Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Ragascape of Hindustani Music - VII

The idea of the Ragascape has been discussed in the earlier part of this study.  The testing continues now, though from a different angle, of the hypothesis that the contemporary Ragascape is dominated by a finite number of Raga-s, and that the number could be in the region of 50.

The Ragascape manifests itself in a wide variety of personal and impersonal encounters between musicians and their audiences. Amongst personal interfaces, annual music festivals held in different parts of the country – and now also in London – are significant.

Music festivals are, typically, events lasting anywhere between 3 and 13 consecutive days, in which the organizers attempt to feature musicians of national stature, along with distinguished local musicians of the region, and sometimes also promising local talent. As such, they attract the attendance of the entire local music community, ranging from professional musicians and connoisseurs, to lay music lovers. The major festivals also tend to be reviewed in the local media. Most music festivals in India are held during the winter and spring (December to February), when the weather is clement, and open-air seating arrangements can be made to accommodate large audiences, which are known to range from a few thousand to 10,000. These factors make annual music festivals a potent source of insight into the musical culture.

Does this source lend itself to intelligent observation and interpretation? How does a researcher observe and interpret the content of music that has been performed over several decades at different locations – not only in India, but now also abroad? An approach made for historical data to two of the better organized festival hosts found them either unable or unwilling to help. This phenomenon is endemic to the ecosystem that manages Hindustani music events in India, and is rooted in the history of the major festivals, one of which has been organized annually for over a 140 years.

The background

The organization of annual music festivals started in the late 19th/ early 20th centuries when feudal patronage of classical music was fading. By this time, the radio and commercial records had begun to cultivate a large “public” audience for classical music. However, neither radio sets nor commercial records were cheap, and the direct/live experience of classical music was still beyond the reach of the average music lover. At that stage, mercantile patrons stepped in with funds, domain knowledge and organizational competence to bring face-to-face musical encounters to the general public through annual festivals.

The growing popularity of music festivals in the host cities resulted in a growing need for funds and organizational competence. Over a period, individual philanthropists either promoted, or were replaced by, non-profit/ charitable trusts, with funding solicited from a multiplicity of donors. This transition did not, however, professionalize event management activity for three main reasons: (a) The basic orientation remained philanthropic/ non-profit with audiences either not paying at all, or the box office contributing only in small part to the total cost of the event. (b) The primary objective of the events has remained to service the local music community of the city with a live musical experience. (c ) A purely seasonal activity could not justify a full-time establishment to pursue emerging artistic, technological, and economic trends and opportunities.  

The recording of festival music arrived perhaps in the 1960s, when quality tape-recorders became accessible on a wide scale at a reasonable cost. It was about then that organizers began to make audio recording of festival music. Much of this asset remained the private property of the organizers and circulated invisibly in the grey market. Some organizers established tie-ups with music companies to duplicate festival recordings, and market them on a commercial scale. Thus began the era of festival music (a) being delivered through impersonal storage media as a product and (b) reaching audiences living beyond the confines of the host cities. The financial implications of this commercialization for the event organizers are opaque, while also being irrelevant because very few festival hosts could contract such arrangements. 


The filming of festival performances was very rare until the video-tape era arrived. In the early stages of videography, filming was discouraged by costs of production as well play-back and an unexplored   market for copies. The costs of videography and related storage-media became interesting only with the arrival of the video CD at the turn of the century. But, hardly any major festival organizer began marketing video CDs of festival music. Upon the arrival of the Internet, and specifically of YouTube, the incentive for the video-preservation of festival music took on a more interesting turn.  

YouTube permits the monetization of uploaded assets. In addition, a higher level of visibility for the event organizers through “Publish Yourself” media could stimulate the sourcing of sponsorship funds to support the festival activity. For festivals which rely even partially on box office collections, a higher visibility in the social media offered the possibility of attracting larger audiences for future events. With the arrival of amateur videography equipment, musicians featured at the music festivals found it possible to upload their own performances on the social media to enhance their visibility in the concert market.

