Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Just released.... Hindustani Music Today

Author: Deepak S. Raja
Foreword: Pandit Arvind Parikh
Publisher: DK Printworld, New Delhi 2011
Paperback: Rs.320.00/ US$ 16.00
Hard-cover: Rs. 600.00/ US$ 27.00
For orders: Email:

In HINDUSTANI MUSIC TODAY, the author presents a panoramic view of Hindustani art music as viewed at the dawn of the 21st century.  It addresses educated readers, who may not have been introduced to Hindustani music in their early years, but have been drawn to it as mature adults. Its objective is to share with them an intelligent perspective on what this music is, where it comes from, and where it might possibly be going.

The book covers all the major genres of vocal music, as well all the musical instruments that are currently heard on the Hindustani music platform. Along with a brief history of each, the book identifies ithe major trends in performance, and contributes significantly to the appreciation of contemporary Hindustani music.

Amongst the genres of vocal music, the book covers Dhrupad, Khayal, Thumree and Tappa. Amongst the major instruments, the book covers Rudra Veena (Been), Sitar, Surbahar, Sarod, Santoor, the Hawaiian Guitar, Bamboo flute, Shehnai, Violin, Sarangi, Harmonium, Tanpura, Swaramandal, Pakhawaj and Tabla.

Written by an author of respectable credentials as a musician, researcher, critic, and musicologist , HINDUSTANI MUSIC TODAY presents its facts, ideas, and perspectives without technical details, and in simple language, while also satisfying the needs of the more discerning readers.
Since 1994/95,, Deepak Raja has been a Repertoire Analyst for India Archive Music Ltd. New York. In 1999, he co-edited the Indian Musicological Society’s publication titled “Perspectives on Dhrupad”. His first book: “Hindustani music – a tradition in transition”, was published in 2005. His second book, “Khayal vocalism – continuity within change”, was published in 2009. In 2009, he was granted a Senior Research Fellowship by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Pandit Shivkumar Sharma and the Santoor

In post-independence India, the Santoor has had the most meteoric rise on the classical music platform. In less than twenty-five years, it rose from near-oblivion to the peak of popularity. Amongst instruments currently in vogue, it is the only instrument played by the hammering action of sticks. Compared to the other vertical impact instruments -- like the Jaltarang, Tabla Tarang and Kashta Tarang – the Santoor had far greater melodic potential. But, it required the pioneering musicianship of Pandit Shivkumar Sharma to make the instrument succeed, while the others faded into history.
When Shivkumar exploded upon the music scene, he instantly made the Santoor the musical signature of the Kashmir valley, where many of India’s films were shot in the 1960s. Establishing the instrument in the classical segment took Sharma years of struggle. By the time terrorism drove the film industry out of Kashmir in the 1980s, Sharma had established himself and the Santoor at the forefront of classical music. This was no small achievement in an era dominated by three veritable giants of instrumental music – Ustad Vilayat Khan, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, and Pandit Ravi Shankar – each performing on instruments much more mature than his.
Sharma’s success has attracted a large number of musicians to the Santoor. Every new aspirant is busy exploring the untried possibilities of the instrument, leaving it in a dynamic state of evolution, but still without a credible challenge yet to Shivkumar Sharma’s ownership of the Santoor.
The Santoor

The Santoor is related to similar instruments in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Central Europe. Until recently, the Santoor was virtually unknown to Indians outside the Kashmir valley, where it was common as an accompaniment for vocal renditions of Sufiana Mausiqui (chants of the Sufi sects), a disciplined form of music with its own melodic entities (raga-s), and tala-s.
Some authors have linked the name to the Psantir, a similar instrument known to Mesopotamians since the pre-Christian era. The name allows both, Persians and Indians, to claim ownership of the instrument. The original Sanskrit name for it is “Shatatantri” [Shata = 100 + Tantri = stringed instrument], and the Persian name, now popular, is “Santoor” [Sad or San = 100 + Toor = strings]. The Indian claim is stronger because the Shatatantri Veena mentioned in ancient Indian literature is, in all respects, a convincing description of the Santoor. However, for want of a proven evolutionary link between the Shatatantri and the present-day instrument, scholars are unwilling to endorse this theory.

Pandit Shivkumar Sharma

Pt. Shivkumar Sharma (born: 1938) was brought up in distinguished family of musicians hailing from Jammu. Shivkumar’s father, Pt. Umadatta Sharma, was a Tabla exponent of the Punjab gharana  and a vocalist trained in the Benares tradition under the celebrated Guru, Bade Ramdasji. Shivkumar was groomed by his father in vocal music as well as percussion. While still a teenager, Shivkumar had achieved national acclaim as a Tabla player.  He switched to the Santoor upon the encouragement of his father.
While he was serving as Chief Producer on Kashmir Radio, Pt. Umadatta heard the Santoor, and saw in it a challenge worthy of his son. The instrument was, at that stage, an unsophisticated acoustic machine, quite unsuited for delivering raga-based music through modern electronic amplification. Shivkumar honed his art and made his debut on the art-music platform on that unrefined instrument. Initially, he managed to entice the film industry with the novelty and charm of its sound. But, the world of classical music remained skeptical about its future because of its limitations in handling raga-based melody. Sharma had to re-engineer the instrument, and develop new techniques of playing it to satisfy the expectations of discerning audiences.
Sharma first altered the tuning system. The then turned his attention to the posture and handling. Thereafter, he converted the traditional 4-string set for each note into a combination of 3-string and 2-string sets. In addition, he devised an original “Chikari” set. With these changes, he brought the instrument to a level of sophistication in delivering the quality of music he wanted to perform. After this, he standardized the stroke-craft in order to achieve superior acoustic sustain, greater continuity in the delivery of melody, and better control over the timbre and volume in the different movements of the Sitar/Sarod idiomn.
Shivkumar Sharma has collaborated with musicians like the flautist, Hariprasad Chaurasiya and the Hawaiian Guitar maestro, Brijbhushan Kabra, to produce some of the most memorable music of the 20th century. An album titled “Call of the Valley” recorded by the trio in 1968 with Manikrao Popatkar on the Tabla remained, for many years, the single largest selling title in the classical music segment of the Indian music market. Sharma’s close association with the Tabla wizard, Ustad Zakir Hussain, has set new standards of compatibility between musicians and their percussion accompanists. Sharma’s scores for feature films like "Darr", "Silsila", and "Lamhe", have  topped the charts.

Shivkumar Sharma’s stature is well acknowledged. He  is the recipient of many prestigious awards like Padmashree, Padma Vibhushan, Sangeet Natak Academy Award, Honorary Doctorate from the University of Jammu, Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan Award, Maharashtra Gaurav Puraskar, etc. He also has an honorary citizenship of the city of Baltimore, USA.
Sharma’s music
Sharma’s stature as a musician is substantially supported by his impeccable command over raga grammar. This has also contributed to the stature of his instrument. Whether it be common, non-controversial raga-s, or rare and esoteric raga-s, Shivkumar Sharma’s renderings are found to fastidiously follow documented raga-grammar.
Sharma modeled the architecture of his music after the dominant idiom of the Sitar and Sarod in the 1950s with a substantial dependence on Teental bandish-es. In later years, he enlarged his repertoire, relying more on Jhaptal and Roopak bandish-es. During one of my interviews with him, he admitted an acute awareness of the fact that, being impact-driven, his instrument has an inherent bias towards rhythmicality. He therefore made a conscious and sustained effort to ensure that his music would pursue “melody -- not at the cost of rhythm, and rhythm -- not at the cost of melody” [his own words].
In his approach to melody, Sharma has veered more towards the modern language of the Sarod than the Sitar. This was to be expected because the Sarod also relies on multiple-string melodic execution, and Sarod strokes have a percussiive punch that the Sitar does not have. In order to exploit these features, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan had liberated Sarod music from traditional phrasing by introducing kaleidoscopic patterns. The kaleidoscopic pattern consists of an interesting, but often random, juxtaposition of swara-s, either in pairs or in isolation. The selection of these swara-s is consistent with the swara material of the raga. But, their sequencing and spacing do not necessarily define melodic contours, therefore being, in some sense, raga-neutral.
These patterns were ideal for the Santoor because it has a different string-set for every note, thus enhancing their bewildering quality. With the adoption of kaleidoscopic patterns on the Santoor, Sharma has substantially accelerated the process commenced by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan – that of freeing instrumental music from the traditional reference point in vocal music. In the broader, historical context, this would appear to be the most significant facet of Shivkumar Sharma’s – and the Santoor’s -- contribution to Hindustani music.

 © Deepak S. Raja 2011

Thus spake Shivkumar Sharma

Excerpts from an interview with Pt. Shivkumar Sharma
Interviewer : Michael Robinson , 
Pacific Palms, City of Industry, California | September 15, 2003

“I’m conscious of the fact that I am playing for certain people who have come from near and far places.  They have got certain expectations from this concert, and have got to finish my music within a certain period of time. But once I start playing, and everything is OK, there is no distraction, sound system is perfect, not distracting me, and everything goes well, then after a while I forget that I am on the stage.  And music for me is meditation.  And I don’t go on the stage, and I don’t make an effort that I’m an entertainer, or I’m there to entertain people.  I feel music for me is a kind of meditation, is a kind of prayer which gives me a spiritual high.  It gives me a kind of bliss which I am sharing with the audience.

