Monday, April 19, 2021

Dhrupad Today


For the 1999 annual issue of the Journal of the Indian Musicological Society, I had co-edited a survey of the Dhrupad genre of Hindustani music The survey, published under the title “Perspectives on Dhrupad”, attempted to document the status of the medieval genre at the stage when there was considerable difference of opinion on the level of vitality the art-form exhibited. The volume is, unfortunately, out of print; but copies do exist with members of the society, and in important libraries.


Around the time of independence, Dhrupad was described as “dead”, “extinct”, a “museum piece”, and later, "experiencing a revival".  These descriptions were appropriate for the vocal as well as the associated Rudra Veena arts of Dhrupad, though the validity may have differed slightly between the two. Dhrupad, in its totality, seemed trapped in a downward spiral of uninspiring musicianship, shrinking audiences, failure to attract fresh talent, and a shortage of great teachers. The genre took several decades thereafter to escape from its entrapment 

Perceptions and even the reality had begun to change in the 1960s, after the Senior Dagar Brothers – Nasir Aminuddin and Nasir Moinuddin – introduced the genre to European audiences under the aegis of UNESCO. This development was accompanied by the arousal of serious interest amongst Western scholars and musicians in the medieval genre. By the 1980s, growing international interest in Dhrupad began to attract fresh talent to the genre from within India and abroad.


Some of this talent sought Dhrupad training through the traditional system of personalized apprenticeship.  Aspirants also acquired the option of institutionalized training in the Dagar vocal tradition at the Dhrupad Kendra at Bhopal, or study the Darbhanga vocal tradition at the Vrija Kala Gurukula at Vrindavan. The teaching of instrumental music in the Dhrupad idiom, albeit relatively minor in scale, has remained under personalized apprenticeship.


By the 1990s, when the Indian Musicological Society commissioned the survey, a young generation of credible Dhrupad vocalists of Indian as well as foreign origin was emerging on the concert platform. The semblance of a revival of the vocal art of Dhrupad was evident.  The art of the Rudra Veena was, however, still thinly populated by maestros of the pre-independence generation, who had won acclaim abroad, enjoyed a presence on the domestic scene, but had yet to groom credible heirs. Considering the totality, conditions were appropriate at that time for examining the resilience required of the Dhrupad genre to ensure a durable revival for itself.


Every musical genre incorporates a set of aesthetic assumptions – assumptions about what appeals to audiences. These assumptions determine the unique relationship the genre exhibits between melody, rhythm, and poetry. A genre can be considered resilient if it can find newer audiences constantly/repeatedly/ periodically without jeopardizing its characteristic melody-rhythm-poetry configuration. In essence, as long as the DNA of the genre are intact, a regeneration/ resurrection becomes possible. 


In the Epilogue to the above mentioned volume, the Editors observed that, by then, (end of the 20th century), young Indian vocalists of respectable musicianship had emerged on the Hindustani concert platform, and also begun to accumulate a following amongst audiences cultivated in the Carnatic tradition. Their music appeared to cater to the nostalgia of senior music lovers who had not heard quality Dhrupad for a long time, while also seeming to be more accessible to relatively younger and uninitiated audiences. Despite this, their overall presence on the domestic concert platform was still marginal due to the ample availability of quality musicianship in the rival modern genres.


The situation in Europe, and partially also in the US, was different. Owing to their longer exposure to Dhrupad compared to the modern genres, and to its simpler architecture, trans-culturally sensitive Western audiences had adopted the genre enthusiastically by then. Several Western nationals had, by then, also acquired respectable performing competence in Dhrupad under the guidance of respected Indian Gurus.


These trends created an interesting situation. Indian Dhrupad exponents could, at that stage, shape reputations on the Indian stage, without commensurate financial rewards for their accomplishments. Their livelihoods, however, had begun to be sustained largely by European and American audiences and students. Dhrupad exponents of foreign origin gained a marginal acceptance in the Indian market, but without satisfactory rewards.


Hindustani music has gone through several major transformations over the last two millennia as a result of cross-cultural influences. But, Dhrupad seemed like a unique case of an Indian  genre which was pronounced dead in India, experienced a shaky revival at home, and become popular enough with foreign audiences to become financially dependent on them. Dhrupad, as it appeared to the Editors of the 1999 survey, presented itself as one of the enigmas of cultural anthropology.


Two decades later


I am now revisiting Dhrupad, as a genre, in 2021 -- more than 20 years after the aforesaid survey was published. As expected, the state of the art-form today is different. After all, no matter how we look at it, 20 years is almost an entire generation.


