Raga, becoming more complex and expansive over time, always revealing new details. The Raga builds up, a pulsating rhythm is established, the movements get faster, longer and more vigorous. And at last the percussion joins in, initially in majestic slow pace in wide circular arcs, but gradually becoming more lively and expressive, going into spontaneous dialogues between melody and rhythm, spinning faster and faster, more and more virtuosic and dynamic, until finally, in a brilliant fireworks, a whirling ecstatic climax is reached and the music ends.

2. Raga and Tala - Heart and Soul

Raga and tala, melody and rhythm, are the soul and the heart of Indian classical music traditions. The Sanskrit word raga is derived from the verb "ranj" which means "colour". Ragas are melodic structures for improvisation and composition, that are supposed to have a certain psychological effect on the audience - figuratively speaking they are to colour the mind. Tala literally means "clap" and refers to the rhythmic level, the vibrant pulse on which the music unfolds.

Rules for ragas

Each of the several hundred known ragas has a very unique individual sound-shape, which distinguishes it from all other ragas. It is defined by an ascending and a descending tonal movement, each with five to seven notes. Often the ascending and descending movement use the same notes, but in some ragas they can also have quite different notes. Sometimes the notes come straight in succession like a scale, but sometimes they also make zigzag movements. Some notes are used plain, almost naked, while others are embellished with refined ornaments. Some notes invite you to stay, others are only touched briefly. Some notes form fixed characteristic sequences, while others are combined and recombined in ever new ways. And all the notes refer to an uninterrupted drone, a shimmering carpet of sound in the background that is usually played by an instrument called tanpura.

Unfolding the structure

From all these rules we get a unique structure for each raga. It can be likened to the vocabulary and the grammar of a language, the steps of a dance or the genetic information of an organism. In order to unfold this structure, the language must be spoken, the dance must be danced, and the organism must grow and develop. Only in this unfolding of the raga it becomes alive and takes on a specific manifestation. This can be a fixed form in a particular composition - like a poem which contains the rules and the beauty of a language. However, most of the raga development happens spontaneously, improvising in the moment - just as we usually do not recite memorised texts when we talk, but express ourselves spontaneously according to the situation.

Magic of the Raga

Each raga has not only a certain formal structure but also an emotional quality, a mood, colour, energy, or whatever you want to call it. E.g. many ragas are associated with a certain time of day, a season or a deity. For centuries, people have also tried to portray the unique character of a raga in the form of paintings and poems. All of these associations may help opening doors to experiencing certain aspects of a raga. However, its full magic can not really be grasped by them. Beyond any words or images, only with abstract sound produced by the carefully refined art of great musicians, a raga can touch our innermost self, become a fresh and ever renewing spring of subtle joy and lead us to a place of deep peace within.

Eternal flow of time

Tala, the rhythmic structure, has an important role in the unfolding of the raga. Talas are not linear like the bars in Western music, but circular - beginning and end are the same, so that the movement basically continues eternally. We know this phenomenon from the clock: Midnight can be called 24:00 as the completion of one day - or 00:00 as the beginning of another. But no matter how we look at it - time is flowing on and on evenly and unchanged. Just like that the tala moves on continuously in even pulses, creating a dynamic framework for the music. Special importance is given to the first beat, the beginning and end of the cycle. The music revolves around this first beat, orbiting it, moving away from it, sometimes apparently even loosing it, until the performers finally release the rhythmic tension by miraculously returning to the first beat together.

Structure of talas

This intuitive, seemingly magical interaction is only possible because each tala has a clearly defined structure. The total number of even pulses in any tala is usually between six and sixteen, divided into sub-groups of 2s, 3s or 4s. In this structure, each pulse is assigned a certain sound that is played on a drum in performances. In addition to its mathematical clarity, the tala thus manifests with a beguiling sensuous quality and characteristic movement. It is precisely this movement that is ticking exactly in the minds of musicians and connoisseurs in the audience alike throughout a concert, creating a sometimes downright intoxicating inner connection.

