Monday, June 15, 2020

The Ragascape of Hindustani Music: IV

Instrumental music and the Ragascape

In the post-independence era, the re-engineering of older instruments, the entry of newer instruments, developments in sound engineering and outstanding musicianship are believed to have helped instrumental music challenge vocalism in terms of popularity, if not also stature. Dr. Ashok Ranade, the eminent musicologist, believed that the major instruments have, by now, developed their own distinctive languages for communicating the Raga experience, and no longer require vocal music as a reference point for the validation of their idiom. The results of this study would advocate a cautious stance on this matter.

Audience Engagement Indicators are reported separately (Table 1 in Part I) for vocal music and instrumental music, along with the composite rating for two modes of presentation for each of the 97 Raga-s. A correlation run on the two series establishes that the vocal music rating (Coefficient: 0.94) is a more categorical determinant of the composite rating than the instrumental music rating (Coefficient: 0.85). This pattern does not suggest the ascendency of instrumental music over vocal music in the musical culture.

The gross numbers do, indeed, exhibit a bias in favor of instrumental music. But, this bias is easily explained by the large constituency Hindustani music has cultivated abroad since the mid-1960s. Although this constituency does have some interest in vocalism through the Dhrupad genre, it is primarily attuned to instrumental music. This difference can, sometimes, show up dramatically in YouTube numbers and distort our perceptions of the reality.

Graph 2 plots the Views  /month for instrumental music and vocal music for each of the 97 Raga-s in descending order of the composite rating score. The plot shows moderate correlation (Coefficient of correlation: 0.66) between the two data series. The distorting instrumental music data-points (outliers) can be seen at the higher end of the audience engagement continuum.

Is the foreign constituency of Hindustani music large enough to misinform our interpretation of YouTube viewership?  We do not have figures from YouTube. But, as indicative data, I have country-wise statistics of readership generated over 12 years for my blog The blog has registered a total of 800,000 page views from the date of inception to the present (May 15, 2020). Of these, 400,000 page views originated from USA, and only 200,000 page views originated in India. It is significant that 75% of my page views have originated outside India, and that USA accounts for as much as 50% of the page views on my blog.

Though YouTube and my blog are not comparable, the logic of the numbers remains. Indian audiences being outnumbered by foreign audiences (including overseas Indian citizens) seems understandable in the present context. Internet penetration in the US is much higher than in India, and Hindustani music enthusiasts outside India would need to depend much more on online sources for their needs than Indian audiences would. This reality can possibly explain some of the counter-intuitive indications emerging from this study.

... Continued in Part V

The Ragascape of Hindustani Music: III

A contextual perspective on ratings

Musicians select their repertoire for concerts based on certain contextual considerations.  It therefore makes sense to view the results of this study in that perspective. The classification attempts to follow contemporary practice (more than any theoretical construct), and is admittedly debatable.

The rating scores reported here are aggregates for each of the groups. The classified ratings of the 97 Raga-s are reported in Table 3.

The early morning group shows a substantially lower instrumental music score than the vocal music score. This is interesting, as early morning Raga-s are mostly associated with the devotional sentiment. The human voice may understandably be perceived in the culture as a more appropriate expression of this sentiment than an acoustic machine.

The instrumental/vocal music ratio rises steadily after the early morning segment to reach its peak with the late night group of Raga-s. The pattern is interesting, though not sufficiently strong to be considered a phenomenon.

The Thumree group, shown to lead this table, is so called because the Raga-s in that group are encountered largely, though not exclusively, in the romanticist genres – Thumree, Dadra, Hori, Tappa etc. Membership of this group includes Raga-s like Bhairavi, Khamaj, Kafi, Gara, Piloo, Pahadi. These Raga-s are versatile because of their malleable grammar and melodic lyricism. This group is rated generously because it covers three components – actual Thumrees performed by vocalists, instrumental renditions of Thumrees and allied genres, and classicist presentation of “Thumree” Raga-s by vocalists and instrumentalists.  The emergence of this group at the top may suggest, that the present-day musical culture relates more readily to the vivacious flavors of Hindustani music than to its other moods.

Raga groups at the bottom of the ranking – Early morning and Sunset Raga-s – appear to be telling the same story, though in a different way. Early morning Raga-s are mainly of the Bhairav and Todi families, while the Sunset Raga-s are mainly of the Puriya/ Purvi group. Both periods are earmarked by tradition for religious/ devotional activity, and the prescribed Raga-s possess melodic features suggestive of piety. Our study pushes them to the bottom to suggest that the present-day musical culture has little interest in solemnity.

The moderate-to-high rating in the late evening and night groups are as expected. A vast majority of concerts are held during these periods, thus making for a wider spectrum of familiarity amongst audiences. The choice of Raga-s for performance during these periods is also vast, thus creating an equitable distribution of audience involvement within the category.

Predictably, the comfort level with Carnatic Raga-s in their Hindustani manifestations is uneven. The classification of Raga-s within this group relied on the authority of Raga Nidhi (B. Subbarao, Music Academy, Madras). Hansadhwani (1782 rating points), Keerwani (874 rating points) and Charukeshi (448 rating points) appear to have, by now, evolved a convincing interpretation in Hindustani music. Others, imported more recently, may either take longer to achieve this, or fade away.  

... Continued in Part IV

The Ragascape of Hindustani Music: II

Patterns in Audience Engagement

Table 1 presents the list of the 97 considered Raga-s in descending order of views per month (the audience engagement indicator). The indicators were also computed separately for vocal music and instrumental/ orchestral music.

The composite Audience Engagement Indicator across 97 Raga-s is 526 views per month, incorporating a vocal music score of 462 and an instrumental/orchestral music score of 645 views per month. The composite scores range from 13 views per month (Raga Jaitashree) at the lower end to 3475 views per month (Raga Bhairavi) at the upper end.

