Hindustani and Carnatic Music

“Vocalist Abhishek Raghuram and his ensemble at a carnatic music concert in Chennai, India. Raghuram’s cousin, Anantha Krishnan (far right) plays the mridangum, a barrel drum.” http://www.pri.org/stories/2012-01-09/video-season-carnatic-music-chennai-india. Online.

Music has been a tradition in India for nearly three thousand years. The blending of purely ritualistic music and folk music allowed indigenous musical styles to evolve and develop in different regions of the country.

Swara and tala are two basic components of Indian classical music. According to the ITC Sangeet Research Academy, “swaras are the twelve notes and the intervening semitones, while a tala is a cycle of beats, starting with a stress point called the sam and ending with a release point called the khali. It is this—sam and khali—that brings life to a tala” (ITC).

Indian classical music has two distinct styles—Hindustani classical music and Carnatic music. The beginning of the semantic divide between these two styles is said to have started from the time of the Sangeetaratnakara of Sharangadeva (1210-1247 CE). The two styles are also prevalent in different regions of India. That is, Hindustani classical music is prevalent in northern and central regions. In contrast, Carnatic music is more often practiced in the peninsular regions.

Hindustani classical music dates back to Vedic times around 1000 BCE and further developed around the 13th and 14th centuries CE with Persian influences and existing religious and folk music. In this way, Hindustani music was influenced by the Persian performance practices of the Mughal era.

Carnatic music developed around the 15th to 16th centuries CE, and “Carnatic” in Sanskrit means “soothing to ears.” Most Carnatic compositions are meant to be sung, and even when they are performed on instruments, they are meant to be performed in a singing style.

Both styles are monophonic, follow a melodic line and employ a drone (tanpura). Even though both styles use scales to define a raga, the Carnatic style employs semitones, and therefore it has many more ragas than the Hindustani style. A raga has its own scale consisting of a minimum of five and a maximum of seven notes, with specific ascending and descending movements, dominating notes, and notes complementing the vadi notes. In addition, unlike Hindustani music, the Carnatic style does not adhere to time (samay) concepts, but rather follows the melakarta concept, which is a collection of fundamental musical scales from which other ragas may be generated.

The tabla is the most prominent percussion instrument of Indian classical music. It is believed to be designed by Hazrat Amir Khusro. The tabla is essentially the art of accompaniment or stagecraft, as Indian classical music is mostly solo music.

Indian classical music is fundamental to the lives of Indians today as it remains a source of spiritual inspiration, cultural expression, and entertainment. An example of both Hindustani and Carnatic music can be found at the following link:


Works Cited:

ITC Sangeet Research Academy, <http://www.itcsra.org/sra_faq_index.html>.

“Indian Music,” Hindu Online, <http://hinduonline.co/HinduCulture/IndianMusic.html>.


Gupta Period Sculpture

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Gupta Sculpture at the Elephanta Caves. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Gupta Period represented the culmination of all the trends and tendencies of the artistic pursuits of the earlier decades, as Indian art entered upon the classical phase of sculpture. The Gupta Empire ruled from the 4th century C.E. to the late 6th century C.E., and art, science, and literature flourished greatly during this period. It was also in this time that the iconographic canons of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist divinities were standardized, serving as the ideal models for later interpretations of artistic expression. In addition, a new canon of beauty emerged as the human form, especially the female figure, became a focus of attraction, and the inherent softness and suppleness of the body became the human ideal in the smooth and shining texture of Gupta sculpture.

Reclining Buddha at the Ajanta Caves. http://www.indian-heritage.org/painting/ajanta/ajanta5.html. Online.

Reclining Buddha at the Ajanta Caves. http://www.indian-heritage.org/painting/ajanta/ajanta5.html. Online.

Even though the main religion of the Guptas was Hinduism, the Gupta Period has often been described as the golden age of Buddhist art in India. The Buddhist iconography was developed from the Gandhara style of northwest India. Between the 2nd and 5th centuries C.E. Gandhara art, named after the Gandhara region of what is now Pakistan, was greatly influenced by Hellenistic art, as can be seen by the relief friezes showing figures in classical poses with clinging drapery on the stupas and monasteries. However, during the Gupta Period, the Gandhara style gained new power and sophistication in that “it is noted for the full, sensuous modeling of faces and bodies, for a subtlety of expression and for the harmonious proportions of its figures” (“The Gupta”).

