A Modern Introduction to Music – 15

By Anjum Altaf

I hope you have watched the video clip I linked in the last installment. If not, I will urge you to do so now because what you will be watching is a visual demonstration of Hindustani classical music. This video will enrich your understanding of classical music more than any number of words.

Let me explain. What you are watching is an incredibly skilled performer who can keep three balls in the air for an extended period all the while creating new and intricate patterns that are non-repetitive. This is an output that rests on an enormous amount of training and endless hours of regular practice. To appreciate the performance you have to keep your eyes open and focused on the patterns made by the balls. And the response that it evokes is less one of entertainment and more one of awe and amazement.

Now think of the analogy with classical music. Think of a performer rendering the raga Malkauns. In effect, he/she is working with not three but five balls (the swaras S g M d n). These swaras have to be kept in the air for an extended period and they have to create intricate and pleasing patterns that are non-repetitive. To appreciate the performance you can keep your eyes closed but your ears have to be open and focused on the aural patterns made by the swaras. The response that the performance evokes is less one of entertainment and more one of awe and amazement.

Needless to say, this kind of performance requires an enormous amount of training and endless hours of practice; more so, because classical music goes well beyond the boundaries of juggling. The juggler is performing with three similar white balls; the performer of raga Malkauns has five dissimilar swaras in the air (think of them as differently colored balls) each of which has a precise ‘musical distance’ from the others. On top of that, the musician is working with the additional challenge posed by an accompanying beat from the tabla. If the tabla is executing a repeating cycle of 16 beats (1 2 3 4, 5 6 7 8, 9 10 11 12, 13 14 15 16, 1 2 3 4, ….) then the skilled performer has to demonstrate that he/she can throw up particular balls (swaras) such that they arrive back in his hand on a particular beat (say 1 or 9 or 13) in the tabla cycle.

We are not done yet. The musician has also to emphasize certain swara patterns that communicate to the audience that he/she is rendering raga Malkauns without having to tell them so. These are the signature patterns of Malkauns (for example, gMgS or gMdn[S]) and every raga has its own DNA or signature pattern; it is called the pakaD of the raga – in effect this is how the discerning audience ‘catches’ the identity of the raga that is being performed.

These are just a few examples to illustrate both the characteristics of a musical performance and the amount of skill and practice that goes into mastering it. I refer to classical music as skill-based for this reason. One can usefully characterize subjects on the spectrum between practice and theory. Classical music is very light on theory – we took fewer than a dozen short installments to cover the physics of sound and the technical foundations of music but most performers do not even know or need this amount of theory to be good at what they do. This is why even formally illiterate individuals can become good performers by being in a house of musicians from childhood provided they practice, practice, and practice. At the other end of the spectrum is a subject such as quantum physics; one cannot learn it by osmosis from one’s parents or by extended practice – it is entirely theory-based. In the middle of the spectrum one can place a subject like medicine that requires both theory (which one obtains in medical school) and practice (which one acquires through residencies and internships).

I am belaboring this to drive home a number of points. First, that classical music is almost entirely skill-based and therefore anyone who is willing to put in the time and effort can learn it. Second, classical music is not intended to entertain; rather, it is an exhibition of extraordinary skill that challenges the limits of individual innovation and creativity. To work with five swaras for an hour and not be repetitive is not easy. When the audience is unable to imagine how the performer can come up with a new permutation of the swaras, and the performer manages to do so, it is at that point that a collective response of amazement comes forth from the audience. That collective response is a tribute to the skill of the artist.

[Try this as an experiment. Think of the name of the person you love most. Now say the name in as many different ways as you can. Keep an eye on a clock and let me know in a comment how long you were able to keep this ball in the air without repeating yourself. Record your effort to check if you remembered to observe the rules of music. Learning music can be agonizing – for example, when one pays attention to the sur, one forgets the taal; focusing on the taal makes one lose track of the sur. If you wish or need to serenade effectively and longer you would need to first practice the basics of classical music.]

If you go to a performance of classical music with the expectation of being entertained you will be disappointed and perplexed. If you go with the expectation of witnessing an exhibition of extraordinary skill, you will be amply rewarded. But to get the most out of it, you would have to know what the challenge consists of. One can go back to the analogy of sports: if you watch a game of chess between two grand masters without knowing the objective or the difference between a bishop and a knight, you will get precious little out of the exercise. At best, it would be an occasion to socialize or impress others which is what quite a few musical occasions have turned into these days.

