Indian Music in its Classical Form

Updated on January 2, 2024 by Meg Pier

Indian Music is Diverse and Intricate Art

India is a country that is home to many different faiths, languages, cultures, and customs.  Indian Music is a diverse and intricate art form that has a long and illustrious history that dates back thousands of years. It covers a broad variety of musical forms and traditions, including popular music, folk music, religious music, and classical music.

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Musician playing ‘Sitar’ a classical instrument.

There are various subgenres that may be found within the realm of Indian music. The traditional style of music known as Hindustani has its roots in the northern part of India and is considered to be one of the most well-known types of Indian music. This kind of music is typified by a system of ragas, which are melodic frameworks, and talas, which are rhythmic cycles, and is frequently played by a soloist who is accompanied by a tabla player, who plays a percussion instrument.

Carnatic music also known as 'Karnataka Sangeetha'  is a subgenre of Indian music that was developed in the southern region of the country. Carnatic music is similar to Hindustani music in that it is structured on ragas (tune) and talas (rhythm), but it is distinguished from Hindustani music by its unique compositions and performing practices.

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Vocalists performing in a Devotional concert

In addition to this, there is also devotional music that is played at religious events, folk music, and popular music from India, which is a blend of Indian classical music, Indian folk music, and Western influences.

For thousands of years, classical music has been an essential component of Indian culture. The ancient Hindu texts known as the Vedas, which were written circa 1500 BCE, include the earliest recorded mentions of Indian classical music. It has been employed in social and recreational activities as well as in religious and spiritual rituals. Over the ages, a large number of well-known Indian classical musicians have arisen, adding to the growth and development of the genre.

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Musician holding an instrument called ‘Veena’ which usually accompanies a carnatic vocalist performance

Indian classical music is still a vital component of Indian culture and is enjoyed by listeners all over the world. Additionally, a large number of young musicians are attempting to promote and preserve classical music for future generations.

Karnataka Has Vibrant Indian Music Scene

The southern Indian state of Karnataka has played a significant role in the development of Carnatic Indian music throughout its long and illustrious history. Karnataka is home to a strong Carnatic music scene and has been responsible for producing a number of well-known Carnatic performers. It is widely acknowledged as being one of India's most important centers for Carnatic music. This state has a long history of producing some of the most accomplished musicians in the Carnatic tradition, and it continues to foster and promote the art form via a variety of different projects.

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Group of kids performing at a devotional concert

Group of kids performing at a devotional concert

Mysore, which is located in Karnataka and is one of the state's largest towns, has played an especially important role in the evolution of Carnatic Indian music. Other towns in the state of Karnataka, including Bangalore (now known as Bengaluru), Hubli, and Mangalore, in addition to Mysore, have made significant contributions to the development of Carnatic music. These cities are home to a multitude of music schools, music festivals, and concerts, all of which draw performers and music aficionados from all across India and the rest of the globe.

Meet Musician H.N. Meera and Her Zeal for Indian Music

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H.N Meera performing with a violinist (right) and a tabla player (left)

H.N. Meera is an artist, performer, and teacher who specializes in traditional Carnatic Indian music. She has been performing and studying this style of music for the past 56 years. She was able to explain to us the background and the beginnings of this traditional form. The meaning of the word "Carnatic" may be expanded in two different ways, as she explains. In order for us to comprehend the initial rendition, we will have to acquire an awareness of who Purandara Dasa is.

It is generally agreed that Purandara Dasa, a famous musician and composer from South India, is the "father of Carnatic music." He made a significant contribution to the evolution of Carnatic music and was born in Karnataka. He is noted for his work in this field. The foundational framework of the contemporary Carnatic music system is generally acknowledged to him as the creator.  In addition, he was responsible for the composition of hundreds of devotional songs in Kannada, many of which remain popular to this day. His songs are distinguished by their lack of complexity, their passionate devotion, and their poetic beauty.

"The second interpretation is a term in Sanskrit. In Sanskrit, it is written as Karna-Ataka, where 'Karna' refers to the ears and 'Ataka' meaning heard. She elaborates further by saying, "So to our ears, which is melodious, that is called Carnatic music."

The Three Main Elements of Classical Carnatic Indian Music

After elaborating on the significance of the term "Carnatic," Meera proceeds to break down the three primary aspects of the musical style known as Carnatic. The three important components are the Raaga, which refers to the melody, the Tala, which refers to the rhythm, and the composition.

Carnatic music is built upon a foundation of melodic modes that are referred to as ragas. A scale of notes can be played using a raga, which is a set of rules for ascending and descending note patterns. There are hundreds of different ragas in Carnatic music, and each one has its own particular flavor and atmosphere.

Talas, also known as rhythmic cycles or beats, are the building blocks upon which Carnatic music is constructed. The basis for talas is made up of groupings of beats, which are then further subdivided. There are several different talas used in Carnatic music, each of which has its own distinctive beat and structure.

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A classical singer performing in an open garden

Compositions are any songs or other musical works that are constructed on the basis of a certain raga and tala. Compositions of Carnatic Indian music typically communicate the composer's devotion to a particular god or spiritual concept due to the music's characteristically devotional nature. Depending on the background of the composer, the language of the lyrics can change from Sanskrit, and other south Indian languages.

