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History of Music and Dance in India

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              The beginnings of Indian music are lost in the fanciful legends of Gods and Goddesses. Saraswati, the Goddess of art and learning, is usually pictured as seated on a white lotus with a vina, lute, in one hand, playing it with another. As per Hindu mythology, the first ever sound to have been heard in the universe is the Om mantra, and since it is a manifestation of the divine power (Brahma), it is the purest and melodious sound to be heard.

Historically, Indian music can be described as having been inaugurated with the chanting of Vedic hymns. The hymns of the Rigveda, the oldest Veda, were addressed to the elements of nature personified as deities, and were prayers for protection from calamities and for attainment of prosperity. The subsequent Vedas refer to several kinds of musicians and musical instruments.

It took a long time for music to come to the form found in present-day India. It has developed through very complex interactions between different races and cultures over several thousand years.

First reference to music was made by grammarian Panini (500 BC) while the first reference to musical theory is found in Rikpratisakhya (400 BC). The Natyashastra composed by Sage Bharata around the 4th century had an incalculable influence on the development of Indian music, dance, and the performing arts in general. This is probably the first work that clearly elaborated the octave and divided it into 22 keys.

The most important advancement in music was made between the 14th and 18th centuries during which the music sung in the North came in contact with Persian music and assimilated it, through the Pathans and the Mughals. It is then that the differentiation of the Northern and Southern music became more marked and led to two schools of classical music, the Hindustani and the Carnatic.

Classical Music:
In North India, Hindustani is the standard for classical music, while in the Southern Plateau the Carnatic Music has remained the main form of classical music since the sixteenth century. Though both types of music have many similarities due to their origin in ancient Hindu musical traditions and Vedic philosophy, the exposure of the Hindustani music to Persian and Muslim influences has made it distinct from the relatively uninfluenced music of the Carnatic.

Hindustani Classical Music:
The organization of Hindustani classical music is based on rhythmic patterns called Taal. The melodic foundations are called ragas. One possible classification of ragas is into "melodic modes" or "parent scales", known as Thaats, under which most ragas can be classified based on the notes they use.

Hindustani music is primarily vocal-centric. The major forms associated with this music are Khayal, Ghazal, Dhrupad, Tarana and Thumri. Dhrupad style of singing is traditionally performed by men with musical instrument, tanpura and pakhawaj. The lyrics sung are in a medieval form of Hindi and typically heroic in theme, or in praise of a particular deity. Khayal is somewhat less austere and free-form than dhrupad consisting of 4-8 lines of lyrics set to a tune. Tarana are songs that are sung to express joy and are usually sung at the end of a concert. Thumri is an informal vocal form of Hindustani classical form of music and is said to have begun with the court of Nawab of Oudh. Ghazal, originally a Persian form of music, is also an important part of Hindustani music.

There is a rich tradition of gharanas in Hindustani Classical Music. The gharana concept gained popularity in the 19th century when the royal patronage enjoyed by performers weakened. Performers were compelled to move to urban centres, and to retain their respective identities, they fell back on the names of the regions they hailed from. Therefore, even today, the names of many gharanas refer to places. A gharana also indicates a comprehensive musicological ideology and the art is passed on from one generation to another or from the guru or teacher to the shishya or student. Agra, Gwalior, Kirana, Jaipur, Rampur, Patiala, Delhi, Benaras, and Mewati are some of the well-known gharanas of Hindustani classical music.

Carnatic Music:
In the Southern states of India, which are known for their strong representation of Dravidian culture, Carnatic music is practised. It was in the 18th century that Carnatic music acquired its present form. This was the period that saw the "trinity" of Carnatic music; Thyagaraja, Shamashastri and Muthuswami Dikshitar compile their famous compositions.

In Carnatic music there is a very highly developed theoretical system. It is usually performed by a group of musicians and a chief vocalist. Similar to Hindustani, it bases itself on melody or ‘raga’ and rhythm or ‘tala’. The difference however is that, Carnatic music is essentially devotional and uses percussion and musical instruments to accompany the singing. The accompanying musical instruments are the veena, mridangam, tanpura, ghatam, nadasvaram and the violin.

Devotional Music: Bhajan-Kirtan, Qawwali:
Bhajan-Kirtan means to sing God's glory and greatness with profound devotion. In Hinduism, God is believed to be the repository of all virtues and the devout sign his lila and glory. The combination of musical notes, expression and lyrics in bhajan evoke soul-stirring devotion and joy.

The ancient saints of India mellifluously chanted mantras in praise of the supreme God. The tradition of singing bhajan-kirtans followed in thereafter with notable contributions from medieval saint-poets such as Tulsidas, Kabir, Surdas, Mirabai and many others who spear-headed the Bhakti Movement between the 14th-17th centuries throughout the Indian subcontinent. The rich poetic content of their bhajans and their expression are par-excellence.

