Hindustani Classical Music – History and Contemporary Masters

hindustani classical musicIf you are travelling through India looking for the authentic Indian experience and don’t know how to find it, you need to stop. Take a deep breath and look for an auditorium where an exhibition of classical Indian music is being held. To understand India, it is imperative that you experience both the religious and the musical side of the country, as they are both considered to be essential to the Indian way life. If you don’t have the ear for classical Indian music you are losing out on an integral part of that experience you are looking for. A true cultural and heritage experience of India cannot conclude without an introduction to the music of the land.

2 Distinct Styles of Indian Classical Music

1. Indian classical music: Also known as Hindustani classical music

2. The south Indian classical music also known as the Carnatic classical music.

Even if you have absolutely no idea about Hindustani or Carnatic music and or Indian classical music in general, you can still tell the difference. Hindustani classical music tends to be slower compared to Carnatic music in terms of rhythmic frequency. Additionally, in Carnatic classical music there are a lot of instrumental accompaniments which play an important role. If you have heard Dr.M.Balamuralikrishna or M.S Subbulakshmi you have heard two of the greatest exponents of this form of Indian classical music. On the other hand, Hindustani classical music genre is probably best represented by such stalwarts as Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan (widely acknowledged as the Tansen of the 20th Century) and Ustad Bismillah Khan (the greatest shehnai exponent of the 20th century). There are many other greats of this form of Indian classical music.

The Origins of Hindustani Classical Music

A distinctly oral form of music, the earliest known references of Hindustani classical music can be found in clay tables that have been unearthed from the various Indus Valley Civilization sites, dating back to 2500-1500 BCE. Tablets depicting dancing girls which gives references to the legendary temple dancers of classical times is yet another proof that music existed in a highly evolved form even then.

The Vedas

The Vedas are ancient bodies of chants, hymns and texts that have been passed down from one generation to another generations for thousands of years. The oldest of the Vedas is the Rigveda, an ancient Hindu body of hymns that had been passed down generations in an oral form. Another two Vedas the Samveda and the Yajurveda are also associated with shaping the modern classical Hindustani music. The fourth of the Vedas, Atharvaveda, is however not so relevant with the history and development of classical Hindustani music. The most important source of Hindustani classical music, however, remains the Yajurveda because it contains hymns that were supposed to be chanted during religious occasions such as Yajna.

Music was (and still is) an important aspect of the Hindu way of life. It has not remained constraint within the sacrificial routine of Yajna, though, and has transformed itself into a form that has both the power to entertain, control mood swings and lift the soul to an entirely different level. No wonder, that today, classical Hindustani music is revered the world over.

Persian and Mughal Influences on Hindustani Classical Music

Hindustani classical music has been deeply influenced by passing cultures. Interactions that were brought about by trade, war, emissaries and other manners have shaped and enriched it. A number of Hindustani classical music instruments have been directly influenced by Persian instruments. Chief among them is the Sarod (greatest exponent of which is Ustad Amjad Ali Khan) which has been designed by taking inspiration from the Persian Rabab.


You will hear about the word Raga in context with Hindustani as well as Carnatic music. Raga is essentially composed of notes (also known as Swaras) every raga has distinctive movements known as aarohan (meaning, to ascend) and avarohan (meaning, to descend). How the performer is going to render them depends on him. He may use them in their pure form or improvise them. There are a total of 6 ragas originally, along with 36 raginis. However, today, many musicians have composed new ragas, while some of the older ones have become less frequently used. There are about 150 ragas in practice today.

Exponents of Hindustani Classical Music

The following is a list of some of the greatest and well known exponents of Hindustani classical music.

Pandit Ravi Shankar

Known across the world as the finest exponent of Sitar as well as being the Sitar mentor of former Beatles George Harrison. Pandit Ravi Shankar’s talent was identified at a very early age keeping in with the unofficial trend of other child prodigies in classical Hindustani music. A student of Allaudin Khan Pandit Ravi Shankar can be credited with making the sound of Sitar such easily recognizable the world over. Over his vast career spanning more than six decades (Pandit Ravi Shankar died in 2012) he had given innumerable live performances composed music for films and helped created an entire genre of fusion music that later stalwarts such as Ustad Zakir Hussain has further exploited. One of Pandit Ravi Shankar’s best known works is in the Oscar winning Indian film director Satyajit Ray’s multiple International Award winning Apu Trilogy (the trilogy went on to win a total of seven awards at the Berlin, Cannes and Venice film festivals part from other awards).

Ustad Zakir Hussain

Son of the legendary exponent of tabla, Ustad Allah Rakha, he was appearing on shows and touring the world at a tender age of 12. The way Pandit Ravi Shankar has been credited with making Sitar popular the world over, Tabla has been made a popular percussion instrument (such as Drums) by the untiring efforts of Ustad Zakir Hussain. He has also been credited with a number of albums both as a part of bands and as well as solo performances where he has created unique flavors of fusion music combining eastern and western elements such as guitar. Zakir Hussain has given many notable live audience performances, composed soundtracks for film (which has own multiple international film festival awards) and released a number of albums (his Golden Drum album won a Grammy at the 51st awards in 2009). His work may be recognized in films such as Apocalypse Now and Little Buddha.

Pandit Bhimsen Joshi

Pandit Bhimsen Joshi was a Hindustani classical music singer who was an exponent of the Kirana Gharana and was a master of the Khyal form. A Bharat Ratna awardee (highest civilian award in India) Pandit Bhimsen Joshi was trained by Sawai Gandharva. Widely accepted as one of the greatest exponents of Khyal, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi had given innumerable live performances as well as done playback singing.

The more you learn about the basic concepts of music, the easier it will be to understand all the variations.