Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Review of a piece of Indian music.

Indian music has many different forms, both traditional and modern. There are many different traditions and varieties of classical and folk music played, which vary greatly depending on where the music is being played and the influences behind it. In this post I will be reviewing a song I have chosen.

(Picture from A selection of the many instruments used in Indian  music, including the table (pair of drums), dhol (large cylinderal drum) sarangi (bowed string instrument) and bansuri (Indian flute)

The piece I am choosing to review is "Raga Keeravani" It is a traditional Carnatic (Southern) piece, performed on the bansuri, which is also used in the Hindustani or Northern tradition, using the notes  sa ri ga ma pa dha ni.  It also has many janya, or ragas derived from it. It is part of the 72 fundamental ragas known as melakarta.

The raga is known for its soothing effect and can be used for meditation. It is known for its enchanting effect and can be quite wonderful and suprising (adbhut). It is also quite close to the minor scale in Western music.

(Picture from The swara of the Raga Keeravani.)

You can listen to it below:

The piece is mainly an alap/jor; both are slow to intermediate improvised sections with no percussion or tal. The song is thus a very slow and contemplative piece which lends itself perfectly to the feel of the Raga Keeravani, The drone of the song is also slow and helps give the song a good rhythm. The breathy, somewhat constrained sound also sounds quite mystical. The overall sound fits the emotion of adbhut and is good quality for meditation.

However, there are some downsides. Notably, the music, being designed for meditation, is quite repetitive, mainly being an alap and jor without that much of a gat or a jhalp. The sound of the bansuri can also become quite grating. However, I enjoy this song for the most part since the sound is immersive and can reduce stress.

(Picture from A painting of Hindu meditation. The Raga Keeravani is especially good as a meditation aid.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Differences between Indian and Western music and Indian music's influence on Western music

Indian and Western music are two very different traditions in almost every sense; their age, their instruments, their basic structure and most important the culture behind them. This post will explain some of the key differences:

The basic structure of Western music is quite constrained, following certain rules and practices. The Western system of notation, known more formally as staff notation, has been in existance throughout most of Western classical music's history and has its roots in medieval music which had been influenced heavily by Roman culture. Oral traition was originally used; later, in order for music to travel over a long distance a system known as neumes-- small marks above the text of a chant-- was used. Later these were put in different colours and at different heights to form the basis of the staff notation used today, in which symbols represent different note lengths are put at heights to indicate different pitches. Indian music, however, is indigenous to the subcontinent and based almost entirely around oral tradition, especially in the case of folk music where there is no "real" standardised system of education. As such, as mentioned in a previous post, the tradition of Indian music has been based around parampara; the passing down of musical knowledge from a guru to his shisya (students) As such the first system of musical notation was a suprising recent invention, mainly the work of Hindustani music scholar Vishnu Bhatkande.

(Pictures from and Bhatkhande's notation for Hindustani Indian music (in this case a tal rhythm) (above) and typical Western staff notation. Both systems use pictoral systems-- Western system using notes, Indian system using characters to represent swara-- and certain symbols to indicate other aspects of music (such as the Western f indicating forte ['loud'] and the Indian cross indicating sam [the starting note of the tal]. However there are quite a few differences. For example, the Western system puts notes at different heights whereas the Indian system leaves swara at the same height.

The fundamental elements which make up the music also differ within the Indian and Western traditions.
Although the Indian concepts of raga and tal are roughly equivalent to the Western ideas of scale and rhythm, the similarities are few. For example, whilst the Western idea of scale is merely a set of pitched notes to be played, the Indian idea of raga is a complex base for improvisation which differs from artist to artist, depending on time of day or year, emotion, and many other factors, made up of (usually) five swara. Similarly, whilst Western rhythm simply describes the way notes are player over time, in Indian music tals are a complex, regulated system of regular swara, played on percussion. The structure of songs is also different; whilst Western music uses verses and choruses, Indian music uses alaps and jors (slow improvised section with percussion) followed by a gat (the only part of the music that is written down) and finally a jhala (extremely fast improvised section with percussion).