I have made a strong claim that the essence of classical music is in the skill that inheres to it. Let me now support this with some evidence. Ustad Rashid Khan is amongst the leading classical vocalists in the Hindustani tradition today. Here is how he describes the nature of classical music once it left the religious domain and entered the secular one of the princely courts. “The older ustads, being essentially court singers, put the emphasis on polished technique, skillful execution of difficult passages and the power to astound with their musicianship. The Nawabs and Mahrajas and their courtiers who were their prime audience found these things more interesting and did not bother about emotional appeal. For the khayal to them was classical art song and emotional appeal was not an important requisite for this type of music.” The move away from an almost exclusively skill-based orientation is relatively recent following the demise of the princely states. “But after independence and especially in the second half of the 20th century, classical music, including khayal which, like the thumri, was the most popular vocal form, was patronised by audiences coming from the middle and upper-middle class segments of the society. The modern listener thus tended to find Mushtaq Hussain or even Nissar Hussain rather dry for their taste. As a result these singers were not as popular as certain contemporaries who infused emotions into the khayal.”

This skill-based orientation was reflected in the training of the musicians. Here is how Rashid Khan describes the training of Inayat Hussain, one of his ancestors: “Inayat Hussain was put under the charge of Bahadur Hussain from his childhood. According to his third son-in-law, the late Ustad Nissar Hussain Khan (1912-1993) who was Rashid Khan’s maternal grand-uncle and guru, Inayat Hussain was initially taught only paltas (ascending and descending permutations and combinations of notes) in the ragas Gour Sarang and Bhairav. This was apparently done to build his vocal prowess and grasp of the tonal compass for the scales of the two ragas together cover 10 notes of the 12-note chromatic scale. This went on for a very long time. When asked by interested ustads what kind of progress young Inayat was making, Bahadur Hussain used to say that the boy was very young and was not being taught any compositions or ragas proper, he was only practicing paltas to build up his voice. Once he developed sufficient control over the notes he would be taught ragas and songs proper and the means of elaborating these, he used to say.”

And here is an anecdote about Pandit Ram Sahai of the Benares tabla gharana: “The Benares tabla gharana was developed a little over 200 years ago by the legendary Pandit Ram Sahai (1780-1826). Ram Sahai began studying the tabla with his father from the age of five. At the age of nine, he moved to Lucknow to become the disciple of Modhu Khan of the Lucknow gharana. When Ram Sahai was seventeen years old, Wazir Ali Khan, the new Nawab, asked Modhu Khan if Ram Sahai could perform a recital for him. Modhu Khan agreed, on the condition that Ram Sahai would not be interrupted until he finished playing. It is said that Ram Sahai played for seven consecutive nights. After this incredible performance, Ram Sahai was praised by all the members of the community and was showered with gifts.”

It should be obvious that it would not be entertainment but a challenge of skills that would keep an audience engrossed for seven consecutive nights and result in praise and gifts for the artist. This is something essential to keep in mind: one doesn’t make an attempt on Mount Everest for entertainment; it is an aspiration to scale a peak, to demonstrate the limits of human endurance and a mastery of the necessary skills.

What Everest is for the mountaineer, a raga is for a musician – scaling a peak. If you appreciate that fact you would begin to appreciate classical music because your expectations of what it signifies and entails would have altered radically.

More soon.

Here is some essential information about raga Malkauns on the Sangeet Research Academy site. Here is Ustad Amir Khan performing raga Malkauns.


  • Sakuntala
    Posted at 11:03h, 04 September Reply

    Just thought I’d mention that my book on “The Splendour of Rampur-Sahaswan gharana” (2006) has a more detailed description of the story about Enayat Hussain Khan being taught only palte for months. There are lots of such anecdotes, to show how the attitude of disciples was different 2 generations ago, from that of today’s learners ( it is too long to be included in this comment)…
    My book, which is based on a two year research fellowship of the ministry of culture, is (I think) not available in the US but I will be happy to direct anyone to outlets in Bangalore / India…
    Perhaps your series will , at some future point, touch upon why gharanas were so important till 50 years ago, and why some gharanas became more popular than others (some focused oin teaching and producing a large number of students, othes like Rampur-Sahaswn focused on performance rather than teaching (perhaps I should hold my comments till you discuss gharanas…)

