Friday, June 8, 2018

Raga clusters in Hindustani music



Lecture demonstration 
The Music Academy, Madras
December 18, 2011

I have to begin with a couple of confessions. Firstly, I am a late entrant to musicology. I am therefore primarily a student of the performing tradition, and much less so of the scholarly tradition. Secondly, my knowledge of Carnatic music is negligible. I will try to conceal these weaknesses. But, they could very well get exposed. In such event, I shall be grateful for your indulgence.

The subject:

I have chosen to share with you my understanding of raga clusters, formed by raga transformations and compound raga-s, as practiced in Hindustani music. I chose this subject on the advice of knowledgeable friends in Chennai. They thought this phenomenon was largely unfamiliar to those cultivated in the Carnatic tradition. As audiences in the South get progressively exposed to Hindustani music, a discussion could aid a better appreciation.   

The perspective:

As a melodic entity, a Raga is a set of rules governing the (a) selection (b) sequencing and (c) treatment of swara-s.

This definition has two perspectives – one is the scale (selection of swara-s), and the other is the melodic personality (sequencing and treatment). The scale is the skeleton of a raga, while the sequencing and treatment are the flesh and blood. The melodic personality subsumes the scale, and is therefore a larger perspective, and closer to the notion of rasa, which is fundamental to raga-based music.

Hindustani music devotes a lot of attention to the melodic personality as a guide to the performing tradition. Based on this focus, it classifies a large number of raga-s into clusters which share the same melodic personality. In Hindustani music, these clusters have been variously called RagaAnga Raga-s or Raga Prakar-s.

I shall avoid using the term RagAnga Raga-s because of the possibility of stepping into the medieval classification of raga-s into RagAnga, BhashAnga and KriyAnga Raga-s, which I do not understand.

I am also avoiding the colloquial notion of raga families; and for a good reason. There exists an ancient classification of raga-s into (1) Six Primary raga-s, (2) Thirty ragini-s/ wives (3) Napungsaka raga-s, (4) putra raga-s/ sons and (5) putra-vadhu raga-s / daughters-in-law. This is an area I have not studied, and do not understand. I will therefore continue with the caveat that there is no reference here to this ancient classification either.

I shall stick to the nomenclature of Raga Clusters. In music theory, I am relying on a concept that is primarily 20th century (post-Bhatkhande), and using a term (cluster) derived from modern social sciences research, which suggests a synchronicity and commonality without necessarily implying any causality between members.  

How the clusters are conceived:

Clusters are formed around the major/ popular melodic personalities encountered in Hindustani raga-s – treated as the “reference/ base” raga-s. All raga-s do not necessarily belong to particular clusters. But, many do.

Examples of base/reference raga-s which serve as the nucleus for Raga clusters are.
1.      Bhairav (Reference raga: Bhairav)
2.      Bilawal  (Reference raga: Bilawal)
3.      Todi       (Reference raga: Miya ki Todi)
4.      Sarang   (Reference raga: Vrindavani Sarang (? )
5.      Kanada  (Reference raga: Darbari Kanada)
6.      Malhar   (Reference raga: Miya ki Malhar)
7.      Bahar     (Reference raga: Bahar)
8.      Kauns (Reference raga: Malkauns)

Note: This list is not exhaustive, as several other Reference raga-s/ Raga clusters have been proposed by different musicians/ scholars.

Membership of the raga-clusters is defined broadly by two types of transformations with the reference raga as the focal point.

(a)    A change in the scale or phrasing in the reference raga, which is so minor that, although it creates a different raga, it does so without permitting the shadow (Chhaya) of another major raga from falling upon the transformation. I have chosen to call this category a “Raga Transformation”.

      Historically, these transformations need not necessarily have been derived from the “Reference Raga”. But, it is possible that many of them are  derived. Shahana Kanada of the Kanada cluster (bearing no similarity to the Carnatic raga, Sahana), for instance, probably precedes the emergence of Darbari Kanada. Ahir Bhairav of the Bhairav cluster is, however, considered a derivation from Bhairav.