And then of course there is the musical culture which exists within India. Whilst Western and Indian musical culture both have some shared themes, such as religion-- Christianity for Western music, Hinduism and Islam for Indian music-- there are notable differences. For example, Western musicians have traditional been taught by their families, nobility or in special music schools, Indian music education is largely based on the interchange of information between teachers and students. Also, in Indian musicians still play a special role in many festivals and rites, particularly in folk communities, this role has been substantially reduced in Western musical culture.

(Image from An Indian folk musician on a traditional instrument.

The influence of Indian music on Western music has been a recent occurance but is now fairly pervasive. The best known example would be George Harrison of the Beatles, who worked closely with Ravi Shankar (1920-2012), one of the best known Indian sitar players who is often known simply as "Pandit" ("Teacher")
Indian music more generally also influenced the whole psychedelic rock movement in general, which was founded on experimentation and perception-altering states. There was even a sub-genre known as "raga rock" in which musicians deliberately aimed to mimic the styles and instruments of Indian rock. Important bands from this movement included The Yardbirds, The Kinks and to some degree, the Beatles themselves, whose song "Norwegian Wood (This Bird has Flown)" was one of the main impetuses behind the whole movement. Many fusion and progressive rock bands were also influence by Indian music, such as John McLaughlin, a guitarist who formed the 70s band Shakti which fused Western and Indian elements and featured Hariprasad Chaurasia on the bansuri.

In more recent years bhangra has become popular. This is a form of Indian pop music influenced by Western, particularly British rock music which began in the 80s, although its origins stretch back to the 60s when immigrants from all over the Indian subcontinent began to play their instruments in Britain. It has become popular in both Britain and the US; America rapper Jay-Z even remixed one popular bhangra song in 2002. In recent years the success in bhangra has even led to a decline in classical instrument lessons in India as more and more Indian youth seek out Western instruments such as guitar and synthesiser as used in bhangra. Indian pop music has also been introduced to the West through the popularity of Bollywood films and filmi (film music).

(Picture from The Norwegian Wood EP by the Beatles on which George Harrison plays sitar. It was an important record in raga rock.

Finally, the drone used in Indian music has influenced not only psychedelic rock musicians but also those working in electronic music, particularly ambient. The entire "drone" subgenre of ambient music, developed around the 60s by bands such as the Velvet Underground and still somewhat popular today, is largely based around the Indian classical drone sound.

Modern bands playing Indian-influenced music include the Dhol Foundation, who both teach dhol technique and play bhangra music, founded by Johnny Kalsi, and the Asian Dub Foundation, an openly political band who combine an aggresive punk style and Indian lyrical and musical influences with other forms of music, such as Jamaican reggae and dub. Their song "Real Great Britain" from the 2000 album Community Music can be seen below:


My own knowledge
Dhol Foundation website
and others.

Musical Education and Life of a Musician in India

Indian musical culture is unique and quite different from that of the rest of the word, due in no small part to the high level of improvised tradition. Almost all musical education is for classical musicians; folk music remains a predominantly oral endeavor. Music education occurs in a wide variety of setting such as in schools, in special music schools, or even on the internet.

In ancient times, students (shishya) would be attached to a guru who would be their mentor for a long period of time, in most cases for over a decade-- the full curriculum of musical attainment lasted for 12 years! This system was known as Gurukula (from guru 'teacher' and kula 'extended family' in Sanskrit) or the "hermitage" system, after the eponymous secluded buildings in which the students lived with their teachers.  The training involved was onerous as students were expected not only to master their instruments but also to carefully interpret the various sounds of the music; this was so imperative to musical education that the education itself was often called "the art of audio-interpretation". As Indian music was at the time totally oral, the relationship between mentor and protege was considered extremely important, with the guru taking an active role in the student's life and guiding him through the difficult examinations. This means of education was used not only in music but also in other subjects, and lasted for at least several millennia, possibly up to 5,000 years. 


(Picture from A 1904 depiction of influential Hindu theologian and thinker Adi Shankara by Raja Ravi Varma, clearly illustrating the close relationship between a guru and his shisya. This was known as parampara, from the Sanskrit for 'uninterrupted series'. In return for tutoring the shisya or disciples were expected to assist the guru with menial tasks.

