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Touching the soul of Hindustani classical music

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Touching the soul of Hindustani classical music. The embryo of our music is found in the early Vedic chants of the second millennium BCE, which were...

The embryo of our music is found in the early Vedic chants of the second millennium BCE, which were formalized in the Sama Veda and went wherever Vedic philosophy flourished. While these liturgical chants remained the domain of the priestly class, a simultaneous, parallel stream of music was to be found among the common people. The liturgical type of music developed as Margi sangeet, which one can define as music along a defined path or marg, and the other came to be known as Deshi sangeet, or music of country or deshi origin. Consequently, our classical ragas are described as being either of margi or deshi origin, signifying whether a particular musical composition was conceived by learned pundits or adopted from a commonly popular melody. This distinction, though technically accurate, is now antiquated and both streams form a single corpus.

The music of India evolved as a monolithic entity from about 1500 BCE, through the classical ages of Emperor Ashoka (269-232 CE), the Guptas (320-540 CE), and Harsha (606-647 CE). Monolithic entity here refers to the absence of external influences. Whatever came from outside, such as the advent of the Scythians in the first century AD (Kanishka and the Shaka calendar that starts from 78 AD) etc, became one with the host civilization, which continued to develop as an integrated, monolithic whole till the tenth century. The second ruler of the Gupta dynasty, Samudra Gupta (335-375 CE), was an accomplished poet and musician and one of his coins shows him playing the veena. The plays of poet-dramatist Kalidas were written during the reign of Chandra Gupta II (376- 415 CE) and were set to music for public performance. The best-known treatise on sexual love, the Kamasutra was also written during the Gupta period, and the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho (tenth-eleventh century AD) are contemporaneous with this first stage of Indian music that lasted up to about 1000 CE. The period of the Guptas and Harshas is known as the Golden Age. It was so called due to the cultural and civilizational refinements that characterized the period. This is also when our indigenous music reached its acme of aesthetic excellence, just prior to the advent of external influence in the form of the Muslim incursions.
From these facts, it is evident that Hindustani classical music evolved in the geographical area associated with the historical eras mentioned above. This area extended from present-day Afghanistan (ancient Gandhara) in the west of the Indian subcontinent, to Bihar (ancient Magadh) in the east. What is present-day Bengal became part of it at a much later stage. Being essentially a tribal region at that time, the music of the north did not become popular till the late Sultanate and early Mughal periods, from the mid-fourteenth to mid-sixteenth centuries. Bengal would, however, go on to assume a position of preeminence in the development of Hindustani classical music during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
India had been absorbing foreign influences from the time of the Aryan influx of the second millennium BCE. This was followed by Alexander and the Greeks in the fourth century BCE, the Scythians (Kanishka) in the first century CE, and the Huns in the fifth century, all of whom would have contributed in some measure, no doubt, to Indian culture and civilization. After 1000 CE, India became the recipient of a new set of influences that would have a far greater impact on its culture than had ever been felt before. These new influences came by way of the incursions of the newly formed Muslim kingdoms and emerging Islamic cultures of Arabia, Persia, and Central Asia.
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For a variety of reasons, historical as well as geographical, these foreign influences did not permeate into the south, where the music continued almost in its original, shastric form. Technically, the differences between Hindustani and Carnatic streams are marginal, with many ragas being common to the two, though with different names. It is the musical styles and particularly their percussion instruments and rhythms that set the two apart. As a result of its cross- cultural cosmopolitanism, the northern school developed certain qualities of allurement and ornamentation which imparted a new and more refined sophistication to it. G.S. Balasubramanyam, eminent critic, commentator and Carnatic vocalist confirms this belief saying, ‘Our (Carnatic) music has essentially remained the same through the centuries of tradition whereas the Hindustani system is more elastic and flexible and comparatively free from inhibitions and restrictions.’
Around 1237 CE, Saarang Dev, an eminent musicologist and sangeet shastri wrote his authoritative treatise, Sangeet Ratnakar, which provides a vital link between the earlier singular, insular shastric tradition, and the plural and cosmopolitan traditions that developed later. The latter tradition contains the contributions of three musical geniuses of medieval India — poet-musician Amir Khusrau of Delhi(1253-1325), Naik Baijnath or Baiju Bawra (1486-1526), a singer in the royal court of Gwalior, and the saint-composer of Vrindavan, Swami Haridas (1480-1575).
The Mughal Empire occupies over 275 years of Indian history, from Babur's victory over the Lodhi sultans at Panipat in 1526, to the surrender of his sovereignty by the last emperor, Shah Alam II to the East India Company in 1803, after which the Mughals remained titular rulers till 1858. The synthesis that began in the tenth and eleventh centuries continued to flourish, and peaked in the mid-1500s. In my estimation, this acme of artistic excellence was reached in the person of Tanna Mishra, better known as Miyan Tansen (1506-1589), the court singer of Emperor Akbar at Agra. Some historians date Tansen from 1493 to 1586.
(From: An Introduction to Hindustani Classical Music, By: Vijay Prakash Singha, Publisher: Roli Books,
Rs. 250)
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