Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Swara, Raga, & Rasa – a perspective

Reproduced from
“Hindustani Music – a tradition in transition”
Author: Deepak S. Raja
Foreword: Pandit Shivkumar Sharma
Introduction: Lyle Wachovsky
DK Printworld (P) Ltd. New Delhi. 2005

Swara, Raga, and Rasa, are the fundamental melodic and esthetic concepts in Indian musicology. The three terms are almost impossible to translate, because their lexicographic connotation delivers no meaningful value. Their meaning is predominantly cultural. This is why every author on the subject offers a different perspective on them. I present below my interpretation of these concepts with specific reference to Hindustani music, as written for the Glossary to my first book.

The word derives from Sanskrit “Swa” = self + “Ra” = illumination. Swara is, therefore, an utterance expressing the entirety of the practitioner’s being, and has the potential for personality transformation. Though an avowedly subjective expression, it necessarily has certain known and measurable acoustic features. However, the Indian musical tradition also identifies two features, which pose conceptual problems. The Sanskrit texts do define the terms for them, which are almost impossible to translate. The qualities are “Deepti”, loosely translated as luminosity, and “Anuranan”, loosely translated as a haunting quality. Clarity on these dimensions may have to await either an acoustically meaningful translation of these terms, or their recognition as hitherto unknown/ unmeasured acoustic dimensions. This brief etymological-acoustic discussion supports the growing realization that, “Swara” in Hindustani music does not correspond efficiently to the Western notion of tone or a pitch-ratio relative to the tonic.

The Hindustani scale has twelve swara-s, all of which acquire musical meaning only with reference to the tonic, which is chosen arbitrarily by the musician. These twelve swara-s have names. But, the existence of standard frequency ratios for eleven of them, relative to the tonic, is debatable. Nor is it clear that their musical values depends upon the existence of such standardized acoustic relationships. There could, in reality, be stronger evidence to support the opposite argument -- that their musical value depends precisely on the freedom the musician has to intone them in accordance with aesthetic, rather than acoustic, principles. This is particularly so since, as a rule, Hindustani music eschews staccato intonation.

This proposition is consistent with the crucial difference between the Hindustani and the Western scales The Western scale is an octave with eight fixed points, while the Hindustani scale is a Saptak ( Sapta = seven) with seven intervals covering the same tonal distance. Music making activity in Hindustani music is focused on the handling of intervals, while Western tradition focuses its attention in handling the tonal points.

The issue here is, in fact, philosophical and cultural more than acoustic. Any cultural manifestation can be held accountable only to its own goals and values. The primary values of the Indian musical tradition are spiritual, with the aesthetic and the sensory being subservient to it. In the hierarchy of music making goals, the primary place belongs to the generation of Rasa at the highest possible level of intensity. A musician shapes and re-shapes Raga-s in order to achieve the Rasa goal. In the process, he also arranges and re-arranges relationships between the individual units of melodic expression, the swara-s.

The amorphous and malleable character of Raga-s, and the floating pitch values in Hindustani music are an essential part of a tradition that gives the musician the combined role of a composer-performer, requiring both these processes to be performed simultaneously. Raga grammar and the "standard" pitches of swara both have only ephemeral validity as the stimuli of an interactive process validated solely by its generation of the target emotional response, the Rasa.

The word, generally used as a suffix, is Sanskrit for “attitude/ quality of response/ emotional content of a relationship”. In music, it has come to denote a melodic idea or framework, associated with a specific quality of emotional response. The notion of Raga-ness is, therefore, inseparable from the concept of “Rasa” in Indian aesthetics. A Raga is a psycho-acoustic hypothesis, which states that melody, created and rendered in accordance with a certain set of rules, has a high probability of eliciting a certain quality of emotional response. The set of rules for the creation and rendition of the melody constitute the grammar of a Raga. An awareness of the target response enables a musician to transcend grammar and enter the realm of literature.

As a melodic entity, a Raga is neither a pre-composed melody, nor a mode or scale. It is represented by a set of rules governing the selection, sequencing and treatment of tones/ swara-s. These rules define a framework, which is tight enough to ensure aesthetic coherence, while also providing sufficient freedom for individual creativity. This approach to guiding the melodic content of music was necessary for a tradition, which combines the role of the composer and performer in the same individual.

As a cultural choice, this approach harmonises the competing demands of continuity within change, and unity within diversity. This enables each performed piece of music to retain a familiarity while giving audiences a substantial access to a novelty and freshness of the musical experience. Every Raga is a plausible psycho-acoustic hypothesis because of the accumulated experience of society, and continues to remain plausible with every musician being allowed to test it, and even revise it, at every performance. The hypothesis is perennial and ever-changing, never intending to attain the finality of a theory.

Each Raga is shaped and re-shaped by each performance, and has no existence exogenous to this context. The total achievement of its emotional goals is accepted as a random event because it is susceptible to a host of variables, many of which may be un-controllable and even unrelated to the music itself. The names of Raga-s, and their grammar, are only the starting point of familiarity for contemporary audiences. Once the basis for familiarity is established, the music itself is not bound by the familiar relationship between a raga's name and its contemporary grammar. The musical performance has the sole purpose of sharing the experience of literature, often leaving grammarians struggling to relate the "happening" to a name, and to document what liberated grammar from itself.

The Indian aesthetic tradition views the sensory experience as a pathway to the emotional, and the emotional as a pathway to the spiritual. This reflects the fundamental transcendentalism of Hindu thought. All art is, therefore, validated by a single dominant criterion – its ability to elicit an emotional response. This criterion acknowledges that, at its most intense, the experience of beauty evokes a response that transcends its qualitative aspect, and acquires a mystical quality. This defines the potential of the artistic endeavour, and its reception, for personality transformation and spiritual evolution. At the intermediate aesthetic level, however, the tradition allows for the classification of works of art on the basis of the quality of the emotional response. The name given to these qualities is “Rasa”, a metaphorical expression derived from the Sanskrit “Rasa” = extract/ essence/ juice.

Orthodox Indian aesthetic theory, enunciated in pre-Christian texts, recognizes nine basic emotions/ sentiments, called Navrasa, Sanskrit for “Nav” = nine + “Rasa” = qualities of sentiments/ emotional experience. The nine are: [a] Shringaara, the romantic sentiment, [b] Karuna, the sentiment of pathos [c] Haasya, the sentiment of mirth [d] Raudra, the sentiment of wrath [e] Veera, the sentiment of valour [f] Bhaya, the sentiment of fear [g] Bibhatsa, the sentiment of disgust [h] Adbhut, the sentiment of surprise/ marvel [I] Shaanta, the sentiment of peace. Over the two millennia since this enumeration, critical literature has added several other sentiments, and combinations of orthodox sentiments, to the interpretation of the emotional content of artistic endeavours.

© Deepak S. Raja 2005

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