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The Westerner coming to India who seeks contact with the arts will find that they are not all equally accessible to him on first acquaintance. The least accessible one will probably be India’s classical music, which will not surrender many of its pleasures to the unguided Westerner ear.

Some preparation is necessary to prevent the Westerner from being misled by his previous ideas of music and habits of listening, which are quite different from those of an Indian.

The differences between Indian and Western musical thought can be illustrated in many ways. Take, for example, the factor in music which in drama would be called “pacing”. In music, this is not just the speed of a piece (tempo), but the rate at which new ideas are introduced. The pace, if we may use this term, in Indian music is much slower than in most Western music. For this reason, the pieces on an Indian program, especially in the North, are long, taking from a half hour to an hour, the whole program often running three hours or more. Further, an entire piece may be developed mainly from one tonal idea while a Western symphony or sonata of comparable length (few of them exceed forty minutes, anyway) will usually be formed from a number of ideas of varied nature. And while most Indian pieces are indisputably long (by clock time), they seem even longer to a Westerner because of drones sounding in the background, which do not change pitch during the piece, or even during the whole evening. It is as though an organist were to perform a whole concert with his feet resting continuously on one pair of pedal notes. It is not surprising, then, if one considers only the slow pace and drones, that the Westerner, listening passively, finds Indian classical music monotonous, or even soporific, on first acquaintance.

If the Westerner observes Indians at a concert, however, he will see that they are not affected as he is. Their eyes are alert, they wag their heads in response to certain melodic turns, and they seem to be participating vicariously in the performance, even when, to the Westerner, the music is in its most static phases. Unlike the Westerner brought up on too much of our Romantic and Impressionistic music, which he “appreciates” by allowing it to pour over him, the Indian is inclined to be actively analytical as he listens. It is this analytical activity which fills the time of performance for an Indian, accounting, at least partly, for his feeling in regard to the length of a piece or concert, which is so different from that of the uninitiated Westerner. To share in the cultivated Indian’s pleasures with classical music, the Westerner has to know some of the technical points on which this listening pleasure is based. Indian classical music is an intimate art, nearer to the solo and instrumental music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance then to the well-known music of what has been called the “period of common practice” (about 1700-1900). As with all intimate arts, its pleasures are all the sweeter for the effort required in obtaining them.

Raga is the first technical feature of Indian music with which the Western listener must become familiar. A raga is a group of tones from which a melody is formed. One thinks immediately of the scale in Western music; this, too, provides the tones from which the melody (and the harmony) is formed. While certain ragas may consist of an ascending and descending series of tones like our do, re, me, fa, sol, la, ti, do, the total concept of raga is more than such a mere schematic statement of the tones, by certain characteristic turns in the direction of the melody (in descending, especially), by certain deflections from normal pitch, and even by graces or ornamental notes used with certain tones. For example, there are a number of ragas using the tones of what we call the C major scale (the regular do, re, mi,…). But these ragas are quite different in effect because of the special ways certain tones are treated.

One of the functions of the slow improvised introductory sections in many Indian pieces, called alapa, is to show the listener the tones of the raga, and the characteristic melodic figures, slowly and carefully, giving both the performer and the listener a chance to feel all the emotional and structural implications of the particular raga. One must give close attention to the alapa, or one will not be thoroughly ready for what follows.

To fully grasp the raga, one really should have an ear trained well enough to recognize whole-steps, half-steps, and other intervals. In our common scale, for example, we have whole-steps between do-re and re-mi, but there is a half step between mi and fa; all the other steps are whole except for ti-do. This particular pattern of steps is so ingrained in our culture that anyone can sing it without realizing exactly what he is doing. More than half of our music uses this pattern in one way or another, as it happens to produce felicitous harmonies when the tones are sounded together in chords. But Indian music, which does not systematically use chords, finds this one pattern, though it is a popular one, inadequate as material for melody.

Indian theorists have worked out by permutations the various combinations of not more than seven tones within an octave. There are 72 of these combinations, which are called melas. A raga, whether traditional or newly constructed, necessarily relates in pattern to a mela.

In contrast to the systematic approach used in the theory of melas, a raga, which is the real substance of Indian tonal fabric, is defined simply as “that which appeals to the ear”. One must really use one’s ears to cope with some ragas which differ greatly in mela from any common European scale – even if we include in our list the patterns of the “modes” of early church music (Gregorian chant).