This form of education fell apart, due in part to the influence of Mughal rules from Muslim states, who saw music as a hobby, but mostly because of British rule. Under colonialism a new, syncretic form of education took root, pioneered by musicians and musicologists such as Vishnu Bhatkhande (1860-1936), who devised one of the first systems of notation (swar lippi) in Indian music which still prevails today. Under this system the first real music schools were set up, and students were taught not only performance skills but also musical criticism, teaching and researching, and other music-related fields. This method favoured a "kaansen" ("connoiseur, admirer") approach to music as apposhed to a "taansen" ("performer, maestro") approach.

(Picture from Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). As well as being a Noble Prize laureate, painter, poet and novelist, he opened the Visva-Bharati University, which featured special classes in music and the performing arts, one of the first universities to do so. He was given a knighthood in 1915 which he later gave up.

Today most universities have a music class available and there is a tradition of performing arts schools such as the Swathi Thirnu College of Music, founded in 1939. However, there are significant problems still extant within music education. Some students see music as a "hobby" and there is often confusion about what to teach. There is also a limit on resources due to the immense poverty within Indian society. As well as this, due to the popularity of bhangra and Western pop music many students choose to play the electric guitar or synthesizer instead of more traditional classical instruments.

Today technology often plays a role not only in Indian music itself but also within Indian musical education.Various synthsizers can be used when actual instruments are hard to come by or too expensive. Examples of these are the Shruti Generator, used to simulate the tamburi drone, and the Theka Generator, a drum machine. Modern computer technology can be used to analyse the elements of Indian music, and the Internet now has a surfeit of sites allowing one to learn a wide variety of Indian instruments, from the commonplace to the obscure.

(Picture from The tal mala, a common theka generator, equivalent to a drum machine.

Indian musicians play an important part in the Indian community and there are many opportunities for them to hone or showcase their skills. Musical culture in India goes back to ancient times and is probably indigenous to the subcontient. Despite this, there are many different traditions. The most notable of these are the Hindustani tradition, characters by its Mughal influences, and the Carnatic tradition which remained most free of these influences. There are also many smaller traditions within the many Indian states. However, one of the things almost all these traditions share is the importance of music in day-to-day life. Music is used for religious purposes-- both Hindu and Muslim-- in the form of devotional music such as the Sufi qawwali, as well as at weddings, festivals and public events. However, in recent years the importance of traditional music has been in somewhat of a decline, due not only to the use of electronics but also due to the popularity of Westernised styles such as bhangra.

Another possibility for Indian musicians is film and television. Early after autonomy most television and radio was controlled by the government, India at the time being influenced by Gandhi's self-sufficency and the Soviet Union's planned economy. The government insisted on broadcasting some classical Indian music performances and education. Music programming still holds onto a heavy presence within Indian television with many recent commercial music channels, some imported or influenced by Western channels (such as MTV India, launched in 1996 and enjoyed across the subcontinent, and its cousin VH1 Music, founded in 2005) and some home-grown, such as the 24-hour Imagine Showbiz. Music channels are available in many of the subcontinents numerous languages.

(Picture from The logo of All Indian Radio, founded in 1930. It remains India's national radio service and was known for its broadcasting of classical and traditional Indian music.

(Picture from An All India Radio broadcast in the 30s.

Music plays a huge role in Indian film, particularly in the Bollywood industry, named after Bombay (now Mumbai) where it was founded. It regularly produces more films than its Western equivalent Hollywood each year. The songs used are known in Hindi as filmi. The filmi and the dances that accompany them are an essential component of the Bollywood feel, which uses large setpieces and exaggerated storylines to convey themes of various genres such as happiness, excietment, tragedy etc. The films themselves are often known as masala ('seasoning' in Hindi). Lyrical themes in filmi draw upon classical and modern influences and can be quite poetic. Filmi form a massive part of Indian pop music and in recent years there has been a large Western influence.

Other opportunities for Indian musicians are immense. Musicians can either become classical concert musicians or they can participate in the large pop industry which includes bhangra music as well as Indian rock and Bangla (Bangladeshi rock), jazz and blues. In recent years there has also been a deman for music online and on media sharing sites, both legal and illegal.

An episode of RagaChitram, a classical Indian music and dance show, can be seen below:


World Music 101:
Google Translate
IMDB (Internet Movie Database)
and others.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Elements of Indian Music

The elements of Indian Music are quite different to those of typical Western music; these differences will be explained in more detail in a different post. Indian music is notable for being based around improvision and oral tradition, with far fewer songs being written down than in Western classical music. Thus, what exactly makes up a typical Indian song is described less clearly than what makes up a Western song, especially in the case of folk music. Due to this spirit of improvisation Indian songs can last for hours or even a day, begining in the morning and ending late at night!