The higher aggregate rating for instrumental music can be misleading because the figures are distorted by a few extreme outliers related to events abroad.  A more realistic picture is obtained through a correlation run on the two series. It is clear that vocal music supports the composite rating of individual Raga-s more categorically than instrumental music. (The vocal music rating has a 0.94 coefficient of correlation with the composite rating, while the instrumental music rating has a correlation of 0.85.)

Composite Rating of Raga-s
 Audience Engagement Indicators for the 97 Raga-s yield a median value of 272 views per month, against an aggregate score of 526. Graph 1 displays the frequency distribution of the 97 scores, presented at intervals of 200 points.

 This is a highly skewed distribution. Interpreting such distributions can get quite complicated.  To keep things simple, we may use popular measures such as mean (490) and standard deviation (608). One simplistic (and scientifically questionable) interpretation would be a cut-off point at 1098 (Mean + Standard Deviation). This cut-off point would leave us with 11 “Prasiddha” Raga-s out of 97 Raga-s. A different, but “common sense”, view can permit a cut-off point at the mean (490). This point would give us with 28 Raga-s with “above-average” audience engagement indicators, and bring us closer to the Bhatkhande ratio.  

This “cut-off point” approach is, of course, unfaithful to the reality. In the real world, Raga-s have no appeal independently of the musician. Musicians shape Raga-s as much as Raga-s shape music. Time and again, it is proven that the comfort zone boundaries of audiences cannot resist the power of musicianship. Why, then, do we mention such a simplistic notion? We do so because musicians find its simplicity more appealing than the calibrated approaches of academics, and because it does not weaken our basic argument.  
This “above average” 28-Raga “Blue Chip” list would also fit neatly into a conventional analytical concept – “Share of views” (unadjusted for the duration since upload). Table 2 compares the duration adjusted views (views per month) for each Raga with the percentage share of gross views as accumulated up to the date of audit for the top 28 Raga-s reporting an above-average audience engagement indicator. The Table shows the two columns of ranking, representing two different approaches to the measurement of audience engagement, running almost parallel in terms of relative values. The cumulative share column in Table 2 suggests that these 28 Raga-s together account for over 70% of all views logged for the 97 Raga-s.

These results can be broadly interpreted as saying that 30% of the Raga-s account for 70% of audience engagement, while the remaining 70% of the Raga-s collectively account for only 30% of audience engagement.

The five Raga-s at the top of the rating have been widely heard in popular, semi-classical, and film music for as long as any living person can remember. This is a useful reminder that Raga-s are not the exclusive property of classical music. The dividing line we often draw between different categories of music (classical/ popular/ devotional/ martial etc.) is an academic construct. Raga-s reside in the racial memory, and are accessible to anyone seeking them. The Ragascape is shaped by all categories of music and, in turn, shapes all categories of music, though in different ways.

On close scrutiny, the 28 Raga-s in Table 2 reads like a sensible prescription of “standard repertoire” for a professional musician. The selection is well distributed across the various segments – Early morning (2), Late morning/ afternoon (7), Sunset group (2), Late evening group (7), Night group (2),  Thumree Raga-s group (4), Seasonal group (2) and Carnatic group (2).

The Raga-s at the bottom of the heap (Table 1. Rank 77 through 97) also reveal a fairly even distribution across categories. Early morning (4), Late morning/ afternoon (3), Sunset Raga-s (2), Late evening (4), Night Raga-s (1), Thumree Raga-s (2), Seasonal Raga-s (2) and Carnatic Raga-s (2).

It is natural for any curious mind to ask – what factors determine the rank each of these 97 Raga-s hold in the present output? The study is not designed to answer this question. What we have here is an audience engagement indicator as derived at the time of the study.  The resultant ranking is useful today and, perhaps in the immediate future. We know it is volatile; but we do not know how volatile.  

A Shrinking Ragascape?
These results tend to confirm the belief that the contemporary Ragascape is fairly narrow, with perhaps just about 50 Raga-s accounting for almost all performances, across all media.  It also supports the suspicion that enviable careers can be built relying on a repertoire of 12/15 Raga-s.  

One can argue that a narrow Ragascape enables musicians to aim for progressively greater depth in the exploration of a few Raga-s, in preference to achieving only a superficial treatment of a wider repertoire. This sounds reasonable if we are referring to a single musician’s career strategy/ choice. But, the argument loses traction if it tries defending a collective phenomenon – such as we have identified here. If audiences are being fed constantly on re-packaged doses of the familiar, they will tend to become indifferent – if not actually averse – to novelty/ variety. When this happens, musicians lose interest in enlarging their artistic resources. The natural consequence is the atrophy of imaginative capabilities. An imagination deficit is the surest path to artistic sterility. More fundamentally, then, who needs classical music?

We cannot ascertain whether the Ragascapes of the past were wider than they are today, or narrower. On reasonable reckoning, a shrinkage began in the 1960s, when All India Radio began to withdraw from its role as the dominant purveyor of   Hindustani music, leaving the recording companies free to fill the vacuum. The Long Playing record and subsequent storage media innovations – providing concert length recordings -- made this usurpation easy. Volume-driven strategies of the recording companies lead them to concentrate their resources on star musicians. Fewer musicians on the market meant fewer Raga-s in circulation. As a result, five decades later, we have two generations of audiences (and also musicians?) whose comfort zone may not exceed 30-40 Raga-s.

YouTube and other online repositories may alter this picture in the future because they appear to attract a growing diversity of content to achieve their commercial goals. But, we cannot be sure.  The evolution of these platforms is being guided by sophisticated Machine Learning applications designed for maximizing profitability globally. Even the designers of these AI systems cannot foresee how their systems will shape music across cultural boundaries.

The Top 28 ranked Raga-s.

