Friday, April 18, 2014

Prof. SK Saxena. pioneering aesthetician of Hindustani music

Prof. Susheel Kumar Saxena
Vageeshwari, the journal of the Faculty of Music and Fine Arts (2013-14), Delhi University, is dedicated to the memory of Prof. Susheel Kumar Saxena. I reproduce below my contribution to the commemorative volume. 

I was 16 when Prof. Saxena first walked into my class at Hindu College in 1964. Except for a brief period, I have not lived in Delhi since my graduation in 1967. I was 65 when his last letter reached me in January 2013. He stepped into the sunset soon thereafter.

On every facet of Dr. Saxena’s persona, there are people more competent than myself to pay him tribute.  I merely recall with gratitude my experience of having been touched so deeply by his presence over a period of almost 50 years.

I have attended possibly 70 of his classroom lectures over a year, and thereafter exchanged ten or fifteen letters, and met him and spoken to him over the phone as many times. The Superior Man, as portrayed in Taoist literature, does not require great frequency of interaction to influence lives. He does so merely by being what he is.

India was a different country when Saxena Sahab taught my class at Hindu College. Philosophy was not considered a “useless” subject pursued only by boys ineligible for admission to profession-oriented courses, and by girls merely to qualify for the matrimonial market.  The cold war was at its peak and ideology wasn’t dead yet. Marcuse, Sartre, Marx and Rand – all had fanatical followings amongst the youth.  In class, Dr. Saxena inspired inquiring minds to pursue philosophy as a cultivation of the human personality, independently of the professions they might choose to pursue. Like many of his students, I pursued a career in business, performing a variety of roles, before turning to musicology. With Saxena Sahab as my foundation philosopher, I have found myself as happy – and perhaps as effective – being a man of action in the world of thought as being a man of thought in the world of action.

My training in Hindustani music was my special bond with Dr. Saxena. He thought I should have pursued post-graduate studies in aesthetics under his supervision; but that was not to be. But, when I did finally take up work in musicology, he became my guiding angel. He regularly sent me personally inscribed copies of all his books and papers on musical aesthetics. Whenever my critical essays appeared in SRUTI (of which he was a Contributing Editor), he would phone or write to me with comments and encouragement.

In 2004, I sent him the manuscript of my first book on Hindustani music for his opinion. He promptly called up his publisher, Susheel Mittal, and recommended its publication. Susheel asked him if my work was significant and similar to his own. He replied that it was significant precisely because it had the diametrically opposite perspective. With that introduction, he bequeathed to me a relationship which is now into its fourth project, with a fifth on the anvil.  

When my second book on Hindustani music appeared, Dr. Saxena volunteered to review it for the Journal of the Sangeet Natak Akademi. The tenor of the review is immaterial.  But, his signature below it was an honor. In his book, Hindustani Music and Aesthetics Today, his acknowledgments refer to me as an “eminent musicologist”.  I could have died of embarrassment. But, I chose to regard it as a mentor’s parting challenge to a ward with unrealized potential.   

Amongst modern scholars, if Bhatkhande is credited with establishing the theoretical framework for music performance, Dr. Saxena can be credited with developing the conceptual framework for its aesthetic appreciation. But, the awareness-altering quality of his writings invites what he himself wrote about Ustad Ameer Khan. 

His music, at its best, was rarely a dazzle. It would be rather an influence, an atmosphere, which would just be with us till long after the recital".
(Hindustani Sangeet: Some perspectives. Some performers, 2010)

For several days after reading his monumental work – Hindustani Music and Aesthetics Today – I found myself moving around in a trance-like state under its intoxication. The supra-intellectual appeal of this book has no peer within my knowledge.
Inevitably, I interacted with Dr. Saxena at a personal level, too. It is impossible, therefore, to remember him selfishly, merely as a mentor and benefactor.  I had occasion to encounter in him a consummate Homeopath, an outstanding composer of Dhrupad bandish-es, and a man of very deep spirituality. 

In my memory, all of this dwarfs in comparison to the sense of indescribable peace one felt in his company. His was a presence that exuded love.  And, here I allude to Erich Fromm’s argument (The psychology of ethics) that love is not the quality of a relationship; it is the character of a person. 