(b)   A purposive and deliberate combination of two or more raga-s, in which both/ all the component raga-s are visibly present, but one of them dominates the totality of the musical experience. Although this process of combining raga-s can take several forms, they can be clubbed together in the category of “Compound Raga-s”. In modern musicological literature, they are also occasionally referred to as “Sankeerna Raga-s”.

The logic:

Why is it important to practice a notion of raga clusters based on the melodic personality?

The aesthetic purpose of raga transformations and compound raga-s is to establish or create relatively unfamiliar melodic entities within, or from, relatively familiar melodic material. In these transformations/ compound raga-s, the familiar boundaries of the reference raga are “breached”. But, the resultant melodic entity does not lose its anchoring in the melodic personality governing the raga cluster.

To achieve this result, the scale is clearly insufficient because in Hindustani music, the same scale can deliver a multiplicity of raga-s, each governed by a different melodic personality.

Many instances of this phenomenon can be cited. I will limit my observations to just two. Take for instance, the scale of Raga Madhyamavati in Carnatic music. The same scale delivers two raga-s in Hindustani music – one is Raga Megh, performed as a member of the Malhar cluster, and the other is Madhumad Sarang, performed as a member of the Sarang cluster. Consider another example – the Bhoop (Mohanam in Carnatic) scale of Hindustani music delivers three different Hindustani raga-s – Bhoop/ Bhoopali, Deshkar, and Jait. The scale is identical, but the sequencing and treatment of swara-s is distinct.

The second issue is the importance of improvisation in the totality of the music making process. I am not competent to compare this facet of Hindustani music with Carnatic music. Within Hindustani music, however, the post-Dhrupad era has seen Hindustani music progressively become a highly individualistic, improvisation dominant art. It has steadily shrunk the role of the pre-composed element, and progressively enlarged the role of the musician as a composer. As it has expanded the role of improvisatory process, musicians – and their audiences – have sought a more categorical anchoring in the melodic personality within which the raga functions.  Originality has flowered because of its ability to remain anchored in the familiar.

The essence of the cluster phenomenon:

Raga transformations and compound raga-s are both deviations from the established grammar of the Reference Raga considered in isolation.  In effect, they enable the musician to enlarge his role as a composer beyond the boundaries of familiar raga-grammar. Although the deviations do follow certain conventions, all musicians may not interpret the conventions in an identical manner.  To this, extent, within limits, the musician actually writes the grammar of these melodic entities. As a result, several Raga variants, bearing the same name, may vary in their detailing of the transformed/compound melodic entity.

Broadly, however, certain statements can be made on this subject.

(a)    Raga transformations do, by and large, exhibit a standardized Raga grammar. For instance the Raga Shahana Kanada is performed as a variant of Raga Darbari Kanada, the Reference raga of the Kanada cluster.  To my knowledge, Shahana Kanada is encountered in three variants, each very close to the other. All the variants identify themselves as Shahana Kanada instantly.

(b)   Compound Raga-s can often exhibit what looks like “non-standard” Raga grammar because Raga-s can be dovetailed/ combined in a variety of ways. Even within the same dovetailing convention, the same compound Raga performed by one musician may sound slightly different from the same Raga performed by another musician. For instance, the Raga Kaunsi Kanada (a combination of Malkauns/ Hindolam and Darbari Kanada) sung by different musicians may sound marginally different, depending on the musician’s interpretation of the combination. And, yet, the compound will identify itself instantly as Kausi Kanada, and as a member of the Kanada cluster. 

