Indian classical music: a concept note

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‘Music is the highest art and, to those who understand, is the highest worship.’ This oft-used famous quote of Swami Vivekananda, who was a great musician and composer himself, uses the word ‘highest’ twice. Why? The philosophical connotations apart it has a very simple and literal aspect. The entire world is made out of five elements: earth, water, air, fire and sky. We find the sky at the top of all other elements – replete with sound-waves. This is the canvas used by the musicians and with the colours of emotions and the brush of melodic notes they portray their art work. This direct connection with the higher element gives music that extra edge! And among almost all of India’s cultural inheritance, its classical music is perhaps the only art that transforms not only the artistes but also its listener. It is one of the reasons why there is no indication that the art was ever intended to please or entertain the listener. ‘Swantah sukhaya’ or ‘meant for one’s own happiness’ has been its driving force. That is why the art, essentially, has always remained solo. It has always been sadhana or riyaazat for the musicians – and not mere practice. When such dedicated practice becomes faith, it yields astounding results like meditation, peace, sharpened intellect, psychosomatic therapy what to say of the blissful state of a creative spirit.

Indian history sheds very little light on the origin of Indian classical music that seems to have derived its source from the folk; even the first three notes (Udaatta, Anudaatta and Swarit) used for the chanting of the Vedic hymns. Folk music had been close to nature; more so because the Indian sub-continent always enjoyed abundant riches showered by Mother Nature. India held her in awe and this led to Nature-worship. And from there Indian mythology, rich in its content, derived its nourishing sap of sustenance.

Indian mythology, philosophy and science join hands when they declare that a living human body is the micro-cosmic representation of the macro-cosmic universe. Though yogis feel it, the anaahat (un-struck), aadi-naad (first sound) is operative without the knowledge or experience of ordinary human being through the subtlest nerve, called ‘sushumnaa’, inside the spinal cord. This celestial music becomes aahat by means of a stroke caused either by the friction of two or many objects, nerves or vocal cords. This transient worldly music is a part of celestial music.

According to the mythology Brahma, the creator, personified Saraswati as the deity of celestial music. He also generated and empowered Gandharvas (those who meditate on music) and Narada, the divine sage, for dissemination of music among gods, human beings and other creatures. Tumbura, an ideal instrument to produce the anaahat by means of aahat came into being to represent the three constituent sound of Omkaar generating from the navel, heart and throat points of the spinal cord of the gatra-veena or a human body that resonates like the veena. Myths say that the concept of veena sprang from this realization. And science approves of it!

The myth also has it that the animals instinctively selected their own swara ((Swa (self)+Ra (shine forth) = Swara). For example the guttural croak of frogs is close to the base note – the Shadaja. The honeyed coo of the koel is synonymous to Pancham or Pa while the trumpet of elephants hit the Nishad or Ni – naturally.

All these emerge spontaneously and music when spontaneous is an outpouring of emotions, which could take the shape of religious fervour or simple joy due to mundane reasons including a lullaby steeped in a mother’s love for her baby. This spontaneity evolved into folk songs. The moods related to different seasons or a particular time of the day played a pivotal role in shaping them.  

Folk music in India was essentially community singing inspired by simple joys of working in unison while sowing seeds, crushing stones, carrying water, welcoming rains or hoarding away a good harvest after thoroughly cleaning the grains. These followed certain melodic patterns. The pentatonic melodies, now famously known as Bhupali or Malkauns are still found in the folk songs of hilly terrains of the North East of India. And, though a different voice throw gives them an alien form in China and other countries in South East Asia, these melodies are a part of their folk music as well. Malhar, a rich and lively folk idiom from Uttar Pradesh, is another vital example of this.

These melodies evolved as ragas and gave birth to the Indian classical music that is Raga Sangeet. This developed as a highly evolved art-form rooted in Nature and became an integral part of Dharma[1]-based activity. It was also used to cast a spell on a desired person or even cure ailing people.   

[1] Dharma is different from religion as, according to ‘Dhaarayate Iti Dharmah’, it is a way of Hindu life which allows its society to embrace and retain all that is truthful, desirable and beautiful.

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