The resilience of the genre is no longer questioned. Its fortunes  no longer seem to dependent predominantly on vocal music. The Rudra Veena, though a late starter, now shares the Dhrupad space respectably. While continuing its penetration of Western audiences, the genre has also acquired a significant presence on the Indian concert platform. Dhrupad is now an international genre featuring Indian as well as foreign-born musicians, addressing Indian as well as foreign-born audiences.


While all this is true of Dhrupad, it is also largely true of Hindustani music in general – including Khayal and Thumree vocalism, and instrumental music not explicitly associated with the Dhrupad genre.


It is perhaps time to examine where Dhrupad stands today in terms of its share-of-mind in relation to the totality of Hindustani music. “Share-of-mind” is a marketing concept, because it is connected to a brand’s share of visibility and, ultimately, to its share of the market for the product. Obviously then, “Share-of-mind” is also a quantitative concept. Unless we have a measure of the universe of the product category in which a brand competes, and can also quantify each brand by the same measure, a relative position cannot be determined for a brand. Is such a quantification possible for Dhrupad as a “brand” and also for the totality of Hindustani music as a “product category”?


I have attempted such a quantification using simple computations, using publicly accessible viewership information on YouTube.


YouTube data as research material


YouTube data is being increasingly used globally for musicological research; but its value is still controversial. I have conducted and published fairly substantive studies using YouTube data, while also detailing and acknowledging the major limitations to their value. In defense of its utility I have argued that YouTube is increasingly becoming the dominant repository of recorded Hindustani music and is progressively becoming “representative” of the universe whose characteristics we are trying to capture. I have also argued that, a scientifically rigorous study would be near-impossible to undertake and finance for a global cultural phenomenon. Considering such impossibility, YouTube data is better than nothing.


I relate this perspective to my experience as a media analyst in the advertising agency business. I started my career in 1969 before even the rudiments of audience research surfaced on the Indian media scene. Marketers still had to sell their goods, and advertising money had to be spent. Waiting for “reliable” data was not an option; some rationally defensible  quantifications had to be made in order to apportion advertising funds tactically between different markets and media. It was necessary to take the view that it is not the quality of the data that would determine the efficiency of your decisions, but how judiciously you analyze and interpret that data for decision-making.


Relying on this reasoning, I have devised a simple “audience measurement” ratio for recordings on YouTube. It is not “perfect” or “scientific” in a rigorously defensible sense. I have therefore decided to call it an “Audience Engagement Factor”. It is not intended to be interpreted literally as a measure, but contextually as an “Order of Magnitude”.


The arithmetic is simple. The videos covered for this study were uploaded at different time 

distances from the date on which we are logging their total viewership. Each video has thus had a different time-span over which to accumulate viewers – or be forgotten or ignored. So, the aggregate viewership of all considered videos has to be adjusted for these differences in order to obtain a standardized measure of audience engagement. The resultant number is computed as “Views per month”. However, it is safest to regard it as an unrefined “Audience Engagement Factor”.


With this framework, it is possible to compute the AEF for the genre in its entirety, for each musician, and/or for each segment of the sample we wish to evaluate. The application of this approach to the subject of the present study provides insights to the subject.


The sample for the study (Refer Table 1 at the end of the study)


For this study, I selected 19 Dhrupad vocalists, and 12 Rudra Veena exponents, whose recordings exist on YouTube. By seniority, the sample of vocalists ranges from Ustad Allahbande Rahimuddin Dagar born in 1900 to Ms. Pelva Naik born in 1986. The sample of Rudra Veena exponents ranges from Ustad Sadiq Ali Khan born in 1893 to Ms. Madhuwanti Mohan, born (approximately) in 1990. The vocal music and Rudra Veena samples need to be analyzed collectively, and also separately because, based on  earlier studies and our knowledge of their respective trajectories, we can expect them to exhibit different patterns.


I have excluded Pakhawaj solo recordings from this study because that segment of music straddles the concert platform as well as religious practice. Several percussionists straddle both segments, while some are active only in one of the two segments. In addition, Pakhawaj solo renditions occasionally feature Tala-s outside the orbit of the Dhrupad genre. The inclusion of Pakhawaj solo recordings in this study would have, therefore, created some dissonance.


We are auditing recordings of musicians born over a period of more than a 100 years, and measuring their ability to engage present-day audiences, as measured in April 2021. So, the known phenomena of aesthetic and technological obsolescence have to be taken into account. We are also looking at a sample which straddles Dhrupad across the stages of decline, revival, and assumed buoyancy.


Considering both these realities, I consider it useful to segment the sample of musicians into three distinct generations, using 30 years as the defining separator. The 30-year separator for generational analysis is supported by the megacycles econometric model of Nikolai Kondratiev and the socio-cultural commentaries of Jose Ortega Y Gassett (Man and Crisis). I have discussed both these theoretical constructs in my earlier writings. The sample of musicians is, therefore, segmented into (i) The survivor generation: born: 1900-1930 (ii) The revivalist generation: born: 1930-1960 (iii) The beneficiary generation: born: 1960-1990.


