Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Neuroscience and Hindustani music

My interest in neurological facets of music is nascent. My familiarity with the subject is negligible.  My first serious look at it was occasioned by a chance exposure to an eminently readable paper by Alasdair Wilkins, titled “Music and Neuroscience” which came to my attention on Facebook. 

Before making observations on the report with specific reference to Hindustani music, I present below a selective summary of its relevant indications.


1.    From the perspective of neuroscience, listening to music is one of the most complex things you can do. Many parts of your brain have to work together to comprehend even the simplest tune. The act of processing music is so diffuse and decentralized throughout the brain that describing it as being centered in the right side of the brain is an oversimplification.

2.    An intriguing side-effect of listening to music is the activation of the visual cortex, found in the back of the brain in the occipital lobe. Research indicates that some music can provoke a response in this part of the brain, as the engaged listener tries to conjure up appropriate imagery to match the changes and progression in the music.

3.  There is no real objective measure of what counts as “musical” and what doesn’t. Memory is one of the most obvious influences here – you are most likely to like a particular of piece of music if it carries positive associations with it.

4.  If there is one constant in this, it is that songs carry as tremendous ability to provoke emotional responses – indeed, it can even seem our brain’s primary concern, when it comes, to music. In fact, the brain hangs onto the ability to understand the emotional impact of music, even if the finer points are lost. Brain imaging studies have shown that “happy” music stimulates the reward centers of the brain, causing the production of the chemical dopamine – the same chemical produced from eating great food, having sex, and taking drugs.

5.    Brigham Young University researchers report that infants as young as five months are able to discern when a happy song is playing, and by nine months, they have added comprehension of sad music to their repertoire. They observed that all the happy songs were in major keys with fairly short phrases or motifs that were repeated. Their tempo and melodic rhythms were faster than any of the sad selections and the melodies had a general upward direction. Four of the sad songs were in minor keys and all had a slower beat and long melodic rhythms.  

6.   We actually can have physiological reactions to music – happy music with a fast tempo and major key can make is breathe faster, while sad music and minor key can slow down our pulse and cause blood pressure to rise.


The significance of music

1.    Prof. Daniel Neuman, amongst the most respected ethno-musicologists today, has studied the social organization of Hindustani music for over four decades. In his recent book – Studying India’s Musicians (Manohar books, 2015) – makes the following observations:

“Music is a special instance of human behavior. The fact that  it is universal – no peoples are known not to have music – and species-specific to homo sapiens, suggests and adaptive basis for music in the evolution of our species. In other words, music has been important in the evolution of our species, although it is not clear in what way this is the case. But, the fact that societies such as India spend so much energy in the training of musical specialists, raises for me questions of why this is so.

These observations are well supported by the neurological finding that listening to music is a far more complex neurological process, involving many more part of the brain, than has for long been believed. Music may therefore be considered an integral part of human evolution, and justify the massive amount of energy that societies like India have invested in the cultivation of music professionals.

Music elicits an emotional response

2.  Indian musicological thought is consistent with the neurological finding that songs (which are pre-composed rather than largely improvised like Raga-based music) carry a tremendous ability to provoke emotional responses – indeed, it can even seem our brain’s primary concern, when it comes, to music. In fact, the brain hangs onto the ability to understand the emotional impact of music, even if the finer points are lost.  This finding would validate the phenomenon of a maestro’s music bypassing the intellectual discernment of its contents, and enabling the enjoyment of its emotional content.

In my first book – “Hindustani Music – a tradition in transition” (2005) – I have observed as follows:

The word “Raga” does not have a musical or melodic meaning at all; it has only an emotional meaning. The notion of the “Raga” deals with the totality of the communication process – generation of the stimulus as well as the elicitation of the response. In common usage, the word has come to describe a melodic structure, the stimulus, because the music world has accepted a correspondence between the stimulus and the response, and feels comfortable in using the word “Raga” to describe the former. This leads to the proposition that the “Raga”, as commonly understood, is a melodic representation of an emotional statement, and a vehicle for its communication.

In the second edition of the book (2015), I have developed the idea that a Raga is, in reality, a psycho-acoustic hypothesis.  Each Raga shapes a distinct pattern of melody by its unique selection, sequencing, and treatment of the swara-s.  Because of the distinct pattern, each Raga suggests a different emotional idea to the listener. But, the swara-s of the scale have no musical meaning in isolation. So, when a Raga organizes them in a specific manner with the intention of communicating an emotional idea, there is a tacit assumption of a cause-and-effect relationship – something akin to a theory.  But, a theory requires a substantial predictability of effect from a given cause. 

Since the Raga is a “formless form”, its impact depends on the quality of the communicable form which interprets it for the audience, and the receptivity of the audience. In addition, the impact may depend on a host of non-musical factors associated with the performance. Because we are in the region of “known possibility” rather than “predictability”, the cause-and-effect assumptions of the Raga may therefore be called a psycho-acoustic hypothesis, which is tested uniquely at every performance for its effectiveness in producing the desired emotional response.  

Familiarity is the basis of "musicality"

The phenomenon of the Raga in Hindustani music is supported by the neurological finding that there is no real objective measure of what counts as “musical” and what doesn’t. Memory and familiarity are the most obvious influences here – you are most likely to like a particular of piece of music if it carries positive associations with it. In my first book – “Hindustani Music – a tradition in transition” (2005) – I have observed as follows:

The phenomenon of the Raga, as the foundation of music making in the Hindustani tradition, ensures that the aesthetic experience of every performance enjoys the benefits of familiarity along with novelty. But, the tradition accepts that, in time, everything changes. Each generation of musicians and audiences is free to choose the parameters of continuity/ discipline/ conformity / familiarity, and impose on them their own parameters of change/ creativity/ individuality/ novelty. Raga-s have thus evolved as ever-growing and ever-changing repositories of aesthetically coherent melodic ideas.

