Monday, April 28, 2008

How the Begum trumped the Nawab

Kumar Mukherjee (died: 2007) was, for several decades, one of the most influential members of Calcutta’s music “establishment”. In 2006, Penguin Books published a book titled “The lost world of Hindustani music”, under his authorship. For those interested in Hindustani music, the book is a highly readable cocktail of dramatized history, memoir, musicology, critical writing, known myth, and unverifiable anecdote.

According to Mukherjee, Nawab Raza Ali Khan of Rampur, whose own musical skills and discernment were dubious, continued his legendary father, Hamid Ali Khan’s patronage of classical music. One of his remarkable practices was to offer generous inducements to musicians under his patronage to become his “ganda-bandh” (ceremonially initiated) disciples. Apparently, even the redoubtable Ahmedjan Thirakva succumbed to the Nawab’s guiles, as did several others of considerable stature. But, according to Mukherjee (Pg.143-144), Begum Akhtar, the queen of Ghazal and Thumree, made the Nawab pay dearly for his misguided enthusiasm. The context was, no doubt, a little more complicated.


One gathers that the Nawab fell so deeply in love with Akhtaribai Faizabadi, that he carried her off to his palace and held her in luxurious imprisonment for many years. To quote Sheila Dhar (Kairana vocalist, socialite, and author), once again, she was endowed with gifts and allowed to wear the priceless heirlooms of the state, including a “Satlada”, a seven-stringed pearl necklace. The Nawab was rumored to have said openly that the only thing brighter than the seven diamond pendants of the famous necklace was Akhtaribai’s smile. However, his fixation soon made her claustrophobic, and she began to resent her golden cage.

Partly as revenge, and partly as a game to test her power, she ordered coins to be struck in her name and had them embossed with her profile. She thought it was time to bring matters to a head and this seemed a stylish way of doing just that. When the Nawab’s intense devotion began to turn into displeasure with what she steadfastly regarded as nothing more than a lark, her mood changed to one of anger. She expressed it by decamping with the necklace, no doubt, to teach him a lesson.

The Nawab’s men were dispatched in hot pursuit, but could not find her anywhere because she immediately stopped singing publicly and went underground. When she emerged years later, it was as Begum Akhtar, the respectable wife of a barrister from an eminent family of Lucknow. The protection of such a husband made all the difference. The wild and outdated allegations of the princely state now seemed absurd.


Mukherjee neither vouches for the story, nor dismisses it. Nor does he report any attempts at verification. But he gives it credence by being broadly sympathetic to both parties. His impartiality is reasonable. But, the implicit acceptance of the story’s veracity is disturbing. The attribution to Sheila Dhar does not quite absolve him, because its inclusion in the book appears to endorse its veracity. The issue of veracity is important because formidable reputations are involved. When Mukherjee was writing, the participants in the drama had been gone for a long time. Since his writing, Mukherjee has passed on, and so has Sheila Dhar. The story is now in the realm of unverifiable anecdote, which the gullible could unwittingly respect as history.

Begum Akhtar’s posthumous stature may, or may not, be affected by this reportage. But, Mukherjee’s certainly will. I make this observation with some sadness because I had known Mukherjee since I was a teenager (mid 1960’s), as he was my father’s colleague in government service. I admired him for his erudition and his passion for music, while he encouraged me in my artistic pursuits. He needed neither his musicianship, nor penmanship to live comfortably, though he was more than competent with both. His surrender to salacious gossip is a warning to every writer against the temptations that lie along his path.

(c) Deepak S. Raja 2007

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Swara, Raga, & Rasa – a perspective

Reproduced from
“Hindustani Music – a tradition in transition”
Author: Deepak S. Raja
Foreword: Pandit Shivkumar Sharma
Introduction: Lyle Wachovsky
DK Printworld (P) Ltd. New Delhi. 2005

Swara, Raga, and Rasa, are the fundamental melodic and esthetic concepts in Indian musicology. The three terms are almost impossible to translate, because their lexicographic connotation delivers no meaningful value. Their meaning is predominantly cultural. This is why every author on the subject offers a different perspective on them. I present below my interpretation of these concepts with specific reference to Hindustani music, as written for the Glossary to my first book.

