Saturday, May 22, 2010

Sugata Marjit -- “I don't want to know how many greats were born before me”

Introduction : Sugata Marjit [born: 1959] is an unusual musician. He is an eminent economist, and Director of a research institute in Calcutta. He combines academic activities with a growing presence on the music circuit. His Khayals are a lot like the films of Goddard -- they have a beginning, a middle, and an end; but not in that order. His brand of music qualifies him as the messiah of postmodernism in Hindustani music. Sugata also composes music for the theatre and television. In 1995, his work in the theatre earned him the West Bengal State Academy Award for the best musical score.

In 2003, Sugata Marjit wrote to Deepak Raja about economics and music

Within economics, I specialise in international economics, development, and economics of corruption and governance. I am writing a book on trade, labour, and inequality – whether globalisation leads to increasing inequality etc. I think I am a soft-hearted human being, who feels for the poor, in spite of being an ardent supporter of market-based incentives. I am not a Marxist; I believe in God; I have taken my Deeksha [initiation] at the Ramakrishna Mission. The emotional part of me gets reflected in economics as well as music. My research is to make my points through simple, but elegant, mathematical models. I am a theorist. I believe in simplicity, and the simple is beautiful. This is the approach I take in my research and in my music.

My father had a good voice and was my inspiration. He was a Judge. We lived in several towns in West Bengal, before we finally moved to Calcutta in 1973. He used to find trainers for me [wherever we lived]. He died in 1994. I miss him a lot. He told me that anyone can be a good student academically; but to be a good vocalist is something else, and that one day, I would realise that it is a blessing to be able to sing. My uncle learnt the sitar with Balram Pathak and Imrat Khan. He was a good sitar player, but gave it up, and now runs a vocal music college in a town in West Bengal. A great talent, and inspiration for me.

I learnt with many Gurus, for a few months here and there, until I came to Calcutta. They were people who had been trained by noted Bengali musicians. One of them had, however, been trained by Vinayakrao Patwardhan [Gwalior gharana]. They had taught me basic Riyaz [Self-improvement exercises] to train my voice, and good compositions. The major taleem [training] I had was with Krishnachandra Bannerjee, for 17 years, starting from 1973. With him, I learnt singing in its totality, the intricacies of Ragadari [treatment of ragas], and the finer techniques of vocal music.

Bannerjee was a disciple of Bhishmadev Chatterjee, a household name in Bengal, who had studied with Badal Khan. That is my Rangeela gharana lineage. He [Krishnachandra Bannerjee] did not have a good voice; but he was a great trainer. I could go to him every day. He had heard top vocalists all over India, and could give me the traits of many gharanas – Kirana, Gwalior etc. Bannerjee died in 1990. I performed his funeral rites. Then, I went to TD Janorikar of the Bhendi Bazar gharana, learnt with him for a few years until he left Calcutta for Nagpur.

I am an off-beat person. I like to create all the time. I don’t want to know how many greats were born before me and, frankly speaking, be it economics or music, I get tired of knowing what has been done already, and repenting and repeating it because I am not as talented as others. I listen and try to pick up whatever sounds interesting and has the potential for my voice. I love Bhimsen Ji [Joshi] and Ameer Khan. I like possibly each and every vocalist to the extent that I can draw from them and make people dance with layakari, bol-tans, and little pieces of vistaar. I am a restless kind of guy; and so is my music, and I don’t regret it, because that’s me. I don’t like too much of structure. I like to think more about my music than physically practice it.

I like popular Bengali songs of the 1970s, and Baul [a regional folk genre of Bengal]. I often use nuances of these in my music. Often, I also use phrases of a particular raga picked up from advertising music, radio jingles etc., so long as they fit in properly. ]. I am a performer. My lectures are much better than my writing. My music is much better than my knowledge of it.

I hear all kinds of music, but don’t often get much time. Hindi music, the “old gold” type – I like a lot. Beside Ameer Khan and Bhimsen, I listen to Kishori, Paluskar, Omkarnath, Kesarbai, Kumar Gandharva [I love him!], and Rashid Khan. In instrumental music, Vilayat Khan, Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar, Nikhil Bannerjee, Bismillah Khan, and Hariprasad Chaurasia are my favourites. Unfortunately, over the last few years, I have got so busy, that listening time is too short. I have to get back to it.

If I don’t do music with a bang now, I will fall behind in my Riyaz, my commitment. I had never guessed that I would be so successful in academics that it will tend to take away all my time. I have earned a bit, and can retire now if I wish. But, what militates against my taking up music as a profession is [the community of] musicians. There is too much of networking, hitting below the belt, and an un-intellectual ambience. I cannot accept this. I cannot go down on my knees to get a good concert. I can’t lead a musician’s life. That’s the problem. Intellectually, I am happier now. But, I am sure there is a golden mean, and I have to find it.

I have to be more consistent in my Riyaz, and start my training again, learn more and practice more. I can maintain my job in economics by doing a bit of research; but [from now on] that should be all. I have also to be in India. I have travelled far too much, and now is the time [to stay at home].

(c) India Archive Music Ltd., New York. 2003
Read a detailed profile of the artist in: "Khayal Vocalism: Continuity within Change"
The finest recordings of Sugata Marjit have been produced by India Archive Music.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The evolution of Khayal vocalism

March 30, 2010

KHAYAL VOCALISM - Continuity Within Change:
Deepak Raja
DK Printworld (P) Ltd.,F-52 Bali Nagar, New Delhi-110015. Rs. 460.

It is invaluable as a written document and as a book of reference and study for students and others interested in khayal

One does not often come across a book on Hindustani music that treats the art with the precision of a science. But then, this study by Deepak Raja of the evolution of Khayal vocalism through the system of gharanas would probably not have stood scrutiny had he not adopted such an approach. One reason is that music, like all art, is as technical as it is subjective. Therefore, it becomes necessary to establish thebasis on which the techniques of various artistes can be evaluated. The other reason relates to the nature of music as an aural art, and the difficulties of discussing it in writing. Such writing necessarily bristles with technical terms.

As the author describes, compares and contrasts thedifferent styles and draws a technical-historical sketch of thegenre over the past century, bringing the discussion into thepresent day, there are portions that probably only a practising musician would understand. It makes one wish thebook had an aural complement.

Yet the work is invaluable as a written document and as a book of reference and study for students and others interested in Khayal. In contemporary times, when students are given to asking questions instead of learning by rote, it could well form the basis of combined study and discussion between gurus and their disciples.

For his analysis, Deepak Raja divides gharanas into theAgra, Gwalior-Agra, Jaipur-Atrauli, Kairana, and Patiala legacies. Before taking them up for discussion, he provides a detailed introduction.

Taking an analogy from the plastic arts, he differentiates thethree major genres of Hindustani vocal music — Dhrupad, Khayal, and Thumri — by their relative stress on architecture, sculpture, and ornamentation and these in turn, he explains, signify respectively the structure, the contours and the way music seeks to please.

