Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Raga Shree: Supplicant, spooky, or belligerent?

Shree is amongst the oldest raga-s in the Hindustani art music pantheon. But, it is not clear whether the melodic entity currently identified by this name is, indeed, the one that claims considerable antiquity. Quite irrespective of its evolutionary path, the contemporary Shree also commands immense stature amongst raga-s because of its profundity, and its association with a powerful archetypal entity in Hindu mythology.

Shree: The archetype
The "Shree" syllable is one of the two most powerful sounds in the psycho-phonetics of the Vedic tradition, the other being "Om". While "Om" represents man's relationship with the spiritual world, "Shree" represents the material man. Together, they represent the totality of man's aspirations.

In mythology, the "Om" phonetic, because of its abstract nature, remains a calligraphic deity. But, "Shree", the phonetic-calligraphic archetype, is also personified as the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, the giver of wealth and prosperity, and the consort of Lord Vishnu, the preserver of the universe.

Amongst the major female deities in the Hindu pantheon, Lakshmi occupies a pride of place, ahead of the ferocious Durga, the destroyer of evil, and the gentle Saraswati, the giver of knowledge and accomplishments in the fine arts. Interestingly, Durga and Saraswati also have Ragas dedicated to them, although, neither of these two enjoy the status of Shree either in the popular mind, or in the world of music.

The Shree Suktam (Hymn to the goddess Lakshmi) from Rig Veda, considered the most powerful Mantra for invoking the blessings of Lakshmi, describes her as the Great Facilitator of all the material tasks of the world, and thus, the symbol of ultimate effectiveness. In this hymn, the supplicant prays for protection from hunger and poverty, and for the boon of fame and prosperity.

Interestingly, the Shree Suktam is totally silent on the legitimacy of the means by which man may acquire wealth, as also on the ends to which wealth might be deployed. In a sense, thus, mythology treats the blessings of Lakshmi as being desired, or desirable, for their own sake.

Whether oppressed by the fear of poverty, or fired by the lust for wealth, man has the choice between turning supplicant before the goddess, and setting out to conquer the world. But, quite irrespective of the stance he adopts, and perhaps precisely because he has a choice, man cannot escape oppressive anxiety as a permanent feature of dealing with his material self.

In comparison, the other two major goddesses do not give man any options. Militancy or even anxiety are totally inconsistent with Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and the fine arts, who represents the highest level of culture. And, the ferocious Durga is the one whose help man seeks in order to destroy his enemies. In either case, supplication is the only route to divine grace.

Pandit Omkarnath Thakur (Sangeetanjali Vol. VI) provides a different perspective on the mythology and Rasa values of this raga. Of the six primary raga-s of the Hindustani tradition, five are said to have emanated from the five mouths of Lord Shiva, while the sixth is said to have emanated from the mouth of Parvati. Having emanated from "Shree-mukha", it was named Shree. He carries forward this association into describing the mood of the raga.

He suggests that Shree is a raga of the "Bhayanaka Rasa" (the sentiment of fear). To him, the prescribed time for performing this raga (around sunset) is the time when nature and humans are at peace, but the disembodied spirits (of whom Shiva is the Lord) become active, and aid the black magic of Tantriks. To him, the atmopshere created by the raga suggests activity in the netherworld -- spooky, and eerie in a manner that makes ordinary mortals fearful.

Even if the genesis of the association of the archetypal Shree with the Raga is no longer traceable, the metaphor is not out of place.

Shree: The melodic entity
"Shree" belongs to the Purvi Parent Scale, one of the ten modal structures which form the foundation of the Hindustani Raga system. Like other members of this Scale, it is prescribed for performance around sunset.

Swara material:
Ascent: S r M^ P N/ Descent: S N d P M^ G r
Re and Dh are Komal (flat), Ma is Tivra (sharp)

The primary dominant Swara is Re, and the secondary dominant is Pa. All other Swaras are of normal emphasis. Dh can be, occasionally, used subliminally in a Ni-Pa melodic descent. In Shree, unlike most other Ragas, Sa (the tonic) is not considered a raga-neutral resting point or melodic centre because of its proximity to the Komal Re, which has to be kept in sharp focus.

