ART & CULTURE 

art, culture, tradition & heritage

 
 

 

 
 

 

Classical Music: The Battle for Survival

Deepika Singh

 
     
 


Music is a fact of life that we take for granted. A child starts crooning tunes long before learning to speak. From the beginning to the end of our life, we come across, appreciate and listen attentively to the form of music that appeals to us most. And unless one has an extremely inquisitive disposition, one naturally ignores investigation into something that permeates our daily routine from start to finish. We are attempting here to explore the origin of Indian music, and delve into the complexities that various forms offer.

 


From evolution to contemporary times, the one sound that has pervaded our life is that of Music. Hindu Mythological texts declare that the first sound that reverberated in the Universe was that of the Naadbrahma, or Om. Not only was this the first sound to be ever heard, but was also the purest form of sound - because of divine association, and hence the most musical. In fact all of the recorded history of Hinduism is saturated with some or the other form of music - Vedic chants were the first form of melodies. These were set in three notes, with variation of tenor, and formed a soothing rhythm. But this is recorded history.

Investigation into the origins of Hindu scripts, and that of our civilization further corroborates the fact that chants go back prior to recorded history i.e. antecedent to 5000 BC. Notes and scale of svaras, which are the basis of Vedic chants, could not have emerged suddenly during Vedic period. Deductive logic suggests that since these chants were most likely handed down to generations aurally, there is ample proof that some form of music existed even before a script was invented.

 


Most of our Vedic texts had chants in three notes, but Sam Veda records more complex chants. The variation was in the notes - it had three to seven notes. Vedic scholars had developed a very strict scale of svaras, notes and rhythm, and the chants did not deviate from this. Hence Vedic poetry was rather definitive and rigid. Gradually, as Vedic chants gave way to more leisurely notes, svaras as we know them today were developed. These are Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, and Ni. The svaras that preceded the more bourgeoisie Sa-Re-Ga-Ma were "Shadj, Rishabh, Gandhar, Madhyam, Pancham, Dhwavait, and Nishad".

One discovers that language, chants and music were gradually adapted to a mold that could be followed by the masses, and the complexities gave way to lucidity.

The form of music developed by Vedic scholars withstood the passing of many centuries and civilizations, but naturally, there were changes. Many treatises were lost; some could not weather the ravages of time. But people held on to the primeval musical knowledge, enhanced it, and built upon it. It was the inherent purity of that pristine origin of music - the sound of Om, the Naadbrahma that inspired musicians to continue in their pursuit to perfect this art with their sadhana (practice).
 


Besides the devoted practice, musicians continued research into, and evolved a strict grammar of music - a theory that later composers referred to. Early composers established the three sapthaks (octaves): mandra, the lower octave, madhya, the middle octave, and taar sapthak, the higher octave as the top and bottom ranges within which musical compositions could be authored. Additionally, the musical treatises established other concepts like taal (beat), and jati (how to apply notes).

As our Vedic age drew to a close and India approached her medieval centuries, there was a sudden spurt in interest in music. One of India's learned sage Bharata wrote an authoritative treatise on the performing arts called Natyashastra. Just as prior Vedic texts like Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Atharva Veda and Sam Veda laid down societal structures and conventions which were to be followed by the people, similarly, Natyashastra laid down rules and structures for composers and performers to adhere to, in theater, dance and music.

Indian society had very rigid structures, especially as the Vedic ages drew to a close. There was rigid segregation between the pure (Arya Jan) and the impure (Shudra Jan), the rich and the poor, the Godly, and the mortals. Not only was there a restriction on the Shudras on singing, but a special embargo existed on their singing Gandharva music or ritualistic singing. All sections of society were permitted Dhruva Gana or music for theater. Bharata mentions in Natyashastra that music was being researched into and had reached a very high level in terms of performance and theory as well. Later, scholars like Dattila, Matanga, Narad, and Sarangadeva developed the field further.

It is interesting to note that some of the scholars who wrote musical treatises were not musicians themselves. Myths and folklore has it that the music created by religious philosophers came to them through divine revelation. This would explain why a contemporary musician bows down in front of his instruments, before playing them. Most musicians consider music their religion, and the instruments their Gods and Goddesses.

Bharata's treatise that gives us insight into the musical instruments used in ancient times. It also bridges the missing links between the undocumented periods in our ancient history like the epic periods (Ramayana & Mahabharata), the period of grammarian Panini, and the period of more prolific cataloguing by Matanga (8th century BC). While Natyashastra ruled the roost for nearly 800 years, gradually there was a shift in interest, and a preference for the more lucid, simplified and readable musical theorization by Matanga began. After Matanga, a ruler from the Chola kingdom in the South of India, Sarangadeva wrote Sangeeta Ratnakara which came to be regarded and respected as the most exhaustive study on ancient Indian classical music.

