Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Wherein resides the Raga: यसमिन्वसति रागः

In my writings on Hindustani music, I have described Raga-s as having their “melodic/ aesthetic home” in one of three overlapping regions of the scale -- Purvanga (lower tetrachord), Madhyanga (a mid-octave region) and Uttaranga (upper tetrachord). This perspective, occasionally charged with revisionism, is a musician’s interpretation of Raga grammar as a codification of aesthetic intent.  

This perspective has great value for performance because it focuses the musician's attention upon the "aesthetic grammar" of a Raga -- as distinct from its "melodic grammar", which merely identifies the Raga beyond reasonable doubt. The three-way overlapping partitioning of the octave implies that each Raga resides in a specific region of the melodic canvas, and an indiscriminate distribution of melodic activity in performance does damage to the aesthetic intent of a Raga, 

The Vadi And Its Location

Amongst the grammatical concepts emerging from the work of VN Bhatkhande in the second quarter of the 20th century, the most widely used is the concept of the “Vadi” swara, pivotal to the melodic personality of the Raga.  Following the Western notion of tetrachords, Bhatkhande attributes significance to the location of the Vadi in either   Purvanga (lower tetrachord) or Uttaranga (upper tetrachord). This partition is mentioned as analogous to a division of the 24-hour day into two equal parts, and the tendency of the “Vadi” swara-s (the dominant swara, explained later) of Raga-s to be located in different regions of the scale corresponding to their prescribed time of performance.

Bhatkhande presents the relationship between the two ideas as being synchronous, without any suggestion of causality. The location of the “Vadi” swara is a “given” facet of the manner in which Raga-s have evolved organically, and are performed. It is an acoustic-aesthetic reality. On the other hand, the two-part division of the 24-hour day and the prescribed time of performance for Raga-s, are both theoretical constructs superimposed on the “given” reality as additional layers of cultural meaning. These need not concern us here. 

The real value of this proposition lies in attaching significance to the location of the “Vadi” swara, and its role in defining a Raga’s “melodic/ aesthetic home”.

Bhatkhande On The “Vadi”

Bhatkhande deals with this subject in the early pages of Volume 1 of his epic work – Hindustani Sangeet Paddhati. The “Vadi”, according to him, is the swara which identifies/ personifies a Raga.  In classical literature, it has been referred to as the “Ansha” swara. The musical importance of the Ansha/ Vadi is highlighted by musicians using a variety of musical devices. The pivotal swara therefore tends to be intoned repeatedly during the course of a rendition. A musician who does not know how to highlight the significance of the “Vadi” cannot express the aesthetic intent of a Raga.

The implication here is that a “Vadi” does not perform its function in isolation. It does so through its repetitive deployment in a variety of phrasing devices configured in its vicinity. The Vadi is therefore the focal point of melodic action identifying/ highlighting the unique melodic personality of a Raga.  

The “Ansha” Swara

The “Ansha” swara, as defined in Bharata’s Natya Shastra. (Chapter 28, 72-74) is freely translated from the Sanskrit verse as follows: 

The swara, which embodies the Raga-ness of the Raga; that swara that is crucial to the generation of the Rasa of the Raga, or itself immersed in it; that which is at least five swara-s away from the lower octave and of the higher octave; that swara which is surrounded by a plethora of phrasing patterns, i.e. that which is never isolated; that which has strong swara-s in correspondence with itself; that which always remains in focus, even when swara-s of lower hierarchical status in the Raga are being intoned; such a swara is best qualified for the status of the “Ansha” as an expression of a Raga’s personality.

The implication here is that, the melodic personality of a Raga is articulated effectively by a concentration of melodic activity in a specific region of the melodic canvas, within which the Ansha Swara has the status of being the “spokesperson” or “representative” of the Raga.

Classical literature identifies an additional and allied Raga attribute of “Taratva-Mandratva”. This is dealt with by Dr. Premlata Sharma in her paper “Raga Lakshana” (Nibandha Sangeet. Editor: LN Garg, Sangeet Karyalaya, Hathras, Second Edition, 1989). She explains that the aesthetic value of the same swara varies depending on the particular octave in which it is intoned-- Mandra (lower), Madhya (Middle), or Taar (Higher) octaves.  Hence, the location of a swara on the three-octave melodic canvas is an important vehicle of its expressiveness, and plays an important role in the expression of a Raga’s melodic personality.

These grammatical notions are to be viewed along with the guidelines that Bhatkhande and other significant authorities have listed for performance (and composition) to support the aesthetic intent of Raga-s. These guidelines go beyond the “melodic grammar” of Raga-identification, and may be considered a part of the “aesthetic grammar” of Hindustani music. Some examples are cited below.

Guidelines For Performance

With respect to Puriya and Sohini, Bhatkhande says that the two Raga-s feature identical swara-s; but are residents of different regions of the melodic canvas. Puriya (Vadi=Ga) expresses its aesthetic intent best in lower-octave and mid-octave melodic action, while Sohini  (Vadi=Dh) does so in the upper registers, with a special emphasis on the higher-octave Sa.  Manikbuwa Thakurdas (Raga Darshan Vol. I-IV), another respected scholar, advises minimal Uttaranga melodic activity for Puriya, lest its melodic form get confused with that of Sohini.

