Indianness, classicalness, musicness

What is Indian classical music? A typical answer will mention ragas, talas, sitars, tablas, and now konnakol: as the most clearly heard components, they have become musical shorthand for India. However, like all labels, it carries the seeds of its own destruction – and I will now attempt to find them, word by word.

What makes music music?

In an interview in Frontline in 1989, the Carnatic- and Western-trained composer Ilaiyaraaja proclaimed: “Music is nothing but sound and there is no place for value judgement among various sounds. […] There is no difference between the howl of the dog and the songs of vidwans.” This was treading on thin ice and was predictably met with outrage.

Nevertheless, Ilaiyaraaja makes sense to our postmodern sensibilities: anything one can hear has the potential to be music, even if it is heard only in one’s head. Whether or not such information is perceived as music depends entirely on the perceiver. I was once in a class in which we were listening to a work by avant-garde composer John Cage. During a few seconds of silence in the middle of the composition, a fire engine went by outside, siren blaring. It felt like part of the music.

I wonder what the engine driver would have thought of that. That’s what makes music so personal: any opinion reflects the listener rather than the listened to. The phrase ‘music to my ears’ is seldom used to refer to music as it is conventionally understood; likewise, any music one doesn’t like is all too often dismissed as ‘noise’. Most of us voice our approval of anything – music or not – by saying it is ‘good’, but approval alone does not make anything good. Opinion has nothing to do with quality.

Ergo: if you can hear it, it’s probably music – whether you like it or not.

What makes classical music classical?

The word ‘classical’ tends to suggest high standards, age-old traditions, material wealth – in short, exclusivity. This is what gives the ‘classical’ the kind of respect the ‘popular’ has to fight for.

With exclusivity come rules of creation and consumption. Both Hindustani and Carnatic music have a hierarchy of forms based on their strictness of adherence to rules: the dhrupad and the raagam thaanam pallavi, the khayal and the krithi, the tarana and the thillana, and then everything ‘light’ or ‘semiclassical’. Many people think they do not, or cannot, understand these rules; some feel they have to pretend to do so. At a Hindustani concert, they might applaud every single time the performers execute a tihai together; at a Carnatic one, they might very confidently keep the incorrect tala.

This attitude does everyone a great disservice, and I blame the labels (as well as our insistence on labels in general). Instead of the mutually hostile ‘popular’ and ‘classical’, why not have a spectrum that ranges from – for lack of better terms – ‘folk’ to ‘academic’? The ordinary person can enjoy and even create the former, often spontaneously; the latter is considered important enough that it acquires a widespread systematic pedagogy. Jazz, rock, and now EDM are taught in schools and universities. They may have clear, recent origins as ‘popular’ forms, but are being increasingly co-opted by academia and turned into ‘classical’ ones – though their practitioners couldn’t care less.

Ergo: if it’s part of elite culture, and/or if you can get a degree in it, it’s classical music.

What makes Indian music Indian?

This is a dangerous question, especially today. It’s like asking what makes a person Indian: their ancestry or their passport.

India has never had a monolithic culture. Consequently, there has never been a monolithic Indian music. This is why ‘fusion’ is a meaningless musical term. All music is fusion, because no music is born in a vacuum. Every kind of music combines something with something else. Kishori Amonkar may have belonged to the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana, but her unorthodox style was due to her training under gurus from the Agra, Bhendi Bazaar, and Gwalior gharanas as well. Wouldn’t that make her a ‘fusion’ artist?

Conversely, if there is such a thing as a pure Indian music, where does one seek it? In Carnatic music, for example, does one go to Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, who pioneered the modern katcheri format almost a hundred years ago? To the 18th-century Trinity, of whose performances no recordings exist? To the sopana sangeetham of Kerala, the living tradition closest to what all classical music in the Indian subcontinent is believed to have been before Islamic influences brought about a distinct Hindustani stream around the 15th century? I suspect this chain would ultimately lead to Pranava, the primordial sound of the universe in Hinduism. But who is to say that any link in this chain is more Indian than another?

A more inclusive definition is that Indian music is any music made by an Indian. After all, I have played my non-Indian friends Indian music that they were convinced was by Caravan Palace (Madboy/Mink) or Mr Mister (Rock Machine) or Stravinsky (Vanraj Bhatia). But then I think of American scholar Jon Higgins – Higgins Bhagavathar to many Carnatic rasikas – and European dhrupadiya Amelia Cuni. And of how Norah Jones sounds nothing like Anoushka Shankar. And of all those non-Indians, from Puccini to Tool, who have incorporated elements of various kinds of Indian music into their work now and then. Clearly, geography and genes cannot guarantee genre: we may already be living in a post-genre world.

Ergo: if it’s from India, in India, about India, or by an Indian, it’s Indian music.

So what is Indian classical music?

Auditory stimulus, highbrow accessory, examination/dissertation topic, has some connection with India… it could be anything. In which case the label means nothing.

Then let us do away with the label altogether. ‘Hindustani’ and ‘Carnatic’ are enough. They are Indian by default. Their classicalness is a function of elitism. Their popularness is a function of fashion. Their musicness is a function of taste. With a little attention, they can’t be mistaken for each other or for anything else. Isn’t that the point of a label?


The author thanks Shelby Arias-Runyan, Julian Day, Collin Edouard and Rachel Gain for their feedback on an earlier version of this article.