The unsegmented/ composite AEF for the total sample of 31 Dhrupad musicians (vocalists as well as Rudra Veena exponents) constitutes the primary, though tentative, result of this study. It attempts to address the question: Where does Dhrupad stand today in relation to the totality of Hindustani music in terms of its “Share-of-mind”? But, for a numerically neat answer, I need a comparable yardstick for the Hindustani music universe.


This reference point  is available from a similar AEF study I did to assess the audience-rating of 97 major/ popular/ frequently performed Raga-s across all genres of vocal music (Dhrupad, Khayal, Thumri) and all instruments including Rudra Veena. The study covered every recording of a significant musician available on YouTube in April 2020. The results of the study are published under the “Ragascape Studies” title on my blog: The study covered over 18000 recordings. The results of the study provide the benchmark against which Dhrupad’s “Share-of-mind” can be assessed.


Dhrupad’s “Share-of-mind” (Refer Table 2)


The overall Audience Engagement Factor for Dhrupad as a genre amongst contemporary YouTube audiences for Hindustani music suggests a share of about 35%. This is creditable considering that, just two generations ago, the genre could have interested archeologists more than musicians or musicologists. Unfortunately, the country-wise dispersion of audiences is not available publicly on YouTube. Considering the history of the genre, and the fact that foreign Dhrupad enthusiasts have fewer opportunities to hear live concerts, the international viewership of available online recordings could be a substantial component of this number. 

These numbers have, however, to be interpreted as indicative rather than authoritative -- as crude estimates -- because they are derived from the results of two different studies and could therefore suffer from inestimable infirmities. We may accept that, even if the reality they attempt to measure is close to 25% (and not 35%), the magnitude would be considered creditable. I am not considering the possibility of 35% being an underestimate. 


The segment results indicate that the Rudra Veena may claim a higher share (44%) of the instrumental music space in Hindustani music than Dhrupad vocalism appears to claim (37%) in the vocal music space. Here too, the reality may differ substantially from the indication available from the numbers. However, instrumental Dhrupad music claiming a higher share than vocal music is perhaps realistic because that happens to be the general pattern in the totality of audience engagement  in Hindustani music. 

 The Obsolescence Factor (Refer Graph 3)


In my earlier studies of Hindustani music using YouTube viewership data, I have found that recordings of recent music systematically and consistently exhibit higher AEF ratings compared to recordings of older music. The obsolescence factor is easily understood, both, in its aesthetic and technological, dimensions.


Music is a dynamic and evolving art-form responding constantly to audience tastes. Living and recent musicians produce music that relates more effortlessly to contemporary audiences than those of the past and those who have departed. Living musicians have the additional advantage of visibility through various media. Secondly, developments in recording technology have enabled each generation of musicians to produce recordings increasingly pleasant to the ear, and acoustically more acceptable to contemporary audiences. The existence of the obsolescence phenomenon has been demonstrated in several of my earlier studies.


Since this essay concerns itself with Dhrupad as a genre, the antiquity/ recency of the music is considered in its entirety – encompassing both, the vocal as well as the Rudra Veena manifestations, of the art. The calibration of the recordings is done in relation to the year of the musician’s birth.

I do not propose to reveal the individual Audience Engagement Factors computed for each musician by name because (i) such information can be misinterpreted or misused and (ii) rating individual musicians is not the purpose of this study.


The plot of Audience Engagement Factors of the sample musicians against their years of birth

suggests a very low correlation. The co-efficient of correlation is a meagre 0.311, with a negligible R-square of 0.096. This inference has several implications:


Since there is no real escape from technological obsolescence, the real growth in Audience Engagement is attributable primarily to the evolution of the art through the generations. And, since this rate itself looks modest, it appears to suggest a sluggish rate of evolution for the art itself.


The linear time-series graph, however, shows a buoyancy factor in the few ratings above the near-flat trend line. It suggests that Dhrupad’s present share-of-mind is supported by outstanding musicianship identified by only five high points out of the 31 plotted on the graph. The more general indication is that the genre itself does not benefit visibly from the contribution of the Beneficiary generation.

The picture does not improve substantially if we test the obsolescence factor as an exponential function of recency/ antiquity on the time scale. The graph plots the Natural Log of AEF ratings against the year of birth. (Refer Graph 3B). 

The coefficient of correlation improves notionally to 0.35 and the R-square measure rises to 0.12. The only difference we notice between the two graphs is that the log-linear AEF ratings are more evenly distributed on the two sides of the trend line. 

