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East and West: Three basic differences between Indian and Western Classical music

  • Author: Jameela Siddiqi

There are three fundamental ways in which Indian classical music differs from its Western counterpart: first, there is absolutely no concept of harmony (in the musical sense) in Indian classical music. There are no chords – only notes and the 'spaces between' them (or microtones, known as sruti) with each note played one at a time to maintain clarity and purity. Unlike Indian film music, there is no orchestration and even the now fairly common duets (known as jugalbandi) between soloists do not really have a place in the traditional classical music of India.

Recitals usually only involve a solo instrument – or a single voice – with a minimal accompaniment consisting of tanpura (a lute which produces a continuous drone), some kind of melodic accompaniment (originally the sarangi or surmandal, but nowadays usually a harmonium) and percussion. Vocal music is considered the highest form of music and every musical instrument is said to be fashioned to imitate the human voice.

The second difference is that Indian classical music is largely an oral tradition, facilitating continuity by being sung and played the same way by succeeding generations. But because it is also an improvised art, it means that each musician of succeeding generations can not only add a great deal of creativity but also set a distinct personal style. The raag (melodic structure) itself may be carved in stone and confined to strict rules but because there is no written score, there is no culture of producing an accurate and faithful copy of that score. So, it's a strange mixture: purity combined with full freedom for improvisation and innovation.

The third way in which Indian classical music differs from its Western counterpart is that where Western music generally attempts to create a mood as it progresses, Indian music concentrates on exploring a mood from every possible standpoint, plummeting to the very depths of the emotions it creates, but always remaining at the periphery rather than jumping into the centre.

Hence, the chosen raag is unfolded very enticingly, note by note and only gradually building up in rhythmic intensity to a fast tempo. The entire effect is lost if either the performer or their listeners appear to be rushed – always a danger given the time constraints in performance venues in the Western world.

In an interview with Darbar, Benares tabla maestro Pandit Sanju Sahai reminded us that "we should not rush any aspect of this music".

Even so, Indian musicians who are true to their art and sincere in bringing it before the public, have always taken care that their music is not shown all at once but is revealed in a way that makes listeners feel they are making a brand new personal discovery. Musicians are required to perform with a carefree abandon, but are never allowed to get carried away. Whilst novices tend to brim over with excitement, wanting to quickly show everything they know, the experts – the maestros, that is, always manage to leave something unsaid, which in the eyes of many is what turns a good performance into one that is simply outstanding. 

Jameela Siddiqi is an author, linguist, and BBC cultural commentator, specialising in postcolonial fiction and the devotional music of South Asia.

Darbar believes in the power of Indian classical music to stir, thrill, and inspire. Explore our YouTube channel, or subscribe to the Darbar Concert Hall to watch extended festival performances, talk and documentaries in pristine HD and UHD quality.

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