Why Donít They Tell You What They Will Play?

Sandeep Krishnamurthy, Feb 5, 2002



It is typical to know little prior to attending an Indian classical music concert. The flyer we receive for our Ragamala concerts in Seattle, for instance, simply provides the names of the musicians and some information about their backgrounds. This is common. The listeners have no clue what compositions they will be exposed to in the concert. While the start time is announced, the duration of the concert is also unknown, a priori.

This is a major contrast from the typical Western classical music concert, which is a predictable experience. Typically, programs are decided a year in advance and every single detail of the concert is available prior to the event. The listener knows what compositions will be played, the name of the composer, if any special instrument will be used (e.g. organ) etc. Every attendee knows when the concert will start and when it will end prior to arriving.

Therefore, the Indian classical music concert may appear less organized and more informal to the Western listener. Many South Asian youngsters who are trained in the Western tradition are unable to connect to the Indian concert experience and label it as weird (or worse) -- much to the chagrin of their parents who are unable to explain or justify the differences. This impression leads even knowledgeable people to place this music in the same category as folk or tribal music in music festivals. Yet, a keen analysis of why the listener is told so little helps us understand the fundamental differences between the two proud traditions.

Nature of Music

In Indian classical music, the singer or the featured instrument player is all-important. This person is the leader of the event and sets the agenda. He or she makes all the important decisions -- e.g. which songs to sing, in what sequence. She has the maximum latitude in structuring the concert. She could decide on the songs an hour before the event. If she wished, she could change the order of the songs during the concert. She decides how long each piece is going to be and when to take the intermission -- if at all. She decides when the concert will end. The singer is, thus, more powerful than the conductor of the Western orchestra.

This is possible, given the different emphasis Indian classical music places on orchestration and harmony. The Indian classical music troupe is a small one -- typically consisting of between 3-5 people (contrast this with the Western orchestra which could easily be larger than 100 people). Moreover, there is a clear hierarchy among these musicians. All except the featured musician exist in a subservient supporting role. Their job is to enhance the beauty of the concert and the music of the featured musician. The accompanist (e.g. harmonium player in Hindustani and violinist in Carnatic) does not exist to provide harmony. Rather he exists to punctuate, emphasize and accentuate what the featured musician does.

This lack of structure in the Indian classical concert also stems from the paramount importance of improvisation in this tradition. Western classical music is 'fully composed'. Listeners judge a performance on how faithfully the musicians rendered the vision of the composer. In direct contrast, the composer in Indian music provides a structure to the musician that includes the scale (i.e. raga), the rhythm (i.e. tala) and the composition (i.e. krithi in Carnatic, khayal or bandish in Hindustani). The composer does not intend for his vision to dominate the performance. The musician rediscovers and reinterprets the nature of the composition every time it is presented. In fact, an expert musician will use the structure of the composition to bring out the character of the raga. Most concerts present music from a set of composers in contrast to the Western style where it is common to feature a single composer in a concert.

The improvisation in Indian music has perhaps single-handedly confused the Western listener. Some have erroneously compared Indian classical music to Jazz -- Ravi Shankar has famously scolded his audience for doing this. The difference is that in Indian classical music, the improvisation is within a prescribed structure that is general enough to accommodate a rich variety of music.

Nature of Musician-Listener Interaction

Interaction between the musician and the listener in Western concerts is very formal. The musicians play the piece, the audience applauds and everybody goes home. There is absolute silence when the concert is in progress.

On the other hand, there is a certain playfulness in the interaction between the singer and listener in the Indian tradition. On many occasions, the singer may not announce the raga ahead of time and let the audience guess it. It is common for audience members to ask the musicians to sing/play a particular piece. Of course, the musician is free to accept or reject these requests.

Not announcing the names of the compositions prior to the concert maintains a sense of mystery. There is a guessing game that is mandatory to the attendance of every Indian classical concert. Listeners quibble about which raga is being played (during the concert!). Many a youngster has felt a sense of elation when he correctly guesses a tune or tala. Expert listeners (my Dad, for example) can guess which piece will be played by honing in on characteristic phrases in the alaap (i.e. improvised phase). There is a 'I-told-you-so' moment when the listener is proven right or a heated debate about how one was misled by the choice of phrases.

This is part of the concert experience. Listeners participate aggressively and provide real-time support and feedback to the musician.


The Indian classical music concert may seem unplanned and less formal because of the nature of the music and the 'contract' between the musician and the listener. This must not be confused for less rigor. It must also not be mistaken for less sophistication. To understand the concert experience, one must simply get into the right spirit of celebrating the music and then, the joy is considerable.