Sunday, November 23, 2008

Raga Shuddha Kalyan: How and why it is changing

Shuddha Kalyan is a popular, though difficult, raga of the Kalyan parent scale. The raga is pentatonic in the ascent and heptatonic in the descent.

Ascent: SRGPDS'
Descent: S'NDPM^GRS

The ascent is identical to Bhoop/Bhupali, while the descent is identical to Yaman/Kalyan. This is why the raga is also occasionally referred to as Bhoop Kalyan. But, there is more confusion surrounding the raga’s nomenclature because some gharana-s refer to Bhoop/Bhupali (pentatonic) as Bhoop Kalyan. And, some refer to Shuddha Kalyan (heptatonic in the descent) as Shuddha Bhoopal. Although varying nomenclatures are a good indication of the two-faced character of the raga, we can stick to Shuddha Kalyan as the most widely used name, with a good chance of identifying the melodic entity beyond reasonable doubt.

According to Manikbuwa Thakurdas (Raga Darshan), this raga can be performed in either of its two distinct variants -- a Bhoop-biased treatment, and a Kalyan-biased treatment. In a Bhoop-biased treatment, the use of the Ni/Ma swaras in the descent should be subtle enough to be "apratyaksha" (subliminal/ implicit/ imperceptible). This is normally achieved by using the two swaras only in a meend (glissando) as grace swaras in the transition from Sa to (Ni) Dh and Pa to (Ma) Ga. When presented in the Kalyan-biased treatment, the Ni/Ma swaras can be "pratyaksha" (explicit) or "apratyaksha" (implicit), and therefore not limited to being treated as grace swaras.

Subba Rao (Raga Nidhi, Vol.IV) points out a third interpretation of the raga which omits the Ma/Ni swaras altogether. In such a treatment, distinguishing the resulting music from Bhoop/Bhupali requires great skill. This version was heard occasionally until the 1960s, and is virtually extinct now.

According to Kalyan Mukherjea (his e-mail of June 25,1999), an eminent disciple of Pandit Radhika Mohan Maitra, his Guru resolved this multiplicity of views as only great creative minds can -- by a poetic description. According to him, Ni/Ma are "astamita", like rays of the setting sun, which has already sunken below the horizon. This description permits the subliminal as well as the explicit use of the Ni/Ma swaras in the descent, as long as they claim no more than a subtle presence in the totality of the aural experience.

The raga permits phrases to culminate only on Sa, Re, Ga, and Pa. None of the other swaras are permitted the status of “nyasa swaras” [resting points] for phrasing. The primary melodic region of this raga is the region between the lower-octave Pa and the middle-octave Pa. This also happens to be the primary melodic region of Bhoop/Bhupali. Hence the exposure of Shuddha Kalyan to the risk of confusion with Bhoop.

Shuddha Kalyan avoids the confusion with Bhoop/Bhupali by its phrases P.D.P.S and S N. R, which rule out Bhoop/ Bhupali categorically. In addition, Shuddha Kalyan utilizes the Re swara as one of special emphasis, as against the Ga-dominance of Bhoop/Bhupali. Shuddha Kalyan prefers to use the Ga swara as a transitional swara in its journey towards Pa in a loop phrase RGPM^G as distinct from the direct DSRG or RPG characteristic of Bhoop/Bhupali.

The various views on Shuddha Kalyan appear to converge on one point – that, despite its heptatonic descent, the aural experience of the raga is intended to be near-pentatonic. On the basis of modern and contemporary practice, the raga appears to be anchored in the lower half of the melodic canvas, with a notional scale from the lower-Pa to the middle-Pa. Some musicians have chosen to locate the raga’s epicentre in the uttaranga [upper tetrachord] of the lower octave, while others have opted for the poorvanga [lower tetrachord] of the middle octave. Because the raga’s tonal/ melodic differentiation from Bhoop/ Bhupali and Deshkar is most explicit in the descent, the raga may be considered avaroha-pradhan [descent dominant]. This is the raga’s esthetic grammar, which refines its melodic grammar, and drives it towards literature.

A survey of available recordings of this raga reveals some interesting patterns. To begin with, Suddha Kalyan appears to have been performed only by musicians of considerable stature. Even these musicians appear to have performed the raga primarily at concerts, and rarely on commercial recordings. These facts suggest that the raga is regarded as a considerable aesthetic challenge, and those who do perform it do so after they have ascertained the receptivity potential of their audiences to the raga’s melodic subtleties. These subtleties of raga grammar might explain why vocalists have remained far more faithful to the near-pentatonic aural experience of the raga than instrumentalists performing on the plucked lutes – sitar and sarod.

But, there appears also to be a generational angle to the diversity in the handling of the raga’s near-pentatonic character, especially with respect to sitar and sarod renditions. Evidence of recordings by three generations of sitar/sarod players suggests that the ergonomic and acoustic aspects of music making have encouraged a steady drift towards a bolder expression of the raga’s heptatonic character and, by implication, a dilution of the near-pentatonic aural experience.

This tendency could partially also reflect the growing audience-friendliness amongst the younger Hindustani musicians. They are a part of the new “in-your-face” culture, which makes them abandon the subtleties and nuances of ragas in favour of the more explicit expression, which also happens to be less demanding in melodic execution.

By way of support for these observations, I rely on recordings of the raga by Ustad Ameer Khan [Vocal: HMV:STC:851005], Roshanara Beghum [Vocal: HMV:STC: 04B: 7702], Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande [Vocal: Music Today:A-92060], Shrafat Hussain Khan [Vocal: Concert: Unpublished] Ustad Vilayat Khan [Sitar: Concert at National Centre for Performing Arts, Bombay, February 8, 1998. Unpublished], Kalyan Mukherjea [Sarod: India Archive Music, NY], and a recording by Shujaat Khan [India Archive Music, NY].