Orthodox musicians believe that post-sunset Purvi scale raga-s ought to be centred in the upper tetrachord. In accordance with this belief, they frequently take advantage of the ascent-oriented character of the Raga, and perform compositions which have the Sam (first accentuated beat of the rhythmic cycle) falling at the "Re" in the higher octave. Such orthodoxy accentuates the ascent in the treatment of the Raga, and imparts to it a distinctly strident quality.

The Raga, as currently performed, is identified by two catch-phrases: Sa-Ni-Re and Re-Re-Pa. These phrases define the two faces of Shree. Sa-Ni-Re has an abbrasive quality while Re-Re-Pa imparts a supplicant character.

Some musicians believe that, in order to fully express the emotional content of Shree, the Komal (flat) Re and Dh ought to be distanced from their neighbours, Sa and Pa, by the use of fractionally sharper microtones of Komal Re and Dh. But, there is also the opposite view, which reccommends suppressed microtones of Re and Dh. Authorities also acknowledge non-standard intonations of Ga, Ni, and tivra Ma in this raga. Shree is thus amongst those ragas, where the aesthetics of intonation play a far greater role in the communication of musical ideas than its melodic grammar.

Pandit Omkarnath Thakur (Sangeetanjali Vol.VI) observes that Shree is considered a difficult raga to perform as much because of its requirement of non-standard intonation, as of its restless, spooky, eerie phraseology.

Phraseology: Re and Dh are Komal (flat), Ma is Tivra (sharp)
S N. r/ N G r/ r M^/M^ G r / r M^ P/P M^ G r OR r r P/P M^ G r/r M^ P d/M^ G r/ r M^ P N S'/ P N S' N r' OR P S' N r'/r' N d M^ d OR r' N d P / d M^ G r OR M^ P d M^ G r/r d M^ G r OR M^ N M^ G r/G r S N. r/S N. r/ G r S

Note: In an increasingly rare version of the raga, the ascent into the uttaranga goes r-M^-d-N-S rather than r-M^-P-N-S indicated above.

In the lower tetrachord, and in the descent, a mis-handling of the melodic phraseology of this Raga exposes the Raga to the risk of confusion with Puriya, or its Puriya Dhanashree variant.

Shree: The experience
Although Shree is amongst the Raga-s popular with audiences, its performances are rare. Commercial recordings of Shree, and recordings in private collections establish that this Raga demands musicianship of a high order.

Amongst vocalists, Pandit. DV Paluskar (HMV-8TCS-048-3836) and Ustad Ameer Khan (unpublished) have treated Shree as a deeply devotional, though anxiety-laden Raga, while softening its aggressive stance. To achieve this, they adopted a variety of devices.

They sang poetry which is explicitly devotional in content, and biased their Raga development towards the lower tetrachord. In the melodic treatment, they made generous use of the Sa-Pa movement, in addition to the comparatively restless Re-Pa movement. They de-emphasised the strident Sa-Ni-Re catch-phrase and replaced it often with the less disturbing Re-Re-Re. The structure of their Tan-s is dominated by the characteristic phraseology of the raga, and avoids geometric or kaleidoscopic melodic devices.

Ashwini Despande's Shree (recorded in 2000 for India Archive Music, New York), is broadly in the Paluskar-Ameer Khan territory of Rasa values. Her ati-komal Re and ati-tivra Ma intonations assure for her rendition the anxiety-laden quality that characterises the raga. But, in her rendition, it is possible discern a yearning for peace and tranquility -- a drift towards Shanta Rasa.

Flautist Pannalal Ghosh (HMV-6TC-O4B-7182) appears to see this Raga as primarily disturbing and unsettling in character, with a touch of stridency. His treatment is ascent oriented and upper tetrachord dominated. He accepts the Re-Re-Pa movement as the primary identity of the Raga. The other catch-phrase Sa-Ni-Re comes into focus in the higher octave. His fast-paced composition has its "Sam" on the Upper-Re. His Tans predominantly use the phraseology of the Raga. The leaps between tonal clusters are less prominent than in Paluskar or Ameer Khan. The juxtaposition of tonal pairs is absent.

Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, who has articulated the eerie, spooky facet of the raga's personality, would have been the ideal musician to demonstrate it. Though his recordings of the raga are not available, we do have wothwhile specimens in renditions by Kumar Gandharva (concert 2/2/1975) and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (concert undated). In addition to being masters of intonation, these two musicians have deployed unorthodox phrasing and acoustic effects like variations of volume and timbre with stunning effect for shaping the atmospherics of the raga. The two recordings I cite here will probably remain amongst the most interesting and original recordings of Shree for this reason.

