The state of music in the Ramayana
My friend Shri DSampath posted a delightful blog weaving the Ramayana tale with colorful strands of lines of great charm set in catchy tunes, chosen from popular Hindi movie songs. It was enterprising and highly entertaining too. Naturally, the blog was well received and was hugely popular. I enjoyed the sparkle of wit and wisdom.
That set me to think about Ramayana and music.
Ramayana is more closely associated with music than other epics. That might be because Ramayana is rendered in verse; and, its poetry of abiding beauty melts into music like molten gold, with grace and felicity. Further, the epic has a certain lyrical luster to it. The epic itself mentions that the Rama tale was rendered in song by Kusi Lava (I.20.10).
The Ramayana had its origins in folk lore; and was preserved and spread as an oral epic, for a very longtime. It is suggested that poet Vamiki rendered the folk lore into a very beautiful, sensitive and lyrical epic poem by about 7th century BCE. Thereafter, in age after age, the suthas narrated and sang the glory of Rama and Sita, in divine fervor; and spread the epic to all corners of the land and even beyond. Even to this day , the tradition of devote groups of listeners gathering around a sutha to listen to the ancient story of chaste love between Rama and his beloved, and their unwavering adherence to Dharma amidst their trials and tribulations; is still very alive. What characterize the Dharma in Ramayana are its innocence, purity and nobility. The Indian people prefer listening with joy, the rendering of Ramayana as musical discourse, to reading the epic themselves.
But, I was thinking of another aspect of the epic. I was wondering whether a well articulated and an organized system or a school of music was in place during the time Ramayana came to be written. Or, was there just a popular folk tradition? I was also looking for technical terms of music, if any, mentioned in the epic.
There are innumerable references to music in Ramayana. Music was played for entertainment and in celebration at the weddings and other auspicious occasions; (II.7.416-36; 48.41.69; III.3, 17; 6.8; IV 38.13; V.53.17; VI.11.9; 24.3; 75.21 etc.) . Music was also played in palaces and liquor parlors (IV 33.21; V.6.12; X.32; 37.11.4; Vi.10.4). Soulful songs were sung to the accompaniment of instruments, at religious services and in dramas. The warriors fighting on the battlefield were lustily cheered and enthused by stout drum beats; and piercing blow of conches, horns and trumpets. There is also mention of those who took to music as a profession. Besides, there were court (state) sponsored musicians. Music was thus a part of social fabric of the society as described in Ramayana.
Sundara Kanda mentions that Ravana was fond of music; and music was played in his palace. He, in fact, suggests to Sita, she could relax a bit listening to music in his palace, instead sitting tensely under the tree.
It is said Ravana was a well known player of veena (an instrument played with a bow).He compared the battlefield to a music stage; bow (weapon for firing arrows) to his veena; arrow to his musical bow; and the tumultuous noise of the battle to music (VI: 24:43-44).
[As I mentioned, the music in Valmiki’s Ramayana (say 7th century BC) was sung and played for entertainment; it was performed amidst public in celebrations; and it was used by minstrels to sing ballads. The concept of linking music to spiritual development did not appear to be present, then.
The later texts, say of 4th to 6th century AD, such as Brihaddeshi, Vayupurana and Narada shiksha assigned the musical taanas, names of the various Yajnas; and said that the benefits of those yajnas could be obtained by singing the relative taanas. The Yajnavalkhya shiksha said, the music would help spiritual practices. The idea that music was a way to liberation (moksha sadhana) seems to have emerged at a later stage, perhaps during the Bhakthi period (10th -11th century and onwards).]
The music was both vocal and instrumental. The musical instruments, of the time, were categorized, broadly, as those played by hand (hastha_vadya); and as those played by mouth (mukha -vadya) (II.65.2). The string and percussion instruments came under the former category; while the wind instruments were among the latter category. It appears instruments were used mainly as accompaniments, and depended on vocal music. Group music- vocal with instruments –appeared to be popular.
Among the string instruments, Ramayana mentions two kinds of Veena: vipanchi (fingerboard plucked ones like the veena as we know) and vallaki (a sort of harp). Veena, till about 19th century, was a generic term that applied to all string instruments –either plucked or struck or played by bow .
The percussion instruments mentioned in the epic are quite a number: mrudanga; panava; pataha; madduka (a bifacial drum); dindima (a nagaara); muraja (a large damaru); bheri (a drum in a conical shape) and dundubhi (drums). All these were leather or leather bound instruments. They were played with metal or wooden drum-sticks with their ends wrapped in leather. The other instruments to keep rhythm (taala) were: ghatam and cymbals.
As regards the wind instruments, Ramayana mentions flute, conch, and kahale (long curved trumpets), adambara and swastika. The flute was also used for maintaining adhara- sruthi (fundamental note).
The moot question is whether there was a well articulated theory and structure; and a school of music, during the time the Ramayana tale was transformed into an epic poem by Valmiki. Let’s see.
Ramayana is not a thesis on music; it is an epic poem rendering the story of chaste love between a husband and his wife. The music or whatever elements mentioned therein is incidental to the narration of the story. It is however apparent that at the time Ramayana was composed (say 700 BCE) there was neither a school nor an articulated structure of music. Ramayana does however mention certain concepts and technical terms that are still in use, in the present-day musicology. The term Raga is not one among such musical terms. The concept of Raga crystallized at a much later time, say by about 6th century AD, after Matanga in his Brihaddesi categorized murchhanas and jatis; and came up with an explanation of Raga. 
