Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Shamsuddin Faridi Desai – "The Qadri Sufis regard music as a pathway to God"

Shamsuddin Faridi Desai,  amongst the last Rudra Veena players of the pre-independence generation, was not an easy man to interview. I tried once, and failed. But, Lyle Wachovsky, of India Archive Music Ltd., New York, managed to get something out of him. His finest recordings have been published by India Archive Music.

Excerpts from interview with Lyle Wachovsky, April 2004

I was born in 1936. My father, Mohammad Faridi Desai, was a court musician in the princely state of Bhavnagar in Gujarat (Western India), and tutor to the queen. He played the Been and was also adept at playing the violin, the piano, and the sarangi. He had studied with Ustad Waheed Khan of Indore, a disciple of the legendary Beenkar, Ustad Bande Ali Khan. My grandfather, Abdul Rehman, was in the army, but had also been trained as a Beenkar under Waheed Khan. In my early days, I played the violin and the mandolin, and switched on later simultaneously to the sitar and the Been.

I did my first concert on the Been in the presence of eminent musicians, and princes, when I was 15. It was very well received, and encouraged me to pursue the instrument. For a while I flirted with acting as a junior to Prithviraj Kapoor at Prithvi Theatres. But, once I got hooked on the Been, I lost interest in everything else.

I studied the Been under my father as long as he lived. After that, I studied, for five years, with Maharana Jaswant Singh (ruler of Sanand, near Ahmedabad in Gujarat), who was a fine Been player. Ustad Ghulam Qadir, who was the son of my father’s Guru, Waheed Khan, also guided me after my father’s demise. I started broadcasting from Ahmedabad radio station in 1957 (age: 21).

In 1959, Thakur Jaidev Singh, the well-known musicologist, who was advisor to the government, arranged for me to join the National Orchestra of All India Radio, based in Delhi. The orchestra has a full-time staff of 40 musicians. At the National Orchestra, I played the sitar and Been under great composers and conductors like Pandit Ravi Shankar, and Emani Shankar Shastri. I served the orchestra for 38 years, and retired in 1997. After retirement, I perform as a Beenkar, and am training my sons and a couple of students on the Been as well as the sitar.

My family’s style of the Been follows the Gauhar Bani, founded by Gopal Nayak. In our style, we are permitted only five forms of melodic execution – Soonth, Meend, Gamak, Lehek, and Dehek. Two forms -- Zamzama and Murki -- are explicitly prohibited. Our speciality is the richness of our jhala. We are taught 26 different strokes of the mizrab, and 18 different chikari perforation patterns.

An important part of our music is the link between our spiritual beliefs and pursuit of music. We belong to the Qadri sect of Sufism, which regards music as a path to the realization of God. The fountainhead of our gharana, Ustad Bande Ali Khan is reported to offered penance at the shrine of the Sufi saint, Khwaja Garibnawaz at Ajmer, and obtained a boon that he and his heirs would have the power to make people laugh or cry at will. It is that boon that inspires our music.

(c) India Archive Music Ltd.New York, producers of the finest recordings of Shamsuddin Faridi Desai.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Raga Darbari Kanada – the majestic gait and its tonal geometry

Raga Darbari Kanada has often been described as the Emperor of Ragas and the Raga of Emperors. These descriptions recall the raga’s association with Miya Tansen at Akbar’s court, and the majesty of the Mughal Empire at its zenith. But, such imagery could not have either surfaced, or survived through the centuries, if it had not also been supported by the melodic character of the raga.

The key to the majestic aloofness of the raga lies in the ponderous deliberateness with which it has to be rendered. This “ponderous deliberateness” of musical expression owes itself primarily to the “andolit” (oscillated) treatment of two swaras – komal Ga, and komal Dh – in the ascent as well as the descent. These two oscillations are fundamental to the sculpting of the two phrases which virtually define the melodic personality of Darbari Kanada – [g M R] and [d n P].

These oscillations around (komal) Ga and Dh swaras define a very specific treatment or intonation of these swaras in Darbari. Some authorities even believe that Darbari does not use the common (komal) Ga and Dh pitch-ratios to base-Sa. Instead, it uses their suppressed micro-swaras (shrutis). According to this view, these suppressed micro-swaras are accessible only as suggestions arising from an oscillation between the natural Re and the flat Ga (for komal Ga) and between Pa and the flat Dh (for komal Dh).

In imparting a sensitivity to these nuances of Darbari Kanada to their disciples, traditionally trained Gurus have often used very obscure language and imagery. The logic of these oscillations is, however, easily understood through acoustic principles -- essentially, the tonal geometry of the two pivotal phrases of the raga: g-M-R and d-n-P.

The first and last swaras in these phrases, Re-Pa and Ma-Ni, are in perfect first-fourth correspondence with a ratio of 1.333 between them. But, the linking swaras, (komal) Ga and (komal) Dh are only in near-perfect correspondence with a ratio of 1.367 between them.

To achieve a symmetry between the lower and upper halves of the Darbari Kanada scale, the two pivotal phrases need to be in perfect phraseological congruence. This is not possible until (komal) Ga and (komal) Dh are brought into perfect acoustic correspondence with each other.

The oscillated treatment of (komal) Ga and Dh explores the relevant microtonal regions for the possibility of tonal correspondence and phraseological congruence. The melodic soul of the raga expresses itself in these explorations.

The aesthetic demands of this tonal geometry might explain why great musicians often favour slow tempo renditions in this raga, and avoid the flattening out of the prescribed oscillations in ultra high-density melodic execution.