Is the Raga an archetypal entity?

4.      Neuroscience relates the responsiveness of listeners to the association of melodic patterns to pleasant/ unpleasant memories stored in the listener’s mind. Simultaneously, it also suggests that infants as young as five and nine months – an age with hardly anything by way of an accumulated variety of musical/emotional experience – can respond differentially to musical stimuli known to be either “happy” or “sad”. These indications of neuroscience would suggest the possibility that specific melodic patterns are potent at least within a culture specific context -- if not universally potent -- as triggers of associated emotional responses , and this linkage is perhaps stored in something akin to a "collective unconscious" or a “racial memory” rather than a mere storage of accumulated associations in the individual memory.  

I have suggested this perspective in the second edition of my first book – Hindustani Music – a tradition in transition

Several years ago, a Western scholar, intrigued by the Raga phenomenon, had asked me a question: – “Does the Raga exist? And, if so, where?” Having lived and worked with Raga-s for almost six decades, I am attracted to the idea that a Raga is an archetypal entity in the Jungian sense. Though this direction of speculation continues to engage my mind, I prefer, for now, to use more familiar linguistic analogies.

A Raga, indeed, exists as definitely as a language exists. By the same analogy, the Raga does not reside either in treatises on Raga grammar or in any document that claims to be a lexicon of Ragas. Like a language, the Raga exists in the collective memory of the community, as a set of associations related to specific sound patterns. As a cultural force – and like a language – it is shaped by usage, and in turn, governs usage. We may say that the Raga resides in its performance, which, in turn, shapes the Raga.

Since each performance is shaped by the interaction between the musician and his audience, the repository of Raga-ness in the collective memory is constantly shuffling and reshuffling its inventory of melodic images to keep the aesthetic resources of the Raga perennially relevant.

Music has a visual component

5.  The relationship between melodic patterns and visual imagery is well established in the Hindustani music tradition.  Many Raga-s are named after deities, and the mythological associations of these deities are expected to guide the musician in their effective interpretation. There exists a considerable volume of Raga-Dhyana poetry, which enables a musician to visualize a Raga to aid him in the process of drawing a sound-picture of it. There also exists a substantial body of paintings, popularly known as the Ragamala paintings, which represent an artist’s attempt at portraying his interpretation of the Raga experience.

Namita Devidayal’s famous book titled The Music Room (Random House, 2007) opens with a quotation from Ustad Vilayat Khan – “A Raga should be performed such that within a few minutes, both the performer and the audience should be able to see it standing in front of them”.  I had occasion to query Khansaheb on this issue. In reply, he said – “You have not discovered it yet. But, there is actually an eye hidden inside a musician’s ear, with which he can see the Raga.

These notions prevalent in the Hindustani musical culture find support in the neurological discovery -- listening to music results in the activation of the visual cortex, found in the back of the brain in the optical lobe. Research indicates that some music can provoke a response in this part of the brain, as the engaged listener tries to conjure up appropriate imagery to match the changes and progression in the music.

While neurological research appears to focus on the listener’s visualization of a musical experience, the implications are far greater in Hindustani music from the music maker’s perspective. The musician’s task in performance is to explore a Raga, “formless form” and interpret it in communicable form which enables the delivery of emotional meaning to the listener.  “Form” itself is a visual idea, and visualization is inherent in the process of manifesting the formless form of the Raga as a communicable and intelligible experience. In shaping a manifest form which delivers emotional meaning, the musician also goes through an auto-suggestive process which is, once again, aided by visualization.

Raga grammar and Rasa

6.   I find it interesting that neurological research relates the “key” of the music, the swara-density, tempo, and the directional thrust of the music to its classification into “happy” and “sad” music. The major and minor keys in Western music come closest to the Hindustani notion of a Raga. Its relevance to the communication of emotional ideas validates the melodic wisdom of Hindustani music.

Hindustani Raga-s are classified as “Aroha-pradhan” (ascent-dominant) or “Avaroh-pradhan” (descent dominant) based on the prescribed dominance of ascending/ descending melodic thrusts in their performance.  Likewise, they are also classified as “Purvanga-vadi”, “Madhyanga-vadi” or “Uttaranga-vadi”, based on the region of the melodic canvas in which they most effectively communicate their emotional meaning. In fact, there are groups Raga-s in Hindustani music (e.g. Marwa, Puriya, and Sohini), which feature identical swara-s, and are differentiated largely by their differential emphasis on the directional dominance in their melodic treatment, and the epicenter of the melodic action in their rendition. This aspect of Raga grammar is also evidently validated by neurological research.

Musical aesthetics of the Hindustani tradition also acknowledge that Raga-s deliver different emotional values in different tempii. This is why exceptionally fastidious Hindustani musicians will not render serious Raga-s in fast tempo compositions, and skip slow-tempo compositions in some others, which are considered vivacious. There appears to be considerable scientific support for this fastidiousness.

At a broader level of consideration, it appears that neuroscience is so far classifying the emotional effects of music only on a bi-polar continuum of  “Sad-to-Happy”. The Indian aesthetic tradition, with the highly evolved notion of Rasa prevalent since Bharata’s Natya Shastra, would appear to have intuited a far more complex spectrum. Neuroscience may probe this area further and, some day, help us understand our aesthetic traditions better.

(c) Deepak S. Raja 2015

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Who is a maestro in Hindustani music?

I grew up in an era generously populated with Hindustani music maestros – both vocal and instrumental.  Over the years, I sensed a shrinkage in the number of musicians I could place in this category.  I might well have been wrongly applying an obsolete yardstick of musicianship, to which my juniors amongst musicians were not obliged to conform – after all, their music was addressing their generation and not mine! 

However, the Hindustani tradition expects a fundamental continuity in its musical environment, while permitting the peripherals to change over time.  This expectation arises from the fact that the “Operating system” of Hindustani music – its total resource of raga-s, tala-s, genres, and bandishes – is fairly stable. The yardstick of musicianship can therefore safely be considered valid for a couple of generations. 