3. North and South India - Two great traditions

Common roots

In classical Indian music, there are two great traditions today. They differ significantly in their instruments, repertoire, musical vocabulary and forms. Hindustani music is mainly practiced in the North and Carnatic music in the South. They have common roots in the Sama-Veda, in which musical rules for the use of three to seven notes in reciting sacred texts of the Rig-Veda were described. Both music systems are based upon raga as the melodic foundation and tala as the rhythmic principle, both are modal and monophonic, based on vocal performance as aesthetic ideal, transmitted orally by professional musicians, using seven syllables Sa, Re / Ri, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha and Ni, and place great emphasis on improvisation. They have only evolved as two different traditions from the common elements from about the 12th century AD onwards.

Hindustani music

Hindustani music is cultivated throughout the India states north of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, as well as in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Afghanistan. It emerged from the confrontation with Persian influences that came to North India with the Muslim rulers. Stars like Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan and Zakir Hussain have gained worldwide reputation for Hindustani music in the second half of the 20th century. Today, many non-Indians are so intrigued by Hindustani music that they promote and practice it. Together with the large Indian diaspora in Europe, North America, Japan, Australia and the Arab Gulf States they constitute a vibrant community and make sure that high-class concerts of Hindustani music take place outside India regularly. Because of its huge popularity, the next parts of this series will deal with the styles, performers and instruments of Hindustani music in more detail.

Carnatic music

Carnatic music is mainly at home in the four South Indian states Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu and also in the Tamil speaking part of Sri Lanka. Its core are the vocal compositions of great masters, both in the classroom and in concert. Here, the musical structure and the text are equally important. Even if Carnatic music is played on an instrument, it is based on the song - special instrumental compositions are not common. Improvisation in raga and tala takes up less space than in Hindustani music and is often incorporated into the composition. However, Carnatic music has its own form of improvisation in a format called Ragam Tanam Pallavi, consisting of three successive elements: In Ragam the raga unfolds purely melodically without any fixed metre, in Tanam the raga melodies are woven into a rhythmic pulse, and Pallavi consists of a row of improvisations around a recurring short chorus.

Purandara Dasa and the Big Three

The foundations for today's practice were set in the 16th century by Purandara Dasa after Carnatic music had already developed independently for several centuries. In his songs he created an exemplary combination of expression, melodic beauty and rhythmic sophistication. About 1000 of them have survived to the present day. In his texts, he integrated everyday stories and everyday language, but also explanations of philosophical topics. In that way he made the music accessible to a wider audience. Moreover, he developed a teaching method with systematic exercises that is still used in Carnatic music today. The heyday of Carnatic music came in the late 18th and early 19 century with the three composers Tygaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri. Their works form the core of the modern concert repertoire, and they are sometimes revered like saints. Their song lyrics deal mostly with religious or philosophical themes.

Carnatic instruments

The basis for the music is the string instrument tanpura with its long neck and spherical body. The open strings of the tanpura are plucked gently and evenly to produce a continuous drone sound. The violin is particularly capable of imitating the human voice with its melodic flexibility, the long sustained notes and the rhythmic articulation. Therefore it is so often used as accompaniment for the main singer in Carnatic music. But the violin can be a solo instrument as well. The most common solo instrument though is the Saraswati veena, a plucked string instrument that looks similar to the North Indian sitar at first glance. Due to large differences in construction and playing technique, the Saraswati-Vina, has a very distinctive unique sound. Very important in Carnatic music is the rhythmic accompaniment. The main rhythm instrument is the powerful barrel drum mridangam, whith different skins on both ends for bass and treble sounds. In larger ensembles, ghatam, a kind of clay pot, the little tambourine kanjira and the jaw's harp morsing are used as well.

Carnatic concerts

A typical Carnatic concert takes about three hours. It usually starts with several shorter pieces, has a long main piece with Ragam Tanam Pallavi in the middle and finishes again with several shorter and lighter pieces. Often there is also a separate percussion part which climaxes into rousing rhythmic dialogues when several percussionists are involved. High season for concerts every year are December and January with the six-weeks long Madras Music Season in Chennai, one of the largest cultural festivals in the world. Unfortunately in Central Europe, Carnatic music is relatively seldom presented in live concerts.