... Continued in Part III

The Ragascape of Hindustani Music: I

About a hundred years ago, VN Bhatkhande published compositions in 181 Raga-s, of which he described 45 as being “Prasiddha”. The remaining were classified as “Aprasiddha”. This classification is often mentioned in contemporary musicological discourse, along with an unstated question: If a similar classification were to be attempted today, what kind of numbers would it yield? This question inspires this enquiry.

Bhatkhande was a Sanskrit scholar. What precisely did he mean? He did not use “Prakhyat” (प्रख्यात) = famous. He did not use “Prachalit” (प्रचलित) = common/ popular. He did not use “Pratishthit” (प्रतिष्ठित)= respected/ elitist. He used “Prasiddha” (प्रसिद्ध), derived from the Sanskrit “Siddha” (सिद्ध्) = established/ proven. “Prasiddha” carries all the connotations of the candidate words not used, but elevates the issue to a different level. The “Siddha” quality here has two angles – of mastery by performers, and of being proven to listeners. It denotes fame attained through proven excellence/ mastery, and wide acceptance/ endorsement by public opinion. In the present context, therefore, Bhatkhande’s notion of “Prasiddha Raga-s” may be interpreted as Raga-s established in the musical culture on account of accomplishments (of musicians, in performance), and their widespread acceptance by listeners.

To arrive at his assessment, Bhatkhande interacted extensively and intensively with musicians and other influentials, such as scholars and patrons, across the country for several decades. His was the most authoritative assessment that could have been made of his times. But, by today’s standards, the music world he surveyed was small, and uncomplicated. Today’s Hindustani music is a vibrant sub-culture -- larger, more complex, more diverse, and connected by a more transparent web of self-interest amongst its participants. It neither asks simple questions, nor accepts simplistic answers.

Today’s professional musician is a service-provider in the market for Raga-based music. He has a well-developed notion of “career strategy”. The strategy accounts for the repertoire in which he has a high level of performing competence. But his “command repertoire” does not necessarily ensure professional success.  His success also depends on the receptivity of the contemporary Ragascape – the set of Raga-s within the “comfort zone” of contemporary audiences.

The idea of a Ragascape connects with the notion that Raga-s are archetypal entities residing in the racial memory as distinct banks of musical ideas, each associated with a particular region of the community’s emotional life. Musicians draw upon these banks to relate meaningfully to their audiences and, while doing so, also contribute new ideas to these banks. Raga-s drift in and out of circulation and public consciousness through community-wide recalling and forgetting. Conceptually, then, the Ragascape of an era is comprised of Raga-s whose ideational banks are being actively/ frequently/ constantly tapped and replenished in the present.

Veteran observers of the music scene have noted that, from a universe of possibly 1000+ documented Raga-s in Hindustani music, not more than a 100 are “in circulation” at any given time – say, a generation understood as 30 years. There is also considerable agreement that, of these 100, perhaps just about 50 Raga-s account for the vast majority of performances across all media. If informed-jury estimates are to be believed, 50 to 100 Raga-s may be sufficient to paint the Ragascape of any era.  

Whatever the truth, it has to connect with the reality of the musician being an economic being.  Throughout his career, he explores and cultivates a “goodness of fit” between his artistic resources and public receptivity through some awareness of contemporary trends. If he has the makings of an epochal musician, say of an Ameer Khan, Alladiya Khan, or a Faiyyaz Khan, he may actually alter the Ragascape. But, even these worthies had to reckon with the Ragascape of the era, before they began to alter it. They obviously did some good, even if informal, “market research”. Their kind of research can now be a little more “formal”.

The Ragascape idea also impinges upon the grooming of aspirants for careers in classical music. Individual Gurus and educational institutions impart skills either without utilitarian considerations, or without organized knowledge of the Ragascape in which their wards will seek a career. With even imprecise information, educators can enhance the value of their training. It is, of course, true that the worldview of the active Guru-s (and teaching institutions) in each generation will collectively shape the Ragascape through what is taught and how. But, this is a two-way process. For every musician, the Ragascape is a “given” reality, which also permits him to enrich or alter it.  

The dynamics of the Ragascape are surely of interest to musicologists. Raga-s drift into, and out of, the Ragascape in response to changes in aesthetic values, and the changing profiles of musicians and audiences. Every Raga has its distinctive personality and performing stance. Every Raga entering or exiting the Ragascape says something about society and its expectations from classical music. Such clues are mostly encountered without being sought, and deserve more than a glance from scholars.

The challenge, then, is to devise a methodology for mapping the Ragascape to provide useful insights to the various participants in the Hindustani music ecosystem.

The contemporary Ragascape is the cumulative product of Raga-s performed with distinction by several generations of musicians working with a multiplicity of Raga-based, (and even Raga-neutral) genres, and delivered to audiences through a variety of personal and impersonal media. Mapping such an activity involves musicians and audiences scattered all over the world. This is a formidable task for which neither the methodology, nor the funding, can be envisaged. One may, therefore, consider existing data sources that can yield workable, though not authoritative, insights.

This study draws on public-domain information on YouTube viewership to extract some insights that may be helpful to the classical music community. YouTube data is increasingly being used for musicological research, while its value remains a subject of academic debate. There are good reasons to utilize the data prudently, and with an awareness of its limitations. Appropriately, then, the numerical outputs are to be interpreted as “Orders of magnitude” rather than categorical measures of what is being specifically measured. The limitations of using YouTube data have been discussed in detail at the end of this study.

The data used here for computing the Audience Engagement index of Raga-s was capable of yielding a few additional insights. Such leads have been pursued to the extent the data would permit.

