Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Abstraction in our times

A paper presented to a workshop for art critics,  ROOP AROOP, organised by the Raza Foundation, New Delhi, on February 19, 2018. 

I am a musician, who has been asked to address a workshop for art critics on abstraction.  If I speak on abstraction in music, this is the wrong place. And, if I try speaking on abstraction in the visual arts, I am the wrong person to be facing a microphone. 

The reason for my caution is the fundamental difference between the way the visual arts and Indian classical music view abstraction. In the visual arts, abstraction is seen as a degree of departure from representational images, and a proximity to an experience engendered by the relationship between the basic elements -- form, color and texture. In classical music, we view abstraction from the opposite end. 

For us, the primary focus is the experience engendered by the interaction between the basic elements -- melody, rhythm, and poetry, and abstraction is viewed as degree to which this experience is conditioned/ moderated/ diluted by the manner in which it manifests itself in performance. Therefore, while the visual arts can be discussed in terms of "degrees of abstraction", classical music needs to be discussed in terms of "degrees of dis-abstraction". The difference will become clearer, I hope, as I proceed. 


At the outset I must share what I understand by abstraction.The Oxford dictionary defines abstraction thus: “The act of considering something independently of its associations, attributes, or concrete accompaniments/ a thing so considered/ a thing that exists only in idea/ freedom from representational qualities”.

With reference to art in general, I understand abstraction as the seeking of a reference point outside of the artist, the subject, as well as its audience. With reference to music in particular, I have two ways of understanding abstraction:

Music has three dimensions – the contemplative, the expressive, and the communicative.  Abstraction is that territory in which the contemplative dimension dominates the expressive and the communicative dimensions.  

With specific reference to Hindustani music, I have found it helpful to draw on the notion of “Commanding Form” enunciated by Prof. Susanne Langer, and interpreted by Prof. SK Saxena.

The notion of a “Commanding Form”

In the context of Western art music, Langer accords the status of the “Commanding Form” to the composition, which determines the whole subsequent process of invention and elaboration. India’s eminent aesthetician, SK Saxena (Hindustani Sangeet and a philosopher of art. DK Printworld Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi. 2001) argues that, in Hindustani music, the Raga rightfully occupies this status.

But, a Raga is merely a set of rules governing the selection, sequencing, and treatment of selected Swara-s (tones). Can it be considered a “form” at all? Saxena answers in the affirmative because, it is possessed of a distinct shape which makes it identifiable, and distinguishable from others. A Raga is, indeed, a “Form”, but a “Formless Form”.

It is the task of the musician to translate/ interpret/render the “Formless Form” as a “Communicable Form”.  What, then, is the territory of abstraction in Hindustani music? It is the territory in which the communicable form remains rooted in its source, the Formless Form.

What does it mean to interpret a “formless form” as a “communicable form”? It means giving it a structure. And, for communicability, the structure has to be familiar. This process, which Prof. Ashok Ranade described as “Ritualisation”, involves casting the Raga into a genre.

“Ritualisation” is, in effect, a process of dis-abstraction. This dis-abstraction varies in degree, depending on the genre in which the formless form of the Raga is cast. So, the tradition gives us a choice of various genres, each involving a different degree of dis-abstraction.  

The Classification Of Genres

With specific reference to Hindustani music, a genre may be defined as a distinctive hierarchy of melodic, rhythmic and phonetic (where relevant) elements, with one of the three constituting the primary determinant of aesthetic satisfaction, and the remaining two being supportive to it. This hierarchy is reflected in the “architecture” of each genre – the specific features of the different movements and their sequencing.  In terms of their specific features, the movements constituting a genre may themselves be classified as predominantly melodic, rhythmic, or phonetic.

I present below my classification of Hindustani music genres, based on the predominant musical element.

(1) Swarashrita (स्वराश्रित = Melody dominant), where primary target for musical energies is the melody.
(2) Padashrita (पदाश्रित= Poetry dominant), in which the 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. 

