Dance & Music India

Music and dance in India are among the oldest forms of classical arts with traditions that date back several centuries. Musical forms prevalent today have roots in the book 'Samaveda'. The source of Indian dance forms is the 'Natya Shastra', regarded as the fifth Veda, written between the second century B.C. and second century A.D. The uniqueness of Indian classical dances is that they are all devotional in content, using the body effectively as a medium of communication to express moods and emotions. Indian music has developed within a complex interaction between people of different races and cultures. Today, Indian classical music can be classified into two broad traditions, north Indian and south Indian. The north Indian tradition is known as Hindustani Sangeet. The different forms of Hindustani music are Dhrupad, Dhamar, Khayal, Tappa and Thumri. The south Indian tradition of music is called Carnatic Sangeet. Both traditions are fundamentally similar but differ in nomenclature and the way they are performed.

Music Indian music is based upon two pillars. They are 'Raga', which is the melodic form, and the 'Tal', the rhythmic form. The 'Raga' is India's unique contribution to the world of music. Ragas attempt to evoke the interaction of man's emotions with his environment. They are sung at an appointed hour of the day or night. Ragas are made of different combinations of some or all of the 'sapta swara' (the seven notes). They are Sa Sadjam, Ri Rishab, Ga Gaandhaar, Ma Madhyam, Pa Pancham, Dha Dhaivad, Ni Nishad and are fundamental to Indian classical music, both Hindustani and Carnatic. Some of the most well known Ragas are:

Bhairavi Sindhu Bhairavi
Darbari Kannada
Jaijaivanti Khamaj
Megh Malhar
Shyarri Kalyani
Simhendra Madhyam

Vocal Music

Carnatic Music Carnatic music is considered one of the oldest forms of music in the world. Imbued with emotion and the spirit of improvisation, it also contains a scientific approach. This is mainly due to the contributions of inspired artists such as Purandara Dasa, known as the Father of Carnatic music.
The important element of Carnatic music is its devotional content. The lyrics of traditional compositions are set entirely against a devotional or philosophical background. Three saint composers Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshatar and Shyama Shastri have composed thousands of songs that remain favourites among musicians and audiences.
The Melakarta Ragams are the sixty two basic roots for all Carnatic music. All of these ragams have seven notes - Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Da and Ne. This system is divided into two sets of thirty one ragas. This is very similar to the Western concept of scales and the circle of flats.
The 'Sapta Talas' is the basis for rhythm in Carnatic music. The seven core Talas are Dhruva, Matya, Rupaka, Jhampa, Triputa, Ata and Eka Talams. Using these sapta talas, all of the one hundred and fifty Carnatic talams can be derived.
A typical Carnatic classical vocal performance begins with a 'varnam' (a composition with three parts: pallavi, anupallavi and chlttaswaram), followed with one or two short kriti (songs) to build up a tempo. This is then followed by an alaap/ragam. The singer sings without words, concentrating on the notes of the raga, improvising within its structures.
Although, the singer is presenting a composition, most of the music is still improvised, with the composition acting as a refrain for the improvised material. The singer may end the concert with some lighter classical pieces like a ragamalika, bhajan or a thirupugazh.

Hindustani Music Dhrupad is an ancient style of Hindustani vocal music. It pre-dates other forms of vocal music like Khayal, Dadra and Thumri by a number of centuries. In the Dhrupad performance, the singer is accompanied by a tanpura and a pakhawaj. The performance begins with a long, complex alaap and the treatment of the compositions is different from the khayal. It focuses more on the nuances of the raga and the text and less on technical feats.
Khayal is the most popular type of classical vocal performance today. The singer begins with a short alaap in which the characteristics of the raga are developed. No words are sung, but the singer concentrates on the notes of the raga while improvising within its structures. Each phrase that the singer sings may be repeated by the accompanist. When the raga has been properly introduced, the first composition, bandish (Bada Khayal) begins. The tabla enters in a very slow tempo - one cycle of the tal may take a minute or more. Although the singer is presenting a composition, most of the music is still improvised, with the composition acting as a refrain for the improvised material.
Thumri is a lighter classical vocal style that developed around the middle of the nineteenth century from a style called Lachari. Thumri has grown so significantly, that it can be divided into a variety of sub-genres. Dadra, Hori, Chaiti, Kajri and Jhoola are some of its prominent forms, which are heard separately in a performance. Other light classical music is usually rendered in a medium (madhya kaal) or fast (teevra gati) tempo and will not have a lengthy alaap. The emphasis is on presentation of the text, rather than nuances of the raga.