© Deepak S. Raja

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Book Review : By Partho Datta

Hindustani music: A tradition in transition.
Deepak Raja. DK Printworld, New Delhi. Rs. 490/-

This is a big book of essays and miscellaneous musings on Hindustani classical music, which straddles two worlds, one of pedagogy and the other of criticism. A substantial part of the book is a straightforward introduction to concepts, terms and the performing norm in North Indian classical music as it is practised today.

The modest looking glossary that appears in the contents page is actually more than 50 pages long even though it is tagged at the end of the book. The author presents here a mini dictionary of sorts, taking great care over Hindustani music terms that appear complete with diacritical marks and extensive explanations. While Raja's concern with orthography and phonetics is to be welcomed, Sitar as `Sitara' or Santur as `Santura' does break established conventions and do seem a bit cumbersome. But one gets used to it after a while. Similarly, Amir Khan the famous maestro from Indore becomes `Ameer' Khan, the first is what appears on all his L.P./cassette covers and for a moment this reviewer thought that the author was referring to some other singer. The appearance of the archaic `Moslem' and `Mushtaque' shows that the same rigour for words has not been extended throughout the text. Minor quibbles apart, this glossary is a mine of information, carefully collated from diverse sources and both the casual listener and the advanced enthusiast will certainly benefit from it.

There is also a substantial and separate section introducing Indian instruments. Here too, the author shows great diligence. Every chapter on a single instrument is carefully divided into `organology' (history of the development of the instrument), `acoustics', `ergonomics (the design of the instrument, how it is handled) and `melodic execution'. Raja is particularly enlightening on the Rudra Vina, the Surbahar and the Sarangi, three instruments which have been overshadowed by the popularity of the Sarod and the Sitar. Surprisingly, the chapter on the Sitar is the shortest even though Raja as the biographical details provided at the end of the book tell us, has been a student of long standing of this enigmatic instrument. Another section has detailed introductions to the vocal genres of Dhrupad, Khyal, Thumri and Tappa. These chapters too are systematic accounts premised on the unwritten code of Hindustani music, which places vocal music above and superior to music produced by instruments.

The chapter on Dhrupad is a comprehensive treatment of the subject with detailed notes on the history, style and norms. Dhrupad despite its exalted status is hardly written about and for this reason Raja's careful commentary is very welcome. Raja argues that the celebrated Dhrupad alap is premised on single intervallic transitions and relationships between two notes. The post-Dhrupad genres broke this rule to achieve greater melodic agility. If Dhrupad is less `intellectual' than the later Khyal, then the reason lies in its strict adherence to conventions, which allow only very systematic interplay between the melodic, poetic and rhythmic variables. In the light of this interpretation Raja's assertion later in the book that Khyal is "end-to-end linearity" is puzzling. The linearity of Khyal is a characteristic of the Kirana gharana and subsequently developed by modern instrumentalists. If anything, the founding lineage of modern Khyal singing, the Gwalior gharana is the very opposite as it is full of swoops, glides, cuts and rhythmic swerves that certainly defy characterisation as `linear'.

State of music today
Raja's critical pronouncements that form the other half of the book are subjective and sometimes contentious. Certainly his theory that Carnatic music has abandoned the time theory of ragas because equatorial South India experiences only mild changes of temperature throughout the day is both fanciful and hilarious. More closer to the truth is that the time theory was an interpolation in Hindustani music and as Bonnie Wade has suggested closely tied to the rituals of feudal courts which later became established conventions.

In a metaphor that he borrows from the plastic arts Raja argues that music too has `architectural', `sculptural' and `ornamental' properties. Such characterisations help Raja categorise musical form despite a high degree of overlap in these concepts. The helpful section on trends in Khyal singing is alas too short.

The book begins with a lively account of the state of Hindustani classical music in today's India. Raja's essay showcases the concerned aficionado's fear of the future. What will happen to this wonderful music in a world where the presence of established maestros is rapidly shrinking while the untutored audience makes relentless demands? The author's tentative answer is to build dykes against the pressures of the market, to plump for elitism so that all that is good in this music can be preserved. In this sphere he argues forcefully that mere `conservatism' would not do and what is needed is `conservationism', which is a new kind of activism by connoisseurs to save this art.

Reproduced from: The Hindu : Tuesday, Sep 06, 2005

Monday, April 28, 2008

How the Begum trumped the Nawab

Kumar Mukherjee (died: 2007) was, for several decades, one of the most influential members of Calcutta’s music “establishment”. In 2006, Penguin Books published a book titled “The lost world of Hindustani music”, under his authorship. For those interested in Hindustani music, the book is a highly readable cocktail of dramatized history, memoir, musicology, critical writing, known myth, and unverifiable anecdote.

According to Mukherjee, Nawab Raza Ali Khan of Rampur, whose own musical skills and discernment were dubious, continued his legendary father, Hamid Ali Khan’s patronage of classical music. One of his remarkable practices was to offer generous inducements to musicians under his patronage to become his “ganda-bandh” (ceremonially initiated) disciples. Apparently, even the redoubtable Ahmedjan Thirakva succumbed to the Nawab’s guiles, as did several others of considerable stature. But, according to Mukherjee (Pg.143-144), Begum Akhtar, the queen of Ghazal and Thumree, made the Nawab pay dearly for his misguided enthusiasm. The context was, no doubt, a little more complicated.


One gathers that the Nawab fell so deeply in love with Akhtaribai Faizabadi, that he carried her off to his palace and held her in luxurious imprisonment for many years. To quote Sheila Dhar (Kairana vocalist, socialite, and author), once again, she was endowed with gifts and allowed to wear the priceless heirlooms of the state, including a “Satlada”, a seven-stringed pearl necklace. The Nawab was rumored to have said openly that the only thing brighter than the seven diamond pendants of the famous necklace was Akhtaribai’s smile. However, his fixation soon made her claustrophobic, and she began to resent her golden cage.