  • Vinod
    Posted at 11:15h, 04 September Reply

    I finally can get rid of any sense of shame when I say I get no entertainment value at all from classical music. I detest it actually. It is most unpleasing to the ear. And interestingly, your exposition is still letting me develop a sense of appreciation for it. Thanks. I am now in harmony with who I am relative to classical music.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 18:00h, 04 September

      Vinod: The notion of ‘acquired taste’ is a useful one to keep in mind. There are some things that appeal right away (like ice cream) and some that repel in the beginning but come to be treated as delicacies at a later date (like karela or bitter gourd). Wines are also like that – people become experts at telling one apart from another. Classical music is amongst this set of things that can grow on one over time. The proviso is that one has to be aware of what one is seeking in the experience.

      Listen (with your eyes closed) to this brief clip of raga Yaman by Hirabai Barodekar and note how many ways she finds to say a very few words. That becomes part of the fascination of the experience till one is so engrossed as to become oblivious to other things. At this stage one does not even note that every time she comes to the refrain “Sugara Bana” she has to be coordinated with the beat of the tabla cycle.

      If the clip begins to make sense you can listen to Part 2.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 22:55h, 04 September Reply


    Several questions arise in my mind, some of which are:

    1. You have emphasized skill and said emotion came later. Does that mean that earlier the singing was purely “formal”, that it had no associated “rasa” or mood? And if so, how would one describe the difference between a “mere” palta and melodic phrase?

    2. I find the distinction you are making between entertainment and awe troubling. I think “pleasure” may be a better word where it is understood as encompassing many types.

    3. You have mentioned the khayal form without saying much about what it is or mentioning the dhrupad form that preceded it. Will you be saying more about these things later?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 23:48h, 04 September

      Arun: I was quoting Rashid Khan who is one of the leading exponents of Hindustani music today. I find it useful to think about such things in terms of a spectrum. The balance has been shifting away from technique and towards emotion as the typology of the audience has changed. But clearly music could never have been devoid of rasa because even in the earlier times performances were structured around ragas and different ragas evoke different moods because of the different combinations of swaras.

      Awe and entertainment can also be the end points of a spectrum. Personally, I find myself more towards the end of awe but this is of course a subjective judgment. I find ‘pleasure’ too ambivalent for this purpose because it could be anywhere on the spectrum. It would depend on whether one derived more pleasure from awe or from entertainment.

      Regarding dhrupad and khayal (and gharanas as mentioned by Sakuntala), I am quite clear that I am not writing a history of Hindustani music. My focus is on the constituting elements of music (whatever the genre), the science that underlies their relationship to each other, and the nature of the musical experience that results from putting them together. Looking at it in another perspective, I am trying to fill in what I found missing in most introductions to Indian music. To the extent I need to talk about the topics referred to earlier for the purpose I have chosen, I will do so, but I do not intend to focus on them per se.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 00:24h, 05 September Reply

    I admire Rashid Khan’s singing and have a beautiful Darbari Kannada by him. But I am uncomfortable with so much emphasis being put on skill and also with the comparison with juggling. This is fine initially to emphasize how important skill is but if one doesn’t mention the utterly *transformative* effect of a raga well performed, then one is missing something essential. One can have a performer who is very skilled but lacks true artistry. He or she is then a “mere” virtuoso.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 05:13h, 05 September

      Arun: The notion of artistry is context-dependent being a function of the aesthetic sensibility of the audience which changes over time. This was the gist of the remark by Rashid Khan that I quoted. Note the relevant part of the quote: “The modern listener thus tended to find [legendary names like] Mushtaq Hussain or even Nissar Hussain rather dry for their taste.” It seems obvious that the Maharajas and their courtiers, steeped in culture from childhood, would not have devoted so much interest and time to music if they had not considered it artistic. It was just that their conception of artistry was different from ours. The relevant part of the quote is quite explicit: “For the khayal to them was classical art song and emotional appeal was not an important requisite for this type of music.”

      The fact that something is skill-oriented does not devalue it in any way. It is just a statement of fact.

