Styles & Forms | South Asia | World of Music | Classical

The South Asian region is centred on India and includes the neighbouring modern nations of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. The region now called Pakistan saw the rise and fall of the Indus Valley civilization, one of the oldest in the world.

Scarce archeological objects showing drums and an arched harp give a glimpse of a musical culture from around the third millennium bc. Between c. 2000 and c. 600 bc, Aryans from the Asian steppes invaded the Indus Valley and the Dravidian peoples in southern India. From the thirteenth century AD onwards, Muslims from Central Asia invaded, dominating northern India until the nineteenth century.

The two great classical music traditions of South Asia are the North Indian (including Pakistan and Bangladesh) and the Karnatic (southern India). In neither tradition did a highly developed system of musical notation occur. Also, the absence of harmony and simpler four-square rhythms meant that music was not played in large ensembles. Instead, Indian oral traditions followed a course of creativity entirely different from classical music in Europe, fostering a refined art of solo improvisation in expressive modal forms called ragas (‘melody types’) and intricate rhythmic frameworks called talas.

Musical Treatises

Indian music was intimately linked to the mythological and religious world view of the Vedas (lit. ‘knowledge’, c. 1400–c. 500 bc). The legacy of the Aryans, this was an enormous collection of sacred lore and ritual, originally oral and written down much later. The Vedas prescribed the correct forms of nada (sound vibrations) for successful sacrifices and for a connection with the spiritual world. The earliest known Indian treatise to discuss music is the Natyasastra, attributed to the sage Bharata, which became the source for centuries of music theory. It describes a musical system with 22 intervals (sruti) per octave (smaller than the modern Western 12 intervals), details ranges of scales (murchana) and modes (jati), and outlines a theory about emotions in music called rasa. Other notable treatises include the Brihaddesi (‘The Great Treatise on Desi’, c. ninth century AD), the Manasottasa (‘Diversions of the Heart’, 1131), and the Sangitaratnakara (‘The Jewel Mine of Music’, thirteenth century). The last of these inspired the composer Messiaen to write the complex rhythms of his Livre d’orgue (‘Organ Book’, 1951). From the sixteenth century onwards, theoretical treatises continued to standardize and synthesize Indian music, moulding ancient concepts to suit the performing practice of the day.

Hindustani and Karnatic

Hindustani musicians are predominantly Muslims, their forefathers having converted to Islam, the religion of the Mughal court. Yet their hereditary musical traditions reflect the hierarchical social order embedded in Hinduism: teacher is higher than student, soloist than drummer. Great twentieth-century performers such as Ravi Shankar (b. 1920) reverently touch the feet of their gurus and even bow to the stage out of humility to their art. The most sober Hindustani form, the dhrupad, is attributed to...

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