Amazing Sitar/Sarod Jugalbandi by Partho Sarathy (Sarode) and Shubhendra Rao (Sitar), top disciples of maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar, and Benares Tablaji Udai Mazumdar on Fri Nov. 3, 2000 at the home of the Sarmas, Austin, Texas. Organized by Sushanta Parikh.

North Indian Classical Music

The subject of classical Indian music is rich, with its historical, cultural, aesthetic, theoretical, and performing facets. This discussion is limited to aspects of the North Indian instrumental genres.

The primary genres of musical composition in North Indian or Hindustani classical music are dhrupad and khyal. Dhrupad, the older of the two genres, is the ancestor to the more popular khyal that eclipses it today. The concept of the melody and rhythm, however; serves as the foundation for both khayal and dhrupad. Melody is captured in the concept of the raag (also pronounced raaga) and rhythmic foundation in the taal (alternatively pronounced as tala).

The Raag

Raag, in the Sanskrit dictionary, is defined as "the act of coloring or dyeing" (the mind in this context) and "any feeling or passion especially love, affection, sympathy, vehement desire, interest, joy, or delight". In music, these descriptions apply to the impressions of melodic sounds on both the artist(s) and listener(s). A raag consists of required and optional rules governing the melodic movements of notes within a performance.

The rules of a raag can be defined by

Observance of these rules during the performance of a raag does not aspire to be purely a technical or intellectual exercise, but also to evoke the rasa or bhava (the experience, mood, emotion, or feeling) of the raag in both the artist and the listener. A raag is best experienced rather than analyzed. Theoretically, there is no limit to the number of raags, but only a few hundred are documented, and designated by specific names. Of these, only a small percentage are usually performed in concerts.

The melodic performer utilizes a raag as the foundation for improvisation. A recital explores a raag in an non-metered form and/or within the confines of a cyclical rhythmic structure, using intricate ornamentation of notes. First the raag is introduced with a note or group of notes, and then the improvisation progresses to a more melodically and rhythmically complex form.

The manner in which raags originate is a fascinating subject. Many raags are polished forms of a family of regional folk melodies while others have been created through the imagination of musicians. Some of the latter are raags with their own distinct characteristics whereas other creations are a combination of one or more existing raags. The names of some established raags have changed with time and the characteristics/ definitions of raags also are not as rigid as claimed in theory.

The TaaI

Just as the "note" is the basis of the melodic component of music, the bol (pronounced bowl) is the foundation for taal. Bol literally means speech or syllables. The vocal bols sound very similar to bols played on the percussive instrument. The most common tabla bols are Dha, Dhi/Dhin, Ti/Tin, Ra, Ki, Ta, Na, Tin, and Te. Different schools of percussion may pronounce the same bol differently. Several bols structured in a specific manner and arranged in sub-divisions are called thekas.

Each bol usually takes up one, halt or quarter of a beat (matra) in a theka. The first beat of a theka is called the sam (pronounced sum). It plays a crucial role in the improvisation structure during a recital -- since it becomes a point of convergence for both the melodic and percussive improvisation. A theka also consists of layers of accents or voids in the first beat of a sub-division. A degree of symmetry, with an elegant manner of the theka leading to the sam, is quite common in the arrangement of the bols in a theka. A theka (also referred to as tool) can theoretically contain between two and 108 beats, although in reality there is no limit. While bols have existed in the percussion repertoire for a long time, thekas are probably a recent phenomenon (perhaps only around 600 years old ) The commonly heard thekas are dadra (6 beats), roopak (7 beats), keherwa (8 beats), jhaptaal (10 beats), ektaal (12 beats), chautal (12 beats), dhamar, deepchandi, jhumra (all 14 beats but with different bols and sub-divisions), and teentaal (16 beats). Although thekas are usually standard, bols of thekas can vary slightly, depending on the musical school or individual style of the tabla player. The bols and sub divisions of the common taal-s are listed below:

Dhin Dhin(2)
DhaGeTiRaKiTa (2)
Ka Ta(2)
DhaDhin Dhin Dha (4)
Dha Dhin Dhin Dha (4)
Dha Tin Tin Ta (4)
Ta Dhin Dhin Dha (4)
Dhin Na(2)
DhiDhinNa (3)

* Bolded bols are accents (tali), italicized bols are voids (khali)

The tabla player strikes the theka repeatedly at a pace set by the melodic performer, thus providing the rhythmic foundation for the melodic improvisation. A cycle of theka of 12 beats may take as long as sixty to ninety seconds in a vocal recital and half as much in an instrumental one. The percussionist may improvise or follow at certain points of the performance, but eventually must return to the sam and continue the repetition. The role of the percussionist in a vocal recital is smaller and serves to keep the rhythm. However, the drummer has leeway to create subtle improvisations while filling in the beats of the theka. Additionally, the control over the instrument adds considerably to the ambiance of a vocal performance.

