South Asia

While the sitar performance practice of India also derives its essence  from vocal sources, classical instrumental music especially from the North is an independent, autonomous practice altogether.  The two most prominent instruments in Hindustani or Northern traditional classical music are the sitar and the sarod.  The forerunner of the sitar is the Persian setar, a three-stringed plucked lute, which was brought to Delhi from Kashmir by Khusrau Khan in the early 18th century.  It has a half gourd body, a wooden surface and a long, hollow wooden neck.  It has six to seven main strings and thirteen sympathetic strings. The sarod on the other hand is a more recent acquisition, appearing in the early nineteenth century and considered a modified version of the Afghani rabab or rubab, which is also plucked with 12 sympathetic strings.  The metal strings and the metal plate of the modern sarod were made by Ghulan Bandagi Khan, an Afghani trader and a musician, in order to produce more sustained tones and the intricate ornamentations.  Almost all melody stringed instruments of North India are traceable to the bin, an instrument with two gourd resonators at each end of a hollow wooden or bamboo body, which appeared from the 15th to the 18th centuries.


The compositions made for these instruments are called gat which expresses the process of making music as it undergoes change and constant variation as its main feature.  The oldest form of gat is the masītkhānī gat, which was created by Masit Khan, the most prominent musician of the court of Delhi, who made very important contributions to the repertoire of the sitar, deriving its substance from the dhrupad, an old vocal genre of the elite court, and the more recent barā khyāl, a solo vocal form. Hindustani music flourished in the temples and aristocratic surroundings of  the Hindu and the Indo-Persian courts of the fourteenth and the eighteenth centuries, after which the British provided new public venues like the concert halls, schools, as well as homes of the elite.  As other instruments played different roles, like providing the drone by the tāmpūrā to instrumental and vocal music, or supplying the melodic cycle for the dance and accompanying vocal music, the most revered performance practice is solo playing in concert form.

The Southern or Karnatic musical tradition is deeply ensconced in devotional practice of Hinduism, a way towards the path of enlightenment, and was usually performed in courts and temples as well as home altars.  Today, however, Karnatic music is also performed in public concerts.  While instrumental music is the most prominent practice in the North, Karnatic music is both instrumental and vocal in nature without distinction in style and context.

The most prominent instrument is the vīņā, a fretted plucked lute, evolving from prototypes about four hundred years ago.  Symbolizing the body of the goddess Sarasvati, the vīņā has a long hollow neck with a large resonator and a gourd attached to the neck for greater resonance.  The instrument has seven strings tuned to the range of  the male voice with three drone strings. Many vīņā players put wire plectra on the finger of the right hand, although some prefer the fingernails or the fleshy part of their fingertips.  The most recent acquisition of Karnatic music performance is the mandolin, which has been adapted by Mandolin U. Srinivas of Andhra Pradesh to feature four double courses of strings and the use of electricity.

Next: East Asia