Hindustani Classical Music

The Hindustani Classical Music is popular in North India and is influenced heavily from Persian music and other genres of music. Its main elements are as follows:


Swar means a note in the octave. The seven basic notes of the scale (swaras), in Indian music are named shadja, rishabh, gandhar, madhyam, pancham, dhaivat and nishad, and are shortened to Sa, Ri, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, and Ni. It is believed that primitive sound Oum gave birth to Swar. Swar is also called “sur“. At a fundamental level they are similar to the solfa of Western music. Two of the swar are noteworthy in that they are immutably fixed. These two notes are shadja (Sa) and pancham (Pa) and are referred to as “achala swar“. These two swar form the tonal foundation for all the Indian classical music. The other notes have alternate forms and are called “chala swar“. The swar have special relationships with each other. Although there are only seven notes they repeat in the upper and lower directions. Therefore, when ascending the scale when one reaches Ni, then the scales starts over with Sa, Re, Ga, etc. This is the upper register. By the same token when one is decsending the scale, it does not stop at Sa but continues down as Ni, Dha, etc.; this is the lower register.


A rāga uses a series of five or more musical notes upon which a melody is constructed. Rāga is neither a scale, nor a mode. However, it is a scientific , precise, subtle, and aesthetic melodic form with its own peculiar ascending (aaroh) and descending (avroh) movement which consists of five or more notes. The Rāgas are distinguished by the following:

  • Pattern of ascending and descending movement of the notes
  • Omission of a jarring or dissonant note
  • Emphasis on a particular note,
  • Slide from note to another
  • Use of different microtones along with other subtleties.

In the Indian music, there is above all awareness between man and nature, each acting and reacting on the other. Hence, each Rāga is associated, according to its mood, with a particular time of the day, night or a season. Improvisation is an essential feature of Indian music, depending upon the imagination and the creativity of an artist; a great artist can communicate and instil in his listener the mood of the Rāga.

Rāgas involve several important elements.

  • The first element is sound — metaphysical and physical, which is referred to as Nada. There are two types of nada, anahata nada or un-struck sound and ahata nada or struck sound.
  • The next element of rāga is pitch, relegated into swara (whole and half tones), and sruti (microtones).

Rāga is based on the principle of a combination of notes selected out the 22 note intervals of the octave.

  • Rāgas are placed in three categories:
  • Odava or pentatonic, a composition of five notes
  • Shadava or hexatonic, a composition of six notes
  • Sampoorna or heptatonic, a composition of seven notes
  • Every Rāga must have at least five notes, starting at Sa, one principal note, a second important note and a few helping notes. The speed of a rāga is divided into three parts: Vilambit (slow), Madhya (Medium) and Drut (fast).

Classification of Rāgas

In the Hindustani Classical Music, all the Rāgas have been divided into 10 thāts by Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande. In Carnatic Music, there are 72 parent Rāgas (melakarta). The two streams of Indian Music, the names of the rāgas overlaps yet the form of Rāgas is different. Rāgas in the Carnatic music fall into two categories, the base or melakarta rāgas and the derived or janya rāgas. The 16 swaras form the basis for the melakarta scheme. Melakarta rāgas have a formal structure and follow a fairly rigid scheme of scientific organization whereas the janya rāgas are rooted in usage and are liable to evolve with the music.


The 10 thāts are as follows:

  • Bilawal thāt
  • Khamaj thāt
  • Kafi thāt
  • Asavari thāt
  • Bhairvi thāt
  • Bhairav thāt
  • Kalyan thāt
  • Marwa thāt
  • Purvi Thāt
  • Todi Thāt

The time theory of Rāgas

The Time Theory of the Indian music says that each rāga has its own stipulated time of singing it or playing it on an instrument. Some ancient texts such as Sangita-Makaranda have given warnings to musicians against playing ragas at the incorrect time. In this theory, all the Ragas have been divided into 2 parts of 24 hours of a day viz Poorvi and Uttar. If a Raga is Poorvi, it is sung before noon and if a Raga is Uttar, it is sung after noon. Thus__:

  • Poorvi: Raga is sung from Midnight to Noon
  • Uttar: Raga is sung from Noon to Midnight

The beauty of the rāga is not distorted by singing them at different times than stipulated. Yet, Raga is fully expressed when it is sung in its own time only. Apart from the above broad classification, there is a timetable of most ragas to be sung at particular time. However, there are many Ragas which can be sung any time. The most popular Ragas and there time has been given below:

  • Morning Ragas: Ahir Bhairav, Todi
  • Afternoon Ragas: Brindavani Sarang, Shuddha Sarang
  • Later Afternoon: Bhimpalasi
  • Evening: Yaman, Puriya, Shuddha Kalyan
  • Night: Bageshwari, Chandrakauns
  • Midnight: Malkauns, Darbari
  • Dawn: Lalit, Bibhas, Bhatiyar

Season based Ragas:

There are some Ragas which best expressed when sung in the stipulated seasons. In other way, when they are sung by a versatile artist, they can create ambience of particular season. For example:

  • Spring: Rāga Basant
  • Rainy Season: Rāga Megh, Rāga Malhar, Rāga Miyan Malhar


Tala is the second important factor in Indian music. These are rhythmic cycles ranging from 3 to 108 beats. The division in a tala and the stress on the first beat, called sum, are the most important features of these cycles. Tala is independent of the music it accompanies and has its own divisions. Different talas are recognised like Dadra, Rupak, Jhaptal, Ektal, Adha-Chautal and Teen-Tal. There are over a 100 Talas, but only 30 Talas are known and only about 10-12 talas are actually used. The most commonly encountered one is the one with sixteen beats called the Teentaal. Talas having the same number of beats may have a stress on different beats, e.g. a bar of 10 beats may be divided as : 2-3-2-3-, or 3-3-4, or 3-4-3. The Laya is the tempo, which keeps the uniformity of time span. The Matra is the smallest unit of the tala.

Carnatic music has a rigid thala structure. The thalas are defined on the basis of intricate arithmetic calculations. The thalas are made up of three basic units, namely, laghu, drutam and anu drutam. The most common thala is the Adi thala, which consists of a repeating measure of 8 beats.

  • Alap: Alap is the first movement of the Rāga. It is a slow, serene movement acting as an invocation and it gradually develops the Rāga.
  • Jor: Jor begins with the added element of rhythm which, combining with the weaving of innumerable melodic patterns, gradually grains in tempo and brings the rāga to the final movement.
  • Jhala: Jhala is the final movement and climax. It is played with a very fast action of the plectrum that is worn on the right index finger.
  • Gat: It is the fixed composition. A gat can be in any tala and can be spread over from 2 to 16 of its rhythmic cycles in any tempo, slow, medium or fast. A gat, whether vocal or instrumental, has generally two sections. The first part is called “pallavi” (Carnatic) or “asthayi” (Hindustani) which opens the composition and is generally confined to the lower and middle octaves. The following part of the composition is called the “anupallavi” (or antara) which usually extends from the middle to upper octaves. In Carnatic music further melodic sections called “charana” follows the “anupallavi.”

Dhrupad & Khayal

Dhrupad and Khayal are the two forms of classical singing that are popular today. Out of them, Dhrupad is certainly older, which took proper shape in medieval era, replacing the ancient Prabandha. It enjoyed wide popularity till the 17th or early 18th century, after which it gradually declined with the emergence of Khayal, which is more romantic and entertaining style. The nature of Dhrupad music is spiritual. It does not seek to entertain, but to induce feelings of peace and spirituality in the listener. It is primarily a form of worship, in which offerings are made to the divine through sound or Nada. Dhrupad was initially sung only in the temples, the singer facing the Lord. From this early chanting, Dhrupad evolved into a sophisticated classical form of music. One significant characteristic of Dhrupad is the emphasis on maintaining purity of the Raga.

The language of Dhrupad changed from Sanskrit to Brij Bhasha some time between the 12th and the 16th century. In medieval India, Dhrupad had mainly thrived under the patronage of Mughal and Rajput kings. Later it declined with the shift of interest in Khayal. Performance of Dhrupad is done in two parts viz. the Alap and Bandish. In the Alap, the singer uses syllables from Sanskrit Mantra which add texture to the notes. The Raga is slowly and methodically developed in a meditative mode. The speed of Alap increases with the use of an accelerating rhythmic pulse that builds to a point, where the melodic patterns literally dance in space. Bandish is a short poem accompanied by the Pakhawaj. The poem is sung using melodic and rhythmic improvisations. The intricate patterns and improvisations woven by the Pakhawaj player and the singer create a dialogue often playing against or complimenting one another.