“After the concert, if everything goes well, the most difficult part for me is when people come and want to talk to me…  I’m not in a position to talk.  It takes me a while to come back to this mundane world.  After I finish concert, and I come back to my room, and then I can’t express the kind of joy, the kind of energy that goes in my body…when everything goes well, and music is…and then when I come back, then I start thinking OK, how I played, where I goofed up, what happened technically, what was not right.  Those things come later on. 

“How I handle this thing, this praise from different quarters. This, again, I got from my father and from my guru. The spiritual training. Where santoor is today, I think it's nothing short of a miracle. And it's enough to make a man mad if one starts thinking, "I have done this." It never comes to my mind,  that whatever happened with santoor -- I have done it. Honestly, even in my own thoughts, forget about talking to other people, that we talk in mundane way, In my mind, I know very clearly, I'm just an instrument, I'm just a medium. God chose me, a medium, to create this music through me. I'm not doing it.

“When I go to a concert, I do my meditation, and I pray before the concert. That's why before the concert I need some time for myself. So I should be alone in my room, and I do some meditation before I leave. And I pray that it's in Your hands, You have to do this. To help. And I totally surrender myself. So this music happens. I am not doing it. And that is why when you rightly watched me on the stage, and felt that thing. Because I honestly believe some supernatural power, no matter what we call it, God, Bhagwan, Baba or anyone, is doing this through me, and credit goes to Him, not to me. And when I think, when I come back, again I meditate when I'm alone, and I thank, "Thank you very much for making me a medium to do this." 

Selected discography:
ECLP 2297 Shivkumar Sharma + Brij Bhushan Kabra: Bageshri, Jhinjhoti
ECLP 2346 Shivkumar Sharma: Lalat, Bhairavi, Kalavati, Raga Pahadi
ECSD 2382 Shivkumar Sharma + Hariprasad Chaurasia+ Brijbushan Kabra,+ Manikrao Popatkar: Call of the valley
ECSD 2389 Shivkumar Sharma: Classical melodies on the santoor
ECSD 2457 Shivkumar Sharma: Madhuvanti, Jog, Dhun, Folk Tune
ECSD 2747 Shivkumar Sharma + Hariprasad Chaurasia. Yugal Bandi 
ECSD 2784 Shivkumar Sharma: Sohni, Mishra Tilang)
PSLP 1481-1482 Shivkumar Sharma In Concert 

For an exhaustive study of the Santoor and Pandit Shivkumar Sharma's contribution, please read: "Hindustani Music -- a tradition in transition", by Deepak Raja. DK Printworld, New Delhi, 2005. 

Monday, August 8, 2011

Ustad Ameer Khan (1912-1974)

Ustad Ameer Khan was easily the single most influential Hindustani vocalist of the 20th century. His music deeply influenced his contemporaries and, more than thirty-five years since his demise, continues to shape the dominant tendencies in vocalism, as well as instrumental music. An eclectic, who enriched his basic grooming with several other influences, he set standards of musicianship that have yet to be bettered. With no interest in accumulating audiences, wealth or awards, he represented the essence of the Indian tradition, which regards music as a mystical pursuit, with spiritual evolution as its primary reward.

As a sad commentary on the contemporary culture, he remained one of the least honored greats of 20th century Hindustani music. He died in a car accident, decorated only with a Fellowship of the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Padma Bhushan (the third highest civilian award of the nation).

Childhood and grooming

Ustad Ameer Khan was born Ameer Ali at Akole (Maharashtra), and brought up in Indore, where his father, Shahmir Khan served the princely court as a sarangi player. Young Ameer Ali began his training in vocalism and the sarangi at an early age.

For young Ameer Ali's  training, his father once sought the documentation of the Merukhand discipline from a colleague at the Indore court, Ustad Nasiruddin Dagar.. The Ustad refused on the grounds that such knowledge was not available to “the son of a mere sarangi player”. The remark stung Shahmir Khan, and he developed his own method for training Ameer Ali in the Merukhand discipline.

The Merukhand discipline (Meru = mountain, Khand = fragment) is a logically sequenced  compendium of all the 5040 (7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1) melodic patterns that can be generated from seven notes. The patterns are sequenced according to a particular logic, and required to be practiced endlessly until they get “programmed” into the ideation process of the musician. The mastery of these patterns also, obviously, developed the musician’s technical ability to execute the most complicated melodic passages. When performing a raga, the musician chooses the patterns compatible with raga grammar for exploring the melodic personality of the raga.

Over a period of five or six years, and in stages, young Ameer Ali internalized the Merukhand system. Thereafter, he was taught Khayal singing, along with occasional lessons on the sarangi. As he became reasonably proficient as a singer, his father encouraged him to periodically visit his uncle, Moti Khan, an accomplished Tabla exponent, who lived in a neighboring district. Moti Khan would organize concerts featuring Ameer Khan for his circle of friends , and also train him in the nuances of relating melody to rhythm.

Shahmir Khan did not believe in making the boy practice for ten or twelve hours a day, which was the norm in those days. Ameer Ali's father believed that mechanical perfection did not constitute learning. Practice was productive only so long as the melodic imagination remains active, and one’s interest in the music is sustained. His prescription  for Ameer Khan’s riyaz was, therefore, unusual for that era. Ameer Khan was permitted to practice only three times a day, for an hour at each sitting. This remained a part of Ameer Khan’s philosophy throughout his life. In later years, he is reported to have said that only half his riyaz consisted of actually singing – the other half was thinking.

Alongside his training within the family, young Ameer Ali was exposed to some of the finest musicians of Indore every week-end, when his father’s friends gathered to perform for each other. Amongst the giants he heard and studied at these sessions were the dhrupad vocalists, Allahbande Khan and Nasiruddin Khan Dagar, Beenkar Murad Khan, Beenkar Wahid Khan, sarangi exponent, Bundu Khan, and the khayal vocalist, Rajab Ali Khan of Dewas.

In the profession

By the age of 20, Ameer Ali was an accomplished vocalist (and perhaps also sarangi player). Between 1932 and 1937, he moved from city to city in search of a career as a singer. He got a foothold in Bombay through his uncle, received some support from the musicologist, Prof. BR Deodhar, came under the influence of Aman Ali Khan of Bhendi Bazar, spent some time in Delhi, and also enjoyed the patronage of Maharaja of Raigadh in MP. His early appearances on the concert platform were discouraging.  In 1934, he recorded five or six 78 RPM discs for commercial release. Neither his concerts during this period, nor his recordings gave him the breakthrough he needed. He grappled with the realization that his style was not making an impact either in three minutes or in thirty.

He was 26 when his father died (1937). Success was now a necessity. Drawing on the music he admired, Ameer Ali implemented a systematic overhaul of his style, while keeping the Merukhand discipline at the centre of it. In the slow-tempo movements, he mastered the contemplative approach of Abdul Waheed Khan of Kairana. In medium-tempo rendition, he adopted the choreographic liveliness of Aman Ali Khan of the Bhendi Bazar group. In fast-tempo rendition, he adopted the mercurial style of Rajab Ali Khan, who claimed membership of an ill-defined Indore gharana. Ameer Khan was able to absorb all these influences and integrate them into a coherent personal musical statement, without having formally accepted the tutelage of any of them.

After an intense struggle – within and without -- Prof. Ameer Ali of Indore (as named on his early 78 rpm discs) emerged, over the next few years, as Ustad Ameer Khan – the only titan of 20th century vocalism not to have received formal training from reputed Pandits or Ustads. Between 1945 and 1950, he ascended to the top of the league of vocalists, without whose presence no important music festival in India could be planned. The stature he achieved was such that All India Radio felt obliged to delay even its prime-time news bulletin if Ameer Khan took a little longer to wind up his performance preceding the news.

The playback singer

The 1950s were a decade of substantial visibility for him through his work in the film industry. In 1952, he sang the title song (Raga Puriya Dhanashri) and also the immortal duet (Raga Desi) with DV Paluskar for the feature film, Baiju Bawara, and a Khamaj Thumree for the Bengali film, Kshudit Pashan (Hungry stones), under the baton of Ali Akbar Khan. Then came the memorable khayal (“Daya karo hey girdhar gopal in Multani) for the Hindi film “Shabab”. In 1955, he recorded  the same khayal in Lalit (Jogiya more ghar aaye) for two music directors -- Vasant Desai and OP Nayyar.

His title song for V Shantaram’s film Jhanak Jhanak Payal Bajey (Raga Adana) virtually scripted the film’s success. In 1959, he recorded a duet in Raga Bhatiyar with the shehnai maestro, Ustad Bismillah Khan for the film, “Goonj uthi shehnai”. He also sang for two documentary films – Raga Darbari for a religious film produced by his disciple, Mukund Rai Goswami, and a ghazal of Mirza Ghalib for a film on the life and times of the poet, made by another disciple, Pandit Amarnath.

Iconic status

After his career had received a massive boost from his work in films, the release of his concert length recordings on Long Playing discs in the 1960s catapulted him to iconic status. His recordings became text books of raga exposition for the entire music world. His stature tempted both, Kairana and Bhendi Bazar fraternities, to claim him as one of their own. The truth was that, by then, he had himself become, effectively, the fountainhead of a new gharana.