These are not mutually exclusive categories, but indications of dominant tendencies.  Some genres qualify for a dual classification.  And, indeed, individual musical personalities may also tilt the balance of musical energies in one genre towards those characteristic of another.

Though these categories appear to pertain only to the genres of vocal music, they are applicable to instrumental music also, because instrumental genres derive their basic architecture from one or more of the vocal genres.

The Inverse Hierarchy Of Dis-Abstraction

The Swarashrita genres: The Raga is a melodic entity. Therefore, the inverse hierarchy is defined by the extent to which the Ritualisation imposes a dis-abstraction on the “Commanding Form”. By this criterion, the Swarashrit genres rank highest in their “abstraction quotient”. They are Dhrupad and Khayal.

The Dhrupad genre: The Dhrupad genre imposes the lowest degree of dis-abstraction on the Formless Form of the Raga. It does indeed feature Swarashrit as well as Padashrit movements; but treats them separately, The Swarashrit movement allows interpretations of the Commanding form – the Formless Form – as abstractly as the musician’s imagination will permit.

The Khayal Genre: The Swarashrit Khayal genre comes next in the inverse hierarchy of dis-abstraction. The genre integrates Swarashrit, Layashrit, as well Padashrit movements; but it is designed to devote the highest importance to the Swarashrit movements.

The Layashrit genres: In this category, we may classify Tappas and Taranas. They come lower in the hierarchy because they deploy rhythm for forging an engaging relationship between the phonetic and melodic elements. In this process, they permit only a limited exploration of the Formless Form.

The Padashrita Genres: The Padashrita genres, focused on the totality of the composition, present a limited perspective on the Raga, with only negligible scope for its exploration beyond the pre-composed form. In this category, we may include Bandish-ki-thumrees, and Bhajans.

The Arthashrit Genres: These genres are concerned entirely with the interpretation of literary content, and not governed by the Raga form at all. These genres may more accurately be described as poetic genres presented musically. 

What trends do we observe today?

In the Swarashrit genres: The movements devoted to the exploration of the Formless Form are shrinking in terms of duration and attention to the contemplative process. The movements devoted to rhythmicality are gaining prominence. There is a growing presence of phonetic elements --  poetic as well as non-poetic.

The Layashrit Genres: These genres, which have traditionally had a minor share of performance, are gaining in popularity and frequency of performance.

The Padashrit Genres: These genres are also gaining in terms of frequency of performance on the concert platform, and as determinants of the popularity of musicians.

The Arthashrit genres: There is a virtual explosion of the Arthashrit genres evident in the last two decades. They do not require an anchoring in the Raga as the “Commanding Form”.  They may, however, conform to definitive commanding forms in poetry, and informal/minor melodic forms.  

The trends -- In Summary

Of the three elements of Hindustani music -- melody, rhythm, and poetry/ articulation -- it is the melodic element that is receding from prominence, while the rhythmic and poetic/ phonetic elements are gaining prominence.  The aggregate “abstraction quotient” of art music available to the listener is shrinking.   

This proposition can also be stated in terms of the creative process. Currently predominant tendencies in Hindustani music suggest that the contemplative dimension of the art is shrinking and being progressively subordinated to/ replaced by the expressive and communicative dimensions.

Stated in this fashion, Hindustani music becomes comparable to other arts. Art distinguishes itself from other voluntary and pleasing human endeavors by the dominance of the contemplative dimension over the expressive and the communicative.

In music, I would ask the question – how much can you dilute the contemplative genres and movements before you are obliged to call it entertainment? In the visual arts, you would probably ask – how much loss of abstraction can an art work accept before you are obliged to call it interior decoration?

I have the impression that Hindustani music and the visual arts are both obliged to answer these questions today. If this is so, the roots of the phenomenon must be traced to the larger cultural process determined by socio-economic change.

The cultural process

The hospitability of the musical culture to abstraction needs to be viewed from three angles: The socio-economic angle, the demographic angle, and the technological angle.

