While the Hindu dancers of India dominate, there is a very large Muslim population that contributes to the rich diversity of India’s music. While Hindu music revolves mainly around dance, Muslim music is based on instrumental pieces, with voice and dance being secondary.
String instruments include the sitar, invented in the thirteenth century, its smaller version, called the sarod, and the sarangi. The sarangi is considered one of the most difficult in the world as its forty plus strings are held by the fingernails. Also used is the santoor, a zither of Persian origin.
The shahnai is the main wind instrument. This is similar to an oboe. Bamboo flutes are also often played. Percussion is dominated by the tabla, whose invention is attributed to the creator of the sitar.
The courts of the Turks and Mughals gave rise to the tradition of the ragas, melodic structures of between five and twelve notes, within which musicians improvise. These are defined and played according to the time of day and season and their suitability for a masculine or feminine audience.
Each raga consists of several movements. Traditionally, each would have lasted hours, but modern attention spans have seen these being shortened. The final movement, which is divided into three sub-sections, introduces percussion in complex patterns of sound and rhythm.
Although instrumentals have traditionally been a male area, with women contributing as vocalists, women are now starting to venture into the instrumental portion of performances.
Major music festivals are held in New Delhi, Mumbai in Bombay, and Chernai in Madras. Gwalior’s Tansen Festival is a highlight every December. No visit to India is complete without listening to a performance of this traditional musical form.