It would be incorrect to see this phenomenon in Hindustani music as a region of grammatical laxity. Its logic is well documented in the scholarly tradition, and the major variants of each cluster are documented in terms of raga grammar. But, a musician is not entirely bound by the documented versions. The critical viewpoint subjects the performance of these raga-s to a different yardstick of validation  – the emphasis here is on aesthetic coherence, handling of the deviations from the reference raga (in the case of raga transformations), the dovetailing of the component raga-s (in the case of compound raga-s), and the element of novelty/surprise.

Patterns in raga transformations

1.      The dominant and identifying melodic features of the base/ reference raga are kept intact.
2.      With no change in scale, only some swara sangati-s or phrasing patterns may be changed.
3.      OR: Some swara-s may be altered from shuddha to komal/tivra or the other way around.
4.      OR: Some swara-s of the reference/ base raga may be omitted in the ascent or descent or both.

(a)   Transformation: Example 1.
Raga Khem Kalayan belongs to the Kalyan cluster. Features: The scale is identical to Yaman Kalyan. But, Re, Ma and Dh are omitted in the aroha, and (tivra) Ma is used subliminally in the avaroha.
Demo: Yaman Kalyan by Shujaat Khan, Khem Kalyan by Purnima Sen

(b)   Transformation: Example 2
Raga Shukla Bilawal belongs to the Bilawal cluster
The reference raga is Bilawal. Features. One signatory phrase (SGRGM) is added to Bilawal to create Shukla Bilawal.
Demo: Bilawal: Abdul Kareem Khan. Shukla Bilawal: Kalyan Mukherjea

(c)    Transformation: Example 3.
Raga Gaud Malhar belongs to the Malhar cluster
Reference raga: Miya Malhar
Features: (the most common version)
Komal Ga of Miya Malhar is replaced with Shuddha Ga Demo: Miya Malhar: Ameer Khan. Gaud Malhar: Vilayat Khan

Conventions for forging compound raga-s
The forging of two raga-s into compounds follows two classical conventions:
Raga-s are classified as either Aroha Pradhan (ascent dominant) or Avaroha Pradhan (descent dominant). The compound is forged by dovetailing the Aroha of the Aroha Pradhan raga with the avaroha of the avaroha pradhan raga.

2.      Raga-s are also alternatively classified as Purvanga pradhan (centered in the lower tetrachord) or Uttaranga Pradhan (centred in the upper tetrachord). A compound can be forged by fusing the Purvanga of a purvanga pradhan raga with the uttaranga of an uttaranga pradhan raga. Uttaranga pradhan raga-s are (as Bhatkhande observes) also frequently avaroha pradhan raga-s. Therefore, the dovetailing may not always seem clinically rigorous.

In a compound raga, there is no distinction between “native” and “alien” melodic features. Both are explicitly present in a pre-determined relationship, though one of the components tends to dominate the musical experience. The conventions for forging compounds work efficiently under most conditions. However, in extra-ordinary conditions, Hindustani music resorts to the third category of binding/ dovetailing.  

Extraordinary conditions
What does a musician do if he wishes to fuse one araoha pradhan raga with another aroha pradhan raga? Or, one uttaranga pradhan raga with another uttaranga pradhan raga? And, what will he do if he wishes to blend more than two raga-s? The classical conventions for fusing raga-s will not work.

In recent history, musicians have attempted to perform fusions of up to ten raga-s. Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, for instance, frequently sang Raga Patmanjari, a combination of five raga-s. Kesarbai Kerkar often sang Raga Khat (Shath), which is a combination of six raga-s.  The Gwalior tradition has documented a Raga Sagar, which is a combination of ten raga-s. One may question the aesthetic purpose of fusing more than three raga-s. But, this has been attempted, and its melodic logic can be deciphered.

In such raga-s, typical individual phrases from the component (primary) raga-s are fused together in alternating sequence in order to forge a novel melodic entity. As a result, in every melodic line (or at least in the entirety of the composition), you would experience the features of three or more different raga-s in interesting juxtaposition.

