Friday, December 19, 2008

Raga Ahiri: Neither Ahiri Todi, nor Ahir Bhairav – just Ahiri

Until a few years ago, I had not heard Raga Ahiri. The opportunity of studying it came my way when I had to write a commentary on the sarodist, Tejendra Majumdar’s recording of this raga for India Archive Music Ltd., New York.

Tejendra claims to have learnt this raga from his Guru, Ustad Bahadur Khan, as Ahiri, and not Ahiri Todi. In addition, he studied, from a private collection, an unpublished recording of the raga rendered by Nikhil Bannerjee. Tejendra vouches that the raga form, as taught to him by his Guru matches that of Nikhil Bannerjee. On this evidence, I am inclined to believe that Ahiri is a rare raga, which has been a part of the repertoire of the Maihar-Seniya repertoire.

The word "Ahir" refers to a community of cowherds in northern and western India. This suggests the origin of this raga in a tribal or folk melody, which entered the raga system by shaping variants of mature, major ragas. This possibility is suggested by the popularity of its compounds (e.g. Ahir Bhairav, Ahiri Todi, Ahir Lalit) and the rarity of the pure Ahiri.

Such situations are encountered when the pure form of a raga is either too similar to established ragas to sustain its independent raga-ness, or too limited in melodic potential to permit a sufficiently satisfying presentation. Isolating the pure form of ragas like Ahiri from their compounds -- conceptually as well as in practice -- is therefore a challenging task. Consequently, we encounter a variety of interpretations of such ragas in rendition, along with a scarcity of documentation, and lack of consistency in nomenclature and grammar.

In such situations, a residual derivation is occasionally possible with one of two approaches:
1. Ahiri = (Ahir Bhairav - Bhairav) or (Ahiri Todi - Todi)
2. Ahiri = {(Ahir Bhairav + Ahiri Todi) - Bhairav - Todi}

Considering that Ahiri appears, over the years, to have so totally submerged its identity into its compounds, neither of these derivations is particularly helpful. Tejendra Majumdar's Ahiri, therefore, requires us to accept it on its own terms, to be interpreted in relation to the most familiar reference points available.

Swara-samudaya (tone material):
Ahiri (Tejendra's interpretation): S r g M P D n

This interpretation combines the Bhairavi scale of Hindustani music in the purvanga (lower tetrachord), with the Kafi scale in the uttaranga (upper tetrachord). Apparent dominants: Komal Re and shuddha Ma. Their relative weightage is not possible to determine.

Subba Rao's documentation: (Subba Rao V. Raga Nidhi, Vol.I and IV. Fourth Impression, 1996, Music Academy, Madras)

Ahiri: S r G M P D n (Dominants: Primary: Sa. Secondary:Pa)
Ahir Bhairav: S r G M P D n (Dominants: Primary: Ma. Secondary:Sa)
Ahiri Todi: S r g M P d n N (Dominants: Primary: dh. Secondary:ga)
Ahir- Lalit: S r G M M^ D n (Dominants: Primary: Ma. Secondary:Sa)

On the dimensions of swara-samudaya and dominant swaras, Majumdar's Ahiri does not correspond to any of these raga parameters. It does, however, correspond to the swara-samudaya of Ahiri Todi, as documented by Manikbuwa Thakurdas, a scholar-musician of the Gwalior Gharana (Raga Darshan: Vol. III, First edition. Shri Lakshminarayan Trust, Rajpipla). The Thakurdas description of Ahiri Todi also approximates Tejendra's rendition in terms of aural images. According to Thakurdas, the purvanga of Ahiri Todi suggests raga Bilaskhani Todi, while the uttaranga corresponds to raga Ahiri.

Beyond this, the Thakurdas commentary becomes unserviceable. It states that Ahiri Todi and Ahir Bhairav are the same raga, and a documentation of the pure Ahiri is not available, though the raga finds mention in respected musicological texts. Moreover, Thakurdas considers Pa and Sa as the primary and secondary dominants, respectively, of Ahiri Todi. This conflicts with Subbarao's parameters for Ahiri, Ahir Bhairav and Ahiri Todi, as also with Tejendra's rendition of Ahiri.

These references, considered along with Tejendra's rendition, suggest two melodic tendencies of the pure Ahiri. With identical swara-samudaya for Ahiri and Ahir Bhairav, and using the shuddha (natural) Ga, Subba Rao apparently considers the pure Ahiri close to Bhairav. Tejendra's interpretation, on the other hand, uses the komal (flat) Ga, and suggests a proximity to the Todi group of ragas. Available evidence is insufficient to ascertain whether Ahiri and Ahiri Todi might have, at some stage or in some gharanas, been different names for the same raga.

