Friday, June 6, 2014

Raga Shuddha Chhaya: Elusive component of a popular compound

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. 


Dhondutai Kulkarni (1927-2014)

Dhondutai Kulkarni, the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana stalwart, refused to flow with the tide of populism, and consolidated her position as a zealous custodian of the gharana’s musical assets.  This meant accepting a marginal presence on the concert platform, a life devoted to teaching, and an ascetic lifestyle.

Sushri Dhondutai Kulkarni, the last exponent of orthodox Jaipur-Atrauli Khayal vocalism, breathed her last on May 31, 2014.  In the music community, she was known primarily as the sole disciple of the legendary Kesarbai Kerkar (1890-1977). This was factually correct, but only partially descriptive of her musical persona. Dhondutai was groomed by three other exponents of the style evolved by Ustad Alladiya Khan (1855-1946) Natthan Khan, Bhurji Khan, and Lakshmibai Jadhav – before she came under Kesarbai’s tutelage, and Azizuddin Khan thereafter.  In Dhondutai’s own assessment, Bhurji Khan was her primary trainer who had coached her to the level of a performing musician, and Kesarbai had been more like a sparring-mate polishing up her impact on the concert platform.

Against this background, with three of her five mentors being members of the founding family of the lineage, Dhondutai had the maximum imaginable access to the accumulated musical wisdom of her Gharana, as variously reflected in the musical temperaments of her mentors. From these mutually compatible influences, she forged an original musical statement and remained, after Kesarbai’s retirement, the most authoritative interpreter of the stylistic lineage.

The recognition of Dhondutai’s style as “orthodox” Jaipur Atrauli is important because, during Dhondutai’s own lifetime, Kishori Amonkar, her junior by a few years, and a product of the same lineage, had launched a revisionist interpretation of Jaipur Atrauli vocalism, which took female vocalism by storm. While orthodox Jaipur-Atrauli vocalism emphasized the majestic aloofness of its Dhrupad-Dhamar inspiration, its revisionist offshoot went headlong into a solicitous, endearing romanticism, inspired by the stylistics of the Thumree and popular genres. Amonkar replaced the elitist stance of orthodox Jaipur-Atrauli with a markedly populist stance and, not surprisingly, left the orthodoxy gasping for breath. Dhondutai refused to flow with the tide of populism, and consolidated her position as a zealous custodian of the gharana’s musical assets.  This meant accepting a marginal presence on the concert platform, a life devoted to teaching, and an ascetic lifestyle.

The hallmark of Dhondutai’s Jaipur-Atrauli legacy was a distinctive voice culture, which ensured continuity of the musical experience across the entire melodic canvas, and subtlety and complexity in all departments. Her treasure of Raga-s included a host of melodic entities which are rare. Many of these were compound Raga-s, whose names were familiar, but their melodic engineering was unique to the Jaipur-Atrauli lineage. Even in the performance of common Raga-s, her interpretation had the oblique – sometimes intriguing and even baffling -- quality typical of the lineage. Her melodic contours were devoid of angularities, and distinctive for their curvilinear form, moving in loops and spirals. In her musical expression, melody wrapped itself around the beats of the rhythmic cycle, giving it a subtle swing, which never became an explicit pulsation. The result was often an unexpected emphasis or elongation of some notes, which enhanced the enigmatic quality of the Raga form. The internal structure of each movement in her renditions kept changing all the time, thus avoiding repetitiveness and monotony.

Because of these features, orthodox Jaipur-Atrauli vocalism was considered highbrow. Elitism and aloofness embedded themselves as second nature in the conduct of Jaipur Atrauli musicians. An extreme manifestation of this was the musical persona of Kesarbai Kerkar. Its reflection in the persona of Dhondutai Kulkarni, however, never approached Kesarbai’s abrasiveness.  As a performing musician, Dhondutai would not bring her music down to the appreciation levels of her audiences; but she would make every effort to raise the level of appreciation of the audiences. In every concert I have heard, she would certainly include a rare or a compound raga, painstakingly explain its melodic structure, preface the Khayal rendition with an abnormally long alap, and ensure that the musical content of her performances was not met with bewilderment.

Through her broadcasts on All India Radio, Dhondutai enjoyed national stature as a vocalist for almost half a century. In the last two decades that I have known Dhondutai, her stage performances were infrequent. But, whenever they were held, every connoisseur in the city made sure that he was present. She was invited to perform and receive awards by some of the most influential cultural organizations in the country. Amongst her many awards were the Mallikarjun Mansur Award, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, and the Maharashtra Gaurav award.