As may be expected, such multiple-raga combinations belong to a territory beyond grammar as applied to a single raga or even to compounds of two raga-s. Their “grammar” lies in their ability to distinctly express the different melodic identities they incorporate, the coherence of the resulting melodic entity, and the handling of the transitions between the different raga-s as it takes place in the fused melodic entity. 

1.      Compound raga: Example 1
Raga Basant Bahar belongs to the Bahar cluster.
Reference raga: Bahar
Features: Bahar in aroha, and Basant in avaroha
Demo: Hirabai Barodekar.

2.      Compound raga: Example 2
Raga Kaunsi Kanada belongs to the Kanada cluster
Reference raga: Darbari Kanada
Features: Malkauns in aroha and Darbari in avaroha
Demo: Vilayat Hussain Khan. Malkauns in aroha and Adana (a Darbari variant) in avaroha.

3.      Compound raga: Example 3
Raga Jog Kauns is a member of the Kauns cluster
Reference raga: Malkauns
Features: Jog in the purvanga, and Malkauns in the uttaranga
Demo: Vilayat Khan.

4.      Complex compound (more than two raga-s):
Raga Sampoorna Malkauns
This is not a raga, but a raga enhancement concept, providing a variety of options. Malkauns (SgMdn) is an audava jati (pentatonic) raga. It can be made “sampoorna” (Heptatonic) by adding Re and Pa. This can be done in a variety of ways. One approach: Practiced in Jaipur-Atrauli gharana of Khayal vocalism. A dovetailing of Malkauns, Kafi, and Bageshri
Demo: Dhondutai Kulkarni

Reconsidering the term “Sankeerna”
I do not claim scholarship in Sanskrit. But, in addition to the connotation of  (संक्रमण = Transit) “compounds” of different elements, the dictionary also suggests the connotations of “narrow”, and “inferior”.  On the evidence of the quality of music that has been delivered in the “Sankeerna” category in recent times, the derogatory suggestion warrants a second thought. It is plausible that Sankeerna Raga-s provide limited freedom for improvisation, compared to the major raga-s, which function as their reference raga-s. But, in a different sort of way, they provide a wider canvas for individual creativity.

To some extent, they liberate the reference raga from its established grammar. And, it is this liberating effect that places them in the region of literature.  But, it is not as if they are liberated from all forms of discipline that governs raga-based classical music. They have their own guiding principles. They constitute only a partial leap into unfamiliar melodic territory. They are governed by a more amorphous – but equally meaningful – entity I have chosen to describe as a राग स्वरुप = “melodic personality”. Music performed within such a framework is a creative challenge to musicians and an intellectual challenge to Rasika-s.

It challenges the musician to create something new from familiar melodic material while abandoning the safety of well-established grammatical rules. He has to achieve this result within the overall melodic personality governing the transformation or compound.

It is an equally great challenge to rasika-s. They are shaken out of the comfort of the entirely familiar melodic experience, and obliged to listen more attentively to the music being performed. The mature rasika-s can not only enjoy the novelty of the experience, but also the nuances and subtleties of its melodic engineering. Understandably, raga transformations and compound raga-s are performed mainly by musicians of some stature. And, of course, they are performed selectively, for audiences of high aesthetic cultivation.

In the early half of the 20th century, it was common practice for the leading musicians to start performing any raga without announcing it. The musician often tried cleverly to disguise the melodic logic of his raga, and the rasika-s managed to astutely decipher it.

Obviously, we are talking about a bygone era. Barring a few raga transformations which have become quite popular and are easily recognised (e.g. Ahir Bhairav of the Bhairav cluster or Shahana Kanada of the Kanada cluster), the performance of such raga-s is now rare. Fewer and fewer musicians can handle such raga-s. And, fewer and fewer audiences can appreciate them.

Although today I am addressing a predominantly Carnatic oriented audience, it seems to me that contemporary Hindustani audiences also need to be re-educated on this enchanting region of Hindustani music.

(c) Deepak S. Raja