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 In addition, he studied, from a private collection, an unpublished recording of the raga rendered by Nikhil Bannerjee.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.

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