4. Form - Dhrupad, Khyal, Thumri and Instrumental Style

Singing - The Foundation

In classical North Indian music, there are a number of different styles in which a raga can be performed. Each style has its own rules in the formal structure and aesthetics of sound. But the flexibility and nuances of the human voice are the common ideal to which all of them refer.

Dhrupad - Centuries-old Tradition

The oldest style still alive is Dhrupad. The name is derived from dhruva pada = fixed verse. Dhrupad had its heyday in the second half of the 16th century at the court of Mughal emperor Akbar. Many contemporary musicians trace their musical lineage back to Akbar's legendary court singer Tansen, who is ascribed almost magical abilities and the invention of many new ragas. Over the centuries, Dhrupad was however supplanted by more modern styles. But it is still cultivated by a few families, and has kept its own niche in classical Indian concert life. Today many musicians study Dhrupad, because a very old musical and spiritual knowledge is preserved in it, which is a solid foundation for all other styles. Well-known Dhrupad musicians are the Dagar and Mallick families and the Gundecha Brothers.

Dhrupad - Strict Form & Grandeur

Typical of Dhrupad is a very strict form, greatest emphasis on the precise intonation of each single note and a systematical development of the raga note by note - first in the unmetered Alap, then in the pulsating Jor. Alap and Jor often make up most of a dhrupad presentation. Lush ornamentation of the notes is omitted here - the focus is on pure sound, sung with abstract syllables. Thus, Dhrupad usually has a very meditative, solemn and majestic character. The powerful barrel drum pakhawaj comes in only towards the end of a raga performance, when a song composition with sophisticated text is sung. Improvisation is then focused on rhythmic variations of the text. A full Dhrupad concert is often completed with one or more shorter songs at a rapid pace.

Khyal - Flight of the Imagination

Khyal has supplanted Dhrupad in the 19th century and is today the most widely performed style of North Indian classical music. The word comes from the Arabic and means idea or imagination. Fitting to its name, the creative genius of the soloist is at the center of Khyal. It is usually accompanied by tabla and tanpura plus the stringed instrument sarangi, or even the keyboard harmonium for melodic support. Khyal celebrities today are Pandit Jasraj, Ulhas Kashalkar, Ajoy Chakraborty and Rashid Khan, amongst others. Female Khyal singers are highly appreciated as well, e.g. Kishori Amonkar, Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande, Veena Sahasrabuddhe, Prabha Atre, Parveen Sultana and Shruti Sadolikar.

Khyal - Flexible Form & Creative Freedom

Usually there is only a very short Alap in the beginning, and after a few minutes the tabla joins in. It plays at an extremely slow pace, giving the soloist virtually unlimited freedom for systematically developing the raga, playing with melodic and rhythmic variations, weaving ever more complex patterns and to finally shine with fast virtuosic runs. The detailed and cleverly built up slow part is usually followed by a fast composition, which mainly features fast runs and rhythmic variations in highest virtuosity. The lyrics play only a minor role in Khyal - they serve more as a syllabic base for improvisation. Quite often Khyal singers just use the names of the notes for a text or sing on the vowel A.

Thumri - Romantic Love and Mysticism

Thumri and related styles are considered semi-classical, because they don't maintain the purity of the raga. More important in Thumri is the highly emotional interpretation of the lyrics. They are mostly about unrequited romantic love, which is a symbol for the never fully satiable longing of the soul for the divine. Often a line of text is repeated in ever new variations, in order to explore the full range of associated emotions. In that context notes that are not part of the basic raga may be used, when they seem appropriate for the expression. Thumri is often presented by Khyal singers at the end of a concert. The best-known living Thumri specialist today is Girija Devi.

