The description of Hindustani music as “Classical music” is one of the unfortunate things to happen to this tradition. The objections to this description are several. Three, however, deserve special mention. Firstly, the description is an import from Western music, where “Classical” refers to scholarly music composed during the “Classical” period. Any period-specific connotation is inapplicable to Hindustani music. Secondly, in common usage, the word “classical” has to come to suggest an elitist barrier (“class” as the opposite of “mass”), which again is misleading in the sense in which most people understand it. And, finally, the adjective is scientifically imprecise, because it does not allow its features to be distinguished from other categories of music prevalent in the same culture.
Scholars therefore recommend the term “Art” music in preference to “Classical” music. This nomenclature is faithful to its features, and also allows us to distinguish it from other major musical categories – primitive music, folk music, popular music, devotional music, and martial music. These various categories co-exist in the musical culture, and are distinct in their features. Of course, they also interact with each other in often imperceptible ways and may also overlap.
Hindustani music should therefore be considered a spontaneous, living, and constantly evolving expression of society’s musical needs and aspirations. It is an organic part of the musical culture, and not something outside it. It is accessible to almost anyone within the culture, though indeed with some effort. In short, it is not music from a different planet.
Features of art music
As a distinct category of music, Art Music has its defining features. It is devoted towards the achievement of aesthetic objectives, to the exclusion of all others. It relies entirely on auditory stimuli to achieve its aesthetic purpose. The existence of other stimuli (e.g. visual appeal or bodily movement) is incidental, and considered disruptive, if it draws particular attention to itself. Art music is abstract in the sense that it does not explicitly represent anything in particular outside of itself. And, finally, to qualify as Art, it also has to define the artist – and to this extent, it is also individualistic. This feature is even more important in Hindustani music because, it combines in the same person the simultaneous roles of composer and performer.
An Art Music tradition generally incorporates several genres within itself, each with its well-defined disciplines and degrees of artistic freedom. Because of the simultaneous operation of discipline and artistic freedom, the appreciation and enjoyment of Art Music grows directly in proportion to the awareness of the rules that guide performance. This very phenomenon of discipline alongside artistic freedom allows music to change and evolve in response to changing audience profiles and tastes. As a parallel reflection of this dialectic, an art music tradition supports a scholarly tradition which monitors the performing tradition and conceptualizes trends in practice.
For a detailed discussion on this subject, read "Hindustani Music Today" by Deepak Raja, DK Printworld, New Delhi 2012.