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Hindustani Music

Hindustani Classical Music is a South Asian classical music tradition that took shape in the North of the Indian subcontinent circa the 13th and 14th centuries AD from existing religious, folk, and theatrical performance practices. The practice of singing based on notes was popular even from the Vedic times where the hymns in Sama Veda, a sacred text, was sung and not chanted. Developing a strong and diverse tradition over several centuries, it has contemporary traditions established primarily in India but also in Pakistan and Bangladesh. In contrast to Carnatic music, the other main Indian classical music tradition originating from the South, Hindustani music was not only influenced by ancient Hindu musical traditions, Vedic philosophy and native Indian sounds but also by the Persian performance practices of the Afghan Mughals.

Outside South Asia, Hindustani classical music is often associated with Indian music, as it is arguably the most popular stream of music outside the sub-continent.

Hindustani classical music, like Carnatic music, is organized by Ragas (also called raag) which are characterized, in part, by their specific ascent (Arohana) and descent (Avarohana.) The ascent notes may not be identical to the descent notes. King (Vadi) and Queen (Samvadi) notes and a unique note phrase (Pakad). In addition each raga has its natural register (Ambit) and glisando (Meend) rules, and many other specific features. (See Raga)

Hindustani music was structurally organized into the current That scale by Pt. Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande (1860-1936) in the early part of the 20th century. Prior to this, Ragas were classified as Male (raag), female (Ragini) and Putra (children) ragas.

When artists, usually performers (as opposed to writers) have reached a distinguished level of achievement, titles of respect are added to their names. Hindus are referred to as Pandits and Muslims as Ustads.


Music has long been important to Hinduism, especially for many Vaishnavite sects. During the ancient period, priests who sung Vedic hymns, did so based on notes as assigned by the rules later codified in Chandogya Upanishad in circa. 1800 BC. These priests were called Samans or Samavedis and a number of ancient musical instruments such as conch (Shankhu), lute (Veena), flute (bansuri), trumptets and horns were associated with this and latter practices of ritual singing. The name Raga was first found in Natya Shastra a treatise on all dramatic forms of ancient India circa 200 AD purportedly written by Bharata Muni. Later periods saw further evolution in music theory and the purana period was characterized by numerous references to singing, musicians and musical instruments. Narada's Sangita Makarandha treatise circa 1100 AD is the earliest text where rules similar to the current Hindustani classical music can be found. Narada actually names and classifies the system in its earlier form before the advent of changes as a result of Islamic influences. Jayadeva's Gita Govinda from the 12th century was perhaps the earliest musical composition presently known sung in the classical tradition called Ashtapadi music.

The advent of Islamic rule under the Delhi Sultanate and later the Mughal Empire over northern India caused the traditional musicians to seek patronage in the courts of the new rulers. These Islamic rulers had strong cultural and religious sentiments focussed outside of India; yet they lived in, and administered kingdoms which retained their traditional Hindu culture. This helped spur the fusion of Hindu and Muslim ideas to make qawwali and khayal. Perhaps the most legendary musician of this period is Amir Khusrau, who is credited with systematizing the Hindustani methodologies by studying the forms of Vedic music theory and spurring a chain of creative composition that melded Indian with Persian sensibilities. He is also credited with inventing most of the major genres of Hindustani music (such as qawwali), and some of its most important instruments (such as the sitar).

Later, the Mughal Empire intermarried with Indians, especially under Jalal ud-Din Akbar. Music and dance flourished during this period, and the Hindu musician Tansen is still well-remembered. Indeed, his ragas (which are based on times of the day) were reputed to have been so powerful that according to legend, upon his playing a night-time raga in the morning, the entire city fell under a hush and clouds gathered in the sky.

In the 20th century, the power of the maharajahs (Hindus) and nawabs (Muslims) declined, and thus so did their patronage. The Indian Government-run All India Radio helped to stop this development and replaced the patronage system. The first star was Gauhar Jan, whose career was born out of Fred Gaisberg's first recordings of Indian music in 1902.

Instrumental music

Outside of the South Asia, pure instrumental sub-continental classical music is more popular than vocal music, possibly because the lyrics are not comprehensible.

A number of musical instruments are associated with Hindustani classical music. Some of the most famous instruments are the sitar, a string instrument, the tabla, a percussion instrument, and other instruments like the sarod and sarangi.

The most famous modern performer is undoubtedly sitarist Pandit Ravi Shankar, who helped popularize Hindustani ragas outside India. Alongside the sitar in popularity are the bansuri (a sort of flute), whose greatest player is Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, and sarod, known among fans through the recordings of virtuosos Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Ustad Amjad Ali Khan.

Pandit Bhajan Sopori and Pandit Shivkumar Sharma play the santoor, a type of hammered dulcimer with roots in Kashmiri folk music. The most well-known tabla players are Ustad Zakir Hussain and his father Ustad Alla Rakha. Another great proponent of the Hindustani School is Ustad Bismillah Khan, who single handedly was responsible for making the shehnai a well-known classical instrument. Shehnai, an instrument akin to clarinet, is very popular at North Indian weddings. Ustad Bismillah Khan[1] is the third classical musician after Pt Ravi Shankar and Smt M S Subbulakshmi to be awarded Bharath Rathna, the highest civilian honour in India.