It is observed that very few of the data points above the trend line belong to the Beneficiary generation. It appears that the vast majority of the influentials in the Dhrupad world, even today, are musicians of the earlier generations. The implication of the log-linear function is, therefore, not particularly complimentary to the Beneficiary generation in terms of keeping alive the Dhrupad genre and relating it meaningfully to its own generation of audiences.  

It appears reasonable to suggest that contemporary Dhrupad exponents – whether vocalists or instrumentalists – cannot expect to ride the crest of a Dhrupad revival which itself does not look particularly strong. 


The obsolescence dimension is better understood by scrutinizing the generational analysis of Audience Engagement Factors.


The Generational Factor (Refer Table 4)


In the vocal as well as instrumental music segments, the generational analysis shows that contemporary interest in the music of the Survivor generation is negligible. This is to be expected because (i) very few contemporary music lovers would be aware of the important musicians of that generation (ii) the recordings of that era are unsatisfying in comparison with  modern recordings and (iii) archives of that era are almost all in the audio format, which engages audiences less than the video format. The small visible viewership of these vintage recordings could probably be limited to serious students of Dhrupad music or to a  geriatric  generation of present-day listeners. Our attention may therefore focus on the audience ratings of the Revivalist and Beneficiary generations.  


In the vocal segment of Dhrupad, the audience ratings of the Revivalist generation and the Beneficiary generation are almost on par. This suggests that this segment has attracted quality talent, and the transmission of the art has taken place. However, one must be reminded that, in a vibrant art-form, a degree of obsolescence is desirable and expected, but is found missing in the present study. 

The stagnation of audience engagement between the Revivalist generation and the Beneficiary generation here is not an optimistic sign. The numbers suggest that there is no substantial difference between the music of the Beneficiary generation (as a group) and that of its predecessor generation. Another way of looking at the results could be that emerging Dhrupad vocalists are, by and large, performing music relevant to their parents' generation --a lot of which is still alive -- more than their own. Exceptional musicianship does, however, appear to achieve contemporary relevance, as it will tend to do in any genre. 


A confident musicianship was evident in the interview I did with the Dhrupad vocalist, Ramakant Gundecha (Interviewed on September 2, 1998):


“I do not subscribe to the theory that the shortage of competent Dhrupad performers or its novelty for a majority of the audiences can explain what we have been able to achieve. Nobody invites a poor musician to perform, no matter how rare his style of singing is. Audiences do not come specifically to hear Khayal or Dhrupad. They come to hear classical music. You either qualify as a classical musician, or you don’t. This is as true for us it was for the pioneers of the Dhrupad revival in modern times – Ustad Nasir Aminuddin and Nasir Moinuddin Dagar, better known as the Senior Dagar Brothers.” (Journal of the Indian Musicological Society, 1999).


The situation in the Rudra Veena segment appears less reassuring. There is a significant drop of 38% in audience ratings from the Revivalist generation to the Beneficiary generation. This suggests an inability to attract quality talent, an inadequate transmission of the art, and  a stagnation -- perhaps even a regression -- of the musical product.


This broad inference can be refined by looking at the audience ratings of the vocal and instrumental manifestations of Dhrupad across the major gharana-s (stylistic lineages).


Stylistic Lineages (Refer Table 5)


The vocal tradition of Dhrupad features two main stylistic lineages. (i) The Dagar lineage which practices the Dagur Bani style, (ii) The Darbhanga/ Bettiyah lineages which practice the Khandar Bani style. The Rudra Veena has been represented, in recent years, by practitioners of the Dagar lineage and several other lineages, including the renowned Jaipur Beenkar lineage.


In the Rudra Veena segment, the Audience Engagement Factor of musicians of the Dagar 

tradition are ahead of the others by 30%. In the vocal music segment, Dagar musicians lead the Darbhanga/ Bettiya group by over 250%. These magnitudes, established over three generations of musicians, suggest that the Dagar lineage has been more successful than the others in attracting quality talent, and more serious about the transmission of their art.


The strength of the Dagar lineage may be supported by the evidence that, over three generations, its vocalists and Rudra Veena exponents have acquired and matured a substantially larger repertoire of Raga-s than its rival styles. (Refer Table 6)


This table suggests the need to explore farther the relationship between the Raga repertoires of musicians and their Audience Engagement Factors, as measured.


AEFs and Raga Repertoires (Refer Table 7)


In the vocal music segment, the Beneficiary generation appears to be collectively performing a

fewer numbers of Raga-s than its predecessor generation, but maintaining its Audience Engagement Factor on par despite the smaller repertoire. This phenomenon suggests the contribution of musicianship, and the delivery of an esthetically relevant musical product for contemporary audiences.