These attractions, working collectively after the dawn of the 2nd millennium, have brought a substantial part of festival music online through YouTube. However, the basic culture of most major festival organizers remains stuck in the conventional mode, focused on live music delivered to a local music community. The information needs of a global audience accessing music through a remote medium do not appear to be of concern to them. As a result, a comprehensive, and professionally catalogued archive of festival performances is difficult to find on YouTube.

With all its imperfections, the archive presently available on YouTube holds some promise as an indicator of the Ragascape of music festivals, providing a different perspective on our search for an understanding of the musical culture. In this belief, I surveyed YouTube uploads of the following music festivals, and have attempted to extract some meaning from the results of the survey.  

The survey is not a census. It is not based on a sample of any kind – whether systematic or unsystematic. It utilizes whatever was available on YouTube, and could be identified as eligible for inclusion.

The coverage of festivals

The Harballabh Sangeet Sammelan covered in this survey is the oldest, having been held consecutively for 146 years, while the Choudhry House Festival held in Kolkata is the youngest, having commenced as an organized public event in 2012. Wherever the event organizer is more than 20 years old, and the year of the performance is available, I have chosen to log only performances of Raga-s performed since the year 2000.

No particular criterion has been applied to the selection of festivals for this survey. The selection was guided by the availability of a sizeable inventory of eligible observations on YouTube. An attempt was made to select significant festivals reflecting the musical cultures of different parts of the country. The Darbar Festival in London was added because it represents a significant presence of Hindustani music in the largest foreign home of the Indian/ South Asian community.

      The method of survey is simple. Identify YouTube videos displayed as being of a performance recorded at any of the surveyed music festivals, ensure that the performance is less than 20 years old in August 2020, and list the Raga performed. No distinction is made between vocal and instrumental performances, nor on the basis of the age of the musician performing a Raga. These refinements would be interesting. But, the quality of the data-source may not have supported them. Therefore, the only feature of relevance considered is the Raga performed.

The operative measure of a particular Raga’s significance -- in this study --  is the number of times it occurs in all festivals collectively across the surveyed recordings. Considering the limitations of the data source, no greater refinement seemed inviting. I regard the data as more suited for qualitative, than quantitative, interpretation. Some numeracy, however, helps highlight the phenomenon we seek to understand.  

Results of the survey

The survey covers 7 music festivals. The results are based on an audit of 591 performances, spread over a period of 20 years, in which a total of 132 Raga-s are encountered. The analysis of the frequency with which each raga occurs in the survey reveals a median of 3 occurrences, a modal value of 1, and a mean of 4.8 occurrences with a standard deviation of 4.5. The distribution of occurrences is highly skewed (see graph). 

This pattern obliges us to keep the argument simple. To obtain a meaningful isolation of the extremeties, I have divided the 132 Raga-s into three groups.

 Group 1: Raga-s occurring five times or more in the survey i.e mean or higher, 

Group 2: Raga-s occurring above the mode, but below the mean i.e. 2 to 4 times

Group 3: Raga-s occurring at the mode, i.e. only once. See Tables of Group 1,2, and 3 at the end of this report.

This approach divides the Raga-s into three approximately equal groups of +/- 40 each.

Group 1 Raga-s

Group 1 (Raga-s occurring five times or more) consists of 44 melodic entities, which appear to be the “standard contemporary repertoire” of Hindustani music in the context of music festivals. The most frequently performed Raga in this group (Bihag) occurs as many as 23 times in the survey.

It is useful to consider how this group of 44 Raga-s dominating the festival circuit compares with the Top-44 Raga-s identified by us through the measurement of an Audience Engagement Indicator from YouTube viewership data in the earlier study. Only 28 Raga-s were found to be present in both the Top-44 groups. The analysis of the common 28 Raga-s yields a Correlation Co-efficient of 0.4. (see Graph below). The Table showing the comparison is given at the end of this report.

There are two facets to the interpretation of this correlation. Firstly, the dominant repertoire tends to partially anticipate the comfort levels of audiences. Secondly, the specific context of a music festival encourages certain choices which cause festival repertoire to diverge from the assumed “comfort zone” of audiences. Both these facets are reflected in this analysis, despite the far-from-ideal quality of the data source.  

