India in 1400 BC

Origin of Indian Music

 India 1500 BC <<                                                              >> India 1300 BC

Fig. a: Forms of Music in Ancient India (as depicted in Natyashastra composed around 1st century AD)

Oldest Legacy of Music

Indian movies are often considered silly and unrealistic in the west because of the excessive song and dance sequences. Even now the most serious movies in India can't be thought without any song. Music, and songs are so much part of our culture and civilization that, irrespecttive of what others perceive of us, we can't do away with it. Everything - from marriages and worships to mourning or victory ceremonies - is incomplete without music, specially songs. For so many thousand years music has been so much a part of everything that it's really impossible to take it out of us. In fact we, as a civilization, have the  oldest tradition of music in the world. No other civilization or culture has an uninterrupted legacy of music  for close to 4000 years.

Music has been always an integral part of spirituality, religion, art and entertainment in any civilization and culture. But the position, influence and stature of music in Indian civilization is no doubt much more crucial than that anywhere else. Apart from the antiquity the varied hues and colors, that poured into India's palette for the past 4000 years, gave rise to a dazzling and gorgeous plethora of a stunning and matured music. No other civilization ever had such a long and uninterrupted tradition of music. Perhaps that's one of the reasons why music is so deeply rooted into us. 

This long tradition of Indian music can be traced back to the early Vedic Age, since the time of Rig Veda.

Like the light and air, music has existed ever since the world was created. It might be preposterous to claim that before the Vedic Age there was no music in India. Music is as old as life and it existed in all civilizations in all ages in some form or other. Any natural sound is melody to ears. The chirping of the birds, the flowing of the rivulets, the sound of the breeze, the roaring of the seas, the falling of the rains - everything is music and has always mesmerized the living beings, both humans and animals. Humans have always endeavored to create the same melody that they have heard around them. But archaeological evidences of all those early endeavors of mankind are mostly lost. The Vedic music, which in turn had imbibed many of the legacies and practices from the Indus Valley and other native civilizations and cultures, may be treated as the most ancient tradition of music that didn't get lost. The present day Indian Classical Music can trace back its origin to the Vedic chants of the Vedas.

Rig Vedic Music

Rig Veda, the first of the four Vedas are thought, though controversially, to have been composed around 1500 BC. Though compiled or written much later, there did exist a strict way of chanting the hymns of Rig Veda. If we consider 1500 BC (16th century BC) as the rough period of composition of Rig Veda, we may assume that in 15th century BC the Rig Vedic chants would have attained a definitive shape. This tradition of chanting, like the complete texts, has been preserved very authentically by successive generations of Brahmins for nearly 4000 years. This chanting style is the earliest form of Indian and world music.

The two earliest treatises on Indian Music - Natyashstra (1st century AD ??) and Naradiyashiksha (5-6th century AD ??) - provide some good information about Vedic chants, specially the Sama Gana or the Songs of Sama Veda.

Three different pitches or accents or swars - udatta, anudatta and swarita - were used for chanting Rig Veda. Even today in Bengali, the language that has retained the maximum words from Sanskrit among all the descendants of Sanskrit in India, the term "udatta kantha" means a voice which can sing freely and loudly without any inhibition. That's exactly what it meant also in the context of chanting the Rig Vedic hymns. Udatta was the principal accent, a raised one, for the chant. Preceded by udatta was the anudatta - which literally means 'that which is not udatta' - an accent not raised. The third accent swarita - meaning sounded - was a transitional one marking the transition from a raised to unraised accent. For many centuries, till the Rig Veda was finally written down, the accents were represented by signs with the fingers of the hands. This is the earliest form of notation in any music in the world. 

Much later after the advent of scripts, when the Rig Veda was finally written down, a very simple form of written notation was used. This is again the earliest form of written notation in the world. In Rig Vedic texts udatta (U) is not marked with any notation, anudatta (A) is marked with a horizontal line under and swarita (S) with a vertical line above the syllable as  seen in the first verse.

agnim ile purohitann yajnasya devam rtvijam |
hotaaran ratnaghaatamam || 1 001 01

I Laud Agni, the chosen Priest, God, minister of sacrifice, 

The hotar, lavishest of wealth. 

