Friday, March 9, 2012

The Pakhawaj: Bramha’s handiwork

The Pakhawaj (originally known as Mridang) is a venerated instrument. The Mridangam of Carnatic music belongs to the same family. The instrument was originally made of clay. In recent years, however, it has been crafted from wood.

Mythology attributes the Mridang’s origination to Brahma, the Creator of the universe. According to legend, Lord Shiva was once dancing totally out of synch with rhythm. Bramha  was worried that Shiva’s wayward footwork might disturb the balance of the universe. So, he instructed Vishwakarma to craft a drum, and ordered Ganesha to start playing it in order to discipline Shiva’s dance. Thus the Mirdang/ Pakhawaj was born. Several other Indian instruments are associated with such legends, suggesting their antiquity and untraceable origins. 

Up to 18th century AD, the Mridang/ Pakhawaj was the dominant rhythmic accompaniment for art music and even Kathak dance. Today, its presence is largely limited to the Dhrupad genre. The Hindustani mainstream now prefers the Tabla across all modern genres of music. The Pakhawaj, no doubt, still enjoys immense prestige as the originator, developer, and preserver of the rhythmic science and percussion art.

The most widely cited derivation of its name is from Sanskrit: Paksha = side + Vadya = instrument. The Pakhawaj is a horizontal wooden barrel-drum, asymmetrical on one side. Its forearm-powered open-palm playing technique gives its sound a booming resonance and sonorous dignity. In addition to accompaniment, the Pakhawaj also has a solo tradition for connoisseurs of rhythm. 

Having been a resident of the Vaishnava temples along with Dhrupad, the Pakhawaj cultivated its art most assiduously in the Mathura/ Vrindavan region. From there, it travelled to the Mughal court with Dhrupad, and continued its forward march. The landmark figure in Pakhawaj history was Lala Bhagwandas, a product of the Mathura/Vrindavan tradition, and an esteemed musician at Akbar’s court (16th century). His disciples spearheaded Pakhawaj traditions in several parts of the country – Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Bengal.

When Dhrupad was declared a “museum piece” in the early years after independence, this description did not apply to the Pakhawaj. After European and US markets warmed up to Dhrupad, starting from the 1960s, gathering steam in the 1980s, the Pakhawaj scene also got a shot of adrenalin. The instrument now shares the fruits of the Dhrupad revival. 

The Pakhawaj now also appears to be on the threshold of the global market for Indian and cross-cultural ensembles. Several Hindustani and Carnatic percussion instruments have entered this segment since the 1980s. The entry of the Pakhawaj, though late, is hardly surprising. Any instrument which speaks the language of rhythm with such grace and authority had to, one day, find a global audience.  

Amongst segments of the Dhrupad legacy, the world of the Pakhawaj continues to be more vibrant than either Dhrupad vocalism or the Rudra Veena. Historians attribute the comfortable supply of Pakhawaj players to the additional talent available outside art music – in the devotional music traditions, where the instrument is well-entrenched and relatively insulated from market forces.

Note: For a detailed report on the Pakhawaj and the Tabla, please read "Hindustani Music Today", by Deepak Raja, DK Printworld, New Delhi.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The violin in Hindustani music

During his trips to India, the iconic Western violinist, Lord Yehudi Menuhin, never failed to meet and hear MS Gopalakrishnan, the Indian violinist. Interestingly, Gopalakrishnan commands equal stature amongst Carnatic and Hindustani connoisseurs.  His musical persona virtually sums up the story of the violin in Hindustani music.  

How it all began

The violin came to India with European colonists -- the French in Pondicherry, the Portuguese in Goa, and the British in Bengal. It was introduced to Indian art music by Baluswamy Dikshitar (1786-1858), a brother of the legendary Carnatic composer, Muthuswamy Dikhsitar. By the end of the 19th century, the violin had been enthusiastically accepted at the Mysore and Travancore courts. Since then, several generations of violinists have worked to make the violin a major instrument in Carnatic music.

The instrument entered Hindustani music in the 1930s through the initiatives of Allauddin Khan (Baba), Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, SN Ratanjankar, and Gajananrao Joshi.

Allauddin Khan, also a master of the violin, published the first ever violin recording of Hindustani music on a 78 rpm disc. His disciple, Timir Baran, introduced the violin to film industry orchestration, and another disciple, VG Jog, emerged as a towering violinist. SN Ratanjankar, the principal of the Maris College of Music at Lucknow, invited VG Jog to teach at the institution.

Around the same time, Vishnu Digambar invited Parur Sundaram Iyer, an eminent Carnatic violinist (the father of MS Gopalakrishnan) to teach at Gandharva Mahavidyalaya. Gajananrao Joshi, an eminent vocalist of the Gwalior gharana, was ordered by his patron, the feudal chief of Aundh in Maharashtra, to master the violin – which he did without a teacher, and later groomed several young violinists.

Second fiddle or first?

Until the acceptance of the bowed instruments in art music, the Hindustani and Carnatic traditions both gave pride of place to the Veena as an accompanist to vocal music. Once violin accompaniment partially replaced the Veena in Carnatic music, it was also able to emerge as a solo instrument. When the violin entered Hindustani music – almost three generations after its Carnatic debut -- the Sarangi was the preferred accompaniment, but fast losing ground to the Harmonium. Hindustani music thus ended up reserving the violin for solo performance, and using it only sporadically as an accompaniment. 

For evolving into a mature instrument for Indian art music, the violin has thus had much more time and much wider exposure in the Carnatic tradition, than in Hindustani music. Little wonder then that Hindustani music remains indebted to Carnatic music for the art of the violin.

Contemporary Hindustani violinists

The most venerated violinist is MS Gopalakrishnan (born: 1931), popularly called MSG. He studied the violin in the Carnatic and Hindustani traditions with his father, Parur Sundaram Iyer.  After his father’s demise, he studied Kairana gharana (Hindustani) vocalism with Guru Krishnananda. He exploded onto the Hindustani music scene in his early youth, accompanying leading vocalist like Omkarnath Thakur, DV Paluskar and Bade Gulam Ali Khan. His trajectory in Carnatic music was equally sensational. Despite a less frequent presence on the Hindustani platform, his name spells magic amongst connoisseurs in both the traditions.

In the same generation as MSG, the Paluskar tradition of the violin is represented by DK Datar (born: 1932). He studied the violin under Vighneshwara Shastry, and vocal music under his uncle, DV Paluskar.

The Carnatic tradition continues to lead the Hindustani art through N Rajam (born: 1938). She studied Carnatic music under her violinist father, Narayana Iyer, and the famous vocalist, Musiri Subramaniam Iyer. While still in her teens, she became a concert performer and accompanist to the tallest Carnatic vocalists, including MS Subbalakshmi.

She later enrolled for a degree from the Benares Hindu University (BHU), where Omkarnth Thakur headed the Faculty of Music. Once she joined BHU as a Lecturer, her musical persona flowered as a performer, teacher, and academician under her mentor’s supervision.

The Hindustani violin today

Rajam is acknowledged as the foremost Hindustani violinist today. In the next generation, the significant Hindustani violinists are both Rajam’s disciples -- her daughter, Sangeeta Shankar, and her niece, Kala Ramnath, who later became a disciple of  the distinguished vocalist, Jasraj. In a sense, quality Hindustani musicianship on the violin is presently the domain of Carnatic expertise.

