Indian Classical Music

By: David Marcus

Type: Overview Entry

Published: April 3, 2015

Updated: August 3, 2020

Indian classical music is a long-standing tradition that has had a significant impact globally, as well as in Texas. Indian music is one of the oldest unbroken musical traditions in the world with mythological origins rooted in the Vedas (sacred Hindu scriptures). The stories, traditions, and lessons from the Vedas are a central part of Indian culture. They are passed on through oral tradition by singers, dancers, and musicians, often performing in temples. Therefore, it can be said that the roots of Indian music are both religious and spiritual. Sangeet (music as the combination of vocal music, instrumental music, and dance) has become its own spiritual and meditative path, however, as expressed in the idea of Nada Brahma (the concept that the world is created from the energy of sound) and the yoga of music. Accordingly, music is a universal language that breaks down barriers, brings peace, and serves as a vehicle to access the divine.

The two main branches of Indian music are raga (translated as “melody,” but in Sanskrit it means “color” or “passion”) and tal (“rhythm”). The raga is always linked to a mood or sentiment and “may be thought of as an acoustic method of coloring the mind of the listener with an emotion.” According to ancient scriptures, the nine moods are romantic love, comedy, sadness, fury, heroism, fear, disgust, wonder, and peace. “Just as all hues may be produced by mixing the three primary colors, so too, all emotions are said to be derived from these principal emotions.” In addition to communicating an aesthetic beauty and mood, ragas are played at a certain time of day or in a certain season of the year. Ragas have a solid structure built upon the seven notes (Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni) of the Indian music scale, roughly correlated to solfa (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti) in Western music. Within this structure, each artist follows a certain set of rules of the particular raga, at the same time infusing it with his/her individual improvisation and expression. Ragas are typically sung or played on wind-blown instruments, such as the bamboo flute or harmonium; on plucked stringed instruments, including the sitar and sarod; or on bowed stringed instruments, such as the sarangi and the violin.

Tal, which literally means “clap,” is an intricate system of rhythm. Tal uses clapping in teaching and performance to signify the beginning of sections in rhythmic cycles. In the classical tradition, every touch of the drum has a syllable (bol) associated with it. These bols are used as a mnemonic system in the pedagogy of tal, and they are also spoken in performance in a scat-rap manner, independently or simultaneously with the drumming. Bols are traditionally notated in Devanagari script (the alphabet used in Sanskrit and the modern languages Hindi, Marathi, and Nepali).

Indian music utilizes many rhythmic cycles which are further complicated by the presence of a variety of compositions and ways of dividing each beat. Tal is kept on non-membranous percussive instruments, such as the ghatam (clay pot) or cymbals, or is played on membranous percussive instruments, including the tabla, the pakhawaj, and the mridangam. These are but a few of the many Indian instruments played today.

Classical Indian music can also be separated into two major systems—Hindustani music in northern India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and Carnatic music in southern India. Both systems incorporate the concepts of raga and tal, and both share a Vedic origin. However, “they differ in terms of theory, nomenclature, and performance.” Historically, Islamic rule in northern India manifested the role of the court musician in Hindustani music and bequeathed a Persian influence on this system. The Carnatic tradition was based more on performance in Hindu temples.

Indian music was carried to the rest of the world initially through colonization of the subcontinent beginning in the eighteenth century. In the following centuries, the global spread of Indian music increased as immigrants from India and Pakistan relocated to Europe and North America in large numbers. One of the best-known Indian musicians, Pandit Ravi Shankar, was a central figure in helping popularize classical Indian music globally. (Pandit is a Hindu term for a highly honored, accomplished artist or scholar).

Ravi’s older brother Uday led an Indian dance troupe that toured internationally and performed in New York many times beginning in 1932. As a young boy, Ravi Shankar performed as a dancer with his brother’s troupe and then began playing sitar in the United States in the late 1950s. He performed at Carnegie Hall in 1961; offered workshops at UCLA in 1965; served as a visiting professor at City College, New York, in 1967; and performed at the legendary Woodstock Festival in 1969. Ustad Alla Rakha was Shankar’s most common tabla accompanist in those first few decades of musical and cultural exchange. (Ustad is the Muslim synonym for Pandit.) Shankar’s relationship with former Beatle George Harrison gave Indian music a big boost in popularity, and it was soon incorporated into recordings by other prominent performers, including Led Zeppelin, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Yehudi Menuhin, Tool, and Shakti. In a sense, Ravi Shankar’s musical legacy had a direct impact on Texas in that his daughter Norah Jones, a multiple Grammy Award-winning performer, was raised in Dallas and majored in jazz piano at the University of North Texas.

