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Roving Exhibition - Introduction to Music of North India

Untitled Document


Text / Videos / Pictures: Dr. Li Wai-chung


Bollywood, Taj Mahal, snake charmers and curry dishes - these may be some of your vivid impressions about India. This exhibition will guide you through a musical journey by introducing the classical and folk music of North India and its socio-cultural background, concepts, performing types and instruments. Let's watch the trailer and kick off your musical journey to North India!


 Accompanied with photos and demonstration performances, the introduction of North India Music under the following tabs will continue to take you through the wonderful journey.





India Map
[Image 1]
  • Located in South Asia, India is the second most populous country composed of 28 states and 7 union territories;
  • New Delhi is the capital city; other major cities include Mumbai, Jaipur, Kolkata, Lucknow, Varanasi and Chennai;
  • Apart from the official languages, English and Hindi, there are over 200 other languages and 1,600 dialects;
  • Major religious practices include Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism;
  • North India covers the states of Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab and Rajasthan, etc.;
  • There is a great diversity in Indian music, including classical, folk, spiritual, and popular music. Although each category contains unique historical lineage and musical characteristics, music elements among different categories are often interchangeable.


Classical Music of North India (also known as Hindustani Music)

Background and Transmission



  • The classical music in North India, also known as Hindustani music, is developed from the ancient Vedic traditions, and has been recognised as a distinct tradition since the 13th century;
  • During the Mughal Empire (1526-1857), there was a gifted vocalist and rabab musician at the court of Akbar the Great named Tansen. His musical lineage and styles have has been praised by many master musicians until nowadays;
  • Hindustani music was once heard in courts and temples only. Nowadays, it is popular at urban centres of Mumbai, Delhi, Varanasi, and Kolkata, etc.



  • Traditionally, performing Hindustani music was a hereditary occupation, and the transmission of music knowledge relied on the master-disciple tradition;
  • Young disciples were apprenticed to an individual master and lived together with his family. They had intensive music learning, did chores like a member of the family. These disciples would regard music performance as their life-long career;
  • The learning process was both intensive and long. Students usually followed an individual master for many years, and they would spend most of their time on learning and practising;
  • The master-disciple tradition still continues nowadays, with changes adapted to modern circumstances.




  • Most titles of Hindustani musical pieces are based on “raga”;
  • Raga, coming from an old Sanskrit word, means “colour”;
  • The performance of raga is based on the belief of divine presence in Hindustani music: each raga tells the emotion or mood produced by a particular combination or sequence of pitches;
  • There are many types of raga, and they are associated with time segments of the day, seasons, gods, or special events;
  • In ancient times, Hindustani music had a connection with ragamala paintings and poetry, aiming to present different sentiments to the audience.

[Image 2]
[Image 2]
Ragamala painting: Raga Shri

Shri is portrayed as a royal person with Narada (a troubadour and storyteller in Hindu tradition) and Tumburu (a semi-human, semi-horse singer in Hindu mythology). In this painting, Narada is holding a veena (a plucked string instrument). This raga is associated with winter and dusk.

Vocal and Instrumental Performances

  • In Hindustani tradition, singing is the most primal form of musical expression, as the human voice is regarded as the most approximate sound of God;
  • Instrumental traditions are closely connected to vocal traditions, as both genres share musical characteristics of the same raga, and they are appreciated and evaluated by similar aesthetic standards;
  • Hindustani music is usually played by ensembles consisting of three instruments (or three groups of instruments) for producing different layers of sound. Each instrument (or group of instruments) has its own musical functions. The ensemble is usually composed of:
    • single-line melody: sitar or vocal
    • drone: tanpura
    • rhythmic accompaniment: tabla;
  • A harmonium or sarangi is occasionally employed to complement or imitate the vocal part with a secondary melody.

India Map
[Image 3]
Indian classical vocalist Amir Khan (1912-1974) with the tanpura

India Map
[Image 4]
Hindustani music ensemble: sarangi (left), vocal (middle front), tanpura (middle back), tabla (right)


[Video 1]
Hindustani Vocal Performance

This excerpt features Raga Shuddha Kalyan which is in a slow 16-beat cycle and performed in the evening.

Major Musical Instruments


[Image 5]
Ravi Shankar, a sitar master

  • An instrument developed from rudra veena since the 16th century;
  • It is made up of a long hollow neck, steel or copper strings, and a gourd resonator;
  • When playing one of the main strings with a metallic pick, its sympathetic wire strings underneath vibrate involuntarily to create resonance;
  • The movable frets are curved, in order to produce characteristic glissandos and ornaments;
  • Since the pop idol George Harrison (1943-2001) studied the sitar and put its sound into Beatles’ songs, the instrument had become central to the musical image of North India;
  • Ravi Shankar (1920-2012), Harrison’s teacher, was the world-renowned sitar master who brought Indian music to the western world.