Ghazal The Ghazal is a form of Urdu poetry that is sung. Eloquent 'shayari' (poetry), gentle 'mausiqui' (music) and fragile 'jazbaat' (emotions) combine to create the Ghazal. The music for the Ghazal is slow paced and the lyrics are often repeated twice or thrice. The first couplet of a ghazal is 'matla' and the finishing couplet is called 'makta'. The remaining couplets are called 'misra' and 'antara'.

Qawwali Qawwali is a high-pitched and fast paced style of singing that was developed in the thirteenth century. During that period, Sufisrn was becoming popular in India and Qawwali emerged from the mystical sayings of Sufi saints. The followers of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti Garib Nawaz, the famous Sufi saint of Ajmer (Rajasthan), adopted and improvised Hindustani classical music to popularise 'qual' (or the sayings of Sufi saints) which resulted in a style of singing called Qawwali.
Despite originally having developed from mystical music it later also began to include romantic themes.

Folk Music

Folk music of India is the most natural representation of the emotions of the masses. It resonates with the vibrant diversity of the land and the traditions of simple folk. These songs are associated with every event of life. Be it festivals, advent of new seasons, marriages, births or even every day affairs like wooing a loved one or admiring nature etc. Although folk music originated within small regional confines, it has reached out to touch the hearts of masses across India. Marathi Bhajans are generally based on traditional Ragas. Mand is a Rajasthani folk tune recently elevated to a Raga and influences only a portion of Rajasthani folk songs.


Indian classical music has four types of instruments. They are the Tantru - stringed, Susir - wind, Avanada - percussion and Ghana - gongs, bell and cymbals. The most popular of these instruments are:

Dholak The Dholak is a drum used to accompany light forms of music like bhajans, ghazals, qawwalis and most of folk music. In the Carnatic school of music, the dholak accompanies nadaswaram and is called 'dhol'.

Ektara The Ektara is the simplest stringed instrument as it only has a single string that is plucked by the fingers. The string serves as the drone as well as the rhythmic accompaniment to the chanting of the mendicants and wandering minstrels. It is made from a single piece of bamboo with a large gourd attached to it.

Flute This is a wind instrument that is common since the ancient days in India. It has a religious context as Lord Krishna is pictured with a flute and the instrument is also embedded in the music of the Buddhists. Furthermore, the ancient frescoes of Ajanta and Ellora depict the flute or Bansuri as an accompaniment to vocal and instrumental music in ancient India. In India, the instrument is made from a cylindrical bamboo pipe of uniform bore and contains six holes for movement of fingers and a bigger hole for blowing air.

Jaltarany Jaltarang literally means 'water waves'. The instrument consists of about eighteen porcelain cups of different sizes, each possessing a distinctive tone. The cups are arranged in a semi-circle in front of the performer, beginning from the largest to the smallest. The bigger cups produce a deep pitch while the smaller have a higher pitch. The level of water in the cups also helps to control the pitch, a higher water level contributes to a lower pitch.

Ghatam An ancient percussion instrument often heard in Carnatic music concerts. The instrument is a mud pot with an open mouth that is played by hands, wrists and fingers. The player of the Ghatam can elicit various volumes and tones by executing the finger strokes at different parts of the instrument- neck, center and bottom.

Mridangam Commonly used in south India, it is among the most highly developed and most ancient of all percussion instruments. It is a cylindrical hollow block of wood with hide being used to cover the two ends. A wide variety of tones can be obtained from different parts of the instrument.

Nadaswaram It is believed that the Nadaswaram evolved from the snake charmer's 'Pungi'. It consists of a wooden mouthpiece into which air is blown. This air is released from the lower end of the gourd through two bamboos or metal pipes producing sound. The Nadaswaram formed an integral part of temple music and was extensively used in the 15th and l6th centuries. It still plays an important part in Carnatic music.

Pakhwaj The Pakhwaj originates in north India and is similar to the Mridangam except for slight differences in construction and playing techniques The Pakhwaj is played with an open left hand, whereas southern musicians use the left side similar to the tabla players. The use of this instrument is only confined to classical compositions like Dhrupad and Dhamar.

Santoor The Santoor is the offspring of the Vana Veena from the Vedic period and is extensively used in the Kashmir Valley. It is made of a trapezpidal wooden box
And has thirty bridges and a set of four strings of metal which are stretched over each pair of bridges. The instrument is played with a pair of flat wooden pieces curved at the striking ends. Today, the Santoor is played with all Indian ragas and is also used extensively in Indian film music.