Hindustani music is a legacy of the feudal-agrarian culture that dominated India right up to the end of colonial rule. After independence, that music was transplanted to the urban-industrial-commercial culture of the metropolitan cities. Aesthetic values are governed largely by the predominant means of livelihood in a society. Different means of livelihood subject man to different relationships with time and space – both fundamental to the shaping of aesthetic values. To this extent, Hindustani music had to undergo a transformation to satisfy the musical needs of its new patron class.

It is also important to acknowledge the role of growing sexual freedom in shaping aesthetic values. The relative anonymity of urban-industrial-commercial societies grants much greater sexual freedom to its members than feudal-agrarian societies did. Superficially, these two might seem unrelated. In reality, however, they are intimately connected. Art and sexual activity both belong to the pleasure principle in human nature. Art represents the sublimation of the pleasure principle, while sexual activity represents man’s proximity to the animal kingdom.

The investment of emotional energies and intensity of the induced pleasurable experience may be equally great in art and in sexual activity; but the two differ substantially in the speed with which they build and release tension. Orgasm-directed sexual activity delivers a speedy build-up and release of tension. Art, on the other hand, delivers a gradual build-up and release of aesthetic tension. The two fall at different -- and indeed, very distant -- points of the pleasure-seeking spectrum of human behaviour.

The greater sexual freedom characteristic of the urban-industrial-commercial environment shapes what may be called a culture of extended adolescence. Though we must grant hormonal activity its legitimate due in this reality, adolescence -- as a cultural force --  is not merely an age-group. It is a heightened awareness of physicality and a subdued awareness of emotionality. It is, in effect, a culture of cerebral and emotional laziness. The contemplative dimension of art demands exactly the opposite – the cerebral and emotional interpretation of the manifest form in terms of its formless source.

In the Indian context, the notion of “extended adolescence” is unnecessary for defining the culture. The demographics of the country make adolescence almost literally a here-and-now reality. India’s median age is 27. Statistically, half of India’s population is below 27. That is adolescent enough. Impelled primarily by biological forces, and aided by socio-economic realities, today’s culture dominated by the 25-30 age-group cannot be particularly hospitable to abstraction as a significant quality in the arts.

Yes, India is a young country; but not for long. The median age will be touching 30 by 2025, and 35 by 2045. Birth rates are falling; but death rates are slowing faster. Demographic trends point towards increasing life expectancies, and the emergence of a “counter culture” or a “sub-culture” shaped by the “Grey Generation” (60+). This is a generation outside the realm of sexual activity, and hospitable to abstraction as a significant presence in the arts.

I find it interesting that the pre-independence high of median age around 22 comes down for about 30 years, before it rises, and crosses 22 again in the year 2000, a time-span of 53/55 years, conforming to the cyclicity indicated by the Kondratiev model and the generational perspectives of the modern Spanish thinker, Jose Ortega Y Gasset. 

What appears to be a polarization of society in terms of generations -- and implicitly aesthetic values – may well be the germ of a new cultural paradigm emerging from the nascent demography. India appears to be on the threshold of a radical change in the pattern of interaction between co-existing generations. I shall review the Ortega and Kondratiev propositions later in the paper.

The third issue is technological. The explosion of recording, storage and distribution technologies has isolated the musician from the audience in time and space. This isolation has played a major role in replacing the “process” of music with the “product”.  

Unlike the visual arts which are created in the absence of its audience, Hindustani music is interactive, and relies on the presence of its audience for shaping the musical endeavour. Hindustani music requires the musician to simultaneously perform the roles of composer and performer in real time during a performance. It can therefore be said that Hindustani music does not exist except in performance. Implicitly, it acquires an existence only in the presence of the audience, with the audience being a participant in the music-making process. 

The “absence” of an audience affects the contemplative dimension of the endeavour more than the expressive and the communicative. As recordings became the primary vehicle for delivering music to its audiences, the contemplative inclinations and abilities of musicians tend to fall into disuse, even as audiences experience the growing sterility of music.