In interpreting this analysis, we need to remember that the YouTube Audience Rating reflects a remote global audience, while the festival repertoire of musicians addresses a physically present local audience. To this extent, the two data series may not, strictly, be comparable. The geographical component of the comparison cannot be isolated. The comparison does, however, highlight the specific context of a music festival in some respects.

 A contextual/ thematic classification of the two Top-44 lists is interesting. (see table below).

The classification of the Top-44 Raga-s from the two studies shows a broadly similar pattern, except in three cases. Early morning Raga-s appear to engage YouTube audiences more than musicians appear to offer them at music festivals. The most likely explanation for this divergence is the time-specific prescription related to the performance of Raga-s. All festivals do not host morning sessions – though some do -- and therefore the opportunities for performing appropriate Raga-s for that time of the day at festivals are scarcer. The higher occurrence of sunset Raga-s at the festivals also reflects the same reality. 

A similar logic may explain the plentitude of night Raga-s at music festivals compared to their popularity among YouTube audiences. Music festivals in India often stretch late into the night, and sometimes into the early morning, providing a wider canvas for night raga-s to be performed. Another facet of this phenomenon is that “star musicians” at music festivals are generally featured at the end of the evening session, with no time-limit set on their performance. This convention can automatically enhance the presence of night Raga-s.

 While the patterns at the top end of the scale is largely predictable, the pattern at the bottom end is interesting for its enigmatic quality.

Group 3 Raga-s (Single occurrence)

As many as 15 of the 42 Raga-s occurring only once in our festivals survey are undocumented. For determining their status, I rely on Raga Nidhi, by B Subbarao (Music Academy, Madras), which has documented the largest number of Hindustani and Carnatic Raga-s. Remaining undocumented implies that they are either extremely rare Raga-s, or modern/ contemporary creations awaiting documentation. The occurrence of such Raga-s at the bottom of the scale reflects the scope musicians have, in the music festival context, to pursue novelty, while risking audience discomfort. 

It is interesting that the bottom end of the scale does not feature a single “Thumree Raga”. This category is over-represented at the upper end of the scale.  Interestingly also, the bottom end (42) shows a higher presence of seasonal Raga-s (5) than the Top-44. On closer scrutiny, this group is found to include compound Raga-s, like Paraj-Basant, and Miya-ki-Sarang, which are rare anyway. Of course, the group also includes the widely performed and heard Gaud Malhar and Basant-Bahar, whose presence at the bottom end cannot be explained except as an infirmity of the data-source.  

 The YouTube Rating 97 and the Festival 139

 Based on the top-44 Raga-s emerging from the two studies, we are allowed to believe that the partial convergence, and substantial divergence between the two lists of dominant Raga-s. The divergence also appears to have some logical explanations related to the context and methodology of the two studies.

A different view emerges if we consider the two lists in their entirety. We have 97 Raga-s in the Youtube Audience Rating study, and 139 Raga-s emerging from the Festivals study. It is found that the two lists have 75 Raga-s in common. A graphic plot of the correlation between the 75 common Raga-s is shown below:


The Correlation Coefficient of 0.61 is considerably stronger than the Top-44 coefficient. Here, we can witness a more comprehensive reflection of the cultural process. This further supports the hypothesis that the Raga-s populating  the Ragascape of the era, creates the semblance of an “unstated agenda” between musicians and their audiences. The precise number of Raga-s in this unwritten contract is not important. What is important is that the number could be finite, and a small fraction of the total of 1200+ documented Raga-s.


The earlier study of Audience Engagement Indicators on YouTube gave us a list of 30 Raga-s which could be considered the “core” of the Ragascape we are attempting to map. This study, based on an analysis of music festival repertoire, gives us 44 Raga-s which appear to constitute the “standard festival repertoire” on the contemporary Hindustani music scene. There is, expectedly, considerable duplication between the two lists. However, this study has also permitted us a broader view of the cultural process that brings the identified Raga-s into dominance. Having considered these two approaches to the mapping, we have come a little closer to achieving the objective of this study. Further approaches can be considered for a more categorical mapping of the Ragascape. 

(c) Deepak S. Raja, August 2020