music history

Strings attached: A short history of the Western classical guitar in India

Indian composers haven’t fully exploited the opportunity to write for the guitar.

Any music-making operates within a context, and it is important to identify the specific context, leading to the visibly active presence of the Western classical guitar in India today.

The “modern guitar”, as a general identifier for the well-known instrument with six strings, is possibly the most widespread instrument in the world today. Its influence started spreading outside Western Europe from the early 19th century and its spread is inextricably linked to colonial economic penetration and the Church. The guitar travelled to various parts of the globe and in several cases, became a part of the local musical culture, to the extent that it is now, difficult to imagine the music without it.

Its popularity and acceptance stem from an optimal combination of portability and affordability, a very useful range of three-and-half octaves – that too chromatically playable, the possibility of voicing sophisticated harmony, and a wide range of tonal expressions – from delicate counterpoint to strong and percussive rhythm.

A painting of Muslim Arab Musicians at the Court of Roger II Sicil. Image credit: 12th century painting/Reproduction in Antinino Buttitta
A painting of Muslim Arab Musicians at the Court of Roger II Sicil. Image credit: 12th century painting/Reproduction in Antinino Buttitta "Les Normands de Sicile"/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY CC0]

In fact, it is not impossible to make a very rudimentary guitar and play, which is what the African-American musicians had to do in North America in the later part of the 19th century. In the Hispanic world, the guitar’s popularity has much to do with how the Spanish conquistadors came to utterly dominate these regions typically, almost completely, replacing indigenous cultures with their own.

In the case of the British colonists, with their greater focus on economic rather than cultural hegemony, the guitar did not embed itself as strongly as it did in Hispanic spheres of influence. In India, there is an interesting and forgotten fragment of history regarding the classical gut-string guitar, which appeared in the musical circles in Madras around the 1840s. An East India Company employee and the collector of Madras, Josiah Hudleston, who was a guitarist and a composer and had connections with some of the guitar virtuosi in Europe at the time, is known to have been active in the Western music circles in Madras. At the time, there were small ensembles, concerts. The performers who were visiting from Europe performed in India. In general, the guitar and Western classical music did not integrate into either the folk or the classical music in India. The guitar, with its equal-tempered scale and fixed frets, would not have adapted to Indian classical music – though the violin with its lack of frets found a strong presence in Carnatic and North Indian music. Interestingly, the harmonium, in contrast, was accepted in Indian music, despite its limitations.

Subsequently, with the coming of sound in cinema, and its appearance in India, from the 1930s, Western-style arrangements began to appear in film songs, with the steel string guitar making an appearance in some ensembles.

The development of the electric guitar in America, and its rapid acceptance in jazz, followed by popular music, also echoed quickly in India. After Independence, with the gradual availability of recorded music (as well as the influence of radio stations), most Indian cities acquired lively rock-n-roll scenes, with jazz being heard more commonly in the bigger metros. However, it was still a Western-oriented music, with English lyrics. Music with Indian tonality and treatment had a minority following. North East India is a special case in point. The steel string guitar has made deep inroads into the region – possibly because strong church activity drove a Western sensibility into local musical cultures. Similarly, Goa too proved to be a fertile ground for the guitar.

Early Romantic Guitar by Jean Nicholas Grobert. Photo credit: Musée de la musique, Paris / A Giordan/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY Public Domain Mark 1.0]
Early Romantic Guitar by Jean Nicholas Grobert. Photo credit: Musée de la musique, Paris / A Giordan/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY Public Domain Mark 1.0]

The steel string acoustic guitar and the electric guitar have since then become mainstream Indian instruments in popular settings and have also occasionally been incorporated in Indian classical music, ghazals and other so-called “light music” forms in India.

The history of the Western classical guitar in the Indian sub-continent seems to be largely undocumented. International performers, both in the classical and jazz arenas, have performed in post-independence India. The renowned classical guitarist Julian Bream appeared in concert at the Poona Music Society concert hall, and there are memories of such instances elsewhere in urban centres. But barring a few exceptional examples such as Hudleston, or WH Bird, who in his work Oriental Miscellany: Airs of Hindoostan (1789), transcribed some Indian airs for the harpsichord and the guitar, the classical guitar has not been very visible in Western classical circles in India, till relatively recently.

Apart from occasional concerts by visiting international classical guitarists, there was not much organised activity. While schools run by Christian missions in India have featured Western music education since the late 1800s, demonstrated by their early adoption of the Trinity College London examination systems, the focus instruments have been only the piano and the violin in most cases. Indeed, it took Andrés Segovia to make the classical guitar an equal instrument in Western concert halls, which happened much later.


In the India of the 1970s, the classical guitar was spoken of as a mysterious entity, even by accomplished jazz players. It was nearly impossible to acquire a genuine luthier-built instrument. Imported nylon strings were practically mythical, and their Indian counterparts sounded inconsistent and typically lasted about a week. Sheet music could be acquired if you knew someone who had a couple of scores, and were prepared to copy it out by hand (photocopying became ubiquitous only later in the 1980s).

Things began to change, quite noticeably, in the post-liberalisation period with growing access to recorded music and instruments. Later, the expansion of the internet made it possible to access a much greater degree of information and written music. Today, there is an unprecedented number of classical guitar players, students and teachers in India. From the beginning of the 21st century, there has been a strong consolidation of this interest, and classical guitar players across India are coming together via the medium of guitar competitions, festivals, workshops and the internet. The Indian Guitar Federation has been one of the major influences in enabling this growth.

