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Forty years after it was first conceived and following 12 years of preparation by a team of 250 scholars and musicians, and spanning two millennia of music on the subcontinent, the Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Music of India is, by any criteria, an impressive achievement.

It features more than 5,000 alphabetically arranged entries and 200 rare illustrations and photographs (albeit many of them of dubious quality) across three handsomely bound, larger than A4-size volumes. A daunting array of genres is accommodated – the kaleidoscopic variety of which far outstrips the considerably younger and more rigidly codified tradition of European ‘art music’ – from divinely inspired Vedic texts (which stretch back 1,500 years before the Christian era to the origins of Hindu scripture and Sanskrit arts) to the classical styles that have defined the now familiar sound of Indian music, with copious entries for folk traditions and regional styles, devotional music, historical developments, instruments, technical and colloquial terms, and biographical details for significant personalities, some of whom brush up against the contemporary phenomenon of the Bollywood musical.

Particularly fascinating are the discussions of two fundamental forms: tālas, the underpinning beat or rhythm; and the myriad permutations of rāgas – melodic beats built from a complex employment of 12 notes and their chhāyā (‘shades’) and which provide ‘the underlying principle’ of all Indian classical music.

The crucial aspect of performance is also explored in illuminating detail, with extensive discussion of milestone works like the Nātyaśāstra and Sangeeta Ratnākara, and the role of music in ancient purānas and epics such as the Ramayana.

Written with accessibility in mind, the tone is approachable and informative although the sheer scope of what’s on offer – historically and geographically let alone in musicological terms – presents its own challenges for anyone new to the subject. Even so, this is a remarkable accomplishment, full of scholarly insight, that opens up for further exploration and enjoyment one of the world’s richest and most rewarding musical traditions.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Classical Music, 2011 - ©Rhinegold Publishing