YouTube as data source
YouTube is, by now, the largest open-access repository of Hindustani music, hosting recordings going back to the earliest years of sound recording. It appears to have replaced every other access to Hindustani music – other than, possibly, a live concert. But, increasingly, any significant (or even insignificant) contemporary concert or recording taking place in any part of the Hindustani music world, finds its way to YouTube before long. YouTube may now be considered more than merely “representative” of contemporary Hindustani music – it could possibly qualify as the primary platform. The long-term/ cultural implications of this phenomenon need not concern us here. It suffices to acknowledge that YouTube audience measurement numbers can be treated with respect.

Could the flood of live Hindustani concerts on Facebook during the global pandemic shut-downs (April-May-June 2020) have diluted YouTube’s status as the dominant music platform? There is enough reason to believe that, fundamentally, nothing has either changed or is likely to change. However, it is safest to state that we do not know; or that it is too early to judge. In any event, this present study is insulated against even a temporary disturbance on this account. The research database was compiled between March 25 and April 5, 2020, before Facebook became an online auditorium.

YouTube remains a viable business by selling advertising exposure. In order to maximize advertising value, it operates a sophisticated system of managing viewer behavior. The system uses internally generated information and navigation prompts to guide users into spending the maximum possible time on YouTube. The same system provides advertisers with reach and impact data on the content to establish its advertising value. Except perhaps under special arrangements, the analytics generated by YouTube are not available to researchers outside its circle of commercially valuable users.

The data available publicly on screen is all we have. We have (i) the date of upload, and we have (ii) the total viewership from the upload date till the day we are looking at the numbers. This study draws on these fragments of information for pursuing its query.  

 The Audience Engagement Indicator
The Raga-s considered for rating for audience engagement were selected by merging the under-graduate and post-graduate syllabi of the major universities and examining institutions involved in Hindustani music. This framework was valuable as an indicator of organized activity aimed at preserving their character, and keeping them “in circulation”.

The computation of the Audience Engagement Indicator is based on the belief that Hindustani music is a highly individualistic art, and hence audience loyalties/ preferences are centered upon individual musicians rather than around Raga-s. Isolating Raga-specific engagement from viewership measures needs mountains of data and some arithmetic. The objective is substantially achieved by aggregating the metrics of videos of the same Raga performed by a large number of musicians across various genres of music, performing in various contexts, across diverse geographies. A total isolation of the Raga effect from the musician effect is neither possible, nor necessary. Musicians shape Raga-s, as much as Raga-s shape music.

The arithmetic is simple. The videos covered for this study were uploaded at different time distances from the date on which we are logging their total viewership. Each video has thus had a different time-span over which to accumulate viewers – or be forgotten. So, the aggregate viewership of all included videos has to be adjusted for these differences in order to obtain a standardized measure of audience engagement. The resultant number is computed as “Views per Month”. However, it is safest to regard it as an unrefined “Audience Engagement Indicator”.

  It is fair to ask whether what we are measuring is, in fact, what we wish to measure. The truth is that we neither know, nor can alter, the manner in which YouTube measures and reports viewership on the screen.  We are only incidental beneficiaries of the information available, and of whatever meaning we can extract out of it. The limitations of the data source are discussed in some detail at the end of this study. 

... Continued in Part II

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Book Review: The Sixth String of Vilayat Khan

November 8, 2018
Chitra Swaminathan 

Namita Devidayal’s book on Ustad Vilayat Khan is an interesting account of his life and musical journey

Writing the life sketch of a legendary musician such as Ustad Vilayat Khan is no easy task. Going by his lineage, stature, proficiency and lasting influence, summing up his music and personality in 252 pages is like exploring a raga in five minutes. Yet, such an attempt is important to enable young musicians to imbibe from his distinctive style and virtuosity.

The book, The Sixth String of Vilayat Khan, has been authored by Namita Devidayal, who had earlier penned the bestseller, The Music Room: A Memoir. Namita says she has tried to create an impressionistic fluid portrait — of a magnificent artiste and a fragmented human being. “I have tried to imagine him and tell a story anchored in fact but narrated with poetic license, like improvising on a jazz standard. It would be a mistake to regard this strictly as a biography.”

The book is an outcome of Namita’s long discussions with people who were close to the Ustad and his family and through interviews, archival records and photographs.

Vilayat Khan was 10 when his illustrious father Enayat Khan passed away, but not before inducting his son into the legacy of the greatest sitar gharana (his grandfather was Imdad Khan, who undertook the tough 40-day chilla ritual, when the musician does not step out of the house and only practices).

As a young lad, living in Calcutta, in a house named ‘Riyaz,’ Vilayat had only the sitar for a friend. He was eight when he performed at the All-India Bengal Music conference and earned immense praise. The Megaphone Recording Company even came up with a 78 rpm featuring the father on one side and the prodigious son, on the other. But his father’s untimely death left Vilayat shattered, both monetarily and musically.

The book gives a detailed account of how Vilayat fought hardships to become one of India’s foremost musicians. One night, he left home with his sitar, swearing to return only as an accomplished musician. He boarded a train to Delhi and reached his destination thanks to kind-hearted ticket collectors.

He went straight to All India Radio; the station director recognised him as Enayat Khan’s son and gave him refuge in the station’s garage. He used to have food from the canteen and clean instruments in the studio. He was delighted to see eminent artistes walking AIR’s corridors and listen to the recordings of musical greats.

Packed with interesting anecdotes and providing insights into the artistic ambience of the time, the author takes the readers through Vilayat’s training under his maternal grandfather (Bande Hasan Khan) and uncle (Zinda Hasan Khan), who were vocalists and would come to Delhi to teach him. Sometimes, Vilayat visited their house in Saharanpur. Bande Hasan Khan was also a wrestler and took his grandson to the akhada to build his stamina.

