The first Indian epic, Ramayana, was composed by the sage Valmiki. It was written in shloka form. The word shloka refers to a particular kind of metrical composition known for its brevity, easy tempo and lilting rhyme.
From the lavish use of musical metaphors in the epic, it is evident that the precise concept of music or sangeet had been adequately established and appreciated. For example, when Rama describes Kishkindha, Sugreeva's kingdom, to Laxmana, he refers to the lute-like resonance of the bees, the rhythmic croaking of frogs and the mridang-like sounds of clouds. Rama was an expert in gandharva, the 'classical' music of the time.
The term Marga sangeet is also used in the epic to denote the accepted and prestigious mode of music. There were three important features of Marga Sangeet. It was created and propagated by Brahma and other deities. It was not meant for entertainment. It was presented before the Gods to please them.
The epic tells us that musical instruments were collectively mentioned as atodya. Four major types of instruments were identified. A wide variety of instruments were used such as the Veena, Venu, Vansha, Shankha, Dundubhi, Bheri, Mridang, Panav and Pataha.
The knowledge of music was widespread. Ravana the demon-leader was proficient in music. So was Sugreeva, the monkey-leader. Occasions of festival music were known as samaj. There were professional classes of musicians such as Bandi, Soota, Magadha and others, whose repertoire included songs in praise of heroes, their deeds, their clans or dynasties.
Ramayana, as an oral epic, was also propagated according to the musical norms perfected in the oral tradition. This was the pathya mode of music making, ideal for narration. This was the form employed by Rama's sons Kush and Lava, when they sang a narrative song in Rama's praise at his court accompanied by only a lute. Even today, the story of Rama, when traditionally narrated in India in different languages and regions, follows the norms laid down by the ancient Sage.
The use of technical terms in popular literature signifies that knowledge in the concerned field of study is widespread in society. Musical terms such as pramana, laya, tala, samatala , kala , matra and shamya regularly feature in the epic.
Pathya in Indian musicology describes a special mode of making music. Bharata laid down six main features of Pathya:
1) seven notes (saptaswara)
2) three basic locations for tone-production (sthanas)
3) four fundamental ways of empowering tonal arrangements (varnas)
4) two basic intonation modes (kakus)
5) six embellishments (alankaras)
6) six aspects (angas).
Pathya sangeet was not expected to entertain. Its aim was to inform and instruct. Even today wandering musicians create Pathya sangeet.
Krishnadvaipayana Vyasa composed the epic Mahabharata in 24000 shlokas. There is less about music in the Mahabharata than in the Ramayana. Possibly human life had become more complex and problem-ridden during the time of the Mahabharata, leaving less time for music.
Mahabharata used the term gandharva instead of sangeet. The epic therefore referred to a more specific kind of music. Musicology, or the science of music was called gandharvashastra. Superhuman beings called Gandharvas were the expert practitioners of this music. Both gandharvas and their consorts, the apsaras‚ were experts in singing, playing musical instruments and dancing.
Arjuna, one of the heroes in the Mahabharata had learnt these musical arts from Chitrasen gandharva. Kings maintained their own music schools to train princesses and their maids-in-waiting in the performing arts.
The names of the seven basic musical notes (shadja) have been clearly mentioned in the Mahabharata, which was composed around 400 BC. The epic therefore bears testimony to the long living tradition of Indian Classical music.
The use of music in festivals and other social occasions brings out the importance given to music in human life. There were, in fact, many classes of professional musicians like the gandharvas who catered to various musical and cultural needs.
Valuable insights into the evolution of music can also be gained from Buddhist literature and sculpture in India and in the countries to which the religion spread. In basic religious texts like Thergatha and Therigatha language was used in a way conducive to music making.
Jatakas are stories written in Pali around 300 BC about the previous births of Buddha. The jatakas describe Buddhist monks singing and dancing to the accompaniment of instruments like the veena, vepamei, tunak and panak. They contain a wealth of material of musicological interest.
Sculptures based on Buddhist lore are a major source of information on music. Sculptures in Bharhut (200-150 BC) and Sanchi confirm that music flourished during the Buddhist period in spite of theological opposition. The opposition was because music was seen as a distraction.
Jain literary sources interpret the prevalent music in important periods in Indian cultural history. Both Buddhist and Jain sources often focus on those strata of society otherwise not described in Sanskrit texts. Hence it is critical to examine the Jain sources. At the same time, many terms are clearly derived from the Sanskrit tradition indicating an overall musical continuity.
For example, the Sthanangsootra lists the merits and demerits of vocalists. Interestingly, these nearly tally with Naradiya-shiksha. Jain texts list many instruments not mentioned elsewhere. Rayappasenaijja lists instruments in 18 classes. In all 63 instruments are itemised- bhambha, mukund, machal, kadamb and many others. Buddhist and Jain texts cover a wider gamut than the Sanskrit texts and very often include instruments used in folk music.