The role of tabla players is more significant during an instrumental recital since percussionists here are expected to complement the melodic and rhythmic performance of the instrumentalist rather than just playing plain theka as in vocal performances. The interaction between the tabla player and melodic performer can be exciting, as the percussionist imitates the rhythmic patterns created by the melodic performer, and the two artists synchronize their approach to the sam after an improvised phrase, especially a tihai (a pattern repeated three times).

A Brief History of Dhrupad and Khyal

Dhrupad derives from the word dhruv, which literally means fixed, and pada literally verse/text. Dhrupad refers to both a type of composition (hence the name) (in chautaal or sooltaaI) as well as a genre in North Indian classical music. The discussion here focuses on the genre.

Dhrupad probably evolved from a family of musical styles called prabhand that flourished during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The bhakti (devotional) movement of the Vaishnavas and Shivites also substantially contributed to the format and composition styles of dhrupad performed in the courts of Raja Man Singh Tomar of Gwalior and other courts in Delhi, Rajasthan, Punjab, and Gujarat in the fifteenth century. The popularity of dhrupad arose when it entered the court of Emperor Akbar's court in the sixteenth century. Tansen, a legendary musician in Akbar's court, is considered to be the father of the current form of classical dhrupad and most classical performers trace their tradition to him.

In his book "Sitar Technique in Nibbadh Forms", Dr. Stephen Slawek summarizes the history of the Seni gharana (Tansen's lineage): "The Seni gharana consisted of two schools: (1) descendants of Tansen's son, Bilas Khan, who were known as rababiyas (rabab players), and (2) descendants of Tansen's son-in-law, Misri Singh, who were known as binkars (bin players). The rababiyas branch gradually lost favor because of limitations inherent in the instrument. The binkar gharana, however, incorporated many of the techniques of the rababiyas and flourished. The binkars, a tightly knit family taking pride in their ancestry, were very reluctant to pass the technique of their instrument on to anyone other than blood relatives. According to most Indian scholars, the binkars began to use the sitar and surbahar (an instrument similar to kachua sitar in shape but larger) to teach music to students not belonging to their family. On surbahar, they taught anibaddh sangit (music not bound to taI) such as alap and jor-alap. On sitar, they taught compositions that were based on popular vocal genres of the time."

Dhrupad itself has evolved considerably since Tansen's time. Since North Indian classical tradition is transmitted orally, the music heard today is probably different from what listeners experienced five centuries ago. Khyal is a more recent style of music that evolved from dhrupad and crystallized in the seventeenth century. Khyal, (literally meaning imagination) combines facets of dhrupad styles, techniques, and structure. A wider variety of ornamentation is used in khyal, and the improvisation takes place within the confines of a taal. The structure of a performance is less restricted and the artist has a wider latitude in structuring and improvising the performance. Due to its open nature, khyal has become far more popular than dhrupad ever was and has eclipsed its predecessor.

Structure of a modern instrumental recital

Indians consider the voice as the supreme medium for performing music. Therefore all instruments attempt to imitate the vocal nuances. Audiences attending an instrumental recital hear facets of both dhrupad and khyal styles since instrumentalists are expected to be proficient and perform both genres.

Dhrupad approaches a performance very systematically -- taking a raag from its abstract to a more concrete form, from un-metered to metered to a cyclically-metered arrangement, from simple to complex melodic and rhythmic structures. It is marked by a lengthy and structured exploration of a raag, followed by the presentation of a short fixed composition (dhruv-pad). Austere ornamentation of notes is a characteristic of dhrupad. Emphasis is laid on resting a long time on single notes as well as slow and smooth glides between notes.

The quality of a performance is judged by the artist's interpretation of a raag, the technical and aesthetic control they have over laya (rhythm), and the mastery over their performance medium. Of these, the raag interpretation is perhaps the most important. Considering that raag structures seem extremely rigid, it is quite interesting how different the same raag can sound by different artists or by the same artist at different recitals. The reasons for the variation are improvisation and the personal interpretation of the raag by the performer. Most of a North Indian classical music performance is usually improvised spontaneously, making every recital a very unique experience.

