Origin and History of Indian Music


Indian music has a long, unbroken tradition, which is an accumulated heritage of centuries. It is believed that sage Narada introduced the art of music to the earth and the sound that pervades the whole universe, i.e. ‘Nadabrahma’, itself represents the divinity. The origin of music can be traced to the Vedic times, nearly two thousand years ago. The ‘Samaveda’ has all the seven notes of the raga ‘karaharapriya’ in the descending order and the earliest raga is speculated to be the ‘Sama Raga’. Theories and treatises began to be written about how the primitive sound ‘Om’ gave rise to various notes. The first reference to music was made by Panini (500 B.C.), and the first reference to musical theory is found in ‘Rikpratisakhya’ (400 B.C.). Bharata’s ‘Natya Shastra’ (4th century A.D.) contains several chapters on music and it is probably the first work that clearly elaborated the octave and divided it into twenty two keys. The next major work on music was ‘Dathilam’, which also endorses the existence of twenty two ‘srutis’ per octave and even goes to suggest that these ‘srutis’ are the only ones a human body could make. This view was expressed again by Saranga Deva, another musicologist of the 13th century A.D., in his famous work ‘Sangeeta Ratnakara’. Saranga Deva, among other things, defined almost 264 ragas, including some Dravidian and North Indian ones. He described the various ‘microtones’ and also classified them into different categories. Of the other important works on Indian music, mention may be made of ‘Brihaddesi’ (9th century A.D.) written by Matanga, which attempts to define the word ‘raga’, ‘Sangeeta Makaranda’ (11th century A.D.) written by Narada, which enumerates ninety three ragas and classifies them into masculine and feminine species, ‘Swaramela-kalanidhi’ of Ramamatya (16th century A.D.) and ‘Chaturdandi-prakssika’ of Venkatamakhi (17th century A.D.).

It took a long time for music to evolve into its present form. In the beginning music was restricted to temples and was devotional in content, being used purely for ritualistic purposes. During the late Vedic period (3000-1200 B.C.), a form of music called ‘Samgana’ was prevalent which involved chanting of verses set to musical patterns. Various forms of music like ‘Jatigan’ were evolved to narrate the epics. During 2nd-7th centuries A.D. a form of music called ‘Prabandh Sangeet’, which was written in Sanskrit, became very popular. This form gave way to a simpler form called ‘dhruvapad’, which used Hindi as the medium. The Gupta Period is considered as the golden era in the development of Indian music. Major music treatises like ‘Natya Shastra’ and ‘Brihaddeshi’ were written during this period.


One of the strongest and most significant influences on the Indian music has perhaps been that of the Persian music, which brought in a changed perspective in the style of the Northern Indian music. As a result of the patronage given to the classical music by the rulers in the 15th century A.D. the ‘dhruvapad’, which was devotional in character, transformed into the ‘dhrupad’ form of singing. The ‘khayal’ evolved as a new genre of singing in the 18th century A.D. Thus, the ritualistic music of India amalgamated with the folk music traditions and also adapted from musical expressions of other countries in the region to develop two unique styles of music, the ‘Hindustani’ in the North and the ‘Carnatic’ in the South. Historical roots of both these music traditions stem from Bharata’s ‘Natya Shastra’. The two traditions started to diverge only around 14th century A.D. Carnatic music is ‘kriti’ based and lyric (‘saahitya’) oriented, while Hindustani music emphasises on the musical structure and possibilities of improvisation in it. The Hindustani music adopted a scale of ‘Shudha Swara saptaka’ (octave of natural notes) while the Carnatic music retained the traditional octave. Both systems have shown great assimilative power, constantly absorbing folk tunes and regional tilts and elevating many of them to the status of ‘ragas’. These systems have also mutually influenced each other.​

Anatomy of Indian Classical Music​:

In the Indian Classical Music, ‘Raga’ is the basis of melody and ‘Tala’ is the basis of rhythm. Each melodic structure of Raga has something akin to a distinct personality subject and to a prevailing mood. Ragas involve several important elements. The first element is sound – metaphysical and physical, which is referred to as ‘nada’. Nada is the manifestation of the first of the five elements of creation – the element of space. There are two types of nada, ‘anahata nada’ or unstruck sound and ‘ahata nada’ or struck sound. The next element of raga is ‘pitch’, relegated into ‘swara’ (whole and half tones), and ‘sruti’ (microtones). Raga also involves the production of emotional effects in the performer and listener, which are known as ‘rasa’. Rasa has been referred to as “aesthetic delight” and is free from the limitations of personal feelings. There are nine ‘rasas’: love (‘Shringar’), humour (‘Hasya’), pathos (‘Karuna’), anger (‘Rudra’), heroism (‘Vir’), terror (‘Bhayanaka’), disgust (‘Veebhatsa’) and wonder (‘Abdhuta’).

Shruti and Saptaka:

Sruti (microtone) is the smallest interval between pitches that can be heard by the human ear. The Indian musical scale is believed to have been evolved from three notes to a scale of seven primary notes, on the basis of a scale of twenty two ‘shrutis’ or intervals, which form the basis of the musical notes. ‘Swara’ was the term connected with the recitation of the Vedas in ancient India. Later, the term ‘swara’ came to be defined as “note” or “scale degree”. Bharata in the ‘Natya Shastra’ distributed the ‘swaras’ amongst the twenty two-note scale. He listed each pitch by name: ‘Sadja’ (tonic), ‘Rsabha’ (supertonic), ‘Gandharva’ (mediant), ‘Madyama’ (subdominant), ‘Panchama’ (dominant), ‘Dhaivata’ (sub-mediant) and ‘Nishada’ (subtonic). Today, the names of these ‘swaras’ are abbreviated as ‘Sa’, ‘Re’, ‘Ga’, ‘Ma’, ‘Pa’, ‘Dha’, ‘Ni’, ‘Sa’ and are used as a notational system in the Hindustani music. A ‘saptak’ is a group of seven notes, divided by the ‘shrutis’.


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