Indian Classical Music not Art Music

By Rajiv Trivedi



The aphorism of Greek physician Hippocrates referred to difficult task before a doctor when he said Ars longa, vita brevis but over the ages, accepted in its English translation -- Art is Long, Life is short -- it has been often misused to define characteristic of fine arts. Dramatists, poets have time and again mouthed the phrase to establish the prowess of human imagination. In most simple terms art is a result of human expression. A whole branch of philosophy -- aesthetics -- is dedicated to study of the nature of beauty, art, taste, and aspects of its creation and appreciation.

Music is placed above all others in the category of fine arts because of its intangibility -- freedom from visuality and verbosity. While all others present a version of the world by subjugating their characteristic abstractions to perceptible reality, music presents its abstractions to the world without laboring to translate at all. Perhaps because of its intrinsically intangible nature, music is that fine art which has effected the generation of greatest number of tools, chiefly, musical instruments. If scope, range, volume, universality, variety are held to be measure of an art-from then music surpasses all others.

Text Box: The view that ‘art-music’  signifies music descended from classical tradition is subscribed to by such musicologists as Susan McClary, Theodor Adorno, Deryck Cooke, Joseph Swain, Nicolas Coo & Nicola Dibbens and Philip TaggIf music is thus strongly held to be an art-form, why should the term art-music have come in existence at all? At a later level one may laugh at the complexity that creates confusion, arguments and discontent [“It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident.” – Danto] but the term art music was used initially to distinguish serious or erudite music from popular or folk music. The term implies advanced structural tectonics of sound with theoretical background and written musical tradition. Scholars are clear about its ‘cerebral’ nature and stress this ‘studied’ attitude as against the spontaneous, idiosyncratic, self-directed creation practiced in folk or popular music. Musician Catherine Schmidt-Jones for example, defines art music as "a music which requires significantly more work by the listener to fully appreciate than is typical of popular music." In her view, this can include “the more challenging types of jazz and rock music, as well as Classical."[] 

It may be safely assumed that erudite/art/serious- music has been the chief source of artistic expression even though never main-stream in consumption. Adorno believed the culture industry was a system by which society was controlled through a top-down creation of standardized culture that intensified the commodification of artistic expression. This belief finds favour with many observers of modern culture.

Even though constraint of form, fidelity to original composition etc. do not allow the art-musician the unrestrained use of notes, there still is ample space for his personal preferences to find expression. It is this freedom for self-expression within a set of constraints that earns it the designation of ‘art’. In its wider form, one which includes literary, visual and motion-based expressions, Art is construed to explore individual’s relationship to the external world. It is perhaps the only tool available to explore new possibilities, when a differend is encountered within a given system of justice. Art, in its recent European history has served as flag-bearer of change in general and personal rebellion/ rejection in particular. Almost by force of its definition, it is directed against its classical roots. Thinkers like Eliot are forced to save the ‘freedom of art’ from excesses that may lead it to ‘perversion’ by demanding a meeting point between tradition and individual talent. The premise of true fidelity to original composition finds place in contemporary deliberations of scholars, yet are less visible in actual music practice.

Beauty is domain of art was subscribed right up to beginning of first world war. But, rising political awareness replaced beauty from its seat of centrality and Art turned into an arena of dissent. Art movements were directed against beauty and succeeded in dethroning it. Observes Danto, "Beauty had disappeared not only from the advanced art of the 1960’s but from the advanced philosophy of art of that decade as well." Art was thus a special area of free unbounded, expression that defied common sensibility on one hand and commoditized cultural artifacts for mass consumption on other, veering free of ‘tradition’ in third dimension.

The place of Indian classical music has never been directly examined with regard to contemporary socio-political definition of Art that has evolved during past century in west. And yet, for reasons best known to them, many critics, musicians and scholar routinely refer to classical music as Art-music of India.

The simplest reason why this adjective should not be applied to Indian music is the very definition of Art. Whereas in west its definition (expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power) employs a transactional approach, Rasa-theory is founded on principle of inductive harmonization.  This aesthetic theory leads to relationship between artiste and his art, which again differs from the western approach.

Sharing a commonality is the end of Rasa-Siddhanta with its ideal of purna-rasa-nishpatti. The practitioner and the enjoyer both attain same fulfillment. Moreover, this ultimate attainment is well-defined and therefore independent of personality. This leads to dictum of impersonality in art and marks the nature of its practice in India.

In an age where personal choice has become problematic due to excess, the idea of its absence may not be imagined by the burdened. For people willing to submit to bonds routinely as price of ‘civilized existence’, it might be difficult to imagination absolute freedom rising out of total surrender of self. For Indian artiste, art was a way to sublimate his personality; for the western to create it.

Music in India rises out of following natural relationships of sound, not ordering it. Philosophical consideration of Music, to be pathway to absolution, comes out of its ability to journey into intuitional mathematical absolutes that order perfect melody/ harmony.  

Bhāratīya Shāstrīya Sangīt: Shāstra, Shikshan Va Prayōg. Collection of Essays in Indian music.

Eternal Truths

Sonorous Sounds the Veena

Measure for Measure?

Vichitra Veena: Innovations and Practices

Shruti Veena: Manifestation of Bharat’s Gram and ChatuhSarana -- Dr. Lalmani Misra

Contemporary Problems for Indian Music -- Dr. Lalmani Misra

Rishi Tradition in Music education -- Dr. Bageshri Joshi

Ideal Objectives And Music Syllabi

Musical Tracks

Excerpts from Bharatiya Sangeet Vadya:Other Veena-s



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