Partly as revenge, and partly as a game to test her power, she ordered coins to be struck in her name and had them embossed with her profile. She thought it was time to bring matters to a head and this seemed a stylish way of doing just that. When the Nawab’s intense devotion began to turn into displeasure with what she steadfastly regarded as nothing more than a lark, her mood changed to one of anger. She expressed it by decamping with the necklace, no doubt, to teach him a lesson.

The Nawab’s men were dispatched in hot pursuit, but could not find her anywhere because she immediately stopped singing publicly and went underground. When she emerged years later, it was as Begum Akhtar, the respectable wife of a barrister from an eminent family of Lucknow. The protection of such a husband made all the difference. The wild and outdated allegations of the princely state now seemed absurd.


Mukherjee neither vouches for the story, nor dismisses it. Nor does he report any attempts at verification. But he gives it credence by being broadly sympathetic to both parties. His impartiality is reasonable. But, the implicit acceptance of the story’s veracity is disturbing. The attribution to Sheila Dhar does not quite absolve him, because its inclusion in the book appears to endorse its veracity. The issue of veracity is important because formidable reputations are involved. When Mukherjee was writing, the participants in the drama had been gone for a long time. Since his writing, Mukherjee has passed on, and so has Sheila Dhar. The story is now in the realm of unverifiable anecdote, which the gullible could unwittingly respect as history.

Begum Akhtar’s posthumous stature may, or may not, be affected by this reportage. But, Mukherjee’s certainly will. I make this observation with some sadness because I had known Mukherjee since I was a teenager (mid 1960’s), as he was my father’s colleague in government service. I admired him for his erudition and his passion for music, while he encouraged me in my artistic pursuits. He needed neither his musicianship, nor penmanship to live comfortably, though he was more than competent with both. His surrender to salacious gossip is a warning to every writer against the temptations that lie along his path.

(c) Deepak S. Raja 2007

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Swara, Raga, & Rasa – a perspective

Reproduced from
“Hindustani Music – a tradition in transition”
Author: Deepak S. Raja
Foreword: Pandit Shivkumar Sharma
Introduction: Lyle Wachovsky
DK Printworld (P) Ltd. New Delhi. 2005

Swara, Raga, and Rasa, are the fundamental melodic and esthetic concepts in Indian musicology. The three terms are almost impossible to translate, because their lexicographic connotation delivers no meaningful value. Their meaning is predominantly cultural. This is why every author on the subject offers a different perspective on them. I present below my interpretation of these concepts with specific reference to Hindustani music, as written for the Glossary to my first book.

The word derives from Sanskrit “Swa” = self + “Ra” = illumination. Swara is, therefore, an utterance expressing the entirety of the practitioner’s being, and has the potential for personality transformation. Though an avowedly subjective expression, it necessarily has certain known and measurable acoustic features. However, the Indian musical tradition also identifies two features, which pose conceptual problems. The Sanskrit texts do define the terms for them, which are almost impossible to translate. The qualities are “Deepti”, loosely translated as luminosity, and “Anuranan”, loosely translated as a haunting quality. Clarity on these dimensions may have to await either an acoustically meaningful translation of these terms, or their recognition as hitherto unknown/ unmeasured acoustic dimensions. This brief etymological-acoustic discussion supports the growing realization that, “Swara” in Hindustani music does not correspond efficiently to the Western notion of tone or a pitch-ratio relative to the tonic.

The Hindustani scale has twelve swara-s, all of which acquire musical meaning only with reference to the tonic, which is chosen arbitrarily by the musician. These twelve swara-s have names. But, the existence of standard frequency ratios for eleven of them, relative to the tonic, is debatable. Nor is it clear that their musical values depends upon the existence of such standardized acoustic relationships. There could, in reality, be stronger evidence to support the opposite argument -- that their musical value depends precisely on the freedom the musician has to intone them in accordance with aesthetic, rather than acoustic, principles. This is particularly so since, as a rule, Hindustani music eschews staccato intonation.

This proposition is consistent with the crucial difference between the Hindustani and the Western scales The Western scale is an octave with eight fixed points, while the Hindustani scale is a Saptak ( Sapta = seven) with seven intervals covering the same tonal distance. Music making activity in Hindustani music is focused on the handling of intervals, while Western tradition focuses its attention in handling the tonal points.

The issue here is, in fact, philosophical and cultural more than acoustic. Any cultural manifestation can be held accountable only to its own goals and values. The primary values of the Indian musical tradition are spiritual, with the aesthetic and the sensory being subservient to it. In the hierarchy of music making goals, the primary place belongs to the generation of Rasa at the highest possible level of intensity. A musician shapes and re-shapes Raga-s in order to achieve the Rasa goal. In the process, he also arranges and re-arranges relationships between the individual units of melodic expression, the swara-s.

The amorphous and malleable character of Raga-s, and the floating pitch values in Hindustani music are an essential part of a tradition that gives the musician the combined role of a composer-performer, requiring both these processes to be performed simultaneously. Raga grammar and the "standard" pitches of swara both have only ephemeral validity as the stimuli of an interactive process validated solely by its generation of the target emotional response, the Rasa.