The comparable figures for Rudra Veena exponents of the two generations show a different picture. The Beneficiary generation appears to be performing a much larger number of Raga-s than the earlier generation has done, but reports a much lower Audience Engagement Factor. It appears that contemporary audiences continue to gravitate to the recorded music of an earlier generation for music that satisfies. This suggests an emerging musicianship deficit, and the relative inability of  the Beneficiary generation to engage constructively with contemporary audiences.


To be fair, serious musicians of the Beneficiary generation have given considerable thought to the modernization of the Rudra Veena idiom. In an interview with me on November 9, 2002, the Rudra Veena maestro, Bahauddin Dagar told me:


In the rendition of the Pada and the tar-parans, the Veena does have a small problem because of unidirectional strokes. I pluck with my bare fingers; but even if I wore a mizrab (wire plectrum) as other Veena players do, I will not get the clear separation between the composition and the improvisations as effectively as the sitarist achieves with bi-directional strokes. I have tried playing Masit Khani (Sitar/ Sarod) compositions; it does not work. Also, the stroke density is too high for the Veena. Our instrument is meant for delivering the maximum musical value with the minimum number of strokes.” (Commentary on a CD recorded for India Archive Music, New York)

From these indications, it appears that the vocal manifestation of the Dhrupad genre could be more amenable to modernization than its instrumental facet.

In support of this perspective, I quote here from an interview I did with the Dhrupad vocalist, Uday Bhawalkar on October 2, 1998:


After my performances, people often tell me that my music sounds different from that of my Ustads. Our training has given us the basic equipment, and allowed our individuality and creativity to express itself. In the Dhrupad tradition, this may be happening for the first time; and it is necessary.” (Journal of the Indian Musicological Society, 1999).


Musicianship, as a comprehensive grip on all facets of a genre, is a universal issue affecting all genres of music at any stage of evolution. Individuality and creativity, shaping the evolutionary path of a genre are, as Uday Bhawalkar points out, especially important for a genre like Dhrupad that has apparently resisted change for centuries. In the totality that we call musicianship, Dhrupad practitioners may need to consider issues related to the responsiveness of audiences to the Raga spectrum they collectively present. This subject has been briefly discussed above, but deserves detailed scrutiny.


Raga Repertoire and Audience Engagement (Refer Table 8)


For this study, I have audited 712 Dhrupad recordings covering 103 Raga-s performed by 31 selected musicians.  I computed the Audience Engagement Factor for each Raga across all musicians and recordings. For each Raga, I also counted the number of times each Raga appeared in the sample of recordings. This gave me two different rankings of the 103 Raga-s – one based on the AEF and one based on the frequency of occurrence in a recording.


I decided to compare the top-20 Raga-s on each of these rankings to examine the relationship between the two. The comparison is shown in Table 8.

 The indication available from this juxtaposition is that the Raga-s most frequently performed by Dhrupad musicians do not enjoy the commensurate Audience Engagement Factor. Let us now consider this finding in greater detail.


Yaman is number 1 on the frequency list, but comes at number 5 on the AEF ranking. Bhairavi is number 2 on the frequency ranking, but does not feature anywhere in the top-20 ranking on the AEF. Malkauns is number 3 on the frequency table, but features nowhere on the AEF list of top-20. Miya-ki-Todi is fourth on the frequency listing, but, again, features nowhere on the AEF ranking. Chandrakauns is at number 5 on the frequency table, but once again, does not feature on the top-20 AEF listing.


Now let us look at the issue from the opposite angle. Purvi ranks first on AEF, but does not feature on the frequency listing. Bhairav features number 2 on the AEF ranking, but does not feature on the frequency listing. Shankara ranks number 3 on the AEF listing, but does not feature on the frequency listing. Pancham Kosh ranks 4th on the AEF ranking, but does not feature on the frequency listing.

In plain English, collectively Dhrupad exponents are performing, ad nauseum, Raga-s which their audiences have heard many times, and are now of little interest to them. In the process, they appear to be neglecting the Raga-s not heard often -- or not at all-- and in hearing which there can be considerably higher interest.


What does this suggest? This suggests that a kind of Raga-fatigue may have set in with respect to Raga-s performed very frequently – within the Dhrupad world and even outside of it --  and audiences could be receptive to a greater variety of melodic experience in Dhrupad than they appear currently to be getting.


This situation suggests two possibilities: (i) Their grooming in the art is deficient or (ii) they have adopted a restricted concert repertoire as a conscious strategy. Neither of these possibilities requires any comment. On available evidence, the repertoire does appear to be an issue. But, the larger issue appears to be musicianship. 

A vast Raga repertoire is, admittedly, not an essential component of musicianship. With specific reference to Dhrupad, however, the evidence presented here  suggests that it is positively correlated with higher levels of audience engagement. There is perhaps some logic behind this indication. When a dormant musical genre is attempting to regain its presence on the music-scape, a larger repertoire helps to accumulate and retain audiences.

