Like the colourful history which elucidates India, music also has its own share as colourful as its history, which devours right into the very insights into some of its varied traditions and grammatical structure. Indian Classical music, as an entity, has evolved greatly over the years – and is still evolving, changing itself to meet the satisfaction of modern times embracing every possible opportunity and adapting itself to popular sentiment and political climate. Now let us tread through a passage of time encompassing the majestic history of Indian music.
Ancient India in contrary to modern times, music played a significantly vital role in people’s lives. Our ancestors basked in the shades of music entirely in a Victorian way, unlike fresh techno gadgets such as the iPods which lingers music to the ears just by a touch which puts us on a whole new level. Greater percentage of the population (compared to these days) composed music, perfomed it and even did research upon it. People entirely dedicated themselves to music. Kings and queens patronized music and had adorned their court room with accomplished musicians.
As Dr. Baghyalakshmi puts it, “The Kings went to sleep and woke up to music”. There were music competitions held every once in a while, which pitted one learned musician against another, the scale of complicated notes was so intense and of higher grade which modern day upcoming musicians wouldn’t dare qualify to enter.
History is jam packed with a cocktail of legends and astonishing individual accomplishments. In this everlasting battle for pure, quality music typically very high standards were established. It took a musician several dedicated decades of meticulously studentship (typically in a Gurukulam) before he or she could become an exuberant concert performer. In recent trends, all it takes is one summer and kids are out there performing music on stage. Early part of this century, witnessed people devoid of modern day ‘stress’ and ‘life on wheels’ style of living. Earlier concerts lasted all night and audience sat down bewitched to listen to the same raga being performed over six long hours without any whine. These days condensed pop versions of most alapana are available on CDs and tapes. However, the reason for this is because of the birth of the LP lead to shortage of time for the artists to record such alapana.
It should be borne in mind that the ancient texts on music (and traditional karnatic music in general) are way, which is more complex and arduous than what I have elaborated. It is almost evident that there is very little that anyone can do than to contribute to Indian music theory. There’s a mind-boggling collection of historical written works contributed to music that exists in India – right from Vedic times till today. A great deal of it is extremely sophisticated and seminal that still racks through the brain pondering upon the every level of analysis. It is just mesmerizing just to read the first few lines and get lost in the word-maze of ‘Lakshana’, ‘Beda’, ‘Grama’ and so forth. These texts on music are as tenacious as texts on Indian philosophy and the degree of trance that is employed upon is found to be scary. Having in mind we have got our own share of mathematicaians and theoretical people in India the degree of innovativeness and inventory lies in the very blood which gave the worl d the concept of zero to many fascinating mathematical foundations for music. Although Sanskrit is the illegitimate basis of music (or music for that matter) can only hamper the paths our understanding of these marvelous texts. Suffice it to say there is an extensive elaborative framework on which the musical system is based.
Throughout history, famous texts on music were more or less considered the ‘Bibles’ and the rules and formulations they spelt out were strictly adhered to and taught to students. One can always find the tiniest lead to Indian music in any Indian literature. Even in the Vedic times, elements of music were recognized and came under scrutiny. Mantras were chanted using selected notes. Initially only a few notes were used, but eventually to relieve the monotony, more notes were added. Sama Veda the most musical of the Vedas is almost ‘sung out’ even today. For most parts, the lower octave (mandra stayi) was employed. Music was considered divine and was kept in the selected social circles for most parts. The earliest ragam is speculated to be ‘Shri Ragam’, which is said to be the modern day Kharaharapriya. Theories and treatises began to be written – about how the primitive sound ‘om’ gave rise to the notes etc.
At the birth of the Epic era, the ancients were entrenched in the seven notes used in Indian music as building blocks, namely Shadjam (Sa), Rishabam (Ri), Gandharam (Ga), Madyamam (Ma), Panchamam (Pa), Dhaivatam (Dha) and Nishadam (Ni). They are considered the ‘sapta svarams’ and explanations were abounding regarding their depth of meaning. The only factor which was subjected to change was the exact ‘frequency’ or pitch (in the octave) which was used to produce each of these notes. The relationship between sruti (frequency) and svarams (notes) has been the focus of several theoretical works on music through the ages written by Bharata. This is a monumental reference for the Bharata Natya and other dance forms, but contains several chapters on music as well especially chapter 28. The date of this work is pegged somewhere between the second century BC to the second century AD. This is probably the first work which clearly elaborated the octave and divided it into 22 keys. Bharata based his idea embarked on a stunning scientific experiment he performed using his musical instrument (made of strings) which ‘proved’ that there could be only 22 basic frequencies that could be generated in an octave. He even located them in his octave and thus tuned his string instruments to these very rhythms.
