Thursday, August 10, 2017

Book Review: Biography of Smt. Gangubai Hangal by Deepa Ganesh

Title: A life in three octaves
Subtitle: The musical journey of Gangubai Hangal
Author: Deepa Ganesh
Publisher: Three Essays Collective, Gurgaon, 
First edition: 2014
Pages: 220. 
Price: Hard Cover: Rs. 600

This biographical work on the towering Hindustani vocalist, Gangubai Hangal (1913-2009), is based on a series of visits the author made to the diva’s home, and extensive interviews with people close to her subject. The author’s discovery of this extraordinary personality spans a period of 4 years (2005-2009).

The book traces the emergence of Northern Karnataka as a powerhouse of Hindustani classical music during the colonial period. Substantial credit for it goes to the Wodeyar princes of Mysore, who were patrons to the finest musicians of the Carnatic and Hindustani traditions alike. Hubli, Dharwad and Belgaum were natural stop-overs for Hindustani musicians travelling between their homes and the Mysore Court. This led to an exchange of musical ideas between Hindustani and Carnatic musicians of the region.  

From the late 19th century, the bi-lingual region, (Kannada + Marathi) enthusiastically patronized Marathi theater, which featured some of the finest Hindustani musicians of the era. From the dawn of the 20th century, the gramophone record made the finest Hindustani musicians – from within and outside regional theater – household names in Northern Karnataka. Simultaneously, the missionary work of Bhatkhande and Vishnu Digambar – both from Maharashtra -- had begun to democratize the musical culture.  The prestige of Hindustani music shot up immensely in the region, as religious leaders attached to the Lingayat monasteries became proficient in Hindustani music, and started imparting training to young aspirants.  This configuration of forces enabled the emergence of Gangubai as a significant musical persona.

The Kirana gharana founder, Abdul Kareem Khan, visited Hubli often, became an admirer of Gangubai’s mother, Ambabai, a Carnatic musician, and allowed his own music to be influenced by her musicianship. Young Gangubai was taught Carnatic music at home, but succumbed to the attraction of Hindustani music, which played from the gramophones of every neighborhood tea stall.  After an aborted apprenticeship with Krishnamacharya, a local Hindustani vocalist, Gangubai ended up as a disciple of Rambhau Kundgolkar (Sawai Gandharva) from nearby Kundgol, the foremost disciple of the Kirana gharana founder, Abdul Kareem Khan.

The book deals adequately with Gangubai’s family and social circumstance. Her mother, Ambabai, was a Carnatic vocalist nurtured in the Devadasi tradition. She was greatly respected for her musicianship, but ostracized socially for her lower-caste birth and her profession. According to the Devadasi tradition, Ambabai became the subordinate (non co-habiting) wife of an upper-caste landlord, and headed a matriarchal family, dependent on her earnings as a musician. For Gangubai, her father, Chikurao Nadiger, represented an occasional and irrelevant presence during her mother’s lifetime. Ambabai died while Gangubai was still in her teens. 

 Gangubai became the breadwinner of the family, which included her two maternal uncles, and their growing families. Her uncles’ contribution to the household expenses was unstable. At its peak, her family of dependents numbered 20. Gangubai herself accepted the role of a subordinate wife to Gururaj Kaulgi, a Brahmin widower, who gave Gangubai three children and a host of financial problems arising from his incompetence as a breadwinner. For Gangubai, starvation was the only alternative to success as a musician. The greatness came because the survival anxiety never left her.

Deepa Ganesh’ work details painstakingly the role of her maternal uncle, Ramanna, in preparing Gangubai for her career in music with a fatherly presence, substantially replacing her mother, Ambabai as the anchor of her life. Ramanna used the good offices of a family friend, Dattopant Desai, to place Gangubai under the apprenticeship of Rambhau Kundgolkar, and acted as her protector and companion on her daily trips from Hubli to Kundgol for her tuitions. Rambhau was the principal disciple of Abdul Kareem Khan, who had enriched his musical vision by studying with several other maestros from other lineages.

As a result, he had carved out an illustrious career as a singer-actor in regional theater. After his withdrawal from the nomadic life of the theater, he became available as a Guru. Because of Gangubai’s devotion to him, and fastidious compliance with his teaching, she soon became his favorite disciple. He kept a hawk’s eye on her commercial recordings, and radio broadcasts for compliance with his training. Her musicianship flowered under his demanding care. The bond of devotion between the Guru and disciple was such that Gangubai brought Rambhau to her own home along with his wife and cared for him for three years after his paralytic stroke. In return, even during his last days, even as he was sinking, Rambhau insisted on teaching Gangubai newer Raga-s and compositions.

