Hindustani or North Indian classical music (shastriya sangeet) is a musical tradition of the Subcontinent. It originated in Vedic ritual chants and has been evolving since the 12th century CE.
Today, Hindustani classical music forms one of the two sub-genres of Indian classical music, the other being the classical tradition of South India – Karnatak music. Very often, the most important distinguishing factor between the two forms of Indian classical music is the generally held belief that Karnatak music was essentially untouched by Mughal invaders and their Islamic ideas and is therefore a ‘purer’ form of Indian music whereas Hindustani music was essentially formed by them and is subsequently a ‘tarnished’ hybrid.
The interaction of Islamic social organisation with Hindu cultural expression and their interlocking in the face of British colonisation has not only led to the evolution of North Indian classical music, but has also left Hindus and Muslims in a constant struggle for cultural hegemony. However, what gets lost in this discourse are the reasons for one community’s supremacy, and the more significant notion that shastriya sangeet was embedded in a sense of place and that places are not fragments of space, but socially constructed entities that are invested with meaning by the people who inhabit them.
Up until the 16th century, the music of India, both in the north and the south, was an essentially Brahmanical activity – a cultural specialty which meant that not only was a music performance an avocation instead of a profession, but also a pathway to spiritual salvation.
With the arrival of Mughal rulers in the nineteenth century, classical musicians in North India were confined to Muslim ‘gharanas’ so Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande and Vishnu Digambar Paluskar began the reform to make Hindustani music accessible to the general public. However, the reform speeches exalted Hindu spiritual significance as the fundamental experience of classical music and schools mostly taught music theory and history as essentially ‘Hindu’. Some scholars also assert that the proponents of the reform downplayed the role of Muslims in the evolution and development of this particular genre. The curriculum at the bhakti (devotional) reform schools emphasised all Muslim influences as recent and not as fundamental as the music’s Hindu roots.
The debate is skewed in favour of the Hindus also due to the role of the government and upper class patrons who undertook the responsibility for shaping and preserving Indian national culture through written texts. From the 20th century onwards, Indian Brahmans, especially Bhatkhande, codified and systematised what had appeared, to a newly awakened Hindu consciousness concerning their musical traditions, a very chaotic and little-known system. The professional Muslim musicians did not write theoretical treatises – the substance was only embedded in memory because for them, musical theory was coded in an essentially oral medium, and ultimate authority consequently lay not in quasi-sacred texts but in quasi-sacred pedigrees which meant that theory was inherited just as one’s identity as a musician was inherited.
Regula Qureshi, an ethnomusicologist, explains the reasons for this difference in traditions: the Sanskrit treatises articulate the Hindu view of the past as mythological instead of historical and counted through cycles instead of centuries. This was written down and preserved by patrons in order to exemplify the Hindu’s cultural religious heritage. On the other hand, since the Muslim view of the past is chronological, Persian court records and chronicles portray music as a secular entity, a prominent part of the fine arts, notwithstanding the general negative perception of music in Islam. This freedom from religion results in artistic eclecticism but also a lack of motivation for religious patronage among Muslims.
After the British left the Subcontinent, and with the creation of India and Pakistan, two kinds of musical history were generated: in India, several musical journals in English provide a wide forum for a nationally based musicological discourse and a number of universities have research-based programmes producing historical scholarship in music. In Pakistan, little work exists; it is mostly in Urdu and of little historic orientation.
However, what is highly crucial to remember is the fact that Indian classical music is a notion embedded in a sense of place – in North India. This place was made up of Hindus and Muslims who contributed immensely, in their own ways, to the development of this form of music which remained not only stubbornly recalcitrant to colonial forms of discipline but, due to its associations with the elites of society, also became canonical.
The writer is an assistant editor at The News.