Instrumental Style - The Best of Everything

The instrumentalists of Indian classical music follow the ideal of the human voice as much as possible, too. From Dhrupad they use the systematic meditative raga development in Alap and Jor. From Khyal they use the varied, ever-expanding and intensifying improvisations over a slow basic tempo and then the fast form with virtuoso runs as an ecstatic finale. And from Thumri comes a delicate, rich and emotional ornamentation. In addition, they also use the technical characteristics of their respective instrument - e.g. the rhythmic plucking patterns and the groovy momentum of the open drone strings on sitar and sarod. The modern instrumental concert form thus combines the strengths of the different styles in complex variety and is often more easily accessible for laymen than pure vocal music. No wonder then that today's real world stars of Indian classical music, such as Ravi Shankar, are instrumentalists rather than singers. Some of these masters of the raga will be presented in the next chapter of this series.

5. Performers - Masters of Raga

In the 20th Century instrumental virtuosos became big stars of Indian classical music. Their newly developed forms have a deep impact on all active musicians today. Some of these pioneers are presented below.

Ravi Shankar - Pioneer in the West

Sitarist and composer Ravi Shankar (* 1920) already had the vision of bringing Indian music to the West as a teenager. After his apprenticeship with veteran Allauddin Khan in the 1950s, he led the orchestra of All India Radio, wrote film scores for academy award-winning director Satyajit Ray, and began to give concerts in Europe and North America and to work with jazz musicians. Thanks to his empathy, his creativity and communicative talent Ravi Shankar was able to inspire ever-widening audiences for his music. In the 1960s he reached popstar status through the interaction with famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin, as a teacher of Beatles-member George Harrison and his appearance at the legendary Woodstock festival. Later, he focused more on teaching, classical concerts and composing - including for the academy award-winning film Gandhi, and in cooperation with minimal music composer Philip Glass. Today the sound of his is the epitome of Indian music for many Western ears.

Vilayat Khan - Singing Sitar

While Ravi Shankar was busy with new creative ideas and making Indian music popular around the world, Vilayat Khan (1928 - 2004) remained entirely within the framework of the tradition and revolutionized the sitar, so to speak from the inside out. He came from an old musical dynasty, but he lost his father at an early stage. Although he had a solid classical music education from childhood, a young man ha thus also enjoyed the freedom to develop a very distinctive personal style. Like no one else before him Vilayat Khan succeeded in making his sitar sing with his crystal clear sound. He had numerous disciples and imitators and was formative for almost all sitarists after him. In the tradition of Vilayat Khan in a strict sense today are his brother Imrat Khan, his sons Nishat and Irshad Khan, Vilayat Khan's own sons Shujaat and Hidayat Khan, his cousin Rais Khan and Shahid Parvez and Budhaditya Mukherjee.

Nikhil Banerjee - Perfect Form

Like Vilayat Khan the sitarist Nikhil Banerjee (1931 - 1986) was a representative of pure Indian classical music. But he was also a student of Allauddin Khan, the unconventional, experimental old master, and received considerable imnspiration from him to develop his own style. Nikhil Banerjee has integrated the vocal style of playing and the fast runs of Vilayat Khan as well as the rhythmic subtlety of Ravi Shankar and combined the meditative raga development and rigorous form of dhrupad with the elegance and creativity of khyal and the romantic emotions of thumri. This synthesis is regarded by many today as a perfect form and Nikhil Banerjee as the greatest sitar master of the last century. Influenced by his sound aesthetic and his sense of form today are primarily the sitarists Kushal Das, Partha Bose, Partha Chatterjee and his son Purbayan Chatterjee.

Ali Akbar Khan - Depths of the Soul

As the son of veteran Allauddin Khan, the life of Ali Akbar Khan (1922 - 2009) was filled with music practically from birth. The eruptive energy and crystal clarity of his playing on the fretless lute sarod drew people into a hypnotic vortex that touched the deepest spaces of the soul. The violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin simply considered him the greatest musician in the world. Although Ali Akbar Khan wrote film scores and played with jazz musicians, he always remained deeply rooted in and true to Indian classical music. In the 1960s, he settled in California, and devoted much of his later life to the mission of passing on his music to students from around the world. Today glimpses of his sarod playing can be heard from his sons Aashish and Alam Khan and musicians like Tejendra Narayan Mazumdar or Ranajit Sengupta.

