Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Raga Lalit: Tonal geometry and melodic mischief

Lalit is amongst the older and more popular ragas of the Hindustani system. It bears a close resemblance to raga Lalitha of the Carnatic system. The two ragas are considered manifestations of the same traditional melodic idea.

Lalit (also called Lalat) is a hexatonic raga prescribed for performance in the pre-sunrise hours. In the contemporary context, it has found a niche for itself in the three-hour period after sunrise. Some musicological texts approve of this timing. The melodic contours of the raga have also changed during this century. Its older form is still in occasional practice. Its popular contemporary form is, however, most relevant for present day listeners. (swara material:S r G M M^ d N).

The melodic personality of Lalit is dominated by the rare, probably unique, use of the two Ma swara-s (shuddha and tivra). Lalit features the use of the two Ma swara-s  sequentially in the ascent as well as the descent. This is an exception to the general rule for ragas using both pitches of any swara (natural and flat or natural and sharp). In such cases of twin-swara usage, the the general rule is that the raga is permitted to use only one of the two in the ascent, the other being used in the descent. Their sequential use in either direction is generally considered improper. The importance of this feature of Lalit is enhanced by the fact that the shuddha (natural) Ma is the vadi-swara, the pivotal around which the raga revolves.

In its predominant contemporary form, Lalit uses flat (komal) swara for Dh. Bhatkhande,, writing in the 1930's considered the natural (Shuddha) Dh swara as proper for Lalit, while acknowledging that the flat (Komal) Dh usage also had textual validation. He also recognized that, because of the dominance of twin-Ma usage in the melodic personality of the raga, the choice of either of the alternative Dh swara-s does not materially influence the distinctive Lalit effect.(Bhatkhande Sangeet Shastra Vol.III Ed.LN Garg, Sangeet Karyalaya, Hathras, Third Hindi edition, 1984.Pg.304-321),

Bhatkhande described Lalit as uttaranga-pradhan, a raga whose center of gravity is in the upper tetrachord. Bhatkhande might now be obsolete with respect to this description. Traditional and modern compositions, considered collectively, betray the compelling grip of the twin-Ma usage in the mid-octave region over the composer's mind. The raga may now be more appropriately classified as madhyanga-pradhan.

Lalit has two facets to its personality: the geometric, and the melodic. Bhatkhande provides the basic clue to both these facets. He recommends treating the scale, notionally, as a two-part, discontinuous scale, split between the two Ma swara-s, with Shuddha Ma on one side, and the tivra on the other. This gives you S-r-G-M and M^-d-N-S.

This division does not yield symmetrical or congruent units. To achieve this balance, the scale gets redefined,  for phraseological purposes, in first-fifth correspondence: N.-r-G-M and M^-d-N-S'. These divisions, considered separately but in correspondence, provide the acoustic basis for the geometry. Lalit releases its distinctive fragrance by treating these scale divisions as discontinuous, and in fusing them together. The welding takes place between the Shuddha and tivra Ma swara-s, with the support of either Ga below or Dh above. This joinery gives the raga its defining, and unique, melodic personality.

The raga has a third, but unintended, facet, which can surface due to the inept or mischievous handling of the dominance of the shuddha (natural) Ma in the raga. With excessive or inattentive improvisation around shuddha Ma, it is easy to create an aural illusion of Ma as the scale-base. The results can be quaint.

If Ma becomes, even momentarily, the notional scale base in the listener's mind, Lalit starts sounding like Todi. Interestingly, one significant gharana of vocal music explicitly teaches Lalit as Todi sung to scale-base at Ma, and does so without ridiculous results.

Lalit phrasing: G M d M^ M
Todi illusion:  N S g r  S

Lalit phrasing: N  d M^ d M^ M
Todi illusion:  M^ g r  g r  S

Lalit phrasing: r' N  d M^ d M^ M
Todi illusion : d  M^ g r  g r  S

Orthodox musicians calculatedly avoid such risks. Contemporary musicians occasionally take delight in the raga's potential for mischief, allowing the illusion to persist for a while before restoring the relationship of the phrasing to base-Sa.

The Ma/Sa confusion is relevant also to the tuning of instruments. Because Lalit does not use the Pa swara, vocalists tune their tanpuras to Ma-Sa-Sa-Sa. If Ma replaces the Sa as the scale-base in the listener's mind, the Sa on the tanpura begins to sound like Pa, which is forbidden in the raga. The danger of such slippage is generally negligible in sitar and the sarod music, where the second string and the chikaris, tuned to Sa do not allow the scale-base to relent for any significant duration.

The chalan (distinctive phraseology) provides the defining contours of the raga's melodic personality. The scale divisions permit the improvisational process to explore its potential for symmetric, geometric as well kaleidoscopic tonal patterns. And, the Ma/Sa double-entendre makes the raga pregnant with an element of wit. Lalit is thus rich in musical potential.

Bhatkhande has described Lalit as a raga of serious temperament. The standard Lalit of his times uses Shuddha Dh, and omits Ni in the ascent (M^-D-S'). The contemporary Lalit uses komal Dh, and permits the ascent to use Ni (M^-d-N-S') without prohibiting the traditional ascent (M^-d-S'). With this change, the raga has shed some of its robust quality, but sharpened its poignancy. 

The seriousness of the original Lalit has now tilted towards pathos. To appreciate this, we merely need to observe what the "Lalit effect" does when blended with raga Gauri in Lalita-Gauri and when dovetailed to Sohini in Lalita-Sohini. It makes them weep.

(c) India Archive Music, New York.