Sangeeta Ratnakar has an extensive exploration of the system of notes - three to seven, and experimentation on which of these affects the audience greatly. A legend says that Akbar's favorite court poet, Tansen requested one of India's leading musical scholars to explain the raga system mentioned in Sangeeta Ratnakara for him. Even though Tansen is credited for inventing a few ragas, an alternative school of observation and thought in the field of music claims that he borrowed from the Sangeeta Ratnakara and tweaked with it.

There is a general agreement that Sangeeta Ratnakar is "the" treatise which set the standards for Indian Classical music as we know it today. Any experimentation or development after Sangeeta Ratnakara, can be easily ascertained and analyzed minutely.

As we approach our Medieval period, its time to recount the evolution of our music vis--vis Persian and Muslim invasions. Indian music had already reached its zenith by the time the Muslims established their kingdom in the North of India. During this periods a musical grammar was already in existence, and at a rather evolved stage. India's medieval history has been much better documented than the ancient history. Hence we are aware that music continued as a core area of interest, and it changed form as it changed hands.

Muslim invaders destroyed land, property and culture. Scriptures, original treatises, temples, houses, and people were brutally massacred. To begin with, almost the entire span of India's northern kingdoms was grazed. The South of India remained intact till the Muslim rulers established themselves in the north, and gradually began to expand to the South. This is one primary reason why the culture in the South of India has remained more 'untarnished'.

By the time the Muslim rulers expanded into the South of India, the invasions from Europe had already begun. The Southern kingdoms were usurped for a little over a century and a half, while the North remained in foreign control for over five centuries. This is the reason why the North of India is more appreciative of Ghazals - a predominantly Persian form of music while the Southern states remain more committed to Classical Indian dance and music. Even though the Muslim invasions did enrich some aspects of Hindu culture, but by force of necessity Hindu culture had to assimilate values and the culture of the new rulers.

Next we will explore the effect of the Muslim kingdom on Indian Music.

An Unending Passion
Indian civilization has faced a lot of invasions. But credit goes to the sustentation of our indigenous culture that it survived all the onslaughts. The Persian and Muslim rulers brought with them their own culture - their music, their art, their theologists and scholars. One would have thought that with a huge entourage of singers and instrumentalists in the "durbar", indigenous Indian music would have suffered a decline, but that was not to be. Indian classical music survived this cultural onslaught and has managed to maintain its own identity fairly intact.

It is a fact that today, classical music is not the most favored form of music for the general populace which tends to listen to the more "easy to follow" folk, and lately the pop form. But yet, there are countless Indian classical musicians and singers who are well respected and heard even in "modern" times. There are many reasons for the survival of classical music despite the fact that it requires rigorous practice and devotion. One major reason was that the cult in India was to give a teacher the highest form of respect - like to a father or mother, and this was known as the guru - shishya parampara. This teacher-student tradition established a method of this tradition being passed down generations, with equal devotion from the teacher and the taught. Besides the other qualities that assisted Indian music in a fight for survival were a highly scientific structure within which a musician could operate with total freedom, the aesthetic appeal of the music, the melodies and the unmistakable spiritual aspect of the music.

With the Persian and Muslim invasions, many Hindus converted to Islam because of cultural coercion, but most grew up with Indian music as an inherent tradition and perhaps felt more comfortable with it than with Persian music. These were the most obvious and sociological factors, but Indian Classical music also survived, rather flourished in other parts of India that were not usurped by Muslim rulers like Rajputana, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Devagiri in the South. Soon Gwalior established itself as the stronghold of Indian classical music and won the acclaim for giving Indian history one of its most celebrated musicians - Tansen who sang in Akbar's court.

Aside from the regimented Classical music, another form was emerging with the general population could relate to - the Bhakti movement had started and various contributions by saint poets like Alvaras, Jayadeva, Vidyapati and Chandidas further enriched the tradition of Indian music.

The Muslim rulers brought their tradition of the court poetry and singing - the mehfil at the homes of noblemen and royalty. Royal patronage was gladly given to artists, musicians, singers and dancers. Many artists survived solely on this royal and noble patronage, hence the form of music practiced while Muslims ruled India ran the risk of ending up only as court music. But despite the fact that it was court patronage that helped musicians survive and thrive, the traditions gradually found their way into the very fabric of the society. And has survived through the centuries.

