Indian Classical Music - A Brief Overview

Indian music has been a continuously developing cultural art form for thousands of years. Yet, with such a vast history, there is little early historical documentation which explains the specific details which have brought the music to its present form.

The early forms of Indian music were not considered a means for entertainment. It was performed almost entirely within the temples, used to enhance the religious experience. Consequently, the thought of documenting any advancements of the instruments and music was never a consideration. Instead, the people often praised God, crediting him (or her) for the music of the day. Taking credit for and documenting such advancements did not enter the more humble minds of people and explains, on a fundamental level, the lack of any hard evidence.

The earliest documentation of musical advances happened around the thirteenth century when Amir Khusrau was invited into the court at Delhi. Although there is much speculation about Amir Khusrau’s actual contribution to the development of Indian classical music, some general observations can be made. He did not invent or develop instruments such as sitar or tabla, as is often reputed in oral tradition, but he symbolizes the importing of middle-eastern style in Indian music.

The invention of the sitar has a more direct lineage to the Persian tambur. The sitar was designed in the middle of the eighteenth century through a modification of the Persian tambur which made it more amenable to the instrumental style of the modern bin (pronounced been). It evolved at the same time as the early Khyal, in the mid-eighteenth century in Delhi.

Khyal, in simple translation, means "imagination," but it goes far beyond mere spontaneous creation of musical thought. The player must first grasp the fundamental qualities of the rag (or tal) and using certain guidelines and/or rules, reinterpret the essence of the material into their own. This is why two different artists will render two completely different versions of the same raga (or even the same tabla composition). Such liberty insures that the personality and skill of the player will always be at the forefront and that the music will never stagnate.

Although a classical tradition with many prescribed rules for performance, Indian music allows a great deal of interpretation and improvisation by the individual players. Unlike European classical music, which primarily requires the player to interpret what is written, classical Indian music allows the players to improvise within structured guidelines using the melodies of the raga and the rhythm cycle (tal) established by the supporting drums. Unfortunately, a comparison of classical Indian music to improvisatory jazz music, or to composed European classical music presents no real answers to the complex question of "what is classical Indian music?"

The intricate melodic and rhythmic structures which combine to form an aesthetic music performance are as deep as any ocean and as wide as any horizon. Certainly, boundaries and rules within the music do exist, but these rules do not limit the player. Upon a clear understanding and practical application of the many melodic and rhythmic rules of performance, the player should not think only intellectually of the music, nor should the player respond purely with emotion. The combination of evolved techniques and theories are but resources for the player to utilize for expressing his/her true personality through the musical tradition.