The Teaching of Indian Classical Music

Indian music travels West.

The beginnings of a European connection with Indian music, with Indian musicians travelling to Europe to perform, mostly starts within the beginning of mid 20th century. Within India itself it begins with the wide spread introduction of radio broadcasting. So its in relative recent times that this traditional culture, dating back thousands of years, began accessing the wider world.

Performances initially centered around the theatres of Paris and London.

One performing group, and the best known of that time was the Uday Shankar Dance group. It was considered both Exotic, and Erotic. Society couldn’t get enough of it. This dance group included the then young Ravi Shankar, younger brother of Uday, and possibly the most famous worldwide Indian Artist performer of all time.

Beginners may at first be a little overwhelmed with the “strangeness,” or perhaps a “soothing beauty,” that is often found within Indian classical music. Be this as it may, In the 1960’s, this difference was firmly disclosed and Indian music became a mainstream world music genre.

In the west a revolution of Indian influences, coinciding with a new conscious aware ness that broke forth after two world wars, the now musician and composer Pt. Ravi Shankar began playing with the then biggest pop group in the world at that time, (The Beatles).

Indian music suddenly became a new center for musical awareness. Subsequently Pt. Ravi Shankar (well known as “The Teacher”) began performing at Iconic festivals such as Woodstock and Monterey Pop. He became immensely popular both back in his native India and now world wide.

Pt Ravi Shankar producrd landmark film scores for Bollywood and hollywood productions: with famous themes for “Theme to Pather Panchali“ and “Ghandi”. He also famously proceeded to compose concerts with classical artists such as the landmark violinist Yehudi Menuhin.

Although Ravi Shankar is generally considered to have cemented Indian Classical music firmly into the Western culture, in reality the interest in Indian and eastern music had begun much earlier. The Ravi Shankar phenomena is still the most well known catalyst for bringing of Eastern musical culture to the Western ears.

Dhrupad- Indian Classical Singing

Indian Music is principally vocal and in Indian culture is this is known as the classical genre called “Dhrupad.”

The best way to begin to understand Dhrupad is to learn how to sing simple Mantras in the traditional, ancient Vedic, style. In effect, to sing the repetitive Prayers that come from the Vedic temples. These Mantras from the temples are still existing to this day, and are sung usually in Sanskrit. With this base understanding of simple indian musical structure the student can yhen wander into the world of Ragas and Thaat that make up the ragas. This introduces SARGAM and other structures that build indian classical music and its improvisational rules.

Traditional Indian Music is passed down vocally though generations of teachings, and is thousands of years old. True to this tradition, learning from a guru, still takes massive amount of commitment. More than six years of continual practice is often required, usually by living with your teacher, completely immersed in the studying of ragas and instrumental skill. This is why you often find that Indian musicians typically belong to a family, from where the traditions of playing music date back for centuries. Infant students are normally first taught to sing. Ravi Shankar began as a singer and dancer, also at an very young age. Vilyat Khan, the other most famous sitarist, also famously began as a vocalist.


In the past, different areas of India could be identified by their differing styles of music performed within the courts of their kings. The Maharajas in ancient times were the main patrons of the classical arts. These court groups were, and still are, called Ghurana’s. They are still in place today as schools of practice. Indian Classical musicians will often explain which Ghurana they follow, or from which family theirs is connected.

What are Ragas?

A Rag, or a Raga is a fixed song or musical theme that belongs to a family of themes. It is not just a scale but a culmination of handed down material, from one musician to another musician, that has happened over over centuries. There are ragas for different times of the day as well as for different seasons. Often a concert performer will not know which rag to play until a particular mood is determined for that moment. (Note: South India “Raga” : North India “Rag”.)

Shrutis and Ornamentations; the tones that add more “colour” to the places in-between. That which gives Indian Music its distinctive quality.

Indian music could be converted into a Western notation form but it does not travel there well. This is mainly because Indian music is both highly decorative and is also distinctively improvisational; full of feelings and complex ornamentation. Unlike western music Indian styles slide significantly between standardized notes. In Indian Classical these tones that slide in-between the standard scale notes are called Shrutis . Another way of describing a Shutis is by calling them Micro Tones, or slight pitch differences. You will not find Shruti tones on a standard piano for example. Shrutis are only available within a voice or an unfretted instrument. It is these subtle variations in pitch which give Indian music its definitive identity. There are different definitions but in Dhrupad each note can be split into 7 audible Shrutis.

The Seven Swaras.

When going deeply into Indian music you will often find a connection with its ancient Vedic roots. The Vedic Period (1500-500 BCE) populated Northern India with what is now Pakistan and parts of Afghanistan. It is important to note that Vedic culture also pre-dates modern religious separations and this is also why you will find today that the same Indian Classical Ragas are performed within both Islamist and Hindu arenas. The Vedas themselves were religious teachings that later became texts. In them contain invaluable references to the spirited principles of music. On a simple level the Vedas can be explained to consider music as a yoga; therefore, a pathway to a meaningful (and spiritual) connection to Naad. “Naad” is the universal nature of which it is comprised of vibration, and therefor; sound. The Vedas categorize musical knowledge as having the following components: Seven Swaras (basic notes), three Gramas (primary Scales), twenty one Murchanas (Melodic Patterns), Three Layas (Speeds), Nine Rasas (Moods), and Three Sthayis (Registers). – All of these together constitute a system of music that was being practiced almost a thousand years before music had had its chance to develop into what we can recognize now as (Baroque) western classical.


Once all of these components; the Swaras, Gramas, Murchanas, Layas, Rasas and Sthayis have been studied, and consolidated, as a firm foundation for practice, the rag is then set free. The released student is now ready to improvise and to make their music their own. Improvisation is an advanced feature within Indian Classical. It also has a very important role to play within the genre. It is the primary element that defines one musician from the next, and one Ghurana from another, and it drives an evolutionary value. The same Rag played by two different musicians may carry the same structure but it will have radically differing expressive content.

Here are some links to further knowledge;

How the Beatles used Indian music theory

What is a Rag? Demystifying Indian Music

The Unforgettable Sufis Shujaat Khan.

Dhrupad- Zia Mohiuddin & Zia Fariduddin Dagar

Mohe Panghat Nandlal Vilyat Khan and Ustad Bismillah Khan

A lesson in Dhrupad- Bhimpalasi Ustad Nasir Aminuddin Dagar

The Banares Ghurana- a documentary


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