PERSPECTIVES - It is art music, not classical

Mention classical music to your neighbour, and he will look at you as if you are talking of music from a different planet. A large part of the blame for this lies with the word “classical” – the most mystifying word to have entered India’s musical culture. The word “classical” was originally coined in the West to describe any artifact that embodies the principles of order, harmony, and reason, these being the attributes of architecture and literature nurtured in ancient Greece and Rome. With the progressive glorification of these values in the West, the quality of “classicism” came to define any work of art which represented a “standard”, and which was almost beyond criticism. A certain misdirection of meaning occurred when the word was applied to music.

In Western music, the word “classical” refers specifically to works composed during the “classical period” – starting from the end of the Baroque to the beginning of the Romanticist period. The concept covers the works of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and the like. The meaning of “classical” has been the subject of considerable debate even in the West.

It now stands broadened to denote scholarly Western music, composed over the last 400-500 years. Western musicologists indoctrinated in this terminology imposed the term “classical” on Indian art music.

By any yardstick, the adjective “classical” is contextually irrelevant to Hindustani music. Besides, it is also scientifically imprecise. The accurate description is “art” music. You can, of course, argue that as long as everyone understands what you mean by the word “classical”, it does not matter what you call it. This argument is not convincing. Any word used outside its proper context tends to acquire unintended meanings. And, with respect to Indian art music, the word “classical” has certainly done so. Rather than enumerate all the misinformation carried by this word, it is more useful to consider the good sense in replacing the word “classical” with “art”.

The most important connotation of “art” music is that it is a spontaneous, living, and constantly evolving expression of society’s musical needs and aspirations. It is an organic part of the musical culture, and not something outside it. In short, it is not music from a different planet. It is accessible to almost anyone within the culture, though maybe with some effort. Art music does not operate in a vacuum. Our art music has active links with at least five other segments of musical activity – primitive, folk, popular, devotional, and martial. Echoes of each category can be heard, however faintly, in all the others. Despite these interactive relationships, art music is distinct in its social function and musical features.

Features of art music

The artist’s endeavour is guided entirely by artistic values and aesthetic purpose. The musical experience he generates is highly individualistic and abstract, far removed from the mundane and the particular. Its discipline focuses the artist’s energies solely on the creation of auditory impact. The presence of non-musical stimuli (e.g. visual appeal or body language) is only incidental to the music making process. An art music tradition generally accommodates a variety of genres, each with its own set of rules and conventions. As a corollary, the performing tradition is always accompanied by a parallel scholarly tradition which monitors, organises, and conceptualises the trends in practice.

From audiences, art music demands a degree of respect for the music making process, undivided attention, and an effort towards appreciation. As a rule, enjoyment rises with a growing familiarity. This is indeed so because the musician has considerable freedom in applying the rules and following the conventions in the music making. His compliance may be literal, imaginative, liberal, oblique, eccentric or even defiant. A vast range of possibilities is what makes it an art.

Appreciating Hindustani music

People gravitate towards art music for a variety of reasons, and sometimes even accidentally. What they discover in it is the possibility of a richer emotional life. In any society, those who value such satisfactions are few. This is why the audience for art music is generally small. Those who enter this world successfully are those who have the basic equipmentrequired for receiving its signals, and have cultivated an ability to interpret them in a manner that is personally meaningful.

A widely cited, though simplistic, definition of music is “structured sound”. The task of understanding any form of music then breaks down into two components – understanding the sound, and understanding the structure. Art music has a small audience simply because its sounds and its structures are more complex than other forms of music, and a majority of the populace lacks either the basic equipment or the motivation to cultivate an understanding of them.

For understanding the sounds, a listener needs the ability to differentiate one note from another. The more astute this ability, the sharper will be a person’s perception of the melodic contours and ornamentations of art music. The melodic contour is, however, only the basic level of sound patterns in Hindustani music. At the next level, the listener has to decipher the giant matrix of melodic contours called a raga.

Beyond the melody, he has to understand the patterns embedded in the pre-composed form called a bandish, along with rhythmic pattern called the tala. Alongside, he has to comprehend the melodic and rhythmic patterns underlying the improvisations deployed by the musician in the process of delivering the raga experience. And, finally, he has to understand the overall architecture of the genre within which the entire process of music making takes place. Once the “big picture” is evident even hazily to the listener, the aesthetic and emotional intent of the musician begins to reveal itself.Art musicdoes not operate in a vacuum.

Our art music has active links with at least five other segments of musical activity – primitive, folk, popular, devotional, and martial For understanding the sounds, a listener needs the ability to differentiate one note from another. The more astute this ability, the sharper will be a person’s perception of the melodic contours and ornamentations of art music.

In effect, then, we are talking of three kinds of equipment a person needs in decent measure to appreciate Hindustani music – differentiation between notes, pattern recognition, and emotional receptivity.

Pitch differentiation is probably a genetically determined faculty. Some people are highly sensitive to the intervals between notes, while others are much less sensitive. Total insensitivity is rare. The second – pattern recognition – is a cerebral proclivity, which is more abundant than pitch differentiation, and can also be cultivated. The third – emotional receptivity – is widely understood as being partly a personality dimension, and partly a stage-of-life-cycle phenomenon.

Most people would believe that this faculty cannot be cultivated. But, culture aficionados believe that it can be cultivated at any stage of life, and this should indeed be one of the objectives of encouraging people to expose themselves to art music. If, by whatever process, and for whatever reason, you feel drawn towards Hindustani music, you can probably assume that you possess the basic equipment and eligibility for its appreciation. The only thing that remains is cultivating the familiarity with the sounds and patterns.

This cannot be achieved by reading books. Decades of training with a competent guru is not the only alternative – though it helps. Your purpose can be achieved by an extensive study of recordings, and attendance at concerts. And, once you have become a connoisseur, you also gain personal access to the leading musicians. Interacting with exceptional musical minds can often give you unimaginably delightful insights into the secrets of music. Connoisseurship is a coveted status amongst music lovers, and this is why some people invest substantial amounts of time in its pursuit.

But, everybody does not have to become a connoisseur. The joys of pursuit keep growing along with the maturation of understanding. And, understanding keeps rising with constant involvement. So, there are rewards for anyone who walks along this path.

(Deepak Raja is an accomplished sitarist, musicologist, music critic and author. He blogs at and has edited and written books on Hindustani music. This essay is one of the chapters from the author’s forthcoming book Hindustani Music Today, D.K. Printworld, New Delhi, 2011)