The word, generally used as a suffix, is Sanskrit for “attitude/ quality of response/ emotional content of a relationship”. In music, it has come to denote a melodic idea or framework, associated with a specific quality of emotional response. The notion of Raga-ness is, therefore, inseparable from the concept of “Rasa” in Indian aesthetics. A Raga is a psycho-acoustic hypothesis, which states that melody, created and rendered in accordance with a certain set of rules, has a high probability of eliciting a certain quality of emotional response. The set of rules for the creation and rendition of the melody constitute the grammar of a Raga. An awareness of the target response enables a musician to transcend grammar and enter the realm of literature.

As a melodic entity, a Raga is neither a pre-composed melody, nor a mode or scale. It is represented by a set of rules governing the selection, sequencing and treatment of tones/ swara-s. These rules define a framework, which is tight enough to ensure aesthetic coherence, while also providing sufficient freedom for individual creativity. This approach to guiding the melodic content of music was necessary for a tradition, which combines the role of the composer and performer in the same individual.

As a cultural choice, this approach harmonises the competing demands of continuity within change, and unity within diversity. This enables each performed piece of music to retain a familiarity while giving audiences a substantial access to a novelty and freshness of the musical experience. Every Raga is a plausible psycho-acoustic hypothesis because of the accumulated experience of society, and continues to remain plausible with every musician being allowed to test it, and even revise it, at every performance. The hypothesis is perennial and ever-changing, never intending to attain the finality of a theory.

Each Raga is shaped and re-shaped by each performance, and has no existence exogenous to this context. The total achievement of its emotional goals is accepted as a random event because it is susceptible to a host of variables, many of which may be un-controllable and even unrelated to the music itself. The names of Raga-s, and their grammar, are only the starting point of familiarity for contemporary audiences. Once the basis for familiarity is established, the music itself is not bound by the familiar relationship between a raga's name and its contemporary grammar. The musical performance has the sole purpose of sharing the experience of literature, often leaving grammarians struggling to relate the "happening" to a name, and to document what liberated grammar from itself.

The Indian aesthetic tradition views the sensory experience as a pathway to the emotional, and the emotional as a pathway to the spiritual. This reflects the fundamental transcendentalism of Hindu thought. All art is, therefore, validated by a single dominant criterion – its ability to elicit an emotional response. This criterion acknowledges that, at its most intense, the experience of beauty evokes a response that transcends its qualitative aspect, and acquires a mystical quality. This defines the potential of the artistic endeavour, and its reception, for personality transformation and spiritual evolution. At the intermediate aesthetic level, however, the tradition allows for the classification of works of art on the basis of the quality of the emotional response. The name given to these qualities is “Rasa”, a metaphorical expression derived from the Sanskrit “Rasa” = extract/ essence/ juice.

Orthodox Indian aesthetic theory, enunciated in pre-Christian texts, recognizes nine basic emotions/ sentiments, called Navrasa, Sanskrit for “Nav” = nine + “Rasa” = qualities of sentiments/ emotional experience. The nine are: [a] Shringaara, the romantic sentiment, [b] Karuna, the sentiment of pathos [c] Haasya, the sentiment of mirth [d] Raudra, the sentiment of wrath [e] Veera, the sentiment of valour [f] Bhaya, the sentiment of fear [g] Bibhatsa, the sentiment of disgust [h] Adbhut, the sentiment of surprise/ marvel [I] Shaanta, the sentiment of peace. Over the two millennia since this enumeration, critical literature has added several other sentiments, and combinations of orthodox sentiments, to the interpretation of the emotional content of artistic endeavours.

© Deepak S. Raja 2005

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Sanjh Saravali – Ustad Vilayat Khan’s Magnum Opus

It is known of Ustad Vilayat Khan, that he did not particularly care either about adopting new ragas crated by others, or about creating ragas of his own. He spent most of his life performing a select number of mature ragas, attempting to achieve progressively greater levels of depth in their exploration. But, being the creative genius that he was, he did occasionally give an idiosyncratic twist to some mature ragas. Most of these were flirtations which did not last beyond a performance or two.

In two cases, however, his individualistic interpretations went far enough beyond the recognizable boundaries of the mature ragas, and acquired a life of their own. Once this had happened, the Ustad devoted considerable musical energy to them over several years, and pushed them towards an independent raga-ness. One was his interpretation of Darbari Kanada, finally named Enayet Khani Kanada; and the other was his interpretation of Yaman Kalyan, which he named Sanjh Saravali. Of the two, Sanjh Saravali is the more significant because he developed its “raga-ness” with much greater persistence over a much longer period of time.

From available concert archives of the Ustad, it appears that the idea of Sanjh Saravali was born in the late 1970s. Since then, he has performed it frequently at concerts in India and abroad. The Ustad first recorded it for commercial release in the mid- 1980's (EMI: STCS 048 7764). The melodic character of the “raga” remained constant between then, and the late 1990s, when he recorded it for the last time, for India Archive Music, New York.

In 2002, I asked him to explain Sanjh Saravali (Sanjh= evening + Saravali=melody) to me. The Ustad described it as a beautiful "Cheez (a piece) which had composed itself." Because the word "Cheez" is used for describing compositions, and ragas are "created" rather than "composed", the remark appeared to refer to the composition, rather than to the raga. By this indication, and also by the evidence of the music itself, it appears that the composition "composed itself" first, and Vilayat Khan built the raga around it.

Sanjh Saravali is, essentially, a song (capital S) complete in itself, requiring no reference point or validation beyond its own direct appeal to the heart of the listener. If it does not qualify as a raga, the Ustad, in all probability, did not intend it to do so.

The melody uses tonal material common to ragas Yaman Kalyan and Bihag, as also to several other ragas of the Kalyan parent scale. Its treatment alternates between these two ragas, and incorporates fleeting impressions of several other ragas of the same family, especially those which use both the Ma swaras, Shuddha (natural) and Tivra (sharp) such as Nand Kalyan, Chhaya Nat, and Hem.