It is from the Muslim court tradition that the Khayal and later, the Ghazal emerged. Amir Khusrau was a prolific poet in the court of Sultan Jalal-ud-din-Khalji. It is rumored that Amir Khusrau wrote one new ghazal every day, and even to this day, his poetry is appreciated for its timeless lyricism. It is during Khusrau's time that Khayal and Dhrupad as a distinct style of music emerged. However, the most popular forms of singing in the 13th and 14th centuries, were ghazals and qawwalis.

By the time Akbar's rule came about in the 16th century, there was a wide chasm between the music of the Muslim ruled North India and the Hindu ruled South. But the strict distinction between the two forms was kept only by Indian Classical music. The Persian style was gradually evolved and began to include a bit of the elements of ragas. It was during Akbar's reign that Abul Fazl's two works, Akbar Nama and Ain-i-Akbari were written. In addition to describing the music of the day, the latter dealt a little with the classification of ragas as well.

Akbar was a ruler who passionately patronized the arts. His time is well known for the investigation into various forms of music, developing a technical lingo, research into instruments and a lot of experimentation in form and content. Gharanas were not referred to at all before Akbar's time, but during his rule, the tradition of schools of music began to evolve. While he was alive, Tansen was not classified as belonging to a particular Gharana, but after his death, his work was attributed to the Senia Gharana from the Gwalior school of music. However, musical analysts feel that during the development of Dhrupad, the vanis, (styles of singing Dhrupad), were akin to gharanas as we know them today.

With Akbar's death royal patronage to the arts reduced. It is said that a golden period in Indian classical music passed away. However, the patronage was not discontinued. Musicians from the various states were constantly researching, improving their gayaki, styles, and were continuously innovating and studying deeper aspects of music and were involved in royal competitions as well.

Around the 17th and early 18th centuries, a battle was on between Dhrupad and Khayal. By the 19th century, the Khyal had replaced Dhrupad. In the meanwhile, Thumri too, was coming up, especially in the reign of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah (1847-56). But with the arrival of the Europeans, and the eventual settlement of British in India, the devoted attention to music waned. Bahadur Shah Zafar was the last Mughal emperor to rule North India. After the Revolution of 1857, the British deposed him, took control and did away with the independent princely states.

The rise of the British Empire spelt death for court arts. With their wealth usurped by the Britishers, the nawabs and noblemen could not patronize the arts and the artists. And it seemed like India's rich music tradition would be lost to imperialism. Yet, a few gharanas survived this second cultural onslaught and emerged strong after India's Independence.

After India got independence from British rule, there was a re-awakening in terms of a "going back to" Indian culture, roots and of course music. Even though the popular and grass roots appreciation of music was lost to a handful of intellectuals, there was a movement to re-popularize music with the entire population.

Gradually, the modern society began to take over and newer forms of media started to emerge that brought with them sounds from all over the world. Western influences crept into Indian music, and motion picture (cinema) changed it even further. Music was being converted to a form that everybody could understand, and participate in rather than a handful of court musicians and the royalty.

The gradually growing film industry began attracting professional musicians. The lure of fame and money was strong and his was a call not many could resist. Meanwhile, the government made consistent efforts to revive the classical arts that had suffered at the hands of the British. However, the trend set by the movies completely turned the face of Indian music around.

But Indian influences had started traveling across the world. In the 60s, Pandit Ravi Shankar took classical music to foreign realms and appreciative audiences. He was also the first to experiment with mixing western music with the Indian classical form to arrive at what is called fusion. But classical music had lost the race to popularity to film music. Then came the real Westernization of Indian music - Pop music, disco appeared on the canvas in the late 70s and early 80s with singers like Nazia Hasan and Runa Laila. However, the trend didn't quite catch on till early 90s when trendsetters like Alisha Chinai and Sharon Prabhakar came to the forefront. Today there is a new pop album released every month.

Just like Jazz, the popular perception of Indian classical music was that it was 'too cerebral' or 'too heavy'. However, recent years have seen a resurging interest in the field. An increase in the number of artists indulging in fusion and a growing number of organizations dedicated to spreading the richness of the tradition has helped revive interest in classical music. Also, younger, media savvy artists have realized the potential of the 'Channel [V]-MTV' platform and are working more towards "getting them young".

The Indian classical music tradition is still there, having survived so many metamorphoses. There are still teachers and disciples all over the country who dedicate a major part of their lives to the pursuit of this art, the sadhana of shastriya sangeet.

Courtesy: Deepika Singh