Sarasvati, the Hindu goddess of learning and wisdom, is often depicted as playing the veena, an ancient string instrument. Many musicians worship Sarasvati before a practice session or a performance. Brahma is said to be the author of the four Vedas. Most scholars agree with the fact that the Vedas were compiled between the period 4000 BC and 1000 BC. Sama Védha the third of the Vedas is believed to have laid the foundation for Indian classical music. vedic hymns were sung in plain melody, using only 3 notes.
A listener coming from a background of Western music should not judge Indian classical music on the same parameters. Indian music does not have harmonies and is more of a solo-oriented form which relies heavily on melody and rhythm, and the ability of a performer to improvise on stage. Most performances are not rehearsed and the success of a performance relies on how well the performer can induce a certain mood in the minds of the listeners.
Technically, Indian classical music can broadly be defined in terms of two basic elements - the raga and the tala. The raga is the basis of melody. The term ‘raga' literally means colour, and so the raga is 'that which colours the mind'. It is supposed to induce an emotion or a mood - tranquility, devotion, eroticism, loneliness, pathos, and heroism to name a few. The raga could be considered as a set of rules or constraints that binds a performance, constraints within which a performer is free to improvise.
Another fascinating aspect of the ragas is that most of them are associated with a time of the day in which they are to be performed - the time is generally specified by intervals of three hours and corresponds to the mood that is supposed to be associated with that time of the day. Some ragas, like raga malhar for example, are associated with specific seasons.
The raga is closely tied to the tala (the rhythm). The tabla, a unique kind of drum, serves as the main percussion instrument. The talas are often depicted as bolsor spoken words which are then adapted by the tabla player in his playing.
Indian classical music has developed into two distinct but related traditions. The north Indian tradition is generally referred to as Hindustani music and the south Indian tradition is called Carnatic(or Karnatak) music. The south Indian form has well defined, stricter rules, and is therefore more rigid than the north Indian style, which is comparatively more flexible.
The advent of Islamic rule under the Delhi Sultanate and later the Mughal Empire in northern India during the fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries caused the fusion of Hindu and Muslim ideas. This also marked the separation of the north Indian tradition from the tradition of the south, the Carnatic remaining untouched by other cultures, retaining its original form.
Amir Khusrau, a legendary musician and Sufi poet is credited with the merging of Indian and Persian ideas and creation of forms such as the qawwali and the khayal.
Tansen, another legendary figure who was, considered one of the nine jewels in the Mughal emperor Akbar'scourt, is reputed to have had such power in his music that he could light lamps and bring rain by his singing. Many current ragas like raga deepak are attributed to him.
A number of musical instruments are associated with Hindustani classical music. The veena is a string instrument which has traditional and mythological significance but very few play it today and it has largely been superseded by its cousins the sitar and the sarod. The santoor is another famous (plucked) string instrument. Among bowed instruments, the sarangi, esraj (or dilruba) and violin are popular. The bansuri (bamboo flute), shehnai and harmonium are important wind instruments. For percussion, the tabla and the pakhavaj are the most popular. Various other instruments (including the banjo and the piano) have also been used in varying degrees.
Indian classical music has always been an oral tradition. It has been passed on from the guru (teacher) to his shishya (disciple) through word of mouth. Therefore, there are not many written works available on the subject. There exists no sheet music or uniform written notation in Indian classical music as in the Western classical tradition. The basis of the tradition, the ragas supposed to be something that can only be felt by listening and feelings cannot be put down on paper.
The gurukuls and the Guru-Shishya parampara has been the soul of this oral tradition. The gurukul is a type of an ancient Indian school in which the students lived inside the premises, in close proximity to the guru. The student not only learns from the guru but also helps the guru in his day-to-day life, helps doing mundane chores such as washing clothes, cooking, etc. The guru is much more than just a teacher; he is a parent, a guide, even a philosopher, encouraging the pupil to imbibe crucial moral values.
Indian classical music has had many great performers. A lot of people in the west associate Indian classical music with Pundit Ravi Shankar and the late Ustad Allah Rakha who brought this tradition to the west during the late 60s and the early 70s. There are a lot of contemporary performers who are bringing popularity and fame to this ancient tradition including Pundit Hari Prasad Chaurasia, Ustad Zakir Hussain, Pundit Bhim Sen Joshi, Pundit Shiv Kumar Sharma, Ustad Vilayat Khan to name just a few.