Indian music uses three sections: melody, the main section of the songs (instruments include sitar, sarod and sarangi (Indian stringed instrument played with a bow, similar to a violin in both shape and timbre); rhythm, played on percussion such as dhol and tabla (twin drums); and drone, a pattern of repeated notes played on instruments such as the tambura and the surpeti (a small box, can be manual or electronic).

(Picture from An Indian raga, written in Western notation.

An Indian song will start with an alap (also splet alaap). This is a slow, instrumental section without any percussion. It is based upon the notes of a raga. Ragas are basically the concept of "scales" but the word itself (from the Sanskirt raga 'colour' or 'melody', related to the word for 'it is dyed') conveys so much more than a simple pattern of notes. Ragas are constructed out of five or more swara, which are quite simply just musical notes, played ascending and decending. They are: Sa, Re (also spelled Ri), Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha and Ni, shortened versions of their full Sanskrit names. In contradistinction to Western music, which has a limited selection of scales (such as the major and minor scales), there are hundreds of ragas. Which ragas is played depends on the time of the year or day and the feeling you want to achieve. Some feelings in Sanskrit include shanta (peace) hasya (happiness), bhaya (fear) and shingara (romance, love).

In order to play a raga you must not only remember which note to play, you must also remember than some swara take precendence over others. These are the vadi (king) and samvadi (vice-king or queen). The vadi is the most emphasised swara; the samvadi is a slightly less emphasised swara. Neutral swaras are known as anuvadi. Swaras which are quietened are known as durbal and ommited swaras are known as vivadi. However, in recent years this element of Indian music is becoming less important and may be eventually abandoned.

The swari can be divided into 22 shruti, said to be the smallest divisions audible. However, there has been scientific controversy both within and out of India regarding the exact number of shruti; the figure of 22 is based on the calculations of of Bharata, an ancient musicologist, and some have suggested that the number has changed since his time around the 3rd century BCE.

(Picture from A 17th century depiction of a raga performance.

Another element of Indian music is tal (from tal 'clap'), or rhythm, played on drums. Such patterns are used within Northern and Southern Indian music. They were first used within the Gandharva system of Indian music. In Southern or Carnatic music tals are sorted into different categories based on what jati (tala family) they belond to. In Hindustani or Northern Indian music, talas can be written down in a somewhat complicated notation system in which constists of pictoral representation of beats with marks to indicate which beats are especially significant, such as khali, a wave of the hands (the word means 'empty') ; tali, a clap of the hands, and sam, the start of the sequence. The system of notation is called swar lippi and is largely based around the work of Vishnu Bhatkande (1860-1936).

(Picture from Vishnu Bhatkande, who developed a system of notation for Hindustani classical music which remains used today at a time when Indian music was exclusively oral.

After the alap there may be a jor; this is a slightly faster intermediately-paced section of the song as a continuation of the alap and rag, It has a basic rhythm but no real cycle and is still sans percussion. The emotional function of the rag continues into the jor. Although the jor and especially its vocal vesion, the nomtom, have experienced a small drop in popularity, the jor remains a feature in almost all Indian song.

At the end of the jor the tal and gat begin. The gat is the only major section of the song which is not improvised but instead copied from written music. Two main types of gat exist, although the distinction is vague; masitkhani (the fundamental slow gat) and razakhani (fast gat). The gat acts as a sort of melody or chorus, although it is quite different. The gat is also known as a bandish from the word for 'binding together'. It is also the part of the song that provides the tune for singing.

Natyasastra of Sri Bharata Muni (Pt. IV)

(Picture from The Natyashastra, the magnum opus of ancient musicologist and theatrologist Bharata who devised the system of shruti.

Finally near the end of a song there is a jhala, an improvised section with an extremely fast tempo and a tal. Sometimes the tal will overwhelm the melody at this point. It is almost always used at the end of a sitar or sarod performance. During the jhala the sitar player puts emphasis on the two chikaris (drone strings) to create a unique sound.

