Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Sanjh Saravali – Ustad Vilayat Khan’s Magnum Opus

It is known of Ustad Vilayat Khan, that he did not particularly care either about adopting new ragas crated by others, or about creating ragas of his own. He spent most of his life performing a select number of mature ragas, attempting to achieve progressively greater levels of depth in their exploration. But, being the creative genius that he was, he did occasionally give an idiosyncratic twist to some mature ragas. Most of these were flirtations which did not last beyond a performance or two.

In two cases, however, his individualistic interpretations went far enough beyond the recognizable boundaries of the mature ragas, and acquired a life of their own. Once this had happened, the Ustad devoted considerable musical energy to them over several years, and pushed them towards an independent raga-ness. One was his interpretation of Darbari Kanada, finally named Enayet Khani Kanada; and the other was his interpretation of Yaman Kalyan, which he named Sanjh Saravali. Of the two, Sanjh Saravali is the more significant because he developed its “raga-ness” with much greater persistence over a much longer period of time.

From available concert archives of the Ustad, it appears that the idea of Sanjh Saravali was born in the late 1970s. Since then, he has performed it frequently at concerts in India and abroad. The Ustad first recorded it for commercial release in the mid- 1980's (EMI: STCS 048 7764). The melodic character of the “raga” remained constant between then, and the late 1990s, when he recorded it for the last time, for India Archive Music, New York.

In 2002, I asked him to explain Sanjh Saravali (Sanjh= evening + Saravali=melody) to me. The Ustad described it as a beautiful "Cheez (a piece) which had composed itself." Because the word "Cheez" is used for describing compositions, and ragas are "created" rather than "composed", the remark appeared to refer to the composition, rather than to the raga. By this indication, and also by the evidence of the music itself, it appears that the composition "composed itself" first, and Vilayat Khan built the raga around it.

Sanjh Saravali is, essentially, a song (capital S) complete in itself, requiring no reference point or validation beyond its own direct appeal to the heart of the listener. If it does not qualify as a raga, the Ustad, in all probability, did not intend it to do so.

The melody uses tonal material common to ragas Yaman Kalyan and Bihag, as also to several other ragas of the Kalyan parent scale. Its treatment alternates between these two ragas, and incorporates fleeting impressions of several other ragas of the same family, especially those which use both the Ma swaras, Shuddha (natural) and Tivra (sharp) such as Nand Kalyan, Chhaya Nat, and Hem.

The rigor of Hindustani music demands meticulous adherence to raga grammar in order to avoid confusion with other ragas similar either in tonal material or phraseology. On the other hand, punctuating the renditions of one raga with apparitions of allied ragas (Avirbhav/ Tirobhav= appearance/ disappearance) is an accepted device for the display of musicianship -- a device to be used very prudently.

Against this backdrop, you have Sanjh Saravali, whose very melodic identity rests on hide-and-seek between several allied ragas. Not surprisingly, it is a musical challenge which even the Ustad's brilliant heir, Shujaat Khan, accepts with considerable apprehension. Despite having accompanied his father at least 15 times with Sanjh Saravali, Shujaat confesses he still hasn't got a comfortable grip over the melody.

According to Shujaat, the melody was defined to him in 1984/85 as Yaman Kalyan played in the shadow of Bihag. It has therefore to be understood from both ends.

Yaman Kalyan is popularly understood as Yaman with the addition of the Shuddha Ma in the descent. This is accompanied, in the descent, by a shift in phraseology.

N R G M^ D N S'/ Descent: S N D P M^ G R S
Yaman Kalyan:
: N R G M^ D N S'/ Descent: S' N D P M^ G, R G M G R, G R S

Bihag becomes a relevant reference point for Sanjh Saravali because of its catch-phrase (P M^ G M R G), which is unique amongst twin-Ma usage ragas of the Kalyan parent scale, but closest in its aural experience, to Bihag (P M^ G M G).

The totality of this raga retains a reasonable distance from both, Yaman Kalyan and Bihag, by incorporating several phrases external to both. To reinforce the independence of this raga from Yaman Kalyan and Bihag, the Ustad frequently resorts to a non-descript treatment of the two Ma swaras. However, while developing the raga in the lower octave, and in the lower tetrachord, Vilayat Khan accepts the phraseology of Yaman and Yaman Kalyan. And, in the upper tetrachord, the Ustad allows in phrases which are explicitly from Bihag (N D N S N).

Despite the stability of its melodic character in the creator’s mind over a couple of decades, the raga-ness of this “raga” is elusive, and defies formal codification. In terms of its emotional content, Sanjh Saravali evokes a combination of the tranquil, and the solemn – largely, the atmosphere of Yaman Kalyan. There might be a hint of the romantic in this melody; but it is a stoic romanticism devoid of any vivacity.

The riveting effect of this melody can be attributed to its tendency towards becoming a raga without really becoming one, its habit of hovering in the vicinity of several familiar ragas without merging into any of them -- the amorphous grammar which liberates literature. An expression of Taoist insight at its best: In vagueness lies wisdom; in precision, folly.

The Ustad's critics will, of course, ask whether Sanjh Saravali is distinctive enough to be called a raga, and whether it justifies itself by fulfilling a musical need that had hitherto remained unfulfilled. Issues such as these are, indeed, important for an understanding of the cultural process. But, they pale into insignificance when we consider the greatness of the music such novel melodic ideas can inspire. It is the Ustad’s 78-minute Bada Khayal style rendition of this “raga”, recorded for India Archive Music, New York, which will qualify amongst the greatest pieces of instrumental music recorded in the post-independence era.

Deepak S. Raja
© India Archive Music Ltd., New York, producers of the finest recording of Raga Sanjh Saravali by Ustad Vilayat Khan. IndiaArcMu@aol.com.

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