Astrologers have said that I have an exalted Guru in my birth-chart. I doubt if anybody’s Guru can be more exalted than this.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Raga Lalit: Tonal geometry and melodic mischief


Lalit is amongst the older and more popular ragas of the Hindustani system. It bears a close resemblance to raga Lalitha of the Carnatic system. The two ragas are considered manifestations of the same traditional melodic idea.

Lalit (also called Lalat) is a hexatonic raga prescribed for performance in the pre-sunrise hours. In the contemporary context, it has found a niche for itself in the three-hour period after sunrise. Some musicological texts approve of this timing. The melodic contours of the raga have also changed during this century. Its older form is still in occasional practice. Its popular contemporary form is, however, most relevant for present day listeners. (swara material:S r G M M^ d N).

The melodic personality of Lalit is dominated by the rare, probably unique, use of the two Ma swara-s (shuddha and tivra). Lalit features the use of the two Ma swara-s  sequentially in the ascent as well as the descent. This is an exception to the general rule for ragas using both pitches of any swara (natural and flat or natural and sharp). In such cases of twin-swara usage, the the general rule is that the raga is permitted to use only one of the two in the ascent, the other being used in the descent. Their sequential use in either direction is generally considered improper. The importance of this feature of Lalit is enhanced by the fact that the shuddha (natural) Ma is the vadi-swara, the pivotal around which the raga revolves.

In its predominant contemporary form, Lalit uses flat (komal) swara for Dh. Bhatkhande,, writing in the 1930's considered the natural (Shuddha) Dh swara as proper for Lalit, while acknowledging that the flat (Komal) Dh usage also had textual validation. He also recognized that, because of the dominance of twin-Ma usage in the melodic personality of the raga, the choice of either of the alternative Dh swara-s does not materially influence the distinctive Lalit effect.(Bhatkhande Sangeet Shastra Vol.III Ed.LN Garg, Sangeet Karyalaya, Hathras, Third Hindi edition, 1984.Pg.304-321),

Bhatkhande described Lalit as uttaranga-pradhan, a raga whose center of gravity is in the upper tetrachord. Bhatkhande might now be obsolete with respect to this description. Traditional and modern compositions, considered collectively, betray the compelling grip of the twin-Ma usage in the mid-octave region over the composer's mind. The raga may now be more appropriately classified as madhyanga-pradhan.

Lalit has two facets to its personality: the geometric, and the melodic. Bhatkhande provides the basic clue to both these facets. He recommends treating the scale, notionally, as a two-part, discontinuous scale, split between the two Ma swara-s, with Shuddha Ma on one side, and the tivra on the other. This gives you S-r-G-M and M^-d-N-S.

This division does not yield symmetrical or congruent units. To achieve this balance, the scale gets redefined,  for phraseological purposes, in first-fifth correspondence: N.-r-G-M and M^-d-N-S'. These divisions, considered separately but in correspondence, provide the acoustic basis for the geometry. Lalit releases its distinctive fragrance by treating these scale divisions as discontinuous, and in fusing them together. The welding takes place between the Shuddha and tivra Ma swara-s, with the support of either Ga below or Dh above. This joinery gives the raga its defining, and unique, melodic personality.

The raga has a third, but unintended, facet, which can surface due to the inept or mischievous handling of the dominance of the shuddha (natural) Ma in the raga. With excessive or inattentive improvisation around shuddha Ma, it is easy to create an aural illusion of Ma as the scale-base. The results can be quaint.

If Ma becomes, even momentarily, the notional scale base in the listener's mind, Lalit starts sounding like Todi. Interestingly, one significant gharana of vocal music explicitly teaches Lalit as Todi sung to scale-base at Ma, and does so without ridiculous results.

Lalit phrasing: G M d M^ M
Todi illusion:  N S g r  S

Lalit phrasing: N  d M^ d M^ M
Todi illusion:  M^ g r  g r  S

Lalit phrasing: r' N  d M^ d M^ M
Todi illusion : d  M^ g r  g r  S

Orthodox musicians calculatedly avoid such risks. Contemporary musicians occasionally take delight in the raga's potential for mischief, allowing the illusion to persist for a while before restoring the relationship of the phrasing to base-Sa.