Amjad Ali Khan - Courtly Elegance

Apart from Ali Akbar Khan it was mainly Amjad Ali Khan (b. 1945) who coined sarod playing in recent decades. He comes from an old family of court musicians, that has contributed significantly to the development of the modern sarod. Flawless technique and compelling elegance are the hallmarks of his style. Amjad Ali Khan's sons Amaan and Ayaan are continuing the family tradition into the next generation.

Hariprasad Chaurasia - Krishna's Flute

Thanks to Hariprasad Chaurasia (* 1938) the bamboo flute bansuri, formerly just a folk instrument, is now a fully recognized classical solo instrument. Using new blowing techniques on his large, deep bansuri he has been able to combine the khyal vocal style with the rhythmic complexity of the dhrupad style jor and jhala. That way he has created a unique complex synthesis. Moreover, Hariprasad Chaurasia was also active as a flutist and composer for numerous Bollywood movies and has played with great musicians from around the world in fusion projects, including John McLaughlin and Jan Garbarek. Hariprasad's playing with its mellifluous sound, groovy rhythms and melodic complexity is perhaps the most accessible form of Indian classical music for a larger public. A whole generation of bansuri performers are carrying on his ideas today, e.g. Rakesh Chaurasia, Rupak Kulkarni, Ronu Mazumdar, Nityanand Haldipur and Raghunath Seth.

Shivkumar Sharma - Scent of Kashmir

The shimmering sound cascades of the Indian dulcimer santoor are originally associated with the pure clarity of folk music of the mountains in the northern Indian state Kashmir. Shivkumar Sharma (* 1938) succeeded in adopting the santoor for classical ragas by introducing new playing techniques. The santoor's pleasing sound speaks to the heart and its various rhythmic possibilities make for exciting complexity. In addition to his classical career Shivkumar Sharma was also successful together with Hariprasad Chaurasia as duo Shiv-Hari in numerous Bollywood films. His son Rahul and Ulhas Bapat, Bhajan Sopori and Satish Vyas today are renowned santoor masters.

Bismillah Khan - Call of Varanasi

The shahnai player Bismillah Khan (1916 - 2006) was one of the most charismatic figures of Indian classical music. Although a devout Muslim, he spent most of his life in Varanasi, the holy city of the Hindus on the banks of the river Ganges where he took active part in the unique cultural life. In his person and in his at the same time majestic and mellow music Bismillah Khan embodied two things simultaneously: the spirit of Varanasi and the ideal of peaceful coexistence of religions based on a deep spirituality. Well-known shahnai performers today are Daya Shankar and Ali Ahmed Hussain.

Zakir Hussain - Tabla Magic

Traditonally, the tabla is only an accompanying instrument - but in the hands of Zakir Hussain (* 1951), it steals the show of many soloists and becomes the secret star on stage. After he had learned tabla from an early age with his father Alla Rakha, Zakir Hussain went to the USA when he was still a teenager. There he played in the legendary fusion group Shakti, along with John McLaughlin and L. Shankar. In this and many other groundbreaking world music projects, Zakir Hussain proved himself both as an open-minded, creative composer and improviser and as brilliant entertainer. His charisma, his infectious enthusiasm and his richness of tonal nuances have influenced a whole generation of tabla players. Today, it is hard to find any tabla player who was not influenced by Zakir Hussain.

6. Instruments - Magic of Sound

The instruments of Indian classical music have their very own distinctive sound magic. Most typical are their shimmering overtones, caused by bridges with curved surfaces and many sympathetic strings, and the ability of imitating many aspects of the human voice. Although you can play Indian classical music on instruments such as the violin or saxophone, its peculiarities are come across particularly well on instruments created in India.

Tanpura - Symbol of Eternity

Even before the first note of a raga is played or sung, you can hear almost always a fine shimmering drone sound in Indian music, which continues unchanged in the background during the whole raga performance. It is played on the tanpura, one of the least known and yet most traditional and important instruments. The tanpura with its constant drone always defines the tonic - it is the foundation on which the whole intricate raga architecture is built, the canvas on which the raga painting is painted, and the earth on which the raga is dancing. Tanpuras usually have four or five strings, which are always plucked open in a constant rhythm. The plucking is so soft that the vibrations of each string appear to merge into a continuous shimmering sound. The tanpurasymbolises the eternal ground of being from which all (musical) creation unfolds. Since tanpuras are tuned to the particular high or low tonic of each singer or instrument, they are available in different sizes and shapes. Typical is the type with large dried gourd for a resonator and an attached long neck made of wood. In concert, students of the main artists usually play the tanpura for them.

