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All about Indian Classical Music

Updated on June 5, 2012

The Basics!

Indian Classical Music is probably the oldest form of music in the world. This form of music is considered to be the most purest, peaceful and spiritually satisfying of all. It is a true form of performing art, which consists of almost 90-95 % of improvisation. Not to mention that a performer spends a significant amount of his life in 'riyaaz' or practicing. In the late 20th century, there was enormous amount of exchange between the east and the west. The reason behind the popularity of Indian Classical Music is partly its acceptance and appraisal in the west.

A brief history of Indian Classical Music

If you are new to this kind of music, then it is obvious that either you were mesmerized by a concert performance of some great artist or you heard a recording of some stalwart of Indian Music. Indian Classical Music is a generic term. It consists of the hardcore Khayal, the light classical Thumri and Dadra and also another hardcore style of performance, Dhrupad. It is often said that this music started way too long ago in the time of the vedas. The Brahman Pandits used to recite Shlokas from the Vedas and other sacred texts in the temples. But then, there was no melody or rhythm to them. Gradually, there was a lot of research put into it. People started reciting the shlokas with an inbuilt beat to them. But there was no melody to that recitation. The music came much later when pandits actually tried to sing the shlokas. This singing brought in various patterns and structures. It is mentioned in various articles, interviews and debates that there are only six basic Raagas. Well, it is absolutely correct that there are six basic raagas and those Raagas were listed in the Vedas. Anyway, after the melody part was incorporated into the recitations, the practice of reciting the shlokas gradually became a more common practice. Melodies with several constraints to structure and movement, were created. These melodies were called the Raagas. This doesn't contradict the statement that there existed six Raagas in the vedas. We should not forget that the Vedas were written over a long period of time.

The Dhrupad form of music has a very different style from the other ones. The compositions are usually written in Hindi, Sanskrit and Urdu. The compositions are then recited by the vocalist to its full extent. In fact, it is said that Dhrupad can also be called the perfect rendition of a sacred text. The word Dhrupad is derived from two words of Sanskrit, 'Dhruv', which means 'Pole Star' and 'Pad', which means sacred text. The Pole Star here indicates that the text is always in the praise of the Almighty. And so, it is a perfect rendition of the text. This form of music was extremely popular till the end of 12th century A.D. But after the invasion of India by the mughals, the mid-eastern influences came in. Slowly enough, the style was infused with various other styles and it was made into something very new.

It is said that Hazrat Amir Khusrau Rehmatullah Aleh laid the foundations of Khayal. He infused the persian music with Dhrupad and called it Khayal. Dhrupad, which was quite limited in its universe was fused with other styles and Khayal was formed. Khayal literally tranlates to 'Imagination'. As it suggests, Khayal music had much more scope of improvisation than Dhrupad had. Khayal music was not as popular as Dhrupad music up until the 18th century when two musicians in the court of a mughal emperor popularized it. The music that we hear in today's time is the same music 'Sadarang' and 'Adarang' had popularized about 2 and a half centuries ago.


What is Dhrupad?

Dhrupad is probably the oldest of all musical traditions in India; also in the World. Dhrupad includes Asthayi, Antara, Sanchari and Abhogi stanzas. Lyrics to Dhrupad are invariably in praise of the almighty, and nature. There are four different styles in Dhrupad itself. These styles are said to have been introduced by Miyan Tansen. Each style is called a 'Baani' - Gauhar, Khandar, Dagar, Nauhar. Dhrupad is always accompanied by Pakhawaj. Dhrupad is considered to be the purest form of Indian Classical Music as the purity of the Raag is perfectly maintained in it. Dhamaar is a subtype of Dhrupad singing. It is called Dhamaar because it is usually sung in Dhamaar Taal. Lyrics of Dhamaar usually are related to a Hindu festival called 'Holi' - the festival of colors. There are a number of Gharanas of Dhrupad Gayaki. The major Gharana in Dhrupad is the Dagar Family of Rajasthan. Apart from those of the immediate famlily, singers like Gunecha Bandhu also belong to the Dagar tradition. The Dagar tradition is a several hundred years old.

What is Khayal ?

Khayal is imagination. It is limitless. Every artist has his own interpretation of a Raaga. The fundamentals have to be the same. The compositions are different, but the compositions strictly adhere to the basic rules of a Raaga. This form of music was created by Hazrat Amir Khusrau Rehmatullah Aleh in the 13th century. Hazrat Amir Khusrau lived in and around the present states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Delhi, Haryana and Punjab. The geographical effect of Khayal music was not limited to these states. It went all across up to the far east in West Bengal and to the far west up to Gujarat. Later, when Khayal music started to be recognized, it was also taken up by a lot of Central and South Indian musicians.

