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Raga and Rhythm
This story appears in the December 2018 issue of School LIVE.
In a country as diverse as India, where we have such a unique blend of culture and heritage, it is only obvious we find a heterogeneous mix of music, as well. We make an attempt at understanding the unique styles of Indian music, and how new trends have set up a culture of combining music in the most spectacular (or peculiar) ways.

It is often said about India that it is home to a rich and vast culture. But, have you ever wondered what it means to be a culture? Oxford Dictionary defines ‘Culture’ as, ‘The ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society’. It could be the type of food we eat, or even the different clothes that we wear. However, one important aspect that defines any culture is the different form of arts it encapsulates.


Even before the era of LP records and MP3 players, the oldest of cave engravings have portrayed images of people enjoying dance and music. One of earliest mentions of music appears in the Samaveda with ‘taal’, the basic rhythm that was used while narrating hymns. It was in the ancient Indian epic Ramayana that we first come across the mention of musical instruments like tabla and mardala. At a time when the only means of passing down information was orally, music played a vital role in doing just that.


If we look at Indian music closely, there are two categories which can seem more confusing than others: Classical music and Folk music.



Classical music is seen as a form of art, which requires years of practice to master. It requires strict adherence to the ragas, which are used to express the different emotions and moods (raga bahar, bhairavi and desh, etc.). Each of the raga found in Indian classical music have a set emotion and are to be played during a fixed period of time, eg. raga Jog is played between 9 pm and 12 am, and it conveys a feeling of enchantment or magic. Some of the instruments used in composing classical music are sitar, sarod, shehnai, veena and tabla. Classical music has traditionally been a highbrow form of music, a means of connecting to the divine being, and not for general entertainment purposes. Some of the most popular forms of Indian classical music are the Carnatic and Hindustani music.


Carnatic music is the pure classical music that comes from the regions of South India, and focuses more on vocals than instruments. On the other hand, Hindustani music originates from the northern regions of India and is highly influenced by Persian Sufi music. It was musician Amir Khusro who changed raga Dhrupad and combined it with Persian songs and beats. Hindustani music lays more stress on the instrumental base, where the sitar and sarod are often the most important instruments.  



Folk music, on the other hand, is more diverse and varied. In a country like India, where there are so many different ethnicities and cultures, folk music changes within every few miles!


Folk music is closely linked to farming, and everyday lived realities of different tribes. Music served as a medium to break the monotony of work and life, and is often combined with dance as a form of entertainment. When men started going to wars, and women could not voice out their concerns openly, music became their medium to narrate their woe and longing, and they found their expression through it. From Garba of Gujarat, to Bhangra of Punjab, to Bhavageethe of Karnataka, folk music has managed to make its mark in every sphere of life. The oldest Bhojpuri folk songs are narrations of women who were left home as the men of the house travelled long distances in search of work. Some of the most popular folk songs sung by women are jatsaari, ropani, jhoomar and kajri. In short, it can be said that Indian folk music is a direct reflection of the rich diversity of the vast Indian culture.


There are many differences between classical and folk music because of the types of instruments used. Instead of using the tabla, folk music uses drums like dholak, daf  or dhak. Some of the other pivotal instruments used are the saringda and santoor. Another specific quality of the instruments of folk music is that they are made by artisans with the most basic materials such as bamboo, animal skin, pots and coconut shells. They rely on these materials because they are readily available and are easy to maintain. Be it the Maharashtrian folk music lavani or the Rajasthani panihari songs, every region has different tempos, intensity and singing styles.


As times change, so evolves the culture of a place and the music of it. With newer technology and modes of recording music in place, the consumption of music itself has transformed. With new artists and singers on the block, the audiences today have a variety of music they can listen to. The latest trend in the music industry is that of blending in the symphonies of different music. With singers and composers experimenting with new styles, one of the latest trends happens to be that of combining classical music with folk tunes.


But this trend of mixing two different styles of music started in the early 1950s-60s, far from home. In 1962, it was Pandit Ravi Shankar who played the sitar while Bud Shank sang along the tunes of Jazz music. All through the 1980s, music listeners grew fond of the unique fusion of Indian and Western music. Since the concept of fusion music was already well accepted in smaller circles and enjoyed by the masses, a diverse range of Indian Classical and Folk singers were put together to create a new set of music.




What started off as an experiment in 2008, with Coke Studio Pakistan, slowly caught on in India and other countries as well. It was this unique programme that gave an opportunity to the talented and lesser-known folk singers to share the stage with the more mainstream artists. This attractive combination was loved by all and since 2011, Coke Studio India has witnessed 5 successful seasons.


With the whole world opening up as a global platform, there is so much more that we can look forward to when it comes to music. We have grown up listening to the evolution that the Indian music has offered, and we can only wait to find out what else is in store for us!

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