It is difficult or impossible to determine how many ragas there are, or might be theoretically, as the slightest change in the treatment of the tones of the mela means a different raga. But the number known to have been used is in the thousands, and there are performers who can reproduce hundreds of them. The popularity of certain ragas, however, tends to bring the effective number to a much lower figure, and many performers get along with not more than about fifty ragas.

Each raga is assigned to a certain time of the day, and the character of the raga is somehow appropriate to that time, even in the technical demands made upon the voice. There are some musicians of the older school in the North who would not think of performing a raga except at the proper time. Consequently, at evening concerts, one may hear only evening ragas. In the South, where public concerts have a longer tradition than in the North, the older restrictions stemming from the practices of temple and royal court are freely broken. At a South Indian concert given in the evening, one may hear ragas from various times of the day.

So far, we have mentioned mainly what could be called horizontal aspects of the ragas – the step patterns, emphases, and characteristic ornamentations. We have said, too, that Indian music has no chords. That is true. But it does not mean, really, that Indian music has no “harmony”, if harmony means two or more tones sounding together. As mentioned previously, Indian music usually employs a drone, which is do, sounded continuously against the other tones of the raga as they occur in the melody. Each tone, then, has not only its horizontal, melodic aspect; it also forms a vertical, harmonic combination with the drone. The quality of this harmony(actually, just a harmonically sounded interval) gives much of the individual expression of each tone in the raga. Hindu writers have gone into great detail in explaining the emotion conveyed by each tone; fa may be said to portray “peace”, while a sharpened fa may portray “anxiety”, and so forth. It is not only the location in the spatial scheme of the raga which causes these effects, but also the harmonic intervals formed as the melody notes sound against the drown, do.

While there can be much difference of opinion as to the meaning, character, or ethos of intervals, the Indian designations for their raga tones correspond fairly closely with Western ideas about intervals and scale tones. In our music, for example, much is made over the third note of the scale. A low, or minor third is characterized as “sad”, and a high, or major third is “gay”. One finds the same general meaning attached to these tones in ragas. The interval formed by a sharpened fa with do, or between natural fa and ti, long given special attention in the West (it was called diabolus in musica in medieval theory), is also accorded meaning in Indian music which recognizes its difficulty of intonation, and unique effect.

I give these few examples not to try to show that the sensibilities of the East and West are the same, but only to suggest that conditioning within a culture is not wholly responsible for what we feel in music, and that some of our reactions may depend on universal factors which are as valid in one culture as in another. What moves an Indian will move us, once we learn to apply our attention in the proper way. It goes without saying that the same is true for an Indian trying to appreciate Western music.

Not only are harmonic intervals present in Indian music, but chords (three or more different tones sounded together) as well, even though their occurrence is not deliberately planned, as in Western music. The drone on do often has a companion drone on sol. This means that when a singer dwells on mi, we hear do-mi-sol, the common major chord. Or, if he sings a flattened mi, we hear a minor chord. Still other combinations are formed when the second drone is fa, or ti. In the latter form, ti, with its many reiterations, seems to strive constantly to move upwards into do. Some of the effects formed with this sort of drone sound like a familiar progression in Western pieces, when what is called the “dominant” chord moves to the “tonic”, or principal chord in the key.

Indian music does have chords of a sort, then, and what they are will depend on the raga and type of drown used with it. The occurrence, over and over again, of certain chord combinations between melody notes and drones helps to set the mood of a raga in a manner quite analogous to the repetitious employment of certain chords in Western music to produce a given mood.

The instrument which sounds the vitally important drone in Indian music is the tambura, a long instrument (near double-bass size) with a gourd-like soundbox at one end. The drone strings are carefully tuned before the performance (this is one of the reasons why Indian concerts get a very leisurely start, often a half hour to an hour after the announced time). The performer, who is often a student or friend of the soloist, plucks the strings in no particular rhythm, but simply keeps them vibrating. The reverberation is unusually long, and the instrument produces a buzzing and humming, rather than a plucked sound.

If a tambura is not used with certain solo instruments of the guitar or mandolin type, the playing technique requires striking the lower strings from time to time; these tones serve as drones.

The next main technical feature of Indian music after raga is tala. Just as a raga is an organized group of tones on which melody is based, a tala is an organized group of beats on which rhythmic structure is based. Approximately insofar as a raga corresponds to a scale in Western theory, a tala corresponds to a bar, or measure. Here again, as in the case of scales, Indian music, not distracted by the elements of harmony or counterpoint, has explored many more possible combinations that Western music*(*That is, more than Western music of the previously mentioned “period of common practice”. Contemporary music of the West has become imaginative and freely experimental in the sphere of rhythm. It should also be pointed out that medieval music, towards the end of the 14th century in France, was extremely complex rhythmically, touching the limits of performability). While beats in Western music are generally grouped in bars of two, three, four, or six, with some large measures of 3 x 3 (9) and 4 x 3 (12), Indian talas make general use also of the uneven metres such as five and seven. Quite frequently the tala contains a large number of beats, ten and sixteen being the number of units in two very popular talas.