Sitar - The Sound of India

Probably no other instrument has a more typically Indian sound than the sitar. Primarily due to the world-renowned sitar master Ravi Shankar its silvery sound has become the epitome of Indian music. It is a technically demanding solo instrument, usually with 17 to 20 strings. Of these, only six or seven are used as playing strings. The remaining 13 are not be plucked, but vibrate in resonance when their pitch is played on the melody strings. Thus the sympathetic strings create a kind of built-in reverb. Similar to the tanpura the sitar has a gourd resonator with a long wooden neck. Many sitars have an additional second resonator up at the back of the neck. Tied across the neck are metal frets. Pressing the strings down on them changes the pitch - similar to a guitar. One can also change the pitch by pulling the strings laterally, thus increasing their tension. This bending technique is particularly well suited for imitating the continuous movements of the human voice - after all, Indian classical music is all derived from singing. However, the lateral pulling is also particularly difficult to master. But fear not - on a well-tuned sitar, even beginners can quickly create fascinating typical Indian sounds!

Sarod - The Unfamiliar Excellency

In Europe, the sarod is much lesser known than the sitar - although it enjoys the same high status as a solo instrument in India. Its sound is rounder and more brilliant than of the sitar. The plucking with a thick plectrum made of coconut allows an extremely dynamic rhythmic playing that can unfold a very powerful volume thanks toreplacement of a wooden top by a goat skin. Another unique feature are the subtle melodic articulation possibilities: The four melody strings are pressed with the fingernails onto an extremely smooth fretless chromimum-plated stainless steel fingerboard. Any small change in the position of the finger nail changes the pitch - thus sliding along the string allows for fascinating melodic expression. The sarod is an instrument that is absolutely worthy to discover!

Veena - King of Instruments

The word veena is actually a generic term for various stringed instruments. Best known are the Rudra veena in Northern India and the Saraswati veena in South India. The Rudra-veena is several centuries old, was long regarded as the noblest of all instruments and is today seen as one of the precursors of the sitar. Its two big gourd bodies are mounted on a wooden resonance tube, along which the strings run. Metal frets are mounted on top of the tube. The Rudra-veena has an archaic, majestic character and is now unfortunately almost extinct. Very much alive, however, is the Saraswati veena, main solo instrument of Carnatic music and therefore the correspondence to the North Indian sitar. Its shape with a spherical body, long neck, frets, pegs and second upper resonator is similar to that of the sitar. However, the Saraswati veena has no sympathetic strings and is made of other materials. Its playing technique and musical repertoire is also quite different from its Northern Indian sister.

Bansuri - Krishna's Allure

The Bansuri is actually nothing more than a simple dried and hollowed bamboo with six or seven finger holes and one hole for blowing. It is blown like a Western flute and has an important place in the mythology of Hindu god Krishna - as a young man, Krishna beguiled the hearts of the girls and lured them to erotically coloured games with his small, high-pitched bansuri. For centuries, the bansuri was simply a folk instrument - popular but very limited in its possibilities due to its simplicity. It was not until the mid-20th century that musicians began to perform classical ragas on particularly large, deep, warm and round sounding bansuris. Since the bansuri has no mechanism, these large instruments are very difficult to handle due to the required finger spread. Mastering them needs a lot of practice. The blowing technique has evolved during the decades of the bansuri's use as a classical solo instrument and incorporates very sophisticated rhythmic variations nowadays.