It appears that Ameer Khan claimed membership of the “Indore gharana”, but without much conviction and – not surprisingly -- without much interest in the subject. The existence of an “Indore” gharana before him is debatable. Now that the third generation of the “Ameer Khan gharana” is performing respectably, a case is now being argued for the acknowledgment of an “Indore gharana”.

Ustad Ameer Khan emerged from a family background of feudal patronage, under which a small group of connoisseurs determined the fates of musicians. He reinvented himself for the post-independence era in which musicians had to address a faceless, and largely uncultivated, mass audience primarily through the electronic media. Under radically different conditions, he carved out a place for himself in history without making any compromise with artistic values.


Ustad Ameer Khan owned one of the finest male voices in 20th century vocalism. His rich baritone, which traversed three octaves with consummate ease at any speed, could communicate any of his melodic and rhythmic ideas with the minimum distortion. It had a majestic aloofness which forced you to be attentive to its intellectual as well as emotional elements. The way he used his voice was befitting a classicist, who sang only khayal and tarana genres of music. He could not be persuaded to sing the romanticist genres like thumrees or ghazals in public, except for films.

Ameer Khan, the man, was no different from his music – a personification of dignified tranquility. He was a handsome six-footer of proportionate build and serious, but pleasing, demeanor. You could have mistaken him for a professor or a lawyer, if you had met him at a friend’s house. When he sat on the stage to perform, he was simply dressed, and looked like a yogi in erect posture, with his eyes closed, virtually in a trance.

His concert repertoire comprised over 30 raga-s of the Hindustani tradition, and a handful of raga-s adopted from the Carnatic tradition. His Hindustani selection consisted of mature raga-s like Puriya, Marwa, Multani, Darbari and Shuddha Kalyan – raga-s with vast potential for melodic improvisation. These were, broadly, the favorites of Kairana gharana vocalists. He was, however, not averse, once in a while, to unleashing an esoteric raga like Shuddha-Rishabh Puriya, to demonstrate his mastery over raga grammar and aesthetics.

His Carnatic choice consisted of raga-s like Basant Mukhari (Vakulabharanam), Hansadhwani, Abhogi, Vachaspati and Charukeshi, which have now been adopted by the Hindustani tradition. However, even in the Carnatic segment, he occasionally rendered raga-s which had never before been attempted by Hindustani vocalists. His knowledge of Carnatic raga-s is reported to have been the legacy of the Bhendi Bazaar maestro, Aman Ali Khan.

Master of raga-ness

Ustad Ameer Khan gave audiences uncomplicated, but often unique, access to the melodic and emotional personality of a raga. In doing so, he imprinted an indelible mark of his personality on every raga he performed. To this day, it is almost impossible for male vocalists of subsequent generations to avoid his influence over raga-s of which Ameer Khan’s recordings are available. And, to this day, the recordings market has an unlimited appetite for posthumous releases of his concert recordings.

He could communicate his image of a raga with immense clarity because of his fastidious adherence to the principles of architecture of khayal presentation. Until Ameer Khan’s arrival, the observance of this discipline varied a lot between different gharana-s and vocalists. Under his influence, khayal architecture has now established itself firmly in the musical culture, and obvious clumsiness is no longer condoned.

In order to ensure that a raga’s melodic and emotional personalities are effectively communicated, he rendered his vilambit khayals at an ultra-slow tempo, and chose to perform them primarily in Jhoomra tala, ideally suited for this tempo. At his vilambit khayal tempo of 14-20 beats per minute, Ameer Khan was, along with Abdul Waheed Khan, the most leisurely vocalist of the 20th century.

To ensure the unhindered communication of musical ideas, he opted for the minimum and unobtrusive accompaniment. He rarely took a harmonium or sarangi accompanist, and required his tabla accompanist to do nothing more than keep time within the rhythmic cycle. For a brief period, he tried accompanying himself on the Swara-mandala; but dropped it, perhaps finding it obtrusive. To compensate for a melodic accompaniment, he used a six-string tanpura in lieu of the more common four-string instrument. Once his tanpura-s were perfectly tuned, he was one with his music.

The passion for poetics

Though a man of limited education, he educated himself in Hindi, Urdu, Persian and even learnt a bit of Sanskrit. Unlike many khayal singers of his generation, Ameer Khan treated poetic element of his compositions with respect. In his selection of poetry, he exhibited a strong bias in favour of devotional verses, and allowed their literary content to shine through in his renditions.

At a time when many Hindu musicians were singing verses like “Karim naam tero” (Malhar) and “Allah janey maula jaaney (Todi), Ameer Khan chose Hindu devotional verses like: “Jinke man Rama birajey” (Malkauns), “Jai maatey vilamba taja de” (Hansadhwani), and “Guru bina gyan na paoon” (Marwa). He also proposed the idea  that, in Persian, the supposedly meaningless consonants used in the Tarana form had a well-defined meaning, and represented the Sufi practice of attaining union with God by the repetitive chanting of simple lines of evocative poetry. To enhance the mystical elements in the poetry, Ameer Khan routinely inserted Persian Rubai-s (mystical poetry), in his Tarana renditions.

Relationship with the art

In a rare essay of his published in a paper under the auspices of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (Music – East & West, 1966) Ustad Ameer Khan wrote: “The poetry (of the Tarana) is always representative of the mystic school of poets. According to the mystic symbolism, the beloved is the almighty and the devotee is his lover. Thus the poetry of Tarana,  while maintaining a romantic flavor, is strictly spiritual in substance. The Ameer (Ameer Khusro, the 13th century poet-musician, believed to be the creator of the Tarana genre), himself a devotee of Khwaja Hazrat Nizam-ud-din Aulia, knew that music in India cannot be divorced from its spiritual import. Music is representative of the aspirations of a people; and the music of a people whose values are spiritual must be used as a means to communicate with Divine Spirit, and not merely to please the masses.”

On several occasions, Ustad Ameer Khan has said – “Music is that which emanates from the soul, and is received by the soul”. At the root of Ameer Khan’s musicianship was, clearly, the sanctity of his relationship with his art. This is why he represents, to this day, a peerless yardstick of  musicianship.

© Deepak S. Raja. 2011
Edited version of an essay published in the June, 2011 issue of SRUTI, the performing arts monthly from Chennai. 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Raga Gaud Malhar

Gaud Malhar is an immensely popular compound raga, derived from Gaud, a minor raga most frequently added as a subordinate melodic flavour to major ragas, and Malhar, a major raga associated with the rainy season. The raga was originally conceived as Gaud in the purvanga [lower tetrachord], and Malhar in the uttaranga [upper tetrachord]. Like many compound ragas, Gaud Malhar has defined its independent evolutionary path, giving rise to several versions of it being in circulation. In recent years, however, there has been a tendency towards the homogenisation and standardisation of the raga form.

The currently dominant version treats Gaud Malhar as a variant of Mian Ki Malhar, the principal raga of the Malhar group. Its hyper-heptatonic tone material [S R G M P D n N] replaces the komal [flat] Ga of Miya Ki Malhar with a shuddha [natural] Ga. The phraseology of the contemporary Gaud Malhar tends to follow Miya ki Malhar, while retaining some melodic features of Gaud, which were probably more prominent in earlier versions of the raga.

S R S/ R G M/ G M R P/ M P D n P/ M P D N S’ (or) M P n D N S’ (or) M P D S’/ R’ G’ M’/ R’ M’ n R’ S/ S’ D n D P (or) S’ D P M/ G P M G/ M G M R/ M/ N R S

The raga is prescribed for performance in the three-hour period after noon. Authorities designate Ma as the vadi [primary dominant] and Sa as the samvadi [secondary dominant] swara of Gaud Malhar, and the uttaranga as the raga’s melodic centre of gravity. Traditional bandishes in the raga are found to have their mukhda-s terminating at Ma, Dh, or Re, or frequently even skimming through the phrase Dh-Ni-Sa.. On this evidence, and the evidence of the raga exposition as currently practised, contemporary practice does not consistently support the uttaranga bias of the raga appropriate to the Malhar group. Nor does it categorically establish the pivotal role of the designated vadi [Ma].

Deepak S. Raja
(c) India Archive Music, New York. Producers of the finest recordings of Raga Gaud Malhar. 

Kishori Amonkar : the queen of romanticism

Kishori Amonkar (born: 1931) is by far the most influential female Hindustani vocalist to emerge in independent India.  She is the daughter and disciple of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana stalwart, Mogubai Kurdikar, but acquires her stature from her originality as an interpreter of the gharana’s musical wisdom. She jettisoned the classicism of her gharana’s style in favor of a marked romanticism, braved criticism from conservative opinion and triumphed. As a result, her revisionist style has now come to signify Jaipur-Atrauli vocalism, while its orthodox stream drifts towards history.

Kishori is not only a formidable musician, but also the chief ideologue of the romanticist movement -- by the power of her intellect, erudition, and excellent articulation in at least three languages, including English. She is, incidentally, known to possess one of the finest private libraries on musicology and aesthetics. She holds audiences spellbound at seminars and conferences, as much as she does on the concert platform.

Kishori Amonkar has been decorated with awards befitting her stature by the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the President of India.