An example of an Indian musician playing a typical gat on sarod from 1937 can be seen here:


and others.


The tambura is a stringed instrument, related to the lute, which is prominant both in Northern Indian music, where it is called the tanpura, and in Southern Indian music, where is it called the tambura. The instrument plays the essential drone part of an Indian song; a certain patter of notes held throughtout the song to help musicians keep in time. They are used either as solo instruments or to accompany a vocal piece.

(Picture from

The tambura's history in the Indian subcontinent streaches back to at least the 6th century and possiblily back to antiquity. it may be that the instrument is indiginous the Indian itself; Indian music has always been associated with devotion towards Hindu gods, and there exist depictions of the goodess Saraswarti playing the veena,a similar, earlier instrument considered to be . The veena is also mentioned in the Rigveda, the first of the four Vedas (Hindu holy writings), with has been dated to at least 1100 BCE. This part of Indian history is sketchy, but what is definitely known is that the drone was being used in the 6th century. Another influence on the tambura was the tanbur, a long-necked lute found in Persia (now Iran) which was introduced to India by the Muslims. The word "tanpura" itself comes from the words tana "musical phrase" and pura "complete".

The tambura;s first use within Indian chamber music is quite recent, dating back to about the 15th century. Its popularity remained strong as Indian entered its modern classical period around the 17th century; the word itself only entered Indian parlace around 1600. Today. the tambura remains one of if not the most recognisable drone instruments in recent years. However, the tambura's popularity is waning due to the newfound popularity of Western instruments within Indian yotuh culture. A recent innovation is the "electronic tambura"; a small synthesizer, shaped as a white box, which is used as a drone. This is far easier to tune and carry about than a regular tambura, but some musicians have expressed grave doubts about the authencity of the sound quality of an electronic tambura.

(Pictures from!B9PnLfgEGk~$(KGrHqQOKpYEy+jCy!rEBM5O7kcVKQ~~_35.JPG?set_id=8800005007 and Top: Saraswati, Hindu goddess of music, playing a veenu, one of the predecessors to the modern tambura. Bottom: A typical electronic tambura.

The construction of the tambura is quite varied. Generally, larger tamburas are called "male" and smaller ones are called "female". The actual construction of the tambura itself depends on region. Perhaps the best known variety is the Miraj tanpura played by Hindu, North Indian musicians. It is 3-5 foot in length and has a non-tapering neck, pear shaped face and a gourd resonator (recently, wood has become used for resonators although this remains a rareified practice). The Southern or Tanjor tambura, conversely, has a tapered neck and a falt face, although the lengths are very similar. Tanjor resonators are made from wood. Finally, there is the 2-3 foot long tamburi which is all wood and fairly shallow. Despite its sub-par sound it is often used by travelling folk musicians due to its small size and hardy material.

The tambura is famous for its rich and detailed sound, known as jivari, which is achieved through careful tuning and the use of cotton under the strings. The sound is a drone and thus very slow and repetitive. It is a quite "immersive" sound. I like the sound although it can get grating after a while. You can see an example of Northern Indian tampura playing here:

(Picture from A tanjor tambura; notice the flat face in front of the resonator.

You play the tambura by plucking the strings, which are like those of the sitar (Indian guitar) only without frets. The bridge is essential, as it helps provide the characteristic  "buzzing" noise of the drone. After tuning, you use thread at the bottom of the tambura to increase resounance. You can then pluck from highest to low. The strings of a tambura are made of wire or occasionally steel. There are almost always either four or five of them.

Similar instruments to the tambura include the Iranian tamur, the Turkish yakli tambur and even the tamburica  which is played as far as Central Europe. The many different long-necked lutes are due to the influence of the Persian tamur, which spread to numerous other countries.

(Image from A Eastern European tamburica.


and others.

Sunday, 13 October 2013


The Dhol is a large drum which is used not only in the North Indian tradition, but also in the music of Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as other regions in the Punjab region. Its use can be seen as far west as parts of Afganistan. It is one of the more well-recognised Indian instruments in Western culture due to its use in much popular music. It plays the rhythm section in Indian songs and is a membranophone; it uses a membrane to produce sound.

(Image from A typical dhol.

