Culture & Society

Music For The Soul: Exploring Meditative And Healing Aspects Of Indian Classical Music

Systematic use of music therapy is abundant in Indian classical music. In the contemporary world, a large number of practitioners specialise in this type of music therapy.

Indian classical music has extensive meditative and therapeutic usage. Photo: Tribhuvan Tiwari/Outlook
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The meditative and healing power of music is confirmed by research in various countries. As the story goes, in biblical times, David played the harp effectively to drive away ominous spirits from King Saul. In 400 BC, Hippocrates, the Greek pioneer of medicine, used music to improve the emotional condition of his patients. In the 13th century, there were provisions for playing music in hospitals in the Arab world to help patients recover from illnesses.

Systematic use of music therapy in the Western world first came into vogue soon after the Second World War, when musicians were employed in hospitals, particularly in Britain, to help soldiers recuperate from war-related psychological and physical trauma.

Such instances of therapy are also abundant in Indian classical music. In a much-circulated real-life story, Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, a renowned maestro, helped the famous Italian statesman, Mussolini, recover from insomnia with classical music. Thakur began his therapy for the statesman with Hindolam raga, which portrays courage. In his own words: “When I was soaring in the high notes of the raga, Mussolini suddenly said ‘Stop!’ I opened my eyes and found that he was sweating heavily. His face was pink and his eyes looked like burning coals. A few minutes later, his visage gained normalcy and he said, ‘A good experiment’.” Later Thakur stirred his emotion with raga Chhayanat, which is meant to represent sorrow. After gathering his composure, Mussolini thanked the maestro profusely for the enlightening demonstration.

This unique power of Indian classical music has increased its popularity manifold. In the contemporary world, a large number of practitioners specialise in this type of music therapy.

Raga Therapy And Music Meditation

Music is found to be a prime influencer of the cognitive functions in human beings. A regular dose of music helps in the smooth functioning of neurons and synapses in the brain. Neurological studies have shown that music is an effective tool to improve the functions of the brain. The different parts of the brain involved in processing music include the auditory cortex, frontal cortex, cerebral cortex, and the motor cortex.

The indigenous medical science, known as Ayurveda, has a branch called ‘raga chikitsa’ that deals with the application of music for curing illness. Indian classical music is capable of evoking specific feelings and moods within the listener, a quality which makes it effective for therapeutic application.

In Indian music, raga is a unique set of chosen notes around which improvisation is done by practitioners. A particular raga can have different effects. Each raga has a certain ‘rasa’ or mood which causes the listener to imbibe a specific feeling. The effect of a raga is captured by the frequencies of the notes that compose the raga. Indian ragas are suitable for emotional healing in cases of anxiety and stress and induce a state of meditativeness and calmness.

Indian classical music has extensive meditative and therapeutic usage.
Indian classical music has extensive meditative and therapeutic usage. Photo: Tribhuvan Tiwari/Outlook
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The aspect of meditation is ingrained in Indian classical music. The highest and most subtle form of music is supposed to transcend the listener to the state of ‘samadhi’ in meditation. The virtue of a classical raga has been judged on its ability to transcend the listener to the meditative state. The traditional style of ‘Dhrupad’ had this meditative quality in abundance, but the developed style, later called ‘Khayal’, has modified the style to some extent. Though these two styles are more in vogue, another style of presentation that has been popularised is called ‘music meditation’, where music is played without any rhythmic accompaniment and in a slow tempo to elaborate the meditational quality. Spiritual organisations have used it widely to aid spiritual practices as well as in the home atmosphere. Performers who have specialised in this genre of music are highly sought-after and it has been established as an alternative style of rendering classical music.

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When music is used as an aid to meditation, it can enhance the results by bringing stress relief faster. For all kinds of music aficionados, music meditation comes as a more approachable technique than other forms of meditation practices.

A conscious focus on the music helps us prevent our minds from drifting away whenever stray thoughts, feelings, or ideas come along. Constantly dwelling on the music creates a soothing effect on our body, mind and heart, bringing relaxation and awareness.

Experience Of Practitioner

Over the years, music meditation and therapy have become the niche of experts in large numbers. Manish Vyas, an accomplished musician born in India and currently living in Switzerland, is an eminent exponent of this form. He is famous for offering his live music workshops, lessons, and retreats where music meditation and healing are practised and listeners are motivated to seek their inner journey to the soul. His music has a blend of both ancient and contemporary Indian music that is lapped up by the audience. His authentic style and relaxed yet powerful presence instantly create an atmosphere of harmony. Accolades have been coming in from various quarters. In the words of a participant in his workshop from abroad: “Your music has helped me through so much, including the passing of a dear friend. I am deeply grateful to you, to your bhakti that flows through your music and touches my heart and atma.”

Manish explains the aim of his music practice in the following words: “There is a type of music to come back home to our own self and that’s what this music is about. Based on the richness of music from India, I compose and perform music that makes us feel united with ourselves as well as the whole.”

It’s a proven fact that music meditation has developed the sense of achieving tranquillity of the mind within the hustle and bustle of modern urban life.

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Romance Of The Ragas

According to Indian classical music maestros, ragas have enormous power to influence emotions in human beings by tapping into the reverberation of the human body. The mood depicted through a raga is related to its pitches and their relations with one another. Certain pitch classes commonly occur in ragas conveying a particular kind of emotion. The pitch set of a raga and its characteristic phrase establishes the flavour or mood of the raga. Ragas are classified according to the most appropriate time of day to be played and to the predominant rasa or emotion that they evoke. Each different raga holds its own set of rules upon which the melody relies and respects.

Some ragas like Darbari Kanada, Khamaj, and Pooriya are helpful in defusing mental tension, particularly in the case of hysteria. Raga Malhar is found to pacify anger, excessive mental, excitement and mental instability, whereas Raga Jaijaivanti has also been found effective in curing mental disorders and calming the mind.

Indian music has a unique method of setting definite times of the day and night for performing ragas. The performance of the ragas at a definite time of the day or night manipulates the daily cycle of changes that occur in our moods and emotions at different moments of the day. Ragas are supposed to show the highest aesthetic splendour at the particularly allotted hours. While some ragas are found to be very appealing in the early hours of the morning, others are more attractive in the evenings, and yet others appeal more to the senses at the midnight hour. Then there are ragas presenting their supreme splendour in the rainy season (such as raga Megh and raga Malhar), the autumn season (such as raga Basant), and the spring season (such as raga Bahar). Seasonal ragas can be sung and played any time of the day and night during the season allotted to them. The mental and emotional responses in the autumn or winter or during the rainy season are different from the spring. Scheduling playing times of ragas has a variety of advantages. It fits the mood of the raga with our mood, thus forming a fusion of body and soul. 

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Each raga is associated with a definite mood or sentiment that nature arouses in human beings. The ancient musicologists were particularly interested in the effects of musical notes, and how they affected and enhanced human behaviour. Music had the power to cure, to make you feel happy, sad, disgusted and so on. Each raga in Indian classical music, conventionally assigned to a corresponding rasa/emotion is known to consistently evoke a certain emotion. The artist exploits her creativity and elaborates a melodic framework to bring out the rasa or the emotion.

Raga therapy should be used more widely for its therapeutic benefits since current society needs relieving stress in day-to-day life. There is a need for more research in this field and organising more and more workshops in every part of the world.

(Ananda Mukherjee was a former research scholar at the Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan. Views expressed are personal.)

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