Valmiki mentions that Kusi - Lava were well aware of murchhanas  and sthanas; and they also maintained the right laya –yathis. He also mentions, their singing was Baddha- well structured- with apt rhythm, tempo and words (I.4.8).Valmiki also says, Kusi- Lava sang in marga tradition (I.4.35); and they employed seven jatis (I.4.8).As regards the words in the lyrics, Valmiki endorses use of sweet sounding words, with simple and light syllables; and advises against harsh words loaded with heavy syllables (IV.33.21).
From these statements, one can try inferring the state of music in Vamiki’s time.
Since Valmiki mentions that Kusi Lava sang in the marga tradition (I.4.35), we can infer that the distinction between marga and desi systems was in place by then. That is significant. Marga system is highly regarded as the music fit for gods and gandharvas . It is said to have been derived from Sama Veda; and constituted of pada (the textual part of a musical composition as contrasted with the melodic and rhythmic aspects), svara (notes) and tala (rhythm).Marga is rather somber and not quite flexible too. The desi system , on the other hand, derives its inspiration from the folk tradition, adopts itself to the changing demands of the times, is more innovative and is sung mainly for entertainment . Valmiki suggests that Kusi Lava rendered Ramayana in the pristine music form.
Valmiki says the music of Kusi Lava was baddha, structured into stanzas with laya (rhythm) and tala (beats or rhythmic counter point); just as the kritis and pallavis of the present-day. The music at those times was well ordered and neatly presented in gitas – words set to music and rhythym. Its contrasting style was anibaddha, unstructured and without rhythm; analogous to the present-day aalap, ragamalika, slokas etc. The baddha – anibaddha distinction is observed even today, just as in Valmiki’s time.
It is said that Kusi Lava sang in seven jatis, and they were shuddha (pure) jati. That signifies the distinction between the shuddha (pure) and sankara (mixed) jatis was in existence even during Valmiki’s time. Jati refers to the classification of musical compositions as per the tones. It means Kusi Lava rendered the verses in several melodies. However, since the raga concept was, then, yet to be evolved, there might not have been much depth and variation in their rendering. Since jatis were mentioned, it can be assumed that the two fundamental tonal systems shadja-grama and Madhya-grama  were also well known.
Valmiki mentions, Kusi-Lava were familiar with murchana and sthana ; as also with the rhythmic patterns –laya, yati – in three-speeds.
It is apparent from the foregoing that a full-fledged musicology and elaborate theories on music were yet to develop. The basic concepts were, however, in place. Marga system which was followed during those times, was rather rigid did not provide much scope for improvisation. Desi system which appealed to common people was yet to take the centre of the stage. Since the raga concept was yet unknown there was not much depth and variation in elaboration of the melodies. Kritis, compositions specially set to music and for rendering were yet to make their appearance. Singing well known texts of poetry, in public, appeared to be the standard practice. Instruments were used for accompaniment and not for solo performances. Group singing with instrumental support appeared to be popular. Music was very much a part of the social and personal life.
Even with its limitations, Valmiki accorded much importance to music and elements of music in his work. He crafted situations where music could be introduced naturally. More importantly, his verses have a very high lyrical quality and can be rendered in to music quite easily. All these speak of Valmiki’s love for music and his aesthetic refinement.
It is not therefore surprising that Abhinavgupta (ca.11th century) hailed Valmiki as Rasa Rishi one who created an almost perfect epic poem adorned with the poetic virtues of Rasa, soundarya (beauty of poetic imagery) and vishadya (lucid expression and comfortable communication with the reader); all charged and brought to life by prathibha , the ever fresh intuition.
1. In fact, strings of all kinds were called veena: harps like the chitra and the vipanchi, fingerboard plucked ones like the Rudra veena, the Saraswati veena and the kacchapi veena, bowed ones such as the Ravana hastaveena and the Pinaki veena.
2. Murchhana was the ancient mode of extending available tonal frameworks by commencing ascents and descents, ranging over seven notes, every time from a new note. This mode gave way to the mela or that system around the sixteenth century.
3. Gandharva declined a great deal by the 10th century but survived through the 11th century and by the 13th century it gradually converted into Raga music. The reason being: (a) Gandharva tended to be intellectual without much emotional appeal (b) It lacked flexibility; and left little scope for imagination.
4. Marga or classical ragas were ten (1) grama-raga (2) Uparaga (3) Ragas (4) Bhasas (5) Vibhasas (6) Antarbhasas (7) Ragangas (8) Bhasasanga (9) Upagans (10) Kriyangas (the last four were called Desi raga - Kallinathain his commentary explains that some liberty was taken with the rules of marga raga but it did not have total disregard of the rules of margi-raga)
5. Desi refers to one of the two ancient categories of music. Desi, as opposed to margi, was described as essentially regional, enjoyed by all and free from the rules pertaining to raga and tala. The other type of music, namely margi was designed to please god and relied on strict adherence to rules related to raga and tala.
The concern of Gandharva music was pleasant appeal to Gods where as the concern of Raga music was charming appeal to human beings. “From svaras arose Grama, from Grama Jati and from Jati came Ragas”
Matanga says that Desi was modeled on marga music in the sense that both had two parts: (a) Nibaddha and (b) anibaddha- fixed compositions and free alap or meandering movement of notes within the scale.
6. Gramawas the basic gamut of notes employed in the early music-tradition. The ancient tradition was stated to have employed three grama-s, beginning from shadja, madhyama,or gandharanote. Later, the third grama,based on gandhara reportedly went out of vogue as it required moving in a usually high range of notes.
Telling a Ramayana
Music of India
Glossary of music terms
Painting by shri S Rajam