While pockets of violin training do exist in the Hindustani music world, there is still a noticeable absence of a “violin culture” which can nurture quality musicians. Violin enthusiasts  hope that Hindustani music will continue to attract exceptional violinists from the Carnatic culture at least for a few more generations. 

Note: For a detailed report on the Violin in Hindustani music, refer "Hindustani Music Today", by Deepak Raja. DK Printworld, New Delhi.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Tabla: Everybody wants Zakir

Every musician in India wants Zakir to accompany him. Every assembly of Indian connoisseurs wants to hear a Zakir solo. Every Kathak dancer wants Zakir to add sizzle to her footwork. Every world-music ensemble wants Zakir as the lead percussionist. And, every student of the Tabla wants to be a Zakir. This is, undoubtedly, the triumph of a charismatic genius called Zakir Hussain. But, it is also the victory of the Indian art of percussion, and of rhythm as a musical expression sufficient unto itself.  

Zakir Hussain is a product of the North Indian art music tradition of transforming geocentric time into musical time, which began with the Pakhawaj several millennia ago, and continues with the Tabla. 

The origin of the Tabla, the vertical drum pair, is a puzzle that defies solution. The instrument came into prominence during the 15th century at the dawn of the modern era in Hindustani music. The ponderous Dhrupad genre was being challenged by the modern Khayal genre. In the emerging post-Dhrupad scenario, Hindustani music needed a percussion partner of greater agility, delicate playing technique, and softer output. The Tabla, already a mature instrument by then, steadily enlarged its role on the emerging music-scape, to finally replace the Pakhawaj by the 18th century.

Historic developments in the Tabla idiom took place during the reign of Emperor Muhammad Shah of Delhi (1719-1748), whose court was also host to the launch of the Sitar, and the maturation of Khayal vocalism. The musician responsible for the percussion revolution was Siddhar Khan Dhadhi. He was an accomplished Pakhawaj player, who translated the forearm-powered open-palm Pakhawaj idiom into the wrist-and-fingers idiom of the Tabla, thus creating an entirely new percussion language. His students spread to other major centers of music, and adapted the style to respond to local influences and aesthetic values. As a result, the world of the Tabla now recognizes six major styles, known by the names of the centers where they evolved.

(a) Delhi: In recent times, Inam Ali Khan and Lateef Ahmed Khan have been the most distinguished exponents of this gharana.

(b) Ajrada: Habibuddin Khan was the most distinguished percussionist of this style in recent memory.

(c) Lucknow: Afaque Hussain Khan was the most recent distinguished percussionist of this lineage.

(d) Farukhabad: This tradition produced three luminaries in the same generation: Ahmed Jan Thirakwa, Shamsuddin Khan, and Ameer Hussain Khan.

(e) Benares: This pedigree again produced three outstanding percussionists in the same generation – Shamta Prasad, Kishen Maharaj, and Anokhey Lal.

(f) Punjab: This style produced the super-stars of late 20th century music – Allahrakha Khan, and his son, Zakir Hussain. Though masters of their own traditional idiom, the Punjab lineage maestros  have enriched it with ideas from several other sources.

The stylistic distinctions between these lineages are, obviously, not as evident in accompaniment, as they are in solo performance, because an accompanist needs to respond spontaneously, free from gharana preferences. 

The Tabla today commands the largest base of professional, amateur, and aspiring musicianship amongst all Indian instruments. The profession is amply endowed with scholarly as well as creative faculties. The idiom of the instrument is being constantly enriched by contemporary maestros. As an accompanist, soloist or ensemble performer, and in India or abroad, the Tabla is in good health. 

Note: For a detailed discussion on the Pakhawaj and the Tabla, refer to "Hindustani Music Today", by Deepak Raja, DK Printworld, 2012.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The meteoric rise of the Sarod

The Sarod is today a rival of the Sitar for popularity and stature. Its maturity conceals the fact that its transformation from a crude acoustic machine into a scintillating musical instrument has taken place largely in the 20th century.

Instruments of the Sarod family (short-necked plucked lutes) are known to have been played in India around 600 AD, perhaps even earlier. However, the Sarod’s identifiable ancestors apparently came with soldiers from the Middle East. The instrument has two ancestors, different in design, but both called Rabab . One came from Persia, and the other, from Afghanistan. In terms of their basic design and idiom, the Persian Rabab and the Afghan Rabab evolved independently till the early 19th century, and converged finally in the present-day Sarod.

The word “Sarod” is probably derived from the Perso-Arabic “Shah-rud”, meaning song, melody, music. Its first use to denote an Indian musical instrument is encountered in 1830. The earliest significant Sarodist recorded in history is, Ghulam Ali Khan Bangash (early 19th century), an Afghan who had settled at Gwalior.

Because of its wooden body, skin-clad chamber, and catgut strings, the Rabab was an unstable instrument, reacting erratically to climatic changes. It adopted the present-day metallic fingerboard and metal strings probably from the Sursingar, a magnified variant of the Rabab, which is now extinct. With this change, the Sarod became the only plucked instrument in Hindustani music to have a shell made of wood, and an upper made of skin and metal, thus defining its unique acoustics.

Considerable re-engineering of the Sarod took place during the early part of the 20th century. This work delivered the rich acoustics of the Maihar design, which is now something of an industry standard, while alternative designs also have a distinguished following.

With constant re-engineering and exceptional musicianship enlarging the scope of melody, the martial history of the Afghan Rabab, and the robust aural experience are no longer dominant in Sarod music. But, they remain integral to the Sarod's musical personality.  

Stylistic legacies in Sarod music

Despite the obvious limitations of stylistic specialisation with reference to so young an instrument, certain lineages of Rabab/Sarod players have claimed distinctive status. The most authoritative recent identification of these lineages was done in 1991 at a Seminar conducted by the ITC Sangeet Research Academy. The seminar identified five lineages that have been represented by quality musicianship in the post-independence period.

(a) The Maihar lineage, also  referred to as the Maihar-Seniya lineage: The lineage is named after the town of Maihar in Madhya Pradesh, which   Allauddin Khan, its founder, made his home. The Seniya suffix refers to the founder’s principal Guru,   Wazir Khan of Rampur, a descendant of Miyan Tansen. After the demise of   Ali Akbar Khan in 2009, this lineage is represented by his son,   Ashish Khan, and a large number of Indian and foreign disciples. 

(b) The lineage of Mohammad Ameer Khan: The founder of the lineage, Mohammad Ameer Khan was 6th generation descendant of Ghulam Ali Khan Bangash. Through his distinguished disciple,   Radhika Mohan Maitra, this lineage has conserved the traditional Rabab idiom as the primary idiom of the Sarod. In recent times, this lineage has been represented by Maitra’s disciples, Buddhadev Dasgupta and Kalyan Mukherjea.

(c) The lineage of Ghulam Bandegi Khan Bangash: This lineage traces its origins to Ghulam Bandegi Khan Bangash, the grandfather of Ghulam Ali Khan Bangash, the first Sarod player on record. On the contemporary concert platform, this lineage is represented by   Amjad Ali Khan.

(d) The Lucknow-Shahjehanpur lineage: This lineage traces its origins to Najaf Ali Khan (1705-1760) of Shahjehanpur and Madar Khan (1704-1752) of Lucknow. Theirs was a lineage of Afghan Rabab players, groomed in the Dhrupad/ Rudra Veena idiom. The last significant Sarod player of this lineage was   Sakhawat Hussain Khan (1875-1955) who served on the faculty of the Bhatkhande Music University in Lucknow.

