Justin Ryan, Denver University, Colorado, USA November 2006
Justin Ryan is working toward a Master's degree in Musicology from the Lamont School of Music at the University of Denver. He is a frequent performer and scholar of the carillon, an instrument of large bells played manually from a keyboard and mounted in a tower, originating in the 18th century Low Countries. He is also a teaching assistant in music history. Justin was a Fulbright Fellow in 2004-5 at the Netherlands Carillon School. In addition to recitals in Europe, he has performed throughout North America, including a concert before the Houses of Parliament in Ottawa, Canada.
Time of day in performance of north Indian ragas has infused Hindustani music for centuries. To some, time and season may be equally important as the svaras themselves, or nothing more than mere fancy. Ragas are in part defined by emotion and other extramusical affects, firmly set in tradition, so that the music itself cannot be readily separated from ritual and lore. This paper examines the raga-time association from several angles, asking the reasons for its existence and how it is perpetuated. It will explore time and season connections within the music itself, searching for consistency and inconsistency. And perhaps more relevant, It will consider the extramusical cues underlying time association and the music as a whole. Because of the nature of this research, much of this discussion will be based upon the investigations of others, who usually consider the raga-time connection as a small fragment of the whole genre.
The history of raga performance time provides plentiful arguments against its musical inherence. It is believed that many ragas existed before any association with time had evolved. The first known writings concerning time and season come from the first few centuries AD, where seasonal connections are believed to predate those with the time of day (Lath 115). This raises questions on how the existing ragas were reinterpreted within new temporal constraints, and of which timings were assigned to which rags. Scales have also changed over time, while time and season connections often remained with the name. That certain modes have not remained in their time space detracts from any assertion of a universal relationship—that komal re is always found in the morning or evening, for example.
Assigning musical traits to certain times of day is ominous and varies wildly in analyses in print. Most scholars append their technical descriptions with a caveat that no rules are solid, while others argue that any musical connection is altogether fleeting. Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande (1860-1936) is often referenced as the only scholar to have made a thorough thesis on time and performance practice. Due to the unavailability of his work in translation, my understanding of his work is through the readings of other interpreters. As with any text regarding this tradition, one must wonder whether conclusions drawn are from pure observation, or if rules are crafted in order to impose structure upon and to demystify an otherwise enigmatic practice.
A few features of rag construction do bridge across the various interpretations, forming some loose themes. Deepak Raja nicely distills and simplifies musical details without sacrificing their significance in his book Hindustani Music: Tradition in Transition. Any account giving precise details on the music-time connection will necessarily be inconsistent with other writings, and presumably with common practice. Raja presents the most consistent observations, without being unecessarily thorough.
First, the location of the vadi bisects the day by dividing the scale: Purvang ragas have a vadi in the lower tetrachord and uttrang ragas in the upper tetrachord. Purvang is given as either the period from noon to midnight or from sunset to sunrise, depending on the source, with uttrang occupying the opposite twelve hours. Given the six hours' discrepancy, exact time parallels remain unclear, but there is significance in the day's division in half.
With the placement of the vadi, a rag is said to have momentum toward this most important note (Deva 133). In a purvang rag, this is a descending quality, down to the vadi; in uttrang, ascending. The character of this motion is echoed in literal descriptions of a day. Ranade describes the uttrang as the “vigorous and active part of the day,” while the purvang is “delicate and plaintive...one is mostly by oneself and puts on a reflective mood”(108).
One discrepancy of note concerns Bhatkhande's vadis compared to vadis used in common practice. Jairazbhoy observes with rag Tilak Kamod that Bhatkhande places a vadi to conform to his time theory, when in fact most musicians use another vadi (43). Vadis are not always agreed upon between musicians, and vadi and samvadi are usually in opposite tetrachords. If there is ambiguity between the vadi and samvadi, there is ambiguity of time following Bhatkhande's theory. Thus if a rag's vadi is not absolute, this theory is weakened. A revealing further study would be to observe the ascending and descending tendencies of musicians in their realizations of these rags.
Bhatkhande's cycle of thats also follows the shape of the day. In this system, modes associated with rags change gradually as the day progresses, coming full circle every twelve hours. Rags of late morning use the same that as rags of late afternoon, etc. Of this, Deva raises the argument that the same that must then represent two distinctly different times of day, having different affects—a drawback to connecting time with musical traits (133). This can be somewhat reconciled with the vadi placement, with the idea that the that will take on a different personality when presented with the perspective of a different vadi.
