Evolution of Indian Music

‘I know that twelve notes in each octave and the varieties of rhythms offer me opportunities that all of human genius will never exhaust.’ – Igor Stravinsky.

Nada Yoga is an ancient yogic discipline which aims at transcending one’s awareness of the sacred sound. The discipline has also influenced the later-day traditions developed in India in which chants and music got incorporated as part and parcel of religious rituals which included devotion (bhakti).

There are specific references in the texts of philosophical yoga (as in Patanjali’s Yoga sastra) which endorse the practice of meditating on ‘Om’.

Notions of bija ("seed") and matrika ("little mother") within the syllables of mantras in Nada-Yoga indicate gender-polarization that reflect the Tantric Om as the embodiment of the Yin-Yang principle (i.e., Siva and Sakti, or Vishnu and Lakshmi )
Nada-Yoga practices recognized the actual musical sounds and their vibrations heard and felt during Yogic meditation. They were all akin to the conch, damru, cymbal, vina, and flute as mentioned in the Nadabindu-Upanishad. These sounds thus were found to correspond with such primordial instruments of music used since Vedic times, confirming an abiding connection between Nada-Yoga (which exploited the anahata of the inner world of man) and the man-made musical systems (which elaborated the ahata or the outer world).


Sangita, the Indian Music

Sangita, the Indian music is like all music represented the flow or movement: starting from the movement of the muscles (vocal chords), progressing towards the movement of the emotional and thought waves – all represented in one’s body rhythms. As understood from the musical texts, sangita is of three types: vocal, instrumental and dance music. All these three forms are always intertwined as music itself represented the flow or movement of both body and mind.

Music and mind has an inseparable nexus. Evolution of sangita represents the evolution of the human mind. It employs a slightly different musical scale than the scale used in vedic chants. According to Narada Shiksha, authored by the sage Narada (1st century AD), from the three Vedic accents (i.e, udatta, anudatta and svarita), the musical scale came to be recast into sapta svara, the seven note system.

The svaras, standardized as sarigamapadhani were associated metaphorically with the sounds of different birds and animals (shadja – peacock, rishabha – bull, gandhara – ram, madhyama – crane, panchama – cuckoo, dhaivata – horse, nishada – elephant). These appear in the Narada-Siksa (1st century CE), where the alleged author Narada Rishi explains how these seven notes were determined from the three Vedic accents: udatta into Ni and Ga, anudatta into Ri and Dha, and Svarita into Sa, Ma, and Pa.

Gandharva Sangita (Lit. "celestial music"), the counterpart to the Vedic Samans, was essentially vocal. It, however, included certain primordial instruments such as veena, flute, drums and cymbals, all found mentioned in the ancient Vedic literature. It formed an auxiliary text to Sama-Veda.

Several ancient musical treatises have unfortunately been lost due to the ravage of time. The oldest of those surviving texts of Indian music, are : Natya-Sastra by Sage Bharata, Dattilam by Dattila (?200 BC) and Narada-Siksa (?1st century AD). They give us an idea of evolution of music in the sub-continent.

Bharata’s classification of musical instruments into four categories viz., vina (chordophones), drum (membranophones), flute (aerophones), and cymbals (idiophones) has come to be adopted mutatis mutandis in the Sachs-Hornbostel system used in the current academic field of Ethnomusicology.

Gandharva music soon developed into the principal style of music that was performed on social occasions: festivals, courtly ceremonies, temple rituals etc.

Further, the early Bhakti movements in South India (6th to 10th centuries AD), exploited music to inject bhakti into the minds of the devotees. Bhakti emerged as a powerful force that favored a devotion-centered Hinduism with songs composed, not only in Sanskrit, but also in several vernacular languages like for example, Kannada, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu etc.

As Indian musicological treatises such as Matanga’s Brhaddesi began to incorporate the theories of sacred sound as Nada-Brahman, subsequent authors too followed suit. For example, the Sangita-Ratnakara of Sarngadeva (13th century AD) arguably the most important musicological treatise of India, opens up with the prayer: "We worship Nada-Brahman, that incomparable bliss which is immanent in all the creatures as intelligence and is manifest in the phenomena of this universe.”

Directly linked to the word bhakti (devotion) and bhagwan (Supreme Being), the term bhajan, which means musical worship came to stay. Here bhagwan was to be praised with bhakti – of course through music and sound! Indians attempted – and that too with great success- to reach Isvara (God) through svara (musical note)!

The Wonder that is Raga.

The musical scales, which formulate the melody, called ragas is one of the wonderful concepts in the evolution of the world music. Each raga retains its individuality like a human being. It depicts a particular flavour or mood, unique to its constitution.

Rhythm or tala is an essential ingredient in music. The ancient Vedas could survive through millennia of turmoil in the sub-continent – thanks to the way they were punctuated by metrical divisions. It is this technique which aided memorization, which resulted in their preservation to this day. Gandharva music employs similar metrical units as marked by playing drums and hand cymbals (kartal or jhanjh).
This very idea of punctuated units of rhythm in music has found its explanation in classical music texts like Dattilam. Since Vedic chant was metrical, religious music used rhythms from the hand cymbals and beats of the drums. According to an ancient theory of music, the musicians and audience earned liberation solely through accumulation of unseen merit (adrsta) as exemplified in the marking of ritual (musical) time.


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Gaston, Anne-Marie. Krishna’s Musicians: Musicians and MusicMaking in the Temples of Nathdvara, Rajasthan. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers, 1997.
Prajnanananda, Swami. Historical Development of Indian Music. Calcutta: Firma KLM, 1973.
Rowell, Lewis. Music and Musical Thought in Early India. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Sairam, T.V. What is Music? Chennai: Nada Centre for Music Therapy.

Author: indogo