(e) The Niamatullah-Karamatulla Khan lineage: Niamatullah Khan was an Afghan Rabab player, who moved to Calcutta from Awadh in 1857 along with Nawab Wajid Ali Shah in exile. Niamatullah and his son, Karamatulla established a lineage of Rabab, Sursingar and Sarod players. Karamatullah Khan’s son, Ishtiaque Ahmed, was also an outstanding sarod player. The last significant exponent of this lineage was Shyam Ganguly.

Sarod styles today

The contemporary Sarod idiom reflects three principal tendencies. The traditional rabab-influenced idiom dominates the music of the lineage of   Mohammed Ameer Khan, represented by the disciples of   Radhika Mohan Maitra. The Rudra Veena-influenced idiom, incorporating several other influences, dominates the music of the Maihar Seniya stylistic lineage --   Allauddin Khan, and his son,  Ali Akbar Khan. In the lineage of Ghulam Ali Khan Bangash, his direct descendant,   Amjad Ali Khan is credited with driving the instrument’s idiom towards modern vocalism.

Considering the recency of the Sarod’s emergence as a front ranking instrument, and   Ali Akbar Khan’s towering presence over it, most music lovers may not discern the stylistic variety on display today. But, it does exist, and is being reinforced by systematic propagation in each lineage.

Note: For a detailed discussion on the Sarod, please refer to “Hindustani Music Today” and "Hindustani Music -- a Tradition in Transition", by Deepak Raja, DK Printworld, New Delhi.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Just released.... Hindustani Music Today

Author: Deepak S. Raja
Foreword: Pandit Arvind Parikh
Publisher: DK Printworld, New Delhi 2011
Paperback: Rs.320.00/ US$ 16.00
Hard-cover: Rs. 600.00/ US$ 27.00
For orders: Email:

In HINDUSTANI MUSIC TODAY, the author presents a panoramic view of Hindustani art music as viewed at the dawn of the 21st century.  It addresses educated readers, who may not have been introduced to Hindustani music in their early years, but have been drawn to it as mature adults. Its objective is to share with them an intelligent perspective on what this music is, where it comes from, and where it might possibly be going.

The book covers all the major genres of vocal music, as well all the musical instruments that are currently heard on the Hindustani music platform. Along with a brief history of each, the book identifies ithe major trends in performance, and contributes significantly to the appreciation of contemporary Hindustani music.

Amongst the genres of vocal music, the book covers Dhrupad, Khayal, Thumree and Tappa. Amongst the major instruments, the book covers Rudra Veena (Been), Sitar, Surbahar, Sarod, Santoor, the Hawaiian Guitar, Bamboo flute, Shehnai, Violin, Sarangi, Harmonium, Tanpura, Swaramandal, Pakhawaj and Tabla.

Written by an author of respectable credentials as a musician, researcher, critic, and musicologist , HINDUSTANI MUSIC TODAY presents its facts, ideas, and perspectives without technical details, and in simple language, while also satisfying the needs of the more discerning readers.
Since 1994/95,, Deepak Raja has been a Repertoire Analyst for India Archive Music Ltd. New York. In 1999, he co-edited the Indian Musicological Society’s publication titled “Perspectives on Dhrupad”. His first book: “Hindustani music – a tradition in transition”, was published in 2005. His second book, “Khayal vocalism – continuity within change”, was published in 2009. In 2009, he was granted a Senior Research Fellowship by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Pandit Shivkumar Sharma and the Santoor

In post-independence India, the Santoor has had the most meteoric rise on the classical music platform. In less than twenty-five years, it rose from near-oblivion to the peak of popularity. Amongst instruments currently in vogue, it is the only instrument played by the hammering action of sticks. Compared to the other vertical impact instruments -- like the Jaltarang, Tabla Tarang and Kashta Tarang – the Santoor had far greater melodic potential. But, it required the pioneering musicianship of Pandit Shivkumar Sharma to make the instrument succeed, while the others faded into history.
When Shivkumar exploded upon the music scene, he instantly made the Santoor the musical signature of the Kashmir valley, where many of India’s films were shot in the 1960s. Establishing the instrument in the classical segment took Sharma years of struggle. By the time terrorism drove the film industry out of Kashmir in the 1980s, Sharma had established himself and the Santoor at the forefront of classical music. This was no small achievement in an era dominated by three veritable giants of instrumental music – Ustad Vilayat Khan, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, and Pandit Ravi Shankar – each performing on instruments much more mature than his.
Sharma’s success has attracted a large number of musicians to the Santoor. Every new aspirant is busy exploring the untried possibilities of the instrument, leaving it in a dynamic state of evolution, but still without a credible challenge yet to Shivkumar Sharma’s ownership of the Santoor.
The Santoor

The Santoor is related to similar instruments in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Central Europe. Until recently, the Santoor was virtually unknown to Indians outside the Kashmir valley, where it was common as an accompaniment for vocal renditions of Sufiana Mausiqui (chants of the Sufi sects), a disciplined form of music with its own melodic entities (raga-s), and tala-s.
Some authors have linked the name to the Psantir, a similar instrument known to Mesopotamians since the pre-Christian era. The name allows both, Persians and Indians, to claim ownership of the instrument. The original Sanskrit name for it is “Shatatantri” [Shata = 100 + Tantri = stringed instrument], and the Persian name, now popular, is “Santoor” [Sad or San = 100 + Toor = strings]. The Indian claim is stronger because the Shatatantri Veena mentioned in ancient Indian literature is, in all respects, a convincing description of the Santoor. However, for want of a proven evolutionary link between the Shatatantri and the present-day instrument, scholars are unwilling to endorse this theory.

Pandit Shivkumar Sharma

Pt. Shivkumar Sharma (born: 1938) was brought up in distinguished family of musicians hailing from Jammu. Shivkumar’s father, Pt. Umadatta Sharma, was a Tabla exponent of the Punjab gharana  and a vocalist trained in the Benares tradition under the celebrated Guru, Bade Ramdasji. Shivkumar was groomed by his father in vocal music as well as percussion. While still a teenager, Shivkumar had achieved national acclaim as a Tabla player.  He switched to the Santoor upon the encouragement of his father.
While he was serving as Chief Producer on Kashmir Radio, Pt. Umadatta heard the Santoor, and saw in it a challenge worthy of his son. The instrument was, at that stage, an unsophisticated acoustic machine, quite unsuited for delivering raga-based music through modern electronic amplification. Shivkumar honed his art and made his debut on the art-music platform on that unrefined instrument. Initially, he managed to entice the film industry with the novelty and charm of its sound. But, the world of classical music remained skeptical about its future because of its limitations in handling raga-based melody. Sharma had to re-engineer the instrument, and develop new techniques of playing it to satisfy the expectations of discerning audiences.
Sharma first altered the tuning system. The then turned his attention to the posture and handling. Thereafter, he converted the traditional 4-string set for each note into a combination of 3-string and 2-string sets. In addition, he devised an original “Chikari” set. With these changes, he brought the instrument to a level of sophistication in delivering the quality of music he wanted to perform. After this, he standardized the stroke-craft in order to achieve superior acoustic sustain, greater continuity in the delivery of melody, and better control over the timbre and volume in the different movements of the Sitar/Sarod idiomn.
Shivkumar Sharma has collaborated with musicians like the flautist, Hariprasad Chaurasiya and the Hawaiian Guitar maestro, Brijbhushan Kabra, to produce some of the most memorable music of the 20th century. An album titled “Call of the Valley” recorded by the trio in 1968 with Manikrao Popatkar on the Tabla remained, for many years, the single largest selling title in the classical music segment of the Indian music market. Sharma’s close association with the Tabla wizard, Ustad Zakir Hussain, has set new standards of compatibility between musicians and their percussion accompanists. Sharma’s scores for feature films like "Darr", "Silsila", and "Lamhe", have  topped the charts.