Other instruments of note include the Veena (a lute), Sarangi, Violin, Jal Tarang (an assemblage of water jars) and Sur Bahar (Bass guitar).

Vocal Music

Despite the fact that instrumental music is better known outside India, Hindustani classical music is primarily vocal-centric, insofar as the musical forms were designed primarily for vocal performance, and many instruments were designed and evaluated as to how well they emulate the human voice. Some of the best known vocalists are Ustad Amir Khan , Bhimsen Joshi, Kumar Gandharva, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Kishori Amonkar, Prabha Atre, Gangubai Hangal, Rajan and Sajan Mishra, Pandit Jasraj, Satyasheel Deshpande,Shubha Mudgal and Parveen Sultana 

Types of Compositions

The major vocal forms associated with Hindustani classical music are the khyal, ghazal, and thumri. Other styles include the dhrupad, dhamar, tarana, trivat, chaiti, kajari, tappa, tapkhyal, ashtapadi and bhajan.


Dhrupad is a Hindu sacred style of singing traditionally performed by men with a tanpura and pakhawaj accompanying. The lyrics are in a medieval form of Hindi the Braj bhasha and typically heroic in theme, or else praising a particular deity. A more ornamented form is called dhamar. The dhrupad was the main form of song a few centuries ago, but has since given way to the somewhat less austere, more free-form khyal. The best performers of Dhrupad are the Dagar brothers, particularly Fahimuddin Dagar.


A form of vocal music, khayal is almost entirely improvised and very emotional in nature. A khyal consists of around 4-8 lines of lyrics set to a tune. The singer then uses these few lines as the basis for improvisation. Though its origins are shrouded in mystery, the 15th century rule of Hussain Shah Sharqi and was popular by the 18th century rule of Mohammed Shah. The best-known composer of the period was Sadarang, a pen name for Niamat Khan. Later performers include Faiyaz Khan, Abdul Karim Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Amir Khan, Kumar Gandharva and Mallikarjun Mansur. Some of the present day vocalists are Bhimsen Joshi, Satyasheel Deshpande, Iqbal Ahmad Khan, Girija Devi, Kishori Amonkar, Ajoy Chakraborty, Prabakar Karekar, Pandit Jasraj, Rashid Khan, Aslam Khan, Channulal Mishra, Shruti Sadolikar, Chandrashekar Swami and Mashkoor Ali Khan.


Another vocal form, Tarana are songs that are used to convey a mood of elation and are usually performed towards the end of a concert. They consist of a few lines of rhythmic sounds or bols set to a tune. The singer uses these few lines as a basis for very fast improvisation. It can be compared to the Tillana of Carnatic music.


Thumri is a semiclassical vocal form said to have begun with the court of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, 1847-1856. There are three types of thumri: Punjabi, Lucknavi and poorab ang thumri. The lyrics are typically in a proto-Hindi language called Braj bhasha and are usually romantic. Performers include Siddheshwari Devi, Shobha Gurtu, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Girija Devi and Purnima Choudhuri.


Hindu religious vocal music, bhajan is the most popular form in northern India. Famous performers include Kabir, Tulsidas and Mirabai. It arose out of the Alvar and Nayanar bhakti movement of the 9th and 10th century.


Ghazal is an originally Persian form of poetry. In the Indian sub-continent, Ghazal became the most common form of poetry in the Urdu language and was popularized by classical poets like Mir Taqi Mir, Ghalib and Sauda amongst the North Indian literary elite. Vocal music set to this mode of poetry is popular with multiple variations across Iran, Central Asia, Turkey, India and Pakistan. Ghazal exists in multiple variations, including folk and pop forms but its greatest exponents sing it in a semi-classical style. Some notable performers of Ghazal include Ustad Amanat Ali Khan, Mehdi Hasan, Farida Khanum, Iqbal Bano and Ghulam Ali from Pakistan and Jagjit Singh and Pankaj Udhas from India. Themes range from ecstatic love to religious piety.

Principles of Hindustani music

The two main streams of Indian classical music, Hindustani and Carnatic, have the same structuring principles. The rhythmic organization is based on rhythmic patterns called tala. The melodic foundations are "melodic modes" called ragas.

Ragas may consist of up to seven scale degrees, or swara. Hindustani musicians name these pitches using a system called sargam, the equivalent of Western movable do solfege:

sa = do; re = re; ga = mi; ma = fa; pa = sol; dha= la; ni = ti; sa = do

Both systems repeat at the octave. The difference between sargam and solfege is that re, ga, ma, dha, and ni can refer to either "pure" (shuddh) or altered--"flat/soft" (komal) or "sharp" (tivra)--versions of their respective scale degrees. As with movable do solfege, the notes are heard relative to an arbitrary tonic that varies from performance to performance, rather than to fixed frequencies, as on a xylophone.

The fine intonational differences between different instances of the same swara are somtimes called sruti. The three primary registers of Indian classical music are Mandra, Madhya and Tara. Since the octave location is not fixed, it is also possible to use provenances in mid-register (such as Madra-Madhya or Madhya-Tara) for certain ragas. A typical rendition of Hindustani raga involves three stages, Alap, Jhod and Jhala.

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