One example of the powerful works of the Gupta Period is at the Ajanta Caves, where Buddhist sculptures and wall paintings depict not only the various lives of the Buddha but also the daily life of Indians at the time.

Another example of Gupta Period sculpture exists in the Elephanta Caves on an island in the Sea of Oman close to Bombay. Hindu spiritualistic beliefs and symbols are incorporated in the overall layout of the caves, and the large reliefs and sculptures depict Hindu divinities.

As can be seen by what remains at the Ajanta Caves and Elephanta Caves, under the influence of the Gupta dynasty, Indian art reached its apogee, and Gupta sculpture remains the model of Indian art to this day.

Works Cited:

“The Gupta Style of the Buddha & Its Influence in Asia,” Victoria and Albert Museum, http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/g/gupta-style-of-the-buddha-and-its-influence-on-asia/.

Works Consulted:

“Gupta Sculpture,” Centre for Cultural Resources and Training, http://ccrtindia.gov.in/guptasculp.php.

Kalidasa and The Recognition of Sakuntala  

Shakuntala writes to Dushyanta. Painting by Raja Ravi Varma. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Kalidasa is considered India’s most important playwright and The Recognition of Sakuntala is the best-known and finest of all his Sanskrit dramas. Little is known about his life. Scholars believe he lived some time during the Gupta period, between 300-500CE. What comes down to us about him is mostly legend. Supposedly, he was a beautiful man who attracted the attention of an empress who took him into her home. However, the empress was soon offended by his lack of refinement and learning and lost interest in him. Kalidasa found his wife’s disgust and infidelity unbearable. He turned to the goddess Kali (from whose name he derives his own) while contemplating suicide. As a result of his devotion, Kali blessed him with wit and literary ability by which he regained favor at another court. His poetry and dramas derive mostly from Hindu mythology. The Recognition of Sakuntala is based on a romantic episode from one of the major Hindu religious epics, the Mahabharata (Bk. I, Ch. 62-69)

The title of the play, The Recognition of Sakuntala, is slightly misleading in the English translation. While its exact meaning in Sanskrit is still a subject of debate, the word “Recognition” actually refers to a part of the episode that Kalidasa added to the original story rendering it more morally palatable. The drama recounts the discovery of a beautiful country maiden, Sakuntala, upon whom a king wandering in the forest on a hunting trip spies. “Recognition” implies a remembrance of a token of betrothal, a ring, the king gives to Sakuntala. The play is interesting as a specimen of courtship in ancient India and how it highlights the factors of class, beauty, gender and propriety that regulated and influenced behavior between lovers. Furthermore, the well-developed personalities of the dramatis personae offer readers privileged entrance into the minds of characters as they move through their passions and predicaments.

To read an English translation of the text, click here.

Further reading: 
* Kalidasa.  The Recognition of Śakuntal-a: Śakuntal-a in the Mah-abh-arata.  Ed. W. J. Johnson.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001. 

Jakata Tales

Bhutanese painted thangka of the Jatakas, 18th-19th Century, Phajoding Gonpa, Thimphu, Bhutan. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Jataka Tales are a collection of 547 verses and accompanying folk tales and commentaries about the many incarnations of the Buddha compiled between 300-400BCE. Only the last 50 verses were intended to be intelligible without commentary. These tales reflect the cultural and linguistic diversity present in India during classical times. Instead of the use of Sanskrit, scribes used Pali in these tales, another ancient literary language, derived from a different Middle Indic dialect. Furthermore, instead of narrating the lives of the incarnations of Hindu deities (e.g. Ramayana), these tales combine ancient folk legends with beliefs surrounding the Buddha and his teachings.

As a canonical Theravada text, an orthodox branch of Buddhism that permeated all of South and Southeast Asia, the collection was translated and transformed in a number of other languages including Malay, Lao, Burmese, Khmer and Tibetan. The Jataka Tales formed an important role in moral instruction in antiquity and were frequently the subjects of art and architecture. They are still referred to today, being performed theatrically and ritually throughout Asia. 

To read an English translation of the text, click here.

Further reading:
* Francis, Henry Thomas and Edward Joseph Thomas, eds.  Jataka Tales.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1916.

