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February 2007 Article:

Exploring the common foundations of the Hindustani and Karnatik Music Systems

-Dr. Suresh C. Mathur

Historical Perspective

The classical music of India is the musical heritage of over one billion people living in the Indian subcontinent, including the peoples of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and other smaller Himalayan Kingdoms. The roots of this music go back three thousand years to the Vedic period when the Indus Valley Civilization was coming to maturity. Over all these centuries the musical evolution, starting from simple vedic chants, has followed the evolution of Hindu philosophy, thought, and the spiritual tradition. The music of a people is a mirror to the people’s innermost soul. The classical music of India truly reflects he thought and the spirit of the people who have inhabited the Indian subcontinent from ancient times to the present.

Since the origins of the present day classical music of India go back to the Vedic times, the earliest literature on music is in the ancient Indian language SANSKRIT. The treatise of music which is the forerunner of the musical structure existing today is the NATYASHASTRA by the sage BHARATA, and is dated to approximately the 3rd century B.C. Since the time of Bharata, there has been an evolution of nearly 2000 years in the musical structure. This evolution was carried forward under the Hindu kingdoms in India until the 13th century A.D. This was the time in the Indian history when Muslims from Persia, Afghanistan, and Asia Minor started their many invasions and conquest of Northern India, and started the period of Muslim empires. The conquering Muslims found a natural empathy with the system of music existing in India and readily assimilated it as their own. However, the Muslims also brought some of their own musical heritage from Persia. It is at this point in the history that the tradition of Indian classical music branched into two parallel systems. In Northern India, there was a confluence of the ancient Hindu tradition and the traditions brought by the Muslims. However, Southern India was insulated from Muslim conquests for many more centuries. As a result, the musical tradition in Southern India continued to evolve strictly in the traditions of orthodox Hindu philosophy and thought. Thus, there are two distinct disciplines of classical music in existence today which have originated from common roots:
1. The Hindustani Music of North India
2. The Karnatik Music of South India.

In Northern India, the evolution of the classical music based on the RAGA (Melodic) system proceeded vigorously in the courts of Muslim emperors as well as in many Hindu courts from 13th-18th century A.D. A spirit of competition between the Hindu and Muslim musicians contributed to innovations of style and structure. It was in the court of the great Mogul Emperor AKBAR (1555-1605 A.D.) that the classical music received its greatest patronage and impetus. The most famous musician of Emperor Akbar’s court was TANSEN who is credited with a great deal of innovations in the style of musical form. Besides being a towering historical figure of Hindustani Music, TANSEN [1] has also become a legendary figure to whom a large number of Muslims Ustads (maestros) of present day like to trace their lineage.

In Southern India, the evolution of the theory and practice of the RAGA concept was carried out by a progression of great scholars, theoreticians, composers, and musicians. It must also be noted that there was a continued contact between scholars from North and South. It is said that poet-singer Bijou Naik, a southerner came to the court of Emperor Allauddin (1296-1316) and mentioned the names of 72 MELAs in four DHRUPAD compositions. However, the systematizing and elaboration of the concept of 72 MELAS of Karnatic music is credited to Venkatamakhi. The concept of MELAs was not accepted readily by the musicians of that era. This acceptance came only after the great saint-composer THYAGARAJA (1767-1847) used a large number of scales described by VENKATAMAKHI in nearly 2000 KRITIS and KIRTANAS that he composed. This acceptance of the MELA system was further enhanced by other contemporary composers of THYAGARAJA’s time, in particular SHYAMA SASTRI (1763-1827) and MUTHUSWAMI DIKSHITAR (1775-1835).

As can be seen from this brief description, in South, the foundations of the theoretical concepts of the RAGA and MELAs derived from seven basic notes of the scale were firmly established by the 18th century. There was also a wealth of literature describing these concepts in a systematic manner. However, in the North, the musical system was largely passed on from generation to generation in an oral tradition, with a lack of precise musical literature. The task of systematizing and documenting the Hindustani music system was accomplished only at the beginning of the 20th century by the great scholar-composer musician Pt. VISHNU NARAYAN BHATKHANDE (1850-1936) from MAHARASHTRA. Pt. BHATKHANDE spent a lifetime surveying, collecting, and cataloging Hindustani music as it existed at the beginning of the 20th century. He traveled throughout India, including the centers of Karnatik Music in South, cataloging and documenting RAGAS as described by the great musicians and scholars of his time. He published the results of his monumental quest in four volumes of HINDUSTANI SANGEET PADDHATI (completed in 1932) and six volumes of KRAMIK PUSTAK MALIKA (completed during 1920-1936). These works originally written in MARATHI have subsequently been translated in HINDI during 1954-59. The works of Pt. BHATKHANDE form the foundation of the theory and description of the Hindustani Music as it exists today.

[1]Tansen supposedly was born in a Hindu family. Source: Tansen(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tansen)