Teaching provided her a livelihood; but her approach to it was missionary, and totally lacking the
Dhondutai Kulkarni with the author (2003)
commercialism of present-day musicians. She had benefitted from Kesarbai’s totally non-commercial decision to bequeath the lineage’s musical assets to her.  Dhondutai was motivated likewise to bequeath those assets to as many worthy recipients as possible. To her students, she often pointed out that they (her disciples) were fortunate that she had remained unmarried. Had she had her own children, she would have taught them – rather than her disciples – the crucial secrets of her art.  She also believed that, had she decided to start a family, she would never have been able to acquire the musical assets that she could accumulate by remaining a spinster. But, clearly, there was in her persona also a mother who could never be. To her disciples, tough and demanding as she could be as a teacher, she was everybody’s idea of a mother.

Dhondutai’s legacy of commercially distributed recordings is meager.  There exists a modest unpublished archive of her concert recordings, which awaits processing and dissemination. Her accomplishments as a Guru are more evident. The finest living products of her grooming are Manjari Vaishampayan, who performs and teaches in the US; Namita Devidayal, author of the celebrated book “The Music Room”, who unfortunately does not perform; and two youngsters who are currently making waves on the concert platform – Aditya Khandwe and Rutuja Lad.

Dhondutai bequeathed a substantial part of the lineage’s musical wisdom to a few recipients. Her training will remain the foundation of their musicianship. But, the music they sing will inevitably be shaped by their interaction with today’s audiences. Their talent and ingenuity will decide whether orthodox Jaipur-Atrauli vocalism survives Dhondutai, or gets swamped by the romanticist Tsunami that hit the Khayal coastline about four decades ago.  

 Deepak S. Raja

Friday, May 9, 2014

Musicologist... by an unorthodox route

In 1967, the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, made the mistake of giving me admission to the 2-year full-time MBA programme. There was no possibility of correcting that error. So, 45 years after I graduated, the institute decided to acknowledge similar mistakes by running a special feature on performing arts in the The IIMA Alumnus magazine. In the pages of this feature, I find myself in the distinguished company of people like Mallika Sarabhai. They asked me to recount my life in music. I am sharing here what I wrote.

By the time I joined IIM-A (age: 19), I had received about 12 years of training as a sitarist,  become a respectable performer, and also advanced substantially towards a respectable diploma in Hindustani music. I was at IIM because a performing career in music was an unacceptable risk, and an academic career in musicology looked unattractive.  But, music wasn’t going away anywhere.

After graduation, I continued to learn and practice the sitar, as I pursued careers in media research, business journalism, periodical publishing, and financial consultancy.  Between 1986 and 1992, I enjoyed a short stint as a performing musician, winning respect for my command over the instrument, and the soundness of my approach to music.

The performing life was heady, but not sustainable at my level of musicianship. The economics of it were absurd, and each concert demanded preparatory practice of at least six to eight hours a day for a whole month. Besides, I wasn’t anybody’s idea of a future Ravi Shankar or Vilayat Khan. So, it made sense to seek a less insecure place for myself in the music world. 

The opening came in the early 1990’s in the form of an invitation from the late Mr. N Pattabhiraman, Editor of SRUTI magazine, to contribute critical essays on Hindustani music. Thus was launched my career as a musicologist.  Around the same time, India Archive Music Ltd. (IAM), a New York based specialist producer of Hindustani music, commissioned me to write musicological commentaries on CDs produced by them. Between 1995 and 2004, I wrote commentaries of 8000-10,000 words each for over a 100 of their CDs. The commentaries helped IAM emerge as the most successful and influential producer of Hindustani music outside India.

By 2004, SRUTI had published perhaps fifteen of my critical essays, and IAM had received over a million words of commentary written by me. The SRUTI Editors, and the owners of India Archive Music encouraged me to recast the knowledge-base I had created in the form of books. The manuscript of my first book “Hindustani Music – a tradition in transition” was accepted by DK Printworld, New Delhi and published in January 2005. Then came “Khayal Vocalism – Continuity within change” in 2009, and “Hindustani Music Today” in 2012.  My fourth book “The Raga-ness of Raga-s” is scheduled for release by June-July 2014. The fifth book, written partially under a Senior Research Fellowship of the Ministry of culture, Government of India, is likely to be published by end-2015.