Vilayat’s mother Basheeran Begum was happy that her family had undertaken the responsibility of his training, but her son’s growing fondness for singing worried her. She warned him about breaking the family tradition. A distraught Vilayat approached his uncle, who advised him to make his sitar sing instead. So he began to consciously nurture the gayaki ang in his instrument. The Ustad, who was also an accomplished surbahar player, once said, “When I sit down on stage to play, everything comes to me in the form of a vocal performance. It just happens.”

An entire chapter is devoted to the 1944 Vikramaditya Music Conference in Bombay, where a sitar maestro called Vilayat Khan was born. Soon he became a regular at prestigious festivals and private concerts. At the same time, another sitar exponent, Ravi Shankar was making a mark too. Though stories of their rivalry were spoken about in music circles, both had tremendous respect for each other.

Vilayat’s tryst with fame, money and the film industry (among his close friends were Naushad and Madan Mohan) began when he moved to Bombay. It was also where he met his disciple Arvind Parikh, who came from a Gujarati business family. A devoted shagird, Arvindbhai also became his close confidante. By 1950, Vilayat Khan began touring the world.

His preparation for concerts included planning his attire. The book talks about how he would often have a dress rehearsal in which the entire family would be forced to participate. Even his silver and carefully-designed paan box had to be set the night before a performance. He loved the good life, traditional when it came to his art, while preferring to be up-to-date in his appearance. From Bombay, he moved to Shimla, to enjoy the quietude of the hills, and then to the U.S.

While drawing the portrait of an older Vilayat Khan, Namita touches upon his uneasy relationship with his son Shujaat Khan, a well-known sitar player and his younger son Hidayat Khan’s struggle to live up to his father’s expectations.

In 2004, after traversing the highs and lows of life like the notes of his strings, the Ustad died of lung cancer. In his hands, the sitar gained a beautiful voice.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Pt. Brijbhushan Kabra (1937-2018) and the Indian Classical Guitar

Until the 1960s, the Hawaiian Slide Guitar had been heard mainly in film songs, and in the regional music of Bengal. The credit for elevating the instrument to the Hindustani art music platform goes to Pandit Brijbhushan Kabra.
With friend and collaborator: 
Pt. Shivkumar Sharma
In 1968, Kabra recorded the album “Call of the valley” with Shivkumar Sharma (Santoor) and Hariprasad Chaurasia (Flute), which won a Platinum Disc. After this landmark release, there was no looking back for Kabra and the instrument. Thereafter it has maintained a stable presence on the Hindustani music platform, and also created an impressive constituency for itself in North America and Europe.  
In the basic model, the shell of the instrument is an F-hole Guitar of European design, acoustically and structurally enhanced to support a multitude of strings. But, the design of the Indian adaptation is far from standard yet. There are several variants in circulation, with some of them even sporting names suggesting the identities of their “creators”.

The Vichitra Veena legacy

 In Hindustani music, the Hawaiian Guitar has filled the vacuum created by the decline of the Vichitra Veena, which has been used as an accompanist to vocal music, and also as a solo instrument. The technique of executing melody on these two instruments is identical, and draws upon a history of older Indian instruments -- the Ghoshaka Veena described in Bharata’s Natyashastra [200 BC- 200 AD], and the Ekatantri Veena repeatedly referred to in musicological texts from the eleventh century AD. In the Carnatic tradition, the same technique is used for melodic execution on the Gottu Vaadyam, --also called Chitra Veena. All these instruments execute melody by sliding the hard cylindrical or round object along the strings, rather than stopping the strings against the frets, as in the case of instruments like the Rudra Veena, Sitar or the Spanish guitar.
The Vichitra Veena receded from the mainstream almost simultaneously with the Dhrupad/ Dhamar genre of mainstream music, of which the instrument was once an integral part. The major reason for its decline would appear to be its cumbersome handling, and an acoustic quality unsuited for the contemporary environment, governed by the electronic manipulation of musical output.
The Hawaiian slide-Guitar appeared to solve both these problems simultaneously while offering the distinctive quality of the slide-Veena -- the ability to reproduce every nuance of Indian vocalism with minimum interference from the sound-priming [plucking] activity. Admittedly, the slide-Guitar was inferior in this role to the Sarangi, a bowed instrument. But, within the plucked lute family, and as a successor to the Vichitra Veena, it could have no peer as a mimic of the vocal expression. Because of this advantage, the Hawaiian slide-Guitar offered a much wider range of stylistic options than the Sitar and Sarod, both of which required a higher frequency of plucking.
The only trigger the slide-Guitar required for reviving the Vichitra Veena legacy was towering musicianship, which could demonstrate its musical potential, especially relative to the dominant plucked lutes -- the Sitar and Sarod.  The instrument found its  champion in Brijbhushan Kabra.