This is why I often witness, and get drawn into discussions about whether a certain contemporary maestro matches up to a certain departed maestro; or how many real maestros we have today in Hindustani music, who they are, and what qualifies them for this stature. To discuss this issue intelligently, one must begin with defining a maestro.  The issue often gets controversial because even a consensual grading mechanism – such as did exist till the first half of the last century – has faded away without an adequate replacement, and any musician now feels free to anoint himself a “Pandit” or “Ustad”.

It is not my purpose here to provide answers to these oft debated issues. Instead, I intend to test a formulation I stated recently in one such discussion. The proposition was articulated rather casually, then with no purpose beyond delivering a quotable turn of phrase. The proposition is as follows:

“A maestro is a musician who is able and willing to perform as long as the audience is willing to listen.”

In retrospect, I felt this formulation requires to be tested against a more rigorous definition of a maestro. Hence, this inquiry.

Maestro, Pandit, Ustad: The definition

The Short Oxford English Dictionary (Fifth edition) defines a “Maestro” as: (1) An expert in music; a great musical composer, teacher, or conductor (2) a great performer or leader in any art, profession etc.  An Urdu word of comparable usage is “Ustad”. The Urdu-Hindi Shabdakosh, published by UP Government Hindi Department has the following entry against the word: A teacher of any art, clever/crafty.  The Nalanda Vishal Shabdasagar (Hindi) defines “Ustad” as: Teacher, (especially of courtesans), highly skilled, adept, and knowledgeable. The Hindi/ Sanskrit word of similar usage is “Pandit”. The Nalanda dictionary defines a Pandit as:  Learned man, intellectual, competent, clever, a person with exceptional theoretical knowledge of his subject, a Brahmin.

Collectively, these connotations would qualify an artist for the pinnacle of stature by virtue of: (a) exceptional theoretical knowledge (b) exceptional capabilities as a composer (c) exceptional performing competence (d) tendency towards craftiness/ manipulation, and (e) noteworthy competence as a teacher.

The “Brahmin” connotation of the word “Pandit” might seem irrelevant because of its casteist connotation. If contextually interpreted, however, it need not be so.  “Brahminism” may be viewed here as a way of life dedicated exclusively to the acquisition, preservation and dissemination of knowledge, irrespective of consequences. The “Brahmin” idea may here suggest the highest level of sanctity to the relationship between the artist and his art, which values knowledge above all else.  

Implications of the formulation

“A maestro is a musician who is able and willing to perform as long as the audience is willing to listen.”

Before I submit the formulation to scrutiny against lexically derived connotations, it helps to verbalize the assumptions and implications of this formulation.

Audience profile

In this formulation, I have not either specified or qualified the “audience” with any adjectival or adverbial description.  This omission obliges us to consider several scenarios.  The music of a real maestro delights listeners at the intellectual level and at the emotional level. 

The first scenario is that, by the time he reaches such stature, a maestro has acquired a well defined “loyal” following. “His” audiences know what to expect from him, and he delivers it to them, thus holding them “captive” at an intellectual as well as emotional level as long as he wishes to do so. 

The second scenario is of an audience which has a “normal” distribution of highly discerning, moderately discerning, and almost undiscerning audiences. In such a scenario, it is fair to assume that the appeal of a maestro’s music is not dependent entirely on audience profiles, and bypasses their variable levels of discernment.  If the real test of music is the delivery of emotional meaning through the raga experience, the relatively more discerning and the less discerning audiences could well be equally receptive to it. By this argument, a maestro can stimulate an insatiable thirst for his music, cutting across all levels of aesthetic discernment. Such a phenomenon can result in a concert which will end only when it will end.

The third scenario to consider is that of an audience which is almost totally uncultivated. In such a scenario, a maestro – if he wishes to win that audience – could avoid taxing them altogether, and present music that is wholly undemanding and emotional in its appeal.

Concert duration

I am more than suggesting that a maestro does NOT contract a concert of 90 or 120 minutes of music. His contract, as he sees it, is for sending home a group of people filled with joy. 

Rarely, if ever, is a concert announced as being of indeterminate duration. This feature takes shape progressively during the concert, as the unstated “standard” duration is ignored by both, the musician and the audience by mutual consent.

The mutual consent inherent in this situation implies that a totally interactive and consultative relationship is established between the musician and the audience.  Inevitably, this means that the musician receives requests for repertoire of the audience’s choice, and is willing and able to satisfy them without the need to have planned it beforehand.

In this context, the most obvious qualification of a maestro is extraordinary physical stamina. This implication is certainly obvious, but not the dominant consideration. The more important facet of indeterminate concert duration is a maestro’s aesthetic stamina. By aesthetic stamina, I mean the ability to counter the aesthetic fatigue of audiences -- listening to the same artist through six, or eight, or ten items, many of which would be of the same genre. Without the aesthetic stamina to sustain interest through a marathon, the musician cannot have audiences asking for more after each item.

These two aspects of a maestro concert define the single most important qualification of a musician so described. A maestro has authoritative command over a vast and diverse repertoire, and can deliver almost any part of that repertoire without advance planning or preparation.  And, to be able do so engagingly over a long duration, possibly cutting across levels of audience discernment, a maestro needs also to command a variety of stylistic resources even within each genre. 

The maestro personality 

It is obvious that a maestro is a musician of exceptional talent. It is also obvious that he is committed to almost super-human effort towards the perfection of his craft.  What, however, does need to be emphasized is that a Hindustani music maestro is obsessively in search of wider knowledge and skills in terms of repertoire and stylistic resources. In this search, he draws constantly upon external and internal resources. He has neither time, nor energy, nor fondness for any activity other than the cultivation of his musical personality.  Even his ability to charm audiences is only a result of what he is, and not of what he attempts to do, or does.  A real maestro is a musician, and nothing else.

