Sunday, April 17, 2016

Book Review: The Raga-ness of Raga-s. The Hindu, April 15, 2016.

FRIDAY REVIEW: April 15, 2016
Musicologist Deepak S. Raja explores “the Raga-ness of Ragas” in his latest book.

It is a fact that as compared to the art of music, its philosophy is a dry subject. Even highly educated practicing
Author with Ustad Shujaat Khan
musicians, therefore, keep musicology at arms’ length. This is one sphere where, in their haste to master the delightful techniques, most aspirants prefer to follow the footsteps of their gurus without any counter-question arising out of personal understanding and resultant views. I have a feeling they know not what they are missing!

But exceptions are there who straddle both music and musicology with delighting clarity. My Guru Pandit Amarnath, inspired by the analytical aptitude of his legendary ustad, Amir Khan Sahib, never accepted anything without weighing its values. This, according to him, would give additional thrill and confidence as what-s and why-s always enrich the how-s. He would often tell us to think beyond the clichéd Ranjayate iti ragah and explore the tattwa (matter) that resides behind the façade of a given raga, that makes it a living thing, that dies with the end of a concert to be reborn in another – and in a new avatar!

All those cherished memories dawned upon me gleaming with new discernments when I read “The Raga-ness of Ragas” authored by well-known musicologist Deepak S Raja. The title of the book has the tagline “Ragas beyond the Grammar”. It was obvious that the book’s domain is empirical – beyond the tangible periphery of mere academics. It had to be; because those who know Deepak Raja, are aware that he is a sitar and surbahar exponent (Etawah Gharana) and learnt khayal (Jaipur-Atrauli Gharana) apart from studying musicology under the guidance of eminent scholars. He is a repertoire analyst for India Archive Music Ltd., New York and writes extensively about his experiences as a musician-cum-researcher. Far away from the scholastic dryness, his works (this one is his fourth book in a row) are steeped in tried-and-tested melodic recipes.

The author admits that since “Hindustani music grants the musician the simultaneous roles of performer and composer” this creative license has helped in the evolution of ragas. The raga is “a melodic structure, tight enough to remain distinct and identifiable and yet loose enough to form the basis for considerable improvisational freedom.” He reiterates a well-known fact that “Ragas can, and do, change even over time.” Under the circumstances, standardisation of ragas’ features becomes necessary. But being a sensitive musician himself, the author did not try to shackle the beautiful body of the raga; instead he approaches the core of its heart from a totally different angle of a mystic.

Divided into two parts this book begins with ‘Perspectives on Raga-ness’ by explaining and analysing the concept called raga and its relation with rasas; and then moves on to explore and identify the essence of a raga in a) bandishes: that showcase the features of a raga from several angles; b) aalap: which elaborates the raga at slow pace; c) taan: which follows raga-movements at fast pace that ‘emphasise the sameness of all ragas’; and above all d) the raga-ness of the musician who performs and composes at once.

According to the author, musician’s own personality reflects through his art as he relates to his music according to his saatwik (pristine pure), raajasik (passionate) or taamasik (impure) mindset. Saatwik chooses to treat the raga as the Almighty. Raajasik follows the commonly accepted form of raga to win mass approval. Taamasik remains oblivious to raga’s soul; only entertainment becomes his goal to earn money. Any one or all can influence an artiste’s psyche.

To add to the melodic content in the real ‘practical’ sense, the second part of the book, ‘The world of the Raga’, contains the analysis of 49 ragas replete with their ascending-descending orders, catch phrases, parental scale, sister ragas etc. along with their historical evolution and opinions of several legendary musicians and musicologists.

The book is further enriched by eminent vocalist Vidushi Ashwini Bhide’s soul-searching foreword, an introduction by Lyle Wachovsky, a guest essay on the concept of ‘Rasa and Western System of Keys’ by Alessandro Dozio and a glossary of explicated terms. The most admirable qualities of the book are the author’s lucid pen, at times, dipped in humour, and an eye for apt melodious anecdotes. It opens new vistas of melodic views, no doubt.

Reviewer: Meena Banerjee