What is Hindustani Classical Music?

Hindustani classical music, often referred to simply as Hindustani music, is one of the two major traditions of Indian classical music, the other being Carnatic music, which is primarily associated with the southern part of the Indian subcontinent. Hindustani music is rooted in the northern regions of India and has a history that spans millennia, with influences from Persian, Afghan, and Mughal cultures due to historical invasions and exchanges.

Historical Origins and Development

Hindustani classical music’s origins can be traced back to the ancient Vedic period. The Vedas, particularly the Sama Veda, contain hymns that were sung using specific melodic structures, laying the foundation for what would evolve into the complex system of raga and tala that defines Hindustani music today. Over centuries, this musical form absorbed influences from various cultures and regions, notably during the medieval period when Persian and Mughal elements became integrated.

During the Mughal era, the fusion of indigenous Indian music with Persian traditions led to the development of new forms and styles. The Mughal emperors, particularly Akbar, were great patrons of music, and their courts became melting pots of musical innovation. The legendary musician Tansen, a jewel of Akbar’s court, is often credited with shaping the modern structure of Hindustani classical music, bringing together different strands into a coherent system.

Core Elements of Hindustani Classical Music

Hindustani classical music is based on two foundational elements: raga and tala.


A raga is a melodic framework for improvisation and composition. It is a complex structure that dictates a specific set of notes (swaras) and their progression. Each raga is designed to evoke a particular mood or emotion, known as rasa. There are hundreds of ragas, each with its own unique characteristics, rules, and emotional essence. The performance of a raga involves a progression from slow, free-tempo elaboration of the notes (alap) to a more rhythmic and structured exposition (jod and jhala), culminating in a composition with rhythm (gat or bandish).

Ragas are associated with different times of the day and seasons, based on ancient principles that correlate specific sounds with natural phenomena and human moods. For instance, Raga Bhairav is traditionally performed in the early morning, while Raga Yaman is reserved for the evening.


Tala refers to the rhythmic aspect of Hindustani music. It is a cyclical pattern of beats that provides the temporal framework for a composition. The most common talas are Teentaal (16 beats), Ektaal (12 beats), and Jhaptaal (10 beats). Each tala is divided into segments (vibhags) with a specific number of beats, creating a rhythmic structure that musicians use to synchronize their improvisations and compositions.

The rhythmic accompaniment in a Hindustani classical performance is typically provided by the tabla, a pair of hand-played drums. The tabla player and the main artist (vocalist or instrumentalist) engage in a dynamic interplay, often featuring complex rhythmic improvisations and interactions.

Forms and Genres

Hindustani classical music encompasses a wide range of vocal and instrumental forms, each with its unique characteristics and historical context.

Vocal Forms

  1. Dhrupad: The oldest surviving form of Hindustani classical music, Dhrupad is known for its austere and meditative quality. It emphasizes purity of notes and strict adherence to raga and tala. The performance typically begins with a slow, elaborate alap followed by a composition in a specific tala.
  2. Khyal: A more flexible and improvisational form compared to Dhrupad, Khyal allows for greater artistic expression. It consists of two parts: bada khyal (slow tempo) and chhota khyal (fast tempo). The artist improvises extensively, exploring the raga with elaborate ornamentation (alankars) and rhythmic variations.
  3. Thumri: A semi-classical form that focuses on the expression of romantic and devotional themes. Thumri is known for its lyrical beauty and emotive appeal. The compositions are often based on lighter ragas and simpler talas, allowing for expressive freedom.
  4. Tappa: Originating from the folk traditions of Punjab, Tappa is characterized by its fast tempo and intricate, quick rhythmic patterns. It requires great skill and agility from the performer, often focusing on love and longing.

Instrumental Forms

  1. Sitar: One of the most iconic instruments of Hindustani classical music, the sitar is a plucked string instrument known for its rich tonal quality and versatility. Artists like Ravi Shankar have brought the sitar to international prominence.
  2. Sarod: A fretless string instrument known for its deep, resonant sound. The sarod allows for smooth glides between notes, enabling intricate melodic expressions.
  3. Tabla: The principal percussion instrument in Hindustani music, the tabla consists of two drums, each producing different tones. The tabla player plays a crucial role in maintaining the rhythmic structure and engaging in rhythmic improvisations.
  4. Bansuri: A bamboo flute that is prized for its warm, melodious tone. The bansuri is capable of producing intricate melodies and subtle nuances.
  5. Santur: A hammered dulcimer with a delicate, shimmering sound. The santur’s unique timbre adds a distinctive texture to Hindustani music.

