Indian Classical Music

The following sub-topics are available:

Brief general discussion:

As regards Indian classical music in general, there are a huge number of modes (ragas). Musicians will elaborate a single mode in detail, largely through improvisation but also based on compositions and formal demands. There are also pieces (called "ragamala" or "ragamalika") in which modulations are employed. Individual pieces are shorter in Carnatic music, so recitals are constructed by selecting items in contrasting ragas. The rationale is specifically contrast (usually), as opposed to Turkish music where modes are chosen for a directed development, or Arabic music where the frequent modulations should be as unnoticed as possible, etc. A general aesthetic discussion of this type could become much more extensive.

In both Hindustani & Carnatic music, songs (or instrumental compositions in Hindustani music) are usually (although not always) preceded by an improvised unmeasured prelude (alap/alaapana) which is sometimes extensive. This is followed by the "composition section" in which a specific rhythmic cycle (tala) is used (ordinarily with percussion accompaniment). Although it is usually based upon a pre-existing composition, there are specific improvisational features to this section as well. This aspect earns Indian classical music comparisons with Western Jazz, with which it shares some demands.

Hindustani music is the music of North India, involving both Hindu and Muslim musicians. In this case (as opposed to every other world classical tradition, except European), there are a large number of high quality recordings. Different people will, no doubt, like different styles to varying degrees. In this case, I am only going to list some discs I particularly enjoy without any intention of coming close to encyclopedic coverage.

Dhrupad is the older style of Hindustani music, now rare. The style with which most readers will be more familiar is the more modern style, especially as represented in the Hindustani instrumental (sitar, etc.) list above.

Carnatic music is the music of South India, different in many of its terms and formal demands, although similar in overall outline. The two share some common origins, but the details of these relationships can be contentious.

Indian classical music continues to gain tremendously in popularity in the West, and is now taught widely. In addition to many opportunities to learn it at universities or in specialized instruction, more general resources are appearing. The recently released "Raga Guide" on Nimbus Records is a landmark and well worth pursuing for someone interested in learning the rudiments of ragas:

The Raga Guide
A Survey of 74 Hindustani Ragas
Hariprasad Chaurasia / Buddhadev Das Gupta / Shruti Sadolikar Katkar / Vidyadhar Vyas
Nimbus Records 5536/9 (4 CDs w/ 184 p. book)

This set is devoted to Hindustani music. Carnatic appreciation in the West is building more slowly.

Beyond this, my lists above are devoted more to individual recitals within the aesthetic, not didactic work.

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Todd M. McComb
Updated: 11 September 1999