If you’re a private music teacher in the suburbs of a big city, chances are you have a handful of Indian families, as they happen to be a large immigrant group that primarily settles in these communities. Chances are, as well, that the parents have expressed to you a need that they would like YOU to teach their children the basics of classical Indian music. Now, unless you have spent a significant portion of a World Music class in college on this topic, studied abroad in India, or have been exposed to it in some other major way, you will shy away from what seems to be such an overwhelming and foreign topic. So here are a few important things to know about classical Indian music theory:
First, there are two major variants/schools of Indian classical music: Hindustani (northern) vs. Carnatic (southern). Before you start teaching a student one or the other, make sure you check with the parents to see what part of India they are from and which type they prefer you teach! For the sake of simplicity, for the fact that it’s more structured and less influenced by neighboring cultures, and for the overwhelming amount of families that come from the southern region, we will be focusing mainly on the Carnatic approach.
You may not realize this, but Classical Indian music is organized very much like classical Western music! Let’s start with the basics of pitch. Just like how European countries developed moveable-“do” solfège, Indian musicians and theorists developed a system to represent pitches of a “scale” and the relations of pitch, known as “swaras.” Here are those parallels: Western solfège: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, and Ti; Indian Swaras: Sa, Ri, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, and Ni. And of course there are syllables to represent chromatic half steps and variations: Su Ri (Ra), Sa Ga (Me), Pa Ma (Fi), Su Dha (Le), Kai Ni (Te). If you noticed, Sa (Do) and Pa (Sol) are constant, and reflect our system’s importance of the Tonic and Dominant notes in a scale. Komal (lower half step and can only be applied to Ra, Ga, Dha and Ni, shown with horizontal line below note symbol) and Tivra (higher half step, only for Ma, shown with vertical line above note symbol) can also be applied, similar to flats and sharps. Be warned! These are only shorter versions of the full names, to make it simpler to remember and teach. Don’t be surprised if you see the actual names (“Shadjam” is Sa), or even abbreviations, with just the first letter (Sa becomes “S”).
From these Swaras, come Ragas, which are similar to scales, but have more in common with ancient Greek modes, in that they contain an arrangement of certain Swaras (varying intervallic patterns) that convey certain thoughts, moods, expressions, and “colors.” Hence, these Ragas can be thought more as modes, than scales. However, it is best to think of Ragas as complicated melodic patterns and formulas.
Also, just as we might distinguish between Bass C (C3), Middle C (C4), and Treble C (C5), classical Indian also makes a similar distinction between ranges, or series of swaras, known as Sthayi. These are combined with the shortest abbreviations of swaras with dots below to indicate lower octaves, and dots above to indicate higher octaves. The lowest is named Anumandra with two dots below, then going higher: Mandra, one dot below, Madya (middle range) with no dots, Tara, one dot above, and highest is Ati-Tara, with two dots above.
There is also a system for subdivision, which is called “Kala.” Prathama Kala (1st speed) is one pitch per beat and can be thought of as a quarter note in 4/4 time, Dwitiya Kala (2nd speed) is twice as fast, like 2 eighth notes per beat, and Tritiya Kala (3rd speed) is even twice as fast as before, like 4 sixteenth notes per beat.
Lastly, Indian classical music uses a system that can be thought of as meter or time signature. This is generally called Tala, and Angas are specific “note values” with specific symbols. Anudrutham (U) is 1 beat. Drutham (O) is 2 beats. Laghu (I) can vary as 3, 4, 5, 7, or 9 beats (each variation has its own name). Guru (8) is…8 beats! Plutam (written as I above, 8 below) is 12 beats. And finally Kakapadam (+) is worth 16 beats. The first 3 Angas are most widely used, and have a physical system of hand clapping, waving, and counting on fingers to facilitate counting, just as we might clap our hands and hold and shake for different lengths of notes. Anudrutham is a simple clap of one hand, palm facing down. Drutham is shown by one clap, then a hand wave, or upside down clap. Laghu is first a clap, then tapping the remaining varying beats with fingers on the other hand, starting from the pinky, working towards the thumb, then back again. Combining these “lengths” or Angas in different combinations, we get the 7 Sapta Talas, which are the main talas, or meters. For example, Triputa Thalam, which is a common tala, uses a Laghu of 4 beats + Drutham, 2 beats + another Drutham of 2 beats and is shown in symbolic notation as IOO. In this way, it is much like modern-era time signatures that composers like Dvorak used, such as 7/8 (3+2+2).
It should also be noted that certain ragas are traditionally sung at different times of the day, different seasons, are characterized as male, female, etc., so from this aspect, Indian classical music is much stricter about performance than our system. However, this is becoming less standard in modern times.
Hopefully this is more enlightening than confusing. It is ALWAYS best to consult with a guru from the Hindustani or Carnatic tradition to clear up anything. And be sure to stress to your Indian families that you will only be able to introduce their children to the basics, as it takes YEARS to master this ancient system of music from South Asia!