Hindustani classical music is always improvised, but this doesn’t mean musicians can play whatever they want. Here are some of the main components of a performance
You’ve probably heard of ragas, the more than 150 melodic systems of Indian classical music. This word (which rhymes with “fog”) comes from the Sanskrit word for “color” or “dye,” and you can think of a raga as being like the palette of colors used to create a painting. Let’s take a closer look at the elements that make up each raga.
Like the European one, the full Indian scale has seven notes or swar. Some of these notes are always the same, some vary according to which of the ten thaat (modes like major or minor) the raga belongs to. Each raga has a jati, a set of five to seven notes selected from the scale, which may be different in ascending and descending melodies.
Arohana and avarohana mean “ascending” and “descending”. A performer can’t always go between two notes directly – it may be necessary to play or sing intermediate notes, and many ragas move between some notes indirectly, ascending the scale, descending a bit, and then ascending again, forming patterns that are often the most recognizable quality of a raga. Many ragas include pakad, distinctive phrases of a few notes that are often (though not always) a result of their rising and descending structures. Finally, some notes (vadi and samavadi) receive much more emphasis than others.
Samay is the tradition that specific ragas are played at specific times. In addition to ragas for all times of day and night, there are ragas for times of the year, especially the monsoon season, and certain holidays. Some ragas, especially newer ones and those borrowed from Carnatic (South Indian) music, don’t have specific times.
The rhythmic structure of a Hindustani classical performance emerges gradually. In the earlier sections, there’s no rhythm at all, then a steady pulse develops, and finally the tabla comes in with a fully-developed rhythm cycle, a tala. A tabla can produce dozens of different sounds, so the beats of a tala don’t all have the same length or tone. The most common tala in Hindustani classical music are Teentaal (16 beats), Ektaal (12), and Jhaptaal (10), but many more are used occasionally, or in semi-classical and folk music.
Improvisation and compositions
While soloists do freely improvise during the earlier sections, much of a performance is based on bandish, short (a verse or two) compositions with fixed melodies and rhythms. Many bandish exist for each its raga and the specific bandish used in a particular section determines its tala: it’s not unusual for the taal to change between two sections.
You might expect the tabla player to begin each section by establishing a rhythm and the soloist to join in, but in Hindustani music, the soloist starts first. The most prominent note of the melody, the sum, is also the most prominent beat in the rhythm and the tabla player generally enters at this point. Because the sum is the most dramatic and recognizable part of the bandish, it’s also where the soloist will return to the fixed melody from each improvised variation.
Indian classical music’s complexity is primarily melodic: harmony is almost entirely absent. Instead, a wide range of alankar (ornamentation) achieves some of the same ends by adding depth and tone to notes and passages. Some of the most common are meend (glides between two notes); kan-swar (grace notes played quickly to transition to a more important note of a different pitch); andolan, gamak, and kampan (different forms of vibrato); and khatka and murki (clusters of related notes sung rapidly together).