Romanticism in Hindustani vocalism

The first half of the 20th century saw the beginnings of romanticism, especially with Pandit Omkarnath Thakur (1897-1967), whose romanticism was not categorical. As a significant movement in Hindustani music, romanticism is essentially a post-independence phenomenon. Romanticism is happy to function within the limitations of the subject, while classicism attempts to transcend it. In classical music, it signifies a preference for explicitly endearing and evocative expression, along with relative indifference to the structural aspects of music.  Classicism is characterized by an aloofness which “passively” elicits a response from audiences, while romanticism adopts an intimacy which actively solicits it.

The emergence of romanticism in khayal vocalism was “logical” when it happened. By the 1950s, the specialist singers of the Benares thumree – the original romanticist genre – had almost disappeared from the scene. Khayal singers tried to satisfy the audience need for emotionally rich music by adding thumrees to their repertoire. At the same time, ghazal singers also began enriching the melodic content of their poetry-dominant romanticist genre in an effort to fill the vacuum. These trends shaped sterling individual contributions to the art of the thumree by khayal singers like Bade Gulam Ali Khan, and to the art of the ghazal by the likes of Begum Akhtar and later Mehdi Hassan. But, as a category, neither the khayal-style thumree, nor the thumree-style ghazal could fill the void created by the disappearance of the authentic Benares thumree.

The cultural environment was apparently amenable to vocalists with the courage to attempt something bolder. At such a time, the movement pushing the khayal into the thumree territory was triggered off by musicians who had the romanticist temperament, and the courage to carve out a new artistic path. Kishori Amonkar is amongst the rebels against the formal aloofness of the khayal, who gave romanticism a respectable place in Hindustani music. The other two, who did so successfully at about the same time (1970s) were Kumar Gandharva (1924-1992), and Jasraj (Born: 1930). Interestingly, all these pioneers of the romanticist khayal have been deeply involved with devotional music – an explicitly emotional genre – and none of them has shown any particular interest in the thumree, whose methods of musical expression they have incorporated into the khayal.

Childhood and grooming

Kishori was a musically talented child. When she was about 10 years old, her mother hired a music teacher to get her started. The teacher was distressed to find that Kishori’s voice was not sufficiently malleable, and expressed his views to the mother and daughter. This rebuke stung Kishori, and probably her mother too. From then on, Mogubai took charge of her daughter’s grooming. Simultaneously, Kishori was getting addicted to devotional and popular music. This produced in her a yearning to infuse the deep emotional appeal of popular music into classical music. By the time Kishori was 17, she was accompanying her mother on the stage, and being noticed for her exceptional talent as well as unorthodox inclinations.

While continuing to learn music, Kishori went through a normal childhood in formal education. She was a brilliant student, and was preparing for a career in medicine. She studied up to Intermediate Science at Jaihind College in Bombay, when an illness prevented her from taking her final examinations. Thereafter, she did not challenge destiny.

She tried her hand at playback singing with V Shantaram’s film, Geet Gaya Pattharon Ne. This turned out to be a dead-end street. Painful as the aborted bid must have been, neither Kishori Amonkar, nor Indian music lovers, are likely to regret it in retrospect.

Mogubai wanted Kishori to have a wider exposure to vocalist styles, and had her trained by several other musicians. Kishori thus studied, for various terms, with Anwar Hussain Khan of Agra gharana, Anjanibai Malpekar of Bhendi Bazar gharana, Sharadchandra Arolkar of Gwalior gharana, and Mohanrao Palekar.  Balkrishnabuwa Parwatkar, the stalwart of Goa, also apparently had a profound influence on the flowering of her musicianship.

When Kishori was about 25, she almost lost her voice. Neither modern medicine, nor traditional therapies helped. When she was losing all hope, Sardeshmukh Maharaj, a saint from Pune, promised to restore her voice. It took two years of treatment to achieve success. During these years, she had the time, and the loneliness, to reflect on life and her music and crystallize the emergence of a new musical personality. Since then, Sardeshmukh Maharaj has been her spiritual mentor, from who she has also acquired considerable knowledge of Ayurveda and astrology.

Kishori’s original style surfaced towards the end of the 1960s. From 1970, she ascended steadily to the top of the league of vocalists.


Commentators have often verged on poetry while describing Kishori Amonkar’s voice, and for good reason. Her voice has been described as piercing, hypnotic, mellifluous, full of painful melancholy, soul-searching, and as a beautiful amalgam of spirituality and worldly realism. Kishori’s is, in fact, an emotionally expressive and musically correct voice, ideally suited to the contemporary acoustic environment governed by electronic amplification and sound processing.

Kishori has made a departure from the elitist repertoire typical of orthodox Jaipur-Atrauli vocalists. While she may occasionally perform a rare raga like Khem, or complex raga-s like Basanti-Kedar, Khat, Adana-Malhar and Sampoorna Malkauns, the core of her music revolves around common and mature raga-s, which provide vast scope for improvisation. Not surprisingly, her interpretation of even the commonest raga-s can often be controversial. In tune with current trends, she has adopted raga-s like Hansadhwani, imported from the Carnatic tradition. This departure attunes her khayal repertoire to contemporary audiences, and keeps her music accessible.

Like her contemporaries, but unlike her gharana seniors, she has relied substantially on a vast repertoire of Bhajans in Hindi, Marathi, Kannada, and even Sanskrit, to carve out a special place for herself in the hearts of audiences. She continues her mother’s practice of performing tarana-s, a genre not encountered in orthodox Jaipur-Atrauli vocalism.

Ustad Alladiya Khan, the founder of the gharana’s style, had reportedly to sacrifice an elaborate alap because of the damage his voice suffered, and to keep melodic action focused largely on medium and high density rendition. Kesarbai partially restored the alap to the gharana’s vocalism. Kishori went farther and adopted the alap as the predominant movement of a khayal rendition. Her alap is different from that of any other gharana or musician. It has shed the subtle pulsation of Jaipur-Atrauli alaps, and almost liberated melody from rhythm. It may not always exhibit the sense of structure evident in conventional khayal alap-s but may, instead, project an impressionistic quality that is unique to her.

An important facet of Kishori’s vocalism is the shedding of the aloofness characteristic of the Jaipur-Atrauli style until her arrival. This needs to be understood. She broke away from the subtle, but persistent relationship between melody and rhythm. She smoothened the sharp edges of melody, and made them soft and silky. She shed the austere melodic practices of her seniors, and made her phrasing ornate and endearing. In a sense, she brought into khayal rendition a melodic approach that was hitherto considered appropriate in the thumree, and popular genres. In this process, she might even have changed the established character of a raga, and invited controversy. This is, of course, the essence of romanticism.

It was natural that a musician with so radical a vision should be dissatisfied with traditional pre-composed material (bandish-es) as a vehicle for her music. When she has performed traditional khayal bandish-es, she has interpreted them individualistically. But, she has also composed a large number of bandish-es which reflect her own interpretation of a raga, and her own melodic sensibility.

Kishori’s departure from her gharana’s stylistic orientations has been significant enough to be considered the launch of a new gharana. However, most commentators have confirmed her own position -- that her music emanates from the accumulated musical wisdom of Jaipur-Atrauli. They have also compared her to Bhimsen Joshi who, despite his revisionism, is considered an exponent of Kairana vocalism. Despite dissenters, and by the majority of informed opinion, Kishori is considered an exponent of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana. The debate is, however, futile once we accept that Kishori Amonkar has virtually become a fountainhead of a new gharana.

An important feature of her music -- which partly explains her awesome influence -- is her fastidious organisation of musical material. She is one of the very few vocalists who sings her alap-s in four distinct phases -- sthayi, antara, sanchari and abhog. All improvisatory movements are neatly in their place with never a blurred separation between them. This feature of her music imparts an unusual transparency to her aesthetic intent.

She has personally groomed two generations of competent disciples in her idiom. But, more significantly, her music is the primary inspiration for literally thousands of female vocalists who have studied it through her concerts, recordings and broadcasts. The scale on which she has influenced female vocalism of the post-independence generation is matched only by the following Ustad Ameer Khan (1912-1974) commands amongst today’s male vocalists.

In the case of Kishori as well as Ameer Khan, the key to their musicianship is the music making “process” that shapes the musical “product”. In today’s environment, the vast majority of their followers have access only to their “product”, and none to the “process”. It may be a sad commentary on the present-day musical culture that two of the most original vocalists of the 20th century are represented – frequently mimicked and occasionally even caricatured – largely by unoriginal vocalists.

Or is this lament entirely out of place, because stars like these are destined to shine forever in their solitary glory, with no satellite capable of reflecting their light?

(c) Deepak S. Raja 2011

Thus spake Kishori Amonkar 

“I believe in the Guru-Shishya parampara. I don’t believe in learning from texts or cassettes. Students now-a-days learn dead music. Learning from a Guru is live learning. It is learning with a soul. It is a give-and-take of souls. Our music is the fifth Veda. The Vedas teach you Bramha Vidya. You cannot learn that from a machine. If you go on contemplating and meditating upon the divine art, I am sure you will achieve the ultimate destination in your music – which is bramhan. I am trying to reach that… I want to gain moksha with my music. I will do anything to reach there in this life. I don’t want to be born again to do that.” (Interview with Lakshmi Viswanathan. December 03, 2000)

“We have given an entertainment value to music. Singing is different, practicing is different, performing is different. These are three different aspects of music. I give importance to singing. What is singing after all? It is talking to your soul. It is an inside communication with (who) you are. When performing, trying to throw (it) out, naturally it will diminish in value.” (Interview with Lakshmi Viswanathan. December 03, 2000)

“Music is not just about words and beats. It is also about the emotion behind the rendition. Words turn into music when emotions are woven into them. And, the notes – not just the basic seven, but the hundreds of other mini and micro-notes help to bring out the soul of a music composition”. (Source: Bhaskar Gupta.

