About Hinduism and India

Right from celestial beings to humans, every Hindu is individually attached to music in some form. Hindu’s and life without music is considered hellish. The arts of vocal singing, instrumental performance and dance are wrapped within the definition and scope of Music.

Ancient Texts on Music

Indian system of music is the oldest in the world as a written science. Sama Veda deals with the subject of music in addition to religion and philosophy. Musical notes and intervals were analyzed and mathematically calculated in the Indian treatises on music. Instrumental music was a part of music from very early days and Hindus had a variety of percussion, wind and stringed instruments.

Musical instruments have been associated with Gods and goddesses. Shiva danced Tandava to the beats of his own Damroo while Saraswati, the goddess of learning is depicted playing a Veena. Krishana played flute that inspired gopies (milk-maids) to dance. Sage Narda, Ravana and Pandva prince Arjuna are also associated with Veena while Arjuna was well versed in tutering dance also. Apasaras and Gandharvas are considered to be exponents in music and are celestial performers.

Apart from Sama Veda, Bhart Muni’s Natya Shastra is comprehensive treatise on music and drama. It is a fore runner of opera and provides a detailed account of stagecraft and theory of music. There is also a very detailed discussion of the musical instruments. The second part of Narada Purana deals primarily about the art of music. The theory explained there in is the foundation of Indian music. The formation of seven note scales (swara- saptaks), Low, middle and higher octaves (Mandra, Madhya and Taar Sthanas), modes (moorchhanas), natural and complex movements (shuddha, and koota taanas) have been explained. It is noteworthy to contrast that till first century, western music had only five notes in vogue and there was no theory at all till Aristotle provided some format.

Development of Musical Art

Worship of sound (Nada-upasana) is thought to be an important means for attaining Moksha (total contentment).The highest musical experience is the divine bliss (ananda). This devotional approach to music is a significant feature of Indian culture. The art of Vedic chant was an essential element of Vedic rituals. The references in Vedic literature, the epics, and other scriptures, show that it was a highly developed secular art centuries before the Christian era.

The Vedic hymns, like all Hindu poetry, were sung. Those travelled from temples to royal courts and to common folk being integral part of festivals. The form of music also changed accordingly from mystic to classical and thereafter as folk music that is called popular music or pop music. Chandogya Upanishada helped the priests to sing the Samans properly for the pleasure of Gods. The Samans could either be sung or played on the Veena. That became the basis of later Bhakti movements, where all other rituals and sacrifices were given up to be replaced by simple Bhakti expressed through devotional music. Music developed as a means of pleasure in the courts later, during Muslim period.

Besides generation of concepts, later to be known as Binary figures and Pascal Triangle during third century BC; Pingala was the first to introduce an important concept in the field of music also. According to his view, Shruti was to be the shortest unit of the musical sound (Nada) that could be imitated or reproduced. Shruties are capable of generating vibrations in the air that are conducive to be used in music. Today, in the musical jargon shruties are placed between micro-tones and semi-tones, though the equation is not exact. Two or more shruties create Swara (Natural Musical Notes). Indians were the first to identify musical notes. In Indian Music all notes are not made of equal number of shruties, while in Western music all natural notes have two semitones except F and B notes.

The development of Western music also followed more or less similar pattern. It started with choral chants in Church, traveled to Royal Chambers and reached the masses through Operas and Public performances during its Classical age in seventeenth Century. The origin of Western music theory is attributed to Aristotle and Pythagoras in third century BC.

The first millennium provides us with several texts that show the evolution of Indian music. The Brihaddeshi written by Matanga Rishi (700 A.D.) is very important.  It is in this work that we first find the word ‘Raag’ mentioned.  Another important text is the ‘Sangeet Ratnakar’ by Sharangdeva.  This work, written around the thirteenth century, gives extensive commentaries about numerous musical styles that existed at that time.

Scales and Ragas 

Indian music is based upon a system of Ragas that are derived from scales (Thaata) and reflect a particular mood. The term Raga is derived from Sanskrit root – ranj or raj, literally meaning to color, but figuratively meaning to tinge with emotion and are assigned a specific time for performance. Musical notes of every Raaga, are selected with extreme care to maintain the mood and purity of the Swara-mala of Raaga. It is upon this basic structure that a musician or singer improvises according to his feeling within the strict rules of musical grammar, and the precision of timing given by the accompanying percussionist. Structural melody is the most fundamental characteristic of Indian music. As compared to India there is no time theory in Western music, and entire range of western scales can be compressed just in 5 scales of Indian music. Indian music has seventy two scales out of those 10 scales, Bilaval, Kalyana, Khamaj, Bhairava, Bhairavi, Kafi, Pooravi, Asavari, Marva and Todi are presently in vogue. Indian music is melody dominant while in Western music many often harmony and melody have equal share.