The Ma/Sa confusion is relevant also to the tuning of instruments. Because Lalit does not use the Pa swara, vocalists tune their tanpuras to Ma-Sa-Sa-Sa. If Ma replaces the Sa as the scale-base in the listener's mind, the Sa on the tanpura begins to sound like Pa, which is forbidden in the raga. The danger of such slippage is generally negligible in sitar and the sarod music, where the second string and the chikaris, tuned to Sa do not allow the scale-base to relent for any significant duration.

The chalan (distinctive phraseology) provides the defining contours of the raga's melodic personality. The scale divisions permit the improvisational process to explore its potential for symmetric, geometric as well kaleidoscopic tonal patterns. And, the Ma/Sa double-entendre makes the raga pregnant with an element of wit. Lalit is thus rich in musical potential.

Bhatkhande has described Lalit as a raga of serious temperament. The standard Lalit of his times uses Shuddha Dh, and omits Ni in the ascent (M^-D-S'). The contemporary Lalit uses komal Dh, and permits the ascent to use Ni (M^-d-N-S') without prohibiting the traditional ascent (M^-d-S'). With this change, the raga has shed some of its robust quality, but sharpened its poignancy. 

The seriousness of the original Lalit has now tilted towards pathos. To appreciate this, we merely need to observe what the "Lalit effect" does when blended with raga Gauri in Lalita-Gauri and when dovetailed to Sohini in Lalita-Sohini. It makes them weep.

(c) India Archive Music, New York. 


Friday, August 16, 2013

Seasonal raga-s in Hindustani music


Musicologist, Prof. Ashok Ranade often observed that Hindustani music is deeply engaged with the three major cycles affecting human life – the cycle of birth and death, the cycle of day and night, and the cycle of the four seasons. While specific Raga-s are not associated with birth and death, the tradition does prescribe the appropriate time of the day/ night for the performance of most, if not all, Raga-s, and also features several seasonal Raga-s. 

The seasonal perspective on Raga-s is a distinctly North Indian perspective not shared currently by the Carnatic tradition, and for probably understandable reasons. Being closer to the equator, the Southern Peninsula does not experience as dramatic a change in the physical environment through the year as does the Northern heartland. 

As matter of academic interest, the Hindu calendar divides the year into six distinct seasons, and the tradition appears to have prescribed Raga-s for performance in each of these seasons. 

Manasollasa, a treatise written by Someshwara (1131 AD) provides insights into this dimension of musicological thought.

1. Spring (months: Chaitra and Vaisakha): Raga Vasanta/ its Ragini-s 
2. Summer (months: Jyeshtha and Ashadha): Raga Bhairava/ its Ragini-s
3. Monsoons (months: Shravana and Bhadrapada): Raga Megh/ its Ragini-s. 
4. Autumn (months: Ashwin and Kartika): Raga Panchama/ its Ragini-s
5. Early winter (months: Margashirsha and Paush): Raga Natanarayana/ its Ragini-s. 
6. Deep winter (months: Magha and Phalguna): Raga Shree/its Ragini-s

(From: Semiosis in Hindustani Music, Jose Luiz Martinez, First edition, 2001, Motilal Banarsidass, New Delhi)

While the scholarly tradition supports a wide scope for seasonal Raga-s, the enthusiasm of the performing tradition has been limited largely to Vasanta (spring) and Varsha (rainy season/ the monsoons).  There seems to be a good reason for this bias. 

In the climatic experience of Northern India, spring and the monsoons have special significance.  Spring brings relief from the severity of Northern winters, while the monsoons bring relief from the oppressive heat of the Northern summer. Both seasons signify nature rejuvenating itself. Understandably, therefore, the popular seasonal Raga-s are associated primarily with these seasons. 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Becoming familiar with the genres


When exposed to Hindustani music, the novice listener needs to figure out what is going on.  The answer to this query depends on the genre in which the music is being performed. Each genre has a different way of manifesting the Raga (the Commanding Form) as a communicable Form.  These different “ways” are represented in the pre-composed element of Raga rendition, along with the different improvisatory movements hosted by each genre. And, indeed, each musician also has a different approach to deploying the genre for delivering the Raga to his listeners in communicable form.