The Role of Improvisation

Improvisation is a central aspect of Hindustani classical music, distinguishing it from many other classical music traditions around the world. While a performance is based on a predefined raga and tala, the artist has considerable freedom to explore and embellish within these boundaries. This improvisational aspect demands a deep understanding of the raga’s structure, mood, and traditional interpretations, as well as the ability to innovate and express personal artistry.


The alap is the introductory section of a raga performance, where the artist explores the raga without rhythmic accompaniment. It is a slow, meditative process where the artist gradually unfolds the raga, revealing its key phrases and emotional essence. The alap sets the stage for the subsequent rhythmic sections and provides a canvas for the artist’s creativity.

Jod and Jhala

Following the alap, the jod introduces a pulse, though still without a fixed rhythmic cycle. The tempo increases, and the artist begins to establish a rhythmic groove. The jhala is a further intensification, with rapid, rhythmic patterns that showcase the artist’s technical prowess and creativity.

Gat and Bandish

The gat (instrumental) or bandish (vocal) is the main composition, set to a specific tala. This section combines pre-composed material with improvisation. The artist explores the raga through various melodic and rhythmic improvisations, interacting with the tabla player in a dynamic, often spontaneous dialogue.

Training and Transmission

The traditional method of learning Hindustani classical music is through the guru-shishya parampara (teacher-student tradition). This method emphasizes direct transmission of knowledge from the guru to the disciple through rigorous, immersive training. The disciple lives with the guru, learning not only the technical aspects of music but also imbibing the guru’s artistic vision and philosophy.

This system fosters a deep, personal bond between guru and shishya, ensuring the preservation and continuity of the musical tradition. The guru-shishya parampara remains a cornerstone of Hindustani classical music education, even as modern institutions and technology provide additional avenues for learning.

Contemporary Scene and Global Influence

Hindustani classical music has evolved significantly over the past century, adapting to changing social contexts and technological advancements. Today, it enjoys a global audience, with artists performing at prestigious venues worldwide and collaborating with musicians from diverse genres.

Prominent Artists

The 20th and 21st centuries have seen the rise of numerous luminary artists who have left an indelible mark on Hindustani classical music. Some of the most notable figures include:

  • Pandit Ravi Shankar: A virtuoso sitar player who played a pivotal role in popularizing Indian classical music in the West through his collaborations with Western musicians and performances at major international festivals.
  • Ustad Zakir Hussain: A tabla maestro known for his extraordinary skill and innovative approach to rhythm. He has collaborated with a wide range of artists across genres, expanding the reach of Hindustani music.
  • Pandit Bhimsen Joshi: A legendary vocalist renowned for his powerful renditions of Khyal and devotional music. His emotive singing and impeccable technique have left a lasting legacy.
  • Ustad Amjad Ali Khan: A master of the sarod, celebrated for his deep understanding of ragas and his ability to convey profound emotions through his instrument.

Global Influence and Collaborations

Hindustani classical music’s appeal has transcended cultural boundaries, leading to fruitful collaborations with Western classical, jazz, and world music artists. These cross-cultural exchanges have enriched the global music landscape and introduced new audiences to the depth and beauty of Hindustani music.

For instance, Ravi Shankar’s collaborations with violinist Yehudi Menuhin and his association with The Beatles brought Indian music to the forefront of the global stage. Similarly, Zakir Hussain’s work with jazz musicians like John McLaughlin and Herbie Hancock has created unique fusion projects that blend the intricacies of Hindustani rhythm with the improvisational freedom of jazz.


Hindustani classical music is a profound and dynamic tradition that embodies the cultural and artistic heritage of northern India. Its intricate system of ragas and talas, emphasis on improvisation, and deep-rooted spiritual and emotional expression make it a unique and timeless art form. As it continues to evolve and inspire new generations of musicians and listeners, Hindust

ani classical music remains a vital and vibrant part of the world’s musical heritage.