From another angle, Jairazbhoy states,
The significant feature of the Circle of Thats is that it shows an easy transition from scale to scale, and it is not surprising that the rags are generally performed in this sequence during the course of each day. There is thus some reason to suppose that the scales may have evolved in this same sequence during the course of the centuries and to say that the daily succession of rags is, in some respects, a reconstruction of the course of evolution (64).
This is an elegant concept, and satisfies the inclusion of rags extant before a time association existed. The connection this twelve hour cycle draws between sunrise and sunset, midnight and noon is not necessarily a contradiction. While opposite times on the clock, they do share similar properties: transition and stability, alertness and restfulness.
In sunrise and sunset, the same thats represent the twilight times, which can appear to the eye nearly the same in daybreak and in nightfall. These times of day—sandhi prakash, or the meeting of light—hold a special place in north Indian music and Hinduism. Ranade asserts that during twilight, “the best ragas of each type are to be heard”[referring to purvang and uttrang](108). We will see below that the emotion associated with twilight has a strong connection with and adds vivid imagery to the raga-time connection. The sandhi prakash also helps to delineate the svaras typically found among the hours of the cycle of thats. According to Deepak Raja, the most consistent pattern is seen in the use of komal re and komal dha in the sandhi prakash ragas (164). In the periods after twilight, these svaras are elevated to shudd form. Also prominent around sunrise and sunset is tivra Ma. In the hours surrounding noon and midnight, the komal forms of ga and ni are prominent.
Thinking of svaras inevitably raises the question of how the listener perceives each of these notes in their various forms, and the larger issue of whether time association is perceptible to a sensitive listener, or inherent to the music. In an absolute pitch sense, each note is equal since Sa is movable. Notes in a scale are then heard primarily in relation to Sa and the other drone pitch, usually Pa. Pakars will also set the mood for a particular rag, as melodic ideas give a personality beyond the individual svaras. As Deva writes, “the actual movement of the tones is the dynamic aspect which is the essential quality in melodic music”(130). Interpretations of these, however, may vary enough to change their affect.
There is no question that intervals have universal qualities about them, comparing folk scales from around the world, for example. Raja writes, “Certain svaras, or combinations of svaras, might have a higher probability of communicating certain emotions appropriate to certain times of the day/night than others”(165). Some intervals evoke stability, such as Sa to shudd ma, Pa, or Shudd Dha. Others create a more emotion-laden mood, such as Sa and shudd Re, either Ga, komal dha, and komal ni. The others create strong tension and an immediacy to resolve to a nearby note: Sa to komal re, tivra Ma, and shudd Ni. Deva writes, “The emotional qualities creatable by such movements are infinite, almost literally so. Particularly the function of leading tones is important as they create the maximum tension and desire for rest”(131). While each of these qualities could be paired with a particular time of day, none of these three groups are found exclusively in two opposite points on the clock.
Tivra Ma is a special case, found in the sandhi prakash ragas. The oddity of the tritone, being symmetrical within the octave yet so dissonant, is described by Deva as a “drop of curd in milk”(135). It also means “Adhvadarsnk, or showing the way”(Popley 64). Popley writes that Tivra Ma does not occur in the morning unless accompanied by a stronger shudd ma. It can resolve either down or up, giving it an ambiguous quality, compared with the definite direction in the other strong tendency tones.
This survey of musical-time characteristics has drawn some connections, while leaving or creating more questions than were answered. Some inconsistencies may be clarified with historical or cultural connotation, while others are best left as figments of tradition. Joshi writes that if a musically novice Indian only knows a few things about a rag, they will include the time of day in which it is to be performed (62). Revolving about rasa, extramusical traits are equally, if not more central to defining the raga-time association than musical particulars.
Hindustani classical music can be evocative and moving on its musical merits alone, as experienced by native and foreigner alike. But in my several moths studying the art, no account of it has ignored the myriad of external references. Just as a rag cannot be summarized by its scale alone, proper performance time is an archetype of the form. Whether performance in this tradition is aiming for aesthetic pleasure or a profession of love for the divine, extramusical references exist to heighten the experience.
Knowing that a raga refers to exuberance and joy can inform a listener's experience in a way not possible amid abstract sound. Likewise, a performer may make decisions in interpretation knowing that the raga belongs to the rainy season. While this is not a direct musical-perceptual connection, it can give direction to the way the music will be realized by the musician and audience. And as I qualified the nature of this research in the introduction, we must consider the tendency of academic analysis to find hidden meaning in the features of art and culture which are not well defined in the minds of those who are a part of the culture.
