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A brief history of Indian Classical Music - I See India

A brief history of Indian Classical Music


One cannot say exactly when and how music came into existence. However, history of Indian music can be broadly divided into three periods:  Ancient , Medieval and  Modern .

Ancient Period means the Vedic Age which covered upto around 2000 B.C. Vedic literature says that during those times the sages used to sing and their wives used to play instruments like Veena. Amongst the four Vedic scriptures, “Samved” was primarily music based. The ‘matras‘ in Samved were recited in vocal form and were known as “Samgan“. In Samgan three types of swar i.e tone used were, Anudatta(low pitch), Udatya (high pitch) and Swarit ( between low and high pitches).

The age of Ramayana and Mahabharata is considered to be the golden age of Gandarbha music. Possibly during this era, the seven swars known as Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni came into being. The seven swars, their root words and scriptural dieties are given below:


Root Word




God Agni



God Brahma



Goddess Saraswati



God Shiva



God Vishnu



God Ganesha



God Surya

In the post Vedic era, music was practiced during the Buddhist period. Even during the Maurya period, music was popular as evident from references in Mautilya’s famous treatise , Arthashastra.

Vatsayan during 200 B.C asserted Indian music to be a total and unique assimilation of three aspects:

Geetam : vocal music i.e an expression of emotions through tune(vocal)

Vadyam : Percussion instrument music for the rythmic values of music

Nrityam : Dance- visualization with different physical or organic movements

Medieval period

From 7th to the 13th century AD, Indian music played a key role in India and outside. In 7th century AD, Indian music was used to popularize the Hindu philosophy and religious ideas. Many scholarly books on music were written; mention should be made of Jaidev’s “Gitogobindo” and sarangdev’s “Sangeet Ratnakar“.

Between the 9th and 12th centuries, Indian classical music saw marked qualitative improvement. From the 11th century onwards when India saw many advances by the Muslims from middle-east, it influenced Indian music greatly. Gradually North Indian Music evolved as a separate stream under their influence.

During Alauddin Khiljee’s time (1296-1316) the famed Amir Khusro reigned supreme as a musical genius. It is said that he was the first to use Tabla and Sitar as percussion instruments and created new Ragas and introduced vocal music like Kawali and Tarana. Raja Man Singh(1486-1518) reigned the kingdom of Gwalior and his patronage gave birth to “Gwalior Gharana” as a distinct style of Indian music. With the help of the then musicologists, he is said to have penned “Mankuthul“. During that era, devotional songs in India music reached its peak with the marvelous songs of Kabir(1405AD), Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu(1486 AD) and Mirabai(1500 AD).

King Akbar(15556-1605AD) was a keen lover of music and patronized maestros like Nayak Bakru, Tansen, Tantarang Gopal etc in his court. Tansen before conversion to Islamic religion was known as Tanna Mishra. His siblings and pupils were clubbed under a gharana ( a seperate style of Indian music) known as “Saini gaharana”, synonymous with their legendary guru Tansen. He is claimed to have created Ragas in Indian Music like Tansen darbari Kanar, Miakisarang, Miamalhar etc.

During Akbar’s time, Tulsidas(1584 AD) penned the famous Ramcharit Manas. Musical genius like Bilash Khan, Chattar Khan, Makku Khan delighted the court of Jahangir(1605-1627 AD). King Shahjahan(1627-1658 AD) patronized musicians like Dirang Khan, Tal Khan, Bilas Khan(son of Tansen) etc.

One cannot deny that the Mughal rulers contributed substantially to the development of Indian Classical music in their own way. In fact, Kheyal and also Toppa originated during their regime.

Modern period started from the end of the eighteenth century. This period saw the gradual overthrowing of the Muslim rulers by the British who were indifferent to Indian culture and particularly classical music. This led to the decline of the court sponsored Musicians. Consequently, the musicians kept their knowledge and practice to themselves confining it within their own family members.Music became a vehicle of entertainment and was looked down upon in society. This trend continued till the middle of the 19th century. During this period, the most notable music lover amongst the weakened Muslim stat rulers was Wajid Ali Shah, Nawab of Ayodhya. He was dethroned by the British and sent to jail in Calcutta(Metiaburz). Wajid brought along with him a large number of poets and musicians. He penned many kheyal and thumri songs.

The beginning of 20th century saw the revival of Indian classical music. Amongst those who contributed to this revival, the names of Pt. Bishnu Digambar paluskar, Pt. Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhananda need special mention. The process of notation in music invented by Bhatkhanadaji is now followed by Hindustani classical musicians.

The 20th century witnessed a galaxy of brilliant Indian Classical musicians like Ustad Faiz Khan, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, Ustad Amir Khan, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Pandit Onkarnath Tahkur, Biswadeb Chottopadhyaha, Tarapada Chakravarty, Ustad Alauddin Khan, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, UStad Enayat Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Pandit V.G Jyog etc.

The legacy left behind by these legendary figures is still nourished carefully by many ardent students of music in the country.

About the Author:

Dalia Rahut was initially trained in Hindustani classical music by Pandit A. Kanan. She was one of the first scholars of ITC Sangeet Research Academy(SRA), joining in 1978. Training under Vidushi Girija Devi from 1978 to 1992, she is a true representative of the Banaras Gharana, excelling in thumri, dadra, tappa, kajri, holi, chaiti, jhula, bhajan and other semi-classical forms. Dalia has also completed her Master’s Degree in Bengali literature.

Post SRA, she has devoted her life to the promotion of light classical music through teaching, workshops and vocal recitals in India and abroad.  She has conducted workshops on light classical music under the aegis of Paschim Banga Rajya Sangeet Academy, Kolkata and is an empanelled judge of the Academy. She is an artiste of All India Radio and Doordarshan, with cassette and CD releases to her credit. Presently she heads the Indian Music Section of Calcutta School of Music and is an empanelled teacher on Gyan Vani FM (under IGNOU).



  1. all those interested in knowing the history of Hindusthani classical music will do well to atleast gothrough the wikipedia which is far more broad based and full of detail and not spreading JNU type promotion of history.
    If an article does not even mention Narada muni or Bharata is a very sketchy account with all due respect to the writer.

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  3. Very good description of facts on the history of music and quite interesting to read, wish there were interesting anecdotes related to music and certain events.

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  5. To the author Indian classical music is only Hindustani Classical music. He is blind to the other side, equally rich historically, vigorous and complete -Carnatic music. What a pity one half of India does not know about the other half!

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