What is Classical about Indian Classical Music?

Posted on 21 July, 20204 min read

If I say “Indian Classical Music”, I am quite sure you know what form of music I am referring to. But an interesting question to ask is: what do we understand by the term Classical in Indian Classical music?

This is an important question whose answer is relevant both to a student as well as an expert musician. Through this post, I would like to share my understanding and thoughts on this question.

Indian Classical Music was not always like we know and understand today. Rather the story of Indian music has been one of continuous evolution over a period of 1500 - 2000 years. Despite many changes and a long evolution, many of the fundamental principles of Indian Ragas and Raga-based music have been around for many centuries. These principles have been documented in many historical books and scriptures. One could say, a more appropriate term for Indian Classical Music would be Shastriya Sangeet (or music based on Shastras or scriptures).

Now, any public discourse or presentation has two aspects to it: the knowledge and understanding of the subject, and the manner of communication. This is also the case with performing arts. Early on in the Indian tradition, the teaching of all performing arts (music, dance, drama, etc) was categorised into two major aspects - Lakshana (which referred to theory and grammar) and Lakshya (which referred to aesthetics and presentation). Here, I will talk about music in particular.

It is worth looking at the words Lakshana and Lakshya a bit closely. The word Lakshana can be translated to mean “characteristic”. In the context of music, it refers to the definable characteristics of the musical presentation. The word Lakshya can be translated to mean “intent” and refers to aspects of the musical presentation which are implied or intended by the artist.

Indian Classical music has evolved with Lakshana and Lakshya evolving hand in hand. In some instances, Lakshana were formulated after observing Lakshya, to provide a framework to reproduce that musical feeling. For example, folk tunes were taken and developed into Ragas. In other instances, Lakshya followed Lakshana. For example, Janya (derived) Ragas can be rendered in a manner suggestive of their Janaka (parent) Raga, despite not being directly required by Lakshana.

Indian Classical music has been documented in scriptures referred to as Lakshanagranthas (books of grammar). A few examples of Lakshangranthas related to music are Sangeet Ratnakar, Dattilam, Svaramelakalanidhi and Chaturdandi Prakasika. These books have been written by eminent scholars, musicians and musicologists like Sarangdev, Dattil, Raamamatya, Venkatmakhin, among others. While their main focus is on Lakshana, some of these works also talk about Lakshya.

These scriptures have been written over a period of many centuries. As Indian music has evolved, many great musicians and musicologists have analysed the music of their times, and have documented the same. These scriptures have not only contributed to establishing a references for the performance of Indian classical music, but also formed the basis for further development.

Lakshanas in Indian Classical Music deserve a separate post. But a few examples would include Gamakas (intonations of notes), Samvaditva (pairwise consonance of notes), etc. A few examples of Lakshya would be Bhava (mood of the Raga), Laya (choosing and maintaining an appropriate tempo), Raga (maintaining the identity of the Raga), etc. Lakshya also include etiquettes to be followed by an artist in a public performance.

Let us return to our question: what makes Indian Classical music “Classical”? Neither Lakshya nor Lakshana alone define Indian Classical music.

To have a full command over Indian Classical Music, it is imperative to have a proper understanding of both Lakshya and Lakshana.

Lakshanas create the framework, structure and consistency in presentation. But that alone does not make music. Within the framework, it is the artists’ skill, imagination and presentation, to create music which pleases themselves and listeners alike.