Tejendra's own contribution to the interpretation of this raga seems considerable. The melodic personality of the raga has an impressionistic modernity which is inconceivable as having derived from either Ustad Bahadur Khan or Pt. Nikhil Bannerjee. This modernity is reflected mainly in the use of kaleidoscopic tonal patterns, which are compatible with the tone material of the raga, but lack well-defined melodic contours. This is, essentially, a post-Ali Akbar feature in sarod music, and assists greatly in projecting a persuasive holograph of a rare raga, whose distinctive melodic identity is difficult to sustain.

In simplistic terms, Tejendra's Ahiri is vaguely suggestive of Bilaskhani Todi/ Bhairavi in the purvanga and Bageshri in the uttaranga. The Bageshri flavor is also found in the uttaranga of Ahir Bhairav, and may therefore be assumed to belong to Ahiri. As performed by Tejendra, Ahiri exhibits a family resemblance with Ahir Bhairav and Ahiri Todi. Because of the raga's purvanga-dominant character, the Todi bias might prevail.

Chalan (Skeletal phraseology)
n.D.r/D.n.S /D.n.g r /r g M g r /S r g M /r g P M /g r g P /r g M D /D P D n D /M D S' (or) M P D n S' (or) M D n S' /D n r' S' /n D P D n D /n D M g r /P M g r /r n. D. S

In the phraseology, the dominant melodic foci are komal (flat) Re, shuddha (natural) Ma and shuddha (natural) Dh. In the alap. Tejendra appears to treat the komal Re as the pivotal swara. The two compositions he performs have their primary emphasis on the shuddha Ma, defining this swara as the second dominant. The importance of Ma probably belongs to the original Ahiri, considering that it is inconsistent with the character of Bhairav but is frequently encountered in renditions of Ahir Bhairav by scholarly musicians. This emphasis on Ma is important also because it weakens the adjacent komal Ga and komal Re, both pregnant with a bias towards the Todi group. In the ambient acoustic, Tejendra emphasizes Ma and Dh swaras, thus reinforcing the Bageshri chord, presumably supportive of the aural image of Ahiri.

Ahiri is prescribed for mid-morning performance. Consistent with its Todi/Bhairav affinity and purvanga bias, the dominant mood of this raga is somber. Despite the mildly euphoric potential of the shuddha (natural) Ma as a melodic focus, Tejendra's interpretation appears to veer towards pathos.

Tejendra's Ahiri is a complex raga to handle. Establishing Ahiri as distinct from the familiar Ahir Bhairav and Ahiri Todi, while retaining a family resemblance to them, is a task demanding formidable musicianship.

(c) India Archive Music Ltd., New York. Tejendra Majumdar's recording of Raga Ahiri is available from India Archive Music.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Purva and Puriya Kalyan: What’s the difference?

Purva (also called Purvya) belongs to a cluster of ragas bearing a family resemblance to raga Puriya in terms of swara material, and phraseology, melodic center of gravity, and therefore aural impression.

Swara material
Puriya: S r G M^ D N
Puriya-Dhanashree: S r G M^ P d N
Poorvi: S r G M M^ P d N
Puriya-Kalyan/Purva: S r G M^ P D N

What is common to all of them is komal (flat) Re, shuddha (natural) G, tivra (sharp) Ma, and shuddha (natural) Ni.

At the commencement of a concert at Los Angeles CA in 1991, Ustad Vilayat Khan introduced Purva with its ascent and descent.
Ascent: N r G M^ D N r' G'
Descent: r' S' N D P M^ G M^ r G\ N. r S

In a tape-recorded interview after the concert, the Ustad says that Purva is the same as the raga commonly known as Puriya Kalyan. He also argues that Purva is the right name for this raga and Puriya Kalyan is misleading because there is no trace of the characteristic Kalyan element in Puriya Kalyan. Although he does not identify the "characteristic Kalyan element", he probably considers the shuddha (natural) Re swara as essential for the Kalyan classification. If this is his argument, it has some validity.

Kalyan is a family of post-sunset ragas, which should use the shuddha (natural) Re swara. The komal (flat) Re of the Puriya cluster defines Purva as a "sandhi-prakash" (twilight zone, in this case, sunset-hour) raga. By this logic, Puriya Kalyan cannot be classified with the Kalyan family.

With these observations, Ustad Vilayat Khan has raised the issue: Are Purva and Puriya Kalyan two different ragas, or two names for the same raga?