“To express music faithfully, you have to be very intense. Unless you are intense within, you cannot perceive the feeling clearly. And, if you cannot perceive the abstract existence of a particular feeling, you will not be able to color the notes with that exact feeling… Every intensity has a very small space; a laser sharp focus It gets compressed and comes to a point where nothing but the truth remains. Art becomes simplified and condensed with the intensity of feeling. The beginning is not art, nor is the end – it is the thread linking the two that emerges as art, whether on canvas, or in stone… I ask my students to concentrate on the notes; practice on one note for hours together. It is like meditation; only instead of a mantra, you have a note. Unless you sing a note correctly, you cannot fathom its nature… In our shastras it is stated that every note has its own fragrance, color, form, and character. It has a home it originates from, and an abode as its final destination. The ancients had a high meditative level and they concentrated on a subject with single minded purpose. But, now the music that is taught is to produce public performers”. (From a seminar paper. Quoted from: The Great Masters: Mohan Nadkarni). 

“Formerly, my mehfil performance tacitly accepted the tonal picture enshrined in the traditional framework. But, after some time, I realized that listeners are more fond of music which touches their hearts than intellectually satisfying music. As I began to pursue tonal purity assiduously, I was also able to look at the entire world of tonality more closely… I surrendered myself completely to swara, not to the “swara chitra (melodic picture or design)… When one dives deep into the swara, one’s artistic presentation becomes more rounded, deeper and simultaneously, one’s egoism also begins to wane. Then, the quantity or frequency of ornamental work on one’s musical presentation automatically declines and with that the music becomes more profound.” (From an essay: “Myself in my own words” and “Music as a Medium”, Rudravani, Diwali issue 1977. quoted from “Between Two Tanpuras” by Vamanrao Deshpande)

“I am a purist, and will always try to remain one, in the sense that I will remain faithful to the feel of a raga. The generalized rules are of great help to beginners and also for the meticulous performer-musicologists. An artist of originality understands and delineates the raga according to his or her genius, which is probably the right thing to do.”( Quoted from: The Great Masters: by Mohan Nadkarni). 

The base of my music is still that of the Jaipur gharana. Jaipur gharana is like a mother to me. I may have given up some of the special features of that tradition, for instance, I have incorporated alapachari which that tradition does not recognize, and which is divorced from rhythm or I may have discarded the identity between laya and swara; but take away the Jaipur base from my music, and see how it collapses” (Interview given to Vinay Dhumale: Manus, Diwali, 1977 issue, quoted from “Between Two Tanpuras” by Vamanrao Deshpande)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Raga Bhatiyar

Raga Bhatiyar, also known as Bhatiyari (not to be confused with Bhatiyali, the folk genre of Bengal), is a popular raga prescribed for performance around dawn.  According to legend, the raga was composed by an ancient king, Raja Bhartruhari [200 AD]. Hence its name. There is, however, little evidence to support this claim to antiquity. The raga belongs to the Marwa parent scale, one of the ten scales under which ragas in the Hindustani system are classified.

The scale of this raga has to be documented expressing its zigzag phraseology.

Ascent: S D P D M/ P G/ M^ D S’
Descent: r’ N D P M/ P G r S

Bhatkhande [Bhatkhande Sangeet Shastra, Vol.III, 3rd edition, 1984, Sangeet Karyalaya, Hathras] observed in the early 20th century that alternative versions of this raga involving twin-Dh usage, and komal Dh usage were also in existence.  These variants appear to have gone out of circulation since then.

The Vishranti swaras  of the raga [terminal points for phrasing] are: S, M., P, D. [Subba Rao,B. Raga Nidhi, Vol.I, 4th Edition, 1996, Music Academy, Madras]. These focal points place the raga’s centre of melodic gravity in the mid-octave region, but tilting towards the upper tetrachord. The vadi and samvadi [primary and secondary dominants] are indeterminate. This is not uncommon amongst ragas whose melodic personalities are dominated by their phraseology more than tonal weightages.

Chalan: [Skeletal phraseology]: 
S D D P [or] S M M P/ P M/ P G / M^ D S’/ r’ N D P M  [or] S’ D P M / P G r S. 

Bhatiyar has the highest risk of confusion with Bhankhar, whose phraseology is distinct, and whose vadi swara is Pa. Musicians avoid this risk, such as it is, by according greater importance to Ma in Bhatiyar.

Bhatiyar is a raga of limited potential for improvisation. This is why Bada Khayal-s in this raga, when performed, will be considerably shorter than those in the "richer" raga-s. This is also why Madhya Laya khayal-s are more commonly encountered in this raga.

Those who are fond of this raga could look for recordings of Ustad Ameer Khan and Roshanara Begum -- the best I have heard.

Deepak S. Raja
(c) India Archive Music, New York, producers of the finest Bhatiyar recordings. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Raga Lalita-Sohini: The Bahadur Khan interpretation

Lalita-Sohini is a recent (early 20th century) raga reportedly created by Agra gharana vocalists. I have heard it only on a recording of the sarodist, Ustad Bahadur Khan of the Maihar-Senia lineage. This solitary recording cannot be construed as being the standard or authorized interpretation of the raga in the Maihar gharana. But, the concept is interesting and deserves attention.

By its nomenclature, Lalita-Sohini appears to be intended as a melodic enhancement of Sohini with a touch of Lalit, both popular ragas. Sohini has been traditionally prescribed for close-to-midnight performance, while Lalit has been prescribed for post-sunrise performance. Lalita-Sohini therefore becomes a difficult raga to define in terms of the time-theory.

Sohini, as commonly heard, belongs to a family of three hexatonic ragas, Marwa, Puriya and Sohini, which have identical tone-material (S,r,G,M^,D,N). However,  there exists a version of Sohini which utilises two Ma tones, the natural as well as the sharp (Subba Rao B, Raga Nidhi, Music Academy, Madras, Vol. IV, fourth edition, 1996). The composer could have seen this version of Sohini as the inspiration for the creation of Lalita-Sohini, although there appears to be no recognisable relationship between the two. Bahadur Khan's recording, in fact, suggests the intention of using the commonest version of Sohini (S,r,G,M^,D,N) as the base-raga.

The commonest form of Sohini is distinguished from Puriya and Marwa by its distinctive phraseology and its dominant tones. However, its most significant distinguishing feature is its ascent-oriented and upper-tetrachord dominant character. In fact, several authorities believe that the notional scale of Sohini is from the middle-octave Ga to the higher-octave Ga. This is supported by the overwhelming opinion regarding the upper-Sa as the vadi of the raga and the middle-octave Ga as the samvadi.

Such a view of the scale is extremely valuable for saving Sohini from the chhaya (shadow) of Puriya and Marwa. For, Puriya has its centre of gravity in the lower tetrachord of the middle octave (vadi: middle octave Ga, samvadi: lower octave Ni), while Marwa, as currently performed, has its centre of gravity in the lower octave, with its notional scale from the lower-octave Dh to the middle-octave Dh (vadi: middle-octave Re, samvadi: lower-octave Dh).

While Sohini is a resident of the upper tetrachord, Lalit is a resident of the lower tetrachord, with its soul being revealed in the poignant use of the two Ma tones. Thus, when Sohini is melodically enhanced with features of Lalit, the resulting melodic entity opens up the entire scale for exploration, and exposes it to dilution with elements of Puriya as well as Marwa.

Bahadur Khan's interpretation of Lalita-Sohini appears to offer little resistance to suggestions of Puriya and Marwa. Their intrusion is aided by his affinity for lower-octave melodic development. The Puriya-Marwa influence in the aural experience might have been weakened if Bahadur Khan had introduced the Lalit element in its ascending manifestation (N-r-G-M-M^-M) in addition to the descending manifestation (N-D-M^-M-G).

Because of his decision to restrict the Lalit fragrance (the twin-Ma usage) to the descending expression, the melodic form of Lalita-Sohini is dominated by the unified (and undifferentiated) melodic field of the Marwa Parent scale (S,r,G,M^,D,N).

A documentation of the skeletal phraseology (Chalan) of Bahadur Khan’s Lalita-Sohini is meaningless based on the present recording because Bahadur Khan uses phrases suggestive of Sohini, Puriya and Marwa in all the segments of the melodic canvas. Raga connotations are often inexact except for Sohini phraseology in Sohini territory. This ambiguity in phrasing is probably intended to shape a fourth raga by fertilising the combined tone material of three ragas with genetic material from Lalit.

Based on this sole recording of the raga, it appears that the raga is either unfortunately named, or liberally interpreted. The nomenclature suggests, but belies, an intention similar to Lalita-Gauri, a melodic enhancement of the base-raga (Gauri) with the twin-Ma usage of Lalit. Bahadur Khan's Lalita-Sohini emerges as a blend of Sohini, Puriya, Marwa, and Lalit, with Marwa as the prominent, and Lalit as the fringe facet of the residual aural impression. Extracting a fourth raga out of the same tone material with nothing more than a touch of Lalit as a catalyst suggests alchemical ambitions.