The Pune Guitar Society, founded in March 2015, is a consequence of the ongoing interest in the Western classical guitar, which accelerated in the 1990s. As access to information and music grew, since the mid-1990s, it became apparent that the guitar as a Western classical instrument has come into its own in the 20th century. Although the instrument has been present in chamber music settings or as a solo instrument for at least 400 years, in its varied avatars, not many composers wrote for the instrument which resulted in the repertoire being very sparse when compared to more traditional Western instruments. The 19th century saw great improvements both in terms of guitar-making and construction as well as repertoire, followed by the considerable influence of Andrés Segovia on repertoire and performance, and the large-scale change from gut to nylon strings after World War II. The last three decades have seen a maturing of the repertoire with several composers exploiting the expressive palette that the modern classical guitar can demonstrate. One of the aims of the Pune Guitar Society is to help bring this music to general audiences.

The Guitar Repertoire: Between ‘Classical’ and ‘Folk’

The guitar throughout its history has been a folk instrument and a niche “art music” instrument. Throughout the history of Western classical music, there has been a constant interchange of influences between art music and folk music. Guitar repertoire is replete with folk-inspired music, due to this interchange. Classical guitar repertoire was dominated by Spanish and Italian influenced music for a long time, as the instrument was a key constituent of folk music in these region. Most important guitar composers in the 19th century and early 20th century were Spanish or Italian.

Post-World War II, as the guitar started getting acceptance as a serious concert instrument, there was an acute realisation that the repertoire needs to expand, both in terms of the depth of the music, as well as the cultural geography. Segovia, Bream and other concert greats at the time approached many mainstream orchestral composers to write for the instrument. This movement has proliferated subsequently, and post-1950s classical guitar repertoire has expanded far beyond its traditional Ibero-Italian cultural roots. Even though these composers work within some sense of the Western classical idiom, their own musical culture and sensibilities reflect in their music.

During our discussions at the Pune Guitar Society meetings, a point that comes up repeatedly is the available and largely unexploited opportunity for Indian composers to write seriously for the guitar. Indian folk music, with all its richness and flavours, has a vast musical legacy, waiting to be transformed into compositional ideas, motifs and other elements. The other tradition of Indian classical music is another such ocean of possibilities. However, this would need to move beyond the somewhat notion of fusion music, prevalent since the 1960s. A greater abstraction of transferred ideas is required, and the space is wide open for any composer to explore.

Young woman playing the guitar. Photo credit: National Gallery online catalogue/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY CC0]
Young woman playing the guitar. Photo credit: National Gallery online catalogue/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY CC0]

We would encourage composers in India to write for the instrument, and would help bridge these efforts with guitarists who could actually perform these works.

Concert Performance and Improvisation

Improvisation in music is well known to people who listen to Indian classical music, and it is an integral part in its performance. In the Western tradition, jazz embodies improvisation. Jazz has a history in India, which dates back to the early 20th century. World renowned jazz performers have performed in India, especially in Bombay, Calcutta and Goa. The guitar remained in the background as an accompanying instrument in jazz till the 1940s, when it went electric. Guitarists could now play solos which could be heard above the other instruments and over the din of their typical nightclub settings. In retrospect, the electric guitar and the nylon-string classical guitar in the post-World War II era, are key innovations that took guitar music into a completely new territory. Mainstream Western classical composers, too, have been influenced by jazz, since its popularity increased in the early 1900s, with the use of jazz influenced harmony and rhythms in their compositions. Going forward, it is important for performers, composers and audiences to acquire a broader understanding of these cross-influences and synergies.

With inputs from jazz musicians in Pune, we will continue to increase our awareness of the jazz influence in Western classical music in the later part of the 20th century. The Pune Guitar Society will look at the possibilities and avenues to get a deeper understanding of how these two traditions have and continue to influence each other and will create more listening experiences for concert-goers.

The guitar and other Western classical instruments

Even though the classical guitar went through some revolutionary changes in its construction around World War II and started attracting an audience as a solo instrument, its role in the larger Western classical ensembles and orchestras had been almost non-existent. On one side, there was a dearth of repertoire for guitar and orchestra and on the other hand, the guitar could not be heard on par with the other instruments. This is not to say that there are no works for guitar and orchestra/ensembles before amplification. We have some great works by Boccherini, Vivaldi, Giuliani etc, some of which were for lute and orchestra. But compared to larger orchestral works written for other instruments, the quantum of works has been small.

Nicholas Lanier playing the lute. Photo credit: Weiss Gallery/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY CC0]
Nicholas Lanier playing the lute. Photo credit: Weiss Gallery/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY CC0]

Amplification has come as a big change. Although it took a fair bit of time for traditionalists to accept amplification (largely due to the necessary evolution before it became truly “transparent”), it is now a common practice in large-scale performances. Many works for the guitar and orchestra/ensembles have been composed in the last five to six decades, facilitated by the recent technical evolution of the instrument.

Photo credit: © Arnaud Devic
Photo credit: © Arnaud Devic

We are now creating opportunities for combined performances, featuring the guitar and other instruments such as the piano and violin, as these are well-represented in Pune. Based on an idea proposed by piano player and teacher Tuhin Rao, we presented a concert of Spanish and Latin American music, which featured solo guitar and solo piano music, and a guitar/violin duet. We are planning more expansive concerts this year, which will have guitar/piano reductions of modern guitar concerti and will also bring new repertoire to audiences. It appears, that an effective way to bring the Western classical guitar into the Indian mainstream, is to build such collaborations with other instruments – an idea which has been, so far, well-received by Pune audiences.

Based in Pune, Jayant S is a founding member of Pune Guitar Society. He has co-authored this piece with valuable information and editorial inputs.

This article first appeared in Serenade Magazine.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.


Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.


Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.