Qawwali is traditional devotional Islamic music in which the Qawwals sing the dictums of the prophets and praises of God. The qawwali is inextricably linked to the Sufi tradition and previously performed exclusively at Sufi shrines or dargahs; it has in recent times gained immense mainstream popularity.

The roots of Qawwali can be traced back to 8th century Persia (today's Iran). During the first major migration from Persia, in the 11th century, the musical tradition of Sema migrated to South Asia, Turkey and Uzbekistan. Amir Khusro Dehelvi of the Chisti order of Sufis is credited with fusing the Persian and Indian musical traditions to create Qawwali as we know it today in the late 13th century in India.

Qawwalis tend to begin gently and build steadily to a very high energy level in order to induce hypnotic state both among the musicians and within the audience. One of the beautiful things about qawwali is that one rendition is never the same as another, so even though you have heard a Qawwali a hundred times, each new rendition is unique and has it's own beauty.

Folk Music:
Folk music in India has seen a long and continuous journey down the ages. It has been around since ancient times and continues its existence right down till the modern time. There is no definite system of education that is imparted; it is picked up and followed and thus the tradition of folk music has mainly been aural.

The folk music encompasses a wide variety of musical styles which defy any definition. The great diversity that prevails in India has greatly facilitated its origin and establishment. Apart from different languages, the folk music of each region has its own distinctive style and rustic charm that has an immense appeal for the rural masses.

Most of the folk music in India is dance-oriented. This means that the songs that are sung are usually accompanied by some dance form typical to the region in which it is being performed. The musical instruments used in folk music are not as refined as the ones used in classical music; they are usually hand-crafted by the singers themselves using materials such as bamboos, coconut shells and pots. In place of classical string instruments like the sitar and sarod, much simpler versions such as the ektara, dotara, etc are used.

Folk music is an indispensable part of special occasions such as childbirth, wedding, festivals, social functions, and even agricultural activities like planting and harvesting. People give vent to their happiness, joy, fears and aspirations through these songs.

Tribal Music:
Tribal people play a key part in constructing the cultural heritage of India. Indian tribal music with its closed-group form of ethnicity is remarkable in the sense that it can never be studied in isolation from the social and ritual contexts of the people concerned. Learning music in a typical tribal society forms a cardinal part of the entire process of association of its members. It is learnt together with the umpteen customs and practices conforming to the standards reckoned apt by the society. Any given tribal community as a whole initiates its children in learning music, i.e., singing, drumming or dancing, from an early age.

Music amongst tribals is not conceived as exclusive property of its individual members but of the community as a whole. For this very reason tribal music even if framed by individual composers remains anonymous.

The tribal music is mostly accompanied by drum-beats with no presence of specific melody. Just like folk musicians, the tribal musicians themselves manufacture their instruments using materials like coconut shells, animal skin, etc.

Popular Music:
Indian popular music, including Bollywood film music, is influenced by social, cultural, economic and technological forces. These popular songs, particularly film songs, are heard all over India, in city streets, buses, trains, and even in remote villages, and have also become one of the country's major cultural exports. It is a remarkably eclectic genre, borrowing freely from other forms of Indian music as well as popular music from around the world.


India’s historical texts define dance as “the embodiment of sound and rhythm which creates poetry of spiritual expression”.

The background of dance in India is more than the history of man or a nation. It is the history of the soul of India and, therefore, an expression both of the Manifest and the Unmanifest. The first glimpses of dance are given by Lord Shiva himself through his cosmic dance, tandav, which is believed to be the source of the cycle of creation, preservation and dissolution of the universe. His graceful dancing pose, Nataraja, is one of the most recognizable symbols of Indian culture. The most popular facet of Lord Krishna is also his dances with his gopis which is known as Rasa. It is against this backdrop that dance traditions in India developed.

Through the centuries dance has been used in India as a vehicle of worship and expression of emotions. The earliest surviving work on dance is the Natya Shashtra written by Sage Bharata in the 4th century AD which encompasses not only natya (dance) but also music, poetry, drama, theatre and aesthetics. Subsequently, there have been many more treatises on the art and the crux of their teachings is that dance consists of three distinct types: Nritta, a pure and simple dance with movements of body and limbs, Nritya which is linked with facial expressions, hand gestures and symbolic body poses and Natya that has elements of a drama. All these dance types involve the use of mudras (hand gestures) to depict different meanings and the entire body is used to communicate.

The earliest physical evidence of dance is the famous ‘dancing girl’ bronze figurine found in the ruins of Mohenjodaro dating to the 2nd Century B.C. Elaborate dancing sequences can be seen depicted in numerous structures of the subsequent eras, the most notable being the ancient carvings at Sanchi, the wall paintings of Ajanta and Ellora, the sculptures of Khajuraho and the walls of Hoysala temples.

