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