Gangubai’s professional career was virtually launched in the electronic media. By the 1930s, the radio and the gramophone record were fast growing in reach and popularity, and were hungry for talent. On these platforms, starting in 1936, Gangubai was able to build a national reputation as a formidable musician. Soon after her professional debut, she had a serious problem with her throat. The surgery deprived her voice of its feminity and agility. She was left with a masculine voice of limited maneuverability and range. (The title of the book, in this context, is ironic) What ensued was an intense struggle to re-invent her repertoire and her approach to music. She transformed this setback into a unique musical asset, and continued to acquire a following.

She enjoyed immense stature on the concert circuit between 1950 and 1970, but continued to perform ,as her vitality levels would permit, until a few years before the end came. The shower of recognition and awards had begun as early as 1948, and grew into a torrent. This included honorary Doctorates from several Universities, the fellowships of performing arts academies, nominations to houses of state and central legislatures, and the Padma awards. As her performing career waned, Gangubai, a well-informed and well-read lady, allowed herself to evolve into a public personality, heard with respect on social issues for her wisdom and simplicity of demeanor.

Besides her uncle and her Guru, the two anchors of her life after her mother’s demise, the book deals appropriately with some other special relationships Gangubai developed during her life.  During her apprenticeship with Rambhau, she developed a warm fraternal relationship with Bhimsen Joshi, a few years her junior. Two of her seniors in the profession, Kesarbai Kerkar, and Hirabai Barodekar, developed great affection for Gangubai, and furthered he career. Mallikarjun Mansoor, a childhood friend, remained a close friend of her family throughout. 

As her career blossomed, she developed a personal friendship with Mrs. Sushila Ambike, and Professor of Sanskrit in Delhi University, and earned the admiration of Mr. HY Sharda Prasad, the media advisor to Mrs. Indira Gandhi. The famous Kannada poet, DR Bendre, who was once her teacher in school, became her close friend and admirer, giving her access to a presence in the social and political life of Northern Karnataka.

The author presents an elaborate picture of Gangubai’s rootedness to her native Dharwad, to her responsibilities as the head of her household, to her family and to the kitchen as the object of her lifelong struggle for economic security and the vehicle for her hospitality. (Appropriately, the book even ends with two of her favourite recipes). Gangubai accepted all the financial strains of her domestic  responsibilities, and denied herself comforts and luxuries of all kinds in order to fulfil them. Her only relationship that the author rightly places under a microscope is the one with her daughter Krishna.

Krishna was Gangubai’s first child, born to her when she was only 16. She was never formally trained in music. But, she had a melodious and agile voice, an exceptional musical mind, and a natural flair. In addition, she was an extremely well-organised person. Krishna speedily became Gangubai’s concert planner, and manager. Her musical role began as an accompanist, but grew into that of a partner, and as Gangubai’s vitality levels diminished, ended finally as lead singer. Gangubai evidently found it convenient to deny Krishna her own life, and found arguments to justify her convenience. Krishna’s marriage was never considered on the grounds that her constitution was too weak for child-bearing. 

Independent concert engagements for Krishna were blocked because her solo concerts would bring in a much lower fee than a joint concert.  The author believes that Gangubai feared the loneliness that would ensue Krishna’s independence. But, as luck would have it, Krishna succumbed to cancer in her 74th year, leaving Gangubai, then 90, to face a lonely end.

The author recognizes that Gangubai’s  extra-musical persona is more firmly etched in the public mind than her musicianship. There is some merit in the author’s suggestion that Gangubai herself may have shaped this phenomenon by allowing her humble beginnings and her struggles to dominate public attention. The purpose of so doing  -- though perhaps unconscious – would have been to highlight the magnitude of her accomplishments.  

The result was that while her formidable musicianship is acknowledged, its distinctiveness has remained largely undocumented. All that is remembered of her music is her androgynous voice, austere musical vision, soulful delivery, deploying a deliberate, unhurried approach to performance.  The author attempts to partly enlarge the assessment of her musicality by comparing it to that of her leading contemporaries, especially those of the Kirana tradition. This reviewer believes that this task remains yet to be done satisfactorily, and deserves a survey of several senior musicians who had heard Gangubai in her prime.

The details this work provides on Gangubai’s social and economic circumstance,  and her grooming under Rambhau Kundgolkar, have been familiar for long to serious music lovers, especially of the 60+ generation. The author has done well to present these in broad brush strokes rather than the excruciating detail that has appeared earlier elsewhere. What makes this work a comprehensive word picture of a towering personality is the author’s exploration of her life beyond the known. The essential tenor of this biographocal work – and perhaps also its inspiration -- is adulatory, though the author’s scrutiny of Gangubai’s relationship with Krishna is objective enough to avert the charge of gaga journalism. 

The work does occasionally drift towards journalistic “editorializing”, with a stance akin to that of a social scientist. This may irk experienced readers of biographical literature. The book also reveals a feminist streak, which appears contextually unwarranted, except for the incidental reality that this is a woman writer’s work on a lady musician.

The book exposes some lapses at the Editorial Desk. For instance, Gangubai’s son is mentioned variously as “Babu” and “Babanna”. Her daughter-in-law is referred to variously as “Lalitha” and “Lalithakka”. Likewise, Ustad Abdul Kareem Khan is referred to as “Abdul Kareem Khan”, “Kareem Khan”, and “Abdul Kareem Khan Saab”. The standardization of nomenclatures would have greatly helped readers unfamiliar with culture-specific variations. While Kannada words mostly carry translations in parentheses, there are several cases of usage unaccompanied by translations. 

The occasional recourse to musicologically sensitive words may make the serious reader wince. He will, for instance, wonder what the terms “purity of a note” or the “purity of music” are intended to connote.  The larger issue is whether the lay reader will understand any better. The connotation of such phrases is seldom made transparent by the context in which they are used.

The author’s purpose was to “rediscover a woman who occupied a niche in musical folklore”.  The author admits to the limitations of her enquiry arising from the advanced age of her subject and fragility of her recall. Nevertheless, the author’s purpose stands largely fulfilled. The book is a welcome addition to the reservoir of biographical literature on towering 20th century musicians. Its timing ensures that it will attract a readership of young music lovers who may know Gangubai through her recordings, but remember her either as everybody’s idea of a Grandmother, or as the Grand Old Lady of Northern Karnataka.

Reviewer: Deepak Raja 
Review published in THE BOOK REVIEW

Monday, July 17, 2017

Perspectives on "Raga-ness"

The Raza Foundation: Kumar Gandharva Memorial Lecture
New Delhi, July 14, 2017

The eminent musicologist, Prof. Ashok Ranade held that there is something uniquely Indian about a musician’s relationship with his art. He encouraged me to explore how, and to what extent, this relationship is shaped by the phenomenon of the Raga. I am sharing my explorations today, despite the limitations of time and context. The subject is worth discussing also because of its centrality to Hindustani music, and to Kumarji’s music.

The various perspectives are undoubtedly related. But, I am drawing upon several disciplines to explore the territory. A sequential flow of ideas is therefore not always available. The best I can do is present a collage of perspectives in the hope that the connections between them remain transparent.

Raga as a melodic entity

A Raga is a set of rules governing the selection, sequencing, and intonation of swara-s. (Here, I need not deal with all the dimensions of intonation relevant to Raga-ness) This definition validates several derivative descriptions. The eminent aesthetician, Prof. SK Saxena has referred to a Raga as a melodic matrix governing composition and improvisation. Some Western scholars have referred to a Raga as a partially composed melody.

Raga, the melodic entity, however, does not explicitly encompass its aesthetic dimensions.  The Raga phenomenon is inseparable from its emotional potency -- the notion of Rasa. However, Rasa is, in itself, an inexhaustible subject, and is better handled separately.

Raga as a Melodic Representation of an Emotional Idea

Interestingly, the word “राग ”, in itself, has no melodic meaning at all.  It is derived from the Sanskrit verb “रंजन ” = to color or to tinge. The word is rarely encountered in isolated usage. It is generally encountered as a part of emotionally potent words like अनुराग / वैराग्य .

"A Raga is born from the act of colouring or delighting: this has been said to be its etymology. That which colours or delights the minds of the good (emphasis mine) through a specific swara (interval) and varna (intervallic transitions) or through a type of dhwani (sound) is known by the wise (emphasis mine) as Raga." Matanga in Bruhaddeshi (800 AD)

These observations have two implications: Firstly, that a Raga is a melodic representation of an emotional idea. Secondly, that the melody delivers its emotional charge through the artistic prowess of the musician, and is accessible only to the “Good” and the “Wise”. In this context, Prof. Saxena observes that the “goodness or excellence that is needed for being delighted is aesthetic sensitiveness and not moral purity”.

The Raga’s communicative efficacy is thus attributed to the receptivity of the listener, as much as the competence of the performer. So, a Raga is a rule-based system of sounds, used by its adepts for communicating emotional ideas to those who are cultivated in the interpretation of the sounds as emotional stimuli. When a medium of communication restricts its usefulness to a well-defined community, it qualifies as a language.

For various reasons, experts in linguistics will not grant the status of a language to music.  This is understandable because we are looking at a different kind of language -- a specialist language for the pleasurable communication of emotional ideas. If it is a different kind of language, it can have its own conceptual framework, which need not conform to the framework applied to spoken and written languages such as English or Hindi.

Raga Music as a language

For the purposes of this presentation, I will focus on those features that permit us to consider music a language, and a Raga as a particular kind of linguistic statement.

A language is a voluntary means of interaction between members of a community. Being voluntary, it is used for a purpose -- eliciting a response. In a rather simplistic formulation -- the response to any communication may be in the nature of (a) accepting/ rejecting information (b) confirming or altering belief (c) activating a feeling (d) triggering action. In this context, Raga music may be considered a specialist language for activating an emotional trigger amongst those capable of interacting through the medium of Raga music.

A language can support several genres of literature (e.g. short story, novel, poetry etc.). A user can create entirely novel genres/ structures and yet be understood. This is true of Raga music.

The precise process by which a user learns a language is one of the inscrutable areas of cultural anthropology. Despite this, a language can be analyzed in terms of its own conventions of usage. Hence, a person who knows one language can learn another. I state this feature with some caveats.

Languages are, by definition, “parochial", in the sense that their knowledge defines a distinct community – even an identity. Likewise, all art music traditions are considered “parochial”, though some traditions may be more “parochial” than others. Languages do function as barriers against unwelcome cultural intrusions. Likewise, it appears to me that the phenomenon of Raga-ness has been a barrier to the mastery of our musical tradition for the music community cultivated elsewhere.

Raga as a linguistic statement

To paraphrase Noam Chomsky, an immensely influential voice in linguistics: A language fulfils its communicative purpose through statements of finite length (sentences/ statements) incorporating a finite number of patterns (vocabulary) assembled from a finite set of sounds (alphabets/ phonemes), arranged in a predictable sequence (syntax).

In this sense, every Raga may be defined as a “statement”, because it uses a finite set of swara-s to construct a finite set of patterns, and arranges them in a consistent and predictable sequence to fulfil its communicative purpose.

Where, then, is the problem with recognizing Raga as a linguistic statement? The issue concerns the theory of meaning.

A language is an arbitrary system of communication, relying for its communicative function in the “habitual” association of sounds with their meaning. Linguistics theory recognizes four levels of meaning for a statement: (a) Acoustic/ phonetic meaning – the meaning delivered by the sounds (b) lexical meaning – sound patterns (words/phrases) (c) Syntactical meaning – the meaning delivered by the arrangement/ sequence of sound patterns (d) Referential meaning – meaning derived by implicit/ explicit reference to statements other than itself. These criteria are sufficiently met by Raga-s.

The main hindrance to the acceptance of music –any music -- as a language rests largely on the proposition that music does not support the notion of “lexical meaning”. In the present context of Raga-ness, this objection can be questioned. Each Raga qualifies almost entirely as a linguistic statement, and is understood by the members of the Raga music community – just as a statement in any spoken language is understood by its “native” ethnic-linguistic community.

Having said this, we can still accept that a dictionary of the emotional meaning of Raga-s is not even a remote possibility, while the dictionaries of English or German are useful guides to meaning. But are they more than guides? Any dictionary provides a number of meanings for each word, which may, in different contexts, have different communicative intent. So even lexical meaning cannot be said to deliver 100% correspondence between a communicative intent and its comprehension.

I am suggesting that the difference between lexical meaning of a spoken language and Raga music is probabilistic in nature. A statement in English made to an English-knowing person may have, say, 80% chance of being understood precisely as intended. In comparison, a Raga, performed competently for a Raga-knowing audience may have a far lower chance of achieving its communicative intent. This “far lower” has to exceed 50%; otherwise, it cannot remain in circulation.

In scientific language, a high probability relationship between cause and effect is called a “Theory”, while a moderate/ indeterminate probability relationship describes a “Hypothesis”. Therefore, a statement in English or Spanish is the product of a psycho-linguistic “Theory” of communicative efficiency. Even a pre-composed piece of music is a “Theory” of communicative value. But, a Raga can only be considered a “Hypothesis”.

A Raga as a Psycho-acoustic Hypothesis

The Raga hypothesis may be stated as follows:
"Certain swara-s, habitually sequenced and intoned in a particular manner, have an acceptable probability of eliciting a certain category of emotional response."

The Hypothesis is plausible because it represents society’s accumulated and collective experience of associating certain sound patterns with certain emotional ideas. Even in an exact science, a hypothesis is not arbitrary. It is supported either by critical observation or astute speculation. In science, every hypothesis invites/ attracts conclusive evidence of predictable outcomes and aspires to become a theory.  A Raga, however, never intends to become a theory. It remains perennially a hypothesis, tested uniquely each time it is performed.

The question then arises – from where does a Raga accumulate the evidence to accomplish a high probability of an emotional response? A simple answer is – he draws on the cultural memory. My view is that, the associations of the sound patterns of a Raga with their meaning reside in the collective unconscious, just as the associations of words in a spoken or written language reside in memory of the culture in which the language has evolved.

What, then, is a performance of a Raga?

A Raga is a Formless Form -- formless because it represents only a possibility of an aesthetically coherent and emotionally satisfying manifestation. And, a Form because it has distinct and recognizable contours. A performance of Raga music is an attempt by the musician to draw upon the “Formless Form” of the Raga resident in the cultural memory, and translate it into a communicable form with the aim of maximizing the probability of eliciting the emotional response latent in its melodic structure.

Each time such an attempt is made, the total inventory of melodic ideas within the recognizable boundaries of a Raga is being altered – some ideas are added while some are deducted. Thus, while each performance is governed by a Raga, it also shapes/ reshapes the Raga. From this phenomenon, we derive the notion of a Raga as a dynamic consensual melodic entity.

A Raga as a Consensual Entity

The consensual personality of a Raga is the sum total of the melodic ideas that have been deployed in the attempt to communicate the emotional charge latent in the Formless Form to listeners. It is like a bank from which a musician draws while performing, and which he replenishes in the process of performing.

It is interesting to compare this feature of Raga-ness to the behavior of the stock market. The investment value – the price -- of a stock is being determined and re-determined constantly by the trading activities of individual investors. However, the investment value – as reflected in the price – is also constantly determining and re-determining the trading decisions of individual investors. This is a circular argument; but it is true to the behavior of the stock market, and of the melodic personalities of a Raga.  One of the world’s most influential investors, George Soros (The Alchemy of Finance), describes this as “Auto-reflexivity”.

“Auto-reflexivity” is a phenomenon characteristic of interactions between a multiplicity of independent intelligent beings. We have often heard it said –“the market has a mind of its own” and, indeed, it does. The market is credited with an independent intelligence despite being merely a collective expression of investor trades. Likewise, the Raga can be seen as an independent intelligence, despite being a collective expression of individual melodic interpretations of it.

The dynamics of a Raga’s consensual personality are also driven by the economic interests of the participants in the process. A musician is an economic being. He draws upon, and contributes to, the consensual personality of Raga-s in a manner that enables his music to remain aesthetically relevant to contemporary audiences. This is comparable to the economic interests of an investor, who wants to remain relevant as an investor.

The metaphor can be stretched farther. But, it is not necessary to do so in the present context.

There is, of course, also a divergent view– that a Raga is an autonomous entity. This view is reflected in the “Commanding Form” proposition favored by Prof. Susheel Saxena with reference to Hindustani music. The proposition draws on the work of Prof. Susanne Langer, the American philosopher of art.

Raga as the Commanding Form

In the context of Western art music, Langer accords the status of the “Commanding Form” to the composition, because it is the composition which determines the entire process of invention and elaboration. Prof. Saxena argues that, in Hindustani music, the Raga rightfully occupies this status.

He denies this status to the composition (bandish) because, even the composition has to be in conformity with the Raga. In terms of the musician’s attentiveness, too, the Raga shapes the totality of performance more comprehensively than the specific detail of the bandish.

This idea invites some reservations. There cannot be more than one “Commanding Form”.  So, the “Commanding Form” proposition has to choose between the Raga and the composition. Without detailing the reservations, it is unlikely that the music community will accept such an Either/ Or proposition relating Raga-s to Bandish-es.

The Raga as a transcendental entity

A reconciliation of these divergent views was made possible, predictably, by resorting to the essential transcendentalism of Indian thought. The insight emerged during my conversations with Ustad Vilayat Khan.

I once prodded Khan Saheb into sharing his vision of Raga-ness.

A Raga is much bigger than the collective imagination of all the musicians who have ever lived and will ever be born. We struggle all our lives to catch a glimpse of a Raga. May be, once in a lifetime, on a day when God is smiling upon us, we may get a fleeting glimpse of it. And, on that day, we can feel that we have validated our lives as musicians”.

If a Raga is so vast, where are the boundaries of each Raga?

“The limits of a Raga’s personality are drawn only where the boundaries of another Raga are breached”.

In these observations, Khan Saheb makes the connection between the consensual melodic personality of a Raga and its Formless Form. The Formless Form has an autonomous, and virtually divine, existence which a musician constantly aspires to access by penetrating/ transcending the consensual personality of a Raga. A Raga performance is thus a contemplative act, and the relationship of the musician with the Raga is essentially reverential.

The influential German composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen probably refers to this feature in his book “Towards a Cosmic Music”, when he says:

When a musician walks on stage, he should give that fabulous impression of a person who is doing a sacred service. In India…, when a group of musicians are performing, you don’t feel they do it to entertain you. They do it as holy service. They feel a need to make sounds, and these sounds are waves on which you ride to the eternal.”

Stockhausen describes the sense of awe with which the Indian musician undertakes the task of performing a Raga. The spirit of reverential surrender is articulated in the Ragavibodha of Somnatha (1609 AD):

“That is called Rupa (form) which by being embellished with sweet flourishes of swara-s brings a Raga vividly before one’s mind. It is of two kinds – Nadatma (one whose soul or essence is sound), and Devamaya, one whose soul or essence is an image incarnating the deity), of which the former has many shapes, and the latter has only one” (5.11)

Being a “formless form”, and the object of contemplation, the Raga is viewed as a Divinity to whom the musician prays, entreating it to descend into its melodic form. This idea is entirely consistent with Hindu thought – that humans can access the निराकार/ निर्गुण  (Formless/ free from attributes/ the Divine) through an intense engagement with the साकार/सगुण  (the manifest form/ the one possessing attributes).  Raga music can thus be viewed as a form of melodic polytheism.

The notion of a Raga as a transcendental entity, possessing an autonomous existence in the cultural memory, encourages us to consider the notion of archetypes in modern psycho-analytical thought.

Deities, Raga-s, & Archetypes

I was intrigued by a recent news item that archeologists had discovered a 3000 year old sculpture of Lord Vishnu in an ancient temple in Cambodia. The immediate question that arose in my mind was – how did they identify Lord Vishnu? I found the answer in the same news item – the image had four hands, respectively holding Shankha (Conch Shell), Chakra (Rotor blade weapon), Gada (Mace), and Padma (Lotus).

I infer from this that a four-armed human-like form with Shankha, Chakra, Gada, and Padma, has constituted the identifying feature of a Hindu Divinity for at least 3000 years. He may have had different names in the past – we do not know.

Over these 3000 years, millions of artists have portrayed Vishnu with these identifying features, adding to them their own notions of other attributes. The idea of Vishnu has a 1000 attributes (श्री विष्णु सहस्रनाम ). But, Vishnu is not Vishnu without these four attributes.

Vishnu is a (probably) timeless image deeply embedded in the Hindu psyche, which elicits a predictable response appropriate to the associations which are etched in the cultural memory. Vishnu is an archetype in the sense in which Carl Jung expounded the idea. And, so are other deities, with their identifying physical attributes, and personality traits.

Like deities, Raga-s possess identifying features which connect with their emotional associations embedded in the cultural memory. Raga-s in Indian classical music exhibit similar characteristics, and can be viewed as archetypal entities in the Jungian sense.

Superficially, it might seem that deities and Raga-s are different because one is visual, while the other is aural.  This is not a significant issue. Firstly, the Archetype is formless, and can manifest itself aurally or visually. Secondly, there is a well-established phenomenon in Hindustani music of Raga-s being “visualized”.  And, these tendencies may well have some universal/physiological basis – modern neuro-science is tending to suggest that, the visual and aural faculties are intimately connected.

In confirmation, we have Raga-Dhyana verses; we have Raga-mala paintings, and we also have articulated linkages between the aural and visual contemplations of Raga-s.

Ustad Vilayat Khan often said – “There is an eye sitting inside a musician’s ears, and ears sitting inside a musician’s eyes”.... “.A Raga should be so performed, that you can see it standing there, right before you.(Quoted by Namita Devidayal in “The Music Room”)

What are archetypes?

The word “archetype” derives from the Greek noun “archetupos”, meaning that which is “first molded”.  It signifies a model or a type after which other similar things are patterned.  The idea of archetypes goes back to Plato. The cultural ramifications of the notion have entered academic discourse since Carl Jung dealt extensively with them.

In Jungian thought, archetypes are collectively inherited ideas, or  primordial images, patterns of thought, that are universally present in the human psyche. They may manifest themselves as recurring symbols or motifs in dreams, literature, painting, iconography, music, mythology, and legends, sharing similar traits. Jung treated archetypes as psychological organs, analogous to physical ones, in that both are morphological constructs that arose through evolution.

Archetypes do not have a well-defined shape, but acquire a definitive form “from the moment they become conscious, namely nurtured with the stuff of conscious experience”. Basically, an archetype is an empty nothing, pregnant with an innate tendency of shaping things.

The usage of archetypes in art helps the work to win widespread/universal acceptance. This is because audiences can relate to, and identify with, the underlying themes both socially and culturally.

The features of the archetype I wish to emphasize in the present context are:

(a) They are primordial images
(b) They are formless forms
(c) They manifest themselves variously without losing their identity
(d) They are collectively inherited by a culture/ universally
(e) Their “meaning” is understood unconsciously/ intuitively

These characteristics of Jungian archetypes permit us to view Raga-s as archetypal entities.

Archetypes as cultural forces

Literature on Archetypes is not unanimous about whether Archetypes are universal or culture-specific. With respect to Raga-s, my view is that they are, essentially, culture-specific archetypes. Here I draw upon the crucial distinction between the Raga as a “Consensual Melodic Entity” and the Raga as an “Archetypal Entity”.

For their aesthetic coherence and elegance, the consensual melodic entity can appeal to musically sensitive persons cultivated in other cultures. But, the entire gamut of associations inherent in the Raga Archetype is accessible only to persons rooted in Indian culture. When you take either a cultivated North Indian musician or a cultivated North Indian audience out of the picture, there is a substantial “De-contextualization” taking place, and the communication loses some of its access to the cultural memory. The result is some loss of meaning.

I would support this view with some examples:

Easily understood examples relate to Time Theory of Raga-s. In this I include the concept of seasonal Raga-s. It has adequate textual support in classical musicological literature. The theory has often been dismissed as fanciful and arbitrary by Western musicologists. It is essentially a musical expression of our relationship with nature as experienced in Northern India.

It is interesting that Carnatic music has no sympathy for these prescriptions, and for good reason. Being closer to the equator, the Peninsular South does not experience as marked a fluctuation in temperature and humidity across different parts of the day/night, or between the different parts of the year as the Sub-Himalayan North does.

Extend this logic to a musician or audience in Japan or Sweden, and the entire notion becomes meaningless. But, it remains meaningful to Hindustani musicians because they infuse into their music that something -- tangible or otherwise, consciously or otherwise  – which connects with the cultural memory.

First, I consider the example of संधि प्रकाश Raga-s – those prescribed for performance around sunrise and sunset. The defining feature of these Raga-s is the use of Komal (flat) Re (2nd) and Komal (flat) Dh (6th).  This family of Raga-s is treated as solemn by the Hindustani music community. Why?

The sun remains the primordial deity in Vedic religion – the all-powerful Gayatri Mantra is to be recited at sunrise, noon, and sunset. In a rural-agrarian society preceding the advent of electricity, every facet of life was governed by sunlight. The traditional Indian family gathers around the family temple at sunrise and sunset for the Arati.  In several Indian languages, these time zones are called गोधूलि बेला  – the time when the cows kick up clouds of dust on the village roads, going out to pasture, and returning home. Sunset is the time when homes in several parts North India light a lamp near the earthen water pitcher in the kitchen with the sentiment that the spirits of departed ancestors could be thirsty and might visit home to quench their thirst. The lamp indicates the location of the pitcher and is a symbol of welcome. The cultivated Indian musical mind is unconsciously attuned to these associations of Raga-s like Ramkali or Shree. These ideas are uniquely Indian.

Consider the associations related to particular melodic phrases. I cite the example of नी ' ध  नी  सा  (komal Ni, Shuddha Dh, Shuddha Ni, Sa) both deployed – though slightly differently – as the signature phrases of Bahar and Malhar. I find it significant that Bahar is a Raga of spring, heralding relief from the severe North Indian winter, and Malhar is the Raga of the rainy season, heralding relief from the oppressive North Indian summer.

In both these seasons, nature renews itself, and justifies expressions of euphoria. What explains the euphoric connotation of this phrase? Nothing, except that a Raga is our language, and statements in our language mean what they mean – only to us.  Any musician or listener in the world can relate to the consensual melodic personality of Bahar or Malhar. But, Indians effortlessly imbue this phrase with the entire community’s experience of the seasons.

Examples of a different kind are Raga-s named after deities.  Consider Shankara or Durga. Both are formidable deities. Their consensual melodic personalities are easily accessible to any musician or listener anywhere. But, only a Hindustani musician can visualize and communicate the awesome attributes of the Archetypal Shiva or Durga with an appropriate treatment of poetry, melody and rhythm.

According to an impeccable source, Ustad Naseer Ameenuddin Dagar stated at a seminar many years ago, that a good Dhrupad singer has to be a devotee of Lord Krishna. Dhrupad poetry, as you know, is replete with the mythical romance of Lord Krishna and Radha. We do not need to agree or disagree with this statement. But we can appreciate the point he was making.

In my view, Raga-s are culture-specific Archetypes. What is accessible to musicians and listeners outside our culture is, at best, the consensual melodic entity and its aesthetics. We may concede that the Raga-s possibly have a component that is universally appealing. But, their archetypal associations have a cultural meaning, which is not accessible in its entirety to musicians or listeners nurtured in a different culture.

I consider it appropriate to contrast the Archetypal notion against the strictly melodic notion with which I started my presentation:

Melodic versus archetypal notions

I find it impossible to imagine that a mathematician sat down one day, worked out all the permutations and combinations of 12 swara-s, derived an astronomical number of ascending-descending patterns, and called them Raga-s. If this was so, there would have been at least 5000 documented Raga-s, even if not all were performed at some time or the other.

The evolutionary history of Raga-s suggests an organic evolution. Without going into the history, and quite independently of it, it seems fair to assume that Raga-s evolved from Songs.

I define a song as a stable construct incorporating poetry, melody, and rhythm, which is a self-sufficient piece of music, requiring no validation beyond its direct appeal to a listener’s heart. Songs are not composed. They are spontaneous emanations, which “compose themselves”.

 The primordial sources of Raga-s, the Songs, acquired this appeal by achieving a perfect congruence between the emotional suggestions of the melody, the cadences of the rhythm, and verbalized thematic content of the poetry. And perhaps by accident, more than by design, this congruence connected the music with cultural Archetypes, and activated the cultural memory of pleasant emotional experiences.

Over a period, learned people observed that many of these songs were “more or less” similar in their melodic patterning and emotional appeal. They clubbed them together, extracted from them the features that unified them as aesthetic typologies. The purpose of so doing was to make their aesthetic appeal replicable by all musicians.  The cultural archetypes, the formless forms that we recognize today as Raga-s, owe their evolution to such progressive abstraction. This abstraction gave Raga-s a stable anchoring in the “primordial image”, the “archetype”.

I now have the conceptual foundation for relating Raga-ness to Kumarji’s music.

Kumarji and Raga-ness

Under the patronage of Mughals and, later the Princely States, Raga-ness had become abstract enough to impart to Hindustani music a definite intellectualism  – what the distinguished critic, Mohan Nadkarni called a “Formal Aloofness”. I break down this phrase into two components – Formalism, and Aloofness. With the arrival of the microphone, the radio, and the gramophone recording, the time was ripe for Hindustani music to shed its intellectualism. Kumarji achieved this by rethinking Raga-ness, and reintegrating it into the cultural process.

He took Hindustani music closer to its origins in the Song (with a capital S) -- The Song in all its facets: the poetry, the melody, and the rhythm.  The Song as the origin of Raga-ness, and the most direct access to the Archetypes that populate the Indian consciousness.

By circumventing the Raga as the “Commanding Form” of performance, he freed his music from the “Formal Aloofness” of the major Gharanas, all of which were the products of the colonial-feudal-elitist era.

Kumarji’s “Song-orientation”  was also significant because it restored poetry to its place in Hindustani music at a time when the ascendant Gharana-s of his era – primarily Kairana -- were tending to relegate the lyrics to musical insignificance.

When he performed a Khayal in a mature Raga, he treated the Bandish like a Song. Here I draw, once again, a distinction between a Song and a Bandish. A Song is a self-contained piece of music which requires no validation outside of itself. A Bandish, on the other hand, is composed as an enabler and facilitator of the Raga Vistar protocol established in Khayal vocalism.

His Khayal renditions did, indeed, respect the consensual melodic personality of Raga-s; but not always. His renditions did indeed feature the improvisatory movements typical to the Khayal genre, but not necessarily in the orthodox sequence. He did not permit the appeal of his Song to become subservient to the demands of Raga grammar, or to the intellectualism of Khayal architecture.

He found greater freedom to express his music as a Song in the Raga-s he “discovered” from the folk/ regional melodies of the Malwa region. Here he was re-enacting the process by which Raga-s came into being, and making direct contact with the Archetypes which imparted a soul to those melodies. In his “Dhun-Ugam Raga-s”, he was bound neither by established notions of Raga-ness, nor by traditional compositions in them, nor by established architecture of Khayal presentation.

He freed himself even from the notion of Raga-ness in his Bhajans, which remain in wide circulation even today. A Bhajan is a Song; and he knew how to access the soul of a Song better than anyone in his era. His special contribution to Bhajans was the revival of interest in saint-poet Kabir, with whom he shared a special spiritual connection.

In all his music, we observe a calculated carelessness, which has often been attributed to his involvement with folk music. I see this feature as a conscious primitivism, totally consistent with his rejection of the Formal Aloofness of Hindustani music, and his intuitive connection with its Archetypal nature of Raga-s.

Because of his comprehensive rebellion against the values that dominated Hindustani music at that time, he could have been dismissed as an insignificant maverick. But, it was impossible to deny his musicianship, and the impact he made with his uncanny access to the soul of Raga-s.  His music was not easy to understand. His following remained small. But, he influenced the aesthetic values of successive generations.

This is why the notion of Raga-ness cannot be meaningfully discussed without reference to the contribution of Pandit Kumar Gandharva.


Friday, June 16, 2017

Why a piano cannot be tuned perfectly

The mathematics of music means piano strings can never be in perfect harmony

Unlike with guitars and violins, pianos’ strings can never be perfectly tuned to one another. The solution? As this short animation from MinutePhysics explains, the instrument’s 88 strings across more than seven octaves means tuning a piano using harmonic intervals will inevitably lead to notes being fractionally off-pitch, with the issue compounding across octaves. So instead of using harmonics, piano-tuners generally keep octaves perfect, while leaving every other interval out of tune by just a tiny fraction. This workaround forsakes the appealing mathematical patterns of harmonics, but makes it possible to keep the kind of uniformity that is so valued in an era of mass production and reproduction of music.