Indian music studied from a social and intercultural perspective

Ethnomusicology can be considered as the holistic and cultural study of music existing in various folk, tribal and other ethnic societies.

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Ethnomusicology can be considered as the holistic and cultural study of music existing in various folk, tribal and other ethnic societies. The discipline ethnomusicology deals with the study of music from a social and cultural perspective and aims to survey and analyze the music traditions of various cultures. Ethnomusicology also emphasizes the study of music of one’s own and other cultures which promotes the intercultural perspective of music. Initially, the Indo-British interrelationship paved the way for intercultural communication through musical works and set the foundation for ethno musicological study in India. Ethnomusicology emerged in India during the British period when western authors started to write about Indian music in English language mainly for western readerships. Intercultural aspects can be found in all styles of music because of the cultural changes in societies that are induced by the changing reigns of rulers in the different ages of a nation‟s history. […]

After the 1980s, concepts of anthropology and musicology merged and more emphasis was placed on the observation of the process of musical creation, as seen in improvisations and performances. The focus of the study has shifted towards making critical examinations, rather than collecting abstract information. […]

Source: “Emergence of Ethnomusicology As Traced in Indian Perspectives” by Bisakha Goswami (Assistant Professor in Musicology, Rabindra Bharati University)
URL: https://www.academia.edu/10205543/Eemergence_of_Ethnomusicology_As_Traced_in_Indian_Perspectives
Date Visited: 8 September 2023

Classical music is the most refined and sophisticated music to be found in the subcontinent of India. There are many other forms, however, which have a specific function in the society, and these are by no means devoid of artistic expression. The great diversity of music in India is a direct manifestation of the diversity and fragmentation of the population in terms of race, religion, language, and other aspects of culture. The process of acculturation, so accelerated in modern times, is still not a very significant factor in many areas of the country. There remain remote pockets where tribal societies continue to live much as they have done for centuries.

“Tribal, Folk and Devotional Music” by NA [Nazir Ali] Jairazbhoy in AL Basham (ed.). A Cultural History of India. London: Oxford University Press, 1975, pp. 234-237. 

There is a continuing association of apsaras with heroes, as for instance in the hero-stones of later times, which show the hero being taken up to heaven by apsaras arter he has died in battle. There is also an association with heavenly musicians, the Gandharvas. In the epic version, the identity of Sakuntala as an apsara is reiterated by the small details which [unlike those found in Kalidasa’s portrayal] make her different from an ordinary woman.

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The apsara was a beautiful woman made for dalliance, the fantasy woman of the world of the heroes. In later times the apsaras fade when the goddesses become prominent. The apsaras are not, therefore, the same as women of the earth, they have their own order and their own codes of behaviour and authority. In a sense they are a counterweight to the insistence on the pativrata as the ideal woman – the life-long, devoted, self-effacing wife to her husband – and to that extent alleviate the dreariness of the didactic sections of the epic [Mahabharata] with their heavy male-dominated pronouncements.

There is a continuing association of apsaras with heroes, as for instance in the hero-stones of later times, which show the hero being taken up to heaven by apsaras after he has died in battle. There is also an association with heavenly musicians, the Gandharvas. In the epic version, the identity of Sakuntala as an apsara is reiterated by the small details which [unlike those found in Kalidasa’s portrayal] make her different from an ordinary woman.

Yet she is in the mould of the other epic heroines – Draupadi, Kunti, Gandhari – strong women who as mothers and wives dominate the story and whose individuality cannot be overlooked. Epic heroines are sometimes associated with the knowledge of a treasure which the hero seeks, or else they protect the treasure. In the narrative of Sakuntala the treasure may be symbolised by the son she brings to the hero, a son who was to be unique in the lineage of the Purus. The eulogies on Bharata in the later tradition, exalting him as the ancestor of a famous clan (even though his children died and he was succeeded by an adopted son); marking him out as a major figure in the lineage not only requires introduction through an unusual birth – namely, a three-year gestation with a mother who could be either an apsara or a forest dwelling woman – it also ensures that the story of Sakuntala remains in the consciousness of those who live in the land of Bharata.

Source: Romila Thapar in “The Narrative from the Mahabharata”, Sakuntala: Texts, Readings, Histories (New Delhi 1999), pp. 41-42

Article 52 of the Constitution says, “There shall be a President of India,” with no mention of Bharat. […] India is already called Bharatam in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam.

Source: livemint.com (5 September 2023)

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Flow | The right tempo or “kalapramanam”

Listen to Intakannaanandam emi sung by Balamurali Krishna | Lyrics >>
Image © Kutcherbuzz.com

If there is a single feature of Carnatic music to account for its mesmerizing effect on listeners it may well be a feature known as kalapramanam: practicing rhythm (laya) and performing in the the “right tempo” (kālapramānam) which, once chosen, remains even or standardized.

