Indian Classical Music: What’s It About?
Written by Anvitha Shoroff and edited by Monu Malik
If you’ve ever studied music theory or played an instrument, you probably already know about major scales, minor scales, rhythm, key signatures, and more. For most of us music nerds, a piece of sheet music is easily understandable and seemingly universal. Music, as a whole, is pretty universal — it transcends language and can convey deep meanings that writing alone cannot. We’re practically surrounded by it: people listen to pop songs on the radio, subscribe to several streaming services, and pride themselves upon having good music taste. But despite how we’ve been conditioned to believe that western music is the basis of most great music — think Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Paganini — there’s a whole world of music beyond Europe waiting to be explored.
Let’s take a virtual trip to South Asia — more specifically, India. People tend to associate India with the upbeat, dance-style music that Bollywood produces. While there’s nothing particularly wrong with this style of music, it doesn’t represent the rich array of culture and spirituality that most of Indian classical music, or Carnatic music, embodies. Carnatic music is said to be over 6,000 years old and was originally written in one of the world’s oldest languages — Sanskrit. Additionally, works can be composed in other languages, such as Telugu, Tamil, and Kannada. Rather than focusing on compositions, Carnatic music students spend years learning to correctly interpret songs composed by renowned classical musicians. In comparison to Western music, Indian classical music is much more disciplined and structured — students spend years perfecting vocal technique, learning hundreds of different ragas (think of them as keys, like E major, for instance), and eventually learning how to improvise based on the raga of the song. Not just anyone can sing this type of music, which makes it all the more respectable.
While the focus of Carnatic music tends to be on singing, many different instruments are needed to bring the music to life. The sitar, a long necked lute, is instrumental to the success of a classical music performance, but sometimes, talented musicians will employ the violin instead. In order to keep a consistent rhythm, the Mridangam or tabla, both expressive percussion instruments, are added to the performance. In Carnatic music, the simple beat of a palm against the leg functions as an instrument, with different combinations of beats pairing with specific songs. Nowadays, artists have been dabbling in “fusion” music, in which classical music is combined with modern instruments such as electric keyboards and guitars. The rich variety of songs written in the classical style makes it easy for performers to experiment with new styles of music. Interestingly, Carnatic music is not really comparable to any particular style of western music, but instead has elements of ballads, rap, R&B, and sometimes, even rock!
Some famous composers include Purandara Dasa (1484–1564), Annamacharya (1408–1503), Thyagaraja (1767–1847), and Papanasam Sivan (1890–1973). Though many of these artists lived centuries before us, current performers breathe new life into these songs, bringing the art of classical music to a whole new generation. Famous songs like Hanuman Chalisa are very long, typical devotional songs that are relatively simple for beginners to learn. However, more complex songs like the Kalinga Narthana Thillana or Jagado Udharana require a tremendous amount of memorization, vocal agility, range, and versatility. Because Carnatic music requires incredible amounts of training and dedication, only a few people are able to find great success in performing or teaching this music. Some of these “greats” include M.S. Subbulakshmi, T.M. Krishna, and Balamuralikrishna.
Indian classical music may not be the most mainstream art form, but it’s certainly one that should be recognized. Not only does it have a deep history, but it also takes immense skill and dedication to succeed at. Luckily, no one needs musical talent to appreciate its meaning and complexity.
Cover Photo sourced from Dinodia Photos and Alamy Stock Photo