In a rather painstaking effort, Raja spells out his methodology — the number of recordings he listened to, their contents, and the factors that weighed against drawing definitive conclusions about, say, the individual's style or theinfluences that contributed to the music. These ‘x' factors, if one may so term them, are so many — it could be non-availability or poor quality of recordings, lack of information on deceased artistes, or the sheer unpredictability of human nature — that at times one is tempted to ask why was it necessary to put a subjective art through such a precision-controlled apparatus. However, to quote from Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar's foreword, “…we should value literature which helps musicians understand their struggles, makes audiences sensitive to the struggles of musicians, and holds both parties responsible for preserving and strengthening thetradition.”

The foreword provides an overview beyond the technical. Kashalkar speaks of the importance of “understanding the personality of the raga, and the range of emotional statements it can make.” He goes on to point out the important role the gharanas of Khayal played “in evolving different approaches to communicating the raga experience.” He describes a gharana as “the accumulation of musical wisdom, rather than a xeroxing machine.”

This book is also valuable for non-technical readers. Besidesthe annexure, “An introduction to Khayal,” and the glossary,the short biographies of artistes and the interviews of current performers are sure to invite their interest.

© Copyright 2000 - 2009 The Hindu

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Kshem Kalyan (Khem): The "precious" Kalyan

When I first heard Kshem Kalyan, I was totally charmed. I looked for authoritative documentation; but I found none. I acquired the few available recordings of the raga from the market and from collectors for a clearer view of its melodic personality. This, too, was not satisfying. I consulted Purnima Sen, the only living vocalist, whose recording I had. Then, I worked on the raga with my Sitar for a whole week. At the end of this effort, I could not manage more than 5 minutes of alap without repetition. I figured then that this was no ordinary raga. It was not even just another rare raga. It was a special raga, perhaps beyond reach without a Guru. But, I can share with you what I discovered.

Kshem Kalyan (or Khem Kalyan, or simply, Khem) is a post-sunset raga of undocumented history and grammar, whose commercial recordings are also hard to find. Having to retain a distinctive identity within the overcrowded Kalyan family also makes it a raga of limited improvisational potential. This challenge is probably sufficient to explain its rarity. The raga remains in circulation – even if only barely – because some musicians and some audiences value the distinctive musical statement it makes.

Kshem Kalyan is, in my view, Yaman Kalyan with a vivacious twist. Admittedly, there are other Kalyan family ragas, which would also answer to this description. Kshem Kalyan is, then, Yaman Kalyan with a distinctive vivacious twist. A majority of gharanas might dismiss such ragas as “thumree material”, worthy only of 15-minute rendition. But, vocalists in some gharanas treat the raga with a lot of respect, and present them, with aplomb, in Khayal style, over a full 45-minute duration.

For instance, Purnima Sen, the senior Agra gharana vocalist, told me that Kshem Kalyan was one of the favourite ragas of her principal Guru, Ata Hussain Khan (Agra-Atrauli gharana), from whom she learnt it. He used to sing this raga for over an hour without any repetition. Ata Hussain also described Kshem Kalyan as a “precious” raga – akin to an heirloom piece of jewelry, and advised her to perform it selectively, only for knowledgeable audiences.

There is no mention, in the authoritative texts I consulted, of either Kshem Kalyan or even of raga Kshem, thus also ruling out the possibility of Kshem Kalyan being a compound raga. The raga, therefore appears to be an independent melodic entity, conceived probably as a variant of Yaman Kalyan. To the best of my knowledge, the raga has been performed primarily by vocalists of the Agra-Atrauli gharana. To a lesser extent, it gained currency in the Rampur-Sahaswan gharana. In recent years, it has been performed very competently by Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande, a mature vocalist of the Kishori Amonkar lineage. The raga is virtually unknown in instrumental music.

I could access only three recordings of this raga – an unpublished concert recording by Sharafat Hussain Khan, a recent recording by Purnima Sen -- both of the Agra-Atrauli tradition -- and a published recording by Nissar Hussain Khan (EMI/ HMV:STC-04B:7407) of the Rampur-Sahaswan gharana. On his concert recording, Sharafat Hussain can be heard challenging the audience to identify the raga. The Nissar Hussain recording, interestingly, does not identify the raga at all, but calls it “Kalyan Ka Prakar” (A Kalyan variant). The rarity of the raga can also be judged from the fact that the three available recordings feature the same vilambit and drut Khayal bandish-es in the raga. Interestingly, the vilambit and drut bandish-es also have identical melodic contours, differing from each other only in lyrics and the tempo of rendition. This suggests that the raga is acknowledged to be of limited melodic potential.

Melodic personality
Predictably for a rare raga, available recordings vary in their treatment of it, without necessarily differing substantially on the identifying features of the raga. With the help of available, recordings, I have attempted to codify its melodic distinctiveness.

Available recordings suggest the following salient features in its melodic personality. The raga has the highest risk of confusion with Yaman Kalyan, because it uses the same tone-material (S-R-G-M-M^-P-D-N). This risk is highest in the madhyanga (mid-octave region) of the middle octave, where Yaman Kalyan exhibits its distinctive personality with the unique pattern of twin-Ma usage. Secondly, Kshem Kalyan is virtually identified by its melodic action in the uttaranga (upper tetrachord) of the lower octave. In the descending motion, if ineptly handled, the melody risks confusion with raga Maluha Kalyan and Hansadhwani. In the ascending motion, it risks confusion with Hansadhwani again, and Hem Kalyan. The raga is therefore codified in a manner that avoids these risks, along with the risks it accepts in the process of so doing.

The raga has a quadratonic ascent of stark tonal geometry (S G P N ), with each swara having equal weightage. The descent is hyper-heptatonic, (S’ N D P M^ M G R), with (tivra/ sharp) Ma^ being deployed subliminally as in raga Shuddha Kalyan, and (shuddha/ natural) Dh deployed subliminally as in raga Bihag. The zigzag phrasing of the raga is so essential to differentiating it from Yaman Kalyan, that it seems unreasonable to classify the raga as either araoha-pradhan (ascent dominant) or avaroha-pradhan (descent dominant). The raga is almost totally resident in the lower half of the melodic canvas, and hence classified as purvanga-pradhan. The raga appears to revolve largely around the middle-octave Re, suggesting it as the vadi swara (Primary dominant). This vadi is also sound as a means of distinguishing the raga from Yaman Kalyan with its vadi at Ga. The signatory phrases of the raga suggest Pa in the lower octave as the probable samvadi (Secondary dominant) of the raga. This would distinguish the raga from Maluha Kalyan with its strong Dh in the lower octave.