Shivkumar Sharma’s stature is well acknowledged. He  is the recipient of many prestigious awards like Padmashree, Padma Vibhushan, Sangeet Natak Academy Award, Honorary Doctorate from the University of Jammu, Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan Award, Maharashtra Gaurav Puraskar, etc. He also has an honorary citizenship of the city of Baltimore, USA.
Sharma’s music
Sharma’s stature as a musician is substantially supported by his impeccable command over raga grammar. This has also contributed to the stature of his instrument. Whether it be common, non-controversial raga-s, or rare and esoteric raga-s, Shivkumar Sharma’s renderings are found to fastidiously follow documented raga-grammar.
Sharma modeled the architecture of his music after the dominant idiom of the Sitar and Sarod in the 1950s with a substantial dependence on Teental bandish-es. In later years, he enlarged his repertoire, relying more on Jhaptal and Roopak bandish-es. During one of my interviews with him, he admitted an acute awareness of the fact that, being impact-driven, his instrument has an inherent bias towards rhythmicality. He therefore made a conscious and sustained effort to ensure that his music would pursue “melody -- not at the cost of rhythm, and rhythm -- not at the cost of melody” [his own words].
In his approach to melody, Sharma has veered more towards the modern language of the Sarod than the Sitar. This was to be expected because the Sarod also relies on multiple-string melodic execution, and Sarod strokes have a percussiive punch that the Sitar does not have. In order to exploit these features, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan had liberated Sarod music from traditional phrasing by introducing kaleidoscopic patterns. The kaleidoscopic pattern consists of an interesting, but often random, juxtaposition of swara-s, either in pairs or in isolation. The selection of these swara-s is consistent with the swara material of the raga. But, their sequencing and spacing do not necessarily define melodic contours, therefore being, in some sense, raga-neutral.
These patterns were ideal for the Santoor because it has a different string-set for every note, thus enhancing their bewildering quality. With the adoption of kaleidoscopic patterns on the Santoor, Sharma has substantially accelerated the process commenced by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan – that of freeing instrumental music from the traditional reference point in vocal music. In the broader, historical context, this would appear to be the most significant facet of Shivkumar Sharma’s – and the Santoor’s -- contribution to Hindustani music.

 © Deepak S. Raja 2011

Thus spake Shivkumar Sharma

Excerpts from an interview with Pt. Shivkumar Sharma
Interviewer : Michael Robinson , 
Pacific Palms, City of Industry, California | September 15, 2003

“I’m conscious of the fact that I am playing for certain people who have come from near and far places.  They have got certain expectations from this concert, and have got to finish my music within a certain period of time. But once I start playing, and everything is OK, there is no distraction, sound system is perfect, not distracting me, and everything goes well, then after a while I forget that I am on the stage.  And music for me is meditation.  And I don’t go on the stage, and I don’t make an effort that I’m an entertainer, or I’m there to entertain people.  I feel music for me is a kind of meditation, is a kind of prayer which gives me a spiritual high.  It gives me a kind of bliss which I am sharing with the audience.

“After the concert, if everything goes well, the most difficult part for me is when people come and want to talk to me…  I’m not in a position to talk.  It takes me a while to come back to this mundane world.  After I finish concert, and I come back to my room, and then I can’t express the kind of joy, the kind of energy that goes in my body…when everything goes well, and music is…and then when I come back, then I start thinking OK, how I played, where I goofed up, what happened technically, what was not right.  Those things come later on. 

“How I handle this thing, this praise from different quarters. This, again, I got from my father and from my guru. The spiritual training. Where santoor is today, I think it's nothing short of a miracle. And it's enough to make a man mad if one starts thinking, "I have done this." It never comes to my mind,  that whatever happened with santoor -- I have done it. Honestly, even in my own thoughts, forget about talking to other people, that we talk in mundane way, In my mind, I know very clearly, I'm just an instrument, I'm just a medium. God chose me, a medium, to create this music through me. I'm not doing it.

“When I go to a concert, I do my meditation, and I pray before the concert. That's why before the concert I need some time for myself. So I should be alone in my room, and I do some meditation before I leave. And I pray that it's in Your hands, You have to do this. To help. And I totally surrender myself. So this music happens. I am not doing it. And that is why when you rightly watched me on the stage, and felt that thing. Because I honestly believe some supernatural power, no matter what we call it, God, Bhagwan, Baba or anyone, is doing this through me, and credit goes to Him, not to me. And when I think, when I come back, again I meditate when I'm alone, and I thank, "Thank you very much for making me a medium to do this." 

Selected discography:
ECLP 2297 Shivkumar Sharma + Brij Bhushan Kabra: Bageshri, Jhinjhoti
ECLP 2346 Shivkumar Sharma: Lalat, Bhairavi, Kalavati, Raga Pahadi
ECSD 2382 Shivkumar Sharma + Hariprasad Chaurasia+ Brijbushan Kabra,+ Manikrao Popatkar: Call of the valley
ECSD 2389 Shivkumar Sharma: Classical melodies on the santoor
ECSD 2457 Shivkumar Sharma: Madhuvanti, Jog, Dhun, Folk Tune
ECSD 2747 Shivkumar Sharma + Hariprasad Chaurasia. Yugal Bandi 
ECSD 2784 Shivkumar Sharma: Sohni, Mishra Tilang)
PSLP 1481-1482 Shivkumar Sharma In Concert 

For an exhaustive study of the Santoor and Pandit Shivkumar Sharma's contribution, please read: "Hindustani Music -- a tradition in transition", by Deepak Raja. DK Printworld, New Delhi, 2005. 

Monday, August 8, 2011

Ustad Ameer Khan (1912-1974)

Ustad Ameer Khan was easily the single most influential Hindustani vocalist of the 20th century. His music deeply influenced his contemporaries and, more than thirty-five years since his demise, continues to shape the dominant tendencies in vocalism, as well as instrumental music. An eclectic, who enriched his basic grooming with several other influences, he set standards of musicianship that have yet to be bettered. With no interest in accumulating audiences, wealth or awards, he represented the essence of the Indian tradition, which regards music as a mystical pursuit, with spiritual evolution as its primary reward.

As a sad commentary on the contemporary culture, he remained one of the least honored greats of 20th century Hindustani music. He died in a car accident, decorated only with a Fellowship of the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Padma Bhushan (the third highest civilian award of the nation).

Childhood and grooming

Ustad Ameer Khan was born Ameer Ali at Akole (Maharashtra), and brought up in Indore, where his father, Shahmir Khan served the princely court as a sarangi player. Young Ameer Ali began his training in vocalism and the sarangi at an early age.