A performance usually begins with the artiste selecting a raag that fits the situation (their mood, time of day/season, and audience). The raag is gradually revealed to the listener in a form of improvisation called the alap (literally introduction) - a meditative exploration of the raag. It is considered to be the ideal (and difficult) manner of presenting the raag. The artist is expected to adhere strictly to the rules of the raag in this phase. First the tonic is established and the detailed introduction of the raag begins. The melodic features of the raag are exposed in an unmetered form, elaborately and systematically, gently unveiling the beauty of the raag's scale, its definitive phrases, as well as notes and their transition. Ideally, the scale is traversed slowly starting at the tonic (note Sa), followed by exploration of the lower octave ranges, one note at a time. When the embellishment of a note or phrase has been completed, the artist returns to the tonic and emphasizes it with a characteristic pattern called the mohra. This phrase helps provide a sense of temporal variation in an otherwise free and un-metered melody.

The performer then continues to unfold the raag, returning to the mohra after each phase of the exposition. The exposition continues in a gradual methodical manner until the upper tonic is reached. Usually, performers tend to spend a longer time emphasizing the approach to the upper tonic, since this usually marks the end of the alap. It is not uncommon for an artist to spend some additional time on notes higher than the tonic before ending the unmetered section and progressing to the next phase of the performance.

The alap is followed by the second section, called jor (literally to join). Jor (also referred to as alap-jor), a transition from the free melodic form of the alap, injects a more purposeful rhythm by introducing a pulse. The general structure conforms to an expanding of the range of the notes with the mohra used as a transitional point. The melodic patterns and rhythm become more ornate and complex respectively as jor proceeds. The tempo is also gradually increased as the performance progresses. The jor climaxes when the exposition reaches the tonic on the higher octave.

The final section is called nom-tom (transformed to a technique called jhala in the instrumental repertoire) in which the tempo escalates further and the rhythmic structure usually becomes a multiple of four. Shorter melodic phrasings are employed and more notes are compressed into a beat. The solo performance of presenting the raag in its alap form ends with nom-tom. Most of the performance is spent on the alap, jor, and nom-tom. It is unclear when and how alap became the primary part of a dhrupad recital, since the name of the genre implies a fixed composition.

Generally, an instrumental performer continues with a khyal styled composition (called gat - pronounced guth) in a particular taal and repeats it several times, varying the gat slightly each time. At this point, the tabla player joins the instrumentalist and improvises for several cycles of theka, synchronizing at a sam after a tihai (a pattern repeated three times). The elaborate exploration of the raag is dispensed with, since the alap performed earlier has built the foundation. Therefore, the instrumentalist alternates between the gat and improvisation, with the latter progressing from simpler to more complex patterns, both rhythmically and melodically. The number of notes per beat also increases progressively. Usually the tempo speeds up in a quantified manner as well.

The artist may then switch to a different gat, perhaps in a different taal and continue to improvise further with even more intricate and sophisticated patterns at faster speeds. The time comes when the gat is no longer played and a smooth transition to the jhala may take place, within the confines of the taal. The jhala may end with a elaborate tihai (melodic/rhythmic pattern repeated three times) after which the performance of the raag ends.

The artist usually performs two or more raags in a recital. The first raag is usually in dhrupad (alap)-khyal style as described above. The next few raags are normally presented in a more elaborate khyal style. The un-metered alap is very short and is followed by a gat in a slower tempo. The raag elaboration/exposition (badhat/vistar) takes place between repetition of the gat. The vistar is followed by the antara (a pre-composed section that introduces the upper tonic), after which more rhythmically complex improvisations are presented. The performance usually climaxes with thejhala described earlier.

The final pieces are performed in "lighter" genres such as bhajans (spiritual songs), thumris (romantic or sensual themes), dhuns (folk tunes), tappa, dadra, hori chaiti, or kajri The rules of the raags are not adhered to as strictly in these renderings and may even flow from one raag to another in a form called raag-malika (garland of raags) in which the listener should be able to easily identify the shifts in rasas (moods).

It is worth noting that the descriptions above are general and not absolutes. One has to study music, listen to numerous recordings, and attend recitals to experience the broad spectrum of Indian classical music and thus appreciate its finer nuances. The University of Texas at Austin has an excellent collection of books, recordings, and courses available to those interested in further investigating the subject.

Reproduced by kind permission of author and sitarji Amitava Sarkar and ICMCA.
If you live in or near Austin and are interested in Indian Music, ICMCA is a valuable resource for you as they have many resources not least of which are a series of Indian Music concerts throughout the year.
See for details.

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