Throughout much of Indian Hindu culture, music has become an integral part in many aspects of traditional and religious practices. Over the recent decades, Indian music has been gaining worldwide popularity, with artists of various backgrounds incorporating Indian styles of sound to compliment their work. We live in a time of strong global connectivity and great cultural diversity where schools of thought evolve, traditions adapt, and art forms diversify. However, it is important to acknowledge the unique differences Indian music carries as it holds great historical value in shaping Indian communities through culture, the persistence and progression of Hindu practices, and engaging the youth of our communities.
The Hindu shastras outline numerous accounts of music being used as a means to express the self to others and the divine. Depictions of Lord Shiva in a trance like state as his damaru sounds, Lord Krishna gaining the admiration of the gowalas and gopees through the melodies of his bansuri, and even a young Ganesh enjoying the sound created by the tabla, all describe the importance music holds as a form of bhakti. What this has translated to is the notion that musical expression can be used as another means to interact with divinity and the attainment of moksha. As a result, we now enjoy the compositions and poetry of Goswami Tulsidas, Meerabai, and Kabir Das, who all, in the recent past, shared this belief as their personal way to practice Bhakti Yoga. In modern times the practices of garba and satsangh are examples that continue this idea of using music to connect with divinity.
The evolution of contemporary Indian classical music hails from a long heritage with its oldest evidence of existence originating during the Vedic era of India. Ancient literature outlined the fundamental concepts which all Indian classical music stems from creating a unique art form referred to as Carnatic music. It was in this style of Indian classical music where much of the development of instruments and methods of singing took place. Until around the 12th century CE where, for the first time, the divergence of new sub-genre of Indian classical music became characterized as Hindustani music. This new genre of music was developed in the northern regions of India because of external influences, primarily due to the newly established Mughal rulers. During this historical time, the demand for musicians to enlighten the courtrooms of the ruling monarchs created the conditions necessary to stimulate the evolution of classical Indian music. The political and colonial atmosphere during medieval era India created the recurrent themes of cultural and religious independence and the push for religious tolerance between groups, which translated into how Hindustani music developed. Increased regional individualism became apparent with the development of distinguishable schools of music such as Banaras and Punjab, along with the mixing of cultures to create the popular style of Qawwali.
In very general terms, during the times of Mughal rule to British conquest into the 20th century of India, the Hindu way of life faced great adversity due to the direct and structural violence imposed upon the population from the ruling imperialist monarchs. Religious oppression was a challenging dilemma Hindus faced and resulted in the rapid disintegration of Hindu populations west, east, and southeast of modern day India. The survival and success of Hinduism under these conditions can partly be attributed to the emotional effect music had on people which has the potential to create a strong bond between people, communities, and divinity. This phenomenon occurred again during the mass migration of Indians during the early 19th century to nations of the West Indies, Fiji, and others.
The lives the Indian indentured workers of the West Indies is a prime example of the hardships these communities faced. During these colonial times, most policies and the ill treatment of Indians made identifying as an Indian Hindu person carry a heavy burden. This political atmosphere and pressure did, quite noticeably, change the culture of the settling Indians as their native language, of Hindi, was lost very quickly in the following generations. To bridge this growing gap, music was used to practice language, maintain culture, bring solidarity to the community, and express their spirituality. This eventually lead to the eruption of regionally unique styles of music throughout the Caribbean.
Distinct styles of classical taan singing developed in Suriname, Guyana, and Trinidad, along with the further popularization of bhajans, chalisa, and melodies of Tulidas’s Ramayana passed down from generations. Accompanying the songs followed the dholaks players whose style is iconic to only the West Indies, harmonium players, and the rise in the use of the dhantal. Furthermore, the tassa drummers, whose art originated from the goat herders of northern India, developed their own compositions which its rhythms are now endemic to West Indian culture. Now the Indian Hindu culture is one of the most visible and vibrant cultures in the West Indies. Consistently throughout the past, music has connected communities to their roots, spiritual beliefs, and brought togetherness to communities in both times of hardship and joy.
I was first directly exposed to Indian music through my time spent in mandir during Sunday morning satsangh. Now, after playing tabla for most my life, I can say music has provided me with opportunities and knowledge that could be gained no where else. It has allowed me to directly connect and experience my culture shaping my life in a positive manner. The young Indian music community of the GTA is very versatile and talented. I would encourage anyone to attempt to experience the joy and love being involved with music brings in both a cultural and spiritual context. Music has contributed to the global spread of Hindu Indian culture and philosophy in both history and modern times. It has contributed to the persistence of the Hindu way of life and the resilience of Indian culture throughout adversity. Its art has brought solidarity to communities, peace within individuals, and acted as an expression of love towards divinity. In North America, the continual growth of the young music community will contribute to the persistence and preservation of Hindu Indian culture for years to come.
By Ravin D.
Ravin is a Canadian Indo-Caribbean university student based in Toronto.