History of Indian Music

Music is as old as our civilization.The presence of music / dance in Indus Valley Civilization is evident from some musical instruments, such as the arched or bow-shaped harp and few varieties of drums on terracotta figures and pictographs on the seals.  Further, the dancing girl figurine is a testimony to this. However, what kind of music or dance was prevalent that time, we are totally ignorant about it.

Music in Vedic Era

In the Vedic era, the priests composed hymns in praise of the nature gods, which had to be sung or chanted at religious sacrifices. This tradition led to the composition of a sizable body of the religious poetry, which we call Shruti Literature. The Vedic hymns or Richās were not committed to written texts but the hymns and the method of chanting them, was handed down by word of mouth from one generation to generation. So, the richās of the Vedas are arranged as per the priestly families, who composed and chanted them.  The composition of Yajurveda and Samveda followed the Rig-Veda. While Yajurveda tells us the procedures followed in the sacrifice, the Samveda contains the hymns to be sung by those who chanting them.  Samveda basically consists of a samhita (collection) of richās or their portions from the Sakala Sakha of the Rig-Veda. How these Rigvedic richās should be sung – is known as Sām. This implies that Sām is the composition of Rig-Veda richās in the form of notes, while Sāmgana is the song thus sung. This music is called the Vedic Music. It is the testimony to the deep relationship of music with religion in India.  The sāmgana included the instrumental music also. The prominent instruments in the Vedic Music were the veena, tunav, dundubhi, bhoomi-dundubhi, talav etc.

Origin of Sargam

The initial notes in Indian music were three viz. udatta, anudatta and svarita. The Samaveda employed more notes and thus finally settled down on seven notes, which were krusht, pratham, dwitiya, tritiya, chaturth, mandra and atiswār.  This later evolved into what we call the seven Svaras.

Divine Origin of Indian Music

As per the Indian mythology, Indian Music is of divine origin.  Narada was the first sage to whom the laws of music were revealed. Veena is the oldest music instrument, which was invented by Narada. Tumburu was the first singer. Saraswati was the goddess of music and learning; and Bharata was the first to draw up rules for theatre, of which music was a major and integral part.

The seven Svaras are the basic notes of an octave named Ṣaḍjaṃ, Riṣabh, Gāndhār, Madhyam, Pañcham, Dhaivata and Niṣād (Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha and Ni) respectively. Collectively, they are called Sargam. A series of the seven notes is also known as Saptak.

Music in Maurya Era – Buddhist and Jain Sources

The way the Yakshas and Yakshis have been depicted in the Buddhist sculptures, it is obvious that Maurya era had a richly flourished music. However, Buddhist theology saw music as distraction, but nevertheless, music flourished in that era very well.

In Jain theology as well we find that some of the rare instruments have been discussed in these texts. Some of them are bhambha, mukund, machal, kadamb etc. Some of them may be the instruments of the folk music.

Later Development of Indian Music

The Gupta period is known for the excellence in all fields of Indian art and culture. The reference to Music in Gupta period comes from the works of Kalidasa and Vatsyayana among others. Kalidasa has written the names of some instruments such as Parivadini Veena, Vipanchi Veena, Pushkar, Mridang, Vamshi and Shankha. He has also discussed different types of songs  such as Kakaligeet, Streegeet and Apsarogeeti, apart from some technical terms such as Murchana, Swarasaptaka and Tana.

Vatsyayana has listed 64 Kalas or arts in his magnum opus Kamasutra, wherein he includes the singing, dance and playing of musical instruments among these Kalas.

Fa-hien, who visited during Gupta period, has noted that music was remarkably prevalent in Indian society. From Gupta age onwards, various genres of Indian Music were played in temples.

After Guptas, we find a great development in art in literature in times of Harsha, who himself was a singer. His plays ‘Nagananda’, ‘Ratnavali’ and ‘Priyadarshika’ discuss the making of music.


In post Gupta period, a great treatise only after Natyashashtra was composed in Sanskrit as Brihaddeshi by Matanga Muni. Brihaddeshi is the first text that speaks about rāga and distinguishes the music genres into Marga Sangeet (Classical Music) and Desi Sangeet (Folk Music).  Brihaddeshi was also the important work on Indian music before the Islam came and influenced the Indian music. Brihaddeshi was based upon the Natyashashtra itself and has clarified many things which were unclear in the Bharata’s text.

