Styles & Forms | India | World

The phrase ‘Indian music’ is most often equated to an image of Ravi Shankar and the sitar, but there is much more to it than that. The south is the heartland of Karnatic classical music, whose history stretches back for 6,000 years.

Shankar may be emblematic of Hindustani classical music, but that is a much younger style, a blend of Karnatic music and influences from the Middle East and northern Asia. Both styles share basic rules: those of the raga, a scale that will be played throughout any composition; and the tala, the rhythmic cycle.

Further north, the qawwali singers of Pakistan have the power to transport even Western atheists to another spiritual plane. Thanks to the efforts of the band Cornershop, Bollywood film soundtracks have never been so popular outside the subcontinent, and you hardly need to be au fait with Satyajit Ray to be brimful of Asha Bhosle. With so many people involved in musicat an expert level, it is not surprising that there is a burgeoning contemporary scene – albeit one that relies on musicians such as London’s Talvin Singh, with experience of cultures outside India. Midival Punditz from New Delhi combine classical Indian ragas and electronic music with great success. They are the first Indian electronica band to sign to an international label and feature on the soundtrack to Monsoon Wedding (2002) and Talvin Singh’s second Anokha collection.

Ravi Shankar

Arguably the first hero of world music, Shankar was born into a musical family in 1920, just as the globe was opening up to the ‘exotic’. His timing was perfect. By the end of the 1930s, he had toured France and America with his brother’s dance troupe. ‘When I started playing the sitar I would practice for 12 to 14 hours daily, sometimes 16. We had to do it like this because of the hand techniques, the music itself and because of our oral tradition.’

By the 1950s, Shankar was able to play Carnegie Hall in New York, to great acclaim from both the jazz community (John Coltrane named his son Ravi) and Western classical musicians (he released a series of astounding duets with the violinist Yehudi Menuhin). But in 1966, George Harrison (then of The Beatles) became his student and Indian music briefly entered the pop mainstream. Subsequently, Shankar played both the Monterey and Woodstock festivals accompanied by his long-term collaborator, the tabla (twin drums) maestro Alla Rakha. ‘In India, I was accused of jazzifying my music. It bothered some people that I had two identities, as a classicist and as a creator of new music. They thought I was a goner.’

Karnatic Classical Music

Although the sitar and tabla are often thought of as the main instruments of Indian music, in the south it is the vina (like a pedal steel with a gourd at both ends) that supplies the string sound, and the mridangam (double-headed drum) and ghatam (clay pot) that add percussion...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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