India’s tribal, folk and devotional music: Secular and ceremonial songs – An overview

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“Tribal, Folk and Devotional Music”
by NA Jairazbhoy in AL Basham (ed.). A Cultural History of India. London: Oxford University Press, 1975, pp. 234-237. Excerpt from Chapter XVI Music (pp. 212-242):

Classical music is the most refined and sophisticated music to be found in the subcontinent of India. There are many other forms, however, which have a specific function in the society, and these are by no means devoid of artistic expression. The great diversity of music in India is a direct manifestation of the diversity and fragmentation of the population in terms of race, religion, language, and other aspects of culture. The process of acculturation, so accelerated in modern times, is still not a very significant factor in many areas of the country. There remain remote pockets where tribal societies continue to live much as they have done for centuries. Even though some of these may show evidence of borrowing from higher cultures, they nevertheless manage to assimilate these elements into their own culture in such a way as to enhance their own identity.

There are more than a hundred different tribes in India, numbering more than 30,000,000 people, called Adivasis. They are found mostly in the hill regions, particularly in central and eastern India, extending to the Nilgiri Hills in the south. Racially, most of these tribes have been described as Proto-Australoid, and their religions as being animistic. Between them, they create a considerable variety of music, some of it tonally quite simple and involving only two or three notes, and some using as much as a full octave, usually pentatonic. Most of their music is monophonic, with the exception of the tribes in Manipur, Assam, where a simple form of polyphony is quite common.

A variety of instruments is used: some tribes have perhaps no more than a drum, while others have quite a number, including some in each of the four major categories-chordophones, aerophones, membranophones, and idiophones.

Many of the tribes have two distinct types of music, the ‘outdoor’ ensemble, which is often performed by members of a different tribe or a Hindu caste, and their own characteristic tribal songs. The outdoor ensemble is used at weddings and on festive occasions. It varies in size and structure, depending to some extent on the affluence of the tribe. The main instruments are the double-reed oboe-type, a straight, curved, or S-shaped horn, a variety of drums – kettle-shaped, cylindrical, or frame drums similar to the tambourine – and cymbals. The names of these instruments sometimes vary from one [p. 235] tribe to another, although it seems likely that they represent a common tradition.

Songs in a tribal society are mostly functional and often have the sanctity of a ceremonial rite. Such are, for instance, the songs which accompany the events of the life-cycle-birth, initiation, marriage, and death. Similarly, the agricultural songs which accompany the burning and preparation of the fields, planting, transplanting, harvesting, etc., have an element of ritual associated with them, and there is often a real fear that the harvest may not prove fruitful unless great care is taken over the formalities. Although many of the tribes practise this ‘slash and burn’ method of cultivation, there are still tribes which are in the hunting and food-gathering stage. Some of these have songs to propitiate their deities, in the belief that this will ensure the success of their ventures, and songs to give thanks at the successful conclusion of the hunt. When things go wrong, in times of disease, drought, or shortage of food, the tribal shaman is often invoked, and he generally has his own repertoire of songs.

The tribes and castes in India are communities apart. Those who belong to castes belong to no tribes, and those who belong to tribes are outside the caste pyramid. What brings them together is probably their love for songs.

Ganesh Devy in What unites Indians is a love for songs >>
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Most tribes do, however, have more or less secular songs, such as greeting songs, lullabies, love and courtship songs, ballads, and humorous songs. On the occasion of certain festivals and celebrations, members of the tribes may dance and sing for the pure joy of it. On such occasions, one may also hear songs describing their ancestry and the origin of the tribe.

Some of these songs might well be completely unaccompanied, or accompanied by just a drum. Sometimes the male musicians play one-stringed, long-necked lutes, which provide a drone. Certain tribes, however, have stringed melody instruments, either a small fiddle or a stick zither with attached resonators, and these may be used to accompany the songs. This stick zither may well have been the prototype of the vina depicted in miniature paintings during the Muslim period. The modern stick zither, rudra vina, occasionally used in north Indian classical music, still resembles the tribal instrument, but is much larger and of more elegant construction.