Kabra’s Guitar

Brijbhushan, a qualified mining geologist, came from a business family with a deep involvement in music. His father had studied the Sitar under the legendary Ustad Enayet Khan, the father of Ustad Vilayat Khan. Brijbhushan’s elder brother, Damodarlal, was a distinguished Sarod player trained by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. In defiance of acute cynicism within the family, Brijbhushan said “no” to the Sitar as well as the Sarod, and accepted the challenge of elevating the slide-Guitar to a level of parity with them under the tutelage of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.
Inevitably, Kabra went along with the established musical approach of the major plucked lutes, the Sitar and Sarod. The first step in this direction was the introduction of chikari [drone] strings. As on the Sitar and the Sarod, his chikari set is mounted on a post midway up the stem of the Guitar on the bass [inward] side. His repertoire includes a three/four tiered alap-jod-jhala movement, slow tempo compositions primarily of Masitkhani format in Tritala, medium tempo compositions in Rupak [seven beats] and Jhaptala [ten beats], and fast tempo compositions in Tritala [sixteen beats] followed by a jhala. As with the Sitar and Sarod, light and semi-classical compositions in a variety of tala-s [rhythmic cycles] became an important part of a comprehensive repertoire to satisfy contemporary audiences.
Despite the benefit of guidance from Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, a colossus amongst instrumentalists, Kabra had to rely on his own resourcefulness for technique. Kabra’s musical vision is deeply entrenched in vocalism. It might even be said that, in the melodic content of his music, he has pitted his instrument against the Sarangi, rather than the Sitar or Sarod. He places the highest premium on the capabilities of the slide-Guitar for delivering the melodic continuity and microtonal subtleties of Hindustani vocalism. This logically meant the development of an idiom and technique that would minimize the frequency of strokes, and maximize the melodic density achievable under the impact of each stroke. These became the guiding principles of Kabra’s musical endeavors.
Within the raga presentation format of the plucked lutes, Kabra’s musical vision, and the instrument’s capabilities, led him to develop the anarhythmic and melodically rich alap form as his forte. In order to pack the maximum power into each stroke, Kabra dispensed with the picks conventionally used by slide-Guitarists, and opted to play with wire plectra [mizrab-s] used by Sitarists.
Once he had harnessed additional stroke power with Sitar plectra, he could achieve the desired manipulation of timbre, volume, and sustain without the addition of sympathetic strings. In an interview with the present author, Kabra expressed the view that the slide-Guitar is so rich in the delivery of microtonal values and melodic continuity,  that the Sitar/ Sarod model of acoustic design is irrelevant for the instrument. Kabra also argued that the sympathetic strings, which support only the discrete swara-s in the raga scale, have the effect of drowning out microtonal subtleties on the Slide guitar. As a result, the delivery of melodic value is limited, rather than enhanced, by the sympathetic strings, which his juniors amongst Guitarists have widely adopted.
In order to minimize the melodic discontinuity in his music, Kabra reduced the role of multiple-string execution by opting, once again, for a Sitar-style solution -- of using the first string as the main melodic string, and tuning the second and third strings also in the Sitar style . This enabled him to execute melody across two full octaves on the main string, requiring the second and third strings only for the lower octave. In his interviews to the American press, he has argued that Hindustani music, with its vocalist model, does not require a melodic canvas larger than three octaves. 

Kabra’s music
Kabra’s repertoire is basically mainstream music, biased in favour of popular raga-s like Puriya Kalyan, Bageshri, Bihag Madhuwanti, Jaijaiwanti, Hameer and Nat Bhairav. His discography shows a fair representation of light music – melodies like Kafi, Gara, Rajasthani folk, Mand, and Piloo. The patent raga-s of the Maihar Senia lineage, such as Gauri Manjari and the Carnatic raga Kirwani appear to have only a small presence in his performing material.
With his design of the instrument, and his novel technique, Kabra has achieved an acoustic richness in the musical output of the Slide Guitar, which approaches the more mature plucked instruments like the Sitar and the Sarod. In the presentation of raga-based music, Kabra strongly favors the alap-jod-jhala forms, often even as stand-alone pieces of music, without rhythm-accompanied forms following it. Even on a mass medium like the radio, he is known to have performed a 40-minute alap-jod-jhala as a self-sufficient rendition. This predilection is consistent with his highly vocalized melodic imagination, and his belief that these movements are the best vehicles for the unique melodic capabilities of his instrument. Kabra’s percussion-accompanied music largely follows the orientations of the Maihar Senia lineage. His bandishes are composed in vilambit, madhyalaya or drut Tritala, or in madhyalaya Roopak or Jhaptala.
Kabra has also been an immensely successful duet musician. His partnership with Shivkaumar Sharma and Hariprasad Chaurasia produced the “Call of the valley” album, which is now the stuff of legend. His duets with Shivkumar Sharma – particularly the LP recording of Jhinjhoti – ia also amongst the most memorable pieces of duets produced in recent history.
Kabra established himself and the slide-Guitar in Hindustani music at a time when three giants -- Ustad Vilayat Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar, and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan – were at the peak of their creative and technical prowess. In such an environment, the mere novelty of the slide-Guitar could not have assured the instrument a future in Hindustani music. Kabra’s success can be explained only as a victory of his perception, and exploitation, of the distinctive musical value that the Hawaiian slide-Guitar had to offer.

After Kabra

In response to the changes in the environment of Hindustani music, Kabra’s successors on the slide-Guitar scene, including his own disciples, have drifted away from the technical and stylistic choices he made. Most of them have chosen a stylistic direction with a much higher stroke density than Kabra’s, and an extensive use of multiple-string execution as an important element in their music. The slide-Guitar idiom is now drifting closer to the idiom of the Sarod, but surpassing it in dazzling potential, thanks to the slide-Guitar’s superior ergonomics. The technical decisions of the younger Guitarists reflect these directions.
A melodic canvas spanning four octaves, and across five strings, is now in favour.  Sympathetic strings have now become a stable feature of the Indian classical Guitar. The emphasis is now on kaleidoscopic tonal patterning and dazzling virtuosity, rather than elaborate raga presentation and melodic richness. Strokes therefore need ergonomic facility more than depth or power. To this end, Guitar-style picks have replaced Kabra’s mizrab. Some Guitarists have also found it efficient to shift the chikari drones to the treble [outward] side of the instrument.   
Whether as an acoustic machine, or as the presenter of a well-defined style of instrumental music, the Indian classical Guitar is still in a state of evolution. While the succeeding generations of Hindustani Slide Guitar maestros have successfully sent the instrument into international orbit, Kabra's pioneering and formidable musicianship remains a landmark in the history of Hindustani instrumental music. .
(c) Deepak Raja. April 2005

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Shaping a life in classical music

Paper presented to the Seminar on Pedagogy of Performing Arts, hosted by the Lalit Kala Kendra, Gurukul, Savitribai Phule Pune University, on March 6-7, 2018. 