The rigor of Hindustani music demands meticulous adherence to raga grammar in order to avoid confusion with other ragas similar either in tonal material or phraseology. On the other hand, punctuating the renditions of one raga with apparitions of allied ragas (Avirbhav/ Tirobhav= appearance/ disappearance) is an accepted device for the display of musicianship -- a device to be used very prudently.

Against this backdrop, you have Sanjh Saravali, whose very melodic identity rests on hide-and-seek between several allied ragas. Not surprisingly, it is a musical challenge which even the Ustad's brilliant heir, Shujaat Khan, accepts with considerable apprehension. Despite having accompanied his father at least 15 times with Sanjh Saravali, Shujaat confesses he still hasn't got a comfortable grip over the melody.

According to Shujaat, the melody was defined to him in 1984/85 as Yaman Kalyan played in the shadow of Bihag. It has therefore to be understood from both ends.

Yaman Kalyan is popularly understood as Yaman with the addition of the Shuddha Ma in the descent. This is accompanied, in the descent, by a shift in phraseology.

N R G M^ D N S'/ Descent: S N D P M^ G R S
Yaman Kalyan:
: N R G M^ D N S'/ Descent: S' N D P M^ G, R G M G R, G R S

Bihag becomes a relevant reference point for Sanjh Saravali because of its catch-phrase (P M^ G M R G), which is unique amongst twin-Ma usage ragas of the Kalyan parent scale, but closest in its aural experience, to Bihag (P M^ G M G).

The totality of this raga retains a reasonable distance from both, Yaman Kalyan and Bihag, by incorporating several phrases external to both. To reinforce the independence of this raga from Yaman Kalyan and Bihag, the Ustad frequently resorts to a non-descript treatment of the two Ma swaras. However, while developing the raga in the lower octave, and in the lower tetrachord, Vilayat Khan accepts the phraseology of Yaman and Yaman Kalyan. And, in the upper tetrachord, the Ustad allows in phrases which are explicitly from Bihag (N D N S N).

Despite the stability of its melodic character in the creator’s mind over a couple of decades, the raga-ness of this “raga” is elusive, and defies formal codification. In terms of its emotional content, Sanjh Saravali evokes a combination of the tranquil, and the solemn – largely, the atmosphere of Yaman Kalyan. There might be a hint of the romantic in this melody; but it is a stoic romanticism devoid of any vivacity.

The riveting effect of this melody can be attributed to its tendency towards becoming a raga without really becoming one, its habit of hovering in the vicinity of several familiar ragas without merging into any of them -- the amorphous grammar which liberates literature. An expression of Taoist insight at its best: In vagueness lies wisdom; in precision, folly.

The Ustad's critics will, of course, ask whether Sanjh Saravali is distinctive enough to be called a raga, and whether it justifies itself by fulfilling a musical need that had hitherto remained unfulfilled. Issues such as these are, indeed, important for an understanding of the cultural process. But, they pale into insignificance when we consider the greatness of the music such novel melodic ideas can inspire. It is the Ustad’s 78-minute Bada Khayal style rendition of this “raga”, recorded for India Archive Music, New York, which will qualify amongst the greatest pieces of instrumental music recorded in the post-independence era.

Deepak S. Raja
© India Archive Music Ltd., New York, producers of the finest recording of Raga Sanjh Saravali by Ustad Vilayat Khan. IndiaArcMu@aol.com.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Ulhas Kashalkar – “Don’t be in a hurry to judge us”

Ulhas Kashalkar spoke to Deepak Raja on January 1, 2000

I have had a variety of influences on my music. Even my Gurus brought a multiplicity of influences with them. I like great music from all gharanas. As a listener, I am also a student. But,my preferences are with individual musicians rather than gharanas. As such, I would be hard put to say which gharana's style dominates my own singing. I don't consciously try singing in any particular style. I am more concerned that my music should be pleasing, and communicate the mood of the raga. All my training, and the great music I have heard, contributes to this effort; and this happens in ways I do not fully understand. And, yet, it is possible that in a particular raga, you can notice a marked influence of a great vocalist whose rendering of it has made a deep impact on me. With so much recorded music available nowadays, this can happen to anyone.

Gharanas are not cages, and were never intended to be that, either. Consider the background of so many modern giants in Khayal music. They had all studied with three or four Gurus, often from different gharanas. Bhaskar Buwa Bakhle is a great example. He had studied the Agra, Jaipur as well Gwalior styles. So did my Guru, Gajananrao Joshi. Then, consider Vilayat Hussain Khan, whom we consider an Agra exponent. He listed forty-one Gurus of his. Obviously, all forty-one of them were not Agra vocalists!

I have heard it said that until a few years ago, my music had a strong Gwalior flavour and that, in recent years, it is acquiring the Agra touch. This is typical, superficial, "trade talk", because this is not quite the way it works. Today, a vocalist, if he is good, is exposed to public scrutiny right in the midst of the most vulnerable stage in his evolution - the stage when he is struggling to break out of the shell of his training, and to make his own original statement. Until then, in most cases, his training has not achieved much more than making him a good replica of his Guru. But, having been thrown into the professional circuit, he cannot risk sounding like a poor Xerox of the Guru. This builds a great deal of tension in him, making him try out different approaches to shaping his original musical statement. During this period, his music can easily seem like a shifting patchwork of clichés drawn from different styles. Sometimes, he might even be judged as impatient, restless, or confused.