Khayal can be both, vocal or instrumental. Of course, vocal music is considered more sacred and more difficult than instrumental music. A few artists define their throat as a wind instrument, and rightly so. After having various influences from people in the 13th century to the 17th century, Khayal music got the popularity in the 18th century. The patrons were called Sadarang-Adarang. They were court musicians in a Mughal Emperors' court. Many argue that the present face of Khayal music is the one that was preached and practiced by Sadarang-Adarang in the 18th century, and not the one that was created by Hazrat Amir Khusrau in the 13th century.

There are thousands of compositions written in books under the name of Sadarang and Adarang. Compositions of these both composers are fondly sung by all the musicians across the country and abroad. These compositions are in different Raagas and Taalas.

The content below is from my paper :

Khayal, the form of music which was invented by Hazrat Amir Khusrau Dehalvi(1253-1325 A.D.), a court poet in the Darbar, of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi. The golden time of Hazrat Amir Khusrau’s life was during which he was a disciple of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. It was then, he invented various forms of Qawwali like Qaul, Qalbana, Naqsh-O-Gul. It is true that Hazrat Amir Khusrau didn’t write anything on music, but in the third chapter of his book Nur Siphr, Hazrat Amir Khusrau says “ Indian music, the fire that burns heart and soul, is superior to music of any other country. Foreigners, even after a stay of 30 or 40 years in India, cannot play a single tune correctly. Indian music charms not only men but beasts also. Deer have been hypnotized and hunted simply by music.” ; Some of the most popular Raagas in Hindustani music were, in fact, created by Hazrat Amir Khusrau such as Sarparda, Saazgiri, Yaman, Zeelaf, Shahana and so on. The mystic style of Tarana was also created by Hazrat Amir Khusrau. Tarana in persian means ‘a song’. Hazrat Amir Khusrau is also credited to the creation of numerous taalas, Chapaka, Farodast, Qawwali, and Pashto being a few of them.

Bonnie. C. Wade, a Professor of Music at the University of California, Berkeley says that Khayal’s origins may have been attributed to Khusrau because there was a rapid fusion of the Perso-Arabic, Turki-Iranian, and Indic musical systems during his lifetime. Wade adds and says that the name Khayal was given to a particular mannerism and a particular song form in Khusrau’s time. It wasn’t a very popular form of music in Khusrau’s time though. Most of the rulers and ministers were fond of listening to Dhrupad, which was then in the form of Chhanda, Prabhanda, Dhruv-Maata in that era. Thakur Jaidev Singh stated that in the fifteenth century Jaunpur, Khayal was ornate and romantic, and it was popular with musicians other than who performed in Hindu temples.

What is a Raaga ?

This form of music consists of improvising within a set of notes bound by ascending and descending movements, and also characterized by phrases. This whole arrangement is known as a Raaga. It is more than just melody, or a harmony. It is not even a tune. A Raaga has a personality, it has a face. A Raaga cannot be just defined in a notebook or in print. It can only be rendered.

What is a Bandish?

A Bandish is a composition. A Bandish is all inclusive of the text of the composition, the Raaga it is sung in, the Taal and the Laya it has been set to! For example, there is a bandish in Raag Puriya Dhanashree which goes like 'Paayaliya Jhankaar Mori' set to Madhyalaya Teen Taal. This bandish is also sung in Drut Laya by many artists. So, essentially, a bandish is a composition. It is quite known to frequent listeners of Hindustani Classical Music that the shape and treatment of a Raaga changes slightly with every composition. When I say that the treatment of the Raaga changes, I mean that the pattern and intensity of Taans, the length of Alaap, the depth in voice, the stretching of words and so on - all of these things are changed slightly. And sometimes, there might also be drastic changes in a few bandishes when a few composers use a 'Vivaadi'/'Varjit' swar just to enhance the beauty of the composition. Like in Madhuwanti, there is no Komal Nishad - neither while ascending, nor while descending but there is a bandish where in Madhuwani, Aarti Ankalikar-Tilekar uses both Nishads - Shuddh Nishad while ascending and Komal Nishad while descending - the bandish goes like 'Jhoothi Preet Keeni, Tune Mo Saun Kaisi Jhoothi Preet Keeni' which is set to Drut Teen Taal.

In an interview, Veena Sahasrabuddhe said that you only get to know a Raaga properly when you know at least 25-30 bandishes in that particular Raaga in different Taal and Laya. Then only one can ably understand the structure, the do's and the don't of the Raaga. Another renowned artist, whose name I am forgetting, said that he knew more than hundred bandishes in Raag Yaman - which is a Raag that is considered to be one of the most basic Raagas in Indian Classical Music. Every beginner in Classical Vocal is taught either Bhairav or Yaman at first.