What was really happening to Hindustani music in the latter half of the 20th century? Hindustani music – rooted as it was in the feudal-agrarian modes of presentation and in direct interface with audiences -- was struggling to remain aesthetically relevant. In this process, it drifted away from the process (contemplative), and focused on the product (expression and communication).  The result was interesting.

Hindustani music lost young concert hall audiences in India, but was retaining the loyalty of the 60+ generation. Simultaneously, the art expanded speedily in the West. There is sufficient evidence to believe that Hindustani music enthusiasts in the West tend to be, on an average, people of much higher intellect and academic accomplishment than average Indian audiences. Evidently, therefore, the “Grey Generation” in India and intellectual elites in the West were supporting the contemplative dimension of Hindustani music, while young Indian audiences were dropping out. But, were they really demanding its abandonment? This question may be tentatively answered later in this paper.

The question before the critic is – is the decay of abstraction/ contemplative process  irreversible? The answer depends on whether we regard the cultural process as being linear or cyclical, or entirely open-ended with no pre-determined destination.


In the last decade, we have seen indications that the contemplative dimension of Hindustani music is resisting its inundation by adolescent values. The second post-independence generation of musicians exhibits a considerable involvement with the contemplative dimension, and a fresh – and sometimes even baffling -- approach to it, relatively unfettered by the influence of the pre-independence generation in music.  

A parallel movement has emerged with the aim of reviving the intimate concert (Chamber-music) format with small, knowledgeable audiences. This format is gathering momentum with the support of audiences cutting across generations and social class. Simultaneously, it is also bringing young audiences back into the orbit of Hindustani music.

This is probably to be expected, considering the historical perspectives of the Russian scientist, Nikolai Kondratiev and the Spanish thinker, Jose Ortega Y Gasset. This is a vast area. I have written about it in detail elsewhere. I shall deal with it only briefly here.

Using economic, sociological, political, and demographic data from 1790 to 1920, Kondratiev published (1925) a highly respected model of socio-economic cyclicity, which suggests a mega-cycle of 50-60 years in the lives of societies, and in human history. The Kondratiev cycles consist of 25-30 years of economic expansion and as many years of economic contraction. The expansionary phase has been found to coincide with productivity enhancing technological developments. The comprehensiveness of the model obliges us to regard it as culturally significant. 

As an observer of the culture environment, I am inclined to read Kondratiev’s work along with Ortega’s generational analysis of history and culture.

The Ortega perspective defines 30 years as constituting a “psychological/ cultural generation”. His theory implies that imperceptible changes are taking place in society constantly because of the interaction between various co-existing generations. Their cumulative effect becomes perceptible as a paradigm shift approximately every 60 years. In simple terms, all the environmental forces acting upon the values of the “grandfather generation” have either faded away or become impotent by the time the “grandchild generation” begins to interact with the world.

The Kondratiev and Ortega models of cyclicity, derived by entirely different logical processes, exhibit a striking similarity of cyclical durations, and are therefore collectively even more significant.

The Paradigm Shift

If we regard independence (1947) as the watershed in India’s cultural history, the first post-independence generation of musicians came on the scene in around 1977, and remained active till 2007 (30 years). It is during this period that Hindustani music lost audiences in India, and gained audiences in the West. It is with the arrival of the second post-independence generation (born around 1977) and emerging on the stage around 2007, that the abstractionist/contemplative dimension of Hindustani music appears to be making a come-back.

Music now appears to be making contemporary sense despite a massive churning – or perhaps emerging from it. Established genres of the pre-independence era are exhibiting signs of aesthetic obsolescence. Their idiomatic boundaries look increasingly blurred. Discontinuities are evident, but continuities have not been jettisoned. At the core of this seeming chaos appears to be an attempt to rediscover the abstract foundations of this music in the Raga – the “Commanding Form”.

If my reading of the “straws in the wind” of Hindustani music is valid, we could today be welcoming the dawn of the post-independence renaissance in Hindustani music.

© Deepak Raja. February 2018