Indian Music Etiquette for Listeners: learn about the unspoken rules for audiences

  • Author: Jameela Siddiqi

As an ancient tradition, Indian classical music carries its own hereditary code of etiquette and, apart from the guidelines governing the master-disciple relationship (see Guru-Shishya-Parampara), there are equally strict rules for listeners and audiences - not only to be observed at formal recitals but also during informal visits to a maestro, even if it’s just a two-minute meeting backstage.

Before Indian music started to be performed in Western-style concert venues around the world, these rules of etiquette were instinctively known to Indian concert goers and had never had to be spelled out. This is because public performances gradually evolved and took on board the same rules as the original performance contexts of Indian classical music: as devotional practice in a Hindu temple, or at the shrine of a Sufi saint or as part of the worship ritual in a gurdwara (Sikh temple).

Its other vital historical context was as chamber music in a royal court or darbar. Both these contexts – religious and royal – necessitated immense respect and reverence for one’s surroundings as well as for the performers. Being on one’s best behavior would also have come naturally to audiences because the very act of listening to music is, in itself, considered a religious act.

Nearly all musical recitals involved musicians as well as listeners sitting at the same ground level (not separated by a stage) and musicians thought this the best way to get maximum audience interaction and eye-contact, a vital part of an Indian classical recital, whereby the performer can receive continuous inspiration and appreciation. Even today, some senior maestros ask for auditorium lights to be left on.

While audiences are expected to observe pin-drop silence while the performers are tuning (see article on tuning), novices find it strange that listeners can loudly utter praise for all to hear while a performance is still in progress (see the language of Indian music appreciation). This is because applause at the end of a piece was not considered appropriate in the old days, being more associated the circus ring.

Appreciation – to be expressed immediately at an appropriate point – was to utter some standard phrase in praise of God, rather than the musician, also reaffirming the belief that music is considered to have divine origins and only God can be praised for its beauty, the performer being merely a vehicle.

Performers and listeners alike would all sit cross-legged (with feet tucked under and out of sight) on a floor covered in white sheets. Shoes, of course, had no place at such gatherings and the no-shoes rule applies, even today, to those who work on stage before a recital in traditional settings. Audiences may now, of course, keep their shoes on but it is considered bad manners to recline or slouch in one’s seat, or point the feet towards the performers if seated in the front row. And, on at least one occasion, amorous couples have had to be asked – directly by a very senior maestro – to behave themselves.

Listen to the music | Ustad Shahid Parvez performs to a reverential crowd, playing a jhalla (pulsed rhythmic exploration) in Yaman, one of North India’s most famous ragas. Live from Darbar Festival 2018.


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

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