The word derives from Sanskrit “Swa” = self + “Ra” = illumination. Swara is, therefore, an utterance expressing the entirety of the practitioner’s being, and has the potential for personality transformation. Though an avowedly subjective expression, it necessarily has certain known and measurable acoustic features. However, the Indian musical tradition also identifies two features, which pose conceptual problems. The Sanskrit texts do define the terms for them, which are almost impossible to translate. The qualities are “Deepti”, loosely translated as luminosity, and “Anuranan”, loosely translated as a haunting quality. Clarity on these dimensions may have to await either an acoustically meaningful translation of these terms, or their recognition as hitherto unknown/ unmeasured acoustic dimensions. This brief etymological-acoustic discussion supports the growing realization that, “Swara” in Hindustani music does not correspond efficiently to the Western notion of tone or a pitch-ratio relative to the tonic.

The Hindustani scale has twelve swara-s, all of which acquire musical meaning only with reference to the tonic, which is chosen arbitrarily by the musician. These twelve swara-s have names. But, the existence of standard frequency ratios for eleven of them, relative to the tonic, is debatable. Nor is it clear that their musical values depends upon the existence of such standardized acoustic relationships. There could, in reality, be stronger evidence to support the opposite argument -- that their musical value depends precisely on the freedom the musician has to intone them in accordance with aesthetic, rather than acoustic, principles. This is particularly so since, as a rule, Hindustani music eschews staccato intonation.

This proposition is consistent with the crucial difference between the Hindustani and the Western scales The Western scale is an octave with eight fixed points, while the Hindustani scale is a Saptak ( Sapta = seven) with seven intervals covering the same tonal distance. Music making activity in Hindustani music is focused on the handling of intervals, while Western tradition focuses its attention in handling the tonal points.

The issue here is, in fact, philosophical and cultural more than acoustic. Any cultural manifestation can be held accountable only to its own goals and values. The primary values of the Indian musical tradition are spiritual, with the aesthetic and the sensory being subservient to it. In the hierarchy of music making goals, the primary place belongs to the generation of Rasa at the highest possible level of intensity. A musician shapes and re-shapes Raga-s in order to achieve the Rasa goal. In the process, he also arranges and re-arranges relationships between the individual units of melodic expression, the swara-s.

The amorphous and malleable character of Raga-s, and the floating pitch values in Hindustani music are an essential part of a tradition that gives the musician the combined role of a composer-performer, requiring both these processes to be performed simultaneously. Raga grammar and the "standard" pitches of swara both have only ephemeral validity as the stimuli of an interactive process validated solely by its generation of the target emotional response, the Rasa.

The word, generally used as a suffix, is Sanskrit for “attitude/ quality of response/ emotional content of a relationship”. In music, it has come to denote a melodic idea or framework, associated with a specific quality of emotional response. The notion of Raga-ness is, therefore, inseparable from the concept of “Rasa” in Indian aesthetics. A Raga is a psycho-acoustic hypothesis, which states that melody, created and rendered in accordance with a certain set of rules, has a high probability of eliciting a certain quality of emotional response. The set of rules for the creation and rendition of the melody constitute the grammar of a Raga. An awareness of the target response enables a musician to transcend grammar and enter the realm of literature.

As a melodic entity, a Raga is neither a pre-composed melody, nor a mode or scale. It is represented by a set of rules governing the selection, sequencing and treatment of tones/ swara-s. These rules define a framework, which is tight enough to ensure aesthetic coherence, while also providing sufficient freedom for individual creativity. This approach to guiding the melodic content of music was necessary for a tradition, which combines the role of the composer and performer in the same individual.

As a cultural choice, this approach harmonises the competing demands of continuity within change, and unity within diversity. This enables each performed piece of music to retain a familiarity while giving audiences a substantial access to a novelty and freshness of the musical experience. Every Raga is a plausible psycho-acoustic hypothesis because of the accumulated experience of society, and continues to remain plausible with every musician being allowed to test it, and even revise it, at every performance. The hypothesis is perennial and ever-changing, never intending to attain the finality of a theory.