      Juggling was indeed a motivating device because it provides an easily imaginable comparator. I did elaborate that music goes well beyond juggling in its intricacies and is a test of the creativity and the innovativeness of the artist.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 14:25h, 05 September Reply


    I just do not know what it was like in the past. Because something like alap is so mood-setting, I find it hard to imagine that in earlier times it did not have the same function.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 17:58h, 05 September

      Arun: It is hard to imagine something that is not mood-setting but is there any compulsion for the mood to be the same across time and space? It depends in part on the sensibility of the audience, in part on what the audience is looking for. Both of these change over time.

  • Kabir
    Posted at 18:44h, 05 September Reply

    I agree with Arun. Although it is true that khayal is more focused on technical skill than something like ghazal, which has more of a focus on emotive content, the best khayal singers evoke emotion along with admiration for their technical skill. Evoking emotion also seems to have been an objective of Indian Classical Music all along, as the early theory focused on the notion of rasa and the different feelings that the various ragas were meant to evoke. For example, there is the majesty of Darbari, the heroism of Malkauns, and the pathos of Bhairvi. I think that what separates a great singer from a merely technically skilled one is the ability to interpret the emotion of the raga and carry the audience to a point that one is not even noticing the various distinct technical elements, but only how they come together to produce the whole.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 20:15h, 05 September

      Kabir: I can only repeat that the measure of ‘greatness’ is not specified and fixed once and for all. It is possible that in earlier times the greatest singer was the one who was the most technically skilled. This is what Rashid Khan is stating explicitly – “For the khayal to them was classical art song and emotional appeal was not an important requisite for this type of music.” This does not mean that the greatest singer did not evoke a mood or sang a bhairavi like a darbari; just that the demands of the audience could have been differently focused when they rated performances of specific ragas across performers. It is possible that the question of who could sing the best darbari meant to them something different from what it means to us today. Won’t you agree that the notion of how to sing a ghazal well has also changed over time? If so, why has this happened?

      I also note an implicit and unexamined bias against ‘mere’ technical skills that leaves me unconvinced.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 21:21h, 05 September Reply


    Great music like all great art ultimately moves us. This evocative transformative potential is not just emotional but also intellectual in the best art. It is also often an objective result of the music performed and does not depend on what the audience wanted or even what the performer wanted. It just happens. I agree with Kabir that noticing the skill becomes secondary. Rashid Khan is a great vocalist but often the way musicians express these things leaves much to be desired. It is often said that when Tansen sang – I think the reference was to Lalit – even the skies wept with rain. This is not a statement about skill but a statement of great transformation.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 23:39h, 05 September

      Arun: It is also a fact that a great artist of one period is not rated as highly in another. You can see that most clearly in literature – nobody reads Galsworthy or Thackeray anymore. The argument is not that Tansen was not great (whatever that means since there is no recorded evidence) but that Tansen’s style of singing (which was pre-khayal) does not appeal to the modern audience any more.

      My own experience is that Rashid Khan is right – even within khayal the legends of an earlier age do come across as ‘dry’ to the modern audience. And there is little doubt that Tansen’s greatness notwithstanding (your pointer is to Miyan ki Malhar) the majority of the khayal audience is not moved by dhrupad.

      It would be good to get input on this topic from some performers amongst our readers. Sakuntala Narasimhan has done extensive research on gharana histories and should have much to say from her perspective. Arpita Chaterjee has been associated with the Sangeet Research Academy and must have participated in similar discussions.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 23:53h, 05 September Reply


    I do not wish to belabor the point. I will just say that in different ages different things may move us. But we are always seeking to be moved by art, we seldom seek skill in itself.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 00:17h, 06 September

      Arun: A new post in the New York Times (Mystery and Evidence) is only tangentially related to our discussion but it does have some interesting takeaways:

      First, it adds something to the spectrum I had proposed in the previous installment with practice/training-based domains (like music) at one end and theory-based domains (like quantum physics) at the other. The author introduces a new domain (religious belief) that is off this spectrum – it requires neither training nor theory. The implications are of great interest.

      Second, it makes a useful observation: “to understand a world view, or a philosophy or system of thought, it is not enough just to understand the propositions it contains. You also have to understand what is central and what is peripheral to the view.” We can apply this to styles of music as well. We are not saying that any style of music is devoid of emotional experience or does not establish a mood (that is an impossibility) but that what is central and what is peripheral to those styles can vary markedly.

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