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

Excerpt from Chapter XVI Music (pp. 212-242)

“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.


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.

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: the italics and diacritics in the original publication has been dispensed with in the above transcript for the sake of better readability while Bold typeface added above for emphasis

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