Santoor - The Scent of Kashmir

The santoor is originally a folk instrument from Kashmir, the mountainous Northern border region between India and Pakistan. Its enchanting, crystal-clear sound cascades have won it fans all around the world today. The resonator is a trapezoidal wooden box and it has about 90 strings in total. Three adjacent strings each are tuned to the same note and run over one small bridge together, giving the santoor a total of 30 notes. The strings are struck with two wooden mallets, which are held between the fingers of the right and left hand. The pre-tuned pitches can not be changed while playing - no sliding sound movements are possible. In spite of this limitation, the santoor has conquered its place among the classical Indian solo instruments over the past decades, thanks to its sophisticated rhythmic possibilities and refined new playing techniques.

Sarangi - The Singing Soul

The singing nasal sound of the bowed string instrument sarangi is one of the most fascinating phenomena in Indian music. It has more sympathetic strings than any other Indian instrument and thus unmatched reverberation - especially because the vibration of the melody strings directly transmits to the sympathetic strings through the thin goat skin on the wooden body. The melody is played on three gut strings. The pitch is altered on these strings without fingerboard or frets by laterally pushing against them with the nail bed. This unique technique and the very short distance from note to note provide an unbeatable flexibility in articulation. Thus, the sarangi is better able to imitate all the subtleties of the human voice than any other instrument. Traditionally, it was therefore mostly used for vocal accompaniment. But today it can also be heard as a solo instrument. Unfortunately, due to the demanding technique, less and less musicians are still playing sarangi nowadays.

Harmonium - Europe in India

The harmonium, an immensely practical, easy-to-play instrument, has widely replaced the sarangi in vocal accompaniment today. It was invented in the 19th Century in Europe and then imported to India and modified. In the West, it is now virtually extinct, but in India it thrives as the universal accompaniment for all classical and semi-classical singing style as for devotional songs of various traditions, bhajan, kirtan and mantra chanting to qawwali and shabad. The Harmonium doesn't have to be tuned, you don't need practice to produce a sound and you can support a voice very well without get in its the way. You just pump the bellows at the back of the instrument press the keys on the keyboard with the other - perfect for everyone. The harmonium is not used as a classical solo instrument, though.

Tabla - A Universe of Rhythm

The dancing fingers on the tabla move faster than the eye can follow, and produce a sparkling rhythmic hurricane that one would never have expected from a single musician. If you have ever seen a good tabla player in live performance you will most likely never forget the experience. The tabla is one of the most complex rhythm instruments in the world and offers a variety of sounds as wide as that of a whole percussion ensemble elsewhere. It consists of two hand drums that are always used together as a pair. The smaller one is made of heavy wood and can both produce precisely tunable bell-clear sounds as well as noise-like slaps and taps. The larger bulging drum, usually made of chromium-plated copper, provides the bass. By pressure and movement of the hand resting on the skin the pitch can be changed with incredible flexibility while playing, so that the instrument seems to be speaking literally. Crucial for the sound is a black paste of cooked rice mass and iron filings, which is applied in a complex process on the drum heads made of goat skin. Noadays, tabla sounds can also be bought as digital samples that are used widely in a variety of musical styles.

7. Tradition & Renewal

The subtleties of Indian classical music can hardly be represented in notation. Therefore the letter notation that has been developed in India is mainly used as a memory aid, not as an exact playing instruction (such as in the western classical). How to learn this music then, and how to pass it on over centuries?

Oral Tradition - Guru Shishya Parampara

The key is the oral tradition known as guru shishya parampara. Guru means teacher, shishya means student and parampara is the word for the transfer of knowledge from one generation to the next. Not only music is handed down like that, but e.g. also spiritual, medical or craft knowledge. Since all knowledge ultimately has a divine origin, this transmission is seen a sacred act. There is even a special goddess for it, called Saraswati - not just the goddess of wisdom and learning, but also of speech and music! The guru is the keeper of this knowledge and the student ideally receives it faithfully and obedient, with reverence and fervour, patience and trust, preserves it, and one day, when he himself has become a guru, he passes it on without any changes.

