Thursday, January 11, 2018

Bhakti (the devotional spirit) in Hindustani music

Recently, an influential aficionado of Carnatic music publicly expressed the view that Hindustani music is lacking in “Bhakti”.  There was more than a suggestion that Hindustani music has abandoned the transcendentalism fundamental to the Hindu artistic tradition.  Such perceptions appear to be widely shared amongst members of the Carnatic music community. Hence the need to address them.

They arise evidently from the fact that the lyrics of mainstream Carnatic music are predominantly devotional, while those of Hindustani vocal music tend to feature a wider variety of themes with a bias, perhaps, towards “Shringara Rasa” (the romantic/erotic sentiment). Without getting into the philosophical niceties of the Rasa theory, I attempt to examine whether the pattern warrants the inferences evidently drawn.

Understanding musical genres

Every genre of vocal music features lyrics (or some other form of articulation), melody, and rhythm. But, at any given time, an artist’s musical energies – however one may define them and to whatever we may attribute them as their source – are limited. They cannot possibly be directed equally towards delivering the aesthetic satisfaction of all the elements in one rendition. Therefore, each genre is designed to focus a musician’s  energies on a different facet of the musical endeavour.

Even if a musician’s energies were unlimited, a variety of genres would emerge because a multiplicity of genres would fulfill the needs of society more efficiently. Audiences represent a diversity of tastes; even the same listener welcomes different aesthetic satisfactions at different times or in different moods or even on the same concert platform. This is why the culture supports different genres of music – each specializing in the delivery of a different category of aesthetic satisfaction.  The focus of musical energies, and the consequent delivery of aesthetic satisfactions, form the basis on which genres of vocal music may be classified. 

(1) Swarashrita (स्वराश्रित = Melody dominant), where primary target for musical energies is the melody.
(2) Padashrita (पदाश्रित= Composition dominant), in which the primary target of musical energies in the totality of the pre-composed melodic-rhythmic-poetic entity;
(3) Layashrita (लयाश्रित = tempo dominant), in which the primary target of musical energies is the tempo of rendition, which forges a distinctive relationship between the melody, rhythm and the lyrics,
(4) Arthashrita (अर्थाश्रित= Interpretative), where the musical endeavour is focused on the musical interpretation of the lyrics. This classification recognizes the interpretation of literary meaning as a musical endeavour qualitatively distinct from the one characteristic of the “Padashrita" genres. Interestingly, this category covers the semi-classical genres because it is dominated neither by Swara, nor by Laya, nor by the Pada. 

These are not mutually exclusive categories, but indications of dominant tendencies.  Some genres qualify for a dual classification.  And, indeed, the individual musical personalities of musicians may also tilt the balance of musical energies in one genre towards those characteristic of another, without necessarily prejudicing the essential character of the genre.

Swarashrita and Padashrita

Considering the features of the dominant genres in practice today, Carnatic music may be described as predominantly “Padashrita” (पदाश्रित), while the comparable mainstream genre of Hindustani vocalism may be described as “Swarashrita” (स्वराश्रित).

Both traditions feature pre-composed and improvised elements. Both traditions conform to raga grammar disciplines. And, both engage intricately with laya and Tala. But, they differ in their fundamental orientation. The “Commanding Form” (to use Prof. Susanne Langer’s concept), which drives the entire rendition in the “Padashrita” Carnatic tradition is a pre-composed poetic-melodic-rhythmic entity; it is even referred to as a “Song”. On the other hand, the “Commanding Form” in the “Swarashrita” Hindustani tradition (as argued by Prof. SK Saxena) is the distinctive arrangement of Swara-s, which is the “Raga-Swaroop” (राग स्वरुप).

In a Padashrita tradition, the entirety of the poetic-melodic-rhythmic entity is intended to act as an integrated whole to deliver its aesthetic satisfaction to the listener. Compositions are deemed to represent a perfect aesthetic congruence between the lyrics, the melody, and the rhythm. This explains why the Padashrita Carnatic tradition places a high premium on the devotional literary content of its classical music repertoire, and treats the composition as inviolable in every melodic-rhythmic detail. Such a musical endeavour conforms to Hindu polytheism – the idea that by an intense absorption in the manifest forms of the deities (साकार/ सगुणात्मक उपासना), man may transcend the manifest form of the chosen deity, and attain union with the formless Divinity (निर्गुण/ निराकार).

Understanding Bhakti

To fully comprehend the issue, we need to understand “Bhakti” (भक्ति). The word “Bhakti” is an abstract noun derived from the Sanskrit verb “Bhaja” (भज)= to serve. The  essential stance of the one who serves is a surrender to the Master’s wishes. So, the essence of “Bhakti” is “शरणागत भाव” (the spirit of surrender), or the total annihilation of self-hood, along with a total acceptance of man’s insignificance before God (if you are a theist), or in the overall scheme of the universe.  The Sakaar/ Sagunatmak Bhakti of a Padashrita tradition aims at this transcendence of the human psyche – pushing the listeners mind to the region of consciousness that lies between the Sakaar and the Nirakaar.

I make bold to suggest that the Indian mind has access to the same process through an alternate musical route – the “Swarashrita” route which Hindustani music takes.

In a Swarashrita tradition, the hero of the musical endeavour is not a deity (Sakaar/ Sagun), but a Raga (a “formless form”, a निराकार आकृति). The entire musical endeavour is an attempt to translate/ interpret/manifest the Formless Form of the Raga into a communicable form.