Testing the formulation

In the above implications and connotations of my formulation, I appear to have adequately conveyed the notions of expertise, composing and performing competence.  The contextual “Brahminism” of the maestro is also adequately reflected.  Three aspects of probable mismatch require to be reconsidered. The first is the relevance of audience profiles to the appeal of a maestro’s music.   The second is that of cleverness or craftiness. The third is that of competence as a Guru/ teacher.

With respect to audience profiles, we have considered three scenarios above. Under the third scenario -- an audience which is almost totally uncultivated -- the formulation being tested exposes its limitations. Faced with such a situation as described, a maestro can no longer perform music worthy of a maestro. The possibility of such a situation may seem negligible. But, the music world is known to have placed the greatest of musicians in the most unenviable positions, with varying results.

The clever/crafty connotation hints towards a flaw of character. It may appear irrelevant here, but need not be summarily dismissed in the present context. There is an element of artifice in art which cannot be denied.  Besides being contemplative and expressive, Hindustani music is – like all music -- also a communicative art, and involves the deployment of devices designed specifically to elicit certain qualities of response.

When a musical performance makes you cry, the musician is not actually unhappy. He has artfully communicated to you the idea of sorrow. In turn, you too are not unhappy when you cry in response to music. You cry in appreciation of the cleverness with which the musician communicates to you the idea of sorrow without actually being unhappy himself.  Your experience of sorrow in this context is actually a pleasant experience because it has made you aware of your heightened emotionality.  By the same logic, the communication of even more unpleasant emotions such as violence, hatred, and disgust can also deliver a pleasant experience – because of the artifice that lies in art.

Therefore, a maestro who can hold audiences in voluntary surrender over a concert of indeterminate duration must be accepted as “crafty” because he has a command over a massive range of musical devices appropriate for eliciting the desired emotional responses.

The “Guru” connotation of a maestro/ Pandit/ Ustad does not fall -- whether explicitly or implicitly – within the scope of this formulation.  The omission is substantive and represents an infirmity. 

Obliquely, the Guru connotation is related to the Brahminical value, which enjoins upon a maestro the additional role of knowledge acquirer, preserver, and disseminator. In acknowledgement of this supposedly non-remunerative responsibility, Indian society has traditionally devised various ways to keep maestros materially comfortable. One such device is remunerating them for transmitting knowledge. However, quite independently of this, perpetuation of the tradition is seen as a part of a maestro’s social responsibility. So, a maestro who does not teach – for whatever reason -- falls short of the Brahminical tenet related to his profession.

Does a performing maestro with an insignificant presence as a teacher, then, weaken or forfeit maestro status? In Hindustani music, the verdict of recent history is unclear. Yes, indeed, several maestros have groomed brilliant disciples. On the other hand, several acknowledged performing maestros have been reluctant or ineffective teachers. Several maestros who did not impart systematic personalized training became immensely influential models of music making through their recordings. And, history is replete with near-legendary teachers who never attained the performing competence characteristic of maestros.

Despite this lack of clarity on the connection between the roles of a performer and teacher, every maestro insists that a serious musician must teach and that teaching is as beneficial to his own growth as a musician, as to his disciples, and to the tradition.  How this happens would be beyond the scope of this essay.  Suffice it here to observe that process of imparting knowledge and skills of music requires a maestro to force upon himself a clarity of musical thought, ideation, and intent, which he may otherwise practice only by rote, imitation, or intuition.  His teaching experience may therefore be considered contributory and germane to his excellence as a performing maestro.

In the contemporary scenario, performing excellence is rewarded by the music community, irrespective of what goes into the making of a musician. It may therefore be fair to presume that such excellence will generally be associated with a musician who has all the qualifications of an effective teacher, but may not actually be active as one.

In conclusion, the above formulation may be treated in the contemporary environment as being broadly defensible, though limited by its focus on performing excellence, and partially by its unstated assumption relating to audience profiles.  

I am sorry to disappoint readers who expected me to name contemporary musicians who qualify for the status of a maestro – either by this partial or a more comprehensive formulation.

(c) Deepak S. Raja 2015

Gujarat Gaurav Award Ceremony

The Gujarat State Performing Arts Academy honours 12 distinguished professionals from the fields of music, dance, drama, and the folk arts with the Gujarat Gaurav (Pride of Gujarat) award every year. The awards for the year 2013-14 were bestowed upon the winners, including myself, at a ceremony held in Ahemdabad on December 8, 2014. The official video of the event is shared here. The honours were done by the Minister of State, Hon'ble Shri Nanubhai Vanani. The awardees were felicitated by Shri Bhagyesh Jha, IAS, Secretary, Department of Culture, and Shri Yogesh Gadhavi, Chairman of the State Performing Arts Academy. 

गुजरात राज्य संगीत नाटक अकादेमी प्रत्येक वर्ष संगीत, नाटक, नृत्य तथा लोक कलाओ में असाधरण  योगदान जिन्होंने दिया हो, वैसे १२ कलाकारों को गुजरात गौरव सन्मान से आभूषित करती है. सन २०१३-१४ के विजेताओं का सत्कार अहमदाबाद के साहित्य परिषद् भवन में  दिसम्बर ८, २०१४ को संपन्न हुआ. जिस  भव्य समारंभ में  मेरा और ११ अन्य कलकारों का सन्मान हुआ, उसकी औपचारिक विडियो यहाँ प्रस्तुत है. 

