South Asian is a massive area and one would be naive to try and discuss every aspect of South Asia in one post. I would actually like to focus on North India (Which might also be a little ambitious but I’m gonna go for it anyway.)
In India there are several different states and union territories and I want to highlight some of the culture as seen through music in the north region of India. In order for you to be able to grasp how vast this portion of India has become, I am going to breakdown each major section while showing the population of the location and the different languages they speak to demonstrate the amount of diversity in this area of the world. Next, I would like to explore Hindustani Instrumental Improvisation which is known as Raga and some instruments that make a unique impression.
The Northern Area of India Includes the following:
Districts Map of Delhi
“Delhi is a Union Territory situated in the northern part of India. It is the second-largest city by population and the largest metropolitan by area in India.” (Maps of India)
The Population in this location is nearly 17,000,000
The languages spoken in this area are English, Hindi, Punjab, Urdu
“Haryana is a state situated in North India. It shares its borders with Punjab and Himachal Pradesh in the north, Rajasthan in the west and south and Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh in the east. Haryana is surrounded by Delhi on the northern, western and southern borders.” (Maps of India)
The population in this location is around 25,000,000
The languages spoken in this area are Haryanavi, Punjabi and English
“Himachal Pradesh is one of the most popular states in Northern India. It spans over an area of 21,495 sq mi (55,673 km2), and it shares its borders with Jammu and Kashmir in the north, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh in the south, Punjab in the west and south-west and Uttarakhand in the south-east. Himachal Pradesh literally means Region of snowy mountains.” (Maps of India)
The population in this location is around 7,000,000
The official language of this location is Hindi.
Jammu and Kashmir
“Jammu and Kashmir is situated in the northernmost part of India. Jammu and Kashmir abounds in natural splendor mostly because of its geographic location. Nestled quietly in the Himalayan Mountains this state in India is filled with mountainous landscapes and numerous shrines.” (Maps of India)
The population in this location is over 12,500,000
Official languages of this area are urdu, Kashmiri and Dogn
“Uttarakhand is a state located in northern India. It was formerly known as Uttaranchal and was carved out of the north-western districts of Uttar Pradesh and the adjoining Himalayan Ranges. It is also called the Land of Gods because of numerous holy Hindu temples found across the different cities in the state.” (Maps of India)
The population in this location is over 10,000,000
Official languages of this area are Hindi and Sanskrit
“Punjab is another significant state situated in the northwest part of the India. It is one of the most naturally blessed states in the country. “ (Maps of India)
The population in this location is nearly 28,000,000
Official languages of this area is Punjabi
“Uttar Pradesh also popular as U.P, is a state situated in northern India. It is the most populated state in India with a population of almost 199 million people. It is also known as the cultural cradle of India since it is believed to be the birthplace of Hinduism.” (Maps of India)
The population in this location of almost 199,000,000
Official languages of this area is Hindi, Urdu
Hindustani is an Instrumental Improvisation which is known as Raga.
Raga is beautifully described in the following passage from the book World Music:A Global Journey 3rd Edition
Raga is defined as “A mode or system of rules and procedures for composition and improvisation in Indian classical music.” (Miller, Shahriari pg.98)
“The word raga (or rag, meaning “color” or “atmosphere”) denotes a comprehensive system for the simultaneous composition and performance of music in both North and South India…Raga comprises several elements, the first being tonal material (what might be called a “scale”). These “scales” consist of a hierarchy of strong and weak notes, a set of typical melodic figures, and a set of extra-musical associations with such things as moods, times of the day, and magical powers.” (Miller, Shahriari pg.98)
Most children in the U.S. go to a school that has music as an elective. In this music the students get to learn about solfège (Do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do), It’s all coming back to you isn’t it? Well, Now that I have peeked your interest, in India they have an equivalent solfège which uses sa-re-ga-ma-pa-dha-ni-sa as it’s base. Unlike the west music culture where only 12 pitches are used, in India there are 22 pitches that are able to be utilized!
Now that we understand the basics of Raga, let’s delve into some important instruments that define North India.
First we have the Tambura. The Tambura belongs to the Chordophone family in the Sachs-Hornbostel instrument classification system and is a long necked lute with four strings and a large gourd body. The Tambura provides a buzzed timbre due to threads that vibrate against the bridge of the instrument. “The person who plays this instrument, often a young disciple or a spouse of the lead instrumentalist, simply plucks the four strings successively throughout the raga. The four pitches reinforce the two most important pitches of the raga, usually the fundamental or “home” pitch (sa/pitch I) and another an interval of a fifth above (pa/pitch V)(Miller, Shahriari pg.99).
I’ve included a picture below so you can see exactly what it looks like.
The Sarod is an instrument that typically forms the melodies when featured in an ensemble. This instrument is also a long-necked lute which has six strings of metal running down a metal-fretless fingerboard to large tuning pegs. There are also 11-15 “sympathetic” metal strings running from within the neck (out through small, ivory-lined holes) to a series of smaller pegs on the side of the neck.”(Miller, Shahriari pg.99) This instrument typically is about 40 inches and is played horizontally, like a guitar.
The Tabla is a combination of two drums put together. These two drums are described as “small cylindrical wooden drum with a single head called tabla and a larger, rounded metal drum with single head known as baya”(Miller, Shahriari pg.100) The fascinating thing about this membranophone is that it is tuned to floor pitch of the Raga, which creates a more melodic timbre to the drums within the music.
Something that is purely incredible about a lot of the instruments of this culture is the ability that the artists have to be creative with the given scales and how much dexterity they have while playing these instruments. Something else that is really interesting is that Raga’s are meant to be performed at a proper time of day. This is something that isn’t emphasized in western culture and it’s hard for me to relate music of my cosmology to the concept of listening to it at a certain time of day.
Overall, North India is full of fascinating instruments and concepts of weaving melodies into their music with using an improvisational style of Raga. There is so much diversity in this area of the world and it’s no wonder that the tradition of this cultures music has created one of the most complex and interesting sounds that audiences everywhere are able to experience.