The principal genres on the contemporary scene are Khayal vocalism, Dhrupad (vocal and instrumental), and the modern genre of the plucked string instruments, heard mainly on the Sitar, Sarod, the Hawaiian guitar and the Santoor. 

The first step, then: Assemble ten recordings of Khayal vocalism, each of a different Raga, performed by different musicians. Listen to each recording several times over. Your musical mind will identify for you what is common to all the recordings, isolated from the influence of the different Raga-s and different musicians performing them. That, which is common to all these recordings, is the architecture of the Khayal genre.

The second step.  Assemble ten recordings of Dhrupad – vocal and Rudra Veena -- each featuring a different Raga, and performed preferably by different musicians. Listen to each recording several times over. Your musical mind will identify for you what is common to all the recordings, isolated from the influence of the different Raga-s and different musicians performing them. That, which is common to all these recordings, is the architecture of the Dhrupad genre.

The third step: Assemble ten recordings of instrumental music on the major string instruments – Sitar, Sarod, Hawaiian guitar, and Santoor. They should all be of different Ragas, preferably performed by different musicians.  Listen to each recording several times over. Your musical mind will identify for you what is common to all the recordings, isolated from the influence of the different Raga-s and different musicians performing them. That, which is common to all these recordings, is the architecture of the modern instrumental genre of the plucked string instruments.

Once you start anticipating the movements typical of each genre while listening to a concert -- any concert -- you have made decent progress towards becoming a connoisseur. This does not mean there will be no surprises. But, being able to identify them will itself be a source of delight. 



Understanding the Raga


An aspirant to the appreciation of Hindustani music will generally start with two questions in his mind: What is a Raga? And, how do I differentiate one Raga from another?

What is a Raga? A renowned music critic once observed that writing about music was as useful as dancing about architecture. So, critics and musicologists have their limitations as cultivators of public taste.  There are as many definitions of the Raga as there are authors on the subject. None of them is a substitute for direct encounters with Raga-ness.

How do I differentiate one Raga from another? Once a listener gets a reasonable grip on what a Raga is, the differentiation of one Raga from another becomes possible through exposures to multiple Ragas.

The first step, then:  Take any one Raga.  Start with a simple Raga, like Malkauns. Go out and get ten recordings of the Raga by ten different musicians performing the same Raga, preferably in different genres. A few in Khayal vocalism. A few in instrumental music.  A few in Dhrupad or Dhamar. Listen to each recording several times. Your musical mind will begin to identify what is common to all the recordings. And that, which is common to all of them, is the Raga-ness of Malkauns.

Second step:  Now, take another Raga, an allied Raga like Chandrakauns.  In this Raga, you could find Khayal, instrumental, Dhrupad, and even Ghazal recordings. Repeat the same procedure as followed for Malkauns. Your musical mind will now identify the Raga-ness of Chandrakauns. In addition, it will tell you how the Raga-ness of Malkauns differs from that of Chandrakauns.  These differentiators are what constitutes the Raga-ness of Ragas. 

If such a procedure is repeated across several Raga-s – whether purposively or otherwise -- your musical mind will also identify the dimensions of Raga-ness: the various attributes by which Raga-s are distinguished from one another.  And, from this point on, you have taken an important step towards becoming a connoisseur. 

Appreciating Hindustani music


The joys of any art grow with the awareness of its governing principles. This is true also of Hindustani music.

A Hindustani musician  shapes his rendition under the discipline of two governing forms. The first is the Raga which constitutes its “Commanding Form”. But, though the Raga is a definitive and recognizable form, it is a “formless Form” in the sense of not being a composition. It  manifests itself in  communicable form through the appropriately sequenced movements (the architecture) of the second regulatory form – the genre in which it is performed. 

A connoisseur of Hindustani music has intimate knowledge of both these forms – the Commanding Form and the Manifest Form. Through an understanding of these two, he is able to gain insights into the individualistic manner in which the Commanding Form has been visualized by the musician for communication. It is these insights that are the source of his delight in the exposure to Hindustani music, and differentiate him from the average music lover.

