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Martin Clayton – The culture of Indian music performance

Martin Clayton


Despite having co-edited a book entitled The Cultural Study of Music I remain an agnostic on the usefulness of the term “Cultural Musicology”. As far as it impinges on my work, culture is just one of several important concepts – I could equally well describe my work as ethnomusicology, or indeed as cultural musicology, or as empirical, systematic or inter-disciplinary musicology. Each of these terms might be useful in different contexts.

Leaving that issue aside, I would like to discuss the sort of questions cultural musicology might ask of Indian music performance, which remains the main focus of my research. This work has been motivated in recent years by a wish to understand better the dynamics of performance – for instance, how do musicians work together, what decisions are being made from moment to moment, what kind of experiences do people have and what kind of experiences would they ideally like to have while engaging in music? While I have been keen to focus on the moment of performance and listening, and on the materiality of tone and of musical bodies, I have tried to balance this with an equal concern with musical discourses and meaning-making beyond the moment of performance itself.[1]

A lot of this work centres on individual perceptions and conceptions of music – including individual perspectives on the ways in which musicians work together, or how they relate to listeners. Needless to say these individual conceptions cannot be fully understood in isolation, but derive a lot of their meaning from wider cultural factors. Musical practices are shaped by historical processes, and are facilitated and constrained by the spaces, relations and ideologies present in the wider society. They also create, or re-create those spaces, relations and ideologies. Moreover, musical practices possess their own logic and partial autonomy: musical ideas do not simply replicate non-musical ideas, there can be interesting discrepancies between music and other domains of culture. How then do we make sense of Indian music’s relation to culture? (I take it we are all suspicious of simplistic and essentialised notions of an “Indian world view”.)

There may be several approaches to this question. The approach I take here is to suppose that individual motivations and habits exist in a dialectical relationship with the shared ideas and practices of culture, and to look at the cultural from the perspective of the individual: that is, from looking initially at individual participants[2] and specific performances. This particular orientation towards (or within) cultural musicology means, to me, focussing on questions such as the following, and doing so with reference both to what people say and to what they do:

  • What ideas and practices are shared between the individuals whom regard themselves as participating in Hindustani music culture? And what is disputed or contested?
  • How do these shared ideas and practices help to constitute these individuals as part of a group?

How do they relate to other aspects of their experience – their economic conditions, family relationships, diet, religious practices, political allegiances and so on?

What do people share in performance?

I want to begin this discussion by referring to a published example of analysis of a fragment of performance, of Rag Multani by singer Vijay Koparkar with accompanists Vishwanath and Seema Shirodkar (Clayton 2007). I suggested that

by marking the significant beats together, participants share these moments and affirm that they share the experience of time and motion generated by the musical and gestural acts (something that VK confirms is significant for him as a performer). In this I include both performers and audience: there is no difference in principle between the way the musicians and the listeners mark the sam, and, in this sense, the audience clearly participates in the performance rather than responds to  […]

The audience’s role seems to be one of continual feedback and affirmation, rather than input aimed at directing the course of the performance. By participating in the appropriate manner, they encourage VK to maintain his concentration and affirm their own status as knowledgeable listeners. Therefore, in this case at least, it appears to be more productive to see the performance as an event constituted by all its participants, rather than to see the audience as the “context” for the musicians’ performance. (Clayton 2007, 91-92)

There is quite a coherent body of shared practices and ideas that characterise this culture, from the kind of practices noted here – such as the marking of significant points in time, or stereotypical gestures of appreciation, as well as the melodic frameworks – which is shared by both musicians and listeners. The actions as well as the words of musicians and listeners speak not only of a shared knowledge of musical materials and performance frameworks, but also of a shared aesthetic framework, and of shared pleasure in the aesthetic appreciation of the performance. Before thinking about what these shared elements, both musical materials and aesthetic values, tell us, two further questions need to be raised however:

  1. Are ideas also contested within the performance space?
  2. How widely shared are these ideas?

In response to the first question: Within music performance much is in fact contested. One such is raga interpretation, on whose minutiae many musicians and critics will happily debate. The most obvious area of contention, however, is probably the troubled relationship between soloists (commonly referred to as “main artists”) and their accompanists. Is music principally about an individual’s performance, or about the effect of a group working together as a team? Either way, to what extent should the group be dominated by the main artist, and to what extent should it be regarded as an equal partnership? A particular issue here is the tension between a hierarchy based on musical role and one based on seniority.

As for my second question: It would be a mistake to think that what we see in this example is necessarily shared across Hindustani music as a whole (even if we could be sure what the boundaries of such an entity are). To a great extent they are shared across a more circumscribed music culture, that of Western Maharashtra. The relationship of this musical culture to the rest of Hindustani music is quite complex, and despite important historical work such as Bakhle’s (2005) little understood.

What several of these issues have in common is a theme of ambiguity. Raga is a common framework that binds together an elite musical culture stretching almost the entire length and breadth of the subcontinent. Yet when we look at the topic in detail, there is virtually nothing that everyone can agree on: even, for instance, the tenet that the main reference tone Shadja is immovable. In performance everyone understands his or her role in relationship to others, and yet the distribution of authority between musicians is frequently a matter of conflict, albeit usually covert (Napier 2007). Finally, can we even be certain that key technical and aesthetic concepts agreed in one part of the country apply to the whole tradition? There must be doubt as to whether Koparkar’s performance would be understood the same way outside of Maharashtra as it is within.