An interesting reference point for this argument is the emergence of instrumental music – initially Sitar and Sarod – as a challenger to the supremacy of vocal music during the 1940s. The challenge was, of course, facilitated by the arrival of amplification which enabled instruments to reach larger audiences with more refined melody. But, even the musicianship of Pt. Ravi Shankar, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Pt. Nikhil Bannerjee required their ample armory of Raga-s to create a large following. Over the next 50 years, as the markets and the acoustic environment evolved, the vastness of repertoire ceased to matter, and musicianship became the prime driver of popularity and stature in both, instrumental and vocal, music. 

More recently, some of the biggest names in Hindustani music, like Pt. Bhimsen Joshi and Ustad Vilayat Khan, could build formidable careers performing just about 12-15 Raga-s throughout their entire careers. This precedent is interesting, because (i) the context is entirely different, (ii) Dhrupad in its revivalist phase is affected by the collective conduct of all its exponents as much as by individual factors (iii) the luminaries I mention were not reviving a genre threatened with extinction and, finally (iv) they were musicians of a caliber born once in a hundred years. Raga-fatigue/ repertoire enhancement seems like a significant issue for the Dhrupad world, perhaps manageable  only through the cultivation of outstanding musicianship.


The most important indication from this study may be that Audience Engagement is stagnant in the vocal music segment, and shrinking in the Rudra Veena segment. At this stage of its evolution, the Dhrupad revival could be floundering in some important respects -- primarily, a musicianship deficit.

In the present context, the deficit points towards a few possibilities which may be particularly relevant. Firstly, the shortage of great Guru-s has worsened dramatically in the last few decades. Secondly, the yardstick of musicianship may have weakened because the number of practitioners is still not large enough to engender a degree of competition amongst them. And, finally, the average discernment profile of Dhrupad audiences could have been diluted by a faster growth of the Dhrupad constituency outside India than within India.


Precisely these concerns may have prompted Uday Bhawalkar to make the following observation. (Interviewed by me on October 2, 1998).


“It is true that … Dhrupad is emerging is emerging as an attractive novelty for a large number of music lovers. However, making any kind of career in classical music is not a bed of roses, and Dhrupad is not a guarantee of a comfortable life”. (Journal of the Indian Musicological Society, 1999).


 (c) Deepak S. Raja. April 2021



Thursday, February 18, 2021

The Ragascape of Hindustani Music: A Composite View (Concluded)


In this concluding part of the Ragascape studies, I attempt to integrate the results of the three Ragascape studies reported earlier, into a composite perspective on the phenomenon being explored.


In the first study, we identified 97 Raga-s prescribed for study at under-graduate and graduate levels by students at the major universities granting degrees in music. For this set of 97 Raga-s, we computed “Audience Engagement Indicators”, drawing on YouTube viewership data irrespective of artist profile.


In the second study, we audited YouTube archives to identify the Raga-s that have been performed at eight of the major music festivals of Hindustani music over the last 15/20 years, and to rank them in order of frequency of occurrence. This study did not restrict itself either to the Raga-s considered, or to any specific profile of the musicians performing them.


The approach to the third study was guided by the results of the first study. The first study had found that, contemporary musicians achieve a much higher “Audience Engagement Indicator” on YouTube than earlier generations of musicians. Responding to this trigger, the third study identified 20 leading contemporary vocalists and 20 leading contemporary instrumentalists, and used YouTube archives to enumerate how many of the 40 selected musicians have performed which Raga-s, irrespective of context.


These three studies gave us three different rankings of Raga-s, each obtained from a different perspective on the Ragascape phenomenon. The task before us now is to integrate the three different perspectives into a composite measure of each Raga’s presence on the Ragascape of Hindustani music.


Integration of perspectives


The three studies gave us three rankings, each from a different perspectives. It was found that 81 of the original 97 “candidate” Raga-s appeared in each of the three lists, though the rank of each Raga in terms of importance could differ. Computing a composite measure was, therefore, possible only for these 81 Raga-s.


In order to integrate the three rankings, they needed to be brought to a common mathematical platform. The simplest method for doing was to re-calibrate each of three measures/ rankings with the highest as Base=100. The three indices so derived were averaged in order to derive the ‘Composite Index”. The three individual indices for 81 Raga-s, along with their “Composite Index” rating are shown in Tables 1A and 1B. The Coefficient of Correlation between the three component indices within themselves, and with the Composite Index are given in Table 1C.


The correlation patterns suggest that (1) the individual indices are reasonably confirmatory of each other, and yet distinct in terms of reflecting the different approaches to viewing the Ragascape phenomenon and (2) the Composite Index is equally reflective of each component index considered separately.