Sur, Laya and Taal !

Sur, Laya and Taal are the three basic constituents of Indian Classical Music. Sur corresponds to a musical note. As there are 12 universal notes, Indian Classical Music is no different. But what is special about Indian Classical Music is that quarter tones and quarter of quarter of tones are also used. A musical note may have up to eight different interpretations called Shruti. Taal is the beat or the rhythm which binds a composition in a time scale. There are various Taalas which are used to bind text and compositions such as Ek Taal, Teen Taal, Sool Taal, Keherwa Taal, Sawari Taal, Deepchandi Taal and so on. Each taala has its own time cycle for e.g., roopak has a seven beat time cycle, ek taal has an twelve beat time cycle. Similar to the Raagas, the Taalas are also subject to improvisation. But the important thing is that the structure shouldn't change. Laya is the tempo of a composition or a taal. Usually the tempo denotes the number of beat cycles complete in one minute. This is better known as beats per minute. There are several Layas in Indian Music such as Vilambit Laya, Madhyala Laya and Drut Laya.

How Indian Music got recognition ?

The Indian Classical Music is spreading all around the world. The west has accepted this and there are hundreds and thousands of people in western countries who have devoted their life to learning music. There were a series of events in the late 20th century which are responsible for this. After a few Indian artists got recognition in the Woodstock Festival of 1969, the word spread all over the world. Then there were frequent visits to the west and the European Countries. Rest is History !

Classical Music Festivals in Delhi - There's always something happening in our national capital.

  1. Swami Haridas Tansen Sangeet Sammelan - This is a yearly event. It takes place in various other cities also. Artists of the highest quality perform here. This event occurs in December every year in Delhi. In 2010, Ustad Zakir Hussain, Ashwini Bhide Deshpande, Ustad Aashish Khan, Ustad Shujaat Khan were some of the performers.
  2. Gunidas Sangeet Sammelan - the usual venue for this event in the Kamani Auditorium on Copernicus Marg in Delhi. This festival is organized by Pandit Satish Vyas in honor of Jaggannath Buwa Purohit 'Gunidas'. You must have heard bandishes with the pen-name 'Gunidas' - especially in Jogkauns, because he created that Raag!
  3. Aadi-Anant - NCPA Mumbai organizes this event in various cities. I suspect that it was the first time this event was being held in Delhi. Surprisingly enough, there were no tickets for the concert. So unlike NCPA. I think there must be tickets to classical music concerts - a reasonable amount though!
  4. Delhi Classical Music Festival - though it is a recent entry to the list of events, it has made itself the most sought after classical event of the year. Delhi Classical Music Festival is a 5-day event, consisting of two performances each day. A real treat for all the rasikas. The event is organized in October. For the first two years, this event was organized by the Punjabi Academy of Delhi.
  5. Bhavan's Sangeet Samaroh - It is an event held at the Kamani Auditorium in Delhi every year. Pandit Jasraj performed at this music festival in the 2011 chapter. This event is organized by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan of Delhi.
  6. Gharana Parampara Festival - A unique festival organized by the Sursagar Society of Delhi Gharana in Delhi. The venues of thie event vary from time to time. This years event took place at the India Islamic Cultural Center at Lodhi Road in Delhi. Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, Pandit LK Pandit, Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan (he couldn't perform due to an unfortunate injury), Prabha Atre, Pandit Yashpaul and Ustad Iqbal Ahmed Khan were there to perform at the festival. Doyens of six different Gharanas were there to perform. A real treat.
  7. SaMaPa Sangeet Sammelan - another very sought after programme in the classical music arena, this festival is organized by SaMaPa. It is held every year at Kamani Auditorium in Delhi.
  8. Annual Sangeet Mahotsav - is organized by Legends of India in order to pay tribute to all the great classical vocalists of India. Fusion, Instrumental, Sufi, Dance, Classical Vocal and much more - this festival has a lot to offer in the month of September.
  9. National Festival of Dance - don't be confused by the name. This is a festival of dance and music both. It presents various dance forms, Hindustani classical music and also Carnatic classical music. It is held every year in Delhi. This has been continuing for more than 10 years now. This festival is organized by Raja Radha Reddy Institute.
  10. Thumri Festival at Kamani - there are various events by that name actually. So, it is necessary to point out that the one we're talking here - is the Kamani event. Thie event is organized by Sahitya Kala Parishad of Delhi. For lovers of light classical music forms such as Thurmi, Dadra, Tappa, Bhajan - this festival does the trick.
  11. National Festival of Indian Classical Music & Dance - this is a wonderful 5-day event at the Kamani Auditorium in Delhi during March-April. Artists of the highest caliber perform here. This festival has proven to be a success time and again. The people of Delhi enjoy this festival, especially the 'almost-twelve-hour' series of performances the last day. Ustad Rashid Khan, Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty, Pandit Rajan & Sajan Mishra, Begum Parveen Sultana, Ustad Sabir Khan, Ustad Hashmat Ali Khan, Ustad Akram Khan are only a few of the performing artists from last years' event!
  12. Maihar Music Lineage or Maihar Music Festival - this is an Indian Classical music event that focuses only on the instrumental recitals and invites artists from the Maihar tradition of Baba Allauddin Khan. This event occurs usually in the month of March.
  13. Shriram Shankarlal Music Festival - this festival is being organized for many decades. This event is managed by Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra in Delhi. Almost every great Indian Classical Vocalist and Instrumentalist has performed at thie music festival. Artists of the highest caliber are called in this festival, every year in February.

