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The Gupta period

The period of the Gupta kings shone in literary excellence. It is often described as the Golden Age of culture, arts and learning in ancient India. Kalidasa, who was in the court of Vikramditya (380-413 AD), epitomises the artistic accomplishments of the Gupta period. He was a lyrical poet and a writer of epics and plays. The poem 'Meghadoot', the epic 'Raghuvamsha' and the play 'Shakuntala' are some of his creative masterpieces that adorn the Indian literary tradition. The numerous references to music and dance in Kalidasa's works show the importance accorded to music in man's life during his period.

Kalidasa's works mention musical instruments like the Parivadini vina, Vipanchi vina, Pushkar, Mridang, Vamshi and Shankha, different types of songs like the Kakaligeet, Streegeet and Apsarogeeti, technical terms like Murchana, Swarasaptaka and Tana and qualities of voice like Kinnarkanthi and Valguvagam.

Vatsyayana wrote his famous manual, Kamasutra (400 AD) during this period. In it, he lists 64 'Kala's or arts essential to refined living, which include singing, playing musical instruments and dancing.

The Buddhist monk, Fa-Hien, travelled far and wide in the country for several years during the Gupta period. He noted his impressions about the remarkable prevalence of music in social life.

The Gupta king Harshavardhan (606-648 AD), was himself a singer. There are references to music making in his plays, 'Nagananda', 'Ratnavali' and 'Priyadarshika'. A story in the 'Panchatantra' (fifth century), one of the most celebrated compilations of fables ever produced by mankind, also refers to music.

The tradition of Indian art music flourished in four kinds of performing spaces: sacrificial areas, temple precincts, stages and platforms and princely courts. The character of each of these spaces determined the pitch, volume and timbre of music.

The music associated with the sacrificial hall was mainly the mantras, which were recited as well as sung. The words, their enunciation and their appropriateness for the ritual were the supreme considerations. Musical instruments were employed, but their role was secondary.

In the closed or semi-closed structures of temple-spaces, the effects of echo and reverberation were felt. The effect of instrumental and vocal timbres was more pronounced. Hence these were developed. This comes through in the number of instruments used, and the individual capacity of each to produce a greater variety of sounds. From the Gupta age onwards varied musical genres were practised within the temples.

The courtyard of the temple allowed another kind of music-making called the samaj. Visiting artists were also allowed to perform in these soirees. Yet another format that evolved in the temple space was the ghata-nibandhan, which was collective dance and music. Temple-spaces have thus fostered art, folk, religious and popular music.

The stage or the platform was a space, which was a necessary and important part of an auditorium or a theatre. Natyashastra elaborately described three kinds of theatre, differing in their size and shape. Music from the stage had to be heard as well as seen; hence the skilful used of stage space was necessary. Bharata's detailed instructions about the kutapa or the orchestra bring out the close relationship between the kind of music performed and the quality of stage space.

The princely court was the most organised performing space. All kinds of music were rendered from the princely court as all the external conditions could be controlled. Delicate effects and subtle nuances could be conveyed. There was also a much better interaction between the stage performer and the audience.

Music in Puranas

A Purana traditionally treats five subjects: the primary creation of the universe, secondary creation after periodic annihilation, the genealogy of gods and saints, grand epochs, and the history of the royal dynasties. Into this core subject a Purana incorporates other religious accretions like customs, ceremonies, sacrifices, festivals, caste duties, donations, construction of temples and idols, and places of pilgrimage.

Stories in the Puranas highlight the universal theme of the receiving of musical knowledge as a divine boon. The Puranas also bring out the prestige that music was accorded in human and social life. The Puranas were passed on from one generation to the next through the oral tradition. It is believed that all the major Puranas were in circulation by 100 AD. They were gradually compiled and consolidated between 400 AD and 1000 AD. Of the 18 Puranas, three dwell at some length on music.

The Vayupurana is regarded as a very early purana that originated around 300 AD. It refers to music as gandharva. The music of this Purana deals with the rituals performed during the different phases of a sacrifice.

The Markandeyapurana is one of the smallest puranas. It came into being between 400 and 500 AD. Through a dialogue between Saraswati and Ashvatara, a king of Nagas or serpents, it offers interesting insights into music. Saraswati offers a boon to the King who desires nothing but the knowledge of the musical notes or swaras.

The Vishnudharmottarapurana, which is traced to 400-500 AD, touches on almost all the arts, although having very little original material. It devotes one chapter each to Geet and Vadya.


Dattilam: gandharvashastra: moving towards raga


The music of ragas, as we know it today, is the culmination of a long process of development in musical thinking that aimed to meaningfully organise melodic and tonal material. A landmark step towards the evolution of the raga was taken when sama-gayan gave way to gandharva gaan as the mainstream of the sacred music of India. Dattilam, dated roughly 400 AD, is the main text for this music.

This text discusses parent tonal frameworks (grama), the 22 micro-tonal intervals (srutis) placed in one octave-space, the process of sequential re-arrangement of notes (murchana), and the permutations and combinations of note-sequences (tanas).

Dattilam also describes the 18 jatis which are the fundamental melodic structures for the jati-gayan. The jatis have ten basic characteristics, which closely resemble the structuring and elaboration of the contemporary raga in Hindustani music. The names of some jatis like andhri, oudichya may reflect their regional origins, as do the names of many Hindustani ragas today, e.g. Sorath, Khamaj, Kanada, Gauda, Multani and Jaunpuri.

Jati-gayan was entirely pre-composed. However, Hindustani music stressed improvisation which completely changed its nature. But the approach and concepts of Dattilam made the transition from sama-music to the contemporary raga-music significant and smooth.


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