The music of India is a mosaic of different genres and levels of sophistication. At one extreme, classical music is performed in the urban concert halls for purely artistic reasons, and, at the other, many kinds of functional rural music accompany life-cycle and agricultural rites. In between are many other musical genres of different regions of the country, reflecting the diversity of its peoples, their life-styles, and their languages.
II. Classical Music
The origins of classical music can be traced to the Natya Shastra (circa 2nd century AD), a Sanskrit treatise on drama, which encompasses music as well. Two classical traditions are now recognized: Hindustani in north India and Carnatic (or Karnatak) in the south. This division probably originated in the 15th century as the result of the influence of Muslim invaders in the north. Both traditions derive inspiration from the indigenous bhakti ("devotional") movements modified by the patronage of the princely courts.
The two traditions share basic musical features but differ in many details, so that followers of one often find the other incomprehensible. Both systems are essentially monophonic (consisting of unharmonized melody); employ a drone (one or more notes sustained against a melody); and are modal—that is, the melody line, which may either be composed in advance or improvised, is based on one of several hundred traditional melody matrices called raga. These matrices are described by theorists in terms of abstractions, such as scale, ascending and descending movements, strong and weak notes, and characteristic phrases. Raga was first explicated in the Brihad Deshi, a treatise written about the 9th century AD. Subsequent writers tended to focus on the emotional connotations of individual ragas, associating them with moods, performance times, colors, deities, and so on. The modern theoretical system began in the 16th century; in this system ragas are classified according to scale—72 in the Karnataka system and 10 principal ones in the Hindustani.
A raga can be performed both in free time and in measured time. In free time, called alapa, the melodic features of a raga are explored gradually in their natural rhythm or flow. In measured time, which usually follows, one of several possible measures, called talas, is used. A tala consists of a repeating number of time units (matra, or "counts") that form a cyclical pattern; within this cycle, specific points receive different degrees of stress. Tala thus involves both a quantitative element (time units or counts) and a qualitative element (accent or stress). The Hindustani jhapatala, for example, has 10 time units, divided as follows: 2 + 3 + 2 + 3. Many compLex talas exist, but those ranging from 6 to 16 units are most common. Usually coming after a preliminary improvisation in alapa (free time), a tala is introduced by a set composition that is followed by variations and improvisations based melodically on the raga but constrained rhythmically by the tala.
How much emphasis is given to alapa depends to some extent on each performer's inclination, but also relates to the compositional form that follows. In the Carnatic form kriti, much importance is placed on the composition and its text, and the alapa section, accordingly, is generally short; in contrast, in the now less common Carnatic form ragam-tanam-pallavi the alapa is generally much longer. In the Hindustani khyal, the usual vocal concert form found in north India today, the composition is generally considered subordinate to the improvisations; normally a lengthy section is performed in a time measure so extremely slow that it seems almost like alapa. The khyal appears to have replaced the austere, formerly more prominent dhrupad, probably because it accommodates a greater display of virtuosity and imagination. Both Hindustani and Carnatic traditions also have vocal forms derived from dance and considered lighter in character. These forms, with their dance-rooted rhythms, are generally performed at the close of concerts, with little or no foregoing alapa.
In the Carnatic system, instrumental music is based on vocal forms. The gat of Hindustani music, in contrast, is a specifically instrumental composition based on the plucking patterns of stringed instruments, especially the sitar. The gat is often preceded by a long alapa and other nonmeasured sections (jor and jhala).
III. Classical Instruments
The instruments of Indian classical music fall into two main categories: those that carry the main melody and those that accompany. Among melody instruments the voice is considered preeminent. Of the many other melodic instruments, the most prominent are the plucked lutes, sitar and sarod in the north and vina in the south; the transverse flute bańsri; and the double reeds shahnai and nagasvaram.
Accompanying instruments serve three functions: to provide a drone, to provide a secondary melody, and to keep time and give rhythmic support. For the drone the most common instrument is the long-necked lute tambura. In the south the Western violin is used to provide a secondary melody, as are the bowed lute sarangi and the hand-pumped keyboard harmonium in the north; to keep time and provide rhythmic support the Carnatic system uses the double-ended drum mridangam, the small frame drum kanjira, and the earthen pot ghatam; the Hindustani system generally employs the pair of kettle drums called tabla and occasionally the double-ended drum pakhavaja.
IV. Folk and Popular Music
Eighty percent of India's population still lives in villages, and although change is increasingly noticeable, many old traditions remain. Except in the tribal areas, men and women are usually segregated in song, having independent repertoires and occasions for music. Women's songs, often unaccompanied, are sung at weddings, childbirths, and festivals and during agricultural and household activities. Men's songs, often accompanied at least by percussion instruments, are connected with devotional practices, particular festivals, and work.
In most regions specialist musicians perform for ritual, devotional, didactic, and entertainment purposes, sometimes as hereditary responsibility but often for payment in kind or money. These specialists include priests, religious mendicants, entertainers, storytellers, and theatrical troupes.
The role of the village entertainer has been eroded substantially in many parts of India by the spread of films, which have developed their own hybrid forms of music influenced both by traditional Indian and Western music. Disseminated through inexpensive transistor radios, film music, especially songs backed by large studio orchestras employing both Indian and Western instruments, is now heard even in remote villages and is, in many instances, replacing or altering the indigenous music. Classical music, however, remains largely free of these influences.