Introduction to Indian Classical Music - Assorted Collection from Maestros

Navras Sampler - The Best in Indian Classical Music (CD)
Navras Sampler - The Best in Indian Classical Music (CD)

Various artist rendering Indian Classical Vocal and Instrumental music. Provides a good and quick introduction to this kind of music. Navras is one of the leading international labels when it comes to Indian Classical Music.

Masters Of Indian Classical Music
Masters Of Indian Classical Music

As the title suggests, these are recordings by masters of the music! As we all know, almost all the recordings that were done in India pre-Independence are held and owned by SaReGaMa HMV, so you can expect great recordings in this label also. Here's a great collection of renditions by maestros.

Classical Music of North India the First Years of Study: The Music of the Baba Allauddin Gharana As Taught by Ali Akbar Khan at the Ali Akbar College of Music
Classical Music of North India the First Years of Study: The Music of the Baba Allauddin Gharana As Taught by Ali Akbar Khan at the Ali Akbar College of Music

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan was a global Sarod phenomenon. He, along with, Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Allah Rakha performed at the Woodstock '69 - the biggest music festival ever!


7 major Indian Classical Music events in India !

1. Harballabh Sangeet Mela, Jalandhar

2. Sawai Gandharva Music Festival, Pune

3. Swami Haridas - Tansen Music Festival, India

4. ITC Sangeet Sammelan, Kolkata

5. Dover Lane Music Conference, Kolkata

6. Gunidas Sangeet Sammelan, India

7. Saptak Music Festival, Ahmedabad

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan - On Indian Classical Music

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan
Ustad Ali Akbar Khan

Our sages developed music from time immemorial for the mind to take shelter in that pure being which stands apart as one's true self. Real music is not for wealth, not for honors, or not even for the joys of our mind - it is one kind of yoga, a path for realization and salvation to purify your mind and heart and give you longevity.

Your views on Indian Classical Music?

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    • choosehappy profile image


      5 years ago from US

      Brilliant lens ;)

    • Pat Goltz profile image

      Pat Goltz 

      5 years ago

      I used to run a webring for carnatic music. I wasn't familiar with it to begin with, but I listened to it a lot. I really like it. I like all Indian classical music.

    • swapnal-sarang profile image


      5 years ago

      What a superb lens i am submitting your lens as the lens i like about music ,to complete my squidquest. Thanks for all the information.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Great story. i am proud to see that India is the only country that is so rich in culture as well as music. No doubt music fests in India comes of age. You can see various superb fests & festivals, carnivals, shows every now n then and to say the least all are fantastic. recently another great music festival gonna happen in Gurgaon i.e. STRINGS OF THE WORLD on 16th-17th NOv 2012

      wallah i am so excited to go here. i hope it will be an awesome musical evening for me n rest others.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Extra ordinary lens. I would be very interested to learn classical music.

      Kurt penberg

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Great lens, nice job! Squidlikes

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Amazing piece of information.

    • kovid7 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      @TreasuresBrenda: Thanks a lot Brenda. I'll be writing in detail. Do check again. :)

    • TreasuresBrenda profile image

      Treasures By Brenda 

      6 years ago from Canada

      Well done. Thanks for the introduction to Indian classical music.

    • kovid7 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      @belinda342: Sure, thanks for the suggestion. I'll make sure that this lens has an iTunes module. And by the way, even I love all classical music. Although, lesser and lesser people seem interested in it - which makes me sad.

    • belinda342 profile image


      6 years ago

      I love all classical music...Indian included. Such a rich heritage involved in a countries music. One suggestion--you might consider adding an I-Tunes module to this page to let people sample the music you describe and buy it if they like it. Just a thought.

    • kovid7 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      @anonymous: Thank you! I am actually writing about Indian Music. Keep checking out for new lenses. Thanks for visiting!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      This is an amazing article. I loved it. Write more about India.


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