An Indian keeps time with his right hand and fingers, clapping his knee on strong beats, and waving his hand on some of the weaker ones. You will see members of the audience at a concert keeping time in this way. Great importance is attached to the first beat of the tala, which is called sam. At this point there will be emphatic gestures all over the auditorium. No intelligent listener at an Indian concert will fail to try to keep time, and to be aware of the arrival of each sam. This accounts in a large measure for the active interest observable among Indian listeners, as opposed to the often passive listening of many Western audiences.

In the North Indian ensemble, the commonest percussion instrument is the tabla, actually a pair of drums, the smaller one being tuned to blend with the drone. Tablas are played with a great variety of touches by the palms of the hands and the fingers.

In South India, the main percussion instrument is long drum with a drumhead at each end, called the mridangam, which is tuned in the same manner as a pair of tablas. This instrument is used for some types of pieces in the North also, where it is called pakhawaj.

The tabla player does much more than merely strike out the beats of the tala. He is free to improvise any number of little strokes, subdividing the beats into smaller units. These rhythms fitted into the tala by the drummer are called tabla bols. No matter how complex the bols, the basic beats of the tala are always clearly set out by the tabla player as a guide to the soloist. But in the South, the mridangam player may not show the basic beats of the tala at all, but may very nearly duplicate the intricate patterns of the soloist. For this reason, someone sitting with the performers at a Southern concert will beat out the tala. This is a great help to the Western listeners; at North Indian concerts he may have more trouble to catch the tala, in the absence of visual help. Good drummers have many tricks of syncopations, false accents and strange rhythmical combinations which do not appear to fit together with the tala until sam is reached. The audience, keeping time, is held in suspense, wondering what is going on. When the performers and audience arrive together at sam, the audience will be so pleased that it will applaud spontaneously. Sometimes an instrumentalist or singer will engage in interplay with the tabla player, in which each one will use all his tricks to make the other lose the beat. The good soloist holds his own, to the delight of the audience, which will reward the performers with applause after sam is reached. The atmosphere at such a concert, as far as enthusiasm is concerned, is more like that of a sports event than a concert in the West! The audience’s lack of inhibition shows, too, in that (with all their attentiveness) they do not hesitate to come in, move around, or get up and leave freely in the middle of a piece, if they feel like it, just as a Westerner might do at sports event.

Even when a raga is like a Western scale in its tone pattern, the Indian way of singing it can be quite confusing to the Westerner. Indian signers add flourishes, grace notes, or embellishments (called gamakas) to nearly every tone, even when merely demonstrating the tones of a raga. Without gamakas, the notes seem unclothed and inexpressive to an Indian musician. Many gamakas are executed very rapidly, and Indian singers cultivate facility in rapid execution which exceeds that of Western singers, on the whole. On the other hand, we lay great emphasis on a certain mellow roundness in tone production, with a slight wavering of the pitch, called vibrato, while Indian singers pay less attention to “beauty” of tone, as such. Indian singing, by our taste, is inclined to be too nasal, and the softening effect of vibrato is almost totally absent. But the tone of an Indian singer is one which permits clarity in the execution of the gamakas, and the beauty sought by the singer lies more in imaginative ornamentation than in the tone color of individual notes.

The gamakas include a large amount of sliding from pitch to pitch, which we call portamento. Western musicians are inclined to look down on this sort of melodic movement, perhaps having gotten the idea from keyboard instruments that melody should consist, ideally, of isolated pitches. Modern violinists in the West take considerable trouble to eliminate even those slides which are indigenous to their instrument, in the interest of “purity”. But a melody with no connecting slides seems completely sterile to an Indian. His ideal is to connect the pitches as much as possible, which gives the melodic line the same kind of undulating curve that one can observe in the hand motions of Indian dancers.