Fig. b: 1st verse of Rig Veda

The three different accents indirectly correspond to three different pitches. Various recensions use different pitches for these accents. The staff notation of a typical Vedic chant in one of the recensions - where anudatta has the lowest pitch (G flat), udatta the middle (A) and swarita highest (B flat) - is presented below.

Fig. 1: Staff Notation of a Rig Vedic Chant 

This particular style of using three consecutive notes alternatively is perhaps the earliest form of Indian music, the legacy of which can be still visible in the Dhrupad style of Hindustani Classical Music. Though the term 'Dhrupad' is much new compared to Rig Veda, nevertheless, the style remained in some form or other in Indian music. Figure 2 below depicts in staff notation the 'Alaap' or the first movement of three Raagas sung in Dhrupad style. The Rig Vedic pattern of the usage of three consecutive notes is quite visible in these notations

Fig. 2: Staff notation of 'Alaap' in Dhrupad style, as in Sangita Parijata (17th century)

In the early treatises on Indian music (Fig. a), the Rig Vedic chants were classified as natya (drama) of pathya (recitation) type. Drama was considered an important element of music. So the Rig Vedic chants not only gave form to the earliest Indian music, but also to the earliest Indian drama. Indeed the Rig Veda contains all the elements of drama - characters, events, narration, emotions, actions etc.  The pitch modulation through raised (udatta), unraised (anudatta) and the transitional (swarita) accents originated to give expression to dramatization of the Rig Vedic chants. The relation between drama and music has been always very strong in India in all ages and the Rig Veda might have created that close association for the first time. 

Sama Vedic Music

The Sama Veda is believed to have been composed between 1400 BC and 1100 BC. The Sama Vedic chants took the proper form of music over time. To facilitate singing of the verses the three accents or pitches or notes of the Rig Vedic chants eventually expanded to a full fledged scale of seven-notes and twenty two intermediate tones (shruti) of varying pitches. The Naradiya Shisksha is a very good treatise on Sama Vedic music. It speaks of the origin of each of the seven notes from natural sounds produced by animals and birds. Apart from the seven notes of the scales there were also the five qualitative types of tonal color (bright, extended, mournful, soft and moderate). Each of the seven notes was assigned one of the five qualitative tonal color and also one of the three Rig Vedic accents. So if you needed to express sadness in a low (unraised) voice then there was a note for you matching your requirement. This can be seen as the earliest foundation of the Indian Raagas, which is a much later concept in Indian music than 1400 BC. 

In the absence of any written text of Sama Veda in the initial years, the seven notes were represented by seven signs with fingers -  an extension to the three signs used in Rig Vedic chant. When texts came into being, the seven signs were represented by the seven numerals. starting from one. As seen in the Fig. 3 below the first note - referred to as krushta, meaning loud note - was Madhyama or Ma.

 Fig. 3: Sama Vedic Swaras (Notes)

A very interesting thing about the Same Vedic scale is that it's a diminishing one in contrast to what we've now in all the styles of music in the world. The scale used to start from Ma and end at Pa instead of starting from Sa and ending at Ni. In later times the scale was changed from 'Ma Ga Ri Sa Ni Dha Pa' to 'Sa Ni Dha Pa Ma Ga Ri' - with the Sa in the higher octave - to allow for the usage of higher notes for better audibility. Also at later times the scale was converted from the diminishing to the present day ascending one.

Fig. 4: Staff notation of a typical Sama Vedic Scale

One very interesting thing of the Sama Vedic music is the modification and addition of syllables to the original texts, which themselves are derived from Rig Vedic verses, to fit into singing styles. In contrast to the rigidity maintained for the pronunciation and accents of the Rig Vedic verses this is indeed a very remarkable change for the sake of music. Such flexibility is perhaps the biggest asset of Indian music till date. No other book, considered sacred in any other religion, has been allowed to be altered so much just for the sake of music!!