Indians were original and far ahead of Western musicians. They subdivided the octave in 22 Shruties, while the latter have only 12 Semitones in an octave. Further by taking the initial letter of the Notes Indians improvised Swaramalika that can be sung as – Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, and Ni. The Persians also borrowed these notes. During eleventh century Guido d’ Arezzo introduced them in Europe in the form of Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti. Subsequently different notation systems prevalent in European Countries were standardized and first seven Alphabets of English language were picked up to identify seven musical notes. These notes cannot be vocalized and have to be substituted with musical phonetics such as Yo yo, la la or something else convenient to the singer. There are several other disparities and handicaps but those are beyond the scope at present.

Indian concepts in the West

Of late western composers are experimenting Micro tonality to have 24 sub-divisions within an octave. However their newly designed keyboard having one black and one white keys is yet to gain acceptance. In contrast the Indian micro tonality of 22 shruties within octave is a well-known nuance of expert Indian vocalists.  This can also be demonstrated on Sarangi that is a fretless bowed instrument to accompany vocalists.

The Minimalism is another new trend wherein a simple melodic motif is repeated over and over with prolonged chords in harmony. It is like repetition of cosmic sound OM using three notes harmonized against the prolonged vibration of similar sound emanating from the revolution of other heavenly bodies.

Development of Opera took place during Gupta Period from 4th to the 6th century AD. This was the classic period of Sanskrit literature, culminating in the drama of Kalidasa and his other contemporaries. Same time is assigned to the amalgamation of music and drama to entertain aristocracy. During Bhakti movement Kirtan was a popular format of devotional music. The same format has now been adopted in Disco, wrap and Rock style for the purpose of entertainment often under the influence of drugs. 

The contribution of Film music directors deserves to be mentioned for blending classical music with folk music and carrying the same to masses in the form of popular (Pop) music. In this field of compositions, maestro Naushad has towered his contemporaries with several successful experimentations. Indian film music is more popular all over the world.

Indian Dance

India has a proud history of dance dating back to 5000 BC. The earliest available ‘evidence’ of dance in India is the figurine of the ‘dancing girl’ found at the Harappa excavation in IndusValley.

According to Natya Shastra, Nritta, Nrithya and Natya are the three aspects of dance.

  • Nritta means pure and simple dance. This involves movements of the body and limbs, for a decorative effect, without conveying any meaning.
  • Nrithya lays emphasis of expressions, to convey the meaning of the rendering. Nrithya involves facial expressions, gestures and symbolic poses.
  • Natya includes drama through the use of spoken word, apart from Nritta and Nrithya.

According to Natya Shastra dance originated when sage Bharata approached Lord Shiva with a request to give the world an art form through which the essence of the Vedas could be propagated to everybody. Hence Shiva took parts from the four Vedas to create Panchama Veda of Natya. He took Nada from Rig Veda, swara from Samaveda, acting from Atharvaveda and chanting from Yajurveda. On Shiva’s request Parvati performed the elegant Lasya style of dance. She taught this to the Asura princess Usha who eventually propagated it in the western parts of present India. Shiva (in the form of Nataraja) is the presiding deity of dance.

Vishnu in the form of Mohini is said to have danced with Bhasmasura. Krishna is also said to have danced over the head of the deadly snake Kaliya. He is well-known to have danced the Raas with the Gopies of Vrindavan.

The other form of Dance originated by Shiva is Tandava that is most energetic and known as dance of cosmic destruction.

There are several dance styles out of which Bharat Natyam, Kathaka, Katha-Kali, Kuchipudi, and Manipuri are the most popular classical forms. In addition there are several folk dances representing India’s diverse culture. Most of the folk dances fall under the basic category of Tandava or Lasya. Bhangra dance from Punjab and Garba dance from Gujarat are conspicuous examples.

A Living Paradise

Volumes can be written to explain the variety of Music and Dances of India for the inquisitive mind. Folk music and folk dances have been part and parcel of Hindu society in every shade of life. The colorful life style of Indians have remained a big attraction for other nations of the world.

Chand K Sharma

(Next: Splashes – 46/72 – Origin of Political Thought )


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