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Indian Classical Music And Sikh Kirtan
by Gobind Singh Mansukhani (M.A., LL.B, Ph.D.) 1982

Indian Music versus Western Music
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Indian Music versus Western Music
The characteristics of Indian music will be evident if compared with Western music. There are essential differences between the two systems: the first is based on melody-single notes played in a given order, while the second is harmonic: a group of notes called chords played simultaneously [6]. The late Dr. Rabindranath Tagore who was acquainted with both the systems put it thus: "The world by day is like Europeans music-a flowing concourse of vast harmony, composed of concord and discord and many disconnected fragments. And the night world is our Indian music: one purem deep and tender raga. They both stir us, yet the two are contradictory in spirit. But that cannot be helped. At the very root, nature is divided into two, day and night, unity and variety, finite and infinite. We men of India live in the realm of night; we are overpowered by the sense of the One and Infinite. Our music draws the listener away beyond the limits of every day human joys and sorrows and takes us to the lonely region of renunciation which lies at the root of the universe, while European music leads us to a variegated dance through the endless rise and fall of human grief and joy.” Basically Indian music evokes a spiritual sentiment and discipline-a longing for realisation of the self salvation. Vocal singing is an act of worship and not an intellectual display of mastery over raga-technique. In the West, the singing of a song is a secular and formal exercise, not involving devotion or piety as in the case of Indian music [7]. The Guru-shishya tradition responsible for the deep attachment and dedication of the student to the teacher. In the West, usually a music teacher is just a person hired for giving lessons and there is no intimacy between the teacher and the taught.
Indian music, like Western music, is based on melody and rhythm, but it has no foundation of harmony and counterpoint so vital to Western music. Indian music is "modal"-based on the relationship between the permanent individual noted called the tonic, with the successive notes. That is why the drone is played in the background of vocal music to remind one of the tonic note [8]. The Indian system is horizontal, one note following the other, while the European is vertical-several notes at a time. Yehudi Menuhin, the noted composer and musicologist, highlights the difference between the two systems by describing Indian music thus: "The appreciate Indian music, one has to adopt a completely different sense of values... one must orientate oneself and at least for the period concerned, forget there is a time-clock ticking away and merely sink into a kind of subjective, almost hypnotic trance. In that condition, the repetitive features of Indian music, both rhythmic and melodic, acquire an extraordinary fascination and charm... despite the domination of this hypnotic mood, a characteristic of Indian music is that far from deadening the intellect, it actively liberates the mind."
Another notable difference is in the place of "composition" in both the systems. In Western music, a composer first composes the music and puts it in notation: later the players play the music under the guidance of a conductor. There is hardly any improvisation, and the value of performance lies in the uniformity and the pre-determined conduct of tone and speed of music. In an Indian musical performance, while the grammar of melody and rhythm is fixed, the skill and ingenuity of the musician lies in his improvisation and creativity, especially in evocation of the mood and rasa of the particular raga. In this connection an international musicologist writes: "In the West, we construct solid blocks of music. After having carved out geometrically, in large sections, like building stones, the seven degrees of the diatonic scale, lined them up and placed them on top of each other according to cleverly worked out architectural laws which are called counterpoint and harmony. In this way we erected splendid edifices in sound. In the East, no one dreamed of dividing sound into blocks; instead they refined it to a wire-thin thread. They strove meticulously to stretch out the sound, to refine it to the point of extreme delicacy... No standardised materials, no building of two or six or ten floors; rather a simple variegated silk thread which unwinds and rises and falls imperceptibly, but which in every tiniest portion evokes a world of feelings and sensations."[9]
In Indian music, melody and rhythm are more developed and offer a great variety of subtleties, not possible in Western music. Indian notes are divided into small units called shruties (22 microtones in all), whereas Western music has only 12 semitones. The microtones are more subtle then semitones. These microtones adorned with gracetones (gamakas) produce a magical effect. Western music is capable of producing many moods and feelings. While Indian music has generally a principal mood or emotion in a raga. The Indian musician improvises according to his own creative genius within the framework of a raga, but in Western classical music such range of individual improvisation is inconceivable, except in jazz. Moreover, the great use of drums in Indian music emphasises its essential rhythm. It is only by keeping one’s ears and minds open that one can appreciate the special sequences and melodies different from one’s own. This will apply equally to Indian audiences attending performances of Western music, and to Western audiences listening to Indian music. Let us not forget that the two kinds of music are complementary, like two halves of classical music.

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