I posed the question above, “How do these shared ideas and practices help to constitute these individuals as part of a group?”. One can observe the felicitous sharing of pleasure in the musical performance and theorise about shared musical values helping to constitute those present as part of a group. In so far as the musical and aesthetic values are really shared, though, I would argue that they relate to a quite specific identity, that is of the highly educated middle class Hindu Maharashtrian, for whom some form of musical education and appreciation is generally taken to be essential (in a way that is not replicated in most other regions of India). At the same time, the best musicians in this part of the country are also figures of national and international fame, and for many they are simply “Indian musicians”. Here too, then, a similar ambiguity can be observed, evidencing perhaps music’s ability to support multiple and apparently contradictory interpretations simultaneously.

Music and culture in participants’ words

Of the main ideas have circulated about the relationship of Indian music to Indian culture, many rate hardly a mention amongst Hindustani musicians. For instance, most musicians don’t talk much about music as a spiritual practice or as being related to religion in any way. Very few talk about music as an aspect of heritage or something with a deep history. Differences in social class, or issues of respectability – which historians rightly tell us have been very important in shaping the tradition – are largely glossed over. None of our informants is much interested in talking about communal issues, except to claim that there is no such issue between musicians. As for aesthetics very few have anything to say about the classical theory of rasa, although many technical terms (e.g. aamad, the approach to beat one) could also be regarded as aesthetic concepts and are widely shared.

On the contrary, with apologies for the gross generalisation, in our experience the issues that most preoccupy musicians are:

  • The music – musical materials, ways of performing, understanding and performing better; the popularity and future of classical music itself
  • Status – being recognised as a good musician and thus being invited to perform; concerns over the consequences of failing to achieve this; rivalry with other musicians; respecting seniors and being respected in turn (both on and off-stage)

Whereas what most occupies listeners is either:

  • Using music as an escape from mundane life, to imaginatively displace them in either time (to an earlier era) or space (into nature), or
  • Understanding and appreciating music more fully, aesthetically and technically

It should be acknowledged that these bullet points are based mainly on recorded statements, and we have to bear in mind that other issues may be of as much concern but deliberately excluded from public statements. Nonetheless we should take them seriously, rather than ignore these preoccupations and impose a theoretical view based on a very generalised view of Indian culture. The most obvious thing, perhaps, is to acknowledge that musicians and music listeners love music, and are moved by tones, melodies, compositions, beats and gestures. Musicians may be equally obsessed with their own status in the musical scene, but this is hardly surprising given the precarious nature of the livelihood of most musicians, and the obsession with status is hardly a uniquely Indian or a uniquely musical trait. Musicians may not agree much on what music means, or what the correct performance of this or that element may be, but they do agree that music is hugely important and powerful. Sometimes, a detailed look at exactly what tones, gestures and drum strokes are being produced is necessary if we want to understand better what music means to those who participate in its performance; this is why I would insist that musical analysis of various kinds is necessary part of cultural analysis, not an alternative to it.


What can we learn from looking at music and culture from the bottom up, combining verbal testimony with observation and analysis?

Although an impressive set of musical elements, practices and ideas is shared across many people over a wide geographical area, and this sharing can be palpable especially when most present have shared their music and their ideas intimately for a long period of time, almost everything is nonetheless contested and/or fragmented: what is shared is often shared only between certain sub-groups, whether defined by region, instrument, social identity, or musical lineage. Although we can continue to learn about the ways in which current practices are historically constituted, therefore, broad correlations between music and other aspects of culture are very difficult to substantiate.

We can learn more about the process of sharing music itself – how musical materials and ideas disseminated through generations and across geographical space, while at the same time being constantly subject to differentiation and redefinition; how practices that may have developed in a 19th century north Indian court may be continued in a 21st century Maharashtrian concert hall – changed to some extent in both form and meaning, but still recognisable; how individuals agree to share a musical space, both literally and figuratively, on whose importance they all agree but within which they agree to fight each other for prominence and reputation.

At the same time, the partial autonomy of “musical culture” should be considered: participants may be strongly influenced by attitudes they have learnt in other areas of life, but they also learn the sometimes specific ways of music culture and defend those ways even when they conflict with what is commonly accepted elsewhere in the same society.


Bakhle, Janaki 2005. Two Men and Music: Nationalism in the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Clayton, Martin 2007. Time, Gesture and Attention in a Khyāl Performance. Asian Music 38/2: 71-96.

Clayton Martin, Byron Dueck and Laura Leante, eds 2013. Experience and Meaning in Music Performance. Oxford Oxford University Press.

Napier, John 2007.  The Distribution of Authority in the Performance of North Indian Vocal Music. Ethnomusicology Forum, 16/2: 271-301

[1] Much of this work has been carried out together with Laura Leante. See Clayton, Dueck and Leante 2013.

[2] My use of the term “participants” rather than “musicians” reflects an insistence on including listeners in the interpretation of musical performance.

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