This discussion is not intended as a critique of Ustad Bahadur Khan's handling of the raga concept. The rendition has to be viewed with sympathy as it was recorded during the last few months of his life, when he was in very poor health. The intention here is to consider the blending of Sohini and Lalit as a raga concept, and to pinpoint the pitfalls that lie on the path of forging compounds using any of the tricky triplets -- Marwa, Puriya and Sohini -- as one of the components. In such a context, the trickiest of the three would obviously be Sohini -- because of its very limited improvisational canvas.

Deepak S. Raja
(c) India Archive Music, New York. Producers of the finest recordings of Ustad Bahadur Khan

Monday, June 20, 2011

Raga Multani: wilting under the afternoon sun

Multani is amongst the popular afternoon ragas in the Hindustani system. It is classified under the Todi parent scale. The raga is prescribed for performance during the last three- hour period before sunset. The raga is pentatonic in the ascent and heptatonic in the descent. In the tone material, Ni is Shuddha [natural], Re, Ga and Dh are komal [flat], and Ma is tivra [sharp].

Ascent: N. S g M^ P N S'
Descent: S' N d P M^ g r S.

Chalan: [Skeletal phraseology]

N. S g S r S/ S g M^/ M^ g  M^ g/ M^ P/ M^ g M^ P N/ P N S'/ N S' d P/ M^ P g M^ g/ S g M^ P g/ M^ g S r N./ N. S M^ g /S r S

The melodic signature of the raga [Pakar] is S g M^ P M^g M^g / S r S, with the repetitive oscillation on the Pa to [komal] Ga transition touching [tivra] Ma along the path, and the special treatment of [komal] Re.

The raga's scale base is at the lower-octave Ni, and its centre of melodic gravity lies in the lower tetrachord. The primary dominant tone [Vadi] of the raga is Pa, and the secondary dominant [Samvadi] is base-Sa. The permitted melodic foci for phrasing are Sa, Pa, and Ni. The raga is exposed to the risk of confusion with Todi if Re, Ga or Dh are permitted prominence in its treatment. The raga does, however, require a significant deployment of Ga in association with [tivra] Ma. The repetitive oscillation of the Ma-Ga transition in the descent is considered one of the signatory melodic features of the raga.

There is something special about the treatment of the Re and Dh tones in this raga. There are also views on the treatment of Ma and Ga. According to Manikbuwa Thakurdas, a scholar-musician of the Gwalior gharana, the raga deploys suppressed shrutis [microtones] of Re and Dh. [Raga Darshan, Vol.II, First edition. 1988, Krishna Brothers, Ajmer]. Omkarnath Thakur, another scholar-musician from the same gharana believes that the Re and Ga of Multani are intended to be a trifle sharper than the standard komal [flat] frequencies, as also the tivra [sharp] Ma.[Sangitanjali, Vol. IV. Second edition. 1997, Omkarnath Thakur Memorial Estate, Bombay]

In contemporary practice, and in the renderings of maestros, it has been observed that the deployment of Dh and Re in the descent tends to be circumspect, if not subliminal, thus giving the raga the suggestion of pentatonic starkness even in the descent. The special treatment of Re and Dh tones makes Multani a profound raga, and a challenge to musicianship. This might explain why, despite the raga's popularity, truly memorable recordings of it are few.

Multani has been associated with the sentiments of romance and pathos. Based on the two recordings of the raga that have made a deep impact on me - one by Hirabai Barodekar [ECLP:2275] and the second, a concert recording of Ustad Ameer Khan, I have come to view Multani as a raga not merely of pathos, but of a debilitating oppressiveness.

Although the tradition does not refer to Multani as a seasonal raga, I associate this raga, in a very personal way, with the oppressive afternoon heat of May in the Indo-Gangetic plains. The very special treatment of the Re and Dh tones in this raga suggest to me the virtual wilting of the body and the mind under the remorseless tyranny of the North Indian summer. Interestingly, and though this need not form the basis for a definitive perspective on the raga's emotional flavour, I have found considerable sympathy for this view amongst friends from the West who have lived and studied long enough in India to internalize the spirit of Hindustani music.

Deepak S. Raja 
(c) India Archive Music Ltd., producers of the finest recordings of Raga Multani

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Pandit Omkarnath Thakur (1897-1967)

Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, regal in appearance and bearing, dressed in flowing silken robes, and sporting a leonine mane of shoulder-length white hair, accompanied by four tanpuras, two vocalists, and often two melodic accompaniments, is one of the enduring images of the last century in Hindustani music. On stage, Omkarnath was living theatre. But, he was much more than a musician. He enjoyed a rare combination of stature and popularity as a teacher, administrator, theoretician, political activist, and an institution-builder.

For almost three decades, starting from 1930, his was a towering presence in Hindustani music. He rose to national eminence sharing the stage with formidable rivals like Ustad Faiyyaz Khan and Kesarbai Kerkar, and held on to his position even as the next generation of vocalists like Ustad Bade Gulam Ali Khan and Ustad Ameer Khan were acquiring large followings and building awesome reputations.

Pandit Omkarnath was honoured by the President of India with a Padma Shri, and with several decorations by prestigious cultural organizations. He was amongst the few musicians in whose memory the Government also  issued a postage stamp. He received honorary Doctorates from Benares Hindu University and Vishwa Bharati University. Among his many awards was the title of “Sangeet Martand”, which was most commonly used by the music community as a prefix to his name.

Though trained under Vishnu Digambar, a scholar-musician of the Gwalior gharana, Omkarnath deviated substantially from the tradition, and became a daring innovator. In an era when khayal was still bound by the Dhrupad legacy of formal aloofness, Omkarnath had the courage to adopt an emotionally charged, and even melodramatic, style of rendition. He freely introduced elements of Tappa and Thumree into khayal rendition, sometimes blurring the borders between the genres.  In a milieu in which grammarians were taking over the organization of musical knowledge, he emphasized the esoteric aspects, and even experimented with the healing powers of raga-s.

Omkarnath is often considered a forerunner of the romanticist movement that surfaced in khayal vocalism in the 1970s with the emergence of Kumar Gandharva (1924-1992), Kishori Amonkar (Born: 1931), and Jasraj (Born: 1930). As an artistic ideology, romanticism signifies a preference for emotionally charged expression, along with relative indifference to the structural aspects of music. Omkarnath exhibited a generous dose of classicism in his musical personality. But, with his emphasis on the explicit communication of emotional values through the khayal, he paved the way for later romanticists.

Childhood and grooming

Pandit Omkarnath was born at Jahaaj in the Khambhat district of Gujarat. His grandfather and father were both soldiers in the employ of the Peshwa rulers. Under the influence of a saint, Omkarnath’s father, Gaurishankar, lost all interest in worldly affairs. Heedless of the material needs of his family, he became a hermit and devoted his life to Pranava Sadhana -- the exploration of the mysteries of “Om”, the primeval sound. This spiritual pursuit led him to name his last child Omkar.

Omkarnath’s mother was cheated out of her husband’s share of the family’s assets, and left destitute, along with her four children. A strong-willed woman, she moved the family to neighboring Bharuch (Central Gujarat), did menial tasks as a domestic servant, and brought up the children. From the age of five or six, Omkarnath started contributing to the family’s resources by working as a domestic servant, as a cook’s assistant, as a laborer in a textile mill, and as an occasional singer-actor in local theatrical productions. When Omkarnath was in his teens, he came in contact with Seth Shahpurji Doongaji, a philanthropist of Bharuch. The wealthy merchant noticed his talent and passion for music, and sponsored him for training under Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar at the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya in Bombay.

From 1910 to 1916 (according to some accounts:1913-1919), Omkarnath learnt the vocal art of the Gwalior gharana and the Pakhavaj (two-faced barrel drum), studied authoritative musicological texts, and served his Guru with devotion. When his Guru decided to open a branch of his music school at Lahore, Omkarnath – still in his early 20s -- was sent there as its Principal. Working tirelessly as a teacher and administrator at the Lahore school, he also launched his career as a performing musician. After three years at Lahore, he returned to Bharuch to start a music school, and to launch himself in political activity. His music school was later shifted to Bombay in 1934, and thence to Surat in 1942.

His family circumstances had not permitted him to go to school in childhood. But, in his early years, while he was struggling to help support the family, he had worked for a Jain religious establishment, where the monks taught him to read and write. Later on, by his own efforts, he mastered several languages – Hindi, English, Marathi, Sanskrit, Bengali, Punjabi, Urdu and Nepali. With himself as his only tutor, Omkarnath grew to be the most articulate orator and the most profound theoretician amongst musicians of the 20th century.

In the profession

In 1918, his career took off with impressive concerts at the court of Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III of Baroda, and at the Harballabh Sangeet Sammelan at Jallandhar. A few years later, he visited Nepal at won the admiration of the King, who could not persuade Omkarnath to accept his patronage. By 1930, Omkarnath’s fame had spread far and wide, and he became a star attraction at every major music festival in India.

In 1931, he was invited to the International Music Conference at Florence in Italy. From there, he traveled to Germany, Holland, France, England, Wales, and Switzerland, giving performances and lecture demonstrations, introducing the beauties of Hindustani music to European audiences. This was an era in which the West knew India only as the land of Gandhi, Tagore, and Uday Shankar. Indian classical music was an unknown entity. It was Omkarnath who ignited a degree of serious interest in Hindustani music amongst Western scholars and audiences three decades before they had heard the Elder Dagar Brothers, Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.