Not only did Bharata ‘invent’ the keys in an octave, he also gave some basic rules to scale building. He defined three major scales with the following shifts to choose seven keys out of 22:
Scale 1: 4/3/2/4/4/3/2
(This is called Shadja Grama)
Scale 2: 4/3/2/4/3/4/2
(Called Madhyama Grama)
Scale 3: 3/2/4/3/3/4/3
(Called Gandhara Grama)
Here the word ‘Grama’ is simply a synonym for a scale. This kind of algorithm is subjected to similarity to the Western Major/Minor algorithms. In addition to these principal algorithms, the derivative progeny were the seven secondary ‘scales’ per algorithm – each of these derived scales was called a ‘murchana’ (literally meaning ‘fainting’). From these murchanas, using some other rules, he derived even more scales which could have less than seven notes (called ‘tanas’) which eventually led to what could be called ragams. It isn’t clear whether Bharata used the term ‘ragam’ in the sense it is used these days. The interesting point here is that, Bharata’s theory has been pretty much the guiding principle for subsequent musicologists throughout history.
Various theories were framed to understand the divine and religious nature of the seven notes. There were theories to assign each note to a body part which produce sounds, like nose, throat, stomach, head etc. Yet another intriguing theory suggested that the sounds of each note matched those of common animals like Sa for peacock, Ri for ox, Ga for Goat, Ma for crane, Pa for Cuckoo, Dha for horse and Ni for elephant. All this might sound very primitive but these theories quickly go into extremely complicated mathematical formulations. Some people have even suggested formulas to generate thousands of ragams.
The next major work to hit the scene after Bharata’s work was Dathilam. The exact period of this work is not firmly established. Here too, the author sticks to the 22 sruti per octave formalism and even goes to suggest these 22 srutis are the only ones a human body could make. (This view was expressed again by another musicologist of the thirteenth century of name Saranga Deva in his famous work Sangeeta Ratnakara – in fact, Sarang Deva was an expert in ayurveda as well and goes on to give an ayurvedic basis for the 22 sruti octave) There were other seminal works such as Brahhaddesi (ninth century AD) written by Matanga. He probably takes the credit for the emergence of the term ragam, although the term had been used by authors before him. Matanga was the one who explained it and helped ‘define’ it.
Interestingly, around the same time, the native South Indian music also dealt with terms like ‘Pann’, which can be construed as the South Indian equivalents of ‘ragam’. Tevaram and Silappadhikaram describe several such ‘ragams’ and in fact, we have already seen that Ilango Adigal, the author of Silappadikaram has described the prevailing Tamil algorithms to build scales (called Ilikkiramam). It is quite possible that Ilango Adigal and the composers of Tevaram and South Indians in general were aware of the all pervasive work of Bharata’s ‘Natya Sastra’ (Quite a lot of cultural exchanges took place between the South and the North, contrary to what we would like to believe now).
However, these Tamil classics are major works in their own right and it is a pity that not too much of this is discussed in the context of history of Indian music, especially due to the large volume of musical literature in sanskrit. Sangeeta Makaranda, a book presumed to be written in the eleventh century by a person called Narada, enumerates 93 ragams and classifies them into masculine and feminine species. The next major work on music was Sangeeta Ratnakara written by Saranga Deva during the thirteenth century. Saranga Deva was a Kashmiri, but wrote his work while in South India. It was approximately around this time in history that the South Indian (Karnatic) music and North Indian (Hindustani) music bifurcated themselves and began to evolve in two different directions. (Dr. Rangaramanuja Iyengar, suggests the twelfth century as the cut off point, in an operational sense). Even now, the Dhrupad music practiced in the North India is somewhat similar in style to the South Indian Karnatic music. For example, in Dhrupad, they use a percussion instrument called Pakhwaj, (instead of Tabla) which is similar to the South Indian Mridangam.