(Swaras in parenthesis indicate subliminal usage)

S R S P. / P. N. R S/ N. S G M R G R or N. S G R/ S G P / P S’ S’ or P N S’ or P N (D) N S’/ N S’ G’ M’ R’ S/ R’ N (D) P/ N (D) N (D)P / P (M^) G/ M G R G R or P (M^) R/ N. R S P./ N. S

The pakad (catch phrases) of the raga: S N. R S P/ N S G R

The phraseology outlined above is, admittedly, an inference of the composer’s intent from available recordings, and therefore, a theoretical construct. Even within the small sample of recordings available, there exist deviations which either interpret the zigzag phraseology of the raga liberally, or allow the raga to drift closer to Yaman Kalyan. Both these are “predictable” tendencies in this raga because, as conceived, the raga is a melodic entity of limited improvisational potential, and a tilt towards Yaman Kalyan, its probable inspiration, would be the most “logical” and defensible. An alternative phraseology, incorporating these tendencies, and accepting a less distinctive raga-ness, may be documented thus:

S R S P. or R N. P or R N. D. P / P. N. R S or D. N. R S / N. S G M R G R or N. S G R or D. N. R G R / S G P / P S’ S’ or P N S’ or P N (D) N S’/ N S’ G’ M’ R’ S or D N R’ G’ R’ N R’ S/ R’ N (D) P/ N (D) N (D)P / P (M^) G/ M G R G R or P (M^) R or M^ G M G R/ G ( R ) S / N. R S P./ N. S

Purnima Sen provided her own documentation of the chalan of the raga as it was taught to her by Ata Hussain Khan.

S G M G R/ G S R N. P./ N. S./ S G P M^ G M G R/ G S/ R N. S/ S G P/ (N) DD P D N D P/ M^ G M G R/ S N. R N. P./ N. S/ S G G P/ N D P M^ G M G R/ S G P M^ R S/ P N (D) N S’ or P N S’/ N R’ G’ R’ S’ N D P/ S GG P P (N) DD P D N D P/ M^ G M G R S N/ S G R G S R N. S

Her notes also provided additional insights into the intonation rules. Tivra (sharp) Ma is used subliminally most of the time; but it has a longer duration when the phrase M^-R-S is sung. Likewise, Dh is subliminally deployed most of the time; but is more pronounced in the phrases P (N) DD/PDNDP.

Even a mature musician cannot acquire a good grip on this raga from this documentation, and the study of a the few available recordings. Kshem Kalyan needs to be learnt from a Guru qualified to teach it.

(c) India Archive Music Ltd. New York.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Shahana: the popular Kanada

I first heard Shahana from Ustad Vilayat Khan. Must have been in the early 1970s. He drifted into it without announcing the raga. As the raga unfolded, I said to myself -- "How clever! He is playing Darbari with a twist -- replacing the Komal Dh of Darbari with a Shuddha Dh, and delivering an entirely different musical experience!".

In those days,Kausi Kanada was the most commonly heard Kanada variant. Shahana was a relatively unknown raga. Over the last quarter of the 20th century, however, Shahana (also known as Sahana or Shahana Kanada) grew considerably in popularity. As a result, today, you are likely to hear it as frequently as Darbari -- the primary Kanada. Shahana is classified as a member of the Kanada group because it shares with Darbari Kanada its descending melodic line (n-P/g-M-R-S).

The raga finds occasional mention in mediaeval texts, but was probably documented only in the 19th century. The name “Shahana” is of Persian origin, with mediaeval texts referring to it as being allied to a Persian melody called Firodast. This Persian melody is unknown in India now, but may have once been in circulation. Another perspective interprets Shahana as a blend of Darbari Kanada, Adana, and Malhar. Considering the seamless character of the raga, this theory could be more analytical than historical. The Carnatic (South Indian) tradition has an immensely popular raga of the same name, which bears no resemblance to Shahana in the Hindustani system.

Between the three major authorities, who have documented the raga, we have four variants of its melodic personality. The Subbarao version deploys only komal (flat) Ni, while the Bhatkhande version deploys both shuddha (natural) and komal (flat) Ni in the ascent, and only komal (flat) Ni in the descent. The Tagore version, cited by Bhatkhande, matches the Subbarao version in swara material, but varies in phraseology. The Patwardhan version legitimises a Bhimpalas suggestion in the uttaranga, a Megh Malhar suggestion in the madhyanga (mid-octave region), and the Adana suggestion in the uttaranga. However, Patwardhan suggests that this raga originates as a blend of Darbari and Malhar, but also sees shades of Bahar in it.

Considering that poetry composed in the raga has a decent presence of imagery related to spring and the rainy season – both suggesting a relief from extreme conditions – a degree of euphoria is, indeed, integral to the psycho-acoustics of the raga within the culture-specific context.

Subbarao B. Raga Nidhi. Vol. IV, 4th Impression, 1996, Music Academy, Madras.
Ascent: n S g M P n P/ D M P S’: Descent: S’ n D n P/ D M P g/ M R S

Bhatkhande Sangeet Shastra Vol. IV, 2nd Edition, 1970. Sangeet Karyalaya, Hathras. Ascent: n S g M P n P N S’ Descent: S’ n D n P M P g M R S

The Tagore version cited by Bhatkhande:
Ascent: n S R g/ M n P/ M P n S’: Descent: S’ n D n P/ g M R S

Patwardhan, Vinayakrao. Raga Vigyan Vol. V.5th Edition, Sangeet Gaurav Granthamala.
Ascent: Rn S Mg M P/ n D n P/ M P n P S’: Descent: S’ n D n P M P Mg M R S

Subbarao and Patwardhan consider Pa-Sa as the primary and secondary dominants of the raga. Both Subbarao and Bhatkhande consider the raga to be anchored in the upper half of the melodic canvas. Contemporary practice appears to reflect all the tendencies documented by authorities, along with a sharper differentiation of Shahana from other members of the Kanada group, now consisting of over 30 melodic entities.

Contemporary practice
Contemporary interpretations of Shahana appear to conform to three broad patterns.

Ustad Vilayat Khan rendered Shahana on the heels of Bageshri (December 1973, unpublished). The melodic identity of the raga revolves around Dh in the uttaranga (upper tetrachord) of the middle octave, suggesting a Bageshri bias (g-M-D/ D-n-P). In the poorvanga (lower tetrachord), his interpretation of the raga has a touch of Bhimpalas (R n-S-M/ g-M-P/ S-g-M-P-g-M-R-S). This Shahana variant recurs on his son, Shujaat Khan’s commercial recording. The Bageshri-biased pattern is also evident in Ustad Ameer Khan’s rendition of the bandish “Sundar angana baithi”(EMI/HMV: STC:850351).

The second pattern conforms to the Bhatkhande documentation incorporating the twin-Ni usage. This can be heard in the Dhamar composition “Kunjan udat gulal” performed in the Darbhanga (Vidur Malik) gharana of Dhrupad. This feature may suggest the Bahar / Malhar facet of the raga.