Ravi Shankar’s guru and father-in-law was Baba Allaudin Khan, one-time musical director of Uday Shankar’s dance troupe and the father of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (1922–2009), another important person who brought classical Indian music to the West. In 1955 Yehudi Menuhin invited Ali Akbar Khan to visit the United States, where he performed sarod at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, appeared on Allistair Cooke’s Omnibus (the first U.S. television performance of Indian classical music), and made the first Western LP recording of Indian music. In 1967 Ali Akbar Khan opened the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael, California, where thousands of students have learned Hindustani music. During its early years, Alla Rakha’s first son, Zakir Hussain, was the percussion director at the school, but this position has been held by Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri for most of the school’s existence. Hussain, Chaudhuri, Shankar, and Khan have performed and taught all over the world and have received numerous honors and accolades. These prominent musicians have been assisted and promoted by countless universities and organizations that have fostered this cross-cultural exchange. Together they have played an instrumental role in bringing Indian music to the West.

Indian music gained popularity in Texas during the 1960s with simple house concerts hosted by members of the expatriate Indian community. Indian immigrants Barda Sharma and Dinkar Rao started the Asian Music Circle in Austin during this time. This organization eventually evolved into the Indian Classical Music Circle of Austin (ICMCA), which has been promoting Indian classical music and dance since its original founding in 1975 and subsequent revival in 1991. Dr. Shankar Bhattacharyya, an accomplished Hawaiian guitar and sarod player who came to Texas in the late 1960s to earn a Ph.D. at Rice University, has been a key player in promoting Indian music in Texas. He is cofounder and faculty advisor to the Society for Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Culture Amongst Youth (SPICMACAY) and a professor of Electrical Engineering at Texas A&M University in College Station. SPICMACAY is “committed to the cause of introducing the youth to the traditional Indian culture with the hope that the wealth of knowledge, wisdom and beauty that it encompasses will become an integral part of their lives.” SPICMACAY, which was founded by the late 1970s, has organized numerous Indian music and dance concerts and workshops around Texas over the years.

David Courtney, a Houston tabla player and teacher, along with his wife Chandrakantha, an accomplished North Indian classical singer, also have played an important role in promoting Indian music in Texas. Courtney became involved in Indian music in the early 1970s after hearing Houston-based KPFT radio deejays Jayant Kirtane and Raja Marate broadcasting Indian classical music on a program called Evening Ragas, which Bhattacharyya and Courtney eventually ended up hosting. Courtney attended the Ali Akbar College and then continued his study in India. He has written numerous books on tabla and composed the theme music for ASIANA, an Indian TV program based in Houston. In 2009 Courtney and his wife were designated as “Cultural Jewels of India” by the India Culture Center of Houston.

Dr. Stephen Slawek, another significant figure in the Texas Indian music scene, has been a professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Texas at Austin since 1983 and has specialized in the musical traditions of South and Southeast Asia. A disciple of Ravi Shankar and an accomplished sitar player, Slawek continued to direct the Indian Classical Music Ensemble “Svaranjali” at the university in 2015 and instructed students in performance practice and offered occasional performances at venues within the school of music. He has taught North Indian instrumental music to hundreds of students in Texas for more than three decades.

In 1975 Rathna Kumar, a renowned danseuse and choreographer, founded the Anjali Center for Performing Arts in Houston, the first Indian dance school in Texas and one of the first in the United States. As of 2015 Rathna had trained more than 2,000 students and served as a true cultural ambassador of Indian performing arts. In addition to teaching multiple forms of dance, the center offers several classes in vocal music, tabla, Vedic Math for youngsters, and yoga. In 2011 Anjali’s faculty included Pandit Suman Ghosh, scholar in Hindustani Vocal, and tabla guru (teacher) Shantilal Shah, an internationally-accomplished musician originally from Banaras, India. Shah has been based in Houston since 2003 and eventually opened his own tabla school.