Patterns in the Composite Index


The purpose of computing the Composite Index is to prioritize/ rank Raga-s in terms of their dominance on the Ragascape, and identify that group of Raga-s whose presence contributes disproportionately to shaping the musical culture. For this purpose, the distribution of the Composite Index was considered through the Mean, Median, Standard Deviation measures, and also the contribution of each Raga to the Aggregate Composite Index. The analysis is presented in Tables 2A, 2B, and 2C.


After considering the three different approaches, it was found that the median value of the composite index gave us the sharpest differentiation between the Raga-s that dominated the Ragascape, and those that trailed the list of 81 Raga-s. A total of 42 Raga-s are found to have index values equal to, or higher than, the median value. These 42 Raga-s may be considered to constitute the core of the Ragascape, and as reflecting the contemporary musical culture. The analysis of these 42 Raga-s provides some insights into the melodic canvas of contemporary Raga music. The various ways of looking at this phenomenon are considered in Tables 3A, 3B, and 3C.


At this stage, it must be clarified that the bifurcation of the 81 candidate Raga-s was not guided by any desire to confirm, or even approximate, Bhatkhande’s listing of 51 “Prasiddha” Raga-s. It was guided entirely by the mathematical logic of the composite index as given in Tables 3A, 3B, and 3C. The “cut-off” point had to be placed at a point below which there was a sharp drop in the average composite index.


Analysis by broad categories (Table 3A)


The rating of Raga-s on the Composite Index by broad categories is dominated by three categories -- Thumree Raga-s, followed by late morning/ Pre-sunset Raga-s, Carnatic Raga-s, and late evening Raga-s. The domineering presence of Thumree Raga-s (Bhairavi/ Khamaj/ Kafi/ Piloo etc.) suggests a musical culture tilting categorically towards the romanticist genres and relatively undemanding music – undemanding from the listener’s perspective. The significant presence of late morning/ pre-sunset Raga-s, and late evening Raga-s reflects the preponderance of concert events during these hours of the day/ night. The poor presence of early morning and sunset period Raga-s confirms this phenomenon.


The low rating of seasonal Raga-s is to be expected, since they are performed only during the appropriate seasons. But, the strong presence of Carnatic Raga-s is interesting.  Hansadhwani ranks at no.9 and Kirwani at no. 21, on the composite index, and a substantial number of leading contemporary musicians do perform them. This is a good reflection of the success of Hindustani music in imparting to a few Carnatic Raga-s a mature melodic personality during the post-independence era.


Analysis by melodic structure (Table 3B)


Amongst the various classifications of Raga-s in the Hindustani tradition, an important classification is based on the number of swara-s deployed by a Raga in the Aroha (ascending melodic motion) and the number deployed in the Avaroha (descending melodic motion). This dimension is important because it defines the improvisational potential of a Raga, and its melodic complexity. Any Raga can be either Audav (pentatonic) or Shadava (hexatonic) or Sampoorna (heptatonic) in one of the two directions or in both directions.  This facet of Raga grammar has a substantial bearing on its melodic character.


The two categories dominating the top-42 list are interesting in this respect. Both are identical in ascending and descending melodic motions. The relatively low-rated categories exhibit an asymmetry between ascents and descents.


The leading category, on composite index rating, are the Sampoorna-Sampoorna melodic entities. Being heptatonic in both directions, these Raga-s have vast potential for improvisation. Though these Raga-s are perhaps more demanding in terms of melodic ideation than other categories, their grammar is less demanding than Raga-s, which are asymmetrical in their directional patterns.


The second largest score on the Composite Index is enjoyed by the Audava-Audava category – pentatonic in the ascent and pentatonic in the descent. Featuring only 5 swara-s (the minimum required for a Raga), these Raga-s represent, by definition, the simplest melodic structure for musicians to handle and for audiences to comprehend.


Analysis by tone-material typologies (Table 3C)


Modern (20th century) music theory classifies Raga-s into different typologies based on the swara-s deployed in the conception of each Raga. A macro-level classification, propounded by Bhatkhande, was the system of 10 “Thaat-s”, which is controversial. Around the same time, there also emerged a micro-level classification, which is associated with the convention that each Raga is ideally performed during a specific period of the day or night. The “time-theory” is controversial. But, the micro-level classification has a psycho-acoustic logic that justifies independent attention.


Treating it as a psycho-acoustic classification that respects the tonal character of Hindustani music, I have enlarged the number of categories to be a more comprehensive coverage of the psycho-acoustic typologies encountered.


It must be pointed out that these are not necessarily mutually exclusive or even collectively exhaustive categories. Some Raga-s may belong to more than one category, and some others may belong to none of the categories and may be classified as “Others” in Table 3C.