ગુજરાત રાજ્ય સંગીત નાટક અકાડેમી દર વર્ષે  સંગીત, નાટક, નૃત્ય, તથા લોક કલાઓ નાં ક્ષેત્રે જે કલાકારોએ અસાધારણ યોગદાન આપ્યું હોય, તેવા ૧૨ કલાકારો ને ગુજરાત ગૌરવ સન્માન થી અભૂષિત કરે છે. સન ૨૦૧૩-૧૪ માટે મનોનીત થયેલા કલાકારો નું સન્માન અમદાવાદ નાં સાહિત્ય પરિષદ ભવન માં ૮-૧૨-૨૦૧૪ નાં રોજે કરવામાં આવ્યું હતું. આભૂષિત કલાકારો માં મારો સમાવેશ થાય છે, તે નિમિત્તે મારા સ્નેહીઓ, મિત્રો તથા શુભચિંતકો ની જાણ માટે સમારોહ નો ઔપચારિક  વિડીઓ અહી રજુ કરું છૂં. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The place of Hindustani art music in Bombay

Dr. Tejaswini Niranjana, PhD is a Senior Fellow - Centre for the Study of Culture and Society (CSCS), Visiting Professor - Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Humanities, Lingnan University, Hong Kong, Advisor, Access to Knowledge
Dr. Tejaswini Niranjana
Programme, Centre for Internet and Society, Visiting Faculty - Centre for Contemporary Studies, Indian Institute of Science (CCS-IISc).

In collaboration with the celebrated film-maker, Surabhi Sharma, she has undertaken a video=research project to explore the place of Hindustani Art Music in the metropolis of Bombay/ Mumbai.

About her project, their project website states:

Our project is about the place of Hindustani art music in the metropolis of Bombay/Mumbai, and its role in the fashioning of public space from the early 20th century to the present. This music began to take root here in the late 19th century, and eventually became intimately associated with the city. The project aims to map music onto buildings, neighbourhoods and public spaces to produce a kind of sonic cartography.

Film-maker Surabhi Sharma
Uploaded on pad.ma are the research interviews of the project. We are also working on a documentary film (directed by Surabhi Sharma) and an exhibition (in collaboration with Kaiwan Mehta, Sonal Sundararajan, Farzan Dalal). 

Support for the project is from the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Heritage Conservation Society. Some of the research is supported through a faculty grant to Tejaswini Niranjana from the Research Council of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai.

Some time in May-June 2014, Dr. Tejaswini and Surabhi interviewed me as a part of the project. Their interview is shared here with their permission.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Second edition of "Hindustani Music -- a Tradition in Transition"

Preface to the Second Edition

It is heartening that, after more than eight years since the release of this book, it continues to engage the attention of serious music lovers.  The book has brought me in touch with some of the finest scholars and connoisseurs of Hindustani music in India and abroad. Their reactions and comments have suggested to me those facets of our music, which readers would like me to explore more comprehensively.

Two segments of this book appear to have engendered the widest interest. The most important, not surprisingly, is the phenomenon of the Raga. A close second is the coverage of musical instruments. Both subjects are inexhaustible. An attempt is, however, made in this edition, to enrich the contents of these two sections of the book.

On the subject of Raga-ness, I have added two new chapters reflecting my current understanding and concerns. To the original chapters, I have added post-scripts where I thought they were warranted.  The chapters on the instruments have been revised, and made more comprehensive. The coverage of instruments has been enlarged with  chapters on the Tanpura, the Violin, the Bansuri, the Pakhawaj and Tabla, and the Harmonium, which have appeared in my most recent book, Hindustani Music Today (DK Printworld, 2012).

I trust these additions will make this book significantly more valuable to my readers.

Deepak S. Raja

Vijaya Dashami, 2013

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Tips for a writer

Almost 15 years ago, I was mentoring a budding journalist. In the process, I started penning down notes that might orient her towards a writer's way of relating to the world and to his/her work. For reasons I cannot recall now, it was a short-lived effort. It ended after three parts. CAVIEAT EMPTOR: In hindsight, this is an utterly juvenile piece of writing.  I am sharing it in the belief that somebody somewhere might benefit from the effort.

June 22, 2001


What I am writing about is non-fiction writing, journalistic writing. But, a lot of it could be valid for other kinds of writing also.

Writers are not born. There is also no school anywhere in the world with anything like a great reputation as a trainer of writers. Writers train themselves, or are trained by their superiors or mentors.

A part of training yourself as a writer is to seek an answer to the question: “Why do I want to be a writer?” OR “Why am I writer?”  I don’t imagine you will find an answer easily or soon. But, I also believe that no writer of any worth has ever stopped asking this question of himself. I also suspect that no writer has found an answer that remains valid for too long. Writing is a process of self-discovery. It cannot end; nor can it ever be given up.

There is absolutely no contradiction between [**] writing as a process of self-discovery and [**] writing as persuasion. We discover ourselves in the process of persuading our readers. We also persuade others in the process of discovering ourselves.

A note of caution: Don’t deceive yourself into believing that you have answered the question conclusively and finally when you realise that you “write for a living”. If you are honest with yourself, this answer will disappear almost as soon as you have found it.

1. Writing is a persuasive art/ craft. Persuasion belongs to the category of “behaviour modification”. Behaviour modification, as an objective, is constrained by/ governed by existing levels of knowledge/ belief/ involvement related to the subject. To persuade your reader, therefore, you need to be clear about [a] what is the lay of the land you are entering, and [b] what you want to achieve by way of results.

These questions have also been framed differently: [a] Where are you in the reader’s mind? [b] Where do you want to be in the reader’s mind? If you can define point [a] and point [b] clearly, it is easy to write a piece that takes you from point [a] to point [b] in the reader’s mind.

Asking these questions, and answering them, has to become a habit of the mind. If you can adopt it as a formal discipline, it can work even better.

2. You cannot start writing a piece until you have achieved clarity about the “target reader” and the “target response”.

## Who am I writing for? Try to describe your “target reader” in as much detail as possible. The more detailed your description, the better your writing will be. The most important part of the description is your guess about: What do they know on the subject? What do they believe on the subject? What do they feel on the subject?

