By Sangeeth Gowrishankar, Youth Advisory Board Member

India has a very rich heritage which has been passed down from generation to generation.  Be it the age of the Indus civilization or the number of invasions and culture clashes this land has witnessed. All this has contributed to the complex history of Indian music which has been one of the most important aspects of our heritage. All these factors have led to the current generation thinking, “how exactly did Indian music become the way it is now ? How has it changed from its original stage ?”

This is the YAB or  the Youth Advisory Board for the Indian Music Experience Museum (IME), based in Bengaluru. IME is the only interactive music museum in India and is a grammy affiliated museum. The YAB is the result of the collaboration between the IME and the British council which aims at making the museum more youth centric.

Via this blog, we at the YAB try to trace the history of Indian music and its evolution.

Living Traditions

Indian classical music is ancient in origin, yet constantly evolving. Its earliest sources include the ritual incantations of vedic scriptures over 2,000 years ago and the timeless wellspring of folk music of the subcontinent. Alongside the two main streams of Carnatik and Hindustani classical music, are numerous tributaries of devotional music traditions, which have both received from and given back to the two main traditions. Classical music is guided by well-defined structures and frameworks, and yet brims with scope for creative articulation. It stimulates the mind, soothes the soul, and continues to be the benevolent mother to a variety of musical expressions.


Timeline of Indian Classical music :

The trinity : –

The most prolific and significant composers of carnatic music were the trinity of Shyama Shastri (1762 – 1827), Thyagaraja (1767 – 1847) and Muthuswami Dikshitar (1776 – 1835). They were contemporaries and lived in close proximity in south India. Their compositions were the mainstay of carnatic music. The mid 18th century to the mid 19th century period was considered the golden age of carnatic music.

Hindustani music : –

Hindustani music is the classical music tradition of north India. It can be traced back to distinctive musical practices from the 8th and 9th centuries AD. By the 12th and 13th centuries waves of invaders from West and Central Asia brought their musical cultures to north India. The present form of Hindustani music thus represents a confluence of foreign influences with indigenous practices. The tradition consists of two major subgenres—dhrupad and khayal—and a group of semi-classical subgenres broadly categorized as the thumri family. Instrumental musicians may perform in any one of, or a blend of, these formats. Hindustani music shares with Carnatic music the basic principles of raga (melodic frameworks) and tala (rhythmic cycles), and performances feature both compositions as well as improvisation.

Songs of the people

India is home to a diversity of folk music. Each form is intimately tied to a particular community or region, but dwells on themes that are universal. Some forms are elaborate and performed only by trained artistes, while others are simple enough for the whole community to participate in. Dance is often intertwined with folk music. The small sample of folk music forms here have been categorized according to their particular contexts, but in reality their practice is flexible

Songs of heros and Gods :-

Legends of heroes and gods are kept alive through oral histories and songs. The themes are universal—tragic tales of star-crossed lovers and heroic accounts of the triumph of good over evil—but they vary from one region to the next

Songs of celebration :-

Diwali and Dussehra are celebrated across the country with a riot of color and sound. Other festivals are marked across state or geographic regions. Local deities are commemorated with festivities within a village or village cluster. Irrespective of the scale, festivals bring communities together with song and dance.

Songs of Life :-

Our lives are dotted by events big and small, marking the passage of time. In India, every ‘first’—be it a baby’s first morsel of food or the commencement of a child’s education—is steeped in ceremony. These life events are celebrated and chronicled in songs.

Songs of work :-

For centuries, work has played a central role in defining communities and determining their ways of life. From fisherfolk to washermen, each community has songs of work to suit its labours. These songs alleviate the monotony of repetitive tasks and provide rhythms to unite the group; they provide company to those in solitary occupations and chronicle the diverse experiences of life in India.

Melting pot

As colonization moved people around the world, their musical instruments migrated with them. The once-foreign saxophone, clarinet, keyboard, cello and guitar now appear on both the north Indian and south Indian classical concert stages. Colonial interactions enabled the momentous crossovers of the harmonium and the violin. Both these originally Western instruments are today an integral part of Indian classical music performance—proof that the boundaries of culture are indeed fluid.

