North Indian classical music, also known as Hindustani classical music, is a tradition that is thousands of years old. It’s roots stretch back to the Vedas, but it is an art form that is continually changing and evolving. India is home to many musical traditions, but two main classical traditions remain today: Hindustani and Carnatic. The Carnatic tradition is the older form of Indian classical music and is considered devotional in nature–usually sung and played in praise of gods and goddesses.
Hindustani classical music branched off from this tradition during the Mogul period some 400 years ago. This was a time when music moved from Hindu temples to the royal courts, and it was celebrated and refined by the Rajput kings. Akbar the Great took a particular liking to the music and even appointed the legendary singer Mian Tansen as one of his royal advisers. It was during this time that Hindustani music really came into its own.
Raga And Tala
There are several aspects to the music that make it unique. For one, this is a style that is based on improvisation. Musicians play within a melodic and rhythmic structure known as Raga and Tala. Ragas are melodic road maps so to speak, defining the notes of the scale, the order of the notes in the ascent and descent, the main themes (or heart) of the melody, and the main notes (or resting notes). On the rhythmic side, the taal (or tala) is a rhythmic cycle with a particular number of beats, and the specific order and number of bars (or groups of beats) within that cycle. Together, raga and tala allow musicians to play together freely without the need for rehearsal or memorization. They may improvise for many cycles and still remain connected rhythmically.
Another aspect of the music is the shear variety that exists within the system. There are hundreds of different ragas out there, each with its own scale and character, and each evoking its own combination of moods (or rasas). The same goes for talas. There are many of talas, and even some really oddball ones using fractional beats (for example Neel taal has 7 and-a-half beats). Although maybe only 50 ragas and a dozen taals are commonly performed, the possible combinations in addition to the improvisational aspect means that the variety in the music is limitless.
The instruments employed in North Indian classical music, as well as the vocal styles commonly heard in the music, give it a very distinctive and hauntingly beautiful sound. I will highlight these aspects in future posts. In the mean time, I encourage you to give this music a listen. There are now thousands of recordings posted on the internet, and many thousands now on Youtube. I only wish I had this kind of access when I first discovered the sitar.