Influence of Islam

Around the 9th century, the Sufis tradition had itself a firm foothold in India. The Sufi mystics are known for their great love for music and acceptance of many indigenous customs. The followers of Nizamuddin Chishti (1324 AD) included the ‘Basant’ and ‘Rang’ celebrations in their religious practices. Similarly during the time of Kaikubad (1287-1290 AD), both Farsi and Hindi songs found a place in performances. By the 12th century, Islam started making great impact on Indian Music.  Amir Khusrau, the “father of qawwali” enriched Indian Classical Music by introducing Persian and Arabic elements in it. He was originator of Khayal and Tarana style of classical music.  On the other hand, Man Singh Tomar consolidated Dhrupad style of vocal classical music.

Impact of Bhakti Movement

The impact of Bhakti Movement on Indian music was through the Ashtachap and Haveli sangeet along with the Bhajan and Kirtans. Using the regional language, Braj, Avadhi or whatever, as the vehicle, saint-composers were able to reach to people in social strata otherwise impervious to the influence of art and music.  The works of composers like Jayadeva (11th century), Vidyapati (1375 AD), Chandidas (14th-15th century), Bhakta Narasimha (1416-1475 AD) and Meerabai (1555-1603 AD) were used as literary bases to the music.  The advent of the Dhrupad, Khayal and Tappa, the dissociation of dance from music, and the shift from the pakhawaj to the tabla, all happened during the Bhakti Movement period.

Mughal Era

During the Mughal period, and especially under Akbar’s reign, temple music was largely overshadowed by the Darbar Sangeet, in which music was composed mainly to eulogise patrons.

The court of Akbar employed many musicians Indians as well as Persians. The musicians were divided into seven orders. There was one for each day of the week. Headed by the legendary Tansen, there were 19 singers, three who chanted and several instrumental musicians. The main instruments, as per records of Abul Fazal, were the sarmandal, been, nay, karna and tanpura.

The times of Akbar are known for a complete fusion of the Persian and Indian music systems. Jehangir was genuinely interested in music and generously patronised the art. Same was with Shahjahan. However, puritan Aurangzeb banned the court music. Still, some literary works on music were produced in his times, such as Persian translation of Makutuhal.

With the Mughal power in Delhi weakening after Aurangzeb’s death, there was a quick succession of emperors. But, there was a relatively long period of prosperity of music during the reign of legendary Muhammad Shah Rangile (1716-1748 AD).

He was a loving and generous patron to many musicians. Qawwali was reintroduced into the Mughal imperial court and it quickly spread throughout South Asia faster than ever before, incorporating many newly patronized instruments such as Sarod, Surbahar, Sitar and Sursingar that bolstered the traditional Tambura, Veena and Tabla.

Khayal was popularized by Niyamat Khan (Sadarang) and his nephew Firoz Khan (Adarang), both musicians in the court of Muhammad Shah Rangile. Khayal was pre-existing at that time, but for the first time, it became so popular that it later almost replaced Dhrupad.

19th century

The thumri form of romantic and devotional music also became popular in the 19th century.  Ramnidhi Gupta, or Nidhubabu gave us the Bengali tappa, a new genre. This assimilated the features of the Tappa in Hindustani music and the lilting rhythm of Bengali music.

20th century

In the early 20th century, the most important contribution to Hindustani Classical Music was that of Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar and Pandit Vishnu Narayana Bhatkhande.

VD Paluskar

Pandit V. D. Paluskar (1872-1931 AD) introduced the first music college, the  Gandharva Mahavidyalaya in 1901. He sang the original version of the bhajan Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram. He gave an entirely new perspective to the education and propagation of music. He is known to have given the first public concert in Saurashtra, because by that time, music was sung only in temples and palaces. It was his efforts that elevated music and musicians in the social hierarchy! His Gandhrava Mahavidyalaya was open to all and one of the first in India to run on public support and donations, rather than royal patronage.


V.N.Bhatkhande (1860-1937 AD) pioneered the introduction of an organised musical system reflecting current performance practices. He wrote the first modern treatise on Hindustani Classical Music. He is best noted for reclassification of the Indian Rāgas. So far, the Rāgas were classified into Rāga (male), Ragini (female), and Putra (children). Bhatkhande reclassified them into the currently used Thaat system. He collected data on music, and documented and analysed performing traditions. His literature on music remains unparalleled even today and is essential for a systematic study of Hindustani Art Music. He classified a total number of 1800 compositions from the major gharanas accessible to him, dividing them in ten thaats according to his that system.

Modern trends 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.

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