(a)  Raga-s deploying Komal (flat) Re (2nd) and Komal (flat) Dh (6th): The two swara-s are in first-fifth correspondence, with a pitch ratio of 1:1.5.


(b)  Raga-s deploying Shuddha (natural) Re (2nd) and Shuddha Dh (6th):  The two swara-s are in first-fifth correspondence, with a pitch ratio of 1:1.5.


(c)   Raga-s deploying Komal (flat) Ga (3rd) and Komal (flat) Ni (7th): The two swara-s are in first-fifth correspondence, with a pitch ratio of 1:1.5.


(d)  Raga-s deploying Shuddha (natural) Ga (3rd) and Shuddha (natural) Ni: The two swara-s are in first-fifth correspondence, with a pitch ratio of 1:1.5.


(e)  Raga-s deploying Tivra (sharp) Ma (4th): This category has independent psycho-acoustic significance because, it does not find acoustic correspondence (1/4 or 1/5) with any other swara of the standard 12-swara scale of Hindustani music.


(f)    Raga-s deploying both, the Shuddha (natural) Ma (4th) and Tivra (sharp) Ma (4th). This is a rare category in Hindustani music. Because of the “pivotal” character of Ma (4th) in the scale, this category is of special psycho-acoustic significance.


From the analysis of the top-42 Raga-s, it emerges that Raga-s deploying Komal Ga and Ni and those deploying Shuddha Re and Dh dominate the composite index. These two categories happen to occur most typically in Raga-s performed after sunset. This is an expected pattern considering the most frequent timing of stage concerts. This, however, also emphasizes an unintended – and surprising -- reality.


Despite the substantial and growing role of remote media (recordings and online archives) as carriers of Hindustani music, the “Time Theory” bias relevant to “personal” (direct encounter) exposure still appears to significantly shape the Ragascape. This is probably because YouTube content is still, primarily, a byproduct of stage performances and festival events. A diversification may begin to take place once the Hindustani music content starts getting created especially for online transmission under assumptions of time-neutral access by audiences.


This process has gained some traction during the period when Covid-19 suspended concert activity for a long period. Besides YouTube, Facebook also emerged as a significant vehicle for online delivery of Hindustani music to audiences in video format. As the world crawls towards “normalcy”, there is an expectation that, because of its essentially interactive nature, Hindustani music will soon return to the concert platform as the preferred and more influential – though not exclusive -- interface between the musician and the audience.

 However, there is also a contrarian expectation – that the attractive economics and superior convenience of the online alternative will support the movement towards in-house/ studio production and online delivery. Such a drift could also be encouraged by the growing attraction of the international market for concerts as well as online teaching opportunities for Hindustani musicians. The future is impossible to foresee, and its implications for the Hindustani music ecosystem are difficult to envisage.




Based on the results of the three preceding studies, and their integration into a composite view of the Ragascape phenomenon, we do have here an answer to the issue raised by Bhatkhande’s classification postulated a century ago. It appears that there is, indeed, a group of 40/50/60 Raga-s, which constitute the active “core” of the musical culture. Comparing our contemporary list of the dominant Raga-s with Bhatkhande’s century-old list is neither attempted, nor relevant.


Our inference tangentially confirms the observation that most leading musicians of each generation have built their individual careers focusing their energies on a finite set of Raga-s (may be, 15 to 20), which collectively build this core of 40/50/60 Raga-s. But, this numerical inference probably under-estimates the usefulness of this series of studies.


Departing from Bhatkhande’s binary classification of Raga-s into “Prasiddha” and “Aprasiddha”, our study has adopted a calibrated view of the Raga spectrum, which is closer to the perspectives of market research. Each Raga considered here is measured on the dual criteria of availability and acceptance. In a sense, each Raga represents a “market” -- because we have accounted for both, its availability and its acceptance. What we have, as a result, is a “Market Rating Index” similar to the ones consumer product marketers use for determining their marketing strategies. Different marketers use the same Market Rating Index and come up with a marketing mix and market focus uniquely suited for their own distinctive competencies and marketing goals.


This study has attempted to build a Rating Index for 81 Raga-s out of the 97 candidate Raga-s selected originally on the basis of a reasonable criterion of inclusion. The results obtained are, admittedly, a product of the data-source I have chosen to rely upon, and the analytical approach I have chosen to adopt. Any alternative data-source, analyzed differently, can deliver totally different results.  The relative validity of any number of alternative methodologies will, of course, remain impossible to assess because of the amorphous nature of this phenomenon.


Every data-source, or even a multiplicity of data sources, can be questioned for  “representativeness”. Every analytical approach can be questioned for its suitability. None of these limitations will, it is hoped, deny the usefulness of this endeavor to the music community.


© Deepak S. Raja. February 2021.