Sounds of the Diaspora :-

The 19th century witnessed an exodus of Indians to faraway colonies in Mauritius, East Africa and the Caribbean. Following the abolition of slavery by the British Parliament in 1833, hundreds of thousands left home as indentured workers to replace slave labour on colonial sugar plantations.The 20th century too saw waves of migration from the subcontinent, as many Indians left for Britain, Canada and America in search of economic opportunity. Music travelled with each migration. As communities dropped anchor in their new homelands, their music adapted, absorbing from local cultures, while echoing traditions from the past.

Indian Brass Bands:-

The rulers of the princely states of 19th century India were impressed by the pomp and splendour of the marching bands that accompanied the British military forces. Many, such as Maharaja Serfoji II of Tanjore, introduced marching bands in their own military command. The marching band, in all its finery, symbolized pride, loyalty, military prowess and utmost discipline. It is a legacy of the Raj that lives on in the subcontinent in many forms even today. Seen below is the Mysore Palace Band was established in 1868 under the reign of ChamarajendraWodeyar.The Mysore Palace Band introduced the public to range of music, from Western marching band tunes and Indian classical pieces to patriotic ones such as the Mysore state anthem, ‘Kaayoshrigauri’.

Songs of struggle

Emotions ran high as the movement for independence from British rule peaked. The promise of a free nation brought hope, yet people across the country were subject to large and small acts of injustice and oppression. The senseless loss of life during World War II, the horror of the Bengal famine of 1943 that claimed 1.5 million lives, and the everyday struggles of peasants against subjugation were etched in public memory. Music served as the means to tell these stories in ways that conveyed far more than words alone ever could.

Gandhi and the bhajan :-

Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent resistance to colonial rule was rooted in the principles of Satyagraha – an insistence on truth, and Swaraj – self-rule, both political and personal. Music, in the form of sung-prayers and chants played a vital role in amplifying his message – uniting the satyagraha community, connecting it with the nation, and enabling its moral force to reach every household. Twice daily – before dawn and after dusk – the satyagraha community renewed their dedication to the principles of truth and non-violence through prayer songs and chants. Over the years, their rhythms and words became a formidable source of strength and inspiration for satyagrahis in times of adversity. The chosen prayers were compiled into a handy volume titled the Ashram Bhajanavali that included verses from the Upanishads and popular bhajans, along with lines from the Quran and Zend Avesta, Buddhist chants, and Christian hymns.

Rabindranath Tagore :-

A towering literary figure, Rabindranath Tagore transformed Bengali literature. He broke away from classical forms of verse rooted in Sanskrit and created ones that used colloquial language. He was a humanist who combined open-mindedness with a deep love for the land. Although he was against the Western domination of India, he was not against western culture. He opposed violence in political struggle and favoured reason over blind adherence to tradition. Tagore won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 for his poetic work Gitanjali. The thousands of songs that he composed live on as the popular body of music known as Rabindra Sangeet. Many of these songs dwell on themes of nature, the changing of seasons, life and romance, as well as nationalism and spirituality. Tagore’s creative genius lives on in the national anthems of three countries. He composed ‘Jana gana mana’, which was adopted as India’s national anthem in 1950. His paean in praise of Bengal, ‘Amar sonar Bangla’, was adopted by Bangladesh as their national anthem in 1971. He was also the inspiration for the lilting melody of ‘Sri Lanka matha’ composed by AnandaSamarakoon, who was once a student of VisvaBharati, the university founded by Tagore in Santiniketan.

Patriotism in Popular culture : –

When India began a new chapter as a sovereign democracy, cinema was claiming the hearts and minds of its people, mirroring and magnifying their emotions and aspirations. The prevailing national sentiment was one of patriotism, and it found powerful expression in film songs. Through the decades, these songs have united legions of Indians over their love for the country. Patriotism in song has also proven to be good business for producers, especially in the 21st century, when sporting arenas have become the new battlefields. Numbers like ‘Chak de! India’ from the 2007 movie by the same name and ‘Maatujhe salaam’ by AR Rahman become anthems that unite across all divides.

Nation of storytellers : –

When it first began, the movie industry attracted artists and technicians from the world of theatre.

They brought ideas about performance, drama, staging and storytelling to the new medium. Music, an integral part of theatre, found a place in cinema as well. Early silent films were accompanied by live orchestras, and songs were so important in the early talkies that someone even suggested they be called “singies” instead. Music continues to be a vital part of our films today. The legacy of early cinema’s roots in Sanskrit classical, folk and urban traditions of drama is that even today, we tell our stories through song. Even now, Indian movies use songs to depict character’s emotions and have become a cultural phenomenon in the Indian celluloid world.