Each Raga is shaped and re-shaped by each performance, and has no existence exogenous to this context. The total achievement of its emotional goals is accepted as a random event because it is susceptible to a host of variables, many of which may be un-controllable and even unrelated to the music itself. The names of Raga-s, and their grammar, are only the starting point of familiarity for contemporary audiences. Once the basis for familiarity is established, the music itself is not bound by the familiar relationship between a raga's name and its contemporary grammar. The musical performance has the sole purpose of sharing the experience of literature, often leaving grammarians struggling to relate the "happening" to a name, and to document what liberated grammar from itself.

The Indian aesthetic tradition views the sensory experience as a pathway to the emotional, and the emotional as a pathway to the spiritual. This reflects the fundamental transcendentalism of Hindu thought. All art is, therefore, validated by a single dominant criterion – its ability to elicit an emotional response. This criterion acknowledges that, at its most intense, the experience of beauty evokes a response that transcends its qualitative aspect, and acquires a mystical quality. This defines the potential of the artistic endeavour, and its reception, for personality transformation and spiritual evolution. At the intermediate aesthetic level, however, the tradition allows for the classification of works of art on the basis of the quality of the emotional response. The name given to these qualities is “Rasa”, a metaphorical expression derived from the Sanskrit “Rasa” = extract/ essence/ juice.

Orthodox Indian aesthetic theory, enunciated in pre-Christian texts, recognizes nine basic emotions/ sentiments, called Navrasa, Sanskrit for “Nav” = nine + “Rasa” = qualities of sentiments/ emotional experience. The nine are: [a] Shringaara, the romantic sentiment, [b] Karuna, the sentiment of pathos [c] Haasya, the sentiment of mirth [d] Raudra, the sentiment of wrath [e] Veera, the sentiment of valour [f] Bhaya, the sentiment of fear [g] Bibhatsa, the sentiment of disgust [h] Adbhut, the sentiment of surprise/ marvel [I] Shaanta, the sentiment of peace. Over the two millennia since this enumeration, critical literature has added several other sentiments, and combinations of orthodox sentiments, to the interpretation of the emotional content of artistic endeavours.

© Deepak S. Raja 2005

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Sanjh Saravali – Ustad Vilayat Khan’s Magnum Opus

It is known of Ustad Vilayat Khan, that he did not particularly care either about adopting new ragas crated by others, or about creating ragas of his own. He spent most of his life performing a select number of mature ragas, attempting to achieve progressively greater levels of depth in their exploration. But, being the creative genius that he was, he did occasionally give an idiosyncratic twist to some mature ragas. Most of these were flirtations which did not last beyond a performance or two.

In two cases, however, his individualistic interpretations went far enough beyond the recognizable boundaries of the mature ragas, and acquired a life of their own. Once this had happened, the Ustad devoted considerable musical energy to them over several years, and pushed them towards an independent raga-ness. One was his interpretation of Darbari Kanada, finally named Enayet Khani Kanada; and the other was his interpretation of Yaman Kalyan, which he named Sanjh Saravali. Of the two, Sanjh Saravali is the more significant because he developed its “raga-ness” with much greater persistence over a much longer period of time.

From available concert archives of the Ustad, it appears that the idea of Sanjh Saravali was born in the late 1970s. Since then, he has performed it frequently at concerts in India and abroad. The Ustad first recorded it for commercial release in the mid- 1980's (EMI: STCS 048 7764). The melodic character of the “raga” remained constant between then, and the late 1990s, when he recorded it for the last time, for India Archive Music, New York.

In 2002, I asked him to explain Sanjh Saravali (Sanjh= evening + Saravali=melody) to me. The Ustad described it as a beautiful "Cheez (a piece) which had composed itself." Because the word "Cheez" is used for describing compositions, and ragas are "created" rather than "composed", the remark appeared to refer to the composition, rather than to the raga. By this indication, and also by the evidence of the music itself, it appears that the composition "composed itself" first, and Vilayat Khan built the raga around it.