The folk music of non-tribal India is a vast subject which has not yet been adequately studied. There are, however, some points of similarity with tribal music, especially in the context of occurrence. Village songs, like many tribal songs, are often associated with the cycles connected with life and death, agriculture and the seasons. The songs vary in detail, not only from one region to another, but also within a region among the different strata of society. A further parallel can be found in the use of the ‘ outdoor’ ensemble which provides festival music and is played at weddings and funerals. This ensemble is generally much like its tribal counterpart, with the oboe-like instrument (called shahnai in north India, nagasvaram in the south), long brass or bronze horns (usually called turhi or karna), a variety of drums, such as kettle-drums (nagara) played in pairs with sticks, and the cylindrical or slightly barrel-shaped double-headed drum (dholak), and one or more pairs of cymbals, generally made of bell-metal (jhanj). Similar ensembles are also found in the cities.

The distinction between tribal music and folk music is not always clearly defined. Nettle proposes that folk music is an oral tradition found in those areas which are dominated by high cultures, having a body of cultivated [p. 236] music with which it exchanges material and by which it is profoundly influenced.

This exchange is very much in evidence in the folk music of India. Hindu mythology and religious philosophy are an integral part of much of Indian folk music. Songs sung at childbirth, for example the sohar songs of Uttar Pradesh, often describe the birth of Krishna or Rama, and wedding songs might well describe the wedding of Siva and Parvati. A fisherman’s song could begin with an invocation to a protective deity (such as Jhule Lal in Sind) and festival songs often have a predominantly devotional character.

The Bhagavata Purana, which deals with the life and adventures of Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, is probably the most popular of the Puranas and the story of Krishna has had great influence on both north Indian folk and classical music. The ecstatic devotion of the gopis (milkmaids), especially Radha, to Krishna, and their yearning for him, occur over and over again, in both types.

This literature, composed in Sanskrit, has been received in oral form, generally through translations, by all except the erudite. The legends have been disseminated in a number of different ways, but most often in the form of sermons or readings with commentaries (such as Hari katha) at religious festivals, where they have attracted large audiences. These presentations generally include songs and music, and on occasions they may include secular, and even humorous material. A second very important source of dissemination is through religious mendicants, bards, magicians, and snake charmers, who travel from one village to another recounting the stories, often in song, and receive in exchange just enough remuneration to keep them going. A third source is through musical drama, which is found in one form or another in most parts of India, sometimes associated with the temples, as in the kathakali form in Kerala, sometimes produced by wandering bands of players, who travel from one village to another carrying their sets (if any), costumes, and musical instruments by bullock cart, during the festival seasons.

The role of the religious mendicant in the growth and spread of medieval Hinduism cannot be overstressed. Many of them have since then become sanctified and are now referred to as ‘saint singers’ or ‘poet-saints’. The popular devotional movements began in Tamilnadu and gradually spread north through Maharashtra into north India. The songs of the poet-saints were generally composed in the vernacular languages and received immediate recognition in both the cities and the rural areas. […]

The greatest impact of these saint-singers on Indian music was in the upsurge of a new type of song, variously called bhajan, kirtan, or abhang. These devotional songs represent something of an intermediate stage between classical and folk music, less abstract than the classical, but more sophisticated than most folk music. While classical music placed emphasis on technique and beauty of performance, and thus became the preserve of specialists, the emphasis in the devotional songs lay in mystical and emotional experience. The sound produced was incidental to the act of singing and one did not need to be a good musician to derive spiritual benefit from the songs. The songs, however, often have ‘catchy’ tunes, many of which are derived from the ragas of classical music. The wide appeal of these songs can also be attributed to the lively rhythms with which they are accompanied. They have provided a repertoire for congregational purposes in temple services as well as in the many informal gatherings of devotees (bhajan mandals) which take place during the festival seasons. […]


Note: bold typeface added for emphasis; italics and diacritics seen in the original article are dispensed with in the above transcript.

To illustrate the above observation, namely “The distinction between tribal music and folk music is not always clearly defined”, please note the following quotations on two instruments widely used in “classical” South Indian (Carnatic) music: the first one referred to as “ancestor” of the modern violin by Indian musicologists; and the second one better known as “morsing” today:

One of the earliest stringed instruments played with a bow was called the ravanastra. This instrument was associated with Ravana. What it looked like is rather doubtful but in some parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan, there exists even today a primitive instrument called the ravanhatho which is used by rural people. This has two strings of different kinds, one made with a species of flax and the other of horsehair. The hollow part of this instrument is half’ a coconut shell which has been polished, covered with the dried skin of a lizard and perforated below. The rajnengi bana of Madhya Pradesh, the banam of Orissa and the gogged rajen of the Saori [Saora] tribes, all belong to the same family. All these instruments are held and played like the modern violin. | Learn more >>

The morchang is of very great antiquity. Some of the aboriginal tribes of Himachal Pradesh, Assam, and the hilly tracts of Hyderabad (Deccan) and other tribal folk use this instrument in some form or other. An instrument of this variety made of bamboo, used by the Chenchu tribes of Hyderabad (Deccan) is called the tonda ramma. | Learn more >>

Source: Musical Instruments of India by S. Krishnaswami

Emergence of Ethnomusicology: As Traced in Indian Perspectives
By Bisakha Goswami

Ethnomusicology can be considered as the holistic and cultural study of music existing in various folk, tribal and other ethnic societies. […]

Intercultural aspects can be found in all styles of music because of the cultural changes in societies that are induced by the changing reigns of rulers in the different ages of a nation‟s history.

