600 AD – 1200 AD

Brihaddeshi (The Great Treatise on the Regional), by Matanga was the first work to describe music in the period after Bharata, before the advent of Islam began to influence music. Matanga probably hailed from south India. Brihaddeshi is the first major and available text to describe the raga, which has been the central concept in Indian art music for centuries. It also introduced the sargam, or notation in the names of notes. In Matanga’s discussion of musical scales and micro-tonal intervals he clarifies what Bharata had said in the Natyashastra.

One of Matanga’s major contributions is his scholarly focus on the regional element in music. ‘Deshi’ has to be understood in contrast to ‘Margi’ music, which is sacred and pan-Indian in its scope. According to Matanga, “Deshi is that which is sung voluntarily and with delight and pleasure by women, children, cowherds and kings in their respective regions”. Deshi music captured the flavour of a range of human emotions from different regions. Through notes it was formalised into ascending and descending scales.

Ragas, talas and tala-music

The present system of Indian music stands on two important pillars: raga and tala. Raga is the melodic form while tala is the rhythm underlying music. Together, raga and tala distinguish Indian music from many other musical systems of the world. The rhythm of music is explored through beats in time. Melody evolved as the raga through several processes; the tala resulted from a similar evolution in rhythm.

Thus raga, which means colour or passion, became a framework to create music based on a given set of notes (usually five to seven) and characteristic rhythmic patterns. The basic constituents of a raga can be written down in the form of a scale (in some cases differing in ascent and descent). By using only these notes, by emphasizing certain degrees of the scale, and by going from note to note in ways characteristic to the raga, the performer sets out to create a mood or atmosphere (rasa) that is unique to the raga in question.

The idea of the tala is embedded in the concept of time. In Hindustani music it is the artist who bestows quality on Time. A musician marks the beginning of his tala whenever he wants. He also creates his divisions in time. He thus creates the first beat. The flow of time is now released, channelled and directed. The artist then creates a beat to mark the first division or segment. With this first division in time the flow becomes comprehensible. The artist subsequently puts in successive and equidistant strokes. He thus makes available to us the matra, a measure to compute musical time. The duration between two matras is known as the tempo. The release of the time flow and the determination of the measure to compute it are the primary requirements to make a tala.

Cyclical and repetitive time-patterns composed of groups of long and short duration time divisions are talas, as we know them today. In every tala in Hindustani art music clapping (tali), tapping of fingers and waving of the palm (khali or kal) are analogous. These weave a pattern of sound and silence. Ancient treatises enumerate 108 talas. However, contemporary performances are normally restricted to about 15 talas.

Talas gain life and body when instruments play their role. Instrumental sounds, when expressed onomatopoeically, formulate sound syllables. These sound syllables, when fitted suitably to the tala-divisions, create thekas, the tala-expression that is actually played and heard in Hindustani music.

Thus the talas function as accompanying entities in Hindustani music and dance. They also serve as the basis for solo renditions in rhythm music.

The Muslim Political Backdrop in India

Hindustani art music began to evolve after pre-medieval Indian music passed through certain stages of transformation and development till the beginning of the 11th century. Many Indian and non-Indian cultures took an active part in this transformation.

Around the 9th century, the Sufis secured a firm foothold in India with their great love for music and acceptance of many indigenous customs. The followers of Nizamuddin Chishti (1324 AD) included the ‘Basant’ and ‘Rang’ celebrations in their religious practices. Similarly during the time of Kaikubad (1287-1290 AD), both Farsi and Hindi songs found a place in performances.

The advent of Islam at the end of the 12th century brought Persian music and culture with it. The attitude of the Muslim rulers toward Hinduism varied. Some like Aurangzeb (1658-1707) were strongly anti-Hindu. Others like the great Akbar (1556-1605) were well-disposed towards their Hindu subjects. Muslim India had a long, complex and eventful cultural history. Ultimately it became an inextricable part of the Indian cultural ethos.