For young Ameer Ali's  training, his father once sought the documentation of the Merukhand discipline from a colleague at the Indore court, Ustad Nasiruddin Dagar.. The Ustad refused on the grounds that such knowledge was not available to “the son of a mere sarangi player”. The remark stung Shahmir Khan, and he developed his own method for training Ameer Ali in the Merukhand discipline.

The Merukhand discipline (Meru = mountain, Khand = fragment) is a logically sequenced  compendium of all the 5040 (7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1) melodic patterns that can be generated from seven notes. The patterns are sequenced according to a particular logic, and required to be practiced endlessly until they get “programmed” into the ideation process of the musician. The mastery of these patterns also, obviously, developed the musician’s technical ability to execute the most complicated melodic passages. When performing a raga, the musician chooses the patterns compatible with raga grammar for exploring the melodic personality of the raga.

Over a period of five or six years, and in stages, young Ameer Ali internalized the Merukhand system. Thereafter, he was taught Khayal singing, along with occasional lessons on the sarangi. As he became reasonably proficient as a singer, his father encouraged him to periodically visit his uncle, Moti Khan, an accomplished Tabla exponent, who lived in a neighboring district. Moti Khan would organize concerts featuring Ameer Khan for his circle of friends , and also train him in the nuances of relating melody to rhythm.

Shahmir Khan did not believe in making the boy practice for ten or twelve hours a day, which was the norm in those days. Ameer Ali's father believed that mechanical perfection did not constitute learning. Practice was productive only so long as the melodic imagination remains active, and one’s interest in the music is sustained. His prescription  for Ameer Khan’s riyaz was, therefore, unusual for that era. Ameer Khan was permitted to practice only three times a day, for an hour at each sitting. This remained a part of Ameer Khan’s philosophy throughout his life. In later years, he is reported to have said that only half his riyaz consisted of actually singing – the other half was thinking.

Alongside his training within the family, young Ameer Ali was exposed to some of the finest musicians of Indore every week-end, when his father’s friends gathered to perform for each other. Amongst the giants he heard and studied at these sessions were the dhrupad vocalists, Allahbande Khan and Nasiruddin Khan Dagar, Beenkar Murad Khan, Beenkar Wahid Khan, sarangi exponent, Bundu Khan, and the khayal vocalist, Rajab Ali Khan of Dewas.

In the profession

By the age of 20, Ameer Ali was an accomplished vocalist (and perhaps also sarangi player). Between 1932 and 1937, he moved from city to city in search of a career as a singer. He got a foothold in Bombay through his uncle, received some support from the musicologist, Prof. BR Deodhar, came under the influence of Aman Ali Khan of Bhendi Bazar, spent some time in Delhi, and also enjoyed the patronage of Maharaja of Raigadh in MP. His early appearances on the concert platform were discouraging.  In 1934, he recorded five or six 78 RPM discs for commercial release. Neither his concerts during this period, nor his recordings gave him the breakthrough he needed. He grappled with the realization that his style was not making an impact either in three minutes or in thirty.

He was 26 when his father died (1937). Success was now a necessity. Drawing on the music he admired, Ameer Ali implemented a systematic overhaul of his style, while keeping the Merukhand discipline at the centre of it. In the slow-tempo movements, he mastered the contemplative approach of Abdul Waheed Khan of Kairana. In medium-tempo rendition, he adopted the choreographic liveliness of Aman Ali Khan of the Bhendi Bazar group. In fast-tempo rendition, he adopted the mercurial style of Rajab Ali Khan, who claimed membership of an ill-defined Indore gharana. Ameer Khan was able to absorb all these influences and integrate them into a coherent personal musical statement, without having formally accepted the tutelage of any of them.

After an intense struggle – within and without -- Prof. Ameer Ali of Indore (as named on his early 78 rpm discs) emerged, over the next few years, as Ustad Ameer Khan – the only titan of 20th century vocalism not to have received formal training from reputed Pandits or Ustads. Between 1945 and 1950, he ascended to the top of the league of vocalists, without whose presence no important music festival in India could be planned. The stature he achieved was such that All India Radio felt obliged to delay even its prime-time news bulletin if Ameer Khan took a little longer to wind up his performance preceding the news.

The playback singer

The 1950s were a decade of substantial visibility for him through his work in the film industry. In 1952, he sang the title song (Raga Puriya Dhanashri) and also the immortal duet (Raga Desi) with DV Paluskar for the feature film, Baiju Bawara, and a Khamaj Thumree for the Bengali film, Kshudit Pashan (Hungry stones), under the baton of Ali Akbar Khan. Then came the memorable khayal (“Daya karo hey girdhar gopal in Multani) for the Hindi film “Shabab”. In 1955, he recorded  the same khayal in Lalit (Jogiya more ghar aaye) for two music directors -- Vasant Desai and OP Nayyar.

His title song for V Shantaram’s film Jhanak Jhanak Payal Bajey (Raga Adana) virtually scripted the film’s success. In 1959, he recorded a duet in Raga Bhatiyar with the shehnai maestro, Ustad Bismillah Khan for the film, “Goonj uthi shehnai”. He also sang for two documentary films – Raga Darbari for a religious film produced by his disciple, Mukund Rai Goswami, and a ghazal of Mirza Ghalib for a film on the life and times of the poet, made by another disciple, Pandit Amarnath.

Iconic status

After his career had received a massive boost from his work in films, the release of his concert length recordings on Long Playing discs in the 1960s catapulted him to iconic status. His recordings became text books of raga exposition for the entire music world. His stature tempted both, Kairana and Bhendi Bazar fraternities, to claim him as one of their own. The truth was that, by then, he had himself become, effectively, the fountainhead of a new gharana.

It appears that Ameer Khan claimed membership of the “Indore gharana”, but without much conviction and – not surprisingly -- without much interest in the subject. The existence of an “Indore” gharana before him is debatable. Now that the third generation of the “Ameer Khan gharana” is performing respectably, a case is now being argued for the acknowledgment of an “Indore gharana”.

Ustad Ameer Khan emerged from a family background of feudal patronage, under which a small group of connoisseurs determined the fates of musicians. He reinvented himself for the post-independence era in which musicians had to address a faceless, and largely uncultivated, mass audience primarily through the electronic media. Under radically different conditions, he carved out a place for himself in history without making any compromise with artistic values.


Ustad Ameer Khan owned one of the finest male voices in 20th century vocalism. His rich baritone, which traversed three octaves with consummate ease at any speed, could communicate any of his melodic and rhythmic ideas with the minimum distortion. It had a majestic aloofness which forced you to be attentive to its intellectual as well as emotional elements. The way he used his voice was befitting a classicist, who sang only khayal and tarana genres of music. He could not be persuaded to sing the romanticist genres like thumrees or ghazals in public, except for films.

Ameer Khan, the man, was no different from his music – a personification of dignified tranquility. He was a handsome six-footer of proportionate build and serious, but pleasing, demeanor. You could have mistaken him for a professor or a lawyer, if you had met him at a friend’s house. When he sat on the stage to perform, he was simply dressed, and looked like a yogi in erect posture, with his eyes closed, virtually in a trance.

His concert repertoire comprised over 30 raga-s of the Hindustani tradition, and a handful of raga-s adopted from the Carnatic tradition. His Hindustani selection consisted of mature raga-s like Puriya, Marwa, Multani, Darbari and Shuddha Kalyan – raga-s with vast potential for melodic improvisation. These were, broadly, the favorites of Kairana gharana vocalists. He was, however, not averse, once in a while, to unleashing an esoteric raga like Shuddha-Rishabh Puriya, to demonstrate his mastery over raga grammar and aesthetics.

His Carnatic choice consisted of raga-s like Basant Mukhari (Vakulabharanam), Hansadhwani, Abhogi, Vachaspati and Charukeshi, which have now been adopted by the Hindustani tradition. However, even in the Carnatic segment, he occasionally rendered raga-s which had never before been attempted by Hindustani vocalists. His knowledge of Carnatic raga-s is reported to have been the legacy of the Bhendi Bazaar maestro, Aman Ali Khan.

Master of raga-ness

Ustad Ameer Khan gave audiences uncomplicated, but often unique, access to the melodic and emotional personality of a raga. In doing so, he imprinted an indelible mark of his personality on every raga he performed. To this day, it is almost impossible for male vocalists of subsequent generations to avoid his influence over raga-s of which Ameer Khan’s recordings are available. And, to this day, the recordings market has an unlimited appetite for posthumous releases of his concert recordings.

He could communicate his image of a raga with immense clarity because of his fastidious adherence to the principles of architecture of khayal presentation. Until Ameer Khan’s arrival, the observance of this discipline varied a lot between different gharana-s and vocalists. Under his influence, khayal architecture has now established itself firmly in the musical culture, and obvious clumsiness is no longer condoned.

In order to ensure that a raga’s melodic and emotional personalities are effectively communicated, he rendered his vilambit khayals at an ultra-slow tempo, and chose to perform them primarily in Jhoomra tala, ideally suited for this tempo. At his vilambit khayal tempo of 14-20 beats per minute, Ameer Khan was, along with Abdul Waheed Khan, the most leisurely vocalist of the 20th century.

To ensure the unhindered communication of musical ideas, he opted for the minimum and unobtrusive accompaniment. He rarely took a harmonium or sarangi accompanist, and required his tabla accompanist to do nothing more than keep time within the rhythmic cycle. For a brief period, he tried accompanying himself on the Swara-mandala; but dropped it, perhaps finding it obtrusive. To compensate for a melodic accompaniment, he used a six-string tanpura in lieu of the more common four-string instrument. Once his tanpura-s were perfectly tuned, he was one with his music.

The passion for poetics

Though a man of limited education, he educated himself in Hindi, Urdu, Persian and even learnt a bit of Sanskrit. Unlike many khayal singers of his generation, Ameer Khan treated poetic element of his compositions with respect. In his selection of poetry, he exhibited a strong bias in favour of devotional verses, and allowed their literary content to shine through in his renditions.

At a time when many Hindu musicians were singing verses like “Karim naam tero” (Malhar) and “Allah janey maula jaaney (Todi), Ameer Khan chose Hindu devotional verses like: “Jinke man Rama birajey” (Malkauns), “Jai maatey vilamba taja de” (Hansadhwani), and “Guru bina gyan na paoon” (Marwa). He also proposed the idea  that, in Persian, the supposedly meaningless consonants used in the Tarana form had a well-defined meaning, and represented the Sufi practice of attaining union with God by the repetitive chanting of simple lines of evocative poetry. To enhance the mystical elements in the poetry, Ameer Khan routinely inserted Persian Rubai-s (mystical poetry), in his Tarana renditions.

Relationship with the art

In a rare essay of his published in a paper under the auspices of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (Music – East & West, 1966) Ustad Ameer Khan wrote: “The poetry (of the Tarana) is always representative of the mystic school of poets. According to the mystic symbolism, the beloved is the almighty and the devotee is his lover. Thus the poetry of Tarana,  while maintaining a romantic flavor, is strictly spiritual in substance. The Ameer (Ameer Khusro, the 13th century poet-musician, believed to be the creator of the Tarana genre), himself a devotee of Khwaja Hazrat Nizam-ud-din Aulia, knew that music in India cannot be divorced from its spiritual import. Music is representative of the aspirations of a people; and the music of a people whose values are spiritual must be used as a means to communicate with Divine Spirit, and not merely to please the masses.”

On several occasions, Ustad Ameer Khan has said – “Music is that which emanates from the soul, and is received by the soul”. At the root of Ameer Khan’s musicianship was, clearly, the sanctity of his relationship with his art. This is why he represents, to this day, a peerless yardstick of  musicianship.

© Deepak S. Raja. 2011
Edited version of an essay published in the June, 2011 issue of SRUTI, the performing arts monthly from Chennai. 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Raga Gaud Malhar

Gaud Malhar is an immensely popular compound raga, derived from Gaud, a minor raga most frequently added as a subordinate melodic flavour to major ragas, and Malhar, a major raga associated with the rainy season. The raga was originally conceived as Gaud in the purvanga [lower tetrachord], and Malhar in the uttaranga [upper tetrachord]. Like many compound ragas, Gaud Malhar has defined its independent evolutionary path, giving rise to several versions of it being in circulation. In recent years, however, there has been a tendency towards the homogenisation and standardisation of the raga form.

The currently dominant version treats Gaud Malhar as a variant of Mian Ki Malhar, the principal raga of the Malhar group. Its hyper-heptatonic tone material [S R G M P D n N] replaces the komal [flat] Ga of Miya Ki Malhar with a shuddha [natural] Ga. The phraseology of the contemporary Gaud Malhar tends to follow Miya ki Malhar, while retaining some melodic features of Gaud, which were probably more prominent in earlier versions of the raga.

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

The raga is prescribed for performance in the three-hour period after noon. Authorities designate Ma as the vadi [primary dominant] and Sa as the samvadi [secondary dominant] swara of Gaud Malhar, and the uttaranga as the raga’s melodic centre of gravity. Traditional bandishes in the raga are found to have their mukhda-s terminating at Ma, Dh, or Re, or frequently even skimming through the phrase Dh-Ni-Sa.. On this evidence, and the evidence of the raga exposition as currently practised, contemporary practice does not consistently support the uttaranga bias of the raga appropriate to the Malhar group. Nor does it categorically establish the pivotal role of the designated vadi [Ma].

Deepak S. Raja
(c) India Archive Music, New York. Producers of the finest recordings of Raga Gaud Malhar. 

Kishori Amonkar : the queen of romanticism

Kishori Amonkar (born: 1931) is by far the most influential female Hindustani vocalist to emerge in independent India.  She is the daughter and disciple of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana stalwart, Mogubai Kurdikar, but acquires her stature from her originality as an interpreter of the gharana’s musical wisdom. She jettisoned the classicism of her gharana’s style in favor of a marked romanticism, braved criticism from conservative opinion and triumphed. As a result, her revisionist style has now come to signify Jaipur-Atrauli vocalism, while its orthodox stream drifts towards history.

Kishori is not only a formidable musician, but also the chief ideologue of the romanticist movement -- by the power of her intellect, erudition, and excellent articulation in at least three languages, including English. She is, incidentally, known to possess one of the finest private libraries on musicology and aesthetics. She holds audiences spellbound at seminars and conferences, as much as she does on the concert platform.

Kishori Amonkar has been decorated with awards befitting her stature by the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the President of India.

Romanticism in Hindustani vocalism

The first half of the 20th century saw the beginnings of romanticism, especially with Pandit Omkarnath Thakur (1897-1967), whose romanticism was not categorical. As a significant movement in Hindustani music, romanticism is essentially a post-independence phenomenon. Romanticism is happy to function within the limitations of the subject, while classicism attempts to transcend it. In classical music, it signifies a preference for explicitly endearing and evocative expression, along with relative indifference to the structural aspects of music.  Classicism is characterized by an aloofness which “passively” elicits a response from audiences, while romanticism adopts an intimacy which actively solicits it.

The emergence of romanticism in khayal vocalism was “logical” when it happened. By the 1950s, the specialist singers of the Benares thumree – the original romanticist genre – had almost disappeared from the scene. Khayal singers tried to satisfy the audience need for emotionally rich music by adding thumrees to their repertoire. At the same time, ghazal singers also began enriching the melodic content of their poetry-dominant romanticist genre in an effort to fill the vacuum. These trends shaped sterling individual contributions to the art of the thumree by khayal singers like Bade Gulam Ali Khan, and to the art of the ghazal by the likes of Begum Akhtar and later Mehdi Hassan. But, as a category, neither the khayal-style thumree, nor the thumree-style ghazal could fill the void created by the disappearance of the authentic Benares thumree.

The cultural environment was apparently amenable to vocalists with the courage to attempt something bolder. At such a time, the movement pushing the khayal into the thumree territory was triggered off by musicians who had the romanticist temperament, and the courage to carve out a new artistic path. Kishori Amonkar is amongst the rebels against the formal aloofness of the khayal, who gave romanticism a respectable place in Hindustani music. The other two, who did so successfully at about the same time (1970s) were Kumar Gandharva (1924-1992), and Jasraj (Born: 1930). Interestingly, all these pioneers of the romanticist khayal have been deeply involved with devotional music – an explicitly emotional genre – and none of them has shown any particular interest in the thumree, whose methods of musical expression they have incorporated into the khayal.

Childhood and grooming

Kishori was a musically talented child. When she was about 10 years old, her mother hired a music teacher to get her started. The teacher was distressed to find that Kishori’s voice was not sufficiently malleable, and expressed his views to the mother and daughter. This rebuke stung Kishori, and probably her mother too. From then on, Mogubai took charge of her daughter’s grooming. Simultaneously, Kishori was getting addicted to devotional and popular music. This produced in her a yearning to infuse the deep emotional appeal of popular music into classical music. By the time Kishori was 17, she was accompanying her mother on the stage, and being noticed for her exceptional talent as well as unorthodox inclinations.

While continuing to learn music, Kishori went through a normal childhood in formal education. She was a brilliant student, and was preparing for a career in medicine. She studied up to Intermediate Science at Jaihind College in Bombay, when an illness prevented her from taking her final examinations. Thereafter, she did not challenge destiny.

She tried her hand at playback singing with V Shantaram’s film, Geet Gaya Pattharon Ne. This turned out to be a dead-end street. Painful as the aborted bid must have been, neither Kishori Amonkar, nor Indian music lovers, are likely to regret it in retrospect.

Mogubai wanted Kishori to have a wider exposure to vocalist styles, and had her trained by several other musicians. Kishori thus studied, for various terms, with Anwar Hussain Khan of Agra gharana, Anjanibai Malpekar of Bhendi Bazar gharana, Sharadchandra Arolkar of Gwalior gharana, and Mohanrao Palekar.  Balkrishnabuwa Parwatkar, the stalwart of Goa, also apparently had a profound influence on the flowering of her musicianship.

When Kishori was about 25, she almost lost her voice. Neither modern medicine, nor traditional therapies helped. When she was losing all hope, Sardeshmukh Maharaj, a saint from Pune, promised to restore her voice. It took two years of treatment to achieve success. During these years, she had the time, and the loneliness, to reflect on life and her music and crystallize the emergence of a new musical personality. Since then, Sardeshmukh Maharaj has been her spiritual mentor, from who she has also acquired considerable knowledge of Ayurveda and astrology.

Kishori’s original style surfaced towards the end of the 1960s. From 1970, she ascended steadily to the top of the league of vocalists.


Commentators have often verged on poetry while describing Kishori Amonkar’s voice, and for good reason. Her voice has been described as piercing, hypnotic, mellifluous, full of painful melancholy, soul-searching, and as a beautiful amalgam of spirituality and worldly realism. Kishori’s is, in fact, an emotionally expressive and musically correct voice, ideally suited to the contemporary acoustic environment governed by electronic amplification and sound processing.

Kishori has made a departure from the elitist repertoire typical of orthodox Jaipur-Atrauli vocalists. While she may occasionally perform a rare raga like Khem, or complex raga-s like Basanti-Kedar, Khat, Adana-Malhar and Sampoorna Malkauns, the core of her music revolves around common and mature raga-s, which provide vast scope for improvisation. Not surprisingly, her interpretation of even the commonest raga-s can often be controversial. In tune with current trends, she has adopted raga-s like Hansadhwani, imported from the Carnatic tradition. This departure attunes her khayal repertoire to contemporary audiences, and keeps her music accessible.

Like her contemporaries, but unlike her gharana seniors, she has relied substantially on a vast repertoire of Bhajans in Hindi, Marathi, Kannada, and even Sanskrit, to carve out a special place for herself in the hearts of audiences. She continues her mother’s practice of performing tarana-s, a genre not encountered in orthodox Jaipur-Atrauli vocalism.

Ustad Alladiya Khan, the founder of the gharana’s style, had reportedly to sacrifice an elaborate alap because of the damage his voice suffered, and to keep melodic action focused largely on medium and high density rendition. Kesarbai partially restored the alap to the gharana’s vocalism. Kishori went farther and adopted the alap as the predominant movement of a khayal rendition. Her alap is different from that of any other gharana or musician. It has shed the subtle pulsation of Jaipur-Atrauli alaps, and almost liberated melody from rhythm. It may not always exhibit the sense of structure evident in conventional khayal alap-s but may, instead, project an impressionistic quality that is unique to her.

An important facet of Kishori’s vocalism is the shedding of the aloofness characteristic of the Jaipur-Atrauli style until her arrival. This needs to be understood. She broke away from the subtle, but persistent relationship between melody and rhythm. She smoothened the sharp edges of melody, and made them soft and silky. She shed the austere melodic practices of her seniors, and made her phrasing ornate and endearing. In a sense, she brought into khayal rendition a melodic approach that was hitherto considered appropriate in the thumree, and popular genres. In this process, she might even have changed the established character of a raga, and invited controversy. This is, of course, the essence of romanticism.

It was natural that a musician with so radical a vision should be dissatisfied with traditional pre-composed material (bandish-es) as a vehicle for her music. When she has performed traditional khayal bandish-es, she has interpreted them individualistically. But, she has also composed a large number of bandish-es which reflect her own interpretation of a raga, and her own melodic sensibility.

Kishori’s departure from her gharana’s stylistic orientations has been significant enough to be considered the launch of a new gharana. However, most commentators have confirmed her own position -- that her music emanates from the accumulated musical wisdom of Jaipur-Atrauli. They have also compared her to Bhimsen Joshi who, despite his revisionism, is considered an exponent of Kairana vocalism. Despite dissenters, and by the majority of informed opinion, Kishori is considered an exponent of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana. The debate is, however, futile once we accept that Kishori Amonkar has virtually become a fountainhead of a new gharana.