Solo instruments use somewhat the same style of performance as the voice, as far as ornamentation is concerned. In fact, as in the West, it is difficult to say whether the voice imitates instruments, or whether the instruments imitate the voice. The instruments most like the voice, however, are the bowed instruments, the sarangi, dilruba, and israj. In a vocal concert, these instruments, held upright in the lap like some of our ancient viols, accompany the voice not in unison, but by nearly exact imitation a short time after the leading melody. The player’s imitation of melodic figure 1 is going on at the same time the singer starts melodic figure 2. But one does not feel the clashes, which are inevitable, because these instruments are very soft, with only about a quarter of the volume of the singer. It may be noted that what goes on here is a polyphonic device called canon in the West.*(* Rounds, like “Row, row, row your boat” use the canon technic.)

The Violin of Western design is also used to accompany singers, and as a solo instrument, mainly in South India. Since much of South Indian music consists of fixed pieces, known to both the singer and the violinist, the violinist often plays not slightly tardy in imitation of the singer (like the sarangi player), but together with him, using somewhat different embellishments. Indians tune the violin differently from the Western way, and play (as with all Indian instruments) sitting on the floor, or a low platform, holding it against the chest, resting the scroll on one foot. They bow is sometimes held not at one end, as in the West, but further along the stick, nearer to the middle. Many players use mainly two fingers, getting most of the notes by sliding up and down the string. When played in this manner, the violin sounds like the typical Indian bowed instruments, except that it produces a little more volume. However, loosening the tension on the strings, according to the Indian way of tuning, makes the violin sound much softer than it does in the East, and the Indian bow technic, too, is not calculated to produce a great volume of tone.

In the playing of plucked instruments (of which the sitar in North India and the Saraswati veena in the south are the most prominent), the consequences of having the note pitch definitely fixed at the moment of plucking are often avoided by pulling the string with the fingers of the left hand, deflecting the pitch in various ways. The ornaments on plucked instruments have a very subtle effect, as the volume dies down after the string is plucked, making each additional note gained by stretching or relaxing the string softer than its predecessor.

The popular sitar and South Indian veena have fretted finger-boards of approximately cello length. One may also encounter the veena in the north (mahati veena). In playing the vichitra veena, which has no frets, a glass egg is used in place of the fingers of the left hand. Since the egg has to glide up and down the string between the different notes, sliding effects are a feature of this instrument.

The plucked instrument group includes several mandolinsized instruments, of which the most popular one in the north is the sarode, a brilliant solo instrument. The rabab is distinguished by the use of gut rather than metal strings, which gives it a soft quality. The susringar, something like the rabab, uses metal strings.

It is a curious fact that there is no popular brass instrument in India. These instruments have often had martial associations, and it may be that their absence can be explained variously in terms of Indian history, tradition, and temperament. But there are instruments similar to our woodwinds. There is an oboe called the shehnai, traditionally used in temples and on religious ceremonial occasions, which is now becoming a popular concert instrument. There are flutes, usually called bansari, which are played vertically (like the recorder), or in transverse position (like our flute). There are fingering holes, but no keys on these instruments, which is really an advantage in Indian music. The players develop remarkable skill at adjusting the pitch by lip, and by partly covering some holes. They are able to produce the characteristic Indian ornaments and slides on these instruments in a manner which would not be possible on Western keyed instruments.

At a North Indian concert, no composers’ name will be given on the program, as most of the fixed (i.e., not improvised) elements of the music are of ancient and anonymous tradition, and the free elements are the responsibility of the performer himself. The types of pieces most likely to be encountered are :

1. Kheyal (“Imagination”) : The texts may be on almost any subject from religious devotion to love. The style, especially in slow kheyal, which has a prose text, allows great freedom in the use of ornaments and embellishments. The words tend, for this reason, to become secondary to the musical development. In fast kheyal (rhymed text) there is less freedom. Kheyal singing varies according to the region from which the performer hails.

2. Dhrupad (“fixed”) : The most serious and dignified style, having some of its earliest antecedents in pre-Muslim India. The subject-matter is usually noble, martial, or heroic. There is less freedom for ornamentation and improvisation than kheyal. Rhythmic variations are a feature of dhrupad, and this kind of singing is always accompanied by the big drum, the pakhawaj. As with kheyal, there are a number of regional varieties of dhrupad.

3. Thumri : (derived from the name of a tala): More importance is given to the text than in Kheyal. The subject-matter of thumri is always love, or erotic feeling. This is the lightest style, quite opposite to dhrupad.

4. Ragamala: While it is usual for Indian music to retain the same raga throughout a piece, this form calls for a different procedure. The singer uses a number of ragas – those which have associations with the imagery in the text – changing from line to line, or word to word, as the case may be. In spite of the changes of raga, a good performer will weave the piece together in a manner which gives some impression of unity.