## What do I want him to do/ know / believe/ feel after reading the piece? The “target response” to any communication is always action / knowledge / belief / feeling. These are not mutually exclusive objectives. Each is connected with the other. Once you have figured out the most important “target response”, the role of the others will define itself.

If you want people to DO something, they will need to FEEL in a certain way to want to DO it; they will need to BELIEVE some things in order to  justify their FEELINGS, and they will need to  KNOW some things to support their  BELIEFS.  All these derive logically from your “target response”, defined in terms of  ACTION.

If you follow the discipline of writing down the objectives in this excruciating detail before you start, the entire process of writing will become easy, and produce satisfying results. Try it once; you will never give it up.

3. The first advantage of clarity in objectives is evident in the research. No matter what your objective, you will find that knowing the subject thoroughly helps.

YOU CAN USE THE INTERNET FOR BACKGROUND INFORMATION ON ALMOST ANY SUBJECT ON EARTH. Did you find out enough about COFFEE before you wrote Coffee Cat? I doubt it seriously. The Brazilian Coffee Board would have given you caffeine poisoning with the amount of information on their website. There could be many more I am not aware of. 

Knowledge of the subject works in mysterious ways. But, it works. Research can include tapping any source – newspaper clippings, books, interviews with people, experts, visits to places. The greater the variety of sources tapped, the better your chances of achieving the “target response”. Even if none of your knowledge is explicitly delivered to your reader, just having the knowledge will make your piece sparkle.

I have also found that, no matter how well I have studied a subject before writing on it, there is always one guy out there – amongst my readers – who knows more than me on the subject. This is unavoidable. Nobody can be the ultimate expert on everything. Not being the ultimate expert is safe as long as my writing doesn’t provoke this smart guy into embarrassing me publicly for my ignorance or folly. Once you have done your research well, you will AUTOMATICALLY adopt a tone of voice in your writing that doesn’t challenge the “smart alecs” to a debate. Knowledge has an amazing way of making people humble, and more acceptable.

4. This is why it helps to specialise on a subject, or a set of allied subjects. Specialisation enables you to develop your knowledge-base ASSETS – in terms of sources, human and other. Research for every piece then gives you valuable knowledge not only for that piece, but also for every subsequent piece. No piece will then be in totally unfamiliar territory. Every piece will become easier to write, and will sparkle with insights and perspectives gained from the research on other pieces.

The most important part of your ASSET will be the networking of people concerned with the field of your specialisation. The same network of people will give you information, authentic and credible quotes, and ideas for subjects. They will also be grateful to you for remaining alive in the public mind through your mentions/ quotes. “Grateful hangers-on” can be useful, too, if you are discerning in your choice of people. Every profession is a give-and-take community of sorts, where those with access to the media enjoy a privileged position.

5. As a career strategy, specialisation is unavoidable. Even if you decide not to specialise on a subject, the market – if it exists for your work – will start demanding more of what you are best at, and drive you towards a specialisation. This will happen because nobody wants just a writer. But, people want experts on something or the other all the time. And, experts, who can also write, will always be in short supply. If you are not a SOMEBODY in a well-defined field, no matter how small the field, you are doomed to being a NOBODY.

6. Develop a sound, but not very complicated, storage and retrieval system for your knowledge / source base. [If you have specialised prudently, the material will never be either vast enough or diverse enough to justify a very complicated storage/retrieval system] Treat your interviews – notes as well as tapes -- with special respect. Tape every interview, and store it. Don’t throw away your interview notes. You can’t tell which interview will provide you with information or quotes for which piece, and when. You cannot assume that the value of an interview done today ends with the publication of the piece based on it. You can’t also tell when you will be the only one living to have evidence of some event that seems innocuous today, but proves to have been historic. Journalism might be history written in a hurry. But, history, it still is. But, your interviews being oral history, they have the potential to play havoc with your career. Interviewees are notorious for denying what they said. If you can’t fling their interview tape back into their faces when they do this, you might one day find yourself thrown out of editorial offices.

7. I have found that there’s two stages of research in writing. One kind of research is done before you start writing the piece – the research that gives you the content of your piece, the facts, the trends, the conclusions, the perspective etc. Once you start writing, you need a different kind of research – research that makes the piece of writing come alive. This research looks for some “telling detail”, something unusual, something memorable, some figure/ number, sometimes just a quotation – anything that puts “life” into the subject and, preferably, drives home the basic point you are trying to make on the subject.

Therefore, you cannot afford to put away your reference material after you have made your notes, and started writing. To write really fine stuff, you will almost certainly need your original reference material repeatedly  – for a different kind of reference – right through the duration of the writing.

8. Don’t trust the magnetic media [computers] as storage devices. Keep back-ups of all your writing and print material – on hard copy as well as magnetic media. Open an archival account on www.freedrive.com for free storage space. You can download whenever you want, rewrite, edit, re-use, refer.

9. What are you going to do with this piece of writing? Is it worth storing? If it is, print it out, and file it. Reading it two years later could be equally rewarding. Also park it on your FREEDRIVE archival space.

June 23, 2001


I am now sharing with you my understanding of effective writing. There’s no well-conceived structure for this note – there ought to be; but my brain isn’t working well at all today. I am just
haring my experience as it comes to me.

  1. A lot of research has been done on readability of English writing. Different texts have been tested for speed of reading and for ease of comprehension amongst people with different levels of education. The Fleisch Readability Score came out of this research. Never mind how it is calculated. What is important is to know what its components are, and be sensitive to them when you write.

The components are:

[a] Number of sentences per paragraph. Lower the better. Four to five sentences is considered a prudent limit, subject to conceptual clarity of para separations. You and I both know, however, that some of the most powerful paragraphs we have read is just a single sentence. Conceptual clarity. One big idea, emblazoned in its isolated glory, has immense impact.