Not having trained as a musicologist, I could never address the academic community in a language that it respected. My stance, as a writer on music, could only be that of a serious student of music – at best a connoisseur -- sharing his understanding of the tradition with other seekers of knowledge and insight.  Despite this, it appears that the content and style of my writings have come to appeal -- in varying degrees -- to both these segments. Access to connoisseurs is the more gratifying of the two because they engage actively with the performing tradition, and are a part of the quality control mechanism that regulates the art.

By any financial yardstick, music has been a loss-making department of life. This seems a small price to pay for the credit side, which is unquantifiable… and priceless.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Raga Lalit: Tonal geometry and melodic mischief

Lalit is amongst the older and more popular ragas of the Hindustani system. It bears a close resemblance to raga Lalitha of the Carnatic system. The two ragas are considered manifestations of the same traditional melodic idea.

Lalit (also called Lalat) is a hexatonic raga prescribed for performance in the pre-sunrise hours. In the contemporary context, it has found a niche for itself in the three-hour period after sunrise. Some musicological texts approve of this timing. The melodic contours of the raga have also changed during this century. Its older form is still in occasional practice. Its popular contemporary form is, however, most relevant for present day listeners. (swara material:S r G M M^ d N).

The melodic personality of Lalit is dominated by the rare, probably unique, use of the two Ma swara-s (shuddha and tivra). Lalit features the use of the two Ma swara-s  sequentially in the ascent as well as the descent. This is an exception to the general rule for ragas using both pitches of any swara (natural and flat or natural and sharp). In such cases of twin-swara usage, the the general rule is that the raga is permitted to use only one of the two in the ascent, the other being used in the descent. Their sequential use in either direction is generally considered improper. The importance of this feature of Lalit is enhanced by the fact that the shuddha (natural) Ma is the vadi-swara, the pivotal around which the raga revolves.

In its predominant contemporary form, Lalit uses flat (komal) swara for Dh. Bhatkhande,, writing in the 1930's considered the natural (Shuddha) Dh swara as proper for Lalit, while acknowledging that the flat (Komal) Dh usage also had textual validation. He also recognized that, because of the dominance of twin-Ma usage in the melodic personality of the raga, the choice of either of the alternative Dh swara-s does not materially influence the distinctive Lalit effect.(Bhatkhande Sangeet Shastra Vol.III Ed.LN Garg, Sangeet Karyalaya, Hathras, Third Hindi edition, 1984.Pg.304-321),

Bhatkhande described Lalit as uttaranga-pradhan, a raga whose center of gravity is in the upper tetrachord. Bhatkhande might now be obsolete with respect to this description. Traditional and modern compositions, considered collectively, betray the compelling grip of the twin-Ma usage in the mid-octave region over the composer's mind. The raga may now be more appropriately classified as madhyanga-pradhan.

Lalit has two facets to its personality: the geometric, and the melodic. Bhatkhande provides the basic clue to both these facets. He recommends treating the scale, notionally, as a two-part, discontinuous scale, split between the two Ma swara-s, with Shuddha Ma on one side, and the tivra on the other. This gives you S-r-G-M and M^-d-N-S.

This division does not yield symmetrical or congruent units. To achieve this balance, the scale gets redefined,  for phraseological purposes, in first-fifth correspondence: N.-r-G-M and M^-d-N-S'. These divisions, considered separately but in correspondence, provide the acoustic basis for the geometry. Lalit releases its distinctive fragrance by treating these scale divisions as discontinuous, and in fusing them together. The welding takes place between the Shuddha and tivra Ma swara-s, with the support of either Ga below or Dh above. This joinery gives the raga its defining, and unique, melodic personality.

The raga has a third, but unintended, facet, which can surface due to the inept or mischievous handling of the dominance of the shuddha (natural) Ma in the raga. With excessive or inattentive improvisation around shuddha Ma, it is easy to create an aural illusion of Ma as the scale-base. The results can be quaint.

If Ma becomes, even momentarily, the notional scale base in the listener's mind, Lalit starts sounding like Todi. Interestingly, one significant gharana of vocal music explicitly teaches Lalit as Todi sung to scale-base at Ma, and does so without ridiculous results.

Lalit phrasing: G M d M^ M
Todi illusion:  N S g r  S

Lalit phrasing: N  d M^ d M^ M
Todi illusion:  M^ g r  g r  S

Lalit phrasing: r' N  d M^ d M^ M
Todi illusion : d  M^ g r  g r  S

Orthodox musicians calculatedly avoid such risks. Contemporary musicians occasionally take delight in the raga's potential for mischief, allowing the illusion to persist for a while before restoring the relationship of the phrasing to base-Sa.