This study does not survey the performers of this tradition directly, rather through the observations of other researchers. We expect and hope that the values of these scholars will reflect the values of the musicians they have studied. Having said this, it is fascinating to consider the coverage given and colorful language used to describe the raga-time connection. Some writings do not even mention performance time as a factor, others dismiss it as “sheer madness”(Pingle 64) without much discussion, while for other authors it is a central element about which all other factors revolve. One book classifying ragas is even organized according to time of day, and Gangoly, Deva, and Raja devote chapters to it in their books.
In categorizing ragas, time of day is most always listed as a characteristic, ranging from the vague (morning) to the verbose (to be played when the sky is red before sunrise). Descriptions of the consequences for not obeying proper time constraints are the most vivid. Keeping in mind that many are translations, consider these examples: “utterly lacking in sensibility”(Danielou 95), “loss in efficacy”(Ranade 34), “disastrous consequences”(Narada in Kaufmann 286), “complete ruin”(Lath 117), “grating effect”(Lath 113), “all listeners will become poor and their life durations will be shortened”(Narada in Kaufmann 276). And finally, one old performer atributes World War II to playing “funeral marches and dirges when there is no funeral...love songs and spring songs when there is neither love nor spring...nocturnes during the day and wedding music when there is no wedding!”(Kaufmann 289).
Quotes claiming the virtues of performing rags in their proper time are less dire, but also insightful: “especially beautiful”(Bhatkhande in Jairazbhoy 43), “essential for aesthetic appreciation”(Sumati Mutatkar), “sound best....[but are] only advisory and not mandatory”(Sambamoorthy in Wade 79), “for at the wrong hour it could never be developed so perfectly nor could it so greatly move an audience”(danielou 95), “auspicious” and “added religious merit”(Lath 117).
This last idea of devotional poignancy was surprisingly sparse in my readings. I expected that if for any reason time association would survive, it would be mystical and religious. Namely, that obeying performance time would be a spiritual boon. Those who affirm the time association tend to speak instead in aesthetic terms.
Another colorful connection is the supposed effects that ragas can have on the physical world: “It is said that once the celebrated Tan Sen was ordered by the Emporer to sing a night raga at noon. As he sang, darkness came down on the palace where he stood, and spread around as far as the sound reached”(Popley 65). Bhatkhande says, “if a particular rag is performed well it will create an atmosphere of a particular day or night”(Jairazbhoy 43).
With a diverse set of features defining a raga, Raja maintains that the most important feature is the underlying emotion. Referring first to the musical traits, he writes,
It is important to note that these are not rigid rules. They cannot be so, simply because the primary classification of ragas is based on rasa, and not on svara material. And, the Indian aesthetic sensiblity is far too mature to assume a mechanistic correspodence between svara-material and the emotional content of all its melodic potentialities (165).
In Western classical music, some works are meant to stand on their own, while others exist as programmatic. In the Hindustani tradition, strong emotions such as pathos, devotion, quiet, and joy stand above the melodic material. As in time associations, specific svara forms could represent particular emotions, but the connection appears to be more ethereal than an explicit prescription. To further confuse the matter, Raja continues, “Different musicians, of comparable stature can, and do, interpret the same raga in obviously different rasas”(165). For rasa as well, musical traits are not absolute.
Several interpreters write that time association is so culturally ingrained in Indians that it essentially takes on a musical basis, even while admitting that convincing musical connections are limited. Mukund Lath: “If it seems natural and spontaneous to the Hindustani musician and listener, it is because it has been so deeply ingrained through centuries of persuasive suggestion and habitual observance as to have become almost a reflex”(115).
A fascinting connection beetween performance time and Indian culture is the role of the cow. According to Raja, another way of labelling sandhi prakash ragas is godhuli bela, or cowdust time.
This is the time when the cows raise a lot of dust on the village roads either on their way out to the grazing pastures at sunrise, or on their way home at sunset....To the Indian mind, this is an emotionally charged description. The cow plays a pivotal role in India's primarily agrarian economy, and is held sacred (163).
Finding musical basis in dusty twilight may be a struggle, but the idea that an Indian may consider these elements inseparable is invaluable. Raja continues,
It might...be necessary for “believers” to to accept that, maybe, the Time theory works for them because they have Indian bodies, and Indian minds, of a particular generation, responding under the sunlight quality and climatic conditions characteristic of the Indian subcontinent (165).
When considering the most potent examples of raga association with time and season, one finds that twilight, spring, and the rainy season are most often mentioned. There is little reference to strong ties with noon or summer, for example. Sandhi prakash and spring are times of transition, which entails instability and a more profound pathos, or romance. With much talk of the decline of temporal and seasonal constraints, it is not surprising that the most emotional times and seasons would be the holdovers. Have these transitional periods always been more important, or is the falling away of tradition dispensing with the more banal, stable areas first?