Musicologist VN Bhatkhande looked at this issue in the 1940's, when Purva was a mature raga, and Puriya Kalyan had just begun to gain acceptance. Based on textual evidence, but very limited exposure to performances of Puriya Kalyan, Bhatkhande concluded that they are, indeed, different ragas. (Bhatkhande Sangeet Shastra. Vol.III, Ed.LN Garg, Sangeet Karyalaya Hathras, third edition, 1984. Pgs. 251-254)

Genealogically, Bhatkhande connects Puriya Kalyan to raga Purva Kalyan of the Gamanashram parent scale in the Carnatic (South Indian) tradition, which has identical swara material, and near-identical scale. Purva, on the other hand, he attributes to a combination of Poorvi, Maru and Gaura.(Ibid)

During the review of this recording, Ustad Vilayat Khan described Purva as Puriya with a Pa added to it,or Puriya Dhanashree with a shuddha (natural) Dh swara replacing the komal (flat) Dh. Therefore, it appears that the Ustad saw Purva clearly as a member of the Puriya cluster. However, it is also possible to interpret the same scale as Yaman with a komal (flat) Re replacing the shuddha (natural) Re. And, this may very well explain why the Carnatic nomenclature of this scale associates the raga with Kalyan (Yaman).

Thus, Ustad Vilayat Khan plays Puriya with a Pa and calls it Purva. And, Puriya Kalyan specialists perform a raga to the same scale, probably conceived as Yaman with a komal (flat) Re. What is the difference ?

To explore this issue, we can compare Vilayat Khan's Purva with the Puriya Kalyan of its most popular exponent, Pt. Bhimsen Joshi (Music Today: A:97009).

The most obvious conclusion is that neither Purva of Vilayat Khan, nor Puriya Kalyan of Bhimsen Joshi can escape the aural images of either Puriya or Yaman. Both the maestros also use the suppressed micro-swara of the komal (flat) Re characteristic of Puriya. A detailed examination of their respective phraseologies also fails to identify any distinctive phrase that one of them uses, and the other does not.

However, the aural experience they create is distinctive. Purva does, indeed, come through as closer to Puriya, and Puriya Kalyan does emerge as being inspired more by Yaman. The secret probably lies in the probabilistic technique of raga differentiation.

If you play Yaman with a komal (flat) Re, the ascent becomes pure Puriya anyway, while the descent remains Yaman until it reaches Ga, and returns to Puriya below it. Thus, if more phrases are ascending, and fewer are descending, Puriya dominates the aural experience. And, vice versa.

The second aspect of this same probabilistic technique is how much melodic development is done in the mid-octave region, where the Yaman flavor is dominant. If you de-emphasize the melodic development in the mid-octave region, Puriya can dominate the aural experience. And, vice versa.

The third facet of this technique is the use of multiple phraseologies. If you use the Puriya descent in the upper tetrachord (N-D-M^) in addition to the Yaman descent (N-D-P), and do so often enough, Puriya dominates. By the same logic, if you use the Yaman-type ascent in the lower tetrachord (N-r-G-M^-P) in addition to the Puriya ascent (N-r-G or N-r-M^-G), and do so often enough, the Yaman flavor dominates.

Allied to this approach is the inclusion/ exclusion technique of raga differentiation. If the Yaman flavor surfaces in the mid-octave region, it is possible to highlight the Yaman angle, or balance the two, by including the mid-octave region in a majority of phrases. This means using a phraseology, on an average, of broader melodic spans. Conversely,the Puriya facet is more easily isolated, by using phrases, on an average, of shorter melodic spans so that the mid-octave region can be excluded, when desired.

The probabilistic technique of raga differentiation is the most subtle and advanced of all melodic disciplines. On the basis of permissible phraseologies, the two ragas are identical. The only technique for differentiating them is through differential weightages given to different segments of the octave.

It is difficult for two ragas of such subtle differentiation to co-exist with anything like comparable circulation or popularity. It is a different matter – though not entirely irrelevant – that even audiences of considerable cultivation would find the differences imperceptible. Consequently, it appears that Puriya Kalyan, with the commonly understood Yaman as its reference point, has remained in circulation. And, Purva, with the more profound Puriya reference point, is now rarely heard.

This point of view is at variance with contemporary scholars and learned musicians, including Ustad Vilayat Khan, who regard Purva as the original name for the present-day Puriya Kalyan. The debate can continue.

© India Archive Music Ltd. New York. An outstanding recording of Raga Purva by Ustad Vilayat Khan (1991) is available from India Archive Music Ltd.