Bhatkhande isolates at least four other Raga-s for similar attention.  According to him, Miya Malhar (Vadi=Ma) , Maluha Kedar (Vadi=unidentified), Gara (Vadi=Ga), and Sindh Bhairavi (Vadi=Dh),  are all residents of the lower registers, and the exploration of their melodic personalities should be focused in the lower and middle octaves.  The implication here is that their aesthetic intent would be compromised to the extent that their exploration crosses into the upper half of the three-octave melodic canvas.

In this group, Gara is a special case, which Subbarao (Raga Nidhi Vol. I-IV) describes as “Panchamantya” – a Raga whose melodic span terminates at the Pa of the middle octave. Thus, implicit in several discussions on Raga-grammar is a “Notional Octave” which may differ from the “Normal Octave” spanning the eight swara-s/ seven intervals of the middle octave. This “Notional octave” may begin deep in the lower octave as in Gara (lower-Pa to middle-Pa) or shift upwards, as suggested for Sohini (middle Ga to higher-octave Ga).

This idea is interesting because, the “Notional octave” does not render the “Normal” tonic redundant. On the contrary, its aesthetic value depends precisely on its tonality with respect to the middle-Octave tonic.  So, the aesthetic value of the relevant Raga-s relies on two tonics, one notional and the other normal.

These guidelines suggest a broader principle – that the psycho-acoustic character of a Raga may be changed by shifting its “Vadi” to a different octave. For instance, Raga Marwa (Vadi=Dh) was commonly performed as a strident ascent-dominant Raga until the 1950s. Ustad Ameer Khan merely shifted the Vadi from the middle octave to the lower octave, and performed it as a somber descent-dominant Raga. Likewise, Raga-s with the Vadi located in the lower tetrachord can shift the Vadi to the higher octave, causing a marked change in their aesthetic appeal. This is seen to happen to several Raga-s as performed by vocalists of the Gwalior tradition, which has a marked fondness for the upper registers.

The meticulous attention given in these guidelines suggests the intention to insulate these Raga-s categorically from the aesthetics of mid-octave region.  This is a significant indicator of the mid-octave region as an independent psycho-acoustic territory for the aesthetic value of specified Raga-s.

This issue surfaces in bold relief in the guidelines for Puriya Kalyan (Vadi=Ga) documented by Manikbuwa Thakurdas (Raga Darshan Volume II).  Puriya Kalyan is a compound Raga, which combines the melodic personality of Puriya in the lower half with Kalyan (Yaman) in the upper half of the scale. The Raga exhibits the two faces of its components effortlessly at the two ends; but it can express its composite uniqueness only in the mid-octave region, where the components Raga-s are dovetailed. Thakurdas argues in favor of a mid-octave focus for the melodic exploration of the Raga to ensure that the uniqueness of its compound character is not swamped by the melodic features of its components. 

There are, indeed, other methods of configuring compound Raga-s -- besides a dovetailing at the scalar midpoint. But, as a general perspective, we may recognize that a compound Raga – a substantial category in terms of frequency of performance -- makes abnormal demands on the notion of a regional focus. This focus enables the expression of a compound Raga’s melodic uniqueness, and balances the presence of its component Raga-s.

Wherein Resides The Raga

Grammatical concepts considered above indicate that, in addition to having dominant focal points for melodic action, and also by virtue thereof, Raga-s are “residents” of specific regions of the melodic canvas. In this perspective, swara-level, phrase level, and octave level specifications are all collectively significant for the expression of a Raga’s aesthetic intent. The interesting issue to consider is how best the melodic canvas can be partitioned in order to be musically useful, while also being true to the essential character of Hindustani music.

At the macro scale/octave level, the human neuro-acoustic system has already provided three octaves as a natural and universal melodic canvas. It is at the micro-level, within an octave, that we need to determine a suitable partitioning.

Mutually Exclusive Versus Overlapping Regions

By Bhatkhande’s own admission, his notion of a two-part division of the scale into mutually exclusive regions draws upon the Western notion of lower and upper tetrachords in an octave. This approach overlooks the fundamental difference between the musical ideologies of Western and Indian music.

Western music defines the scale as an “Octave”, a cluster of eight tonal points, while Hindustani music defines the scale as a “Saptak”, a continuum of seven intervals. In line with this difference, Western music functions with a bias in favor of absolute pitch values and staccato intonation, while Hindustani music functions with pitches relative to a tonic and a fluid – rather than static – approach to intervallic transitions.  Classical literature provides detailed descriptions of the various intervallic transitions in use.

A notion of overlapping divisions of the scale therefore appears to be truer to the reality of Hindustani music than a mutually exclusive partitioning. This view is supported by the manner in which Bhatkhande and his predecessors have viewed the function of the “Vadi” swara, along with allied notions of regional bias as an important facet of a Raga’s melodic/ emotional personality.

