Indian Classical Music: A Geographer’s Question – by Snigdhadeb Sengupta


Have you ever wondered how Indian classical music, or Indian Music in general, is related to places? Consider the fact that Indian musical tradition is broadly divided into Karnatik and Hindusthani systems. That in itself is a geographic classification. The Gharanas (Wikipedia suggests that the word Gharana comes from the Urdu/Hindi word ‘ghar’, which means ‘family’ or ‘house’. It typically refers to the place where the musical ideology originated.  However Gharana also refers to a singing or playing style constructed of assemblages of musical traits or gayakis, typically developed and popularized by members of an extended family of musicians) a salient feature of Hindusthani vocal and instrumental music are named after places too.

The five Gharanas which justifiably claim to have created the most original cultural traits which the rest have adopted and developed in various permutations and proportions, are named after the places of their origin – Gwalior, Agra, Jaipur-Atrauli, Rampur-Sahaswan and Kirana. Notice too, that these places are dotted in the riverine plains in Uttar Pradesh, with a small southward extension (less than 100 Miles) up to Gwalior in northern Madhya Pradesh.

The map below illustrates:

What, one may ask, might have caused this to happen? Why is it that, a particular geographical area, spawned one of the richest musical traditions ever known?

Walking with music

Digging up the Indian past one finds a history of walks. Conquerors, marauders, refugees and migrants, all walked miles on this land – some on feet, some on horses and chariots, ships and boats. Typically, given the abundance of gifts one gets from a river, immigrants settled down along river valleys. Some settled permanently, others made some place their temporary home and then moved on. As this journey continued, so did the journey of music. As people traveled across this part of the sub-continent thousands of miles away from their homeland, they carried their music in their hearts, in their voices and in their instruments. Those already settled assimilated the newly learned notes and styles into their existing styles. The great traditions of Hindusthani classical music were perhaps born in this mixing pot of diverse populations meeting in a particular geography. From Kirana, upstream in the Ganga Basin, to Lucknow, furher downstream, a cultural hearth emerged. Particular traits of singing styles of Gharanas evolved as cultural diffusion took place. A student of geography can actually trace the origin and spread of each Gharana, on a map!

The Shifting Hearth

With the implementation of Permanent Settlement by Lord Cornwallis in the wake of the 19th Century, the new landowners (Zamindars) in Bengal Presidency found themselves in a socio-historical set-up that prompted them to patronize and commercialize art and culture, especially music (including indigenous bengali music). The fact that Calcutta was the then capital of India also supported this. Thus the cultural hub shifted to Gangetic Bengal. This shift can also be cartographically plotted!  See the map below:

The Route to survival

Overall, it was the cultural diffusion that led the Gayakis to survive and sustain over the years. With the inflow of migrants, the intermixing of culture continued. In many cases individual family units and branches of their family tree migrated in the quest of learning more music. Later, musicians also migrated to different princely states around the country on invitation as court musicians.

We have had many noted geographers whose research identified the principal communication networks, such as kinship ties and marketing activities, through which information relevant to change may pass. Many such studies dwell on the above facts and can be used to explain how such networks also led to the diffusion of musical traits and migration of families of musicians.

Men and women, while fighting for survival, carrying music, adopting, creating and passing it on to the next generation through centuries – indeed is a magnificent phenomenon that the sub-continent has witnessed. I hope to eventually share these stories with our readers in times to come.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here