[Video 2]
Sitar Performance

This excerpt features a free-rhythm passage on the sitar employing slides (glissandos) and ornaments, while the sympathetic strings resonate with the main strings.


Sarod (right)
[Image 6]

  • A fretless plucked stringed instrument: its strings are plucked with a plectrum held in the right hand, while the fingernails of the left hand press the strings;
  • In terms of the instrumental tradition of the North Indian classical music, sarod shares the same importance with sitar. The learning of both instruments are based on raga.


[Image 7]

  • A long-necked lute zither;
  • It is a drone instrument that provides a background of uniform sound and maintains a pitch reference for musicians to stay in tune.


[Image 8]

  • A paired set of drums on which musicians can produce a variety of sounds with different fingers and hand strokes;
  • The wooden drum (for the right hand) is in a higher pitch and tunable, while the metal one (for the left hand) has a deep and resonant tone;
  • Traditionally as an accompaniment;
  • Tabla players have moved into more prominent roles since the late 20th century. They either stood out as an independent soloist, or had equal solo time as other instrumental soloists;
  • Zakir Hussain (1951-) is one of the tabla masters. His virtuoso performances of classical and fusion music have attracted large audiences in India and abroad since the 1990s.

Zakir Hussain, a tabla master
[Image 9]
Zakir Hussain, a tabla master

[Video 3]
Dialogue between Tabla and Piano

This is an excerpt of duet by tabla and piano. In the last part, both musicians end the improvisatory performance in “tihai”, repeating a phrase for three times.

Other Musical Instruments


[Image 10]
[Image 10]

  • The only bowed instrument in Hindustani music;
  • It is played upright like the cello;
  • Performer usually sits cross-legged on the floor, use the right hand to hold and move the bow, while the fingernails of the left hand slide along the strings;
  • As its sound resembles the human voice, it is traditionally used as an accompaniment to singing.


Hariprasad Chaurasia, a bansuri master
[Image 11]
Hariprasad Chaurasia, a bansuri master

  • A transverse, keyless bamboo flute;
  • Musicians have to master difficult fingerings to execute the microtones and slides.


Image 12
[Image 12]

  • A keyless, double-reed wind instrument;
  • Once played in occasions like weddings and festivals, the instrument is now performed at stages of Hindustani music.


Image 13
[Image 13]

  • Adapted from the organ that European missionaries imported during the British rule in India;
  • A portable reed organ with its bellows pumped by the left hand, and the monophonic melody played on the keyboard by the right hand. Performers can also sing with self-accompaniment on the instrument;
  • Harmonium has been controversial for its fixed tuning which is unfit to the “movable dol system” of Indian music. However, it is already a very popular accompaniment of all kinds of vocal music, especially the religious, classical and light classical music.


Folk Music of North India

Performing Types


image 14
[Image 14]

  • A type of folk song and dance from the villages and cities of Punjab;
  • A number of 5 to 11 men dancing together in either a circle or straight lines;
  • Dancers gather to celebrate annual festivals, weddings, birthdays and other parties;
  • The dance is lively and joyful, with movements of jumping, knee bending, kicking, and forming human pyramid and other patterns;
  • Dancers wear bright-coloured costumes with a long cloth tied around the waists, knee-length shirts and vests. They also wear turbans with a fold of cloth standing up in the front like a peacock’s tail;
  • Bhangra is usually accompanied by dhol with two drum sticks;
  • Merged with popular music such as reggae and hip-hop since the 1980s, modern bhangra has become very popular among South Asian immigrant communities in the UK, the USA and Canada, and has attracted world audiences of non-Indian background.

[Video 4]
Modern Bhangra

Combining folk and popular music styles, modern bhangra has become very popular among South Asian immigrant communities in the UK, the US and Canada. This performance features “Funjabi”, the only bhangra group in Hong Kong which was founded in 2006 by Harjit Singh. It has 8-12 active dancers at the moment.

Dhol Music

image 15
[Image 15]

  • Dhol is a barrel drum with goatskin heads;
  • With a strap hanging around the player’s neck, the instrument is played with two drum sticks;
  • Punjabi folk songs are always associated with dhol. The lyrics are usually in the theme of love, family, patriotism, or current social issues.

[Video 5]
Dhol Music in Wedding Ceremony

Dhol is frequently used in festivals or special gatherings, such as wedding ceremony, to create an atmosphere of joy.

