Ragas are more than the notes in them

Melodic development of Ragas is what truly characterizes the style of Indian music. 

We come across a difficulty immediately upon thinking of notating Indian music: Most of it is improvised, and hence, it is possible to conceptualize notating or transcribing a performance by someone, but comparatively harder to notate a raga or a bandish itself, since how it sounds and how it is formed is completely dependent upon who performs it. It’s an entity with some rules, that are entirely open to interpretation. Like a color-scheme for an artist, maybe.

Raga performance is much more than notes, and it is easy to understand that based on the following examples:

  1. There are paintings to describe the mood of every raaga. There are paintings in the Madhubani style of painting from the Mughal period, dated early 17th century, which describe the feeling of each raga. There is also a couplet to describe what the mood that the raga should create.
  2. Raga and rasa are closely related to each other. Prof B Chaitanya Deva has tried to explore this relationship by quantifying the moods of ragas based on 22 attributes (Pairs of opposites, like light- heavy, weary-refreshed and so on). He has revealed commonalities and differences between the perception of ragas across two generations of musicians and performers. 
  3. Ustad Z. M. Dagar and Ustad Z.F. Dagar, who are singers of the Drupad tradition have said that it is impossible to notate Indian classical music. In fact, their claim is that the notation has in fact destroyed the premise of Indian music, which is based on the flexibility of pitch. Notating Ragas reduces them to just a few ‘catchphrases’ and destroys the potential abilities of expression that are inherent in them. 
    1. Many Indian musicians and scholars believe that it is not only difficult but impossible to notate Indian pitches and Ragas properly, especially using the musical notation commonly used today. 
    2. On the other hand many musicians feel that we have to notate our music, even we lack a suitable system of notation. So we notate our music somehow. However it is time we asked ourselves if notating our ragas is contrary to the nature of this ancient music.

Not only does this raise questions of whether this will modification of style by changing some inherent  features of the form of music, but also makes us wonder what kind of change is, in fact desirable and what isn’t. As much as Indian music has changed due to influences – Mughals, Light classical forms, the introduction of records, the North-south split, Indian music flows into time periods. Even things that survive from previous eras have changed shape and only now can have we come to a point of consciously thinking whether we want the precursors to change or not. 



Groups of Ragas (Thaats) and Altered Notes

The reason because of which Indian music sounds exotic to the western listener are the different tuning and scales. The term Indian Classical Music encompasses two individual but related traditions. The Northern Indian tradition is called the Hindustani tradition. The Southern Indian tradition is called Carnatic. (As with many Indian words, there are a variety of spellings in common usage in English, including Karnatak and Karnatik.) Both traditions demonstrate a parallel approach to music and music theory, but the terms used are often different. For instance, where the Hindustani tradition has thaat, the Carnatic has mela. The following discussion focuses on the Hindustani tradition, as it is more familiar to the rest of the world.

Thaat: Classifying Ragas into Families

To create more interest, a raga is often generated by dropping certain notes of a that, where a raga consists of five, six or all seven notes of the that. A that can create more than three ragas. To make things more confusing for a novice listener, the two traditions use same names for two completely different ragas.  There can often be disagreement even within a tradition as to the name or proper execution of a particular raga. Ragas may be invented, combined, borrowed from other traditions, or dropped from the repertoire, so the tradition itself, including the theory, is in many ways more fluid and more varied than the Western tradition.

It is also important to understand that a raga is not just a collection of the notes that are allowed to be played in a piece of music. There are also rules governing how the notes may be used; for example, the notes used in an ascending scale (aroha) may be different from the notes in a descending scale (avaroha). Some notes will be considered main pitches, the “tonic” or “most consonant” in that raga, while other notes are heard mostly as ornaments or dissonances that need to be resolved to a main note. Particular ornaments or particular note sequences may also be considered typical of a raga. The raga may even affect the tuning of the piece.

Harmonic and melodic rules differ in case of major and minor scales. Indian music is analogous , only difference being it contains many more scale types. Also , the variations are melody based nuances as opposed to harmonic.

Pitches, and Solfege in HCM

All forms of music in the world have two essential components – pitch and rhythm. Music is incomplete without the presence of pitches and durations. In Indian Classical music too, these two elements are most essential in theory.

Indian Music is even more specific regarding the pitch, also called the sur or the swara. In Indian music, different intonations of the same note are used when sung in different ragas. Since the tonic doesn’t change, it is easy to establish greater consonance between the pitches. Let us look at how an octave is described in Indian theory.

1. Indian music is based on relative pitch; which means that there are no modulations. Everything in music happens on the basis of one tonic, and keys aren’t changed in the middle of a piece. This tonic is called Sa or Shadj. Every other tone in the octave is established on the basis of this Sa. There can be no Raga which omits this note. It is always an important note, irrespective of what is being sung.

On a C, it looks like this:

सा     रे    ग    म     प    ध    नि   सा

sa    re   ga   ma   pa  dha  ni    sa
C     D    E     F    G    A    B     C

2. The basic scale in Indian music is the Natural scale. There are said to be 7 Natural tones, and 5 modified tones or accidentals. Thus there are 12 total tones in Indian Music.