An important feature of her music -- which partly explains her awesome influence -- is her fastidious organisation of musical material. She is one of the very few vocalists who sings her alap-s in four distinct phases -- sthayi, antara, sanchari and abhog. All improvisatory movements are neatly in their place with never a blurred separation between them. This feature of her music imparts an unusual transparency to her aesthetic intent.

She has personally groomed two generations of competent disciples in her idiom. But, more significantly, her music is the primary inspiration for literally thousands of female vocalists who have studied it through her concerts, recordings and broadcasts. The scale on which she has influenced female vocalism of the post-independence generation is matched only by the following Ustad Ameer Khan (1912-1974) commands amongst today’s male vocalists.

In the case of Kishori as well as Ameer Khan, the key to their musicianship is the music making “process” that shapes the musical “product”. In today’s environment, the vast majority of their followers have access only to their “product”, and none to the “process”. It may be a sad commentary on the present-day musical culture that two of the most original vocalists of the 20th century are represented – frequently mimicked and occasionally even caricatured – largely by unoriginal vocalists.

Or is this lament entirely out of place, because stars like these are destined to shine forever in their solitary glory, with no satellite capable of reflecting their light?

(c) Deepak S. Raja 2011

Thus spake Kishori Amonkar 

“I believe in the Guru-Shishya parampara. I don’t believe in learning from texts or cassettes. Students now-a-days learn dead music. Learning from a Guru is live learning. It is learning with a soul. It is a give-and-take of souls. Our music is the fifth Veda. The Vedas teach you Bramha Vidya. You cannot learn that from a machine. If you go on contemplating and meditating upon the divine art, I am sure you will achieve the ultimate destination in your music – which is bramhan. I am trying to reach that… I want to gain moksha with my music. I will do anything to reach there in this life. I don’t want to be born again to do that.” (Interview with Lakshmi Viswanathan. December 03, 2000)

“We have given an entertainment value to music. Singing is different, practicing is different, performing is different. These are three different aspects of music. I give importance to singing. What is singing after all? It is talking to your soul. It is an inside communication with (who) you are. When performing, trying to throw (it) out, naturally it will diminish in value.” (Interview with Lakshmi Viswanathan. December 03, 2000)

“Music is not just about words and beats. It is also about the emotion behind the rendition. Words turn into music when emotions are woven into them. And, the notes – not just the basic seven, but the hundreds of other mini and micro-notes help to bring out the soul of a music composition”. (Source: Bhaskar Gupta.

“To express music faithfully, you have to be very intense. Unless you are intense within, you cannot perceive the feeling clearly. And, if you cannot perceive the abstract existence of a particular feeling, you will not be able to color the notes with that exact feeling… Every intensity has a very small space; a laser sharp focus It gets compressed and comes to a point where nothing but the truth remains. Art becomes simplified and condensed with the intensity of feeling. The beginning is not art, nor is the end – it is the thread linking the two that emerges as art, whether on canvas, or in stone… I ask my students to concentrate on the notes; practice on one note for hours together. It is like meditation; only instead of a mantra, you have a note. Unless you sing a note correctly, you cannot fathom its nature… In our shastras it is stated that every note has its own fragrance, color, form, and character. It has a home it originates from, and an abode as its final destination. The ancients had a high meditative level and they concentrated on a subject with single minded purpose. But, now the music that is taught is to produce public performers”. (From a seminar paper. Quoted from: The Great Masters: Mohan Nadkarni). 

“Formerly, my mehfil performance tacitly accepted the tonal picture enshrined in the traditional framework. But, after some time, I realized that listeners are more fond of music which touches their hearts than intellectually satisfying music. As I began to pursue tonal purity assiduously, I was also able to look at the entire world of tonality more closely… I surrendered myself completely to swara, not to the “swara chitra (melodic picture or design)… When one dives deep into the swara, one’s artistic presentation becomes more rounded, deeper and simultaneously, one’s egoism also begins to wane. Then, the quantity or frequency of ornamental work on one’s musical presentation automatically declines and with that the music becomes more profound.” (From an essay: “Myself in my own words” and “Music as a Medium”, Rudravani, Diwali issue 1977. quoted from “Between Two Tanpuras” by Vamanrao Deshpande)

“I am a purist, and will always try to remain one, in the sense that I will remain faithful to the feel of a raga. The generalized rules are of great help to beginners and also for the meticulous performer-musicologists. An artist of originality understands and delineates the raga according to his or her genius, which is probably the right thing to do.”( Quoted from: The Great Masters: by Mohan Nadkarni). 

The base of my music is still that of the Jaipur gharana. Jaipur gharana is like a mother to me. I may have given up some of the special features of that tradition, for instance, I have incorporated alapachari which that tradition does not recognize, and which is divorced from rhythm or I may have discarded the identity between laya and swara; but take away the Jaipur base from my music, and see how it collapses” (Interview given to Vinay Dhumale: Manus, Diwali, 1977 issue, quoted from “Between Two Tanpuras” by Vamanrao Deshpande)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Raga Bhatiyar

Raga Bhatiyar, also known as Bhatiyari (not to be confused with Bhatiyali, the folk genre of Bengal), is a popular raga prescribed for performance around dawn.  According to legend, the raga was composed by an ancient king, Raja Bhartruhari [200 AD]. Hence its name. There is, however, little evidence to support this claim to antiquity. The raga belongs to the Marwa parent scale, one of the ten scales under which ragas in the Hindustani system are classified.

The scale of this raga has to be documented expressing its zigzag phraseology.

Ascent: S D P D M/ P G/ M^ D S’
Descent: r’ N D P M/ P G r S

Bhatkhande [Bhatkhande Sangeet Shastra, Vol.III, 3rd edition, 1984, Sangeet Karyalaya, Hathras] observed in the early 20th century that alternative versions of this raga involving twin-Dh usage, and komal Dh usage were also in existence.  These variants appear to have gone out of circulation since then.

The Vishranti swaras  of the raga [terminal points for phrasing] are: S, M., P, D. [Subba Rao,B. Raga Nidhi, Vol.I, 4th Edition, 1996, Music Academy, Madras]. These focal points place the raga’s centre of melodic gravity in the mid-octave region, but tilting towards the upper tetrachord. The vadi and samvadi [primary and secondary dominants] are indeterminate. This is not uncommon amongst ragas whose melodic personalities are dominated by their phraseology more than tonal weightages.

Chalan: [Skeletal phraseology]: 
S D D P [or] S M M P/ P M/ P G / M^ D S’/ r’ N D P M  [or] S’ D P M / P G r S. 

Bhatiyar has the highest risk of confusion with Bhankhar, whose phraseology is distinct, and whose vadi swara is Pa. Musicians avoid this risk, such as it is, by according greater importance to Ma in Bhatiyar.

Bhatiyar is a raga of limited potential for improvisation. This is why Bada Khayal-s in this raga, when performed, will be considerably shorter than those in the "richer" raga-s. This is also why Madhya Laya khayal-s are more commonly encountered in this raga.

Those who are fond of this raga could look for recordings of Ustad Ameer Khan and Roshanara Begum -- the best I have heard.

Deepak S. Raja
(c) India Archive Music, New York, producers of the finest Bhatiyar recordings.