The third pattern is the one performed by Jaipur-Atrauli vocalists, and heard on a recording by Dhondutai Kulkarni. This interpretation of the raga has shades of Darbari Kanada, Adana, and Bhimpalas, while retaining its distinctive deployment of shuddha Dh (g-M-D-n-P). In the poorvanga, it follows the Darbari phrasing (n-S-R-g-M-R-S) along with Bhimpalas (R-n-S-M). In the uttaranga, it uses the Adana ascent (M-P-S’), as well as Bhimpalas (M-P-n-S). In the descent, Adana phrasing (P-n-P) features alternately with the distinctive Shahana phrasing (D-n-P).

The skeletal phraseology of Shahana is drawn using the following recordings as reference. Ustad Vilayat Khan (December 1973, unpublished), Ustad Ameer Khan (EMI/HMV: STC:850351), and Pandit Jasraj (EMI/HMV: STCS: 851013). It also incorporates the twin-Ni option exercised by Darbhanga gharana Dhrupad vocalists.

Chalan: P.n. P. N. S or n S n R S/ n S R g M R S/ R n S M/ S M M P or S R g M P/ g M D n P or g M n P / M P S’ D n P/ M P S’ or M P n S or M P N S’ N S’/ R’ S’ D n P/ n M P g/ M R S

Though different musicians and gharanas emphasise different facets of Shahana, the raga has stabilised with the use of a single Ni (komal), and come to be identified by a few catch-phrases in the uttaranga (g-M-D/D-n-P/ M-P-S’/ D-n-P) along with the generic Kanada descent (n-P-g-M-R-S). Another significant tendency evident in the raga is the omission of the explicit Malhar suggestion (S-n-D-n-P), documented by significant authorities of the 19th and early 20th century. Such tendencies towards the standardisation of the melodic personality normally accompany a raga’s growing popularity in response, perhaps, to the need for its categorical differentiation from allied ragas.

(c) India Archive Music Ltd. New York

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Shahid Parvez – “Duets satisfy audience appetite for novelty. Most partnerships don’t work”

Shahid spoke to Deepak Raja on January 8, 2004

Upto the age of 15, I was trained on the sitar by my father, Aziz Khansaheb. My uncle, Hafiz Khan, better known as Khan Mastana, trained me on the sitar as well as the surbahar upto the age of 12. Based on that training, I have evolved my music. Though I do play the surbahar for personal pleasure, I perform only on the sitar. My music is, without doubt, the music of the Etawah gharana because that is my training.

It is not surprising that the music of this gharana is spreading faster than rival styles. The main reason is the scientific technique. This has to do with the posture, setting of the hands, and the handling of the acoustic and harmonic ambience of the melody. The realization has now dawned that this is the best way to handle the sitar. The content of the music can vary a bit. But, once a certain technique is accepted, the content tends to follow from it. The second reason is the richness of our gharana’s idiom. Our legacy has evolved over several generations, with a number of very competent performers contributing to its enrichment. Some worked on the right hand, while others developed the craft of the left hand. Some developed the Jod or taan-s, while others worked on the Jhala. This accumulated legacy gives every sitarist a huge fund of musical ideas to draw upon and develop according to his own temperament.

This is why, I think, our style is acquiring a following even amongst sitarists not trained by the gharana stalwarts. It is important that the technique be understood properly, and sitarists be taught to convert this technique into the content of music. Until recently, this gharana has not devoted sufficient energy to teaching. The first person to take this up seriously was Shri Arvind Parikh (the seniormost disciple of Ustad Vilayat Khan). Following his example, I have started training promising youngsters. Our efforts will result in an orderly transmission of the gharana’s music.

Engineering the instrument
Over the years, I have shaped the acoustic features of my instrument, and my technique to deliver the quality of music I play. I have been using an ebony Jawari bridge since I got this instrument made about ten years ago. In earlier years, when I was working with my grandfather, Waheed Khansaheb’s sitar, I used the ivory bridge, and later, a deer-horn bridge once ivory was banned. Under the impact of my strokes, deer-horn, the ivory substitute, became unstable in five or six days of playing. I experimented briefly with the polymer material that some sitarists have tried. The sound of this material was a trifle metallic for my liking. I have also tested the ultra-light hard wood from Japan that caught sitarists’ fancy for a while. That material withstood my strokes pretty well, but produced a very shallow sound. After experimenting with these materials, I have settled down to an ebony bridge, which gives me the best results with the sophisticated microphones we have today. I have to rework the Jawari every ten days or so. This is fine since I have learnt to fashion it myself. There are no longer any great craftsmen left on whom we may depend for periodic restoration. Nobody taught me this craft. I studied the way Bishandas ji (Bishan Das Sharma of Rikhi Ram, instrument makers of Delhi) and Hiren Babu (Hiren Roy, instrument maker of Calcutta) fashioned the Jawari bridge to suit my acoustic preferences, and figured it out. I am learning all the time.

When I wanted a new sitar, I started with the obvious solution in those times – Hiren Roy – but finally decided to design my own instrument. Hiren Roy’s reputation as a sitar-maker is well deserved. His workmanship was outstanding. The timbre of his instruments is mellow. But, no matter how you fashion the Jawari bridge on his instruments, the volume output of the main melodic string is subdued compared to the other strings. I have noticed this in all his instruments. Have you noticed that, no contemporary sitarist plays a Hiren Roy sitar any longer? I asked Hiren Roy if he would make an instrument to my specifications. He said my specifications were impractical. On the other hand, he would also not guarantee that an instrument made to his specifications would satisfy my acoustic requirements. So, I gave my specifications to a sitar-maker in Miraj (a small town in Western India, also a major center of instrument making), and got the instrument made. I then took it to Rikhi Ram in Delhi, got the joints reinforced, and the frets reset. The tumba of my instrument is smaller than a standard sitar. The natural pitch of the instrument is, therefore, higher than the normal. I am now happy with the instrument, and it responds perfectly to my ideas.

My pitch is half-way between the standard C# in our gharana and D. An intermediate pitch is appropriate because of the smaller tumba (chamber resonator) and the thicker tabli (the cover of the resonator), my instrument sounds dull at C#, and too stiff to play at D. A higher pitch does tend to reduce the acoustic sustain of the instrument. To compensate for this possibility, I fashion the Jawari (the timbre control bridge) in such a way that stroke power is not dissipated in volume, but gets converted into additional sustain.

The music
It is true that I work more extensively with rhythm than anyone in our gharana has so far done. In addition to Roopak and Jhaptala, which are now very popular, I have played in tala-s of eleven, thirteen, fifteen and eighteen beats. I have performed bandish-es in cycles with fractional beats such as 5 ½ , 7 ½ etc. Such cycles are improvised, and do not have the status of tala-s in the Hindustani tradition. I have performed duets with vocal music in ultra-slow Ektala and Jhoomra. If we say that our gharana specializes in the “Gayaki anga” (vocalized idiom), we must look beyond the traditional Teentala for our repertoire. Also, I believe that it is not what we do that matters as much as how we do it. As long as we make judicious use of novelties, continue to treat the raga with respect, and keep the music organized, these deviations add to the richness of our music.

There is a mistaken notion that I play almost entirely with one Tabla accompanist, Vijay Ghate, or that he is my first preference. We have practiced a lot together, and have a great understanding. Driven largely by convenience, we have also performed a lot together. In reality, however, I have performed with every Tabla maestro of our times, other than Ustad Allarakha. In 1976, when I was just 18, I have played with Karamatullah Khansaheb. In 1977, I have played with Dawood Khansaheb. In later years, I have performed several times with Afaque Hussain Khan, Shanta Prasadji, and Kishan Maharaj too. In the generation after these giants, I have played with almost every significant Tabla exponent. On my recent tour of the US, I played 27 concerts with young Akram Khan.

A musician may get along better with some percussionists than others. But, it is impractical for him to restrict his exposure to one or even a handful of Tabla accompanists. It would also be suicidal. Every percussionist stimulates you to thinking differently about the relationship between melody and rhythm. A musician who denies himself this advantage will stagnate.

Duets, on the other hand, are an entirely different matter. Like all other musicians of my generation, I have had my share of duets – with other instrumentalists as well as vocalists. They seem to satisfy the appetite of audiences for novelty. History tells us that truly great duet partnerships are rare. We will never again hear anything comparable to the Ravi Shankar-Ali Akbar Khan and the Vilayat Khan-Bismillah Khan partnerships. Some partnerships work. Most don’t. For duets to work, the musicians need to be of comparable caliber, and relate to each other with respect and affection. Without these ingredients, duets can easily degenerate into a mindless competition for applause. This is what happens in a majority of cases. In some unfortunate situations, they can even create unpleasantness between musicians. Though I am happy to work on promising duet ideas, my personal preference remains for the solo, where I can present my music in and orderly fashion.

©Deepak S. Raja 2004.
The finest recordings of Shahid Parvez have been produced by India Archive Music Ltd. New York.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Book Review: by Neeru Dhall

Indian Horizons
The Journal of The Indian Council for
Cultural Relations, New Delhi
Vol. 51, Autumn issue

Hindustani Music – A tradition in Transition
Author: Deepak Raja
Publisher: DK Printworld Pvt. Ltd.
pp. 432. Rs. 490, US$ 24.95

Peter Drucker surely did not hint at Hindustani music when he said: “If peanuts is what you pay, monkeys is what you get”; but the fact is that the scales of economy have influenced Hindustani music over a period of time and as a result, Indian Classical Music that had its strong moorings in traditions, is in transition today.

Hindustani music has always been passed over to generations in its traditional Guru-Shishya Parampara (Teacher-disciple Tradition) in which a teacher gives his knowledge with full sincerity to his disciple. A disciple, in turn, is expected not only to master the knowledge but also to pass it on to another deserving candidate of the next generation. But no musician can be an identical Xerox copy of his teacher. Even the music of the same gharana (family) changes from generation to generation. Change is the permanent reality of this universe, and music is no different.

Various socio-economic and cultural changes have been changing the music over the centuries. Although some lament this, it is no surprise that today the great gharanas have merged into “cocktail gharanas” and we see the emergence of the Rotterdam gharana, the San Rafael-Seniya gharana. Their commitment to excellence may boost Hindustani music; but it may also result in globalization, and perhaps “de-culturation” of Hindustani music.

What should be done under such circumstances? Should not the efforts be made by cultivated listeners of Hindustani music – the connoisseurs or Rasikas -- to perhaps demand higher standards of music, act as watchdogs and help in retaining the inherent traditional values of Hindustani music? This is what Deepak Raja talks about in his book, “Hindustani Music – A tradition in Transition” by giving a very rational, logical, and analytical overview of Hindustani Music in the post-independence era. His description of this change has, both, depth and a matter-of-fact approach.

Hindustani music is an expression of India’s pluralistic, dynamic, multi-racial, multi-lingual vibrant society. The unity within diversity and continuity within changes, are two of its basic phenomena. While talking about various ragas, genres, lineages, musicians, and Hindustani music, Raja very beautifully describes as to where Hindustani music is heading.

Until the 20th century, Hindustani music was chamber music hosted by aristocracy. The classical music was performed in Jumme Ka Takiya (Friday evening gatherings) or on special occasions. Audiences were small, but very knowledgable. Those were cognoscenti who maintained a tough yardstick to maintain the music standards. The “innocenti” soon outnumbered these cognoscenti in the post-independence era, as that was the time of great upheaval in political, social, economic, and technical situations. Suddenly, the music was out of private chambers and was being dished out to the masses that were made of innocenti and did not understand it much.

Music became a commodity. It became price-sensitive and market-oriented. The yardstick of music changed. The large number of innocenti preferred popular music and classical music took a back seat, leaving the Rasikas in a minority. This was mainly due to the explosive growth of the electronic media. On the price index, the cost of music is becoming cheaper as a result and market continues to explode. Today’s market consists of 80% innocenti and 20% cognoscenti. Hindustani music is set on a path of irreversible globalization.

Raja explains this trend in Hindustani Music through six parts of his book:

Part I starts with social, cultural, economic and technological changes in Hindustani music by taking the reader through a journey of music starting from traditions to contemporary changes in gharana models. Part II deals with musical forms and structures.

Part III and IV can be defined as the heart of the book, in which Raja talks about the melodic framework on which Indian music is based. He starts with Ragas (melodic structure) interwoven with Rasas (emotional states), the significance of timings of each raga, the rights and wrongs in it and thus describes the complete flavour of Indian music. He explains the four major genres of Hindustani vocal music – Dhrupad, Khayal, Thumri and Tappa in their historical, aesthetic, and melodic forms.

Part V deals with the background and expressions unique to each of the major solo melodic instruments of Hindustani music, such as, Rudra Veena, Sitar, Shehnai, Sarod etc. and the entry of Slide Guitar of Hawaii into Indian music, soon after World War II. The book finishes with the list of glossary.

Only Raja, a musician, and MBA, a media person, and a writer, himself a multi-faceted person, could give such a multi-dimensional treatment to music in the most logical form. The quantitative leap of music is the need of the time; but it does not mean that we must not produce connoisseur quality music.

The old model of music that survived under royal patronage is extinct today. Keeping in mind the latest trends, Raja suggests a new model of music based on price and value, which allows a collective of musicians, rather than audiences to validate a musician’s status. He advocates the formation of a musicians’ guild to grade the music and musicians. His idea is to revitalize the connoisseurs of a bygone era, bring them to the forefront as music watchdogs, enhance their insights into the inner workings of modern and contemporary music by explaining them the alternative benchmarks and changing yardsticks.

Deepak Raja thus strives for higher standards of Hindustani music by advocating a balanced approach. Consumerism and commoditization of music can pose a threat to its quality; but as they say, “the grammar of today’s music is based on yesterday’s literature”. One only hopes that this beautiful piece of literature will help maintain tomorrow’s grammar on music with high standards, even in the changing scenario of market needs.

The book can be ordered online on the publisher's website, or by email.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Dhondutai Kulkarni – “Kesarbai was like the Niagara Falls”

Dhondutai spoke to Deepak Raja on May 4, 2003

My father was a schoolteacher in Kolhapur and trained in the Gwalior style of vocal music. His greatest regret was never becoming a credible performer. The Alladiya Khan family was the most respected clan of teachers in those days. So, he decided to give me – his only surviving child -- their training, whatever the cost.

During my childhood, the morning service at the Mahalakshmi temple in Kolhapur commenced with a musical offering to the Goddess by Alladiya Khan’s nephew, Natthan Khan. We met him regularly at the temple. One day, my father made bold to request him to teach me. Initially, Natthan Khan had little interest in teaching a beginner of five. But, finally, by a rather convoluted route, I became his disciple. I learnt fast, and by the age of eight, I was singing on the radio. The Natthan Khan tutelage ended in three years, when he left for Bombay.

After that, Bhurji Khan, Alladiya’s son, took over duties at the temple. When my father made the proposal to him, he quoted a fee we could not afford. So the matter rested there until one day, when I was 13, Bhurji Khan turned up suddenly at our house to announce that he would teach me for whatever my father could afford to pay him. So, it started – a daily routine for several hours after I returned from school. Bhurji Khan also taught me the sunrise exercises for maintaining the voice in perfect condition, and made sure that I did them regularly.

I dropped out of school two years short of graduation in favor of full-time music. Bhurji Khan then started visiting us twice a day. In the mean while, my younger sister also started studying with him. I had received 10 years of intensive training with Bhurji Khan when he died (1950).

For seven years thereafter, I had no guide. By this time, I was already performing professionally – solo as well as duets with my sister. In 1957, Lakshmibai Jadhav, a distinguished disciple of Hyder Khan, retired from the service of the Baroda State, and returned home to Kolhapur. I received a Government scholarship to study with her. She taught me in the mornings, and Bhurji Khan’s son, Azizuddin Khan, took evening sessions. This lasted for three years, until we left Kolhapur. Another two years passed before I found my fifth, and last, Guru.

In 1962, Kesarbai Kerkar issued an open invitation through a newspaper interview to any vocalist willing to submit to her training. So, I wrote to her, certain that nothing would happen. I was surprised to receive a welcoming reply. After putting me through an acid test, she assured me that though old now, she would do her best for me. And, she did -- without ever accepting any remuneration or consideration of any kind.

My father sold his house in Kolhapur to finance the move, and hired an apartment in Bombay for us to live in. Kesarbai was a stickler for punctuality and regularity. Each training session lasted three to four hours, in which we would cover two or three ragas. In addition, I had to continue workouts with the music I already knew, and with sunrise exercises. It was an exhausting routine.

Two years after I began training with her, she took me on a month-long retreat where she started my voice cultivation using the Alladiya technique. The training enhanced lungpower, improved stamina, perfected the AA vowel articulation, and sustained the timbre of the voice through two full octaves. Thereafter, back in Bombay, the routine continued. In addition, of course, I accompanied her at concerts. She announced her retirement in 1965, and I continued learning with her until 1971 – she was over 80 then.

In popular belief, my music is closest to Kesarbai’s. This may be true. But, not many people know how Bhurji Khan and Lakshmibai sang. So, the truth is more complicated. I cannot assess the impact of Natthan Khan’s initiation. It is Bhurji Khan who shaped the fundamentals of my music – from the age of 13 to 23. He started with alankara-s (symmetric practice exercises) and shaped me into an “A” grade radio artist. Lakshmibai, Baba, and Kesarbai had just to build on the Bhurji Khan foundation.

All my Gurus sang and taught the same music; but each had an original way of interpreting it. To begin with, they came from different streams of the gharana. Natthan Khan and Lakshmibai belonged to the Hyder Khan stream, while Bhurji Khan and Kesarbai came from the Alladiya stream. More significant for me was the contrast between the voices and temperaments of Kesarbai and Lakshmibai. Kesarbai was like the Niagara Falls, while Lakshmibai was tranquility personified. I had to sort out and integrate a wide range of musical attitudes because, in the ultimate analysis, my music had to be mine.

© Deepak S. Raja 2003
Read a detailed profile of the artist in: "Khayal Vocalism: Continuity within Change".
The finest recordings of Dhondutai Kulkarni have been produced by India Archive Music Ltd.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Shujaat Khan – “I almost joined a tea estate as a Manager; but destiny had other plans”

Shujaat Khan spoke to Deepak Raja on July 21, 1996

1960, I was born. I have no idea what was happening until 1966, when I performed for the first time, accompanying Abba (intimate form of address for the father). Then, the wagon began to roll..getting noticed... child prodigy...everything is hunky dory.

The turmoil began when my parents were heading for a separation. I was, then, old enough to know what was going on, but not old enough to handle it. This must have left some lasting impression on me, and my music. Abba was, then, not very good at putting father and Guru together. Growing up with him (in the absence of the mother) was difficult.

Between 18 and 22 I went industry, fusion music, sports, foreign travel, women ... but luckily no alcohol or drugs. There was (during that period) always music in my life; but not much disciplined practice. I was seen as a gifted musician, but a waster. I was having a great time, and beyond that, I didn't care.

At 24, I decided to settle down, and got married. After marriage, we continued to live with Abba until, one day, I decided to quit. Walking out on him could well have damaged my career; but I didn't care. I could make a living in many other ways. In 1985, I almost accepted a job as a Manager in an Assam tea estate. But, destiny had other plans.

It was October (1985), the beginning of the music season. I decided to rough it out for a while, and test out the concert market. There was probably something in the stars. And, also, something that had happened invisibly to my music during the wild years. I found that my music had changed tremendously. And, people's attitudes had improved a lot.

As my musical career took shape, my faith in our system of music was reconfirmed. As an education, there is really no substitute for living with the Guru. Because, you just can't put your finger on taleem (training/ apprenticeship). When, how, and under what circumstances you will acquire that flash of insight into the secrets of the Guru's music is impossible to predict, and therefore impossible to schedule. The magical quality of that experience had to express itself in my music. And, I should think, it does.

It isn't a musician's job to interpret his own music. But, I can try.

In my search for my own finished product, the first thing I worked on was how I returned to the bandish (the composition) after finishing a tan. Most musicians will take a tan, and round it off with a tihai (a symmetrical melodic structure consisting of a phrase repeated thrice) which is mostly pre-composed and ends at the sam (the first beat of the rhythmic cycle). I decided I needed to do something different.

I started working on the amad (the last part of the composition, preceding the return to the mukhda or the theme/ refrain of the composition) especially, the type which merges almost imperceptibly with the composition. An amad rich with multiple variants was the forte of the great vocalists of yesteryears. I tried to recapture some of that old magic of amads.

Then, I worked on the rhythmic component of my music. My choice fell, by temperament, on the jod (the simple two-beat rhythmic movement that follows the free-flowing alap). I enjoy playing this form, and have tried to make it more interesting without doing any damage, either to sitar music, or to the Vilayat Khani style, or to Indian classical music.

Over the last five years, I am delving deeper into vocalism. This comes naturally to me. By the time I arrived, Abba had already entered the gayaki (the style simulating vocalism on instruments) phase. The tantkar ang (the style appropriate to plucked instruments) remains with me as a part of my training. But, what I play is influenced more by the Vilayat Khan gayaki style and the great vocalists I have heard.

© Deepak S. Raja
The finest recordings of Shujaat Khan have been produced by India Archive Music Ltd., New York.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Raga Shree: Supplicant, spooky, or belligerent?

Shree is amongst the oldest raga-s in the Hindustani art music pantheon. But, it is not clear whether the melodic entity currently identified by this name is, indeed, the one that claims considerable antiquity. Quite irrespective of its evolutionary path, the contemporary Shree also commands immense stature amongst raga-s because of its profundity, and its association with a powerful archetypal entity in Hindu mythology.

Shree: The archetype
The "Shree" syllable is one of the two most powerful sounds in the psycho-phonetics of the Vedic tradition, the other being "Om". While "Om" represents man's relationship with the spiritual world, "Shree" represents the material man. Together, they represent the totality of man's aspirations.

In mythology, the "Om" phonetic, because of its abstract nature, remains a calligraphic deity. But, "Shree", the phonetic-calligraphic archetype, is also personified as the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, the giver of wealth and prosperity, and the consort of Lord Vishnu, the preserver of the universe.

Amongst the major female deities in the Hindu pantheon, Lakshmi occupies a pride of place, ahead of the ferocious Durga, the destroyer of evil, and the gentle Saraswati, the giver of knowledge and accomplishments in the fine arts. Interestingly, Durga and Saraswati also have Ragas dedicated to them, although, neither of these two enjoy the status of Shree either in the popular mind, or in the world of music.

The Shree Suktam (Hymn to the goddess Lakshmi) from Rig Veda, considered the most powerful Mantra for invoking the blessings of Lakshmi, describes her as the Great Facilitator of all the material tasks of the world, and thus, the symbol of ultimate effectiveness. In this hymn, the supplicant prays for protection from hunger and poverty, and for the boon of fame and prosperity.

Interestingly, the Shree Suktam is totally silent on the legitimacy of the means by which man may acquire wealth, as also on the ends to which wealth might be deployed. In a sense, thus, mythology treats the blessings of Lakshmi as being desired, or desirable, for their own sake.

Whether oppressed by the fear of poverty, or fired by the lust for wealth, man has the choice between turning supplicant before the goddess, and setting out to conquer the world. But, quite irrespective of the stance he adopts, and perhaps precisely because he has a choice, man cannot escape oppressive anxiety as a permanent feature of dealing with his material self.

In comparison, the other two major goddesses do not give man any options. Militancy or even anxiety are totally inconsistent with Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and the fine arts, who represents the highest level of culture. And, the ferocious Durga is the one whose help man seeks in order to destroy his enemies. In either case, supplication is the only route to divine grace.

Pandit Omkarnath Thakur (Sangeetanjali Vol. VI) provides a different perspective on the mythology and Rasa values of this raga. Of the six primary raga-s of the Hindustani tradition, five are said to have emanated from the five mouths of Lord Shiva, while the sixth is said to have emanated from the mouth of Parvati. Having emanated from "Shree-mukha", it was named Shree. He carries forward this association into describing the mood of the raga.

He suggests that Shree is a raga of the "Bhayanaka Rasa" (the sentiment of fear). To him, the prescribed time for performing this raga (around sunset) is the time when nature and humans are at peace, but the disembodied spirits (of whom Shiva is the Lord) become active, and aid the black magic of Tantriks. To him, the atmopshere created by the raga suggests activity in the netherworld -- spooky, and eerie in a manner that makes ordinary mortals fearful.

Even if the genesis of the association of the archetypal Shree with the Raga is no longer traceable, the metaphor is not out of place.

Shree: The melodic entity
"Shree" belongs to the Purvi Parent Scale, one of the ten modal structures which form the foundation of the Hindustani Raga system. Like other members of this Scale, it is prescribed for performance around sunset.

Swara material:
Ascent: S r M^ P N/ Descent: S N d P M^ G r
Re and Dh are Komal (flat), Ma is Tivra (sharp)

The primary dominant Swara is Re, and the secondary dominant is Pa. All other Swaras are of normal emphasis. Dh can be, occasionally, used subliminally in a Ni-Pa melodic descent. In Shree, unlike most other Ragas, Sa (the tonic) is not considered a raga-neutral resting point or melodic centre because of its proximity to the Komal Re, which has to be kept in sharp focus.

Orthodox musicians believe that post-sunset Purvi scale raga-s ought to be centred in the upper tetrachord. In accordance with this belief, they frequently take advantage of the ascent-oriented character of the Raga, and perform compositions which have the Sam (first accentuated beat of the rhythmic cycle) falling at the "Re" in the higher octave. Such orthodoxy accentuates the ascent in the treatment of the Raga, and imparts to it a distinctly strident quality.

The Raga, as currently performed, is identified by two catch-phrases: Sa-Ni-Re and Re-Re-Pa. These phrases define the two faces of Shree. Sa-Ni-Re has an abbrasive quality while Re-Re-Pa imparts a supplicant character.

Some musicians believe that, in order to fully express the emotional content of Shree, the Komal (flat) Re and Dh ought to be distanced from their neighbours, Sa and Pa, by the use of fractionally sharper microtones of Komal Re and Dh. But, there is also the opposite view, which reccommends suppressed microtones of Re and Dh. Authorities also acknowledge non-standard intonations of Ga, Ni, and tivra Ma in this raga. Shree is thus amongst those ragas, where the aesthetics of intonation play a far greater role in the communication of musical ideas than its melodic grammar.

Pandit Omkarnath Thakur (Sangeetanjali Vol.VI) observes that Shree is considered a difficult raga to perform as much because of its requirement of non-standard intonation, as of its restless, spooky, eerie phraseology.

Phraseology: Re and Dh are Komal (flat), Ma is Tivra (sharp)
S N. r/ N G r/ r M^/M^ G r / r M^ P/P M^ G r OR r r P/P M^ G r/r M^ P d/M^ G r/ r M^ P N S'/ P N S' N r' OR P S' N r'/r' N d M^ d OR r' N d P / d M^ G r OR M^ P d M^ G r/r d M^ G r OR M^ N M^ G r/G r S N. r/S N. r/ G r S

Note: In an increasingly rare version of the raga, the ascent into the uttaranga goes r-M^-d-N-S rather than r-M^-P-N-S indicated above.