This seminar is focused on the pedagogy concerns of the University system.  The system represents a massive commitment of public funds. Those concerned about the social value of this commitment are best equipped to evolve the processes suited to its objectives. I have neither studied Hindustani music in the University environment, nor taught in it. I can therefore contribute only tangentially to the theme of today’s seminar. 

Whatever I say is based on 60 years of research on a perfect sample of one – myself – and my interactions with some of the leading musicians of our times. As I see it, we are talking, essentially, about shaping lives in classical music. And, this will be the focus of my observations. 

I have a mildly eccentric view on the serious engagement of individuals with classical music. Most of us in this room consider ourselves “trained musicians” or “trained musicologists”.  We also gladly admit that we are whatever we are because of our Guru-s/ teachers. In my view, this is a culturally conditioned notion, not entirely supported by the reality. I state this as an academic observation. And, I say this with the benefit of studying with some of the finest Guru-s, and without the slightest disrespect to their contribution to my evolution. But, if I, or my Guru-s, try putting our fingers on what precisely was taught, when, and how, we are likely to come up with amusing answers which carry no conviction. 

Thousands of people go through degrees in music or personalized taleem, but never emerge as either musicians or musicologists. It is also possible to prove that many who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of classical music in either pursuit, and even excelled, had no degrees or taleem. So, whether we are talking of the personalized system of art transmission, or of institutionalized teaching, or something entirely different, the key to excellence in classical music lies within the aspirant, far more than in the environment which may claim to shape his/ her potential. In addition to their natural endowments of musicality, musicians and musicologists of any significance are born with an obsession with the mysteries of patterned sound, and pursue that obsession irrespective of economic and other consequences. 

Allied to this is my view that a life in classical music may flower as a commitment to either performance or scholarship. From my own experience, I can say that when I was only pursuing performance, I was also acquiring a great wealth of musical thought. And, when I began to pursue musicology, the quality of my performance improved steadily and perceptibly. From this, I infer that the same person may pursue different routes simultaneously or at different stages in his life. The two are, indeed, distinct professions, because they are accountable to different audiences and constituencies. But, this does not make theory and performance distinct pedagogical issues – except at an advanced level and except in the department of communication skills. A life in music is a life in music. 

This is so because our music is a process, and not a product. It has no existence independently of performance.  Without a deep involvement with the process, you qualify neither for musicianship, nor for scholarship. Society changes.  The aesthetic assumptions underlying performance change.  The music changes. Theory gets re-written. But, musical thought and performance remain perennially connected. 

Having laid out my perspective on a life in music, I shall proceed more systematically to look at the shaping of musicianship, which I possibly understand better than scholarship. I shall deal with the following dimensions of musicianship, and consider what each one might signify as a pedagogical issue. 

1. The basic equipment of musicianship
2. The communicative dimension of musicianship
3. The expressive dimension of musicianship
4. The meditative dimension of musicianship

The basic equipment
An individual qualifies for a serious involvement in music by having an above-average endowment of two faculties: 
(1) Pitch differentiation: the ability to distinguish sounds as being either higher or lower than others.
(2) Pattern recognition: The ability to identify sound patterns. 

Pitch differentiation is, I suspect, largely a genetically ingrained faculty. An above-average score on this dimension is required for intense involvement with all categories of music. Classical music certainly demands more refined pitch differentiation abilities than other categories of music. I am not aware if research in neuro-acoustics now enables aspirants to improve their scores on this count. My suspicion, however, is that the possibilities for such enhancement would be limited. 

Pattern recognition is an entirely different ability of the mind. The word “recognition” provides the clue to its character. We recognize patterns only by relating them to familiar patterns stored in the mind. Some basic patterns may be genetically embedded at birth – I don’t know what science has to say about this. But, beyond this, our entire bank of stored patterns is acquired either involuntarily from the environment or by the purposive cultivation of the mind.  

Classical music demands a more sophisticated ability of pattern-recognition than other categories of music. A person’s ability to perceive, store, and recall patterns is largely a function of the intelligence and memory. These, too, are grey areas in psychology. There is, to my knowledge, no consensus on the degree to which these are genetically ingrained, or acquired, or to what extent these can be enhanced. 

Of immediate concern to us are Raga and Tala patterns.  This sounds easy, and manageable. What is “easily” taught, however, is limited by the limitations of the teachers and aspirants. The great musician is known for having explored a canvas of patterns far beyond what can be taught by one Guru or even multiple Gurus or at a University. The idea of patterning is not finite. Any cluster of entities which cannot be considered random is a pattern. And, in mathematics, randomness itself is considered only a measure of man’s ignorance. So, within what is considered random, many “patterns” may yet be discovered. And, of course, music also has use for obviously random “patterns”. So, the pattern recognition/creation issue is far more complicated than it seems. 

Patterning belongs to the territory of “ideation” – abstract thinking --  which maestros often develop  through a study of abstract subjects like aesthetics, philosophy, psychology, mathematics, metaphysics, and even occult sciences like astrology. The personalized mode of art transmission in Hindustani music adopted the model of mystical apprenticeship, and is known to have encompassed  such initiation. Should the pedagogy of institutional art transmission concern itself with this resource of extra-musical ideation? The proposition is worth considering. 

The communicative dimension
The communicative dimension of classical music relates to the ability of a musician to execute and deliver musical ideas to his/her listeners. This has two facets. The first is technical command over his instrument/ voice. The second is a command over the architecture of the genre in which he/she performs. Casting the Raga (a Formless Form) into Communicable Form requires the agency of an established genre, each with its distinctive interaction between melody, rhythm, and poetry (where relevant), and movements sequenced “logically” for cumulative absorption, retention and response. Prof. Ashok Ranade referred to this process as one of “Ritualisation”. 

This dimension of classical music is “mechanical” and structural, and possibly the easiest to teach – whether in the personalized model of art-transmission or in the University system. It can be imparted through riyaz routines, and even memorization.  