The original Sama Vedic texts (known as Samhita) can be chanted in the same way as Rig Veda with the three Rig Vedic accents, which are represented (or notated) in Sama Veda by numerals - udatta is 1, swarita is 2 and anudatta is 3.

namaste agna ojase grinanti deva krishtayah

O Agni, God, the people sing reverent praise to thee for strength:
With terrors trouble thou the foe

Fig. 5: Original text of Sama Vedic Verse (Kauthuma Samhita) with 1, 2 & 3 for Udatta, Svarita & Anudatta notes

The Sama Vedic song books had two flavors - Gramageya or 'songs for village singing' and Aranyageya or 'songs for forest singing' both adapted from different portions of the Sama Veda Samhita (texts). Fig. 6 shows the song adaptation (along with numeric notation) of an original Sama Vedic text (Fig. 5).  It can be noted that the word 'namaste' in original text (Fig. 5) is converted to 'namastau' (Fig. 6) in the song adaptation. Similarly 'agna' is converted to 'hognaai'. Sylables like 'au', 'ho' and 'vaa' are also added for the sake of singing. 

Fig. 6: Notated song 20 of 'Gramageya' song book of Sama Veda, derived from of Kauthuma Samhita

I've created a very simplified staff notation (Fig. 7) for the above song in Fig. 6 based on some simple principles of the Sama Vedic notation as follows:

  • Numerals 1-7 denote the seven Sama Vedic notes in a diminishing scale (considered here as the C major scale)
  • Numerals above any syllable denotes the pitch/note used for pronouncing/singing that particular syllable
  • Numerals within the text denote elongation of the preceding vowel
  • In general simple vowel has a single beat duration. The compound vowel has a three beat duration by default, but two beat if notated with an additional 'r' along with the numeral on top of the syllable
  • A '^' on top of the syllable means a three beat duration

Fig. 7: Simplified Staff notation of song 20 of 'Gramageya' song book of Sama Veda

In contrast to the simple notation of Fig. 7, in reality the Sama Veda is sung in a much more complicated way (with kampan or vibrato) as depicted in Fig. 8 below.

Fig. 8: Detailed Staff Notation of song 20 of 'Gramageya' song book of Sama Veda (as sung in the Ramanna style by Sri Sesadri Sastrigal & transcribed by Wayne Howard)

The sequence and combination of notes in the above notations clearly point to the same in Indian Raagas, developed much later. Starting from the seven notes and scales to the sequence of notes, the legacy of Sama Vedic music is omnipresent in Indian Classical Music in various forms.

Though the Sama Vedic music reached a great height even at such an early stage of Indian civilization around 1400 BC, still the concept of 'taal' or beat was still unknown. The duration of a single beat note was not fixed and changed from syllable to syllable.

Other Rig Vedic Topics

Reference & Useful Links

  1. Sama Veda
    • 'Gramageya' song book of Sama Veda in Devanagari: It contains fully notated musical adaptation of the Sama Veda Samhita. Perhaps this is the earliest available book of songs with complete notations
  2. The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music - South Asia: Indian Subcontinent by James Porter, Timothy Rice & Chris Goertzen: Has good information about the early phases of Indian Music including details of early musical treatises like Natyashastra & Naradiya Shiksha
  3. A History of Indian Literature by Moriz Winternitz & V. Srinivasa Sarma
  4. The Music and Musical Instruments of North East India by Dilip Ranjan Barthakur: Contains good information about music of Sama Veda and the instruments in Vedic Age
  5. Dhrupad by Ritwik Sanyal & Richard Widdess: Has staff notations of Dhrupad styles and references to Rig Vedic Music as the origin of Dhrupad music
  6. Ragas in Indian Classical Music by Anupam Mahajan: Good reference for Naradiya Shiksha and other works attributed to Narada
  7. The Music of India by Reginald Massey: The chapter on "Vedic Heritage" has good information about Vedic music and early scales
  8. Music in Sama Veda - blog by Sreenivasa Rao S with many useful information
  9. Artcile by Srini Pichumani