Anatomy of Indian Classical Music

Music Components Powerpoint R3 4_5_2018

A picture is worth a thousand words! Yet the busy slide above deserves at least a few hundred words if not thousands just to communicate the message without leaving doubts in your mind.

You may probably recollect Venn diagrams from high school math which I am using above to illustrate my point on Indian classical music. And I have tried to make it self explanatory with notes around the venn diagram above. Yet a brief description is in order. I will start with the easy one first: Voice

Voice timbre is a measure of quality and richness of voice. It is a result of your voice  resonating in the upper region deep inside your mouth. Some people can produce such rich voice effortlessly, while some others have to try hard. May be they can train and improve.  Well, any signing will sound good with a rich voice. But that’s just one of three ingredients for Indian classical vocal musician. Also remember that for most part this is a trait we are born with!

Singing in Shruti (Pitch), and maintaining Laya (Speed or Tempo) are two of the most important skills an Indian classical vocalist has to train and perfect. Here, the age perfected science and art of melody making is emphasized and requires several years of rigorous practice to attain and master this science and art. Read that as anywhere between five to ten years of learning under an able teacher (Guru) and daily practice. As part of this training Gamaka (Pitch Transitions) is perfected. Gamaka refers to transition between Swaras Sthanas (Pitch positions) and is one of the defining factor of a Raaga. In simple words Raaga is defined by its scale in the form of notes (tonal) + Gamaka (Transitions) for a total of  ‘Trayodasha  Lakshana’ (13 related characteristics) to effectively communicate the mood. This is an acquired skill. It just gets better with practice.

Bhava: Now for the most important part of good vocal singing. Allow me to digress a little bit here. You may have experienced deep emotions about something or some incident in your life. It is these emotions that are a defining aspect of human existence. Even animals express emotions at various levels. My little dog, for example, jumps into joy barking and going around in circles when I reach home after few days away from home to express his happiness. Expression of emotions are an integral part of our existence and even our survival is dependent on healthy expression of emotions. Just imagine what would happen if you are locked up in a dark room with all food and comforts but no interaction with external world! I guess I made my point on how important emotions are.

Now turning our attention back to music you probably have heard or hear lively music almost everyday. And you may have also just enjoyed it at that moment and then forgot about it soon. In other words it didn’t leave an impression deep enough within you. But then, there must have been an instance when you heard a melody that struck a chord in your heart which made you go back to listen to it again…and again. Something that reverberated in your mind long after you stopped hearing it. So what was that? What made you seek more of that something? This is what is known as bonding through emotional communication. It is essentially this exact same phenomena that binds the listener of Karnatic or Hindustani music, or for that matter any music, with the melody, often stirring up emotions that carry you away from your day to day existence and possibly into a contemplative mood. As humans we have the distinct and unique ability to enjoy such pleasant moments which at least momentarily reduces the burden of mundane existence in this world. It’s a sublime experience!

While Voice provides body to a melody and Shruthi-Laya pair provides a structure, it is the Bhava that adds the soul to a melody. While the first two can be acquired by focused training, the Bhava is the result of cultivating the qualities of empathy, compassion, love and renunciation in everyday life.

Each one of us are unique in certain ways and our music taste varies accordingly. Recognizing that rich diversity I would like to share a rendering of a Karnatik Kruthi (composition) of Saint Thyagaraja titled “Marugelara” in Raaga Jayantasree rendered by our multitalented, master of Karnatik music who has inspired many like me, the great Dr M Balamurali Krishna. In this I believe there is a perfect confluence of all three qualities discussed above.

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