A command over the communicative dimension is, of course, crucial because a musician experiences two kinds of anxiety in performance – execution anxiety and ideation anxiety. A mastery over the communicative dimension relieves the musician of the execution anxiety during performance, and frees his musical energies for attending to the ideational content of the music. But, the communicative dimension – no matter how highly developed – has little musical value unless supported by the flowering of musicianship. This flowering relies predominantly on the remaining two dimensions – the expressive and meditative. 

The expressive dimension
The expressive dimension in music produces a manner of manifesting the character, quality of feelings, sentiments or intentions of the musician. Expression is primarily a manifestation of the musician’s sense of self-hood, and an awareness of himself as the generator of aesthetic value. It is this dimension which Prof. Ranade once described as “Individuation”. 

As a pedagogical issue, this is perhaps the toughest challenge. How do you generate/ inculcate/ activate the sense of self-hood in a musician? Guru-s in the personalized model perhaps did not see this as a significant issue at all. Enlightened present-day Guru-s have, however, often struggled with this issue for decades even with their most talented students. 

Eminent Guru-s, with whom I have discussed this issue have expressed two views: Some believe that such a flowering of the musical personality usually begins between the ages of 40 and 45. Others believe that a growing involvement in the Raga-ness results in the musician building a special relationship with Raga-s, and this relationship causes an “Individuation” to surface in its rendition. 

These two views could well be saying the same thing. Amercian composer, WA Mathieu, well versed in Hindustani music, articulates this memorably in his work “A musical life”. We often speak of a musical performance as a “piece”. What is it a “piece” of? It is, indeed, a piece of life itself. Feeling and expressing a Raga in an individualistic manner could well require the musician to have started understanding life -- a possibility that crystallizes only after 40. 

Does this dimension of musicianship deserve pedagogical attention? Is there a way of speeding up the evolution of a musician’s special relationship with the Raga-ness ahead of his/her emotional maturity as a person? Or is the whole dimension of expression to be left to the natural processes of personality development? 

With a musician’s involvement in Raga-ness being a factor, we are approaching the meditative/ contemplative dimension of Hindustani music. 

The meditative dimension
The meditative dimension of Hindustani music – the element of “Ideation” -- is fundamental because the Hindustani musician combines in himself the role of the composer and performer, both roles working simultaneously during performance. Performance is nothing but the rendering/ translating/ interpreting the Formless Form of the Raga in communicable form. Being formless, the Raga is pregnant with a virtually infinite number of aesthetically coherent melodic ideas. This is why we need to recognize three levels of access to the Raga form. 

1. Gurumukhi Swaroop: This is the Raga-form that a musician imbibes from his Guru/ Guru-s/ Teachers. 
2. Sarvamanya Swaroop: The consensual melodic personality of the Raga, as has been explored by all musicians whose music is available – an aggregate of all the melodic ideas hitherto explored -- and which listeners recognize as belonging to a Raga.
3. Virata Swaroop: This represents all the melodic possibilities of the Formless Form of the Raga – including those yet remaining unexplored. This notion of Raga-Swaroop is limited only by the boundaries between the specific Raga and other Raga-s. 

Our tradition expects that every musician will aim at penetrating/ transcending the Sarvamanya Swaroop and access the Virata Swaroop for newer insights into the melodic and emotional possibilities latent in the Raga. But, how can he penetrate the Sarvmanya sawroopa without having first mastered it? 

This is a serious pedagogical issue for institutionalized education which, I suspect, remains, largely neglected. Even in my interactions with serious young musicians, I have found the greatest lethargy on this count. A Raga belongs to nobody. Every musician participates in its evolution.The musical culture has not been able to come to terms with the reality that a serious study of the tradition is a rent every generation has to pay in order to occupy a place in the tradition. It is clearly absurd to assume or believe that anyone can be an original interpreter of a Raga without having taken the trouble of absorbing every facet of it that has already been explored.  

The key to excellence
This brings me to the argument I suggested in the earlier part of my observations . Hindustani music cannot produce either a great musician or a significant musicologist without a vast exposure to performed/ recorded music. No Guru, no University, no books can cultivate his musical/ critical abilities to a level of excellence without extensive and intensive listening. And, fortunately for today's aspirants, never before in history has a 100 years of music been available for study, thus permitting a panoramic as well as encyclopedic understanding of the tradition. 

In such exposure, the aspiring musician/ scholar has access to all the three dimensions of Hindustani music. The communicative. The expressive. The meditative. He will absorb the insights according to his innate endowments of musicality.  His insights will grow at a pace permitted by his intellect, memory, and his exposure to the world beyond music. His individuality will grow as he evolves his“Personal Musical Statement”with the help of all the inputs he has absorbed. There is a pedagogical perspective here. But, that is possibly less important than my basic argument. 

A life in classical music is a self-driven journey. There is a space in it for mentors, inspirations, and even guides. If one tries to quantify the size of this space, one may produce numbers that are culturally repugnant. But, the truth is that no Guru, and no University, can entirely claim the shaping of either an eminent musician or an eminent musicologist. 

If a great musician has spent a total of 10,000 hours receiving taleem from his Guru, he has almost certainly spent 20,000 hours of life listening to other musicians of stature. If a significant scholar of music has spent 5000 hours pursuing degrees in music, I am certain that he has spent 10,000 hours studying works unrelated to the syllabus. And, those who match a yardstick of excellence in either department can be expected to have had intensive exposure to other department as much as their own pursuit. 

Classical music is a philosophical art. Involvement with it arises from a thirst for unraveling a mysterious territory of human experience. It can be compared, in some ways, to the spiritual urge with which the more evolved souls are born. Those born to this calling will quench their thirst, with or without any guidance. 

(c) Deepak S. Raja .March, 2018