We may pause here to appreciate that, in essence, a raga is no different from a deity. Just as Vishnu is identified by Shankha (शंख), Chakra (चक्र), Gada (गदा) and Padma (पद्म), a Raga is identified by its distinctive arrangement of selected Swara-s.  Vishnu has been visualized differently by millions of artists over the millennia – but never without Shankha, Chakra, Gada and Padma. Likewise, Raga Malkauns/ Hindolam is visualized and projected in sound pictures in millions of ways, but never without its identifying attributes – such as may be acceptable from time to time.

Deities, and Raga-s are, in fact, both formless forms (Nirakar Akruti), and meditating upon the attributes of either of them will lead you into the same region of consciousness on the border between the Sakaar and Nirakar. If the essence of Bhakti is Sharanagat Bhava, the Padashrita and Swarashrita traditions both appear to qualify.

There is textual support for this view in the Indian musicological tradition.

It (the Raga-rupa) is of two kinds – नादात्म whose essence is sound, and देवमय whose essence is an image incarnating the deity. Of the former, there are many shapes; but the latter has only one.

Somnatha in Ragavibodha (1609 AD)

William James, the father of American psychology, defines the "Divine” as an unfathomable vastness, leaving man with no option but to accept his own relative insignificance, and to plead for grace.

“The ‘divine’ mean(s)… such a primal reality as the individual feels impelled to respond to solemnly and gravely… The personal attitude, which the individual finds himself impelled to take up towards the divine… shall have to confess to at least some amount of dependence on sheer mercy…”

(The varieties of religious experience, Collier, 1961)

From this perspective, one may view performance in the Hindustani tradition as a prayer to the Divine form of a Raga -- entreating it to descend into its melodic form.

Lyrics in Khayal vocalism

This perspective does not, admittedly, resolve the issue of Khayal lyrics, which are allegedly biased towards “Shringara Rasa” (शृंगार रस). It is necessary, here, to consider whether the evident poetic inclinations of a “Swarashrita” genre can be considered fundamental to the aesthetic intent of music; whether the lyrics are intended to perform a literary function at all, and whether they are germane to the delivery of the aesthetic satisfactions characteristic of the genre. Metaphorically, I am asking whether a person can be convicted in India for a crime committed under the laws of Botswana.

Khayal is not a “Padashrita” genre. No less a scholar than BC Deva has described a Khayal composition as “a mere peg on which to hang the Raga”. Khayal lyrics are not composed as carriers of literary meaning, though they do possess meaning. Their thematic content is musically insignificant compared to the value of the texture (vowels and consonants) they provide for the delivery of the melodic idea. They constitute the platform for the exploration of the Raga form (the Nirakar Akruti).  

This may, incidentally, be the reason why the Khayal genre tolerates lyrics of mediocre literary value. This may also be the reason why Khayal lyrics, written in the Braj Bhasha dialect of Hindi are performed throughout the Hindustani music region – including Pakistan and Bangladesh -- in the same language. In extreme cases, the tradition tolerates even a virtual rape of Braj Bhasha lyrics in their articulation, because their musical function is faithfully performed without the comprehension of literary meaning.

In his book, “Hindustani Musical Traditions”, Vamanrao Deshpande, amongst the most respected critics, recalls a brief flirtation (revolt?) the Khayal attempted with lyrics written in Marathi, rather than Braj Bhasha. Maharshtrian vocalists soon discovered that the textural musical value uniquely offered by the original Brij Bhasha lyrics had been lost, and the experiment was abandoned.

A similar affirmation of the musical (rather than literary) value of lyrics comes from the introduction of Sargam (सरगम = solfa symbols) articulation into Khayal vocalism – evidently an import from the Carnatic tradition.  In the Padashrit Carnatic genre Sargam articulation is a Swarashrit diversion. In the Swarashrit Hindustani genre, however, it has an entirely different presence. It functions as a Swarashrit embellishment, or a textural relief, in what is already a Swarashrita genre. Therein lies its conceptual and aesthetic significance.

The Sargam is, by its very nature, a set of meaningless consonants, devoid of literary meaning – as meaningless as isolated alphabets in a written language. The Sargam’s effortless – though not universal – admittance to Khayal vocalism supports the view that the communication of literary meaning has only negligible relevance, if any, to the delivery of aesthetic satisfactions of the Khayal genre.

Deshpande has argued that the Khayal genre has liberated melody and rhythm from poetry, and hence raised Hindustani music to a level of “pure music”. And this, he believes, represents the highest achievement of Hindustani music so far.

The spiritual and the devotional

It is in this light that the issue of “Bhakti” in Hindustani music has to be viewed. To regard devotional lyrics as the exclusive flag-bearers of Bhakti in music is a misrepresentation of the character of music as an art, as well as Bhakti as a human aspiration. The liberation of music from poetry does not, in any manner, dilute its transcendentalism.  

The transcendentalism of the Khayal is “spiritual”, when it focuses the musician’s meditative attention upon the “Nirakaar Akruti” of the “Ishta Raga” (इष्ट राग). This transcendentalism cannot, by any reasonable logic, be considered inferior or less demanding than focusing “devotional” energies upon a “Sakaar Akruti”. As long as the artistic endeavour is focused on the borderline between the “Sakaar” and the “Nirakaar”, art remains in “Sharanagat Bhav” mode as an acknowledgement of man’s insignificance in the overall scheme of Creation.

Acknowledgements: The author is indebted to Dr. Milind Malshe, Dr. Padma Sugavanam, and Mrs. Meena Bannerjee for their contribution to the development of this argument. Their agreement with it may not, however, be assumed.

© Deepak S Raja. 2017