[b] Number of words per sentence. Lower the better. But, again, it depends on the nature of the text. Literary greats like John Steinbeck or John Gardner achieve eight words per sentence. You and I will neither need to get there, nor ever succeed in getting anywhere close. A legal document may have 50 words per sentence, or more. In journalism, every publication has its own style. I haven’t checked recently. But, Economic Times used to be around an average 21 words per sentence some years ago. The Economist [London] used to do 18 words per sentence. Serious academic journals might go upto 25 or more. If you analyse current journalism of the type you are doing, an average can be determined. This is easily done on a random sampling basis. If you need my help, I can do it for you. I reckon, you will come up with something like 15.

[c] Number of syllables per word. Lower the better. In journalism, the average should be below three.

[d] Number of passive voice sentences to active voice sentences. Lower the better. The human mind appears to read and comprehend the subject-verb-predicate sequence faster and better than predicate-verb-subject.

MSWord sensitises you to these problems, and others, with green lines below the problem sentences. Take a second look at such lines. Until a few years ago, MSWord also used to give you a Fleisch Readability Score. They have discontinued it now, but under TOOLS [Word Count], you can still get a count of characters, sentences, paragraphs. This is a good beginning.

  1. Word length. When you write a full piece, and want to cut it down in length, use the Editing features of MSWord. You just have to specify by how much you want to cut down the length of the piece, and the programme highlights what you can easily throw out. Take clues from this, and edit it yourself. I have found the programme amazingly powerful for almost any subject.

  1. Seduction: The principles of good writing are not very different from those of seduction. Make the reader want more. The headline must make the reader want to read the first para. The first para must make the reader want to read the second. And, so on. He should finish the reading the piece before he realises it’s over.

  1. Sequencing of ideas and information. In conventional writing, say a research report, you start with a problem, discuss its causes, and then move towards its solution. In journalistic writing, you take the inverse route. The first para must have your whole story. In it, you simultaneously discuss the solution and the problem. In the rest of the report, you defend the story [the first para] – how it works, why it works etc.  This logic is based on two assumptions: [a] that the first para should enable the reader to judge whether the subsequent paras are of any interest to them or not [b] that a majority of your readers may not have the time or the inclination to read beyond the first para and this is why a summary of the whole piece should be given to them up front. This is why most good writers write the first para at the end, after the whole story has been written, and then proceed to reorganise the body of the story for a logical flow of ideas.

  1. The same inversion of logic is followed for each paragraph. We would normally structure a paragraph by starting with the premise, and the facts, and then finally state the conclusion. In journalistic writing, the conclusion comes first, and the rest of the paragraph defends the conclusion with the premise and the evidence.

  1. The INVERTED PYRAMID means: The first para of a story is a summary/ conclusion of the whole story. And, the first sentence of every para is a summary/ conclusion of the whole para. The journalistic style is: STATE AND DEFEND. This is the opposite of the “Evidence-to-Argument-to-judgment” logic of the law courts. Why this order? Simply because those who agree with your conclusion/ judgment will read further because they agree; and those who don’t agree with what you state will certainly read further to find out how you came to the conclusion that you did.

  1. If the first para has to be the whole story, it is desirable  – if the subject permits – to focus it sharply on a reader’s [ probable] problem, and give him the possibility of a solution. This will persuade him to read further, if the problem you are discussing is relevant / important to him. This is why, it is excellent practice to compose the first sentence addressing the reader in second person singular. The first three words should contain the word YOU. If you can write the whole piece in second person singular, nothing like it. All advertisements are written, at least in theory, with this notional address. If somebody is paying so much for them, they must be doing something right! And, indeed they are. Everyone loves himself more than he loves anyone else.

  1. The first para should, ideally, make the reader sit up and say: “Wow, I didn’t know this!”. It doesn’t matter whether what he didn’t know  -- and you told him – is good news or bad news. The sheer novelty, the revelation value, will grab him. But, for God’s sake, don’t start a piece with “Did you know…?” except under the rarest of circumstances. Nobody likes being told he didn’t know something. You should merely tell him something he is not LIKELY to have known. That will make him jump.

  1. If the subject you are dealing with is unfamiliar to most readers, try to relate it to something familiar. The human mind is inclined to shut out what is patently unfamiliar. It is willing to consider moving only from the familiar to the unfamiliar, if you show him the rewards of so doing. If your reader hasn’t heard of Mahesh Dattani, a quote from Lyllette Dubey or Naseeruddin Shah will help establish the link of familiarity. Without such a link, the response could be: “Who’s Mahesh Dattani? I couldn’t care less!”. And, you’ve lost your reader. But, if he hasn’t heard even of Lyllette or Naseeruddin, then he’s probably not your reader anyway.
  1. Any piece of writing will generally have three facets of the subject – [a] positive/ pleasing/ encouraging,  [b] neutral/ factual and [c] negative/ limiting/ discouraging. All three categories of information must be presented to do justice to the reader. And, it should always be in this same order [1] positive [2] neutral [3] negative. Don’t, for your own sake and Gods, actually describe any of these as positive/ neutral/ negative in the report. Just categorise and organise the material in this order. The order is important. Once you get people smiling and nodding vertically, it will become a habit, and they will forget to frown, or nod horizontally even when the facts warrant it. At the end, you can thus have an honest report, as well as a satisfied and happy reader. It is a win-win formula. This is good strategy also in personal communications. It takes hard work; but whoever said managing personal relationships wasn’t hard work?

Monday, 25 June 2001


This again is limited by my experience.

  1. Start by determining the wordage you wish to produce – based on what your publisher/ editor says, and the subject on hand. Having a notional word length in your mind from the beginning always helps in minimising the chopping and editing you have to do at the end. It is, obviously, always safer to edit a piece down to the feasible wordage yourself, than risk allowing some semi-literate sub-editor to mess up either the flow of thought, or the argument.