Classical Dance:
From the historical texts, it appears that one unified school of dance held sway all over ancient India. In the course of time, however, each cultural area developed a local idiom of its own. This could be attributed to many causes. Movements from folk dances peculiar to these areas may have been assimilated, there may have been foreign influences or one area may have been cut off from another which could have resulted in the development of new characteristics.

Consequently, India offers a number of dance forms, each of which represent the culture and ethos of a particular region along with a set pattern of costumes and make-up.

Bharatanatyam, belonging to the South Indian state of Tamilnadu, is one of the most popular of Indian dance forms. In the past it was performed in the temples by dancers known as the devadasis. It was a part of the religious rituals and the kings and the princely courts patronised it. This dance form involves movements conceived in space mostly either along straight lines or triangles.

Kathak, practiced in North India, was initially a temple ritual but later moved to the royal courts for entertainment. Kathak, meaning a story teller, involves mostly a solo dancer who tells and interprets stories from mythology through body movements and facial expressions.

Kathakali, a story play or a dance drama, originated in the coastal state of Kerala. The dancers use a specific type of symbolic makeup to portray various characters and the movements of the eyebrows, the eyeballs, the cheeks, the nose and the chin are minutely worked out. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana as well as the Puranas constitute the theme of the Kathakali dance dramas where the good prevails over the evil.

Kuchipudi, like Kathakali is also a dance-drama and derives its name from Kuchipudi village in the Southern State of Andhra Pradesh. Performed to classical Carnatic music, it reflects the desire of a devotee to merge with God.

Manipuri dance originated in the North Eastern state of Manipur. Intensely devotional in nature, it is a part of the daily life of the Manipuri people. Dedicated to Lord Vishnu, it is presented as a group dance with gorgeous, colourful costumes.

Mohiniattam of Kerala is performed by women dressed in a typical white saree with gold border. Though it is believed to resemble Bharatanatyam it is quite distinct in its execution of movements, usage of hand gestures and its stark, simple costume.

Odissi, belonging to the Eastern state of Orissa, is considered as the oldest classical Indian dance form. Its striking feature is its intimate relationship with temple sculpture. It has a vast range of body movements which gives one the illusion of the sculptures coming to life.

All these classical dance forms have set rules that have been followed traditionally over the years. However, various gurus incorporate their own imaginative innovations, leading to different schools within a particular dance form. Also, earlier chiefly depicting mythology, these dance forms now present themes such as environment, nationalism, health issues, etc. that are relevant in today’s world.

Folk Dance:
There is a large body of unrelated non-classical dance forms in India which is referred to as folk dance. The only thing common among these dance forms is their rural origins.

Most of the Indian classical dances which are governed by elaborate techniques and high degree of refinement, in fact, have had their origin in these simpler folk dances of the common people which still survive in as virile state as ever all over India.

Several forms of folk dance exist in India; each mirrors the culture, customs and traditions of the region it represents. These dances are generally performed by ordinary people rather than professional dancers to celebrate special occasions such as harvesting, planting, marriages, festivals and religious ceremonies.

Some of the important folk dances in India are:
Bihu of Assam which is a very brisk and aggressive dance performed by both boys and girls.
Bhangra of Punjab, a lively, powerful dance performed by men.
Gair of Rajasthan which is performed by groups of dancers moving in and out with an almost military precision.
Garba of Gujarat, traditionally performed at marriages and Navaratri festival.
Ghoomar of Rajasthan, a community dance performed by groups of women on auspicious occasions.
Giddha of Punjab, performed by women.
Lavani of Maharashtra which is a combination of traditional song and dance, performed by women wearing nine-yard saris.
Chhau, native to the eastern parts of India, probably originated as a martial art.
Chiraw, a highly colourful dance from the north-eastern state of Mizoram, employing a grid of bamboo poles.

Tribal Dance:
The tribal dances are performed by India's aboriginal population. These people, known as adivasis, have a culture which is very distinct from the larger Indian population.

These tribal dances are inimitable examples of communities in inaccessible existence still upholding their customs and traditions. Though adapted to different dialects and customs, the aesthetic expression of these dances manifestly reflects the distinct, isolated and primitive social structure and nature of the people. Each of these aboriginal tribes possesses its own distinguishable dance traditions and invariably all of them are interwoven with the life of the people who dance it.

In most instances, dancing is extremely simple and comprises little more than mixing of the feet or waving of the hands. At other times, it is just swaying of the body to the clapping of hands or beating of primitive drums. Some Indian tribes pen down their songs themselves to accompany their dances. Special musical instruments are also utilised at times but the drum is almost a requisite feature.

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