Indian music and dance represent the product of complex millenarian evolution. They are mainly modes of worship and a joyous celebration of life, and their incredibly multifaceted tradition is really stunning. The dances are based on ancient texts that codify the gesture and the body movement that the dancer has to use in order to express certain emotions and to tell a certain story.
Each state and each region have its own traditions and classical dance forms, while classical music can be divided into two main traditions, Hindustani, specific to the North; and Carnatic, that originated in the South.
Keep reading to find out more about the beauty of Indian performing arts.
- Carnatic and Hindustani music are the two main traditions of the Indian classical music
- Raga and tala are the two fundamental elements of each musical composition
- There is a wide variety of Indian classical dance, and each kind relies upon gestures and body movements to tell a story
- Bollywood music-and-dance acts greatly contributed to popularizing Indian pop music all over the world
- When in India, don’t miss one of the many grand productions to be found in every big city
India classical music
The classical music of the Indian subcontinent is basically formed by two traditions – the one in the North and the one in the South – which, until the 16th century, were not considered separate.
The classical music in the North is called Hindustani, while the one in the South is called Carnatic. Indian classical music is open to new ideas and innovations, as well as to foreign influences.
The classical music of South India is known as Carnatic music. Carnatic music is exclusively devotional in character, uses different percussion and musical instruments, and develops its melody in a structured manner.
Carnatic music started with Purandara Dasa (1484 – 1564), a composer and musicologist who established classical Indian music theory. Thanks to his work, Carnatic music is usually more intensive and structured than its counterpart styles from North India and accompanists play a more fundamental role.
Carnatic music is characterized by a variety of accompanying instruments including traditional South India instruments (the veena, nadasvaram, flute, and thavil), and western instruments (violin and saxophone). Most performers of Carnatic music are accompanied by a violinist and two percussionists.
Bharat Natyam dance is usually accompanied by Carnatic music
In large cities, music festivals are often held where Carnatic concerts are performed by a group of musicians in small auditoriums creating an intimate experience. A typical concert lasts for about three hours and is often devotional in nature.
At some concerts, to add fun, the leading musicians exchange notes with accompanists or the accompanists predict the leading musicians’ musical phrases.
Hindustani music, the music style of the North Indian regions, started to differentiate from Carnatic music around the 12th century and reached its peak during the reign of Akbar. Tansen, a performer at the court of the Mughal emperor, is considered to be the founder of this kind of music. His style and innovations inspired hundreds of composers after him.
The raga (melodic line) and the tala (rhythmic cycle) are the foundation of Hindustani music. As there is no formal written score or a fixed base rythym, artists have a multitude of opportunities to improvise within the melodic framework of a raga, which is quite different from western music’s 12-note scale.
There are more than a 100 ragas or melodies, each assigned to a particular time of day or season according to the mood or images it evokes. Some of the most popular images are religious hymns and folk tunes which the raga Khamaj and its variants were influenced by.
The modern form of Hindustani music is called “khyal” which means “imagination”. Improvisation is extremely important in this music style and each school has developed its own techniques. Royal patrons founded different gharanas, or schools of Hindustani music. To preserve the individuality, traditions, and skills of each school, knowledge is passed down orally from guru (teacher) to shishya (disciple).
Harballabh Sangeet Sammelan is the oldest festival of Hindustani Classical Music and was founded in Jalandhar in 1875. This festival is held at the sacred seat of music every year to commemorate the Samadhi of Baba Harballabh.
Another popular festival for music lovers is the Dover Lane Music Conference. Many established musicians and talented young artists perform at the event, which lasts for four days and features events that take place all night long.
The two fundamental elements: the raga and the tala
Raga is one of the most important concepts of Indian music. It can be roughly described as a musical entity that includes intonation, duration, and order of the notes. Sometimes its rules are mandatory; sometimes it is up to the musician to decide. The raga is flexible, and the artist has to use it to convey a message, each time with a different mood.
Even if a raga has a given set of tone on a scale ordered in melodies with musical motifs, a raga is not a tune (each one can yield many different tunes), nor it is a scale because many ragas can be based on the same scale. The concept of raga is similar to that of mode: the goal of a raga is to create a feeling, an atmosphere.