Maestro Gourisankar Karmakar also started an independent school for Indian music, known as the Austin School of Indian Percussion, in 2008. Gourisankar is an “A-grade” Artist/tabla player with All India Radio and television and has done extensive touring internationally for more than twenty years. Gourisankar first came to Texas in 1996, when he was invited to play by Shankar Bhattacharyya. Warren Ashford, a tabla student of Alla Rakha and Zakir Hussain, also helped Gourisankar become established in Austin by arranging tabla workshops for Gourisankar to teach. Another key collaborator was Dr. Amie Maciszewski who has produced numerous collaborative events, concerts, and workshops featuring Gourisankar and many other internationally-renowned Indian classical performers. Since the late 1990s, Maciszewski has been performing and teaching sitar and Hindustani vocal in Austin.

A great Carnatic Indian percussionist living, performing, and teaching in Denton, Texas, is Poovalur Sriji (aka Srinivasan). He has performed and recorded with numerous artists in the United States and abroad. A faculty member at the University of North Texas, Srinivasan directs the university’s South Indian Cross Cultural ensemble. Indrajit Banerjee, another “A-grade” artist/sitar player of Indian radio and television, performs Hindustani classical music and has been based in Austin. Concert artist and teacher of classical and folk music of India and Pakistan, Ustad Ghulam Farid Nizami has been an Austin resident since 2008. Nizami came to the United States from Pakistan as a Fulbright Scholar and taught for one year at the University of Texas in Austin. Uniquely blending a Sufi repertoire with classical music, Nizami plays sitar, tabla, harmonium, and sings. He was a member of the Texas Commission of the Arts roster of touring artists for 2011–12. All of the aforementioned artists perform in Texas multiple times a year.

In addition to ICMCA and SPICMACAY, other organizations have promoted classical Indian music throughout the Lone Star State, including the Indian Classical Music Circle (ICMC) of Dallas/Fort Worth, founded in 1983 and “dedicated to the presentation of traditional and contemporary music and dance from India.” India Fine Arts in Austin celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 2015 “with a mission to foster a greater understanding and appreciation of the performing arts of South Asia in Central Texas.” A couple of entrepreneurs dedicated to the promotion of Indian music also deserve mention. Buckingham Music, an importer and distributor of Indian musical instruments and accessories, was founded by the late Peter Cutchey in the 1990s in Austin and was based in Temple in 2015. Cutchey developed an informative website dedicated to the genre of Indian Music. Sitars Etc., founded by Lars Jacobsen and managed by the late Bharat Salinas in San Antonio, supplied Indian instruments to a number of customers across Texas. As of 2015 the business was a part of Rain City Music and was based in the state of Washington.

Other important Indian musicians in Austin include vocalist Sameer Kotasthane and folk/world/fusion music player Oliver Rajamani. Performers and Indian dance teachers Anuradha Naimpally and Gina Lalli have made important contributions to the performing arts in Texas. These are only some of the many people that are part of the rich and ever-evolving music scene in Texas, helping to preserve and promote Indian classical music in the Lone Star State.

 Shankar Bhattacharya, Telephone Interview with author, April 3, 2010, Austin/College Station, Texas. Chandra and David’s Homepage (, accessed September 12, 2015. David R. Courtney, Fundamentals of Tabla—The Complete Reference for Tabla Volume 1, 3rd ed. (Houston: Sur Sangeet Services, 1998). Gourisankar Karmakar, Interview with author, March 24, 2010, Austin, Texas. Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Signature Series/Vol. 1—Three Ragas (San Anselmo, California: Alam Madina Music Productions, 1990). Amie Maciszewski, Interview with author, February 10, 2010, Austin, Texas. T. A. Reddy, Interview with David R. Courtney, Midland, Texas, 1998 (, accessed October 12, 2011. Ravi Shankar, Raga Mala: The Autobiography of Ravi Shankar (New York: Welcome Rain Publishers, 2001).

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

David Marcus, “Indian Classical Music,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 12, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

April 3, 2015
August 3, 2020

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: