Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Wherein resides the Raga: यसमिन्वसति रागः

In my writings on Hindustani music, I have described Raga-s as having their “melodic/ aesthetic home” in one of three overlapping regions of the scale -- Purvanga (lower tetrachord), Madhyanga (a mid-octave region) and Uttaranga (upper tetrachord). This perspective, occasionally charged with revisionism, is a musician’s interpretation of Raga grammar as a codification of aesthetic intent.  

The Vadi And Its Location

Amongst the grammatical concepts emerging from the work of VN Bhatkhande in the second quarter of the 20th century, the most widely used is the concept of the “Vadi” swara, pivotal to the melodic personality of the Raga.  Following the Western notion of tetrachords, Bhatkhande attributes significance to the location of the Vadi in either   Purvanga (lower tetrachord) or Uttaranga (upper tetrachord). This partition is mentioned as analogous to a division of the 24-hour day into two equal parts, and the tendency of the “Vadi” swara-s (the dominant swara, explained later) of Raga-s to be located in different regions of the scale corresponding to their prescribed time of performance.

Bhatkhande presents the relationship between the two ideas as being synchronous, without any suggestion of causality. The location of the “Vadi” swara is a “given” facet of the manner in which Raga-s have evolved organically, and are performed. It is an acoustic-aesthetic reality. On the other hand, the two-part division of the 24-hour day and the prescribed time of performance for Raga-s, are both theoretical constructs superimposed on the “given” reality as additional layers of cultural meaning. These need not concern us here. 

The real value of this proposition lies in attaching significance to the location of the “Vadi” swara, and its role in defining a Raga’s “melodic/ aesthetic home”.

Bhatkhande On The “Vadi”

Bhatkhande deals with this subject in the early pages of Volume 1 of his epic work – Hindustani Sangeet Paddhati. The “Vadi”, according to him, is the swara which identifies/ personifies a Raga.  In classical literature, it has been referred to as the “Ansha” swara. The musical importance of the Ansha/ Vadi is highlighted by musicians using a variety of musical devices. The pivotal swara therefore tends to be intoned repeatedly during the course of a rendition. A musician who does not know how to highlight the significance of the “Vadi” cannot express the aesthetic intent of a Raga.

The implication here is that a “Vadi” does not perform its function in isolation. It does so through its repetitive deployment in a variety of phrasing devices configured in its vicinity. The Vadi is therefore the focal point of melodic action identifying/ highlighting the unique melodic personality of a Raga.  

The “Ansha” Swara

The “Ansha” swara, as defined in Bharata’s Natya Shastra. (Chapter 28, 72-74) is freely translated from the Sanskrit verse as follows: 

The swara, which embodies the Raga-ness of the Raga; that swara that is crucial to the generation of the Rasa of the Raga, or itself immersed in it; that which is at least five swara-s away from the lower octave and of the higher octave; that swara which is surrounded by a plethora of phrasing patterns, i.e. that which is never isolated; that which has strong swara-s in correspondence with itself; that which always remains in focus, even when swara-s of lower hierarchical status in the Raga are being intoned; such a swara is best qualified for the status of the “Ansha” as an expression of a Raga’s personality.

The implication here is that, the melodic personality of a Raga is articulated effectively by a concentration of melodic activity in a specific region of the melodic canvas, within which the Ansha Swara has the status of being the “spokesperson” or “representative” of the Raga.

Classical literature identifies an additional and allied Raga attribute of “Taratva-Mandratva”. This is dealt with by Dr. Premlata Sharma in her paper “Raga Lakshana” (Nibandha Sangeet. Editor: LN Garg, Sangeet Karyalaya, Hathras, Second Edition, 1989). She explains that the aesthetic value of the same swara varies depending on the particular octave in which it is intoned-- Mandra (lower), Madhya (Middle), or Taar (Higher) octaves.  Hence, the location of a swara on the three-octave melodic canvas is an important vehicle of its expressiveness, and plays an important role in the expression of a Raga’s melodic personality.

These grammatical notions are to be viewed along with the guidelines that Bhatkhande and other significant authorities have listed for performance (and composition) to support the aesthetic intent of Raga-s. These guidelines go beyond the “melodic grammar” of Raga-identification, and may be considered a part of the “aesthetic grammar” of Hindustani music. Some examples are cited below.

Guidelines For Performance

With respect to Puriya and Sohini, Bhatkhande says that the two Raga-s feature identical swara-s; but are residents of different regions of the melodic canvas. Puriya (Vadi=Ga) expresses its aesthetic intent best in lower-octave and mid-octave melodic action, while Sohini  (Vadi=Dh) does so in the upper registers, with a special emphasis on the higher-octave Sa.  Manikbuwa Thakurdas (Raga Darshan Vol. I-IV), another respected scholar, advises minimal Uttaranga melodic activity for Puriya, lest its melodic form get confused with that of Sohini.

Bhatkhande isolates at least four other Raga-s for similar attention.  According to him, Miya Malhar (Vadi=Ma) , Maluha Kedar (Vadi=unidentified), Gara (Vadi=Ga), and Sindh Bhairavi (Vadi=Dh),  are all residents of the lower registers, and the exploration of their melodic personalities should be focused in the lower and middle octaves.  The implication here is that their aesthetic intent would be compromised to the extent that their exploration crosses into the upper half of the three-octave melodic canvas.

In this group, Gara is a special case, which Subbarao (Raga Nidhi Vol. I-IV) describes as “Panchamantya” – a Raga whose melodic span terminates at the Pa of the middle octave. Thus, implicit in several discussions on Raga-grammar is a “Notional Octave” which may differ from the “Normal Octave” spanning the eight swara-s/ seven intervals of the middle octave. This “Notional octave” may begin deep in the lower octave as in Gara (lower-Pa to middle-Pa) or shift upwards, as suggested for Sohini (middle Ga to higher-octave Ga).

This idea is interesting because, the “Notional octave” does not render the “Normal” tonic redundant. On the contrary, its aesthetic value depends precisely on its tonality with respect to the middle-Octave tonic.  So, the aesthetic value of the relevant Raga-s relies on two tonics, one notional and the other normal.

These guidelines suggest a broader principle – that the psycho-acoustic character of a Raga may be changed by shifting its “Vadi” to a different octave. For instance, Raga Marwa (Vadi=Dh) was commonly performed as a strident ascent-dominant Raga until the 1950s. Ustad Ameer Khan merely shifted the Vadi from the middle octave to the lower octave, and performed it as a somber descent-dominant Raga. Likewise, Raga-s with the Vadi located in the lower tetrachord can shift the Vadi to the higher octave, causing a marked change in their aesthetic appeal. This is seen to happen to several Raga-s as performed by vocalists of the Gwalior tradition, which has a marked fondness for the upper registers.

The meticulous attention given in these guidelines suggests the intention to insulate these Raga-s categorically from the aesthetics of mid-octave region.  This is a significant indicator of the mid-octave region as an independent psycho-acoustic territory for the aesthetic value of specified Raga-s.

This issue surfaces in bold relief in the guidelines for Puriya Kalyan (Vadi=Ga) documented by Manikbuwa Thakurdas (Raga Darshan Volume II).  Puriya Kalyan is a compound Raga, which combines the melodic personality of Puriya in the lower half with Kalyan (Yaman) in the upper half of the scale. The Raga exhibits the two faces of its components effortlessly at the two ends; but it can express its composite uniqueness only in the mid-octave region, where the components Raga-s are dovetailed. Thakurdas argues in favor of a mid-octave focus for the melodic exploration of the Raga to ensure that the uniqueness of its compound character is not swamped by the melodic features of its components. 

There are, indeed, other methods of configuring compound Raga-s -- besides a dovetailing at the scalar midpoint. But, as a general perspective, we may recognize that a compound Raga – a substantial category in terms of frequency of performance -- makes abnormal demands on the notion of a regional focus. This focus enables the expression of a compound Raga’s melodic uniqueness, and balances the presence of its component Raga-s.

Wherein Resides The Raga

Grammatical concepts considered above indicate that, in addition to having dominant focal points for melodic action, and also by virtue thereof, Raga-s are “residents” of specific regions of the melodic canvas. In this perspective, swara-level, phrase level, and octave level specifications are all collectively significant for the expression of a Raga’s aesthetic intent. The interesting issue to consider is how best the melodic canvas can be partitioned in order to be musically useful, while also being true to the essential character of Hindustani music.

At the macro scale/octave level, the human neuro-acoustic system has already provided three octaves as a natural and universal melodic canvas. It is at the micro-level, within an octave, that we need to determine a suitable partitioning.

Mutually Exclusive Versus Overlapping Regions

By Bhatkhande’s own admission, his notion of a two-part division of the scale into mutually exclusive regions draws upon the Western notion of lower and upper tetrachords in an octave. This approach overlooks the fundamental difference between the musical ideologies of Western and Indian music.

Western music defines the scale as an “Octave”, a cluster of eight tonal points, while Hindustani music defines the scale as a “Saptak”, a continuum of seven intervals. In line with this difference, Western music functions with a bias in favor of absolute pitch values and staccato intonation, while Hindustani music functions with pitches relative to a tonic and a fluid – rather than static – approach to intervallic transitions.  Classical literature provides detailed descriptions of the various intervallic transitions in use.

A notion of overlapping divisions of the scale therefore appears to be truer to the reality of Hindustani music than a mutually exclusive partitioning. This view is supported by the manner in which Bhatkhande and his predecessors have viewed the function of the “Vadi” swara, along with allied notions of regional bias as an important facet of a Raga’s melodic/ emotional personality.

The Mid-Octave Region

By Bhatkhande’s own computations of pitch values, Pa is an acoustically imprecise bifurcation point because it does not define acoustically equal halves. Pa is the 5th degree to Base Sa with a pitch ratio of 1:1.5, while the higher octave Sa is the 4th degree from Pa with a pitch ratio of 1:1.33.

If we apply the lower tetrachord (Sa-Pa) ratio of 1:1.5 to the upper tetrachord, the matching acoustic distance would be Ma-Sa’ and not Pa-Sa’. If we apply the upper tetrachord acoustic distance of 1.33 to the lower tetrachord, you get Sa-Ma as the acoustic space, and not Sa-Pa. The notion of an acoustic mid-point even for a two-part division must therefore reckon with both Ma and Pa.

With two acoustic mid-points, we are obliged to acknowledge overlapping, rather than mutually exclusive partitions of the octave. But, a mid-octave region consisting of two swara-s is not musically useful. Melody requires a minimum of three swara-s in order to shape a distinct contour. But, the classical definition of the Ansha swara also says that it should be surrounded by phrases which incorporate swara-s in acoustic correspondence. Fulfilling this requirement demands a minimum of four swara-s to constitute a notional “mid-octave region”. The two mid-octave points (Shuddha Ma and Pa) therefore require at least one swara to be added on each side to constitute a notional “mid-octave region” (Madhyanga).

This argument would suggest that Ga-Ma-Pa-Dh would be an appropriate definition of a mid-octave region. This, however, creates a different problem. Shuddha Ga and Shuddha Dh are not in either first-fourth (1:1.33) or first-fifth (1:1.50) correspondence, and would hence create a Madhyanga acoustically incongruent to the overlapping acoustic regions defined at the two extremities of the octave. 

The requirement of correspondence within a phrase incorporating or surrounding the Ansha swara is fulfilled only by enlarging the space of acoustic mid-points (Shuddha Ma and Pa) to include Shuddha Ga below and Dh as well as Komal Ni above. Each of the overlapping segments so defined would then be mutually congruent with a pitch-ratio of 1:1.33 from the first included swara to the last.

On the face of it, this proposition looks clumsy because it adds one swara below and more than one swara above to the acoustic mid-points (Shuddha Ma and Pa). Theoretically, however, this is the soundest way of defining the mid-octave region. For ease of communication, the proposition can be compromised as follows.

The totality of Raga grammar in Hindustani music appears to notionally -- though not explicitly -- divide the octave into three overlapping regions of the octave for defining the regional bias of a Raga -- – Purvanga (lower tetrachord), Madhyanga (Mid-octave region), and Uttaranga (Upper tetrachord). The Purvanga consists of S-R-G-M. The Uttaranga consists of P-D-N-S’.  The Madhyanga consists of G-M-P-D. Despite its compromise with acoustic precision, this division is musically useful because each overlapping division has four natural swara-s, and the mid-octave region (Madhyanga) overlaps two swara-s of the (Purvanga) lower tetrachord and two of the upper (Uttaranga).

At the Raga-specific level, it is argued here that an isolation of the mid-octave region as the melodic centre of gravity is musically useful. It is also necessary to examine whether this refinement substantially alters our perception of the Raga universe as the larger reality that governs the melodic personalities of individual Raga-s.

Survey Of The Raga Universe

For this survey, I rely on an analysis of three major authorities, who have documented Raga grammar on a substantial scale.

1.       VN Bhatkhande, Kramik Pustak Malika (Volumers I-VI)
2.      Vinayak Rao Patwardhan, Raga Vigyan (Volumer I-VII)
3.      B. Subbarao, Raga Nidhi (Volumes I-IV)

It is accepted that the identification of “Vadi” swara-s by each of these authorities will not be identical. It is also accepted that the each of these authorities could have considered a different set of Raga-s for the categorical identification of the “Vadi” swara-s.  Despite this limitation, their respective perceptions of the universe of Raga-s can offer valuable insights into the grammatical and aesthetic value of the “Madhyanga” as a distinct melodic centre of gravity in a Raga. (See Table below)

Bhatkhande identifies Vadi swara-s for 127 Raga-s, of which 71% fall in the Madhyanga region. Patwardhan identifies Vadi swara-s for 188 Raga-s, of which 68% fall within the “Madhyanga” region. Subbarao, whose work documents the largest number of Raga-s from a large variety of textual sources, identifies Vadi swara-s for 283 Hindustani Raga-s, of which 73% fall in the Madhyanga region.

These orders of magnitude suggest that the “Madhyanga” is a distinct center of melodic gravity which cannot be ignored. A simplistic partitioning of the octave into lower and upper tetrachords can lead to the melodic neglect of a musically important region of the scale. In an improvisation-dominant art form, such as Hindustani music, the "aesthetic grammar" of a Raga is as important as the "melodic grammar". If this is not correctly understood, composers and performers are exposed to the risk of over-emphasizing those scalar regions which are inconsistent with -- and perhaps even disruptive of -- the aesthetic intent of the chosen Raga.  

© Deepak Raja. Jan 7, 2018

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Bhakti (the devotional spirit) in Hindustani music

Recently, an influential aficionado of Carnatic music publicly expressed the view that Hindustani music is lacking in “Bhakti”.  There was more than a suggestion that Hindustani music has abandoned the transcendentalism fundamental to the Hindu artistic tradition.  Such perceptions appear to be widely shared amongst members of the Carnatic music community. Hence the need to address them.

They arise evidently from the fact that the lyrics of mainstream Carnatic music are predominantly devotional, while those of Hindustani vocal music tend to feature a wider variety of themes with a bias, perhaps, towards “Shringara Rasa” (the romantic/erotic sentiment). Without getting into the philosophical niceties of the Rasa theory, I attempt to examine whether the pattern warrants the inferences evidently drawn.

Understanding musical genres

Every genre of vocal music features lyrics (or some other form of articulation), melody, and rhythm. But, at any given time, an artist’s musical energies – however one may define them and to whatever we may attribute them as their source – are limited. They cannot possibly be directed equally towards delivering the aesthetic satisfaction of all the elements in one rendition. Therefore, each genre is designed to focus a musician’s  energies on a different facet of the musical endeavour.

Even if a musician’s energies were unlimited, a variety of genres would emerge because a multiplicity of genres would fulfill the needs of society more efficiently. Audiences represent a diversity of tastes; even the same listener welcomes different aesthetic satisfactions at different times or in different moods or even on the same concert platform. This is why the culture supports different genres of music – each specializing in the delivery of a different category of aesthetic satisfaction.  The focus of musical energies, and the consequent delivery of aesthetic satisfactions, form the basis on which genres of vocal music may be classified. 

(1) Swarashrita (स्वराश्रित = Melody dominant), where primary target for musical energies is the melody.
(2) Padashrita (पदाश्रित= Composition dominant), in which the primary target of musical energies in the totality of the pre-composed melodic-rhythmic-poetic entity;
(3) Layashrita (लयाश्रित = tempo dominant), in which the primary target of musical energies is the tempo of rendition, which forges a distinctive relationship between the melody, rhythm and the lyrics,
(4) Arthashrita (अर्थाश्रित= Interpretative), where the musical endeavour is focused on the musical interpretation of the lyrics. This classification recognizes the interpretation of literary meaning as a musical endeavour qualitatively distinct from the one characteristic of the “Padashrita" genres. Interestingly, this category covers the semi-classical genres because it is dominated neither by Swara, nor by Laya, nor by the Pada. 

These are not mutually exclusive categories, but indications of dominant tendencies.  Some genres qualify for a dual classification.  And, indeed, the individual musical personalities of musicians may also tilt the balance of musical energies in one genre towards those characteristic of another, without necessarily prejudicing the essential character of the genre.

Swarashrita and Padashrita

Considering the features of the dominant genres in practice today, Carnatic music may be described as predominantly “Padashrita” (पदाश्रित), while the comparable mainstream genre of Hindustani vocalism may be described as “Swarashrita” (स्वराश्रित).

Both traditions feature pre-composed and improvised elements. Both traditions conform to raga grammar disciplines. And, both engage intricately with laya and Tala. But, they differ in their fundamental orientation. The “Commanding Form” (to use Prof. Susanne Langer’s concept), which drives the entire rendition in the “Padashrita” Carnatic tradition is a pre-composed poetic-melodic-rhythmic entity; it is even referred to as a “Song”. On the other hand, the “Commanding Form” in the “Swarashrita” Hindustani tradition (as argued by Prof. SK Saxena) is the distinctive arrangement of Swara-s, which is the “Raga-Swaroop” (राग स्वरुप).

In a Padashrita tradition, the entirety of the poetic-melodic-rhythmic entity is intended to act as an integrated whole to deliver its aesthetic satisfaction to the listener. Compositions are deemed to represent a perfect aesthetic congruence between the lyrics, the melody, and the rhythm. This explains why the Padashrita Carnatic tradition places a high premium on the devotional literary content of its classical music repertoire, and treats the composition as inviolable in every melodic-rhythmic detail. Such a musical endeavour conforms to Hindu polytheism – the idea that by an intense absorption in the manifest forms of the deities (साकार/ सगुणात्मक उपासना), man may transcend the manifest form of the chosen deity, and attain union with the formless Divinity (निर्गुण/ निराकार).

Understanding Bhakti

To fully comprehend the issue, we need to understand “Bhakti” (भक्ति). The word “Bhakti” is an abstract noun derived from the Sanskrit verb “Bhaja” (भज)= to serve. The  essential stance of the one who serves is a surrender to the Master’s wishes. So, the essence of “Bhakti” is “शरणागत भाव” (the spirit of surrender), or the total annihilation of self-hood, along with a total acceptance of man’s insignificance before God (if you are a theist), or in the overall scheme of the universe.  The Sakaar/ Sagunatmak Bhakti of a Padashrita tradition aims at this transcendence of the human psyche – pushing the listeners mind to the region of consciousness that lies between the Sakaar and the Nirakaar.

I make bold to suggest that the Indian mind has access to the same process through an alternate musical route – the “Swarashrita” route which Hindustani music takes.

In a Swarashrita tradition, the hero of the musical endeavour is not a deity (Sakaar/ Sagun), but a Raga (a “formless form”, a निराकार आकृति). The entire musical endeavour is an attempt to translate/ interpret/manifest the Formless Form of the Raga into a communicable form.

We may pause here to appreciate that, in essence, a raga is no different from a deity. Just as Vishnu is identified by Shankha (शंख), Chakra (चक्र), Gada (गदा) and Padma (पद्म), a Raga is identified by its distinctive arrangement of selected Swara-s.  Vishnu has been visualized differently by millions of artists over the millennia – but never without Shankha, Chakra, Gada and Padma. Likewise, Raga Malkauns/ Hindolam is visualized and projected in sound pictures in millions of ways, but never without its identifying attributes – such as may be acceptable from time to time.

Deities, and Raga-s are, in fact, both formless forms (Nirakar Akruti), and meditating upon the attributes of either of them will lead you into the same region of consciousness on the border between the Sakaar and Nirakar. If the essence of Bhakti is Sharanagat Bhava, the Padashrita and Swarashrita traditions both appear to qualify.

There is textual support for this view in the Indian musicological tradition.

It (the Raga-rupa) is of two kinds – नादात्म whose essence is sound, and देवमय whose essence is an image incarnating the deity. Of the former, there are many shapes; but the latter has only one.

Somnatha in Ragavibodha (1609 AD)

William James, the father of American psychology, defines the "Divine” as an unfathomable vastness, leaving man with no option but to accept his own relative insignificance, and to plead for grace.

“The ‘divine’ mean(s)… such a primal reality as the individual feels impelled to respond to solemnly and gravely… The personal attitude, which the individual finds himself impelled to take up towards the divine… shall have to confess to at least some amount of dependence on sheer mercy…”

(The varieties of religious experience, Collier, 1961)

From this perspective, one may view performance in the Hindustani tradition as a prayer to the Divine form of a Raga -- entreating it to descend into its melodic form.

Lyrics in Khayal vocalism

This perspective does not, admittedly, resolve the issue of Khayal lyrics, which are allegedly biased towards “Shringara Rasa” (शृंगार रस). It is necessary, here, to consider whether the evident poetic inclinations of a “Swarashrita” genre can be considered fundamental to the aesthetic intent of music; whether the lyrics are intended to perform a literary function at all, and whether they are germane to the delivery of the aesthetic satisfactions characteristic of the genre. Metaphorically, I am asking whether a person can be convicted in India for a crime committed under the laws of Botswana.

Khayal is not a “Padashrita” genre. No less a scholar than BC Deva has described a Khayal composition as “a mere peg on which to hang the Raga”. Khayal lyrics are not composed as carriers of literary meaning, though they do possess meaning. Their thematic content is musically insignificant compared to the value of the texture (vowels and consonants) they provide for the delivery of the melodic idea. They constitute the platform for the exploration of the Raga form (the Nirakar Akruti).  

This may, incidentally, be the reason why the Khayal genre tolerates lyrics of mediocre literary value. This may also be the reason why Khayal lyrics, written in the Braj Bhasha dialect of Hindi are performed throughout the Hindustani music region – including Pakistan and Bangladesh -- in the same language. In extreme cases, the tradition tolerates even a virtual rape of Braj Bhasha lyrics in their articulation, because their musical function is faithfully performed without the comprehension of literary meaning.

In his book, “Hindustani Musical Traditions”, Vamanrao Deshpande, amongst the most respected critics, recalls a brief flirtation (revolt?) the Khayal attempted with lyrics written in Marathi, rather than Braj Bhasha. Maharshtrian vocalists soon discovered that the textural musical value uniquely offered by the original Brij Bhasha lyrics had been lost, and the experiment was abandoned.

A similar affirmation of the musical (rather than literary) value of lyrics comes from the introduction of Sargam (सरगम = solfa symbols) articulation into Khayal vocalism – evidently an import from the Carnatic tradition.  In the Padashrit Carnatic genre Sargam articulation is a Swarashrit diversion. In the Swarashrit Hindustani genre, however, it has an entirely different presence. It functions as a Swarashrit embellishment, or a textural relief, in what is already a Swarashrita genre. Therein lies its conceptual and aesthetic significance.

The Sargam is, by its very nature, a set of meaningless consonants, devoid of literary meaning – as meaningless as isolated alphabets in a written language. The Sargam’s effortless – though not universal – admittance to Khayal vocalism supports the view that the communication of literary meaning has only negligible relevance, if any, to the delivery of aesthetic satisfactions of the Khayal genre.

Deshpande has argued that the Khayal genre has liberated melody and rhythm from poetry, and hence raised Hindustani music to a level of “pure music”. And this, he believes, represents the highest achievement of Hindustani music so far.

The spiritual and the devotional

It is in this light that the issue of “Bhakti” in Hindustani music has to be viewed. To regard devotional lyrics as the exclusive flag-bearers of Bhakti in music is a misrepresentation of the character of music as an art, as well as Bhakti as a human aspiration. The liberation of music from poetry does not, in any manner, dilute its transcendentalism.  

The transcendentalism of the Khayal is “spiritual”, when it focuses the musician’s meditative attention upon the “Nirakaar Akruti” of the “Ishta Raga” (इष्ट राग). This transcendentalism cannot, by any reasonable logic, be considered inferior or less demanding than focusing “devotional” energies upon a “Sakaar Akruti”. As long as the artistic endeavour is focused on the borderline between the “Sakaar” and the “Nirakaar”, art remains in “Sharanagat Bhav” mode as an acknowledgement of man’s insignificance in the overall scheme of Creation.

Acknowledgements: The author is indebted to Dr. Milind Malshe, Dr. Padma Sugavanam, and Mrs. Meena Bannerjee for their contribution to the development of this argument. Their agreement with it may not, however, be assumed.

© Deepak S Raja. 2017

Monday, October 2, 2017

"The Surbahar's future? Andhakarmoy" অন্ধকারময় says Smt. Annapoorna Devi

In August 2009, I sought an interview with one of the most distinguished performers on the Surbahar, Smt. Annapoorna Devi. Getting a personal interview was, as anyone can imagine, impossible. But, her husband and Sitarist, the late Prof. Rooshikumar Pandya agreed to help. She dictated to Rooshi Bhai the answers to my questions.I reproduce here the full text of the questions and answers.
Question: Did Alauddin Khansaheb play the Surbahar? If so who were his teachers?
 Answer: No.  Baba played Sarod , Sursingar, violin and several other instruments.  

Question: It is known that Ayat Ali Khansaheb was a Surbahar player. Who were his teachers?
Answer: Baba took Ustad Ayat Ali Khansaheb (his brother) to my Dadaguru Ustad Wazir Khansaheb, Rampur.   Ustad Wazir Khansaheb then taught surbahar to Ustad  Ayat Ali Khansaheb.

Question: Did you study the instrument with Baba or Ayet Alai Khansaheb, or both? 
Answer: I studied under Baba. 

Question: Have you trained any students on the Surbahar? Can I have the names, please?
Answer: Niloufer (Ustad Rais Khan’s sister) did learn from me for some time.  

Question: Would you care to name some of the good Surbahar players she has heard in your times?  What was their background? Whose students were they? 
 Answer: I hardly went out. Didn’t hear any surbahar players. 

Question: Were you taught the 3-mizrab, 2 mizrab, or single mizrab Baj of the Surbahar? With how many mizrabs did you perform? Did you use the little finger for the Chikari, as on the Been?
Answer: I have performed  wearing two mizrabs as well as single mizrab. Yes. I use the  fingernail of the little finger for the chikari. 

Question: In your gharana, has Surbahar been played only for alap-jod-jhala? Or were Dhrupad-Dhamar or Masitkhani bandishes also played on the instrument? 
Answer: In our Gharana surbahar is for alap-jod-jhala -- although occasionally we do play tar paran and Dhrupad compositions. 
Question: Is it right to say that the Surbahar uses only Da (inward) strokes on the Baj string? Or, are Ra (outward) strokes also used?
Answer: Yes. As a rule, this is the Surbahar technique.  However, when not playing pure Dhrupad anga, the Ra stroke are used for playing fast passages in some ragas. 

Question: Is it right to say that the Surbahar melodic idiom is predominantly a "meend" idiom, with virtually no role for fretwork techniques? My experience tells me that Surbahar notes sound lifeless on the frets.
 Answer: True. 

Question: What is the correct/ most common thickness of the Baj string on the Surbahar? Niloufer had told me Rais Khan and she used No. 6. Vilayat Khansaheb, and Imrat Khansaheb use No. 5. What gauge did you use in youth? Is it decided by the acoustic design of the particular instrument?
Answer: I think it is a question of preference.  Some sitar players use no. 3 while some use no 4.  For surbahar some people feel comfortable with no. 6.  I use  no. 5. I do not know much about the acoustic design but I think the person who  does the jawari needs to do it a bit differently for different gauges. 

Question: At what pitch are most Surbahars tuned for solo performance?
Answer: I tune my Saa to the  tivra madhyam of the sitar 

Question: The Surbahar has survived as long as Siatrsists were willing to master two different instruments. Can you give me your views on the future of the Surbahar?  
Answer: Andhakarmoy!     

 (c) Deepak S. Raja 2009

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Critical Environment And The Musical Culture

Seminar on Indian Music & Dance
Seminar theme: The absence of critical attention and analysis
Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla
September 4-6, 2017

The Critical Environment And The Musical Culture

The invitation to participate in this seminar is an opportunity for conceptualizing what I have been doing for almost half of my working life, and interpreting the environment in which I have worked. My familiarity with the critical environment is limited to Hindustani music. Hence all my observations may be considered to pertain only to this tradition. 

Over the last two decades, I have worked in all the media that service the discernment needs of connoisseurs and scholars of Hindustani music –  traditional periodicals media and books, commercial media, and also modern online media. Another half of my professional life has been spent as a media analyst and journalist. Now, I can tie up all the loose ends for my own benefit, while also sharing the experience. 

Defining musical criticism
Musical criticism is a branch of philosophical aesthetics concerned with making judgments about composition, or performance, or both. There is really no organized body of knowledge called “musical criticism”.   The entire history of musical criticism represents a struggle to emerge as a 
suitable tool for coming to terms with the art of music. (Encyclopedia Britannica)

When any activity has to struggle to validate itself, it is obviously functioning in an environment, which is ambivalent towards its usefulness. The uniqueness of music, as an art, is responsible for this ambivalence. This uniqueness is well understood, and not necessary to enumerate here. The ambivalence of the music world towards music criticism will probably remain, and so will music criticism as an activity, because society needs an independent assessment of any art. 

The function of art criticism
“Art needs something outside of itself as a place of reflection, discernment, and connection with the larger world… If you want to engage, if you want discourse, you need criticism… Criticism involves 
making finer and finer distinctions amongst like things. If criticism is devalued, artists and curators have no other choice in the current crisis of relative values but to heed the market’s siren song.” 
(David Levi Strauss, Eminent Art Critic)

The critic assesses art by artistic yardsticks, and protects it from being buffeted by the forces of the market. To this extent, he also influences the market rating of individual artists and individual works of art. It is perfectly understandable, therefore, that a majority of artists should view criticism as a regulatory force. Without doubt, artists have always tolerated, rather than loved, art critics. David Levi Strauss, once again, describes this phenomenon succinctly:

“I used to think that the plight of criticism was to always be the lover, and never the beloved. Criticism needs the art object; but the object doesn’t need criticism. Now, I agree with Baudelaire: “It is from the womb of art that criticism was born. Artists who disparage criticism are attacking 
their own progeny, and future.” 

Music criticism has remained relevant because it has taken a realistic view of the larger reality of art criticism along with the unique features of classical music (more appropriately described as “Art Music”) as an artistic endeavor. This view is best expressed by Harold Schoenberg, who served the New York Times from 1960 to 1980, and was the first music critic to ever to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for journalism

“I write for myself – not necessarily for readers, not for musicians. I’d be dead if I tried to please a particular audience. “Criticism is only informed opinion. I write a piece that is personal reaction based on a lot of years of study, background, scholarship, and whatever intuition I have. It is 
not a critic’s job to be right or wrong. It’s his job to express an opinion in readable English.”

The critic and the music world
Music criticism originated in the 17th and 18th centuries, along with the arrival of newspapers and periodicals. Interestingly, a journal devoted exclusively to classical music appeared as early as 1722. 

With a history of almost three centuries behind him, the critical commentator on music is now accepted as an integral part of the music eco-system. He can be seen as a part of the quality control mechanism that is intended to support the maintenance and enhancement of the artistic standards of the music in circulation. In the performance of his function, he can legitimately hold the other major participants in the eco-system  accountable -- the musicians, their intermediaries (e.g. impresarios/ recording companies/ TV channels etc.), and their audiences/patrons. However, he is, in turn, accountable to them for performing his role with competence and fairness. He cannot also escape the critical evaluation of his own work by his peers in the profession. 

In the contemporary environment, critical endeavors manifest themselves in a wide range of media activity ranging from simple concert reviews to serious musicological discourse, crossing into several allied disciplines such as: cultural anthropology, neuro-acoustics, organology, linguistics, cognitive science etc. 

Generators of critical output
Content of critical value (or critical intent) can be generated by any/all of the following categories of persons:

(a) Newspaper reporters/ editorial staff
(b) Columnists – press/other media
(c) Scholars of music/ allied disciplines
(d) Performing musicians – active/ retired
(e) Connoisseurs
(f) Film makers
(g) Lay audiences

Categories of critical endeavour
For the purposes of this paper, I am treating the music eco-system as analogous to a “market” consisting of service providers (musicians), trade channels (impresarios, and distribution channels for recorded music), and consumers (audiences). 

I am inclined to view critical endeavour as being broadly of four kinds.

a) Personality oriented: In this category, I include all possibilities of coverage of individual musicians – from the strictly personal/ biographical to astute stylistic analysis. 
b) Event oriented: In this category, I include all categories of events such individual performances, individual recordings, specific events such as music festivals, or even seminars and conferences related to music.
c) Trend oriented: In this category, I include the analysis of all linear/cyclical trends, ranging from short term, to long term.  
d) Ideas oriented: In this category, I include endeavors which seek to validate, refine, or redefine existing ideas, or explore new ideas pertaining to any part of the music eco-system. 

This classification of critical content can be understood better in a grid:

In relation to the grid presented here, it is tempting to think of "Critical” content as being predominantly “Trend oriented” or “Ideas oriented”. But, this would be only moderately valid.

Personalities and events can equally effectively be submitted to critical evaluation as epicenters/ protagonists/ initiators/ representatives of trends and ideas. Any of these orientations can be the primary focus of critical assessment, with the others being secondary. 

 Even with respect to categories of media, a simplistic pairing of content categories and 
media cannot be made. The traditional model of academic journals being quarterlies or even annuals, of special interest (connoisseurs) magazines being monthlies, and event oriented coverage being typical of dailies and weeklies no longer holds good. This is particularly so with the growth of online social media, which have made the periodicity of publication irrelevant.

Material of considerable critical and analytical value is now available in the online media through non-text content -- recorded seminars, lectures, and interviews. The engaging potential of non-text content could, in the years to come, make the online media progressively more valuable to the serious scholar/ critic, as the economics of publishing drive the print media out of niche-market coverage. 

Any category of critical content, focused on any of the segments of the classical music eco-system, can now be encountered in any of the media.  It is obvious, of course, that some media may be preferred for carrying certain categories of eco-system focus and critical orientation. In a limited manner, I will consider this issue later in this paper. 