It takes a musician a long time to abstract, from his training, the principles of music making which have been imparted to him. It is only because this is possible, that a great Guru can produce several disciples, all of whom are originals, but also have the stamp of his, or the gharana's, training in their music. Look at the variety amongst Sawai Gandharva's disciples - Bhimsen Joshi, Gangubai Hangal, Phiroze Dastoor. Each of them is unique and yet in the same mould. I would like to know what connoisseurs thought of these luminaries when they were twenty-five. The chances are that they were not even visible, at that age, on the horizon of professional music!

Even with the best of training, the process of self-discovery in a vocalist matures only around the age of forty. Until then, a vocalist does not fully understand his own training, the significant features of his own and other gharanas, his own musical temperament, or even the eccentricities of his own voice. This is why I discourage influentials in the music world from jumping to premature conclusions about young vocalists.

Today, the brightest talent is able to achieve recognition much earlier in life than was possible just two generations ago. The market starts paying you early. So, it demands that a twenty-five year old should match up to the maturity of Ameer Khan or Kesarbai Kerkar at the age of fifty. I know this cannot be helped. But, we should not be unfair to budding talent; nor can we succumb to the generalised feeling that contemporary vocalists are pushing Khayal music down the drain. To those in a hurry to judge us, my request is to give us time until we are forty -- until we get our act together. Our task is made more difficult by having to mature under public gaze. But, we are serious about music, and discovering ourselves through it, exactly as earlier generations have done. But, this cannot happen overnight.

At the Sangeet Research Academy, at the moment, I have four students assigned to me under a personalised apprenticeship programme. They are gifted and they work hard. We have our own internal systems for tracking the progress of students. Outsiders watching our efforts often ask how well my wards are doing, and how they will shape up as musicians. My answer is always the same: "Give them ten or fifteen years of struggle on the concert platform before you decide. Until then, neither I, nor they, nor you, will know how well their training at the Academy has worked for them".

© Deepak S. Raja 2000.
Read a detailed profile of the artist in: "Khayal Vocalism: Continuity within Change".
The finest recordings of Ulhas Kashalkar have been produced by India Archive Music Ltd., New York.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Raga Gara – The raga and the fragrance

This essay is now published in my fourth book:

Removing it from here was proper, though not obligatory, in order that my publisher's investment in the book is protected. 


Thursday, February 14, 2008

Pandit Shivkumar Sharma – “The foundation of the 'Musician's Truth' is sincerity and seriousness of purpose”

Foreword to Deepak Raja’s book:
“Hindustani music – a tradition in transition”
signed on May 16, 2004.

Change is the only permanent reality in music. Even the music of the same gharànà changes from generation to generation. No musician can be a perfect xerox of his guru. This is the way it has been, this is the way it will remain, and this is the way it should be. It is this process that allows new styles to emerge, and new genres of music to be created. If classical music does not change constantly, it will stagnate, and become irrelevant to society.

Along with accepting the permanence of change, we have to acknowledge that, in music, as in other fields, each generation is attuned to certain values based on the environment in which it has been brought up. Because of their conditioning, a majority of people tend to develop firm notions about what is good and what is bad, or what is right and what is wrong, and find change difficult to accept. Their initial response to anything new is often rejection, and even condemnation. It is only gradually that society begins to discover the elements of truth in the newer manifestations of human endeavour, and concedes legitimacy to them.

To develop an intelligent approach to change and diversity in music, we have to recognize that classical music, like any other art form, evolves in society in response to the changing socio-economic realities, and sustains itself by fulfilling the cultural needs of society. Its evolution is the result of an interaction between musicians and their audiences and reflects the quality of the relationship they wish to forge between them.

In our own era, say a little before that, performances of classical music were confined to the courts of the Mahàràjàs and Nawàbs. Outside this circle, concerts took place primarily in private gatherings. They were either “Jumme-kà-takiyà” (Friday evening gatherings) or special occasions where either a musician's son was getting married, or some musician was hosting a commemorative concert for a deceased father or relative. Sometimes, a local aristocrat hosted these concerts. In most cases, the organizers and the audiences were either musicians, or close friends and relatives of musicians -- in short, people of considerable discernment in matters of classical music. The event had virtually no financial implications for anyone. This was the chamber-music stage of evolution of our tradition. Considering the context of these gatherings, the music of the era was naturally of a very high standard, very intellectual, very competitive, and perhaps even intimidating.

In the second quarter of the twentieth century, music came out of the chamber music context into the public arena. These were also the sunset years of British rule and the era of Mahàràjàs and Nawàbs as patrons of music. That was the time when scholars like Pandit V.N. Bhatkhande, and enthusiastic patrons like Jeevanlal Mattoo in Lahore and Lala Babu in Calcutta started organizing music conferences. At that stage, musicians were still poorly paid; and audiences were not large -- maybe 500 or 700 people at the most. But, musicians got an opportunity to acquire a following, and create a market for their music. Around the same time, the radio and the gramophone record also started taking music all over the country. So, there was an opportunity as well as an attraction for reaching out to audiences -- of shaping a career in music. From this stage onwards, the receptivity of audiences became an important determinant of the quality of music that was performed.

I am sure that, out of audiences 500 or 700 strong in that era, 100 per cent of the listeners were not knowledgeable about the intricacies of music. The proportion of audiences who understood, for instance, the nuances of the komal gàndhàra of Darbàri was probably not much higher than it is today. From that stage to present times, audiences have become larger, their profile has changed, their expectations from music have changed, and the media for exposure to music have grown in number and reach. But, as a percentage of the total population, I doubt if classical music audiences are much larger today than they were 50 years ago. I also doubt if the ratio of the discerning to the rest is very much smaller today.