The aspirant to the status of a connoisseur needs therefore to cultivate his understanding of two facets of the tradition -- Raga-ness as the principle of aesthetically coherent and emotionally suggestive creation, and of the various genres, as the principle for the organisation of musical material. Neither of these facets is satisfactorily understood by reading books on music.  They may be partially understood by undergoing a decade or two of training in music under a competent Guru.  For those who do not have this benefit, but have the sharp ears and cultivated mind as the basic equipment, appreciation can be cultivated by an intensive and extensive exposure to performances and recordings. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

Is Hindustani music your kettle of fish?


Hindustani music is obviously not music for everyone. Music industry sources have reported that, for several decades, the share of this segment of the market has remained stable at between 1.5% and 2%. They also observe that the audience for Hindustani music primarily middle-aged and senior (45+). This is understandable because the appreciation of this music requires two basic qualifications at a respectable level of sophistication – pitch differentiation and pattern recognition. Age need not be a barrier except in the sense that it could define music lovers who have outgrown frivolous music, which elicits only an animated physical response.

In simple language, this music demands sharp ears, and a cultivated mind. If these minimum conditions are satisfied, the aspiring aesthete still has to commit time, intellect and emotional energy over a period of time to the refinement of receptivity. 

And, what are its rewards? 

Like any art, Hindustani music is a pathway to a richer emotional life. The aesthetic exposure to a wide range of emotional experiences (Sagunatmaka)  brings within reach the experience of pure delight that transcends everyday notions of pleasure (Nirgunatmaka). According to the Indian tradition, it even takes you towards bliss, which belongs to the territory of mystical experience. If these rewards have any appeal for you, you can train yourself to receive them. 

Hindustani Music and Aesthetics Today




Sushil Kumar Saxena
First Edition 2009
Sangeet Nataka Akademi
in association with
Hope India Publications
Pages: 471. Hard cover: Rs. 995/-


This book has no precedent.  It is a pioneering attempt to look at Hindustani music in the way of contemporary aesthetics. The ways we talk about experience, or evaluate music. as also its  composition and overt performance, have been given due attention in this work.

In other words. reflection on music here proceeds along the three major ways in which aesthetics is being pursued (in the West) today - that is. not only the linguistic-analytic and phenomenological approaches, but the one that looks at art as a kind of world-making.

Correspondingly. the contents of this book can be put under three different heads: (a) an attempt to determine  the full aesthetic significance. as against the  traditionally specified (verbal) meanings of the key words that are used in respect of the elements and different genres of our music; (b) discussion of concepts like aesthetic attitude. experience. and point of view as they relate to Hindustani music; and (c) analysis of the devices through which the structure and actual singing of a Dhruvapad, Dhamar, Khayal, or Tarana is (or can be) invested with some extra appea l- all duly buttressed with notational analysis of some actual compositions.

The author is incisive in his discussion of problems such as: (a) Is musical time different from, or identical with, time as we experience it in daily life; (b) How can we distinguish the form from the content of a work in the region of an occurent art like music or rhythm, (c) Can rhythm be regarded as an autonomous art and (d) How can our music be said to be spiritual?

This book may be expected to encourage readers to think about Hindustani music along lines that have not been systematically explored so far. 

Sushil Kumar Saxena (1920-2013), formerly Professor of Philosophy  at Delhi University, was amongst the most respected and original thinkers on the aesthetics of Hindustani music, rhythm and Kathak dance, with several pioneering works to his credit. He was a Fellow of the Sangeet Natak Akademi and of the Indian Council of Philosophical Research. He was also decorated with the Padma Bhushan by the President of India. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Raga performance in the Dhrupad genre


Dhrupad performances on the contemporary concert platform are either of vocal rendition or of Rudra Veena recitals. The Rudra Veena – a member of the tube zither family of instruments -- has been the traditional accompanist to vocal music in the Dhrupad tradition. As a result, the content and idiom of the two manifestations of the genre have come to be identical. 

Presentation format  
Phase I is a totally improvised form called Alap, rendered without percussion accompaniment.
Phase II consists of percussion accompanied presentation of one or more compositions, along with melodic and rhythmic improvisations. 