Sarod Sarod is a string instrument made of wood with one end rounded and covered with parchment. There are six main metallic strings fastened to pegs at the neck of the instrument. It is played with a plectrum held in the right hand while the fingers of the left hand are used to play the notes. The Sarod has secured an important place in Hindustani classical music for its deep and rich tone and a distinctive sound.

Shehnai Of Persian origin, the Shehnai is a one reed instrument with six holes yielding a soft and melodious sound. Made of a smooth dark- grained black wood, the tube is narrower on the top and widens towards the bottom affixed in a cup. The notes it produces are continuous and generally used in classical and light classical music.

Tabla The Tabla, as it is often called, consists of a set of two drums. Both the drums are hollow from inside and are covered with hide fastened to leather straps stretched over the body of the drums by leather braces. These straps are pulled to raise or lower the pitch. In the hands of a master, the Tabia is capable of producing all patterns of rhythms with well-established time cycles (talas).

Sitar Invented in the 13th century by Amir Khusro, the Sitar is one of the most famous Indian instruments. Its name is derived from the Persian word 'she-tar', meaning three stringed. The instrument is made from seasoned gourd (which acts as a resonating chamber) and teak wood and has six to seven main strings. The main playing strings are first two and occasionallythe fourth for creating melody. Below the upper tier of seven strings there are thirteen strings meant for sympathetic resonance and are known as Taraf. Sitars are of varying sizes and some have an extra gourd at the end of the neck.

Veena This southern instrument is associated -with the Goddess Saraswati, the deity of learning and fine arts. The body of the Veena is made from a hollow block of wood, with its neck attached to the stem resulting in a figure that looks like the head of a dragon. The instrument consists of twenty-four fixed frets and seven strings. The Vichitra Veena of the north was introduced by Ustad Abdul Aziz Khan, a court musician in Indore. It has a broad stem and six main strings that are fastened to wooden pegs fixed to the other end. The Vichitra Veena is played by a plectrum and is capable of producing delicate nuances.

Violin The Violin is the only western instrument that has been completely absorbed into Indian music. The strings of the Violin in India are tuned to different notes than its western counterpart. The light tone of the steel string and the deep, almost human tone of the fourth string embellishes the peculiarities of Carnatic music.

Edakka Edakka is a sensitive percussion instrument. Made of wood a quarter metre long, the drumheads are held in position by interlacing cotton threads. The player beats the drum with one hand while simultaneously manipulating the strings with the other, thus creating a variety of musical notes.

Kombu Kombu, literally means horn. It is a C-shaped wind instrument made of brass or copper. Part of the Panchvadya ensemble, it is also played during religious processions.

Chenda The Chenda is a hollow cylindrical instrument made from softwood, the ends of which are covered with cowhide. It is the chief accompaniment in Kathakali, and is the most important instrument which is played in temples.


There is sculptural evidence from all parts of India that underlines the rich tradition of dance that flourished over a thousand years ago. Through this evidence, we see that in ancient India dance and music were not only seen as ways to celebrate, but also as offerings of worship and thanksgiving to the deity. Over the course of time, the dance forms practised in different parts of the country were codified and developed distinct identities according to the geographic, socio- economic and political conditions of each region. All dance forms were structured around the nine 'Rasa' or emotions. They are Hasya (happiness), Shoka (sorrow), Krodha (anger), Karuna (compassion), Bhibatsa (disgust), Adhbhuta (wonder), Bhaya (fear), Viram (courage) and Shanta (serenity).

Kathak This dance form traces its origins to the nomadic bards of ancient northern India known as Kathakaris, or story tellers. These bards, performing in village squares and temple courtyards, mostly specialised in recounting mythological and moral tales from the scriptures and embellished their recitals with hand gestures and facial expressions. It was quintessential theatre, using instrumental and vocal music along with stylised gestures to enliven the stories.
With the advent of the Mughals, Kathak was introduced in the King's durbar, thus moving this art from devotion to entertainment. The dance has two main techniques, the Nritya (pure dance) and the Abhinaya (expressions). The typical Kathak costume resembles Mughal miniature paintings and is performed by both men and women. Lucknow, Varanasi and Jaipur are recognised as the three schools, or gharanas, where this art was nurtured and refined.

