Dr. P. P. Narayanaswami

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Kutcheri, Raga, Tala, Sahitya
Artistes, Composers, Lyrics
Tributes, Tidbits, Quizzes
Dance, Harikatha, Folk Music


A bird's eye-view of various treatises on Indian Musicology, from vEdic period to present day, is given. The treatment is very brief and non-exhaustive, and makes no claim of completeness.

The Beginning

The revelations of the vEdas contain the first ever reference to the system of Indian music and musical instruments known to us. The mystic sound "Om" is regarded as the adhAara svaram (fundamental note) for Indian music. Originally, vEdic hymns employed only a single note (arcika recitation) Later, to avoid monotony, two more notes were added, one above and one below the pitch of the single note, and these notes became the ri, ni, and sa of later times. In due course, two more notes were added and a scale of five notes evolved. The concept of seven notes was carved out later by adding two more notes, one above and one below, to these five. The .rk pratishAkhIya mentions the origin of these seven notes. The udgIt.r (priest singer specific to the sAma vEda) sings the sAman chants using these notes. The songbook corresponding to the pUrvArcika portion of the chants, known as grAmagEyagAna, shows the adaptation of the vEdic hymns to melodies. The method of chanting, with its own vocabulary and notation, was systematized. Proper chanting required great self-discipline on the part of the exponent, and there was no room for manOdharma (improvisation), a message that has come down through the ages to us today. The ancient work, "nAradIya shIkSa", connects the seven notes of the sAma gAnam with the seven svarams --- ma, ga, ri, sa, dha, ni, and pa, respectively, of Indian classical music.

yassAmagAnAM prathamassa vENOrmadhyamassm.rta.h

yOsau dvitIyo gAndhArast.rtIyastv.rSabhassm.rta.h |

caturthaSSaDja ityAhu.h pa~ncamO dhaivatO bhavet

SaSThO niSAdO vij~nEyassaptama.h pa~ncamassm.rta.h ||

(nAradIya shIKSa)

The vEdic texts also refer to a wide variety of musical instruments in vogue during that period. Several drums (dundubhi, ADambara, bhUmidundubhi, and vanaspati), the cymbal (aghati, used to accompany dancing), khaNDa vINa (a lute with 100 strings), tuNava (a flute), and bakuri (an instrument whose exact shape is unknown), are clearly mentioned. The .rg vEda tells us that ten kinds of vINas were employed in singing the sAman hymns: picOLa, akadi, alapavakra, kapi, shirSaNi, karkaTika, silavINa, mahAvINa, khaNDavINa, and vAnam. Furthermore, the BrAhmaNas, the UpaniSaDs, the epic poems RAmAyaNa and the MahAbhArata, and the eighteen purANas all contain numerous references to the art of music and dance. In Chapter 1 of the BhagavadgIta, Sanjaya describes to King dh.rtarASTra the various instruments that were sounded at the commencement of the kurukSEtra war (conches pA~ncajanya, dEvadatta, pauNDra, anantavijaya, and so on).

The court poet KALidAsa was adept in both music and dance, and this is reflected in all his kAvyas (poetical works) and dramas. In the "Raghuvamsha mahAkAvyam", he mentions the instruments m.rda"nga, udakavAdya (jalatara"ngam), and several types of vINas. He adds that drums were tuned to the note of grAma, and goes on to describe prabandhas, padams, varNams, and svarams, and different musical compositions like dvipadika, catuSpadika, jhamAlika, and so forth. BANa's lengthy Sanskrit novel, "Kadambari" has many references to musical instruments, as well as to four types of compositions: akSaracyutaka, mAtrAcyutaka, bindumati, and gUDcathurthapAda. Thus, besides the Vedas, the epic poetry, and the vast amount of Sanskrit kAvya literature have influenced the evolution and development of musical writings in India.


