Introduction to Sub-Continent Classical Music-Origins

Think about a world without music. It would be a place quite different and hard to identify with the world we live in because music is an integral and defining part of human existence. It is a great unifier and symboliser. Through the ages, humanity has explored music for a variety of purposes. It has been used for religious rituals, for cultural representations, entertainment, education, for social interaction, for setting agendas and context switching, for colouring actions and events, for business; the list can be unending.

There are legends, myths and theories about the origin of music but, strangely, no one knows how human being discovered or created music. The most plausible explanation can be the theory of articulation of sounds of nature. Early homo-sapiens learned to communicate and express themselves with the help of sounds they learned from nature and those inarticulate sounds and tones evolved into music.

The idea that speech and music are systems of intoned sound is well accepted. Language is the system of sound reference- semanticity, referentiality, lexical meaning- where random sound patterns are used to convey symbolic meaning, while music is the system of sound emotion, where tonal sound patterns are used to convey emotional meaning. This means that music and language differ mainly in their emphasis rather than in their fundamental nature.

Steven Brown, PhD. Department of Psychology, Simon Fraser University

Canada has suggested a ‘Musilanguage’ model which has wide acceptance. According to him both music and human language have origins in a phenomenon known as the “musilanguage” stage of evolution, which followed a well-described class of primate vocalizations known as referential emotive vocalizations. A referential emotive vocalization (REV) was a type of call that served as an emotive response to some object in the environment, thus, each call-type signified a given object. REVs served an important communicative function for a group, as the meaning of each call was understandable to all members of the group, thereby encouraging appropriate responses. REVs hence provided for the dual acoustic purpose of the sound as referential meaning and sound as emotive meaning. That hominid referential emotive vocalization system evolved to a unitary lexical-tonal system, followed by a phrase system involving both combinatorial syntax and expressive phrasing properties.

The next step was divergence stage, leading eventually to the mature linguistic system and acoustic system of music that occurred through the reciprocal elaboration of either sound as referential meaning (language) or sound as emotive meaning (music). An important aspect of the divergence process was the formation of different syntax types; prepositional syntax in the case of language, and blending syntax in the case of music.

Then there is a rhythm theory. Anthropologists postulate that the earliest music was a rhythmic clapping of hands, clanking of stones or the striking of wooden sticks. At some stage, early human found a hollow tree and observed that it gave a peculiar sound, that evolved to a drum-possibly the first musical instrument known to man. This is quite plausible because fear was the strongest emotion known to primeval humans. Therefore auxiliary aids to express and cause fear were necessary.

Origins of music can also be traced in mythology. According to Greek mythology, MOUSAI or Muses were the goddesses of music, song and dance. Originally there were three Muses or Mousae on Mount Helicon, namely, Melete (meditation), Mneme (memory), and Aoede (song). There they sang the festive songs for gods and sang lamentations at the funerals. Being goddesses of song, they were connected with Apollo, the god of the lyre as he was the leader of the choir of the Muses by the surname Mousagetes. The original three muses evolved to nine and were assigned specific artistic spheres by the gods. Kalliope, epic poetry; Kleio, history; Ourania, astronomy; Thaleia, comedy; Melpomene, tragedy; Polyhymnia, religious hymns; Erato, erotic poetry; Euterpe, lyric poetry; and Terpsikhore, choral song and dance.

The Chinese theory about music is nestled in nature. According to the Chinese, there are eight different musical sounds in nature, namely; the sound of the skin; the sound of stone; the sound of metal; the sound of clay; the sound of silk; the sound of wood; the sound of bamboo and the sound of a gourd.

For each of these sounds Chinese developed various music instruments. The sound of wood, metal, stone and skin led to percussion instruments. The sound of silk was embodied into string instruments and the sound of Clay, Gourd and bamboo led to wind instruments. The sound of stone is held by the Chinese to be the most beautiful of all the sounds. According to the legends, only a certain kind of stone found near the banks of the river Tee served for the making of these stone instruments.

