Saraswati - The Goddess of Music

Indian Classical Music – An Introduction

Indian Classical Music is one of the oldest unbroken musical traditions in the world. This series introduces Indian Classical Music from historical and technical perspectives. In this post – an overview of Indian music

Indian music is one of the oldest unbroken musical traditions in the world. In this series I will try to introduce Indian Classical Music from two perspectives – historical and technical. The historical perspective will trace the evolution of this art form from pre-historic time to the present day. The technical introduction will help a beginner to start appreciating the technical aspects of the classical tradition.

What is Classical Music?

Classical music is defined as:

Traditional genre of music conforming to an established form and appealing to critical interest and developed musical taste – Princeton University WordNet

Serious music following long-established principles rather than a folk or popular tradition – Oxford Dictionary

These definitions highlight 3 aspects of classical music

  • It follows established forms or principles
  • It is expected to be serious music appealing to developed musical taste
  • On this basis, it is differentiated from popular or folk music

Indian Classical Music refers to music based on ancient musical traditions which have evolved through several thousand years. It is a part of the Indian culture. Its roots are traced to chants of Hindu religion. However, it is not religious or devotional music. It is an art form with an overall spiritual leaning.
It is often referred to as Raga music, because it is based around traditional classical modes called Ragas.

Hindustani and Carnatic Music

Indian Classical Music has two major branches, Hindustani and Carnatic.

The Carnatic tradition is more prevalent in the southern states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Telangana. The Hindustani tradition is more prevalent across rest of the country, and extends to present day Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The two branches have common roots. They were not differentiated from each other till a few centuries ago, and even today there are considerable overlaps or common features.

Other Forms of Indian Music

Like most other classical musical traditions, Indian Classical Music is only a one form of Indian music. Some of the other forms of Indian music are:

  • Regional and Folk music: India has many regions, with each region having its own regional and folk musical tradition. These traditions have been part of Indian society for centuries, and perhaps predate the evolution of classical music.
  • Devotional music: Since around the 7th century a number of saint-poets have inspired what is today called the Bhakti movement. The devotional compositions (bhajans) of these poets are widely sung even today, and form an important part of Indian music.
  • Ghazal and Qawwali music: With the advent of Islam around 12th century and subsequent rise of Urdu as the language of poetry culture, ghazals and qawwalis gained prominence, and continue to remain a popular of Indian music.
  • Film music: In the 20th century, film music has been the most popular form of music in India and continues to outsell all other forms of music by a very large margin.
  • Indipop music: In the recent years, and Indianized form of “pop” music has gained a big following. This is often referred to as Indipop.

Indian Classical music has influenced most of these forms, and in turn has been influenced by them to some extent.

The relation between folk and classical music has been a matter of study for many years. A number of popular folk tunes are based on classical ragas, and often it is not clear whether the folk tunes were based on the classical ragas, or whether the ragas were derived from the folk tunes.

Traditionally, devotional music has mostly been sung either in classical ragas or tunes based on regional folk music. A number of ghazals, qawwalis and film songs are based on classical ragas. Some of the modern music has also been raga based, with some musicians even trying fusion of raga and pop music.

Thus, Indian Classical Music has played, and continues to play, an important and influential part in Indian music.

Indian Classical Music outside India

Indian music has long been present wherever Indian culture has extended, i.e. to East Asian countries as well as neighbouring states like Afghanistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, in addition to present day Pakistan and Bangladesh.

However, it was only in early 20th century when Uday Shankar and his troupe visited many European countries that the local populace was exposed to Indian music and dance. In mid 20th century it became quite popular for Indian musicians to play in concerts in Europe and USA.

Today, it is quite common for most of the senior artistes, and many of the less senior ones, to visit countries in all five continents for classical music performances. Many universities and organizations also have regular classical music workshops and classes, and most of the well-known musicians have international students from USA, Europe as well as Japan.

Thus, Indian Classical Music is becoming increasingly popular across the world.


Coming Soon: Historical development of Indian Classical Music

Interested in more information on any of the above topics? Please comment on this post, and I will try to write about them soon.


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