Sanjh Saravali is, essentially, a song (capital S) complete in itself, requiring no reference point or validation beyond its own direct appeal to the heart of the listener. If it does not qualify as a raga, the Ustad, in all probability, did not intend it to do so.

The melody uses tonal material common to ragas Yaman Kalyan and Bihag, as also to several other ragas of the Kalyan parent scale. Its treatment alternates between these two ragas, and incorporates fleeting impressions of several other ragas of the same family, especially those which use both the Ma swaras, Shuddha (natural) and Tivra (sharp) such as Nand Kalyan, Chhaya Nat, and Hem.

The rigor of Hindustani music demands meticulous adherence to raga grammar in order to avoid confusion with other ragas similar either in tonal material or phraseology. On the other hand, punctuating the renditions of one raga with apparitions of allied ragas (Avirbhav/ Tirobhav= appearance/ disappearance) is an accepted device for the display of musicianship -- a device to be used very prudently.

Against this backdrop, you have Sanjh Saravali, whose very melodic identity rests on hide-and-seek between several allied ragas. Not surprisingly, it is a musical challenge which even the Ustad's brilliant heir, Shujaat Khan, accepts with considerable apprehension. Despite having accompanied his father at least 15 times with Sanjh Saravali, Shujaat confesses he still hasn't got a comfortable grip over the melody.

According to Shujaat, the melody was defined to him in 1984/85 as Yaman Kalyan played in the shadow of Bihag. It has therefore to be understood from both ends.

Yaman Kalyan is popularly understood as Yaman with the addition of the Shuddha Ma in the descent. This is accompanied, in the descent, by a shift in phraseology.

N R G M^ D N S'/ Descent: S N D P M^ G R S
Yaman Kalyan:
: N R G M^ D N S'/ Descent: S' N D P M^ G, R G M G R, G R S

Bihag becomes a relevant reference point for Sanjh Saravali because of its catch-phrase (P M^ G M R G), which is unique amongst twin-Ma usage ragas of the Kalyan parent scale, but closest in its aural experience, to Bihag (P M^ G M G).

The totality of this raga retains a reasonable distance from both, Yaman Kalyan and Bihag, by incorporating several phrases external to both. To reinforce the independence of this raga from Yaman Kalyan and Bihag, the Ustad frequently resorts to a non-descript treatment of the two Ma swaras. However, while developing the raga in the lower octave, and in the lower tetrachord, Vilayat Khan accepts the phraseology of Yaman and Yaman Kalyan. And, in the upper tetrachord, the Ustad allows in phrases which are explicitly from Bihag (N D N S N).

Despite the stability of its melodic character in the creator’s mind over a couple of decades, the raga-ness of this “raga” is elusive, and defies formal codification. In terms of its emotional content, Sanjh Saravali evokes a combination of the tranquil, and the solemn – largely, the atmosphere of Yaman Kalyan. There might be a hint of the romantic in this melody; but it is a stoic romanticism devoid of any vivacity.

The riveting effect of this melody can be attributed to its tendency towards becoming a raga without really becoming one, its habit of hovering in the vicinity of several familiar ragas without merging into any of them -- the amorphous grammar which liberates literature. An expression of Taoist insight at its best: In vagueness lies wisdom; in precision, folly.

The Ustad's critics will, of course, ask whether Sanjh Saravali is distinctive enough to be called a raga, and whether it justifies itself by fulfilling a musical need that had hitherto remained unfulfilled. Issues such as these are, indeed, important for an understanding of the cultural process. But, they pale into insignificance when we consider the greatness of the music such novel melodic ideas can inspire. It is the Ustad’s 78-minute Bada Khayal style rendition of this “raga”, recorded for India Archive Music, New York, which will qualify amongst the greatest pieces of instrumental music recorded in the post-independence era.

Deepak S. Raja
© India Archive Music Ltd., New York, producers of the finest recording of Raga Sanjh Saravali by Ustad Vilayat Khan.