The first known exposition of musical and dance theory is the "nATyashAstra", a text attributed to the sage Bharata. Its dating is a matter of dispute among scholars, since many ancient Indian authors detested signing or dating their works. In all probability, nATyashAstra dates anywhere from the third century B. C. to the fifth century A. D. It is a huge work, in thirty-six chapters and around six thousand verses, dealing with several aspects of dance as well as semantics, morphology, various dialects and their phonologies, play writing and production, rehearsal, criticism, and the audience. While only three of the chapters are exclusively devoted to the theory of music (specifically, chapters 28 to 30), they constitute the source for a bulk of the vocabulary of the Indian music and technical knowledge. Bharata recognizes the seven notes, of four kinds according to the number of shrutis (quarter tones) in between them, and mentions the concepts: grAma, mUrcchana, and jati. Chapter 28 deals with seven svaras (intervals), twenty-two shrutis (micro-intervals), grAmas (basic scales), mUrcchanas, (secondary scales), jatis (modes), and sthAna (registers). From what we understand, the melodic system of the time was based on jatis. These were constructed out of mUrcchanas, which belonged to two parent scales: SaDja grAma, and madhyama grAma. The conception of shruti is used to distinguish between the two parent scales. One note is said to be one shruti flatter in the madhyama grAma than in the SaDja grAma. In chapter 29, Bharatha discusses alamkAra (ornamentation), gIti (formation of text syllables), v.rtti (styles), and bahirgIta (preliminary songs), These concepts differ vastly from the ways we understand them today. Chapter 30 includes detailed information on techniques of vINa and flute playing, the intricacies of rhythm, and musical grammar. On taLa (time measure), Bharata discusses caccatpuTam, chAtapuTam, SADpIThaputraka udghaTTa, and sampadvESTaka. The various a"ngas (elements figuring in a tALa count) are defined as kala, pada, laya, kASTa, nimESa, mAtra, and so forth. Also discussed are laya (tempo), yati (gaits), and pANi (beginnings), and seven types of gIta rUpa (shapes of traditional songs), namely madraka, aparAntaka, rOvindaka, oveNaka, prakari, uttara, and ullOpyaka.

The music of Bharata was known as mArgi. There are several valuable commentaries on the nATyashAstra, most notably, the eleventh-century work, "Abhinava Bharati" by Abhinava Gupta.

nAradIya shIikSa

The sage NArada is described in all purANic stories as a wandering bard carrying a vINa. But the author of the present work may not be the sage NArada. The musical work "nAradIya shIikSa" is attributed to someone named NArada and the time frame is around Bharata's period. It stresses the importance of gAndhAra grAma (which defines the pa~ncamam as frequency 40/27, slightly less than its natural value). This particular grAma is mentioned only in this work, is perhaps lost to the present generation. Some believe that this work might pre-date Bharata who never mentions gAndhAra grAma.

There are a few other authors bearing the name of NArada. A small work, " rAga nirUpaNam", dealing with 140 rAgas is by one NArada. A much later work, "sa"ngIta makarandam", is also attributed to another NArada. This work classifies melodies as masculine, feminine, neutral, rAga, rAgiNi, morning, evening, and so on. Also, two other authors, by the name NArada penned the works "pa~ncamasAra samhita" (1440 AD), and "raganirUpaNA' (1600). We are told that there is yet another NArada, who blessed the singing bard Saint TyAgarAja with a musical treatise called "svarArNavam".


Dattilam, a short treatise written by Saint dattila, follows Bharata very closely. The extant work is incomplete. It consists of merely 244 shlOkams (called kArikas), spread over twelve chapters, and discusses topics like shruti, svara, grAma, mUrcchana, jati, tAna, sthAna, v.rtti, sUshka, sAdhAraNa, varNa, and alamkAra). Twenty-two shrutis specific to the octave are described, of which only certain shrutis are elevated to the status of svara. Each svara gives rise to different varieties having the auxiliary types suddha, sAdhAraNa, antara, catushruti, kaishiki, and kAkali. Dattila also describes graha, amsa, vAdi, samvAdi, and so forth. VivAdis are described as defective svaras whose presence distorts the melody. In Dattila's vivid allegory, vAdi is king, samvAdi the minister, anuvAdi the soldiers, and vivAdi the enemy. The work is in difficult Sanskrit, and what is available is believed to be incomplete. A commentary, "prayOga stabakam", is said to exist.

A similar work is, "kOhalam " (or "kOhala matam") by one kOhala, a desciple of Bharata. It is not available in complete form, but it was a source of inspiration for later musicologists like Abhinavagupta.

Part II >>

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