I am driving at two points here. Firstly, that music has changed much more because society has changed, and not as much because the discerning audiences have been reduced to a small minority. Secondly, despite dramatic changes in the quality of music, which some regard as signs of decay, the musicians who enjoy stature along with popularity today exhibit the same values as those of the early twentieth century, whom we mention with reverence. And this quality is what I call the “Musician's Truth.”

The “Musician's Truth” touches the mind, heart, and soul of audiences irrespective of their level of discernment. This truth goes beyond ràga grammar, and aspects of music theory. People relate to music in a million different ways, and it is futile for a musician to think that he can tailor his music to specific audience profiles and needs. The only thing he can rely on is a steadfast commitment to the “Musician's Truth” and help his audiences to become receptive to it. He may not accomplish this in a year, or five years, or even ten years. But, abandoning it is no solution to his relevance as a musician. If this element of “Truth” is missing from a musician's art, even the undiscerning listener will be uneasy, though he may not be able to tell you why he is uneasy. If it is present, even the total ignoramus will go home happy, and will return for more. In the short run, a musician may be able to create a niche for himself without the “Musician's Truth” But, he will find it impossible to retain that position without a secure grip over it.

The foundation of the “Musician's Truth” is sincerity and seriousness of purpose. This is reflected in several facets of music, which have remained, and will remain, fundamental to our music. A musician's intonation should be perfect. Whatever his interpretation of a ràga, his exposition of it should be consistent and coherent. He should organize his musical material neatly and logically. There should be a reasonable balance between the melodic and rhythmic elements in his music. While a degree of partiality to either melodic or rhythmic elements is acceptable in our tradition, an obsession with either of them at the cost of the other deprives the music of its aesthetic value. These qualities qualify as good music by any yardstick of value.

The “Musician's Truth” has exhibited amazing resilience for over a century now, and I have no doubt that it will continue to attract musicians in sufficient numbers for the tradition to survive. However, I am concerned about the threats that have emerged in the last decades of the twentieth century. The threat comes from two recent developments -- the tidal wave of consumerism, and the “commoditization” of music.

It takes 10 or 15 years of rigorous training to groom a classical musician, and another 10 to 12 years of concert experience for him to reach his peak level in the profession. A life in classical music requires the musician to defer his economic aspirations until he is about 40. This is asking for a lot of self-denial from a musician who sees a successful pop singer achieve a glamorous lifestyle at the age of 20 or 25.

This reality may, or may not, shrink the inflow of top class talent into classical music. But, it will certainly encourage classical musicians to think in terms of a “strategy,” in which the “Musician's Truth” becomes the first casualty. With the growing impatience of musicians to live well, and an environment that offers ample opportunities for exposure, we now find a large number of talented musicians struggling -- somehow, and even anyhow -- to create a comfortable niche for themselves. This tendency is crowding the music market with a lot of dishonest classical music.

However, there is no reason to be pessimistic about the future of Hindustani music. I believe so because a few of the musicians struggling in the “somehow-anyhow” circuit might stumble upon the “Musician's Truth,” even if inadvertently. Moreover there will always be musicians outside this circuit who have the junåna (passion/commitment) to pursue the “Musician's Truth” irrespective of the financial consequences. The number of such musicians has always been small, and will remain small.

The task before the community of musicians and music-lovers is to make the world of Hindustani music more receptive to the “Musician's Truth,” which will continue to shine forth, though almost certainly in less homogeneous and more unfamiliar manifestations. This requires us to rise above our conditioning, and open our minds to change and variety. It also requires us to drop the arrogance of the classical music world, and appreciate the manifestations of the “Musician's Truth” in other forms of music -- semi-classical, folk and even popular. It is in this context, that I commend Deepak Raja's book “Hindustani Music: A Tradition in Transition” as a panoramic, and serious, review of the Hindustani music tradition in the post-Independence era.

Deepak is an author with a keen analytical mind, imbued with a scientific approach. His chapters on ràga grammar, ràga authenticity, ràga chemistry, and his introductory essays on Dhrupad, Khayàl, Thumaree and Tappà can be of immense value to music students and scholars. His essay on the time-theory of ràgas is a thought-provoking piece of writing, which deserves the attention of the music fraternity in view of the changing context of music performance and enjoyment. I may not personally agree with all his views on the current trends in Hindustani music. However, I acknowledge them as representing those of his generation of hard-core rasikas, who find themselves in a minority today.

I sincerely hope that this book will be widely read, and will encourage serious discussion and debate on different facets of Hindustani music. I wish Deepak success in his endeavours as a student of Hindustani music and as an author.

Reproduced with the consent of the publishers of the book, DK Printworld Pvt. Ltd. New Delhi. dkprintworld@vsnl.net

Friday, January 25, 2008

Raga Ahir Bhairav... and issues in raga grammar

Since Bhatkhande’s documentation of raga grammar in the first quarter of the 20th century, “Vadi” and “Samvadi” swaras have been the pivotal notions describing the melodic personalities of ragas. This set of notions, identifying two dominant swaras, one primary and the other secondary, each located in a different tetrachord, has immense intuitive appeal. But, on close scrutiny, the theory as well as practice of specific ragas appears to warrant re-examination of the “Vadi-Samvadi” notion. Ahir Bhairav, a mature and popular raga, is an interesting example of this phenomenon.