The volume and quality of critical content
The above eco-system/ orientation grid was drawn to examine whether the Indian environment justified a degree of satisfaction with respect to critical endeavour in any of the segments identified. 

It is possible, but not necessary, to survey each medium separately to establish the self-evident and well accepted position  – that the critical landscape of Hindustani music is barren. In this paper, therefore, I propose to present an overview of the musical culture which might begin to explain the barrenness of the critical landscape. My listing is not, by any means, exhaustive. It merely highlights the factors with which I have been confronted.

The critic as a service provider
My professional training is that of an economist. Hence, I will look at the Art music universe as a “market” or an “eco-system”. Just as the musician is a service provider, the critic may also be viewed as a service provider to other members of the eco-system. He exists and functions only as effectively as other members of the eco-system require and enable him to do. In short, the volume and quality of critical content generated will depend on the demand for it. Whether the demand for a critic’s services is supported by remuneration, or not, is not germane to this argument. The demand needs to exist in order to create a supply – whether paid or honorary. 

My view is that in the last 50 years, the demand for critical content within India has shrunk. The demand has shrunk because the demand for classical music itself has shrunk– in absolute terms and also as a percentage of the population. This connection is obvious because the demand for discernment is a subset of the demand for its enjoyment. 

While this is true, a circular argument would be equally valid -- that the providers of critical content failed the music community. The crucial distinction between classical music and other categories of music is that its enjoyment grows hand-in-hand with the knowledge of its aesthetic assumptions, and the process of music making. To this extent, the providers of critical and analytical commentary on the music eco-system can be held accountable for the shrinkage of the market for music, along with (and in response to) the shrinkage and deterioration in the quality of critical output. 

Whether viewed from the demand end or the supply end, the picture is uninspiring, and suggests a serious infirmity in our musical culture. 

Social and economic change
Hindustani music, as we know it today, is a legacy of the feudal-agrarian society, patronized largely by the aristocracy. After independence, recording technologies and public broadcasting shifted this music to the urban-industrial-commercial centers of India. Nehruvian India placed a high premium on technological and scientific activity.  Post-Nehru liberalization unleashed a powerful commercialism into India’s culture. As a result, the humanities and arts have been progressively pushed into a small corner of the nation’s agenda. 

A neo-Marxian view of this transition would also be in order.  The technologies of income generation determine culture. The growing importance of manufacturing and commerce as the predominant sources of livelihood in urban India created a large bourgeois class. The emergence of this class substantially influenced society’s relationship with music and, hence, also its expectations from classical music. The emerging India created a strong bias in favor of the enjoyment of music in preference to, and even to the exclusion of, discernment. The distinction between the demand for discernment, and the demand for enjoyment of music is fundamental to my argument as outlined in this paper. 

In a democratic society, it was also natural that public policy would be broadly populist, though not necessarily anti-culture. This is reflected in the steady fading away of public broadcasting as a purveyor of classical music, and the gross neglect of publicly funded academic institutions.  

The failure of public broadcasting
The share of Hindustani classical music in the total broadcasting time on the Northern, Western and Eastern stations of AIR has shrunk steadily over the last 50 years.  State support of the film industry (never too obvious to the general public) and the emergence of the gramophone record brought a massive amount of capital to support the growth of popular music. Classical music’s primary protection against the onslaught of popular (film) music was its substantial and free accessibility on the medium wave (local) channels of All India Radio.

No willful neglect can be alleged, as the forces of democracy were at play. We are witnessing merely the ignorance among our rulers of how classical music remains alive – how an involvement in Art music is cultivated and sustained. 

A familiarity with classical music is acquired through a largely involuntary and mysterious process involving involuntary exposure, imitation and intuition. Musically sensitive people learn classical music merely by living in an environment of ample availability. This process is akin to learning a language. A familiarity, once acquired, can grow into connoisseurship, scholarship, or musicianship. 

The hard-core classical music audiences of today are predominantly above 60. They were cultivated largely by the ample availability of classical music on All India Radio in their childhood and youth. Based on my observation and exploratory research, I venture to suggest that Hindustani music failed to involve perhaps two complete generations of urban Indians. Admittedly, several other forces are at play in this regard.  But, public broadcasting cannot escape a substantial part of the responsibility. 

All India Radio virtually abandoned the nursery which nurtured the classical music community, and allowed Hindustani Art music – and indeed several other categories of Indian music -- to be swamped by the tidal wave of popular music.With specific reference to critical content, a far less pardonable neglect is visible in the academic system, which is explicitly paid for generating the demand as well as supply of critical material focused on Hindustani classical music. 

Failure of the academic system
The academic system consists primarily of universities which grant degrees in classical music. The need for a comprehensive review of this system has been discussed at several seminars on music education. An important reality of this system – among several others – is that it does not recognize scholarship as an independent pursuit (independently of performance), except perhaps at the doctoral level. 

Our universities employ a large number of scholars, from whom they can demand high quality of critical output to qualify for employment or promotion. These scholars guide a large number of doctoral aspirants, on whom demanding standards of scholarship can be imposed for the grant of a degree. There is scant evidence to suggest that either of these mandates is being fulfilled. 

Outside the universities, the Indian academic system consists of distance learning and examining bodies like the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya and the Prayag Sangeet Sabha. Their certifications are considered on par with those of Indian universities. The demand for their qualifications, though numerically large, appears focused on Bachelor-parity certifications. These non-government institutions neither aim to groom scholars, nor appear to produce them in significant numbers. 

It stands, however, to the credit of the academic system that its syllabus-based examination process has created a decent supply of text-books which provide a panoramic view of the Hindustani music tradition. These text-books are published in several languages and make basic knowledge available to a large number of examination candidates. It is, of course, debatable, whether these text-books would qualify as “critical” literature in the strictest sense of the term.

This large and qualified human resource associated with the universities as faculty and degree aspirants has a poor record of creating either the volume or the quality of scholarly output commensurate with the resources that society has invested in them. 