Before the fall of the Raj, classical music's role in the court was more appropriate for obeying time tradition. Musicians were dedicated throughout the day and year, compared to the evening concert hall setting of contemporary India. In the patronage system, there was no demand for morning rags in the evening, since they could be performed naturally in their proper time. In the present, though, middle class audiences expect to be entertained in the evening, which would preclude the presentation of many rags on the basis of time. Joshi writes,
We have heard many a melody sung on the Stage irrespective of their conventional proper time. But it has never been our experience that on account of the wrong time the melody has not had the desired effect. This is why it is difficult to accept the old Raga Samaya (time) theory fully in the present state of affairs. Either the theory must be radically amended or the present-day time-table of Ragas must be completely overhauled (63).
Notice that he does not advocate for removing the Raga Samaya completely, only to alter it.
So far, time has been the focus, but seasonal associations also have a certain prominence. Ranade writes,
The seasons greatly influence our diet, dress, and moods, and the day and night-cycle controls our hours of work and rest. These are the factors which are mainly responsible for the assignment of particular seasons and also of a particular part of the day or night for singing or playing particular Ragas (107).
The purpose of rasa, season, and time metaphors is to create imagery in the minds of the performer and listener. Music is more profound in this sense when descriptive, relatable ideas can be communicated through music, which is in emotional ways largely indescribable. He continues, “The restriction about the season has almost disappeared in course of time, but the restriction about the time of day or night still dies hard.” Since observation of seasonal performance has been abandoned, one wonders if time is headed in the same direction.
Lath writes that “Bhairavi was allowed to break its bounds....without adversely affecting its ethos. Who knows, other ragas may follow suit”(115). Whether or not it is a fair reading, Pingle accuses, “In order to sing or play any Raga at any time and to thereby break through the ancient custom, many old celebrities seem to have mixed, more ingeniously than musically, two Ragas of quite different melodies”(63). Even if this is not their intent, it appears that mixing rags effectively voids their time constraints. If the performance time was indeed crucial to these musicians, such mixing of rags would include the maintenance of an ascribed time.
Karnatic music has a history of time and season association, which has disappeared altogether. South and north Indian music descended along the same lineage, but only the Hindustani region has maintained any connection to time. Raja suggests that since the south of India is closer to the equator, it does not experience the same shifts in day length and season as the north. With less contrast, environmental factors are not experienced with the same weight (166). Joshi writes, “The same raga (i.e. its equivalent) is sung at different times in the Northern and the Karnatak system”(63).
Any discussion of north Indian classical music today cannot ignore the context of the modern world. Hindustani music relies upon subtlety above all to be evocative and communicate rasa, season, and time. One sitarist can, ideally, express the expanse of moods of the entire day, from one sunrise to the next, and the cycle of the year. But to the postmodern, globalized ear, the persistent timbre of Hindustani classical music could be heard as a monotone relative to the endless variation available elsewhere. The subtleties, including any reference to time, are lost amid the general exotic sound.
Deva writes that the effectiveness of any music is the building of tension and subsequent resolution (128). When a listener is not familiar with the subtleties of a certain genre of music, he is less likely to experience the buildup of tension and resolution to what Deva terms the tonus, or relaxed state. To the untrained Western ear as well, a listener may enjoy the music, but in a childish way where awe takes the place of deep understanding in appreciation. The minute references to time and season in classical music may be less accesible to audiences who are not able to perceive them.
At least one attempt has been made to prove or disprove the psychopsyiological basis of the time association. Deva chronicles a series of experiments, in which the subjects show no significant perception of time ascribed to the example recordings. Despite this, both Ranade and Raja claim that there is some reconciliation in science, without explaining (Ranade 108). Raja writes, “Arbitrary and even fanciful as these prescriptions may appear, they relate music to a reality whose relevance the latest researches in physiology are beginning to vindicate”(161).
An investigation into the raga-time association should not invalidate the tradition based on a limited musical foundation. Rather, it should asses the cultural value of these connections as a way to find meaning in the art. Musical vindication is questionable, but the cultural significance is bolstered by the fact that ragas' ties with time have not gone away. In light of this, Alain Danielou writes,
The cycle of the day corresponds to the cycle of life which also has its dawn, its noon, its evening. Each hour represents a different stage of development and is connected to a certain kind of emotion. The cycle of sounds is ruled by the same laws as all other cycles. This is why there are natural relationships between particular hours and the mood evoked by musical modes (95).
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(c) Justin Ryan, 2006
Reproduced with the kind permission of the author