While earning laurels as a musician, Pandit Omkarnath also involved himself actively in the freedom struggle. He was elected President of the Bharuch Congress Committee, and a member of the Gujarat Provincial Congress Committee. When India made its tryst with destiny at the stroke of midnight on August 14-15, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru invited Pandit Omkarnath Thakur to sing the national song, “Vande Mataram” at the Central Hall of Parliament House, from where it was broadcast nationally. In later years, his composition of Vande Mataram became, by public demand, almost a permanent feature of his public concerts.

When Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya was establishing the Benares Hindu University (BHU), he invited Pandit Omkarnath to set up and manage the Department of Music. This could not happen during Malaviya’s lifetime; but it did happen in 1950, and Omkarnath moved to Benares as the first Dean of the Music Faculty to serve there until retirement.. At BHU, he trained a group of outstanding musicians and scholars to build a center of excellence. Amongst his most distinguished students were Dr. Premlata Sharma, whom he groomed as an eminent musicologist, and Dr. N Rajam, whom he nurtured into an outstanding violinist.

During his tenure at BHU, he accelerated work on two major musicological treatises:  Pranava Bharati, published in 1956, is landmark treatise on the theoretical aspects of music – swara, raga, and rasa. Sangeetanjali (in six volumes) published between 1938 and 1962, is a manual on the practical aspects of music performance, including raga grammar and esthetics.

Between 1934 and 1961, Pandit Omkarnath cut over twenty records with HMV in the 78 rpm, 45 rpm and Long Playing formats. On most of these recordings, he was accompanied on the Sarangi by Pandit Ramnarain, the sarangi maestro, who later gave up accompaniment in favour of a career as a soloist. Several of Pandit Omkarnath’s radio broadcasts were posthumously published by All India Radio archives. The repertoire on his recordings consists of  Khayals, bhajans, and patriotic songs. As a result, in the popular imagination, Omkarnath is most widely recognized by his two Meera bhajans – Jogi mat jaa, and Pag ghunghroo band Meera naachi re – and his rendering of the national song, Vande Mataram.

While at BHU, Omkarnath suffered a heart attack, recovered from it, and continued to perform. In 1965, he had a paralytic stroke which claimed his life in 1967.


Omkarnath had been trained only by Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, a thoroughbred maestro, and pioneering educator, of the Gwalior gharana. With his formidable intellect and erudition, Omkarnath obviously did not have the makings of a conformist. To an extent, he was influenced by the doleful and sweet style of another Gwalior-trained maverick, Auliya Rehmat Khan (1860-1922); but his own deviations from Gwalior were more radical. Critical opinion therefore regards Omkarnath as an original musician, though with firm moorings in Gwalior vocalism.

Like the later romanticists, Pandit Omkarnath’s repertoire consisted only of Khayal and Bhajans. He never sang Tarana-s, Tappa-s or Thumree-s in public, although all these were part of the Gwalior repertoire in his times. His Khayal repertoire had a substantial representation of common ragas like Malkauns, Desi, Shuddha Kalyan, and Komal Rishabh Asavari, and a moderate presence of uncommon raga-s like Devgiri Bilawal, Sughrai, and Shuddha Nat. He adapted a few Carnatic raga-s so comfortably, that they virtually lost all traces of their Carnatic origins. He selected them for their emotional content, and rendered them in his own unique style.

There are clearly three facets to Omkarnath’s personality as a musician. The first is his pre-occupation with mystical aspect of musical pursuits, inherited from his father, who renounced the world to unravel the mysteries of the primal sound, “Om”. The second is the scholarly facet, steeped in ancient musicological texts, whose wisdom he attempted to translate into performance. The third is the dramatic, even theatrical, facet which explicitly sought to create an impact amongst his audiences. How comfortably these facets cohabited in the same person is a matter of opinion. The combination, however, made him a colorful, and even, controversial musician.

The Pandit Omkarnath had cultivated a monumental voice in terms of volume, range, and pliability. His faultless technique enabled him to cover two and a half octaves without any sacrifice of musical value. He made very effective use of volume and timbre modulations in order to heighten the emotional intensity of his renditions. He had strong views on the emotional personality of each raga. In pursuance of these perceptions, he composed a large number of bandish-es in various raga-s under the pen-name “Pranav Rang”, published them in his six-volume work, Sangeetanjali, and performed them regularly at concerts. He tailored all aspects of his rendition of each raga based on his perception of it, drawn mostly from ancient and mediaeval musicological texts. This approach could sometimes lead to unorthodox architecture or apparently libertarian interpretations of raga-s as currently understood.  But, most of the time, it was compelling music.

His explorations in the melodic and emotional personalities of raga-s were informed by his experiments with their non-musical applications. For instance, in Sangeetanjali (Vol.IV), he narrates how he was able to cure a child of insomnia by singing to him the vilambit alap of a variant of raga Puriya in the lower octave around sunset continuously for a week. Though Omkarnath did not claim scientific validity for such successes, he was unjustly derided for having made such claims. While the scientific value of these experiments may be questioned, there is no doubt that Omkarnath enriched his own insight into mysteries of the raga-s through them.

Omkarnath had a rare ability to deploy the poetry of his khayals in a variety of ways and for achieving a variety of effects. While rendering the bandish, he treated the poetic element with great respect as literature. In rhythmic play, however, he could mutilate the words, treating them, effectively, as clusters of meaningless consonants. And, as evocative expressions, he could use them virtually in conversational deployment. The various ways in which he enunciated selected phrases, along with melodic variants, almost approached the lyrical sophistication of the Thumree genre.

Not surprisingly for his stature, Omkarnath’s khayal architecture was impeccable, except in a few raga-s, like Nilambari, in which the emotional content of the raga was suited only for slow-tempo compositions and improvisations.  His virtuosity was formidable. His tan-s were epitomes of effortless agility and complexity, comparable to the best in his era. Occasionally, there was an element of exhibitionism in them. But, even conservative audiences accepted this as a part of the total package that was Omkarnath Thakur.

The recording companies gave him the importance he deserved. But, most of his published recordings came out before the advent of the LP format.A sizable number of his surviving concert recordings have been published posthumously on audio-cassette and CD. It is reliably learned that his entire legacy of recordings -- other than what remains unpublished from the All India Radio Archives -- is, by now, in the public domain.

© Deepak S. Raja 2011

Selected discography
33ECX 3252 Raga Todi; Raga Malkauns 1964 
33ECX 3301 Sangeet Martand 1971 
33ECX 3303 A lecture on raga Bilawal). 1973
33ECX 3751 Devgiri Bilawal; Raga Bhairavi
EALP 1272 Ustad Bismillah Khan, Omkarnath Thakore
EALP 1455 Desi Todi / Mishra Bhairavi 1986

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Raga Bahar

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. 


Monday, June 6, 2011

Raga Bihag

Bihag is a popular late evening raga in Hindustani classical music, but not too common in the semi-classical genres. In classical music, however, it is regarded as a raga of Shringara rasa (romantic sentiment), and early romanticist Khayal singers such as Bade Gulam Ali Khan (Lat uljhi suljha jaa balam) are known to have interpreted the raga liberally in Thumree style renditions, albeit presented as Chhota (drut) Khayals. It is also significant that Bihag has given rise to variants – Savani, Bihagda and Maru Bihag amongst others – thus suggesting its malleability. To this extent, Bihag may be considered to fall on the borderline of classical and semi-classical raga.

Interestingly, the Carnatic (South Indian) tradition has a raga called Behag or Byag, which bears a close resemblance to Bihag of Hindustani music, and is considered a light, romantic, raga suitable for Javali-s, the Carnatic parallel of the Thumree in Hindustani music.

In terms of its melodic structure and grammar, Bihag is a non-controversial raga. It recognises two versions – the traditional-austere, and the modern-liberal. The only difference between the two is the permissibility of Tivra (sharp/raised) Ma in the descent.

Ascent: N S G M P N S’ 
Descent: S’ N D P /G M P M G/  R S.  

Ascent: N S G M P N S’ 
Descent: S’ N D P/ P M^ G M G/ R S. 

Contemporary chalan (skeletal phraseology): 
N. S M G/ S M G P/ G M P N S’/ S G’ RS’/ N DP/ P M^ P G M G/ P M G/ G RS

Tivra Ma entered the raga as an accidental, a subliminal presence in ornate phrases constructed in the madhyanga (mid-octave) region. Its presence has become more pronounced over the years. As a result, the austere-traditional form is now heard only in the Dhrupad genre, while Khayal and instrumental music have adopted the modern-liberal form.

The raga’s vadi-samvadi (primary and secondary dominants) are Ga and Ni, thus placing the raga’s centre of melodic gravity in the poorvanga (lower tetrachord). In contemporary music, however, Ni is frequently accorded the primary dominance, with the raga’s centre of gravity shifting into the uttaranga (upper tetrachord). This tendency is more pronounced in Thumree-style treatment. This transformation also tends to bias the melodic personality of the raga towards descending, rather than ascending, phrases.