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The fundamentals of Carnatic Music with lyrics in the southern language of ‘Kannada’

The fundamentals of Carnatic Music with lyrics in the southern language of ‘Kannada’

She continues, “Apart from this, there is Shruthi which is a pitch. In Carnatic Indian music, normally we sing all the songs in the same pitch. A constant pitch will be set according to the voice quality of the singer. Whereas in Western music or film music, each song will be set to different shrutis or pitches.”

Shruti Pitch Box instruments vocalist
The ‘Shruti’ or Pitch Box to tune the voice of the vocalist

Vocalist Supported by Musicians in Indian Music Performance

According to Meera, in order to assist vocal singers with the performance's rhythm, other musicians who play instruments are typically there to support them. The singing of the principal vocalist is complemented by the playing of the supporting musicians, who also contribute to the formation of a musical texture that is both vibrant and full of depth.

Indian Group of singers performing music festival
Group of singers performing in a Music Festival

In a performance of Carnatic music,violin is the supporting instrument that is heard the most often.  While following the lead of the lead vocalist, the violinist plays subtle melodic phrases that complement and accompany the vocal melody. Another instrument that is frequently used to give a rhythmic backing is a double-headed drum called a mridangam. This drum plays complicated patterns that generate a lively and invigorating rhythmic texture. Another type of instrument is the Ghatam, which is a type of percussion instrument built out of a clay pot. The musician creates a variety of rhythms and noises by tapping and striking the pot with their hands to make the sounds. The performer of the bamboo flute provides additional melodic support as the last element.

In addition to the standard accompanists, performances of Carnatic Indian music may also make use of other instruments like the veena (which is a stringed instrument), the kanjira (which is a small tambourine), and the saxophone.

H.N. Meera’s Story of Pursuing Indian Music

There is always an interesting story behind people who follow their passion, especially with many obstacles coming their way. The story is often inspiring, which is why we were very curious about hearing Meera’s story.

She tells us that she started learning Carnatic Indian music when she was five years old. "Because my parents recognised that I could imitate any song that came on the radio immediately. I used to catch the tune, and I used to sing to the rhythm in my own way, she happily remembers."

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Children in traditional wear performing a carnatic classical song

Children in traditional wear performing a carnatic classical song

"When I started my music career, I was very young, and I did not know the importance. I was told by my parents that I am good at it, which is why I should pursue it. I started learning. There was no other special reason. Eventually, I started loving the process, and there was nothing more interesting to me than music. People started liking the way I was singing, my voice, my presentation, everything. I used to win an enormous number of prizes in competitions. This encouraged me to learn more,” she shares.

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H.N Meera performing as a tribute to ‘Purandara Dasa’, the father of Carnatic Music

But there was something that Meera told us that moved us. "It's not just my interest that has pushed me this far but also because of the unconditional support and motivation that I’ve received from my loved ones. Be it my parents, my husband, or now my children. All of them motivate me, appreciate me, and give me the freedom to continue practicing my passion". While following your passion may sound very common in the West, in India in the 2000s, a woman was expected to take care of her family after her marriage and not indulge in anything more.

In Carnatic Indian Music, Listening is Most Important Skill

Meera tells me that there is more to achieve since Carnatic Indian music is a very vast subject. She believes that listening is the most important skill here, as there is always an opportunity to learn something new. We were stunned to hear her belief so strongly enshrined in Carnatic music. We could see her excitement in her eyes.

When someone is passionately speaking about something they absolutely love, you can't help but be mesmerized. Everyone in the room was paying careful attention as they listened to Meera speak her soul. Her energy was so vibrant that it made us think about the days when we started learning the Carnatic classical Indian music form, also because our parents wanted to. But we never found it interesting. Now that we know, it was probably because we never knew the history and the main reason why it should be pursued. We were never told why it is important to stay connected to traditional Indian music.

The power of music can stabilize the mind and body. It has been demonstrated to have a strong influence on both the mind and body, and it may aid in restoring harmony and balance to both. It brings you comfort and improves your ability to focus.

Musician playing Sitar indian
Musician playing Sitar. Image Credit: Radhika Lal / Wiki Commons

It has been demonstrated that listening to music may have a relaxing impact on the mind and can lower tension and anxiety levels. Additionally, listening to music can improve focus and concentration, mood, and motivation. It has been demonstrated to reduce heart rate, blood pressure, and muscular tension, as well as to encourage relaxation and a sense of well-being.

Let's give these musicians our respect for their flawless melodies that are filled with heart and pure enthusiasm. For more than 6,000 years, this kind of art has been providing magical moments for both the performer and the audience. To hear Meera sing, click the video link below.

Mahima Gopal Profile ImageMahima is a business administration graduate currently completing her Masters in International Tourism from the University of Lugano (Switzerland). She is a determined simple dreamer. Belonging to a strong and fascinating culture like India, she is curious about practices of other cultures. She believes that a destination always stands out when it is viewed from a cultural perspective. She's fond of storytelling her travel experiences. Her mantra is "There is always more to learn and explore.

Meg Pier

Meg Pier

Publisher and editor of People Are Culture (PAC). This article was created by original reporting that sourced expert commentary from local cultural standard-bearers. Those quoted provide cultural and historical context that is unique to their role in the community and to this article.


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