The story of Persian music also dates back to the prehistoric era. Persians attribute the invention of music to the great legendary king Jamshaid. Historically Persian Music can be traced back to the days of the Elamite Empire (2500-644 B.C) and the Achaemenid Persian Empire (550BC-330BC) which was the largest empire in the ancient world at the height of its power. The writing of Herodotus and Xenophon suggested the importance of music in court life and religious rituals during the period. Archaeological evidence also establishes an elaborate musical culture in the ancient Persians.

Sassani period (A.D. 226-651) was arguably the golden age of Persian music. Pahlbod( Persian name) or Barbod(Arabic) was the most famous and skilled court musician of the Sassanid times. He is credited to have conceived a musical system consisting of modes and melodies. This was the oldest Middle Eastern musical system of which some traces still exist. Barbod, Nakissa and Ramtin were some of the important musicians of the Sassanid era and their work has survived in the folk traditions of Persian music. During Abbasid dynasty (AD 750-1258), Abu Nasr Farabi wrote ‘Kitab al-musiqi al-kabir’ which laid the foundations of the musical tradition in the Muslim world.

Indian music or sub-continent music is one of the oldest musical traditions in the world. The artefacts of the Indus Valley civilization depict dance and musical instruments like the seven holed flute and drum. Relics of various types of string, wind instruments and drums have been recovered from Harappa-Punjab and Mohenjo Daro-Sindh, Pakistan.

The origin of the music of the sub-continent is said to have its roots in Vedas. There are differing views about the origins of the Vedas. They are generally considered to be ‘apourusheya’ or of super-human origins or not of human composition. Saraswati was the goddess of music and learning. Narada was the first sage to whom the laws of music were revealed and Tumburu was the first singer. It is believed that classical music is derived from the ‘Samaveda’, which is considered to be Veda of music. Actually ‘Samveda’ is a collection of hymns from Rig-veda, the recital of the hymns was a religious ritual.

Apart from mythology, ‘Dattilam’ is the earliest text about music in sub-continent. It is considered a synthesis of earlier works on music. The period of compilation of the text is not known but it is attributed to the sage Dattila who is believed to be an early musicologist lived in the period between 2nd and 4th B.C. The text points to the ritual chanting of Samaveda and vocal music known as ‘Samagan’, Sama meaning melody and Gan meaning to sing. Sama-gan presents the body of music having seven musical notes. The order and name of notes used in Samagan were:

  1. Krusht
  2. Pratham
  3. Dwitiya
  4. Tritiya
  5. Chaturth
  6. Mandra and
  7. Atiswar. The order of the notes was descending.

From Kushan (60-240AD) and Gupta period (280-550 AD) onwards music finds a regular mention in historical texts. Kalidasa(370-450AD) who is widely regarded as the greatest writer, poet and dramatist of the Sanskrit language mentions music and various kinds of musical instruments including veena(string instruments), flute (wind instruments) and Mridang (percussion instrument) in his writings. Music also finds mention in Buddhist and Jaina texts.

Brihaddeshi written by Matanga (circa 700 A.D.) is another important text about sub-continent music. It is this text in which the word “raga or raag” was mentioned, however, it is difficult to tell whether the concept was the same as it is today. Sangeet-Ratnakar written by Sharangadeva (1210-1247 AD) is considered definitive musicological text providing extensive details and commentaries about numerous musical styles that existed till that time in sub-continent.

The most significant milestone in the development of sub-continent music was the body of work of Amir Khusru (1254-1324) a legendary musician, statesman and philosopher who was the advisor to several rulers of Slave-Dynasty in Delhi. It would not be incorrect to state that he was the father of the sub-continent classical music as we know today. Many present-day musical structures, presentation formats and musical instruments are attributed to him. He is credited as the inventor of such important musical instruments as sitar and tabla. He was originator of musical forms like Qawwali, Tarana, and Khayal,(more on this later)which are popular even today. Some scholars, however, consider his contribution to sub-continent music more legendary than factual. He nevertheless was an icon who played an important part in bringing music out of religious ritual in temples. He incorporated Persian music traditions into the sub-continent music; however, his influence was greater in the Northern sub-continent than in the South. The ultimate consequence of that influence was the bifurcation of sub-continent music into two distinct systems; the Hindustani or the North Indian music and the Carnatic sangeet of the South.