Valmiki and the Ramayana 

The Battle at Lanka, Ramayana, by Sahibdin. It depicts the monkey army of the protagonist Rama (top left, blue figure) fighting Ravana—the demon-king of the Lanka—to save Rama’s kidnapped wife, Sita. The painting depicts multiple events in the battle against the three-headed demon general Trisiras, in bottom left. Trisiras is beheaded by Hanuman, the monkey-companion of Rama. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Ramayana is one of India’s greatest epic tales recounting the adventures and misfortunes of Lord Rama (an incarnation of the Hindu supreme god Vishnu) and his faithful wife Sita (an incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi). It was written down between 400-200BCE during the Magadha or Maurya dynasties by the famed poet Valmiki. Alongside the Mahabarata (the history of a classical war), the Ramayana, or Journey of Rama, forms an integral part of the Hindu canon. Because of the epic’s impact, actual cults have formed around the author and the incarnation of Rama he animated in the text. The work’s great influence has also spread beyond the borders of India into other parts of South and Southeast Asia to inspire native Thai, Laotian, Malay and Cambodian renditions of the tale. 

The epic is written in a 32 syllable meter called anustubh and comprises 7 books, 500 cantos, and 24,000 verses, enough to recount almost the entire life of Rama from birth through his reign as King of Ayodhya. The seven chapter divisions of the epic provide a synopsis of the grand scope of the tale: 

(1) Book of the Childhood: The birth and training of Rama and his marriage to Sita, binding the two kingdoms of Janaka and Kosala together. 
(2) Book of Ayodhya: Rama’slife in Ayodhya, capital of Kosala, as a prince after marriage to Sita. 
(3) Book of the Forest: Because of palace intrigue, Rama and his wife are exiled and lead an eremetic life in the jungle for 17 years. Sita is captured by demons and Rama pursues them across India. 
(4) Book of Kishkindha: Rama and his faithful servant, Lakshman, pursue Sita and enter the kingdom of the monkeys. 
(5) Book of Auspiciousness: Hanuman’s, the monkey king, journey to (Sri) Lanka where he finds Sita in the fortress of demons. 
(6) Book of the War: A battle between Rama’s armies and the armies of the demon Ravana. 
(7) Book of the Afterword: an epilogue narrating Rama’s life after returning to Ayodhya and the subsequent trials and assumption of Sita. 

The epic, apart from its entertaining, episodic aspects, has for centuries been used as a source for the study of important religious doctrines and social norms and behaviors. It is a literary manual for how to act within Hindu society. The main characters, many of whom are incarnations of Hindu gods, are considered paragons of their social stations: Rama, the ideal husband and leader; Sita, the ideal wife; Lakshman, the ideal friend and servant, etc. Because of this, while enjoying the mythology of India we also gain special insight into a script for ancient Indian society. 

To read an English translation of the text, click here.

Further reading:
* Valmiki.  TheRāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki: an Epic of Ancient India.  Ed. Robert P. Goldman.  Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990. 

The Monuments of Mahabalipuram


Mahabalipuram, or Mamallapuram, is a town in the Kancheepuram district in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and was the chief seaport of the Pallavas who ruled over most of Southern India from the 1st century BC to 8th century AD. It is famous for its monuments, which are classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Most of the monuments were built in the period of Narasimharvarman I Mamalla. They are composed of rathas (temples in the form of chariots), mandapas (cave sanctuaries), rock reliefs, monolithic rathas, and temples built from cut stone.

The rathas stand at the southern edge of Mahabalipuram. Four of the temples are carved out of a single granite boulder from the Coromandel coast in the 7th and 8th centuries. The rathas are replicas of the chariots of Arjuna, Bhima, Dharmaraja, Nakula-Sahadeva—the five Pandava princes of the epic Mahabharata—and their common wife, Drapaudi. Work on the temples stopped after the death of Narasimha Varman in 668.

Most famous relief depicts “The Descent to Earth of the Sacred River Ganges.” The relief portrays a moment when the wise King Baghirata begged Shiva to order the Ganges to nescend to Earth so that the world could be nourished. About 20 ft high and 80 ft long, sculpture used natural fissure dividing the cliff to suggest the event, depicting over a hundred figures of gods, men and beasts.

In the early 8th century, work began on the Shore Temple, which was built to honor Lord Shiva. The Shore Temple is important because it is the earliest known example of a stone-built temple in South India. Its location by the ocean has corroded the stone and some of the statues are no longer recognizable.

The Temple of Rivage, constructed under King Rajasimha Narasimavarmn II (659-722), is also notable. It contains thousands of sculptures dedicated to Shiva and has a high-stepped pyramidal tower.