“India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grandmother of tradition. Our most valuable and most constructive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only!”
The legendary writer Mark Twain quoted this to show his deep love and respect to this magnanimous country. India’s rich history in culture, learning and art knows no bound. This diverse country has left its mark on every aspect of human life. Music is no exception.
To get a feel of the depth of Indian music, ask any expert on Indian classical music about the number of instruments in India, they will still be unsure about an actual number. The depth of music in the Indian civilization is widespread and unfathomable.
Throughout history many modern instruments seemed to have drawn an inspiration from Indian classical instruments. Even if there is no conclusive evidence about this; the similarity between sitar and the guitar is uncanny. The same goes for the Bansuri and the western flute. Indian classical music and Instruments have had their fair share of love affairs with western music and its ethos.
Right from the legendary Ravi Shankar’s performance in USA in the late 50’s to the numerous songs by The Beatles having Sitar solos and the Raga rock phase to the much nascent tabla infused hit single by Selena Gomez. If you are an ardent listener of western popular music it is worth taking a look at the enriching variety Indian classical music has to offer. This article aims to help you get closer to our roots via the beautiful medium of music.
The arrangement, instrumentation and structure of both Western and Indian classical music is largely similar. Just like western classical music, the octaves in are divided into 12 semitones of which the 8 basic arranged in ascending tonal order. Unlike most modern Western music, Indian classical music places heavy emphasis on improvisation. This adds more flavour to the aural palette. Indian classical music is generally monophonic in nature and revolves around variation in melody. If you love Jazz improvisation, then you are bound to love this music.
Musical Glory: Shruti, Swara, Alankara, Rāga
These four comprise of the musical aspects of Indian classical music. It is practically impossible to compare western classical music due to differences in their fundamental nature. The list below will help you get a rough idea about things.
- Shruti: Is the smallest interval to a pitch and is closely related to tone and pitch in western classical.
- Swara: Swara is the western classical equivalent of a note.
- Alankar: Is closely related to Ornaments/Embellishments and in simple words can be expressed as the style of singing or playing. (Interpretations tend to vary)
- Raga: Ragas are very similar to the chords and scales system in western music. It is used to express the mood or a sentiment of the musical piece.
Percussions, Taal & Beats
Derived from the Sanskrit word for “Clap”, Taal is very similar to the Beat in western classical music and largely encapsulates the rhythmic aspect of music. The main idea is to capture the essence of time and to have a sense of structure. There are 3 basic taals, Vilambit (delayed or slow), Madhya (medium) and Drut (fast). A tala does not have a rigid tempo (laya) and can be played at varying speeds. They both rely on percussion instruments like the tabla, dholak, mridangam in Indian classical and the timpani and drums in western classical to provide the groove/basis and something to cater in the lower register. The main difference between the two is that western classical is overtly structured as compared to Indian classical.
Understanding & Having Fun
Most people make gnarly remarks that Indian classical music is boring. We get it; you don’t have the time and patience to listen to a musical piece. So, why don’t you make it fun?
Let’s just assume you are a rock fan and love all the greats from The Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones et all. Dissect the song and compare it to things that you know. For starters, you can start by listening to the Sitar and Veena like a Guitar. Treat the Harmonium like a piano or an organ piece and the Santoor as a delicate harp piece. This will spice up your listening process. As an aspiring musician or even a hobbyist it will help you bring something new in to your music. A quick search on the internet will lead you to names of legends of that instrument. Go ahead, give them a listen.
Learning Something New
Learning or playing any instrument is of the biggest joys in the world. Playing an Indian instrument is incomparable, quite literally. These days very few aspiring musicians take up an Indian instrument. Be different, stand out from the crowd, show up to a gig in an Electric Sitar and do something new. Learning an Indian instrument is getting easier by the day. These days many Indian musical instruments are easily available online at affordable prices. Many tutorials and courses are readily available online. When your love for the instrument grows, get yourself acquainted with a known Guru in that field and start your new journey. In a land where music is religion and instruments are a sacred vehicle, don’t be afraid and take a trip.
It is not humanly possible to capture soul stirring depth and variety of Indian instruments in such a little time. We would like to believe that we played a small part in sparking an interest towards Indian instrument in you.
Also Read: The Rise Of Professional Music
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