If drawing and painting can strike the eyes, saṅgīta or music has the power to rouse the heart. It has the potential to express the moral and spiritual sentiments to the highest degree. It is not only the medicine that can cure an aching heart but also help a spiritual aspirant to raise his soul to God. That is why the Hindu sages have sometimes christened it as ‘nādayoga’ and God as ‘Nādabrahma’. And, music has almost always allied itself with religion and spiritual values.
The three basic notes of Vedic chanting—udātta, anudātta, and svarita—are the fundamental notes of Indian music. These three notes developed later into seven in the Sāmaveda. They are: kruṣṭa, prathama, dvitīya, tṛtīya, caturtha, mandra and atisvāra. They correspond to the notes pañcama (pa), madhyama (ma), gāndhāra (ga), ṛṣabha (ri), ṣaḍja (sa), daivata (da) and niṣāda (ni), in modern Indian music. Hence, the Sāmaveda has been considered to be the origin of Indian music.
During the earliest period, saṅgīta or music was considered to be an integral part of nṛtya or nāṭya or dancing. Dancing, music and drama (nāṭaka) were treated as one unit—Nāṭyaśāstra or the science of dramaturgy. And, Bharata’s Nāṭyaśāstra (A. D. 100) is considered to be the original systematic treatise on this subject. The other standard works often referred to are:
Saṅgītaratnamālā by Mammaṭa (A. D. 1100)
Saṅgītaratnākara by Śarṅgadhara (A. D. 1260)
Saṅgītasāra by Vidyāraṇya (A. D. 1380)
Saṅgītadarpaṇa by Dāmodara (A. D. 1380)
Svarameḷakaḷānidhi by Rāmayāmātya Todaramalla (A. D. 1600)
In Indian music the two invariable basic notes are sa and pa. The others—ri, ga, ma, da and ni—are of two varieties each, making a total of 12 notes. Sometimes 16 notes are described, though, for all practical purposes 12 are enough.
A permutation and combination of these notes produce a variety of rāgas or tunes. Those tunes in which all the seven notes are present are called ‘melakartā’ or ‘janaka’ rāgas. The derivatives are known as ‘janya’ rāgas.
Veṅkaṭamakhi (A. D. 1600) in his magnum opus, the Caturdaṇḍiprakāśikā (written in Sanskrit verses) has grouped the 72 janaka-rāgas into two groups of 36 each. He has also dealt with many other fundamental aspects of music in this great work which has remained as an invaluable guide to all musicians.
As far as the janya or the derived rāgas are concerned, they can be limitless. Even now, talented musicians are inventing new rāgas.
The various rāgas or tunes are capable of expressing a variety of feelings and sentiments such as love, anger, tenderness, sorrow, disappointment, pity, joy and so on.
Another speciality of Indian music is that specific rāgas are assigned to specific periods of the day or night. If certain rāgas like Māyāmāḷava-gauḷa (or Bhairav) are to be sung early in the morning, Kalyāṇī (or Yaman) is to be sung in the night. The very atmosphere at that time is said to enhance its power to rouse the particular sentiment to which it is tuned.
If symphony is the heart of Western music, śruti (drone or basic musical sound as the one produced by the tānpūra), rāga (tune), tāla (fixed number of beats for each unit) and laya (uniform speed for the beats) are the basics for Indian music. Thirty-five varieties of tālas have been evolved.
Though Indian music had been one for several centuries, due to the Persian influence exerted during the Mughal period, there was a gradual branching into two schools: the uttarādi or the North Indian and the dakṣiṇādi or the South Indian (also called Carnāṭic). There are many similarities as also notable distinctions between the two schools. The uttarādi school further got subdivided into gharāṇās or traditions which are alive and active even today.
A music performance is generally centred round the vocalist. In the South Indian classical music the vocalist is accompanied by the violinist and another who plays on the mṛdaṅgam (a percussion instrument). Of course, the tānpūra should always be there as the basic instrument. Sometimes other percussion instruments like ghaṭam (a mud pot), khañjīra (a disc-like percussion instrument) and morsing (a small stringed instrument played by mouth) are also added.
In the North Indian classical music performances, the vocalist is generally accompanied by the harmonium and the tabalā (a percussion instrument in two pieces) players. Occasionally stringed instruments (similar to the violin) like the sāraṅgī or the dilrūbā are also used. Tānpūra is, however, a must.
Apart from vocal music, Indian music system is rich in instruments too. Even in the Vedic and allied literature there are references to vīṇā (lute), vāṇa (an instrument with 100 strings), dhanurvīṇā, dundubhi (drum), āḍambara and so on. The dhanurvīṇā is said to be the precursor of the violin now imported from the West. Many other instruments like bānsurī, flute, sitār, sarod, goṭuvādyam, pakhvāj, khol, clarionet, nādasvarm and shehanai have also come into use over the years.