Ahir Bhairav belongs to the Bhairav parent scale, and is a variant of Bhairav, the foundation raga of the scale. It is documented as a compound raga, derived as a blend of a folk/ tribal melody called Ahiri and Bhairav. Texts on raga grammar do not appear to suggest a standardised melodic identity for Ahir Bhairav. In terms of characteristic melodic patterns, Subbarao [Subbarao, B. Raga Nidhi, Vol. I, 4th edition, 1996, Music Academy, Madras] lists two variants of Ahir Bhairav. Thakurdas, [Thakurdas, Manikubuwa, Raga Darshan, Vol.IV, 1st edition, 1997, Lakshminarayan Trust, Rajpipla] presents a third and, substantially different, interpretation of the raga.

For the Ahir Bhairav of his era, Bhatkhande considers Sa as the vadi swara. He avers that because the frequent stand-alone use of Ma, this swara could also be considered the vadi. However, he argues that [komal] Re is also an important swara in the treatment of the raga. Thakurdas suggests Pa and Sa as the vadi and samvadi.

Survey of recordings
Important clues to the raga’s melodic personality may be gleaned from a survey of seven recordings by modern masters: Gangubai Hangal [Inreco:2711-0078], Bhimsen Joshi [TCICL-062C], Kishori Amonkar [Music Today: A91006], Ravi Shankar [STCS:850094], Brij Bhushan Kabra [STCS:850321], Shivkumar Sharma [6TCS:O4B:7175], Pandit Jasraj [STCS:O4B:7402].

The trickiest issue in decoding raga grammar pertains to identification of the “vadi” and “samvadi” swaras in the raga. The raga is consistently treated as a Bhairav variant, with its Bhairav personality being highlighted by the oscillated [komal] Re in the descent [G-M-r-S]. If the vadi [primary dominants] is intended to indicate dominance over the totality of the aural experience, [komal] Re would be a probable choice. Considering the melodic contours of the mukhdas of most bandishes, Ga would also be a candidate for the status.

While Sa and Pa do not enjoy even near-dominant status in the surveyed recordings, Ma appears to have a following, though not categorical enough to qualify it as a dominant. Kishori Amonkar, Pandit Jasraj, Brij Bhushan Kabra, and Shivkumar Sharma have invested a considerable amount of improvisational energy with Ma as a melodic focus. Kabra and Shivkumar have reinforced this emphasis with an appropriate tuning of the acoustic ambience [chords/ drones] on their instruments, exploiting the first-third harmony of Ma and Dh. Kabra’s bandish itself is centred around Ma, and is perhaps the only conscious treatment -- in this sample of recordings -- of the swara as a “Vadi”.

While the “vadi” seems elusive on the surveyed recordings, the “samvadi” does not even appear faintly on the horizon. In the uttaranga, Dh appears to enjoy some significance, but not sufficient to claim samvadi status. The samvadi of the raga remains indeterminate.

The evidence considered here suggests a debatable vadi, and an indeterminate samvadi, with almost all swaras [Ni excluded] usable as terminal points in phrasing [Nyasa swaras]. Ahir Bhairav is thus a raga whose melodic personality is sustained entirely by its distinctive swara material, and a reasonable consistency in its “Chalan”. This makes it a raga of immense melodic tenacity, and improvisational potential. But, this does not make for a comfortable relationship between theory and practice.

The fundamental issue
Ahir Bhairav is supposedly a compound raga, and it has often been argued that compound ragas, by definition, defy the codification of their grammar. But, this is not an isolated case. There are many ragas whose melodic personalities are adequately sustained by their swara-material and their “Chalan” [skeletal phraseology] or what the Dhrupad tradition describes as “Raga Swarup” [melodic form], without reference to “Vadi-Samvadi” swaras.

All this is not terribly original. For many ragas, Bhatkhande himself has shied away from identifying the “Vadi-Samvadi” pair. Later grammarians, also of formidable stature, have often either differed from Bhatkhande’s documentation, or been vague on this matter. A similar divergence is noticed in the practice of several ragas by the leading musicians of our times, including those known for their theoretical soundness. Despite the vagueness of grammar on this dimension long believed to be crucial, several ragas identify themselves beyond reasonable doubt when performed.

What we are looking at is not simply a chasm between theory and practice [Lakshya-Lakshana divergence]. What we are looking at is the inadequacy of analytical rigour used by grammarians, and insufficient commitment to empirical research. The research method required for such enquiries is simple enough, and need not hold our attention here. What is perhaps more crucial is our willingness to make a conceptual leap in understanding the role of raga grammar, and accept its implications.

The purpose of raga grammar is to establish the identity of the raga beyond reasonable doubt, without the risk of confusion with other known ragas. It appears possible to prove that this purpose is served without the categorical identification of “Vadi-Samvadi” pair in musical performance across a large number of ragas. This could mean that this notion of dominant tones is superfluous, though probably not redundant.

In such an event, we may need to acknowledge two levels of raga grammar -- a “mandatory” level which identifies the raga beyond reasonable doubt, and a “prescriptive” level which helps by its observance, but does no damage by its breach. The notion of “Vadi-Samvadi” may, then, belong more appropriately to the “prescriptive” level rather than the “mandatory” level at which it is currently regarded in musicological literature.

After I proposed this two-level notion of raga grammar in my book [Hindustani music: a tradition in transition], experts in linguistics took strong objection. They argued that there is no such thing as “prescriptive grammar”. If anything is grammar, it can only be mandatory. The answer to this is that, the notions of grammar must take into account the nature of the language to which they pertain. Notions relevant to a spoken and written language need not be binding on a “language” that uses melody as its vehicle of ideas. Moreover, when we consider the uniquely Indian problem of codifying the “raga-ness” of ragas, we are persuaded that Indian musicology will have to develop its own “grammar” with its own conceptual and analytical tools.

© Deepak S. Raja 2007