  1. There are, broadly, two ways of putting a piece together. [a] Write the whole piece down in one sitting – the first draft, if you like  – and then start polishing it up with captions etc. [b] Divide the whole piece into chapters/ sections, write each chapter/ section in any order you find convenient, polish up each section separately, and then thread the whole piece together in a sequence that you feel is best for the flow of the argument/ ideas. After you have assembled the components, you must refine the “linkages” between the sections once again to ensure that the flow of thought is smooth.

  1. Both have worked with me. But, I strongly recommend the second approach for several reasons: dividing the piece into sections/ chapters it enforces a conceptual clarity on the effort, permits/ encourages you to achieve a certain level of depth in every section – you won’t be happy with a section until you have achieved it – and leads to a sharper wording of captions. Editing and polishing small texts at a time is also much less painful than editing a large piece in one shot. The most important gain from the second approach is the ease with which the “Inverted Pyramid” structure can be built. Every section/ chapter has to have its own summary up-front. Once you have, say, five or six chapters with their own summaries leading them in, you also have the ideas available for writing a summary of the whole piece and putting it on top as the lead-in of the piece.

  1. Once you have edited the whole piece, and are reasonably happy with it, go back to the difficult/ complex/ uncomfortable/ controversial paragraphs/ sections for micro editing. In this effort, you have to accord special attention to: [a] the possibility of complicated/ confusing sentence structure or of mutually conflicting ideas, [b] the risk of derogatory or pejorative interpretations of some words [c] the possibility of controversy, which you might wish to either avoid or explicitly recognise and [d] the possibility of some ideas having been repeated in the because you were, initially, working on each chapter/ section as a stand-alone piece, trying to make it comprehensive and complete.  I can’t think of any more risks at the moment. But, basically, I am talking about a “risk control” effort.

  1. Once you are satisfied that the whole piece reads well, flows smoothly, and is within the target word length, start work on the “special effects” [SFX] department. The SFX department deals with features and elements in your piece, which will make your piece memorable, preferably, quotable. Some examples are given here:

[a] There could be one or two ideas, or words, in your piece, which capture the essence of the whole piece. There is a danger that such words will have been used repeatedly in the piece. Identify such words, look up a thesaurus for all possible synonyms, and strategically strew them all over the piece as replacement for the excessively repeated word. This helps in two ways: Punaravrutti Dosha is removed, and you are able to project the “atmospherics” of the piece through kaleidoscopic imagery of associated/ similar ideas.

[b] There could be the possibility of introducing a “telling detail” that makes people remember and quote your piece. Sometimes, this detail might merely establish that you have seen your subject “from the inside” – like: “The moon was almost full”. This detail establishes the date of an event within a range of +/- two days. Another example – “I was received at Oman Airport by an ancient, bearded, Bengali gentleman called Abdul Qayyum”. Now, dash it, even if he was a clean-shaven 35 year old, and was a Malyalee, and his name was Ghulam Qadir, how does it matter? You have sufficient detail here to have your reader believe that you were “actually there” – even if you weren’t.

The “telling detail” can also be a perspective on a fact – like: “The value of Indian black-money accounts in Swiss banks is equal to the India’s foreign debt.” Another perspective on similar facts could be – “To pay off India’s foreign debt, the entire population would need to starve for three years.”  Numbers/ figures/ numerals make excellent memory hooks. They activate the mind’s eye by encouraging people to visualise what they are reading.

[c] Try some journalistic “Ustadi”. Throw in, if possible, a couple of words of rare usage -- like: “It’s a CINCH”. Or “The truth of his statement RANKLED.”  If you want to be really wicked, choose words for which very few dictionaries provide a meaning, or few thesaurus’ provide a synonym. If you hunt hard enough, you should be able to locate an anthology of rare usage words in the major bookshops of Bombay/ Pune. An alternative to the rare-usage word is a foreign [French, Greek and Latin is ideal] language word/ term, which is not totally unfamiliar in English – without providing a translation. Just to gently intimidate your audiences, you could use the expansion “Exempli Gratia” [Latin] instead of the common abbreviation “e.g.”, and watch people take note of you. Such Ustadi has to be done very sparingly and judiciously In most cases, just once in a piece is good enough. It’s not enough to avoid annoyance to the reader – you shouldn’t risk giving your editor a complex.

[d] Somewhere in your piece, you could be expressing your own opinion, or conclusions. Make sure that you have avoided the rhetorical question as a device for making such observations. This form tends to be perceived as dogmatic. Consider carefully if you need to add some “attitude softeners” to make your ideas acceptable. These softeners are mostly “tone of voice” devices. You can prefix your observations with “Some might argue that …..” or suffix them with a phrase like “Think about it!”. Opinions/ conclusions stated cautiously, without an air of finality, can become memorable and even quotable.

CAVEAT EMPTOR: Editors have rather dogmatic views on the kind of SFX they will tolerate and the kind they will expunge. It’s a cinch. Read your editor’s mind and stick to the kind that will pass muster. 

  1. When is a piece ready for handing over?  The easiest answer, and the most frequent, is: “When the editor wants it.” But, even if you have some leeway in the matter, you still don’t have a formula. No piece is ever “perfect”.  “There’s not a hand in this world, that has written what another’s eyes cannot fault, and his hands cannot improve” [Reproduction inaccurate, Attribution forgotten]. You have to take this decision yourself. At some point, you will have to say, “That’s it!”, and close the file. Experience advises me NOT to despatch a piece for at least  48 hours after I have said “That’s It!”.

Your piece starts working on you after you have stopped working on it. Give the piece 48 hours to improve itself further. The, after 48 hours of “cooling”, examine it again, add the finishing touches as they suggest themselves to you, and pack it off with a “Jai Hanuman” or similar psychic protection for your work.

End of Part III

P.S. Jai Hanuman. And, all power to you elbow!
There won’t be any more parts – for 48 hours, by when I might remember something I have missed.

 (c) Deepak S Raja 2001