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Indian Classical Music

INDIAN CLASSICAL MUSIC:
A BRIEF INTRODUCTION FOR THE OUTSIDER

The Mythological Preamble:

The theory propounded by Pythagoras about the harmonious sounds that the spheres make when they move in the heavens finds an echo in Indian musicological theory which offers that music is of two kinds: Anahat and Aahat. The former is loosely translated as ‘unstruck sound’ or sound that does not have an origin while the latter refers to sound that is ‘struck’.

Anahat naad is that music which causes vibrations in aakash (ether) while aahat is the result of vibrations in the air. And who can enjoy music in the ether? Simple, say the Hindu scriptures. All those who are siddha -purushas (evolved souls) can attune themselves to the music in the ether while ordinary mortals enjoy music only as we know it.

Again there is an unusual explanation of the origin of musical sound in India. According to a popular Hindu myth, Shiva, the third God in the Hindu Trinity, created the cosmos while in the throes of creativity. His forte being dance, the dance of creation led to the creation of all matter. But surely Shiva needed some musical accompaniment to dance to? Indeed he did and the instrument he holds in his right hand is the damru, the little drum which he played while kicking a speck of celestial dust, creating the sun over here, the milky way over there. The damru it was then that spewed forth the magical ‘swaras’ (notes) that make up the Indian octave: Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni and Sa. It is significant to note that Indian mythology tells us that music emanated first from a percussion instrument while, across the oceans, Greek mythology explains the origin of musical sound as a result of the infatuation that Pan harboured for a nymph, Syrinx. Tired of his amorous advances she runs away while he gamely chases her. On reaching the edge of a lake she prays to the spirits in the water to help her; The spirits heed her prayer and transform her into a reed which is planted in the shallow waters of the pond.

Pan, with the help of his supernatural abilities, realises that his beloved has been changed into a member of the plant kingdom and recognizes the reed as the new shape of his Syrinx. He plucks the reed, makes holes into it and blows into it as a gesture of love-making thus creating the first musical sound. There is an allegorical interpretation to this story from Greek mythology: the creative artist cannot make sweet music (in his chosen field of artistic endeavour) without first undergoing various trials and tribulations.

No wonder then that percussion instruments form the backbone of any musical performance in India, whether instrumental or vocal. The ability to divide a unit of time into the minutest sections is perhaps the most outstanding ability of the Indian system of music in which taal (cycle of beats) is the most important element of any composition. The ability to further subdivide the cycle of beats into many small sub-divisions has evolved innumerable kinds of ‘taals’ in Indian music, which are too many to go into here but are mentioned to impress the reader with the unique Indian ability to apply mathematics to music in a way that would boggle the mind of musicians from other parts of the world.

Perhaps the most basic difference between Western Music and Indian music lies in the use of percussion: While Indian music uses a percussion instrument as a means of keeping time by maintaining the cycle of beats and meeting the performer at sama, (point), western classical music uses the percussion instrument as a dramatic tool with which the element of drama is either introduced or intensified. Thus there is a clear difference in the use of percussion in both systems: Intellectual in India — because it deals with time — and emotional in the west because it deals with the heart.

Author – Unknown