A tala, on the other hand, measures musical time, and its hierarchical disposition depends on how the piece is supposed to be performed. The tala forms a metrical structure that repeats itself in a cyclical harmony, from the beginning to the end of a song, and its accents can be decided by the shape of the musical phrase.
India main instruments
There is a wide array of instruments used in classical Indian music and some of them are particular to one style or the other.
In Carnatic music, some of the most common instruments are the veena (a long-necked and pear-shaped lute), venu (a transverse flute made from bamboo), gottuvadyam (a 20 or 21-string fretless lute), harmonium (a melodeon or a reed organ), ghatam (a percussion instrument made from a clay pot), and kanjira (a frame drum of the tambourine family).
In Hindustani music, some of the instruments used include the sitar (a stringed instrument), sarod (a stringed instrument known for a deep and weighty sound), veena (a beautifully hand-crafted string instrument), tanpura (a long-necked string instrument), violins, and the santoor (a flat hammered dulcimer made of walnut).
The rhythm is of Indian music is kept by the artist playing the tabla, which is a kind of drum
The rhythm is of Indian music is kept by the artist playing the tabla, which is a kind of drum. Another instrument used this way is the stringed tanpura, which is played throughout the performance of a raga and provides a point of reference for the other musicians and a base for the whole composition. The tanpura is tuned according to the raga, and its repeated cycles carve out the melody.
India classical dance
The Natya Shastra – the treatise written around the 5th century BC that codifies the hand gestures, the facial expressions and the body postures of Indian classical dance – is considered to be the “language” of any Indian classical dance form. A performance is considered successful if it evokes an emotion among the audience, and always following the rules codified in the said treatise.
In India, classical dance has developed a type of dance-drama that is a sort of total theater. The dancer, through his/her movements, tells a story, often taken from Hindu mythology or sacred literature.
Kathak (that means “story” in Sanskrit) is the traditional dance of the Kathakars, the travelling bards of ancient norther India. The dance evolved incorporating stories of Krishna and integrated the Persian arts to meet the taste of the Mughal court.
There are 3 distinct forms of this dance: Jaipur, Benares, and Lucknow. Each dance emphasizes rhythmic foot movements, with the legs and the torso kept straight. The story is told by vocabulary, based on the gestures of arms, upper body, and facial expressions.
Kuchipudi originated in the state of Andhra Pradesh. It is connected to the travelling bards and spiritual beliefs. Historically, its dancers have always been males, typically Brahmins (but today there also female dancers).
Each performance includes a pure dance and an expressive part, where rhythmic gestures mime the play. The main artist is accompanied by vocalists and musicians.
This dance originated in the Hindu temples of Odisha, located in the east of India. Odissi was originally performed only by women and used to express solely religious stories.
The artist and the musicians play out a mythical story or a devotional poem drew out of the Hindu texts, using symbolic costumes and body movements set out in ancient Sanskrit literature.
Bharat Natyam is a millenarian dance from the South of India, nowadays practiced mostly by women. The dance is usually accompanied by Carnatic music and is a major genre of classical dance that originated inside the Hindu temples.
Bharat Natyam has always been a solo dance that expresses Hindu religious themes and spiritual ideas, particularly of Shaivism. Even if this kind of dance has been mocked during the colonial British Raj era, in the post-colonial period has become the most popular of all the Indian classical dances.
Bharat Natyam has always been a solo dance that expresses Hindu religious themes and spiritual ideas
This dance (also known as Jagoi) is particularly known for its Vaishnavism themes, for being a team performance, and for its unique costumes, such as the kumil (a barrel-shaped skirt). A manipuri dance is marked by a graceful and fluid performance that puts great emphasis on the hands and the upper body.
Folk and tribal dance
Folk and tribal dances are still important in India since they are the expression of the daily work and rituals of the various villages. Every state has its own folk dance forms, while tribal dances are inspired by the folklore, and each ethnic group has its own combination of myths, legends, provers, ballads, etc.
These forms of dance depict the life of the tribes, their social relationships, and religious affiliation. The intricate movement of the body is meant to represent their culture and customs.