The word "dhol" is quite versatile and can refer to any drum with a barrel shape and two ends. Naturally due to this it has many names in the numerous Indian languages; the name "dhol" comes from Hindi, the most widely spoken and recognised tongue of the Indian subcontinent. A player of the dhol is referred to a a dholi. There are even different words to distinguish certain types of dhol from another; some of the types will be explained later in this post.

The predecessor of the dhol was the dohol, a very similar instrument which originated in Persia (now Iran) and which is still popular there, especially amongst the Kurdish minority. It was used to accompany Persian flute music. The dhol first achieved widespread use in India in the 15th century, although it was used to keep farmers working and during war rather than as a musical instrument at first. It is known that the dhol was used at court to entertain Mughal emperor Akbar by at least the 16th century, although the word does not appear in print until 1800. The dhol's history is confused, and it is unlikely that there was one major "moment of creation".

(Picture from Akbar the Great (1542-1605), who ruled much of the Indian subcontinent. His orchestra was known for its early use of dhols.

Today dhol music is used in heterogeneous contexts. Its most prominant use to Westerners is in bhangra, a style of Punjabi popular music. Although Indian immigrants first introduced the dhol to Britain as early as the 60s, it was in the 80s that the movement really reached its zenith as Indian instrumentation began to merge with British rock styles. The new genre quickly began popular amognst British Asian youths with some cassettes selling at rates of more than 30,000 a week. Some of the notable groups of this area include Sahotas (a fusion rock boy band) and Alaap, founded by Channi Singh, known as the "Godfather" of bhangra music. Despite a lull in popularity in the 90s bhangra music is alive and well, having combined with other genres such as hip hop and reggae, guided by produces such as Bally Sagoo (1964-) It typically uses Western instruments such as the synthesizer and electric guitar for the melody and Indian instruments such as the dhol and tabla for the rhythm. Lyrical themes center around topics such as love, relationships, money and happiness.

(Picture from Cover art of Mundian To Bach Ke, a single by Panjabi MC in 1998. It charted highly in many European countries and has been remixed my American rapper Jay-Z.

The dhol is also used within the Sufi or "mystical" denomination within Islam, particularly in West Punjab. They are used to induce religious fervour. In many other areas within the Indian subcontinent they have traditionally been used in festivals, although this practice is in decline.

There are two main types of dhol: the Punjabi bhangra dhol and the Bangladeshi kanthi dhol. The two are fairly similar, but there are many important differences. The Punjabi dhol tends to be smaller than the Bangladeshi dhol and indeed most other dhols; it measures in at a mere 13 inches for the head and 15 inches for the shell; Bangladeshi dhols are much larger, measuring two feet long with the circumference of the shells being three foot. Punjabi dhols use unique tassels for decoration. Bangladeshi dhol players are called dhulis and are remarkable for their long hair. The kanthi dhol features a large cloth known as gamcha used for decoration, and many players use a strap allowing them more freedom of movement as they play.

(Picture from A Pakistani Sufi dholi.

The construction of the dhol is a meticulous matter and differs from region to region. A piece of wood or other material is used for the barrel; this can be anything from Indian rosewood or Shisham to less conventional media such as steel or even plastic! The two openings are traditionally covered with goat skin, although in recent years plastic has been used, especially for Punjabi dhols. A sequence of ropes is used to tune the pitch and tightness of the sound. The left side is thicker than that on the right, thus producing a deeper sound.

Dhols are also used in other areas of the Indian subcontinent. In Gujarat they are used in the traditional dance forms of raas (a pair dance with sticks) and garba (a solo dance). It is also used in Indian tribal music. In Pakistan the instrument has had a notable presence, but its association with Sufism has led to its ghettoisation by Sunni fundamentalism.

(Picture from A depiction of a Gujarati raas dance.

The dhol produces a loud timbre due to its immense size. Each side of the dhol makes a different sound; one produces a regular drum noise, the other a metallic sound. The dhol's timbre is regular and rhythmic. I like its sound. An example of British dhol playing can be seen here:

How the dhol is played once again depends on region and tradition. The kanthi dhol uses a small drumstick on one side and hands on the other, although two drumsticks are occasionally used. Some dhulis use metal implements on their fingers to alter the sound. The Pakistani bhangra dhol uses two sticks; one, called the dagga, to play the lower section, and one, called the tihil, to play the higher section, The dagga, at 10mm in diameter, is far thicker than the tihil. Dhol players have many rhythms to choose from, although many rhythm used prior to the 1947 partition have been lost. One of the most notable of these rhythms (or "tala") is keherwa, with uses eight beats in two divisions of four with equal distance between said beats.