Adopting it as part of regular practice enables musicians to perform in perfect alignment. Of equal importance are a number of benefits, including

The last point may be seen as test of the assertion made by the most beloved composer of South India: Sri Tyagaraja posing the rhetorical question: “Can there be any higher bliss than transcending all thoughts of body and the world, dancing with abandon?” – Intakannaanandam (learn more on karnATik.com), Bilahari raga, Rupaka tala

For details, also refer to the Oxford Illustrated Companion to South Indian Classical Music

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Video | Keeping tala with hand gestures: Adi (8 beats) & Misra chapu (7 beats)

Adi tala (8 beats) demonstrated by T.R. Sundaresan
Misra chapu tala (7 beats) performed as konnakkol by T.R. Sundaresan

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Flow | Colourful and creative “when life is attuned to a single tune” – Mahatma Gandhi

An exercise for raga Kuntalavarali (YouTube) >>
Practice with basic “Sa” = G#
Download this audio file (2 MB, 2 min. mono)
Credit: eSWAR / FS-3C Sruthi petti + Tanjore Tambura
The above exercise is inspired by eminent Carnatic flautist
Sikkil Mala Chandrasekhar rendering
Bhogindra Sayinam (Kuntalavarali, Khanda capu) by Svati Tirunal
Excerpt © HMV Marga 1996 cassette recording

Become fluent with the help of svara syllables (solmisation): practice a series of exercises, each based on a set of melodic figures that lend themselves to frequent repetition (“getting into flow”) | Practice goal, choosing your vocal range & more tips >>

South Indian conventions (raga names & svara notation): karnATik.com | Guide >>

raagam: kuntalavarALi
Aa: S M1 P D2 N2 D2 S | Av: S N2 D2 P M1 S

If a raga constitutes more than mere arrangements of notes derived from a given scale, this is due to the mood it evokes in listeners from different backgrounds. This shared experience is often explained in terms of “colour, beauty, pleasure, passion and compassion”, the very connotations of the Sanskrit root ranj from which rāga is derived.

Many scholars have probed into such associations, some shared across India and depicted in countless miniatures, carrying a specific connotation (for a given community of practitioners), or relating to regional customs.

So innovation – including new ragas and adaptations from other cultures – has been a matter of prestige for centuries, thereby confirming a common human trait: innate curiosity giving rise to open-mindedness, thereby widening the scope for self-expression and intercultural collaboration (or new patronage in response to changing economic circumstances and technological advancement).

This is the common ground for vocal and instrumental music whereby neither “side” dominates the other and instead, provides scope for playful interaction. What makes such interaction special is that more often than not, it dispenses with detailed musical scores, even rehearsal; and instead, relying on memory and swift anticipation. No doubt, these are assets worth acquiring (and maintaining) for young and old alike, being useful in many fields of knowledge, and therefore worth integrating in general education.

In the present context of “learning and teaching South Indian (Carnatic) music in unconventional ways”, we may freely explore this vast scope for creativity and lifelong learning: starting from minuscule motifs, then internalizing them and eventually appreciating the achievements of revered musicians past and present including the nuances in the way they render any given raga.

It is in this spirit that you are encouraged to “fill in the blanks” by first listening to a raga rendition of your own choice, then adapt any of the previous patterns in a manner that entices you to actually practice what attracted Mahatma Gandhi to music which he loved “though his philosophy of music was different”:

In his own words ‘Music does not proceed from the throat alone. There is music of mind, of the senses and of the heart.’ […] According to Mahatma ‘In true music there is no place for communal differences and hostility.’ Music was a great example of national integration because only there we see Hindu and Muslim musicians sitting together and partaking in musical concerts. He often said, ‘We shall consider music in a narrow sense to mean the ability to sing and play an instrument well, but, in its wider sense, true music is created only when life is attuned to a single tune and a single time beat. Music is born only where the strings of the heart are not out of tune.’

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Learn more from Namrata Mishra (Gandhi website)
More on the present course author’s Intercultural blog >>

I have a suspicion that perhaps there is more of music than warranted by life […] Why not the music of the walk, of the march, of every movement of ours, and of every activity?

Mahatma Gandhi in a letter to Rabindranath Tagore’s son Rathindranath
The Oxford India Gandhi: Essential Writings by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, p. 568
To create your own exercises based on any favourite raga including “pa”,
copy and fill the above table (fields marked in green)
as seen in other “Flow” exercises on this course website >>
For ragas excluding the fifth note “pa” while containing “dha”
(from a group of ragas known as pancama varja ragas), use the above table
For ragas including the fifth note “pa” while containing a “zigzag” (vakra) feature, use the above table

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Flow | Janya practice 5 & 7 notes


An exercise for ragas Mohana Kalyani and Bilahari (YouTube) >>
Practice with basic “Sa” = G#
Download this audio file (2 MB, 2 min. mono)
Credit: eSWAR / FS-3C Sruthi petti + Tanjore Tambura
The above exercise is inspired by eminent Carnatic flautist
Sikkil Mala Chandrasekhar rendering
Siddhi Vinayakam (Mohana Kalyani, Adi) by
Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar
Excerpt © HMV Marga 1996 cassette recording

Become fluent with the help of svara syllables (solmisation): practice a series of exercises, each based on a set of melodic figures that lend themselves to frequent repetition (“getting into flow”) | Practice goal, choosing your vocal range & more tips >>

South Indian conventions (raga names & svara notation): karnATik.com | Guide >>

raagam: mOhanakalyANi
Aa: S R2 G3 P D2 S | Av: S N3 D2 P M2 G3 R2 S

The above exercise pattern may also be applied to
raagam: bilahari | More details: songs listed under raga Bilahari >>
Aa: S R2 G3 P D2 S | Av: S N3 D2 P M1 G3 R2 S

Listen to Uma Ramasubramaniam demonstrating the svaras (notes) for the present raga(s) on Raga Surabhi >>

Practice with basic “Sa” = G#
Note: this recording has no fifth note “Pa”
(as advised for those janya ragas wherein “Pa” will not be sung or played)
Download this audio file (2 MB, 2 min. mono)
Credit: eSWAR / FS-3C Sruthi petti + Tanjore Tambura

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