The issue of maintaining the near-pentatonic aural experience of a raga with a heptatonic scale revolves primarily around the subliminal use of [tivra] Ma in the descent from Pa to Ga, and the equally imperceptible use of [shuddha] Ni in the descent from Sa to Dh. Since the ergonomic and generational issues stand out in bolder relief in the instrumental renditions, a detailed look at the sitar/ sarod recordings is revealing.

Ustad Vilayat Khan [born: 1928], the seniormost of the instrumentalists surveyed, remains remarkably close to the near-pentatonic experience of the raga throughout the concert. In the low-density melodic movements, he hardly ever executes the Ma/Ni swaras on the frets, always using the meend [string deflection] technique to approximate the vocalist’s subtlety. In the high-density movements, the Ustad sparingly uses the Ni fret supported with a plectrum stroke, but almost never the Ma fret. The dilution of the raga’s near-pentatonic character in Vilayat Khan’s Shuddha Kalyan, if any, [Example: S’NDPGRS] does not go beyond a near-hexatonic experience.

Sarodist Kalyan Mukherjea [born:1943] is more explicit in the use of the Ma/ Ni swaras, including supporting them with plectrum strokes. His interpretation of the raga permits medium density passages such as SN/ ND/ DP/ PM^ /M^G with gamak execution, which allow the Ma/Ni swaras as much weightage as other swaras. Despite its explicitness, this usage remains broadly “apratyaksha” [subtle/ imperceptible] because swaras taken in pairs do not constitute a phrase, and stop short of defining an explicit melodic contour.

Therefore, while Mukherjea treats the raga as being pentatonic in the ascent, and heptatonic in the descent, the experience of the Ma/ Ni swaras remains– as described by his Guru -- akin to the rays of the setting sun, after it has dipped below the horizon. Because the fretless sarod is a more hospitable instrument with respect to the Ma/Ni subtlety than the sitar, the liberality of Mukherjea’s treatment -- relative to Ustad Vilayat Khan’s -- may, therefore, have an element of generational preference.

The generational issue acquires some merit because, Shujaat Khan [Born: 1960] goes beyond Mukherjea in permitting the Ma/Ni swaras a presence in the raga. Shujaat’s deployment of these swaras is perhaps more prominent than even the “pratyaksha” treatment envisaged by Thakurdas [Ibid]. Shujat freely deploys phrases such as RGM^GR and PDNDP which can be interpreted as using Ma and Ni in the ascent as well as descent. Shujaat also feels free to construct descending alankar tans which define melodic contours with Ma and Ni as nyasa swaras [Example: GGRS/ RRSN/ SSND/ NNDP/ DDPM^/ PPM^G/ M^M^GR/ GGRS].

He therefore appears to treat the Ma/Ni swaras as permissible for sparing deployment, but not necessarily only in the descent, and not merely as incidentals to phrasing. Contextually, however, Shujaat’s usage hardly creates dissonance except for the abnormally critical ear. Despite the magnitude of his deviations, the aural experience of his Shuddha Kalyan remains within the recognisable boundaries of the raga.

This discussion could invite the argument that sitarists and sarod players should refrain from performing ragas like Shuddha Kalyan, whose subtleties their instruments cannot handle. But, this is an irrelevant line of reasoning in Hindustani music tradition, built on the assumptions of continuity within change. It accepts that ragas can, and do, alter their melodic grammar over time, even in the vocal expression. The motivation for these alterations is either greater ease of melodic execution or responding to changing aesthetic values.

Instrumentalists alter the raga form with the same motivation. Their alterations are merely more obvious than those of vocalists because of the perceptible mechanics of sound activation and melodic execution. And, to the extent that instruments increasingly dominate society’s experience of Hindustani music, their melodic-acoustic features reflect contemporary aesthetic values, while also altering our melodic experience of ragas and, indeed, our notions of raga-ness.

This perspective is easier to appreciate by visualising Shuddha Kalyan being attempted on the santoor, the Indian dulcimer, a staccato instrument. Even in the hands of the greatest santoor maestro, the instrument would be severely limited in its ability to deliver the micro-tonal subtleties of Shuddha Kalyan as hitherto prescribed. Unlike western classical music, which composes music uniquely for individual instruments, the Hindustani tradition accepts Shuddha Kalyan on the santoor with all its limitations, and will judge the results by the same fundamental yardstick – whether the melodic experience remains within the recognisable boundaries of the raga, as currently understood.

The operative phrase in this proposition is “the raga as currently understood”. Audiences acquire their notions of raga-ness from the mix of aural experiences to which they are exposed.

As long as the subtle and the not-so-subtle interpretations of Shuddha Kalyan are both in circulation, listeners hearing the less subtle versions will tend to mentally “fill in” the subtleties which they were supposed to hear, but do not actually hear in the music being performed. This great ability of the human aural mechanism constitutes some protection against the dilution of an exquisitely subtle melodic entity.

But, the music-scape of society is dynamic in nature. If the santoor should ever dominate our society’s musical experience, the ergonomic and acoustic uniqueness of the instrument will reshape the experience of Shuddha Kalyan, along with every other “raga as currently understood”.

If such an event comes to pass, nobody needs lose sleep over it because it will not happen either for the first time, or the last. The Hindustani tradition is robust enough to accommodate different notions of a “raga as currently understood” for vocal music, and for as many categories of instruments as are in vogue.

Deepak S. Raja
© India Archive Music Ltd. New York
The finest recordings of raga Shuddha Kalyan have been produced by India Archive Music Ltd.

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