Performing Groups


image 16
[Image 16]

  • Groups of hereditary musicians living in the desert region of western Rajasthan;
  • Manganiyars are Muslim musicians who also perform religious music in Hindu temples and celebrate Hindu festivals;
  • In the past, Manganiyars were musicians of the Rajput courts, accompanying their chiefs to war fields and providing them with entertainment before and after the battles;
  • Women and children dance along with the music sung and played by the men;
  • The instrumentation includes:
    • dholak (a double-headed drum played by hands)
    • kamaicha (a bowed, unfretted lute)
    • khartal (a pair of wooden clappers)
    • harmonium.

image 17
[Image 17]

image 18
[Image 18]

image 19
[Image 19]

[Video 6]

This is an excerpt from the show The Manganiyar Seduction directed by Roysten Abel. The performance combines traditional singing and instrumental playing with modern theatrical setting, such as lighting effects and stage design.


image 20
[Image 20]

  • Kalbelia, commonly known as “snake charmer”, belongs to the nomadic gypsy tribe living in desserts of Rajasthan;
  • Once professional snake handlers and snake venom traders, they celebrate joyful moments with female dancers;
  • Nowadays, performance by Kalbelia is a major tourist attraction in Rajasthan: snake charmers play the poongi (a single-reed wind pipe) to lure snakes;
  • In 2010, Kalbelia folk songs and dances were inscribed onto the UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

[Video 7]
Kalbelian Performance (Snake Charmers)

This is an excerpt from the performance by Kalbelian musicians, commonly known as “snake charmers”. The instrumentation (from left to right) involves poongi (single-reed wind pipe), khartal (wooden clappers), dholak (double-headed drum) and tambourine.

[Video 8]
Rajasthani Folk Song and Dance

The Rajasthani folk song and dance Begha Ghara Ayo expresses Maharani’s longing for her husband, the Maharaja (a ruler in ancient India). In this excerpt, the lead singer accompanies himself on the harmonium, while tabla, dholak and khartal provide the rhythmic accompaniment.


North Indian Music in Hong Kong

North Indian Music in Hong Kong


North Indian musicians / music ensembles are invited sometimes by the local universities, arts festivals (e.g. Hong Kong Arts Festival, World Cultures Festival) and cultural organisations (e.g. Asia Society Hong Kong Center, In Harmony Arts & Culture) to give performances in Hong Kong. Listed below please find the information on some of the past activities:


Sarod Recital by Ustad Amjad Ali Khan


Venue: Shouson Theatre
Sarod: Amjad Ali Khan

image 21
[Image 21]


The Manganiyar Seduction
(a World Cultures Festival presentation)


Venue: Sha Tin Town Hall
Performers: Manganiyar musicians

image 22
[Image 22]


The Rising Stars of Asia: Raga Evening with Piano and Tabla


Venue: Asia Society Hong Kong Center
Piano: Utsav Lal
Tabla: Samir Chatterjee

image 23
[Image 23]


The Song of Tabla, with Samir Chatterjee


Venue: Asia Society Hong Kong Center
Tabla: Samir Chatterjee, Jorge Ramiro Monroy

image 24
[Image 24]


Dhoad Gypsies from Rajasthan
(a World Cultures Festival presentation)


Venue: Hong Kong City Hall
Performer: Dhoad Gypsies from Rajasthan

image 25
[Image 25]


World Music Weekend: Jugalbandhi - Veena and Sitar
(a Hong Kong Arts Festival presentation)


Venue: Hong Kong City Hall
Veena: Jayanthi Kumaresh
Sitar: Anupama Bhagawat

image 26
[Image 26]


Indian Classical Instrumental Music Night


Venue: The University of Hong Kong
Sarod: Partho Sarothy
Tabla: Nishikant Barodekar

image 27
[Image 27]


Workshop on Indian Classical Music with Eminent Singer Neela Bhagwat


Venue: Lingnan University
Vocal: Neela Bhagwat

image 28
[Image 28]


Sitar Recital by Anil Singh


Venue: Hong Kong Baptist University
Sitar: Anil Singh
Tabla: Andre Elias

image 29
[Image 29]


Sitar Recital by Anil Singh


Venue: Hong Kong Baptist University
Sitar: Anil Singh
Tabla: Jorge Ramiro Monroy

image 30
[Image 30]


Raaga & Rhythm: Music Without Borders


Venue: The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

image 31
[Image 31]


Hindustani Music Workshops


Venue: Estoril Court
Vocal: Tejashree Amonkar

image 32
[Image 32]

Supplementary Information on Images and Videos