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Indian Classical Music 101 With Ravi Shankar

Ravi Shankar performs with his daughter, Anoushka Shankar.
Sebastian D'Souza
AFP/Getty Images
Ravi Shankar performs with his daughter, Anoushka Shankar.

When Ravi Shankar visited NPR in 2005, he reminisced about his youth as a dancer and about the joy he has experienced teaching his daughter Anoushka to become a master of his own instrument, the sitar. With radio host Fred Child at his side, Shankar also launched into an engaging introduction to the basics of Indian classical music, with examples played by Anoushka Shankar and tabla virtuoso Tanmoy Bose.

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Indian Classical Music 101 With Ravi Shankar

Ravi Shankar Explains The Raga

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The "raga" is the melodic form, but it is not just a scale, Shankar says. There are roughly 72 parent scales. And each scale has hundreds of ragas, which can be pentatonic (five notes), hexatonic (six notes) or full scale (seven notes). The possible combinations are endless.

Certain ragas are associated with times of day — morning, afternoon, night and late night — and for centuries, these associations have endured. In South India, however, they no longer observe this tradition in music. But, in the north, where Shankar is from, they still reserve certain ragas for specific times of day.

Ravi Shankar Explains The Sitar

Lisa Valder

The sitar, India's most prevalent plucked stringed instrument, has been around for almost 800 years. But it has changed in shape and size. The types that you see today have been popular for less than 100 years, and have up to 23 strings. The shimmering sound of the sitar stems from the resonance of its sympathetic strings, which vibrate when others are plucked. All sitars are descended from an ancient instrument called the vina.

Ravi Shankar Explains The Rhythm

The "tala" refers to the rhythmic system in Indian classical music. And, like the wide array of ragas, the number of individual rhythmic patterns is vast. Shankar says that no one can calculate the number. The rhythmic cycles can range from three to 108 beats, each capable of being divided in myriad ways.

"It takes a lot of intellect and a lot of years of practice and control to have a cycle in mind and to improvise on it," he says.

The key role in Indian rhythm is given to the tabla — a pair of hand drums which differ from each other in size and sound. And, as with the Western timpani, changing the tension of the drum head produces different notes.

The tabla player's role has typically been confined to accompaniment, to keep the musical form intact. But in recent years, thanks largely to Shankar, the role has expanded to allow for solos and increasingly virtuosic playing.

Ravi Shankar Explains The Tanpura

Nikhil Gangavane

The long-necked tanpura — or tambura, as it is also known — is always in the background of Indian classical music. The reason, Shankar says, is that there is never any modulation between keys in a raga; the key always stays the same. The tanpura maintains, continuously, the drone of the tonic note.

In Western music, the equivalent is sometimes called a pedal point, as if an organist is holding one foot on one pedal all the way through. Everything that happens melodically on top of that occurs in relation to that single note.

Ravi Shankar Explains The Moods Of Indian Music

Rasas are the moods or emotions of Indian music. There are nine principal rasas: Shringaar (sensual), Raudra (anger), Hasya (happy), Vibhatsaya (disgust), Veera (heroic), Karuna (sympathy), Bhayanak (fear), Adabhuta (wonder) and Shanta (tranquil).

"We always start with a very tranquil, meditative mood," Shankar says, "so the listeners also feel the same way."

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.