The Ma/Sa confusion is relevant also to the tuning of instruments. Because Lalit does not use the Pa swara, vocalists tune their tanpuras to Ma-Sa-Sa-Sa. If Ma replaces the Sa as the scale-base in the listener's mind, the Sa on the tanpura begins to sound like Pa, which is forbidden in the raga. The danger of such slippage is generally negligible in sitar and the sarod music, where the second string and the chikaris, tuned to Sa do not allow the scale-base to relent for any significant duration.

The chalan (distinctive phraseology) provides the defining contours of the raga's melodic personality. The scale divisions permit the improvisational process to explore its potential for symmetric, geometric as well kaleidoscopic tonal patterns. And, the Ma/Sa double-entendre makes the raga pregnant with an element of wit. Lalit is thus rich in musical potential.

Bhatkhande has described Lalit as a raga of serious temperament. The standard Lalit of his times uses Shuddha Dh, and omits Ni in the ascent (M^-D-S'). The contemporary Lalit uses komal Dh, and permits the ascent to use Ni (M^-d-N-S') without prohibiting the traditional ascent (M^-d-S'). With this change, the raga has shed some of its robust quality, but sharpened its poignancy. 

The seriousness of the original Lalit has now tilted towards pathos. To appreciate this, we merely need to observe what the "Lalit effect" does when blended with raga Gauri in Lalita-Gauri and when dovetailed to Sohini in Lalita-Sohini. It makes them weep.

(c) India Archive Music, New York. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

Seasonal raga-s in Hindustani music

Musicologist, Prof. Ashok Ranade often observed that Hindustani music is deeply engaged with the three major cycles affecting human life – the cycle of birth and death, the cycle of day and night, and the cycle of the four seasons. While specific Raga-s are not associated with birth and death, the tradition does prescribe the appropriate time of the day/ night for the performance of most, if not all, Raga-s, and also features several seasonal Raga-s. 

The seasonal perspective on Raga-s is a distinctly North Indian perspective not shared currently by the Carnatic tradition, and for probably understandable reasons. Being closer to the equator, the Southern Peninsula does not experience as dramatic a change in the physical environment through the year as does the Northern heartland. 

As matter of academic interest, the Hindu calendar divides the year into six distinct seasons, and the tradition appears to have prescribed Raga-s for performance in each of these seasons. 

Manasollasa, a treatise written by Someshwara (1131 AD) provides insights into this dimension of musicological thought.

1. Spring (months: Chaitra and Vaisakha): Raga Vasanta/ its Ragini-s 
2. Summer (months: Jyeshtha and Ashadha): Raga Bhairava/ its Ragini-s
3. Monsoons (months: Shravana and Bhadrapada): Raga Megh/ its Ragini-s. 
4. Autumn (months: Ashwin and Kartika): Raga Panchama/ its Ragini-s
5. Early winter (months: Margashirsha and Paush): Raga Natanarayana/ its Ragini-s. 
6. Deep winter (months: Magha and Phalguna): Raga Shree/its Ragini-s

(From: Semiosis in Hindustani Music, Jose Luiz Martinez, First edition, 2001, Motilal Banarsidass, New Delhi)

While the scholarly tradition supports a wide scope for seasonal Raga-s, the enthusiasm of the performing tradition has been limited largely to Vasanta (spring) and Varsha (rainy season/ the monsoons).  There seems to be a good reason for this bias. 

In the climatic experience of Northern India, spring and the monsoons have special significance.  Spring brings relief from the severity of Northern winters, while the monsoons bring relief from the oppressive heat of the Northern summer. Both seasons signify nature rejuvenating itself. Understandably, therefore, the popular seasonal Raga-s are associated primarily with these seasons. 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Becoming familiar with the genres

When exposed to Hindustani music, the novice listener needs to figure out what is going on.  The answer to this query depends on the genre in which the music is being performed. Each genre has a different way of manifesting the Raga (the Commanding Form) as a communicable Form.  These different “ways” are represented in the pre-composed element of Raga rendition, along with the different improvisatory movements hosted by each genre. And, indeed, each musician also has a different approach to deploying the genre for delivering the Raga to his listeners in communicable form.

The principal genres on the contemporary scene are Khayal vocalism, Dhrupad (vocal and instrumental), and the modern genre of the plucked string instruments, heard mainly on the Sitar, Sarod, the Hawaiian guitar and the Santoor. 

