Carnatic, Hindustani

North and South: One country, one music, two classical traditions

  • Author: Jameela Siddiqi

A very gradual and long-drawn out evolution through complex historical and social factors eventually led to two distinct traditions associated with two different ethnicities. The people of North India are, broadly, defined as Aryan whilst the southerners are known as Dravidian – with the latter believed to be the original inhabitants of the Indian sub-continent.

Many differences between the two traditions come from the fact that the languages of the North and South belong to two entirely different language groups, meaning that the same raags and musical concepts are often known by entirely different names. But the largest musical differences between the two traditions stem from Muslim rule in North India (from the 12th to the middle of the 19th century).

This resulted in many Turko-Persian elements being introduced into what had been the ancient and sacred classical music of the Hindus of India. South Indian music remained relatively free from external influences. It was also largely during the period of Muslim rule that Indian music came into the royal courts with performance taking precedence over devotional ritual.

The two traditions share a great deal in common – with raag (melodic structure) and taal (rhythmic cycle) at the centre of both traditions – but the result is markedly different so that even a relative novice can usually distinguish between the two distinct sounds. Many raags are shared between the two traditions – albeit often under different names – but there are many that are unique to either North or South Indian music.

Although there are always exceptions to the rule, certain instruments have come to be the mainstay of one or the other tradition. For instance, the violin, introduced into South India during the 18th century, is very rarely heard in North Indian music whilst it is predominant in the South both as a solo instrument as well as melodic accompaniment. Similarly, the sitar and sarod – the two most popular string instruments in the North – are almost never used in the South.

In the vocal genres, Carnatic music is heavily text-laden and many songs are composed with dozens of verses whilst in the equivalent North Indian genre, four to six lines of text can suffice for a performance of an hour or more.

South Indian classical music has its own array of percussion instruments too – mridangam (a barrel-shaped drum with a deep resonant sound) and ghatam (clay water-pot), whereas in the North, the most usual percussion accompaniment is the tabla, played in two 'halves'.

In the last 200 years or so, there has been a growing trend towards mixing raags from both traditions of music and there has been considerable give and take between performers in terms of working together to create innovative styles of North-South fusion. 

Listen to the music | Pandit Kushal Das and Shashank Subramanyam, two virtuosi from the North and South respectively, meet to trade their cultures' ideas over a dual tabla-mridangam drum lineup. Live from Darbar's stage at Italy's Ravenna Festival in 2017.

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.

Be notified when we add a new articles

Festival 2020

XXth June 2020, Venue Name

read more

buy tickets

Other articles you may like

9 Sep 2019

Exploring Raag Malkauns: 'He who wears serpents like garlands'

Breaking down the origins and shapes of Raag Malkauns, an auspicious form with dark, divine origins. By George... Read More

11 May 2019

An Introduction to Khayal: Highly ornamented song

Khayal is now the most dominant form of North Indian classical vocal music. The word (also spelt khyal) comes from... Read More

11 May 2019

The Mridangam: an ancient, divine drum

One of the most ancient drums of India, the mridangam, which literally means 'body of clay', originated in South... Read More

New to indian Classical Music?

The beginner's guide to Indian classical music. Whether you’re completely new to raga music or just need a refresher, we’ve put together this brief overview of all things raga music to help you feel at ease when visiting one of our concerts or watch our videos on our YouTube or our Darbar Concert Hall.


Follow us

Keep up to date with the latest news, events, music and musings across our social channels

YouTube latest

For hundreds more clips and shorts, vist our YT page here

Subscribe to our newsletters

Be the first to hear before events go on sale. Get the latest news and articles from Darbar