British scholars started to give a proper shape to the tradition of ethno musicological works by collecting folk songs and enabling their translation. From 1870 on Indian scholars started research on folk and tribal songs following the methodology of the predecessors. Cultural communications made by the exchange of ethnic musicians in India are significantly studied. The influence of other cultures makes ethnic songs inherently intercultural. Hence, all music in the world is essentially intercultural. The present paper is a sincere attempt to retrace the history of the study of ethnomusicology in India. […]

The focus of the study has shifted towards making critical examinations, rather than collecting abstract information. New anthropological tools are employed to analyze the music and its cultural setting. These tools include aspects of structuralism, cybernetics, information theory, semiotics and direct field methods that are based on participant observation. The analysis of the collected material is conducted by incorporating both musicological and anthropological parameters. Transcription is another relevant apparatus which is essentially the subjective interpretation of a sounding musical phenomenon that is perceived and subsequently illustrated through a graphic pattern. Thus transcriptions simultaneously analyses the music material. Regarding transcription, the method employed largely depends on the purpose of the transcription. A transcription can act as a device for a clarification in regard to various aspects of a music piece. However, therefore the method of transcription must be appropriate for the aspect observed, such as the length of sections in an extended improvisation, the types of ornaments used,, the rhythmic or tonal variations or other musical characteristics. The analysis completes the scientific evaluation of the music material. […]

Ethnomusicologists interested in the processes that cause changes in music usually conduct historical researches. The extrapolation of historical strata from a repertory presently extant has been a characteristic of historical ethnomusicology research. Research is made on the evolution of music forms as these have gradually evolved and taken different shapes in their respective cultural contexts. Scholars of ethnomusicology observe the intercultural dynamics and processes of acculturation in the context of traditional music. Ethnomusicology often deals with certain phenomena that can be observed in many forms of traditional music in the modern world: The influence of western culture, innovation, modernization, urbanization and all types of cultural interactions that are comprised under the general term intercultural music. […]

Scholastic study of ethnomusicology started with the study of the folk music. Documentation is one of the main areas of study in ethnomusicology as the discipline gives importance for field work and use of the field techniques in the research methodology to study music. Ethnomusicology is an approach to the study of any music not only in terms of itself but also in relation to its cultural context. This aspect of the discipline focuses more on the study of folk songs and folk musical instruments. In India, not much attention was paid to study folk music before independence. The first Indian scholar who took an interest in studying the folk songs was Rabindranath Tagore. The folk songs collected by Rabindranath Tagore were published in a monthly magazine called Sadhana since 1899. […]

India is a rich field of ethnomusical diversities as the country is blessed with a lot of heterogeneous folk-tribal and ethnic cultures. Still the subject is a bit overlooked in the traditional domain of study and research in this land. Specially, the ethnomusicology is not incorporated as a separate discipline in the college and university education yet. […]

The present scholar did an extensive work on the changing aspects of the Toto tribal communities in north Bengal by transcribing and comparing their music in several decades.

Thus in the scholastic tradition of Indian music, the cultural contacts with English writers of the west during British rule in India paved the way for the emergence of intercultural musicology in India as the tenets of ethno musicological methodology are found in their writings on Indian music. And in later days this newly built tradition has maintaining its existence as a multidisciplinary approach among the works of Indian scholars related to many disciplines.