When a serious researcher on Hindustani music – whether Indian or foreign – starts looking for significant Indian material, he ends up relying largely on scholars who neither had qualifications in musicology, nor teaching jobs in academia to support their pursuit of musicology. Their specific names are not important; the pattern is well known and sufficiently eloquent. 

The size and nature of the classical music community
According to recording industry sources, Hindustani classical music accounted for about 1% of the total recorded music market about 20 years ago. It is obvious that only a small proportion of buyers of recordings would welcome access to critical content aiding their discernment of aesthetic values.  This is an indication of the considerations that drive the traditional print media, which relies on numbers for economic viability. 

The viability issue is aggravated by the fact this microscopic audience for critical content is now scattered all over the world, and represents a diverse linguistic profile. Even within India, a special-interest magazine for Hindustani music connoisseurs cannot be economically viable in Hindi or English.  To appeal to a majority of its potential readers, it would need to be published in at least four languages – English, Hindi, Bengali and Marathi. The economics of such an enterprise can be absurd.

Similar constraints militate against the viability of book publishing for the classical music connoisseur or scholar. Book publishing, however, remains reasonably active in the field of musicology, and is able to circumvent the limitations of scale through appropriate cost management and pricing strategies. 

Commercial pressures on the periodicals media
Historically, the major periodical publishing houses have played an important role in servicing the classical music eco-system. These publishing houses had a diversified portfolio of dailies, weeklies, and monthlies in several languages. Over the last two decades, they have been subjected to several pressures which make the coverage of classical music unattractive and uneconomical. As a result, they are drifting towards insignificance.

Firstly, the periodicals publishing business is far more dependent on advertising revenue than subscription revenue. Classical music coverage itself does not either encourage subscriber loyalty or attract advertising revenue. Classical music competes for space against advertising, and non-culture editorial content with broad-spectrum public appeal. Its appearance in the newspaper columns is either an act of compassion or subversion or, worse, a random occurrence.   

Secondly, the dependence on advertising revenue makes publishers/ editors vulnerable to pressures which can compromise the integrity and of their coverage of the arts. Publishers and editors can easily take the view that they do not need such pressures just to service a microscopic reader segment, which also does not attract additional advertising revenue. 

Till recently, a few diversified periodicals publishing houses, – such as Times of India, The Hindu, The Hindustan Times, The Ananda Bazar Patrika, The Deccan Herald etc. -- whose owners have some commitment to culture, had retained a significant presence in the discerning coverage of classical music. Some had full-time Arts Editors of considerable scholarly credentials. However, diversified publishing houses are fewer and fewer, as weeklies and fortnightlies started winding up with television robbing them of their advertising support. These once-diversified publishers are 
increasingly dependent on their dailies for their profitability. 

In their very nature, dailies are limited in terms of what kind of coverage they can meaningfully offer of the performing arts. Their ability to secure reader involvement is now seriously threatened by the online social media with their immediacy of coverage. 

The online/ social media
The online/ social media potentially offer solutions to most of the limitations of the traditional print media we have considered above. Their most important strength is that they have turned the traditional logic of the media upside down. In the traditional media, the message went looking for its audience. In the online space, it is the audience that is looking for the message. 

Irrespective of the eco-system focus and depth of coverage that a Hindustani music critic/ scholar offers, there will be somebody somewhere in the world looking for it.  True to its potential, the internet is now flooded with scores of platforms for access to information and knowledge on Hindustani music. Almost all provide free access, and are produced and edited through voluntary efforts. In this sense, the internet permits any music enthusiast to engage with the music world in any manner he wishes, and find a responsive audience. 

The biggest casualty of this abundance is the professional critic, who was once paid by print media publishers to service the classical music community with competence and impartiality. The implications of this phenomenon are obvious. Online content is uploaded by people with the most to gain from its publication. In the online media, a perennial question mark hangs over the impartiality of the critic’s function, the reliability of the information purveyed, and the soundness of the assessment proffered.  

The consequences
Serious Indian musicologists are obliged to rely on the critical output of scholars groomed in the Western academic tradition. The Western tradition is to be respected for its academic rigor. But there is a worrisome implication to a total reliance on it for the study of Hindustani music.

To paraphrase the eminent musicologist, Prof. Ashok Ranade, music supports three categories of literature – (1) writing “about” music, (2) writing “related to” music, and (3) writing “on” music. This third category demands "getting into" the music, before it can be critically tackled. It is, therefore, this third category, “writing ON music” for which the Indian connoisseur/ critic/ scholar is uniquely qualified, and the Western scholar singularly handicapped. 

Hindustani music is totally unlike Western music because it has no existence as music, except in performance. Hindustani music is unique in being meditative, expressive, and communicative at the same time. The concepts and methods of Western scholarship are not designed to handle the complex simultaneity of composition and performance. Western scholarship is also ill-equipped to interpret the dimension of “cultural meaning”, that lies beyond musical meaning. 

It is also significant that in the US/European tradition, musicology is treated as an independent branch of knowledge and academic pursuit. As a profession unto itself, it can set academic goals entirely unrelated to the dynamics of the performing tradition. By an excessive reliance on Western scholarship, critical examination of issues in Hindustani music risks a disconnect between itself and the performing tradition. 

Critical endeavors in Hindustani music need to account for the uniquely Indian relationship between the musician and his art, between the musician and his audiences, and between the aesthetic assumptions of the art and the larger traditions of Indian thought. 

Academic traditions are not culture-neutral, nor are their research methodologies. Their yardsticks of excellence differ; consequently, their methods of evaluation also differ.  To state this differently, a microscope is not the most useful observation device, when you need a telescope – or vice versa. 

Critical output emerging in an environment dominated by Western scholarship may win academic laurels, and acquire an international following amongst Hindustani music enthusiasts. But, if Indian scholarship cannot establish a meaningful dialog with the performing tradition, both the traditions will be heading for sterility. 

© Deepak S. Raja
Shimla: September, 4, 2017