Bharatnatyam This is one of the oldest and most popular forms of dance in India. Bharatha stands for Bhavana, which is mood, Raga is music, and Tala is rhythm, while Natyam stands for Nritya. Movement, mime and music are given equal importance in this dance. The costumes used in a performance are elaborate. The dancer's dress consists of colourful silk costumes, head-wear ornaments, necklaces and bangles. Flowers are wound around a long plait.
The dance was handed down from generation to generation under the Devadasi system. Women were dedicated to temples to serve the deity as dancers and musicians. These highly talented artists and the male gurus (nattuvanars) were the sole repository of the art until the early 20th century when a renewal of interest in India's cultural heritage prompted the educated elite to discover its charm.

Kuchipudi Kuchipudi developed in the state of Andhra Pradesh in southern India in a village called Kuchelapuram. According to tradition, Kuchipudi was originally performed only by Brahmin (priests) men.
Kuchipudi performances are dance dramas, commonly referred as Ata Bhagavatham. The technique of Kuchipudi makes use of fast rhythmic footwork and sculpturesque body movements. Stylised mime, using hand gestures and subtle facial expression, is combined with more realistic acting. Themes are mostly derived from the scriptures and mythology and the portrayal of certain characters is a central motif of this dance form. A unique feature of Kuchipudi is the Tarangam, in which the performer dances on the edges of a brass plate, executing complicated rhythmic patterns on the ground, while sometimes also balancing a pot of water on his / her head. Kuchipudi is accompanied by Carnatic music. A typical orchestra for a Kuchipudi recital includes the mridangam, flute and violin.

Kathakali Kathakali is the traditional dance of Kerala and is one of the oldest forms of theatre in the world. It is a combination of dance and drama where the actors depict characters from Indian mythology, mainly from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The facial expressions and hand gestures are an important facet of this dance form, enhanced by the traditional make- up and costumes. The make-up is of five types: Pacha, Kathi, Thadi, Kari and Minukku. The body movements and footwork in this dance are very rigorous. The dance is performed to live music and the tune of Chenda, a drum like instrument that produces thundering beats and the Maddala, an instrument which produces a softer and relaxed sound.

Mohiniattam This is a semi-classical dance from Kerala. It is essentially a solo dance, performed only by women. In fact, the word Mohini means a maiden who steals the heart of the onlooker.
Mohiniattam performances depict love and devotion to God. The hero of most performances is Lord Vishnu or Lord Krishna. The movements are graceful and the costume chiefly consists of a white sari and blouse. The vocal music for Mohiniattam is classical Carnatic.

Odissi Odissi is a traditional dance of the state of Orissa. Originally, this form of dance was performed in temples as a religious offering by the Maharis / Devadasis or temple dancers. The dance tries to capture human emotions of love and passion while keeping the performance soft and lyrical. Odissi is based on the popular devotion to Lord Krishna and the verses of the Sanskrit play Geet Govind, which are used to depict love and devotion to God. The dancers wear colourful costumes and traditional silver jewellery. Odissi dance performances involve a balance between pure dance and expressional dance with a combination of acting.

Manipuri Manipuri is regarded as one of the most beautiful dance styles of India and is intrinsic to the state of Manipur. The Lai Harob a ritualistic dance depicting creation is, considered the precursor of Manipuri. While Lai Haroba continues as a living tradition, Manipuri has expanded and gained popularity as a performing art in group and solo perrormances. The themes of Manipuri are usually based on the Raas Leela which depicts the cosmic dance of Krishna and the cowherd maidens. The beautiful embroidered skirts of the dancers are long and flared from the waist with translucent veils This along with Krishna's costume that has a tall peacock feather crown, adds to the radiant appearance of this dance as the performers sway and twirl to an ascending tempo.

Chhau The Chhau is a popular dance performed in Orissa, Bihar and W'est Bengal. In this dance the mask holds the dominant Rasa while the body creates, projects and develops the moods. Chhau has three schools, originating from Seraikella in Bihar, Mavurbhanj in Orissa and Purulia in West Bengal. All three forms are primarily martial dances and are hence somewhat similar, however, the costume and make-up in each or these is very distinct. While men dance all the three Chhau forms, Mayurbhanj Chhau uses no masks.
The themes are based on mythology, everyday life, aspects of nature or just a mood or emotion. Purulia Chhau, however, has a single focus - good triumphs over evil. The musical accompaniment for Chhau is provided by the Nagada (a drum), Dhol, a cylindrical drum and Shehnai (reed pipes). The steps of the dance are governed by patterns or rhythmic syllables played on the drums and any change of tempo is prefaced with a katan, a rhythmic flourish played three times in succession. Performed by men and boys, the item never lasts more than 7 to 10 minutes each, as it is difficult to dance longer wearing a mask. However, in Purulia Chhau, a single item could be for forty minutes and a performance all night long.