The Mid-Octave Region

By Bhatkhande’s own computations of pitch values, Pa is an acoustically imprecise bifurcation point because it does not define acoustically equal halves. Pa is the 5th degree to Base Sa with a pitch ratio of 1:1.5, while the higher octave Sa is the 4th degree from Pa with a pitch ratio of 1:1.33.

If we apply the lower tetrachord (Sa-Pa) ratio of 1:1.5 to the upper tetrachord, the matching acoustic distance would be Ma-Sa’ and not Pa-Sa’. If we apply the upper tetrachord acoustic distance of 1.33 to the lower tetrachord, you get Sa-Ma as the acoustic space, and not Sa-Pa. The notion of an acoustic mid-point even for a two-part division must therefore reckon with both Ma and Pa.

With two acoustic mid-points, we are obliged to acknowledge overlapping, rather than mutually exclusive partitions of the octave. But, a mid-octave region consisting of two swara-s is not musically useful. Melody requires a minimum of three swara-s in order to shape a distinct contour. But, the classical definition of the Ansha swara also says that it should be surrounded by phrases which incorporate swara-s in acoustic correspondence. Fulfilling this requirement demands a minimum of four swara-s to constitute a notional “mid-octave region”. The two mid-octave points (Shuddha Ma and Pa) therefore require at least one swara to be added on each side to constitute a notional “mid-octave region” (Madhyanga).

This argument would suggest that Ga-Ma-Pa-Dh would be an appropriate definition of a mid-octave region. This, however, creates a different problem. Shuddha Ga and Shuddha Dh are not in either first-fourth (1:1.33) or first-fifth (1:1.50) correspondence, and would hence create a Madhyanga acoustically incongruent to the overlapping acoustic regions defined at the two extremities of the octave. 

The requirement of correspondence within a phrase incorporating or surrounding the Ansha swara is fulfilled only by enlarging the space of acoustic mid-points (Shuddha Ma and Pa) to include Shuddha Ga below and Dh as well as Komal Ni above. Each of the overlapping segments so defined would then be mutually congruent with a pitch-ratio of 1:1.33 from the first included swara to the last.

On the face of it, this proposition looks clumsy because it adds one swara below and more than one swara above to the acoustic mid-points (Shuddha Ma and Pa). Theoretically, however, this is the soundest way of defining the mid-octave region. For ease of communication, the proposition can be compromised as follows.

The totality of Raga grammar in Hindustani music appears to notionally -- though not explicitly -- divide the octave into three overlapping regions of the octave for defining the regional bias of a Raga -- – Purvanga (lower tetrachord), Madhyanga (Mid-octave region), and Uttaranga (Upper tetrachord). The Purvanga consists of S-R-G-M. The Uttaranga consists of P-D-N-S’.  The Madhyanga consists of G-M-P-D. Despite its compromise with acoustic precision, this division is musically useful because each overlapping division has four natural swara-s, and the mid-octave region (Madhyanga) overlaps two swara-s of the (Purvanga) lower tetrachord and two of the upper (Uttaranga).

At the Raga-specific level, it is argued here that an isolation of the mid-octave region as the melodic centre of gravity is musically useful. It is also necessary to examine whether this refinement substantially alters our perception of the Raga universe as the larger reality that governs the melodic personalities of individual Raga-s.

Survey Of The Raga Universe

For this survey, I rely on an analysis of three major authorities, who have documented Raga grammar on a substantial scale.

1.       VN Bhatkhande, Kramik Pustak Malika (Volumers I-VI)
2.      Vinayak Rao Patwardhan, Raga Vigyan (Volumer I-VII)
3.      B. Subbarao, Raga Nidhi (Volumes I-IV)

It is accepted that the identification of “Vadi” swara-s by each of these authorities will not be identical. It is also accepted that the each of these authorities could have considered a different set of Raga-s for the categorical identification of the “Vadi” swara-s.  Despite this limitation, their respective perceptions of the universe of Raga-s can offer valuable insights into the grammatical and aesthetic value of the “Madhyanga” as a distinct melodic centre of gravity in a Raga. (See Table below)

Bhatkhande identifies Vadi swara-s for 127 Raga-s, of which 71% fall in the Madhyanga region. Patwardhan identifies Vadi swara-s for 188 Raga-s, of which 68% fall within the “Madhyanga” region. Subbarao, whose work documents the largest number of Raga-s from a large variety of textual sources, identifies Vadi swara-s for 283 Hindustani Raga-s, of which 73% fall in the Madhyanga region.

These orders of magnitude suggest that the “Madhyanga” is a distinct center of melodic gravity which cannot be ignored. A simplistic partitioning of the octave into lower and upper tetrachords can lead to the melodic neglect of a musically important region of the scale. In an improvisation-dominant art form, such as Hindustani music, the "aesthetic grammar" of a Raga is as important as the "melodic grammar". If this is not correctly understood, composers and performers are exposed to the risk of over-emphasizing those scalar regions which are inconsistent with -- and perhaps even disruptive of -- the aesthetic intent of the chosen Raga.  

© Deepak Raja. Jan 7, 2018