Significant issues of intonation in Bihag pertain to Dh and Re in the descent. In classical treatment, the explicit intonation of these swara-s is contra-indicated. In semi-classical treatment, these rules are not considered binding. In fact, in Thumree style renditions, Dh, which is forbidden in the ascent, is often intoned with varying degrees of explicitness.

Deepak S. Raja
(c) India Archive Music, New York, producers of the finest recordings of Raga Bihag. 

Pandit Nikhil Banerjee (1931-1986)

Pandit Nikhil Banerjee (1931-1986) was amongst the finest sitarists to emerge on the classical music platform in the post-independence era. He entered the profession at a time when vocal music ruled the scene, and formidable musicians like Ustad Vilayat Khan, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, and Pandit Ravi Shankar were shaping a market for instrumental music. Under such daunting conditions, he created a niche for himself in the musical culture on the strength of his originality and musicianship.

Recognition came late, but it came. When he died at the age of 55, he had been decorated with a Padmashri, a Padma Bhushan, and a Sangeet Natak Academy Award. He had, by then, cultivated a sizeable constituency in the US.  Sadly enough, India discovered him after he acquired a cult-like following in the US. With Vilayat Khan and Ravi Shankar polarizing the stylistic spectrum, the domestic musical culture took time to accept a third option. Fortunately, Indian recording companies had, all along, remained interested in him, thus facilitating his re-discovery. Nikhil Bannerjee has thus become larger in his death than he was in life.

Childhood and grooming
Nikhil Babu was born at Calcutta in a conservative middle-class Brahmin family. His father, Jitendranath, and his grandfather, both, played the sitar as a hobby. But, in his family, music was frowned upon as a profession because of its association with courtesans. Young Nikhil heard his father practice every day, and developed a fondness for the instrument. His interest in learning the sitar was also discouraged out of the fear that it might interfere with his formal education. Family resistance eased when Nikhil was 5 years old, and he was given a toy sitar to start learning. By the age of seven, his prodigious talent became evident, and his father started teaching him seriously. At the age of nine, he won the All Bengal Sitar Competition and also became the youngest ever broadcaster on All India Radio.

In his childhood, he was deeply influenced by Ustad Ameer Khan, who was his sister’s teacher, and with whom he interacted extensively. He was also a great admirer of the leading vocalists of the pre-independence era – Omkarnath Thakur, Faiyyaz Khan, Kesarbai, and Roshanara Begum. In his youth, he learnt music for varying periods from musicians, who were part of his father’s circle of friends. By this process, he studied the sitar for a few months with the Seniya sitarist and surbahar exponent, Mushtaque Ali Khan, and the Tabla and vocal music with Bengal’s versatile genius, Gyan Prakash Ghosh. Thereafter, for several years he studied music with the aristocrat-musician-musicologist, Birendra Kishore Roy Choudhury.

Roy Choudhury was an exponent of the Dhrupad genre, specializing in the Sursingar, Rabab, Rudra Veena, and the Surbahar. He was an encyclopedic treasure house of old compositions. Nikhil learnt hundreds of vocal and instrumental compositions from him in a large number of raga-s. As Roy Choudhury was not an active performing musician, he advised Nikhil to go to Maihar and study with Ustad Allauddin Khan.

Once Nikhil had tackled the family resistance to the idea of a career in music, he faced an obstacle in the person of Ustad Allauddin Khan (Baba). The Ustad was over 70 by this time, and in no mood to accept any more students. After much persuasion, Baba agreed to listen to Nikhil’s next radio broadcast, and then decide whether he would teach him. Baba heard the broadcast, and pronounced it a piece of rubbish. But, he saw a hidden spark in Nikhil’s playing, and accepted him as a disciple. Nikhil packed his bags and left for Maihar to live and study with his Ustad.

Then started Nikhil’s five-year long saga of studying under the greatest and, by all accounts, the most difficult, Ustad of the era. Baba had mastered several instruments, but not the sitar. Therefore, he taught his sitar students by singing the music, and allowing them to find their own technique for executing it. Baba consciously and systematically also steered Nikhil’s music into a direction distinctly different from that of his other sitarist disciple, Ravi Shankar. When Baba was satisfied that Nikhil was ready for the real world, he allowed him to launch his career.

Even after launching himself in the profession, Nikhil did not stop being a student. Baba was too old by then. So, Nikhil spent five years in Bombay, studying with Baba’s son, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. Thereafter, whenever he visited Bombay for concerts, Nikhil would also go to Baba’s daughter, Annapurna Devi, and take lessons from her.

A  look at Nikhil Bannerjee's discography reveals his musical personality. Amongst available recordings -- published and unpublished -- the vast majority of the ragas featured are popular mature ragas like Darbari, Lalit, Marwa, Shree, Bairagi, Patdeep and Bhimpalas. In addition, there are "patent" ragas of the Maihar-Senia lineage -- Chandranandan composed by Ali Akbar Khan, and Hemant  reportedly conceived by Alauddin Khan.

The listing also has a handful of raga-s adopted from the Carnatic tradition -- Basant Mukhari (Vakulabharanam), Charukeshi and Kirwani. Semi-classical ragas seemed to have had a minor presence in his repertoire. I came across a Bhairavi rendering of his, in which he has treated the raga like a classical raga, rather than the more common thumree-style liberal treatment. I also observe that, although he did perform in the modern medium-tempo Jhaptal and Roopak, a majority of his recordings are in the traditional Tritala format.

These are indications that he was a musician of orthodox temperament in the classicist mold, who kept his music accessible, and occasionally displayed his mastery over the specialist repertoire of his lineage.

Duet artist
Unlike his Maihar seniors -- Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar -- Nikhil Bannerjee had only a minor presence as a duet artist. He is known to have performed duets only with Ali Akbar Khan. In addition to several stage concerts, the two also played brief (3 mts.) duets for a Bengali film, Kshudita Pashan (Hungry stones) and a Hindi film, Pheri.

Nikhil Banerjee entered the profession at the toughest possible period of history. As he told the American journalist-photographer, Ira Landgarten in an interview (1986):Of course, I had confidence after learning from Allauddin Khansahib but there was a great point in front of me: Vilayat Khan was there, and Ravi Shankar-ji was there, Ali Akbar Khansahib was there, and all these great stalwarts just in front of me! Until I've got some sort of individuality, who will listen to my music? After coming from Maihar, I was a little nervous for some time and I was really searching for a way to cut my own path because these three great instrumentalists hadn't left a single point through which to take up and dig out your own way… As a whole [complete] performer, how to place your individuality in front of these great instrumentalists? These three great instrumentalists have not neglected a single phrase or portion of Indian classical music; they've got their own individuality and are really great”.

As it turned out, Nikhil Banerjee did emerge as an original musician, whose style appeared to blend the finest features of the Dhrupad-derived Maihar (Ravi Shankar) style, with those of the Khayal-inspired Etawah (Vilayat Khan) style. This was not surprising considering that, Ustad Allauddin Khan had channelized Nikhil Babu’s musical energies in a direction different from that of Ravi Shankar, and other mentors had also given him a musical vision unfettered by either of the dominant sitar styles. It is inconceivable that Nikhil Banerjee should have developed his middle-of-the-road style as a conscious strategy because he was a conscientious musician, answerable only to his art.

He told Ira Landgarten (1986): “Music is such a thing that through your music you can be judged. It's not any particular way, it's from the experience because through music you express yourself. My approach to music is very deep. I do not compromise with anybody or anything else in the world. I do not care, I don't care if anybody appreciates it or not; I don't care. When I start I always like to play better, nice, good, heavenly music. I want to really go beyond this materialistic world towards Space -- there, no compromise. I really want to know -- not for the sake of enjoyment, entertainment, no. In the beginning portions –naturally.  With tabla, that's another chapter, a completely different chapter; the intricacies and mathematics are there. A musician must lift up the souls of the listeners, and take them towards Space.”

Despite entry at a difficult time for Sitarists, and departing early, Nikhil Bannerjee made it to the big league.  Fortunately for the music world, he also left a large number of recordings in the personal archives of collectors and with All India Radio. Many of these have now been released in India and abroad. As a result, today, Nikhil Bannerjee has a fanatical following amongst segments of music lovers, who hungrily devour every recording of his they can lay their hands on.

© Deepak S. Raja, 2011

Nikhil Bannerjee: Selected Discography
ASD 2394: Raga Lalit, Raga Sindhu Bhairavi, Raga Puriya Kalyan 1968 
EASD 1305: Raga Komala Rishab Asawari,  Maluha Kalyan, Mishra Gara. 1966 
EASD 1318: Raga Malkauns, Raga Hem-Lalit 1967
EASD 1342: Raga Hemant, Raga Bhatiyar 1969
EASD 1355: Raga Lalit, Raga Sindhu Bhairavi, Raga Puriya Kalyan 1968 
EASD 1377: Raga Sohini, Raga Megh 1972
EASD 1378 :Raga Jaunpuri, Raga Mand 1973
EASD 1450: Sitar from the Concert Hall: Volume 2: 1988
EASD 1465: Padma Bhushan Nikhil Banerjee in concerts 1988 
EASD 1473: Sitar recital live at San Francisco 1989 
EASD 1490: Live at Berkeley 1991
ECSD 2600 Nikhil From the Concert Hall 1979
PSLP 5072: Raga Megh, Raga Malkauns
PSLP 5301: Raga Komal Rishab Asavari, Raga Jaunpuri