Hindustani music, the art music of North India, is a complex system in which a great deal of material must be explicitly taught, however there is also a strong osmotic element. Especially in the hereditary milieu, children absorb a lot of knowledge and general musicality through passive exposure beginning at birth. For several hundred years art music remained an hereditary craft, propogated in the courts of North India. During the twentieth century it spread to the educated middle classes, but the hereditary tradition is still strong in certain places such as Varanasi.
The music has traditionally been transmitted orally, mostly by example and imitation, on an intensive one-to-one basis. Oral notation, sargam, mediates the learning process and facilitates the imbibing of melodic theory along with the music itself. A complex language of onomatopoeic syllables, bols, supports the conceptualisation of rhythmic arts—drumming and dance.
During the twentieth century many music schools were established, but they have had little influence on the mainstream, producing very few professional musicians. Institutional teaching relies more on the writing down and recitation of memorised lessons, less on the gradual absorption of improvisational style.
I have been conducting research in Delhi, Bhopal, Varanasi, Kolkata and Mumbai, mainly with traditional hereditary families of musicians. A few non-hereditary families and also institutional settings have offered interestingly contrasting perspectives. Participants in the project have included vocalists (khayal, thumri, and qawwali), sarangi, sitar and tabla players, and kathak dancers. And I have had the good fortune to work with one extended family of Qawwals. Qawwali is a related but distinct musical culture, ecstatic Sufi devotional music which was popularised in the West by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
The thumbnails below link to pages on my various collaborators.