In the lower tetrachord, and in the descent, a mis-handling of the melodic phraseology of this Raga exposes the Raga to the risk of confusion with Puriya, or its Puriya Dhanashree variant.

Shree: The experience
Although Shree is amongst the Raga-s popular with audiences, its performances are rare. Commercial recordings of Shree, and recordings in private collections establish that this Raga demands musicianship of a high order.

Amongst vocalists, Pandit. DV Paluskar (HMV-8TCS-048-3836) and Ustad Ameer Khan (unpublished) have treated Shree as a deeply devotional, though anxiety-laden Raga, while softening its aggressive stance. To achieve this, they adopted a variety of devices.

They sang poetry which is explicitly devotional in content, and biased their Raga development towards the lower tetrachord. In the melodic treatment, they made generous use of the Sa-Pa movement, in addition to the comparatively restless Re-Pa movement. They de-emphasised the strident Sa-Ni-Re catch-phrase and replaced it often with the less disturbing Re-Re-Re. The structure of their Tan-s is dominated by the characteristic phraseology of the raga, and avoids geometric or kaleidoscopic melodic devices.

Ashwini Despande's Shree (recorded in 2000 for India Archive Music, New York), is broadly in the Paluskar-Ameer Khan territory of Rasa values. Her ati-komal Re and ati-tivra Ma intonations assure for her rendition the anxiety-laden quality that characterises the raga. But, in her rendition, it is possible discern a yearning for peace and tranquility -- a drift towards Shanta Rasa.

Flautist Pannalal Ghosh (HMV-6TC-O4B-7182) appears to see this Raga as primarily disturbing and unsettling in character, with a touch of stridency. His treatment is ascent oriented and upper tetrachord dominated. He accepts the Re-Re-Pa movement as the primary identity of the Raga. The other catch-phrase Sa-Ni-Re comes into focus in the higher octave. His fast-paced composition has its "Sam" on the Upper-Re. His Tans predominantly use the phraseology of the Raga. The leaps between tonal clusters are less prominent than in Paluskar or Ameer Khan. The juxtaposition of tonal pairs is absent.

Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, who has articulated the eerie, spooky facet of the raga's personality, would have been the ideal musician to demonstrate it. Though his recordings of the raga are not available, we do have wothwhile specimens in renditions by Kumar Gandharva (concert 2/2/1975) and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (concert undated). In addition to being masters of intonation, these two musicians have deployed unorthodox phrasing and acoustic effects like variations of volume and timbre with stunning effect for shaping the atmospherics of the raga. The two recordings I cite here will probably remain amongst the most interesting and original recordings of Shree for this reason.

A drift towards aggressiveness is evident the Shree recording of Sitarist Pt. Ravi Shankar and Sarodist Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (Duet:HMV-EALP-1296). The raga form appears to support Pannalal Ghosh' interpretation. But, because of the plucked character of their instruments, they tilt towards a strident expression. Their melodic focus remains in the lower tetrachord. But, the use of Jhaptal with irregular cadences (10 beats in 2-3-2-3 subdivision) for the medium-paced composition makes it mildly menacing. Their melodic approach utilises the raga's phraseology, as well as geometric and kaleidoscopic devices. The powerful strokes of Ali Akbar Khan, supporting the kaleidoscopic patterns of tonal pairs, impart an eerie virility to the under-current of tension in the Raga.

Shree: The Vilayat Khan interpretation
Ustad Vilayat Khan sees Shree clearly as a Raga of the warrior. His Shree rendition at the Thirakwa Memorial concert at the Bhulabhai Desai Institute, Bombay (1976, unpublished), and his later recording of the raga for India Archive Music, New York, both testify to this. The Ustad is able to express this hitherto underplayed facet of the Raga by merely re-defining the scale, and supporting his melodic interpretation with power-packed execution.

Superficially, his interpretation of the Raga form only appears to add a belligerent emphasis on the "Dh" Swara, to supplement the already strident "Re" in the lower tetrachord, which is the melodic focus of the Raga. The accent on "Dh" dilutes the status of the adjacent Pa, which is the Secondary Dominant Swara of Shree. A weaker Pa also neutralises the supplicant mood of the Re-Re-Pa phrase, one of the two keys to the Raga's melodic character.

In the Vilayat Khan interpretation, Re and Dh become isolated, but corresponding Swaras of equal weightage, almost like two Dominant Swaras. But, this apparently minor nuance, perfectly consistent with the easily recognisable Raga form, is actually quite fundamental.

Ustad Vilayat Khan has shifted the notional focus of the Raga from the Sa-to-Sa octave to the Ni-to-Ni octave. In the Sa-to-Sa octave, the two tetrachords are assymetrical . The lower tetrachord has a sharper ascendency, while the upper tetrachord has a weaker and uneven ascendency. The ascendancy of the first step in both the tetrachords is hesitant, and becomes aggressive only later. By notionally adopting a Ni-to-Ni scale, the Vilayat Khan interpretation makes the two tetrachords perfectly symetrical in their tonal geometry. This shift creates a qualitatively different melodic canvas for the treatment of the raga -- essentially more amenable to symmetric and geometric phrasing.

Vilayat Khan's militancy appeared to require a dominant Swara in the upper tetrachord, to be utilised as a corresponding power centre to the Re in the lower tertrachord. The Dh Swara, in first-fifth correspondence with Re, was the ideal choice. The impact of this correspondence is enhanced by the formation of symmetrical tetrachords, to the base Ni (lower octave) and Tivra Ma (middle octave). This shift of focus delivers distant swara clusters between which he can move swiftly without hindrance and launch sudden offensives on any part of the melodic battlefield to any other part. This focus shift gives him an original, more expansive, phraseological frame for developing the Raga, in a manner which is totally consistent with its accepted grammar.

Amongst the performing arts, dance and theatre, rather than music, have often been considered the appropriate platforms for the depiction of valour, because depicting the application of physical force requires the manipulation of the human body. Vilayat Khan's interpretation of Shree is, therefore, a significant aesthetic achievement.

Ustad Vilayat Khan’s Shree is so radical compared to Shree, as commonly encountered, that a knowledgeable reviewer of his recording was obliged to suggest that the Ustad should have called it by a different name. This proposition is debatable because it is not the first time, nor the last, that a great musician has revealed a hitherto unexplored facet of a raga; and the event can hardly be considered a good enough reason to give it a new name.

(c) India Archive Music Ltd. New York
The finest recordings of Raga Shree have been produced by India Archive Music Ltd., New York.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Raga Megh Malhar

This essay is now published in my fourth book:

Removing it from here was considered proper, though not contractually obligatory, in order to protect the investment of my publisher in the book.