Source: “Emergence of Ethnomusicology: As Traced in Indian Perspectives” by Bisakha Goswami (Assistant Professor in Musicology, Rabindra Bharati University) in “Emergence of Ethnomusicology: As Traced in Indian Perspectives”, International Journal of Multidisciplinary Approach and Studies (Volume 01, No.6, Nov-Dec 2014)
Date Visited: 2 February 2022

Fading sounds: An Indian musical instrument with a rich history is on the cusp of extinction

The kinnera, which originated in 4th century CE, has only a dozen practitioners left, most in Telangana. […]

When Balamma was younger, the residents of her village said, she would ride around on a horse, much to the awe of her Dakkali tribe. Her voice, at the time, was more powerful, and her impressive performances with the kinnera in the district’s villages were rewarded with money, food and clothes by the Madigas, the patron class. Fortunes changed with time. By the time Balamma died in December 2018, she was penniless. […]

Balamma was among the dozen or so people in India still playing the instrument. The kinnera is a stringed instrument native to the nomadic tribes in the Deccan plateau, such as the Dakkali and the Chenchu. A kinnera performance involves vocals and music, and the ballads are sung primarily in rustic Telugu. But today, it is an all but forgotten practice.

Origin story
Scholar and poet Jayadhir Thirumala Rao says that the origins of the kinnera can be traced back to “around the 4th century AD, in and around the Deccan plateau”. “The Chenchu tribe [also known as Chenchus or Chenchulu], who were part of the Nallamalla forest, used to play the instrument while singing and narrating ballads or stories of heroes,” said Rao. […]

The kinnera has several variations – it comes with seven, nine, 12 or 13 frets. The larger-sized ones have three resonators, while the smaller ones have only two. Much like the Saraswati veena, the instrument is made with organic materials. Its neck is crafted of bamboo, and the resonators from sun-dried and hollowed-out bottle gourds. Pangolin scales are used for the frets, and honey wax for binding. The strings were once fashioned out of women’s hair, horse-tail hair and even animal nerves, but have long been replaced with thin metallic strings. […]

There are many reasons for this decline [including] the lack of raw materials. With forest areas shrinking, it has become difficult to obtain the right kind of gourds and pangolins. A third reason is the dwindling patronage for the art form, which in turn discourages the younger generation from playing the kinnera. The non-mainstream nature of the instrument is another factor. Unlike the drums, which are popular in rural areas even today, the kinnera requires special skills – both to make it and play it. […]

Source: “Fading sounds: An Indian musical instrument with a rich history is on the cusp of extinction” by Aruna Chandaraju (, 16 February 2019)
Date visited: 22 February 2021

The non-sacrificial, musical counterpart to Sāma-Gāna in ancient times was Gandharva-Sangīta, later Sangīta, which has three divisions; vocal, instrumental, and dance. Performed by “Gandharva” musicians in Indra’s heavenly court, earthly Gandharva-Sangīta was a replica of this celestial music.[…]

Gandharva-Sangīta was also associated with pūjā, a form of worship with non-Aryan or indigenous roots that eventually replaced the yajña as the cornerstone of Hindu religious life. Instead of oblations into a fire, pūjā involves offerings of flowers, incense, food, water, lamps, and conches directly to deities or symbols on an altar. In pūjā, singing and playing instruments are conceived as offerings that are integrated with the other elements.[…]

The association of religion with the production of the arts, while present in Western history, is paramount in India. Currently, the content of artistic production is largely taken from Hindu religious texts, with many performance genres derived from religious rituals. […]

Source: Historian of religions and musicologist Guy L. Beck in “Hinduism and Music” (2014, Oxford Handbooks Online)
Date Visited: 13 November 2021

[Bold typeface added above for emphasis]

“In fact, the people of Manipur believe that they are the descendants of gandharvas, celestial musicians, and they have always sought communion with the divine through music and dance.” – Art historian and film-maker Benoy K. Behl | Watch an excerpt from his documentary Celestial Dancers of Manipur >>
Usage in legal and historical records

Ādivāsi [ādibāsi] may be used in accordance with local conventions; and increasingly so for official purposes (e.g. in “Conserving Tradition and Practices of Adivasi Communities in India” published on; Dr. Ivy Hansdak clarifies:

Adivasi – which is derived from Sanskrit – is applied to the dark-skinned or Austro-Asiatic indigenous groups of India (usually those from Eastern India). It is a commonly-used term in Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal and Odisha. It is also used by the local Mongoloid tribes of North Eastern India for the migrant workers who were brought in as indentured labourers to work in tea plantations during the colonial period. ‘Tribal’ is a very broad term in the English language and includes all the different indigenous groups of India. The terms ‘indigenous’ and ‘aboriginal’ are not used often as the government claims most groups are indigenous in India. ‘Denotified Tribes’ is only used for those nomadic tribes who were notified as ‘criminal tribes’ during the British Raj [colonial rule]; later they were ‘denotified’ but still bear the stigma.” (emails dated 2020 & 2023)

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