5. Songs without text: In general, the words play a less important part in North Indian vocal music than in Western vocal music. There are three kinds of signing which have no text at all :
a) Sargam: Singing with the Indian syllables equivalent to our do, re, mi.. They are : sa, ri, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni. The name of this style of singing derives from the first four syllables. Sargam may take place within other kinds of pieces.
b) Tarana: The singer uses the euphonious syllables usually employed in alapa, such as nom, tom, tana, dir-dir, etc, or the syllables employed by tabla players to describe strokes on the drums, such as ka, ga, gha, ta, da, and so forth.

At a South Indian concert, one may find composers’ names given.
South Indian music, called Carnatic, has common roots with the northern, or Hindustani variety. But it did not come under the Muslim influence which reshaped the character of music in the North. Carnatic music uses many of the same ragas and talas, but the names are different in most cases from those used in the North.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Carnatic music flowered with the work of certain great composers, the three most famous ones being Tyagaraja, Shastri and Dikshitar. We can speak of “composers” almost in the Western sense in this case, as much of the music by those saintly and revered men has been written down in Indian notations and published. There are few manuscripts directly from the composers, but the traditions are very strong, and the pieces have been written down by descendents, and by musicians whose teachers’ teachers learned them directly from the composers. The existence of this repertoire of more or less fixed music, in itself, makes for a consideration difference between the music of the North and the South. Similar, however, is the use of an improvised alapa before the fixed piece begins, setting the mood of the raga, and a further brilliant type of improvising within a tala at the end, called swaram (“notes”).

The main composition types of South Indian music are :

1. Kriti : A form to texts of fervent, devotional character, especially cultivated by Tyagaraja. It has three large sections, called pallavi, anupallavi and charanam. The height of development of the raga is reached in the charanam. A strain of the pallavi returns at the end of the anupallavi, and again at the end of the charanam, giving unity, and rounding off the form much in the manner of some types of Western music.

2. Varnam : There are few words in these pieces, their purpose being mainly to exploit all the note combinations and characteristic ornaments of a raga. They are a little like what we call an “etude” in the West, and both singers and players use them for developing technique.

3. Padam: A piece in three sections, like the kriti, but less elaborate.

4. Javali: A two or three section piece, similar in text matter to the North Indian thumri (the subject is love).

5. Ragamalika: The South Indian equivalent of the northern ragamala – a piece using various ragas. The form is typically South Indian, however. The various ragas are introduced in successive charanam sections.

In both North and South India, one may encounter a type of piece called lakshanageeta, in which the text gives the rules of the raga, and the melody provides illustrations. This is an important sort of piece, since it provides, in the absence of regularly used notation, a means of carrying on the tradition of ragas entirely by aural means.

Ultimately, the most important factor in releasing the pleasures of Indian classical music to the Western listener is not so much a knowledge of technical details as it is a receptive attitude, and one not tinged with condescension. We must guard against the too easy assumption that the West, being ahead of India in many technological developments, is necessarily ahead of her in other things as well.
In music, the Western symphony orchestra is often taken by the Indians themselves as a symbol of our progress. But the size of a performing apparatus has never had any relation to the artistic quality of music; in any case, the finest musical art of the West is most probably not that for orchestra. Harmony, too, is a unique Western development, and it would seem to be a mark of progress over purely melodic cultures, such as ours also was, prior to about the year 1000 AD. Again, if one considers artistic quality, one must realize the harmony, in itself, is no advantage. If this were not so, any harmonized song would be artistically on a higher level than our finest folk melodies, or the soaring unaccompanied chants of the church. One can easily think of examples which make nonsense out of the proposition that harmony necessarily carries with it an increase of artistic quality.

Artistic quality results not from the technical devices of external sound, but from the inner emotional, or spiritual state of the creative artist. External sound is only the means of expressing that state, and complexity of means may hinder such expression as often as it helps it.

In the case of Indian music, the means, although they do not include harmony or orchestral ensembles in the Western sense, are far from primitive. On the contrary, two elements, melody and rhythm, are carried to a higher degree of development in many respects than in Western music. These elements, being primary ones, carry greater expressive potential than harmony (in itself) or the devices of tone color exploited in the modern orchestra. What Indian music can express, then, is limited, as in all music, simply by the creative force of the musician. The finest Indian musicians have an abundant supply of this creative force, and the sensitive Westerner who learns to respond to the sound externals of Indian music can get from these artists musical experiences of the highest type. Having once arrived at this realization, the Westerner need never compare the music of East and West; he can take each one on its own terms, and be glad that he has two channels rather than one to that inner source to which music provides one of the most effective means of communication.


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