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Hindustani: Music History, Theory & Singers

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Reaching back thousands of years and invoking two completely different religious traditions, Hindustani music has gone from being a classical art to having very real influence on South Asian music. Learn about its history and key characteristics.

History of Hindustani Music

Hindustani music is the term given to the classical music of the northern Indian subcontinent, stretching from Lahore, Pakistan, well into Bangladesh, and encompassing almost all of India north of Mumbai (Bombay), that emerged as a result of the synthesis of both Indian and Islamic musical traditions. In short, the story of Hindustani music is the story of how indigenous Indian music took the best from the Islamic influences of the northern subcontinent.

Music has had an incredibly long tradition in India, dating back to the earliest days of Hinduism's arrival. In fact, in Kerala, prayers are still sung every year by the priestly caste, passed on for thousands of years despite the fact that no one understands the language being used. As Hinduism became more influential, the role of music grew as well, often used in Vedic hymns to glorify the Hindu pantheon, as well as tell the great stories of the past. During this period a number of instruments were used, most notably flutes to accompany voices. The growth of importance of music continued to grow throughout successive Maurya and Gupta Empires, also expanding Indian music throughout Southeast Asia.

Krishna playing a flute
Krisha playing the Flute

Islam arrived in India with a rich courtly musical tradition, in no small part itself gained from the Persians. As the dominant ethnic group of the invading Muslims was Persian, the newly-arrived rulers, whether as rulers of the Delhi Sultanate or the Mughal Empire, brought many instruments and melodies. However, in arriving in India, they found a landscape that already had a rich history of music, especially in Vedic chants used by Hindus. These traditions co-mingled, taking the best from each other in instruments and theory, but retaining an overwhelming preference that instruments should complement vocal ability.

Importantly, Persian influence in India remained only at the highest points of society. As such, Hindustani music, as it is recognized today, was for the consumption of the ruling classes, and was shunned by native intellectuals. However, with the arrival of independence for India and Pakistan, that changed. Soon, new radio stations sought to play music that provided the nascent countries identity, and they turned to Hindustani music. No doubt much of this decision was rooted in propaganda: the music is sung in a neutral dialect somewhere between Hindi and Urdu, which made it popular listening on either side of a volatile border.

Technical Aspects of the Genre

Hindustani music has many similarities to Western classical music, but is not without its differences. At its most basic levels, the rhythms used in Hindustani music, or tala, are not like Western music, but instead have more in common with poetic meter. This is not surprising considering the religious roots of the music. More like music in the West is the Sargam. Sargam are scales, much like 'Do Re Mi' in the West. In fact, the Sargam (Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa) match up with Western scales (Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do).

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