The first step, then: Assemble ten recordings of Khayal vocalism, each of a different Raga, performed by different musicians. Listen to each recording several times over. Your musical mind will identify for you what is common to all the recordings, isolated from the influence of the different Raga-s and different musicians performing them. That, which is common to all these recordings, is the architecture of the Khayal genre.

The second step.  Assemble ten recordings of Dhrupad – vocal and Rudra Veena -- each featuring a different Raga, and performed preferably by different musicians. Listen to each recording several times over. Your musical mind will identify for you what is common to all the recordings, isolated from the influence of the different Raga-s and different musicians performing them. That, which is common to all these recordings, is the architecture of the Dhrupad genre.

The third step: Assemble ten recordings of instrumental music on the major string instruments – Sitar, Sarod, Hawaiian guitar, and Santoor. They should all be of different Ragas, preferably performed by different musicians.  Listen to each recording several times over. Your musical mind will identify for you what is common to all the recordings, isolated from the influence of the different Raga-s and different musicians performing them. That, which is common to all these recordings, is the architecture of the modern instrumental genre of the plucked string instruments.

Once you start anticipating the movements typical of each genre while listening to a concert -- any concert -- you have made decent progress towards becoming a connoisseur. This does not mean there will be no surprises. But, being able to identify them will itself be a source of delight. 

Understanding the Raga

An aspirant to the appreciation of Hindustani music will generally start with two questions in his mind: What is a Raga? And, how do I differentiate one Raga from another?

What is a Raga? A renowned music critic once observed that writing about music was as useful as dancing about architecture. So, critics and musicologists have their limitations as cultivators of public taste.  There are as many definitions of the Raga as there are authors on the subject. None of them is a substitute for direct encounters with Raga-ness.

How do I differentiate one Raga from another? Once a listener gets a reasonable grip on what a Raga is, the differentiation of one Raga from another becomes possible through exposures to multiple Ragas.

The first step, then:  Take any one Raga.  Start with a simple Raga, like Malkauns. Go out and get ten recordings of the Raga by ten different musicians performing the same Raga, preferably in different genres. A few in Khayal vocalism. A few in instrumental music.  A few in Dhrupad or Dhamar. Listen to each recording several times. Your musical mind will begin to identify what is common to all the recordings. And that, which is common to all of them, is the Raga-ness of Malkauns.

Second step:  Now, take another Raga, an allied Raga like Chandrakauns.  In this Raga, you could find Khayal, instrumental, Dhrupad, and even Ghazal recordings. Repeat the same procedure as followed for Malkauns. Your musical mind will now identify the Raga-ness of Chandrakauns. In addition, it will tell you how the Raga-ness of Malkauns differs from that of Chandrakauns.  These differentiators are what constitutes the Raga-ness of Ragas. 

If such a procedure is repeated across several Raga-s – whether purposively or otherwise -- your musical mind will also identify the dimensions of Raga-ness: the various attributes by which Raga-s are distinguished from one another.  And, from this point on, you have taken an important step towards becoming a connoisseur. 

Appreciating Hindustani music

The joys of any art grow with the awareness of its governing principles. This is true also of Hindustani music.

A Hindustani musician  shapes his rendition under the discipline of two governing forms. The first is the Raga which constitutes its “Commanding Form”. But, though the Raga is a definitive and recognizable form, it is a “formless Form” in the sense of not being a composition. It  manifests itself in  communicable form through the appropriately sequenced movements (the architecture) of the second regulatory form – the genre in which it is performed. 

A connoisseur of Hindustani music has intimate knowledge of both these forms – the Commanding Form and the Manifest Form. Through an understanding of these two, he is able to gain insights into the individualistic manner in which the Commanding Form has been visualized by the musician for communication. It is these insights that are the source of his delight in the exposure to Hindustani music, and differentiate him from the average music lover.

The aspirant to the status of a connoisseur needs therefore to cultivate his understanding of two facets of the tradition -- Raga-ness as the principle of aesthetically coherent and emotionally suggestive creation, and of the various genres, as the principle for the organisation of musical material. Neither of these facets is satisfactorily understood by reading books on music.  They may be partially understood by undergoing a decade or two of training in music under a competent Guru.  For those who do not have this benefit, but have the sharp ears and cultivated mind as the basic equipment, appreciation can be cultivated by an intensive and extensive exposure to performances and recordings.