The dhrupad style of music was replaced by the romantic khayal. Khayal is a Persian term which means imagination. The most important feature of a khayal is tāns or the running glides over notes and boltans which clearly distinguish it from dhrupad. The slow (vilambit) and fast (drut) styles of khayal are the two recognised types today. The singer is accompanied generally on Tabla and Harmonium or Sarangi. Difference between Dhrupad and Khayal

Older in OriginYounger in origin
Primarily spiritual , purpose worshipPrimarily romantic , purpose -entertainment
Short Bandish is used generallyLong Bandish generally
Uses Sanskrit Syllables in AlapAlap may or may not be in Sanskrit
Special attention to purity of RāgaFlexible but still Rāga purity is paid attention
Singer is accompanied by PakhawajTabla and Harmonium, Sarangi for accompaniment
Two parts - Alap + BandhishThree parts generally viz. Alap, Bada Khayal and Chhota (Drut) Khayal
Meaning of the words generally not recognizableComparatively recognizable.


Tappa is a distinct style having its origin in the Punjab. Its beauty lies in the quick and intricate display of various permutations and combinations of notes. It is strange that even though the Tappa lyrics are in Punjabi, Tappa is not sung in the Punjab.

ThumriThumri originated in the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh. Its most distinct feature is the erotic subject matter portraying the various episodes from the lives of lord Krishna and radha. The beauty of thumri lies in the artist’s ability to convey musically as many shades of meaning as the words of a song can bear. It is a much freer form than khayal.


Dadra bears a close resemblance to the Thumri. The texts are as amorous as those of Thumris. The major difference is that dadras have more than one antara and are in dadra tala. Singers usually sing a dadra after a thumri.


These compositions are similar to Dhrupad but are chiefly associated with the festival of Holi. Here the compositions are specifically in praise of Lord Krishna. This music, sung in the dhamar tala, is chiefly used in festivals like Janmashthami, Ramnavami and Holi. Hori is a type of dhrupad sung on the festival of Holi. The compositions here describe the spring season. These compositions are mainly based on the love pranks of Radha-Krishna.


Rāgasagar consists of different parts of musical passages in different rāgas as one song composition. These compositions have 8 to 12 different rāgas and the lyrics indicate the change of the rāgas. The peculiarity of this style depends on how smoothly the musical passages change along with the change of rāgas.


Tarana is a style consisting of peculiar syllables woven into rhythmical patterns as a song. It is usually sung in faster tempo.


Chaturang denotes four colours or a composition of a song in four parts: Fast Khayal, Tarana, Sargam and a “Paran” of Tabla or Pakhwaj.


The ghazal is mainly a poetic form than a musical form, but it is more song-like than the thumri. The ghazal is described as the “pride of Urdu poetry”. The ghazal originated in Iran in the 10th Century AD. It grew out of the Persian qasida, a poem written in praise of a king, a benefactor or a nobleman. The ghazal never exceeds 12 shers (couplets) and on an average, ghazals usually have about 7 shers. Even though ghazal began with Amir Khusro in northern India, Deccan in the south was its home in the early stages. It developed and evolved in the courts of Golconda and Bijapur under the patronage of Muslim rulers. The 18th and 19th centuries are regarded as the golden period of the ghazal with Delhi and Lucknow being its main centres.

Modern Trend in Indian Classical Music

Classical music is definitely not the preferential form of music amongst the general populace today still there are countless Indian classical musicians and singers who are well respected and heard even in contemporary times.  The classical music managed to survive despite the fact that it requires rigorous practice and devotion. Some believe that the reason solely responsible for this survival is the Indian guru-shishya tradition in which a teacher or guru is given the utmost form of respect and student or shishya adhere to his teachings. Some other reasons for its survival are a highly scientific structure within which a musician could operate with total freedom, the aesthetic appeal of the music, the melodies and the unmistakable spiritual aspect of the music.

After Indian Independence, several attempts were made to revive the Indian classical music. There was a movement to re-popularize music with the entire population. However, with time the modern society gradually began to take over newer forms of media. The Indian government has made consistent efforts to revive the classical arts but the present trend completely turned the face of Indian music around. There is a very popular perception that Indian classical music is ‘too cerebral’ or ‘too heavy’. Nevertheless, recent times have seen a resurging interest in the field. An increase in the number of artists indulging in fusion and a growing number of organizations dedicated to spreading the richness of the tradition has helped revive interest in classical music. The Indian classical music tradition is still there, having survived so many adversities.