The contribution of the Mughal emperors being great patrons of arts and crafts to the development of sub-continent music was monumental. The legendary musician Tansen was considered a jewel of the court of Emperor Akbar the great. Legend has it that he could cause rain or that he could light fires by a rendition of his music. Tansen is credited with many innovations, new raags/ragas as well as compositions.

Raja Mansingh Tomar (1486-1516 AD) of Gwalior contributed a lot in the shift from Sanskrit to the more common Hindi as the language for classical songs. He himself wrote many compositions on religious and secular themes. He was also responsible for the major compilation, the ‘Mankutuhal’ (book of curiosity) which outlined the foremost forms of music in India. His most important contribution was the development of ‘Dhrupad’ a classical musical form (More on this later). Tomar’s court had a galaxy of musicians such as Baiju Bawra and Swami Haridas who composed and wrote a large number of songs in Brij Bhasha and Hindi. Swami Haridas is said to have been the teacher of both Miyan Tansen and legendary dhrupad singer and composer Baiju Bawra.

After the fall of the mighty Mughal empire, the patronage of music continued in smaller princely states like Lucknow, Patiala, Baroda, Banaras etc. This resulted in the diversity of styles and a system of teaching, learning and rendition that is today known as ‘gharanas’. The term gharana is derived from the Urdu/Hindi word ‘ghar’ which means ‘family’ or ‘house’. The gharana concept gained currency in the nineteenth century when the royal patronage weakened. Apart from the family identity, a gharana signifies a comprehensive musicological ideology.

In the early twentieth century, Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande (1860-1936) undertook extensive research on North Indian or Hindustani as well as Carnatic music. Between 1909 and 1932, he brought out the definitive work on sub-continent music, ‘Hindustani Sangeeth Padhathi’ in four volumes. He suggested a system for the transcription for the music. He classified almost thousands of compositions from the major gharanas and musicians and codified various raags/ragas in ‘Thaat’ system. Although some of the ustads (teachers of music) point out many inconsistencies and ambiguities in Bhatkande’s system still his contribution remains monumental.

After the British Raj, the emergence of India and Pakistan affected the thinking, teaching, performance and appreciation of music in Sub-continent in many ways. Traditionally classical Music had the patronage of royals and aristocracy. The performances were held in the courts or in “Mehfil”(house concert) of wealthy Zamindars’ homes. It was considered high culture, something which the upper-class society and connoisseurs enjoyed. After independence, all princely states merged with either India or Pakistan. The patronages of the music hence shifted from aristocracy to Government or non-governmental institutions. With the change of patronage, the emphasis of performances and presentation also changed. Instead of closed performances for well-cultivated audiences, the new lay listeners of Music did not appreciate the finer points. The performers were compelled to satisfy the common audience. This resulted in shifting the focus of performances towards variety in music compositions and attention on pleasing the audience according to their tastes. This was a major and quite unfortunate change because the exhibition of technical expertise and improvisation was a very special and unique feature of classical music.

The musicians in Pakistan got closer to ‘Urdu’ and folk traditions of the areas in Pakistan. In India, the musicians moved towards Sanskrit as the concept of national integration gained importance. Efforts were made to integrate the north Indian classical music and Carnatic sangeet. The All India Radio introduced a special type of concert where the integration of the two different classical systems was attempted and highlighted.

To be continued/-


The Origins of Music- Brown, Steven, N. L. Wallin , and B. Merker (2000). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Israr-e-Mausiqi-Firoze Nizami, Idara-E-Nashreen, Lahore.

The Raags Of North Indian Music-Their Structure and Evolution- N.A. Jairazbhoy, Faber and Faber, UK,1971.

Hindustani Music in 20th Century-Wim Van Der Meer, Allied Publishers, Bombay,1980.

Raag Rung-Inayat Elahi Malik, Kitab Numa, Lahore

Classical Music Of Sub-Continent-S M Shahid, Fazeel Sons Karachi,1999.

The Lost World of Hindustani Music- Kumar Parsad Mukherjee, Penguin Books India 2006 and Oxford University Press Karachi-2007

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