The instrument played are mostly locally made, and the music produced can range from calm and soothing to strong and intense.
Bollywood music and dance
Bollywood sons (also known as “Hindi film songs”, or “filmi songs”) are songs derived from song-and-dance routines common in Indian films. They are a predominant component of Indian pop music, and the music-and-song aspect is an integral feature of the genre – they don’t have to be considered as “musical”, in the Western sense.
These sequences usually are duets between the hero and the heroine or spectacular performances with dozens of dancers. The dance is usually a synthesis of formal and folk dance traditions. Originally, they were meant to represent the dances of the common people, although they became increasingly complex in their choreography.
Bollywood music contributed also to popularize disco music during the 80s, when Nazia Hassan, working with Biddu (an Indian producer) released a few hits. Biddu himself released some hits also popular in the Western world, as for example “Kung Fu Fighting”.
It can be easily said that the music present in Bollywood films greatly helped spread all over Indian society and to reach also foreign countries. For example, in Britain, it is possible to hear Hindi film songs in restaurants and on radio channels; while in other countries like France, Nigeria, and Greece many artists used Bollywood influences to create their own unique music style.
Bollywood films greatly helped spread all over Indian society and to reach also foreign countries
Film City in Mumbai is the best place to take a Bollywood tour. The official guided tour of Film City takes two hours and will show you around various destinations by bus. If you are lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a live filming. There are six bus tours a day starting at 10:30 am and ending around 6:30 pm.
An alternative way to experience Bollywood is to join in a Live Show Tour. These tours provide a chance to see the live shooting of a TV serial and watch the actors working on the set. You can also get your pictures taken with some of the actors. The tour is only available once a day from 4 pm to 5:30 pm.
Watch a cultural show in India
If you are in India and you want to watch a cultural show, we strongly recommend you to visit one of the following places: the Ghungroos Theater in Delhi; the Kindgom of Hearts, located in Gurgaon; or Agra, with its amazing show about the Taj Mahal.
Ghungroo Theater in Central Delhi
Spend a night watching a dance musical that narrates the story of Delhi and its glorious past when it was the seat of many ruling empires. The whole performance is a mix of conquest, power, violence, devotion, romance, and love.
The performance starts with the story of the first documented ruler and continues to show the dance of Kathak which was a favorite dance at the royal courts of the Mughal Empire. The show ends with a musical piece from Bollywood where the hero and the heroine sing and dance with an ensemble of dancers.
The performance lasts for about an hour and is followed by a delicious Indian barbecue at Angare. If you are planning on seeing the show, keep in mind that the Ghungroo Theater operates only from October to April.
Address: Parsi Anjuman Hall, Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, LNJP Colony, New Delhi.
Kingdom of Dreams located in Gurgaon
Kingdom of Dreams is a destination full of entertainment, theatre, and leisure and consists of two theaters, the Nautanki Mahal and Showshaa Theatre.
Designed like a grand palace, the Nautanki Mahal has an auditorium with 864 seats and a matrix sound system to make the theatre experience seem real.
Every day, the Nautanki Mahal offers audiences a chance to see one of the world’s longest-playing Bollywood musicals. There are normally two shows available: the Zangoora which centers on the story of a gypsy prince, and the Jhumroo which is a story of a man who wants to make it big as a Bollywood singer. Each show has a different schedule and timings.
Inside the Kingdom of Dreams, you will find a street called Culture Gully that offers plenty of themed restaurants serving authentic Indian cuisine from different regions of India. The area also contains dozens of shops selling Indian art and crafts. You may even see street performances.
Address: Sector 29, Gurgaon, Haryana in NCR Delhi, near the Leisure Valley Park.
Mohabbatein Taj Show in Agra
Spend the evening enjoying an amazing show that tells the history of the Taj Mahal with creative dances, dramatic lighting, and over 80 artists. The show also includes a large replica of the famous mausoleum.
The love story of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal will come to life during this impressive 80-minute performance. There are 4 categories of seats for you to choose from including maharaja, platinum, gold, and silver each with different price.
Address: Kalakriti Cultural and Convention Center
Explore India with Asia Highlights
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