There are many instruments related to the dhol. Of these the most notable is the small Dholak, used in folk music and qawwali (from Arabic qual 'to speak'); Sufi devotional poetry played over music. Qawwali dates back to the 13th century Persian-Indian poet Amir Krosrow, its inventor. In recent years qawwali has been incorporated into world and fusion music.

(Picture from A dholak.)


Encyclopaedia Britannia
BBC Asian Network
and others.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013


The bansuri is an instrument frequently used in Indian music, particularly in the North Indian or Hindustani tradition in which it has become extremely popular despite only having become considered as a "serious"  classical instrument recently. It is used to play the melody or main part of the song. It is a woodwind instrument, similar to the flute.

(Above picture from A typical bansuri.

The word bansuri comes from the Sanskrit bans "bamboo" and sur "melody" Since many languages are spoken in India the flute naturally goes by different names; it can be called a murali, bansi, baashi, or a baanhi.

The bansuri is one of the most important instruments in Hindu mythology. It was the instrument played by Krishna, who Hindus believe is the eighth reincarnation of the god Vishnu, when he was in child form. Its use in Buddhist paintings can be identified as early as CE 100.

(Above picture from Krishna plays his bansuri. Hindu mythology states that his bansuri had the ability to attract not only women, but even animals!)

The bansuri's use in folk music has a long history. Indian folk music is quite differnt from classical music in its use of fairly crude instruments such as the daf, an Indian tamborine. Folk music is often centured around musical villages and there are many oppurtunities for musicians to hone their skills. The music is practically entirely improvised and there is little or no formal teaching. Almost all possible subjects are covered such as love, devotion. psychology and even anatomy!

(Image from Some Indian folk musicians. Indian folk is usually set to dance.)

The use of the bansuri in classical music has been a surprisingly recent development in the history of Indian development, mainly due to one man: Pannalal Ghosh (1911-1970). Originally a sitarist, he adopted the bansuri at an early age and introduced many of the materials now used in making bansuris today, such as the 32 inch length and the use of seven holes. He was also one of the first to use bamboo. He was instructed by Allauddin Khan (1862?-1972), one of the most famous Indian music teachers of all time, and also had several proteges of his own. Modern bansuri players include Hariprasad Chaurasia (1938--) who is known for his work in film scores. 

(Picture from Pannalal Ghosh with his bansuri. 

Modern bansuris are almost always made out of bamboo. The length is extremely variable, ranging from <12 inches to 40 inches, although 14 (soprano) and 32 (bass) are the most typical lengths. Traditionally, bansuris were made with six holes; nowadays however seven holes are used to make the sound more flexible. Two types of bansuris exist: transverse and fipple. The transverse is used in classical music whereas the fipple is still primarily the domain of folk music.

The timbre of the bansuri is quite a high-pitched and fast sound, although slightly deeper than a Western flute.The sound is also quite breathy, but still remains clear. The sound is fairly cheery. I personally like the sound of the bansuri. For an example of bansuri playing you can watch this video:

This channel also has some good bansuri videos:

You play the bansuri like a regular flute, by opening and closing holes with your fingers whilst blowing. You can play accidentals-- flats and sharps-- by opening or closing half a hole. Just like with other Indian instruments, the bansuri uses ragas; different patterns of notes based on the time of the day, feeling, etc. Indian music has different names for different finger positions:

Sa-- first, fifth and sixth holes open-- the rest closed;
Komal Re-- the same as Sa, but with the fourth hole half-open;
Shuddha Re-- first, fourth, fifth and sixth holes open, the rest closed;
Pa-- first hole open, rest closed;
Tivra Ma-- all holes except fourth and seventh;
and so on.

There are many positions too numerous to list here. For a more comprehensive list see here:

A similar instrument is the venu, also a bamboo flute, which is used in Southern Indian music. It has eight holes and a more monotonous sound. It is also known as the pullankuzhal, the murali, the kulalu, the venuvu or the pillana grovi.