The 3-tier  Alap protocol 
Tier 1: This is called the Vilambit (low density) Alap. A free-flowing , low melodic density exploration of the Raga’s melodic personality through two octaves, rendered without any perceptible pulsation or rhythm. 

Tier 2: This is called the Madhya Laya (medium tempo) Alap. Its melodic span and structure are similar to the Tier 1 Vilambit Alap; but the melody will now acquire a 2-beat pulsation.  This tier of the Alap is generally performed at about 60 beats per minute, without any escalation during the course of the rendition. 

Tier 3: This is called the Drut (brisk tempo) Alap. Its melodic structure can be similar to the Tier 2 Alap; but the melody is rendered to a distinct 4-beat rhythm. This tier of the Alap may be launched at above 180 beats per minute, and escalate before closure. 

Compositions in the Dhrupad genre
Compositions encountered in contemporary Dhrupad are primarily of three types, corresponding to different Tala-s of the genre. 

(a) Compositions set to Chautala of 12 beats, generally performed at a slow to medium tempo. These compositions are the mainstay of the genre. 
(b) Compositions set to the Dhamara Tala of 14 beats, generally performed in medium tempo. The poetic content of these compositions as typically related to Holi, the festival of spring. 
(c) Compositions set to the Sula Tala of 10 beats, generally performed at a brisk tempo. These are the liveliest contemporary manifestations of the medieval genre. 

Format options
(a) A 3-tier Alap, followed by a Chautala composition.
(b) A 3-tier Alap, followed by a Chautala composition, and then by a Dhamara composition in the same Raga. 
(c) A 3-tier, or even a single-tier (Tier 1) Alap, followed by a Dhamara composition. 
(d) A 3-tier or a single-tier (Tier 1)Alap, followed by a Dhamar composition, and then by a Sula Tala composition in the same Raga. 
(e) A 3-tier Alap, followed by a Chautala composition, and then a Sula Tala composition in the same Raga. 

Dhrupad ensemble
A mention must be made of the ensemble for Dhrupad performance. As a rule, Dhrupad musicians only use the Tanpura as an accompaniment for vocal or instrumental music. They have kept away from the Sarangi and the Harmonium for melodic accompaniment, both of which have acceptance in the modern Khayal and Thumree genres.  In rare cases, a Dhrupad vocalist may have a Rudra Veena player accompanying him, as this is the traditionally established practice in the genre. For percussion accompaniment, Dhrupad uses the Pakhawaj (a two-faced horizontal drum), instead of the modern Tabla. This austerity and  conservatism in the presentation of music has enabled Dhrupad to retain its distinct identity in a Khayal dominated environment. 


Raga performance in Khayal vocalism


The overall architecture of Khayal vocalism is similar to that of instrumental music.  It conforms to the modern architecture of Hindustani music, featuring a steady escalation of melodic and rhythmic density and complexity, intertwined with a cyclical treatment of melody in each phase.  

In comparison with Sitar/Sarod music, however, Khayal rendition tends to have a more compressed structure. Phase I of a Khayal presentation is very short, while Phase II and III are almost equally elaborate.

Phase I 
Phase I of Khayal rendition is an entirely improvised prelude, performed without percussion accompaniment. It can last between 2 and 5 minutes.  The purpose of this prelude is to identify the Raga being performed, and to introduce its melodic contours to the audience. 

Phase II 
Phase II is called Bada Khayal (the major Khayal). It consists of a slow-tempo composition, performed to percussion accompaniment at 25-40 beats per minute, with mild acceleration permissible, though not always found, during the course of the rendition. Along with logically sequenced improvisations inserted into the composition, the slow-tempo composition can consume 80-85% of the duration of the rendition. 

Phase III 
Phase III of Khayal presentation is called the Chhota Khayal (the minor Khayal. It features a brisk-tempo composition launched at 120+ beats per minute, once again with permissible acceleration as the rendition approaches its closure. Phase III can take up 15-20% of the duration of the performance. 

Tarana
The Tarana is a lively compositional form – generally performed in medium to brisk tempo -- which features an articulation of meaningless consonants in lieu of the poetry characteristic of Khayal compositions.  A musician may choose to perform a Tarana either in addition to a Chhota Khayal (Phase III) or, in lieu of it.