A drift towards aggressiveness is evident the Shree recording of Sitarist Pt. Ravi Shankar and Sarodist Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (Duet:HMV-EALP-1296). The raga form appears to support Pannalal Ghosh' interpretation. But, because of the plucked character of their instruments, they tilt towards a strident expression. Their melodic focus remains in the lower tetrachord. But, the use of Jhaptal with irregular cadences (10 beats in 2-3-2-3 subdivision) for the medium-paced composition makes it mildly menacing. Their melodic approach utilises the raga's phraseology, as well as geometric and kaleidoscopic devices. The powerful strokes of Ali Akbar Khan, supporting the kaleidoscopic patterns of tonal pairs, impart an eerie virility to the under-current of tension in the Raga.

Shree: The Vilayat Khan interpretation
Ustad Vilayat Khan sees Shree clearly as a Raga of the warrior. His Shree rendition at the Thirakwa Memorial concert at the Bhulabhai Desai Institute, Bombay (1976, unpublished), and his later recording of the raga for India Archive Music, New York, both testify to this. The Ustad is able to express this hitherto underplayed facet of the Raga by merely re-defining the scale, and supporting his melodic interpretation with power-packed execution.

Superficially, his interpretation of the Raga form only appears to add a belligerent emphasis on the "Dh" Swara, to supplement the already strident "Re" in the lower tetrachord, which is the melodic focus of the Raga. The accent on "Dh" dilutes the status of the adjacent Pa, which is the Secondary Dominant Swara of Shree. A weaker Pa also neutralises the supplicant mood of the Re-Re-Pa phrase, one of the two keys to the Raga's melodic character.

In the Vilayat Khan interpretation, Re and Dh become isolated, but corresponding Swaras of equal weightage, almost like two Dominant Swaras. But, this apparently minor nuance, perfectly consistent with the easily recognisable Raga form, is actually quite fundamental.

Ustad Vilayat Khan has shifted the notional focus of the Raga from the Sa-to-Sa octave to the Ni-to-Ni octave. In the Sa-to-Sa octave, the two tetrachords are assymetrical . The lower tetrachord has a sharper ascendency, while the upper tetrachord has a weaker and uneven ascendency. The ascendancy of the first step in both the tetrachords is hesitant, and becomes aggressive only later. By notionally adopting a Ni-to-Ni scale, the Vilayat Khan interpretation makes the two tetrachords perfectly symetrical in their tonal geometry. This shift creates a qualitatively different melodic canvas for the treatment of the raga -- essentially more amenable to symmetric and geometric phrasing.

Vilayat Khan's militancy appeared to require a dominant Swara in the upper tetrachord, to be utilised as a corresponding power centre to the Re in the lower tertrachord. The Dh Swara, in first-fifth correspondence with Re, was the ideal choice. The impact of this correspondence is enhanced by the formation of symmetrical tetrachords, to the base Ni (lower octave) and Tivra Ma (middle octave). This shift of focus delivers distant swara clusters between which he can move swiftly without hindrance and launch sudden offensives on any part of the melodic battlefield to any other part. This focus shift gives him an original, more expansive, phraseological frame for developing the Raga, in a manner which is totally consistent with its accepted grammar.

Amongst the performing arts, dance and theatre, rather than music, have often been considered the appropriate platforms for the depiction of valour, because depicting the application of physical force requires the manipulation of the human body. Vilayat Khan's interpretation of Shree is, therefore, a significant aesthetic achievement.

Ustad Vilayat Khan’s Shree is so radical compared to Shree, as commonly encountered, that a knowledgeable reviewer of his recording was obliged to suggest that the Ustad should have called it by a different name. This proposition is debatable because it is not the first time, nor the last, that a great musician has revealed a hitherto unexplored facet of a raga; and the event can hardly be considered a good enough reason to give it a new name.

(c) India Archive Music Ltd. New York
The finest recordings of Raga Shree have been produced by India Archive Music Ltd., New York.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Raga Megh Malhar

This essay is now published in my fourth book:

Removing it from here was considered proper, though not contractually obligatory, in order to protect the investment of my publisher in the book.