Traditional Training - Road to Mastery

From time to time the music guru carefully chooses particularly talented boys from his family or circle of acquaintances and takes them into his household for training. He supplies them with all they need as if they were his own children and takes full responsibility for their musical and personal development. His knowledge and understanding of art - the meaning of his life - can only live on if he chooses the right students and trains them withgreatest care. For several years, students receive daily instruction, practice under the guru's ears and listen to his practice. Without notations or other written records, just by imitating the guru's music more and more accurately, they learn the playing technique of the instrument, an extensive fund of compositions in various ragas and talas and the ability to improvise. When a student has reached concert maturity, the guru takes him on stage and plays in duet with him. He thus uses his prestige to present a worthy successor and to give him artistic recognition.

Technique - Training and Structure

There is an extensive canon of exercises for the development of technical mastery in terms of strength, speed, precision and endurance, with scales, rhythmic and melodic patterns, which even great masters usually practice regularly every day. But these exercises are not only pure technical training - they also engrave melodic and rhythmic structures into the mind, which can then be used in improvisation. At the same time they form patterns of perception that structure musical events mentally. Thus one learns to understand and use complex melodic and rhythmic sequenceses as meaningful units.

Compositions - Essence of Ragas

Compositions usually consist of only two to four short stanza-like melody lines. They are like a concentrated miniature representation of a raga's essentials. While the raga itself can never be defined, fixed and described exhaustively, the composition is a handy model of its main features that is authorized by the tradition and can be used for guidance and orientation. The more compositions are mentally present in the musician's mind, the more vivid and precise will be the raga interpretation that he designs in his improvisations. Therefore, the compositions must be memorised faithfully and should be kept in memory all life long.

Improvisation - Spontaneity with System

For the development of improvisational skills, it is important to be surrounded by the music as much as possible, to take it in consistently at all levels, no matter how much it is already understood consciously. Like a child learning to speak or an adult learning a foreign language it is essential to listen, listen, and again listen as much as possible. To experience again and again how it sounds right. To watch through the ears. To perceive. To feel for. But a conscious learning approach is required as well: First, the guru improvises one melody line after the other and the students repeats them after him like an echo. Once this level is mastered, the student plays the phrases of the guru no longer like an echo, repeating after him, but like a shadow, closely following, almost simultaneously, anticipating where the movement is going to go. Then the student continues the melodies of the guru independently, beginning to bring in his own ideas. Finally only the student plays, drawing upon the memory of countless previous improvisations and the trained formulas of the memorised compositions and exercises, and the guru listens, nods, comments with only small corrections, and blesses his disciple, who has now become a master in his own right

Learning Today - Ideal and Reality

Traditional India is changing in ever increasing pace in our globalised present. Economic pressure rises constantly, and old traditions are given up for the sake of individual freedom. Classical musicians are no longer supported by wealthy sponsors or the aristocracy, but have to compete on the open market. Although the ideal of the guru shishya parampara is still held up, it is becoming increasingly difficult to continue it in its traditional form. Lessons are limited nowadays and must be paid by the hour. The little time that guru and student have with each other must be used as intensively as possible. Digital recording devices and easy access to recordings of great masters past and present partially replace personal interaction and help students to learn more independently. Not only proteges of established gurus can make a career as classical musicians under these circumstances, talented outsiders have a chance as well.

Tradition in Transition - Key to Vitality

Indian classical music is no longer as fashionable in the West as it was in the late 1960s and 1970s. But it has been a pioneer of what has become an independent part of ??the global music industry under the name of world music, and it has captured a solid niche of its own in the concert circuit in Japan, North America, Australia and Europe. And in India itself classical music is still in full bloom. Its masters are well-known stars, so much that even the gossip columns of newspapers write about them. And many great young musicians carry on the tradition into the 21st Century. This is probably only possible because Indian classical music is deeply rooted in Indian culture and has a unique solid core in its concepts of raga and tala, while on the other hand it has never gotten stuck in the mere repetition of established forms. A musician just repeating exactly what his guru taught him would not be considered an artist but a parrot. Each raga performance requires a creative interpretation, drawing on the unique quality of the present moment, giving ever fresh life to raga and tala. As long as Indian classical music manages this balance between preservation and renewal, as long as it remains a living tradition in constant transition, it will certainly retain its charming freshness and will continue to delight and inspire people from all over the world.