They are:

Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni.

They have longer names as: Shadj, Rishabh, Gandhar, Madhyam, Pancham, Dhaiwat, Nishad.

Out of these, the tonic and the P5 (Pa) are fixed. The remaining 5 also occur in altered forms.

The notes, Re (2nd), Ga (3rd), Dha (6th), and Ni (7th) have a Flat or Komal form.

They also appear as Komal Re (Flat 2), Komal Ga (Flat 3rd), Komal Dha (Flat 6th), and Komal Ni (Flat 7th).

The note of Ma (P4) also has a sharp or Teevra form.

Teevra Ma is the same as an augmented fourth or a diminished fifth (Tritone).

The tonic and the dominant, however, cannot be altered in Indian music.

3. The concept of microtones or Shruti is inherent to Indian music. There are 22 microtones in an octave as described in Indian Theory. Shruti, which literally means the smallest division that can be perceived, are essential in further describing the 12 tones of music precisely.

Most ragas use the consonances of the Tonic and M3, Tonic and P4 or Tonic and P5. These tones are 5, 9, and 13 Shrutis away from each other; respectively.

4. Mixing and matching the 12 notes can produce several patterns of sound, but not Ragas. A key element of the Raga form is its ability to communicate a mood or a feeling.

There are some rules for Ragas:

a) There must be at least 5 notes present in a Raga.

b) Altered notes cannot be used one after another in a Raga. eg. Use of m2, M2, m3 in a sequence is prohibited.

c) Sa can never be absent from a Raga (the tonic)

d) Either a fourth or a fifth have to be present in every raga.

Listening to Indian Classical Music – Part II

The Raga: Melody and the Mood

Melodies and harmonies of western classical music are determined by major and minor scales. The resulting melodies and harmonies of major and minor keys are different. However, it is easy to transpose a major key melody to another major key and vice versa with the minor key melodies. There is however modal music in Western tradition with pentatonic, blues and twelve tone scales to name some. Vast majority of common practice music though, can be categorized as minor or major.

The melodies of music in Indian tradition are Raga based (or Ragam in South Indian tradition), which are basically lists of notes used in  a particular piece of music, similar to scales. However as opposed to the relatively less number of scales, there are hundreds of ragas. These are a result of differing number of notes, note intervals and even tuning, making it impossible to transpose a melody from one raga to another. Ragas not only have specifications on the notes that are used, but on how to use the notes. Certain combinations of movement are allowed and disallowed in variations on the raga.

Much like the different moods affected by major and minor key music, ragas are associated with particular moods. The association of ragas with specific seasons and time of the day has begun as a result of the tradition of playing ragas for festivals, seasons and times of the day. The moods are however, also tied to associations with particular times similar to that of western traditions where it would be considered to perform sad music at a wedding, for instance. In Indian tradition It is the responsibility of the musician to create the proper mood with the raga.

While Western music boasts of a complex and ever changing harmony, Indian music’s approach is different. Melodic scales and rhythms are much more complex in Indian tradition than that of Western music, but the harmonies are much simpler, usually in the form of an unchanging drone as that of a Tanpura, which is kept at a perfect fourth or fifth. The tanpura is a very long instrument with four strings which are plucked one after the other, continuously throughout the music. While the drone itself is constant, the complex interaction varying harmonic strings during the cycles, create a shimmering buzz unlike any western musical instrument.

The tuning used is just intonation instead of equal temperament, in order to better fit the pure interval of the drone. The tuning of other notes of the drone can be varied to suit specific ragas.

Rhythm – Taala

In Indian music, rhythms are organized into long rhythmic cycles called Talas, instead of short measures. There are about 100 different Talas which are often made up of quite long and complex rhythmic cycles. Carnatic tradition displays this trait more so, since it includes some of the most complex and sophisticated rhythmic structures of any tradition. One way of looking at a taala is like a hypermeter – a combination of metric units of different lengths. Usually every taala has a sam-khaali polarity. The accented beat is as important as the accented first bar, and the weak beat (which usually occurs halfway in the tala cycle) is the release.

In Indian traditions, it is common for some sections to be in free rhythm, with Tala being introduced in the middle of the piece. These free form performances lack pulsating beats, and are central in understanding and appreciating Indian music.

Recognizing Indian Classical Music

Instrumentations such as the distinctive drone of the Tanpura, Expressive rhythms of the table are the easiest clues for a Western listener for identification of Indian music. This is aided by the un-Western timbres of vocal and instrumental soloists.

Very leisurely, free rhythm openings tend to signal North Indian music, while short pieces with very complex rhythms often belong to South Indian music.  However, if there are simple driving rhythms and shorter forms, sometimes with functional harmony, it might be Indian pop music, which is also very influential in the world music scene.

What to Listen for 

It is possible for a listener educated in Indian classical music to identify the Raga and tala by listening to the music. This however is almost an impossible feat in case of a beginning western listener. The focus of the western listener should be on the sections of the music, slow revelation of raga, slow build up and release of tension in both melody and rhythm, and the rhythmic excitement of final section.

One can try and get into the mood of the piece, which may be hinted at by the performer or program notes. Quite often the raga is appropriate to the season of the time of the day, even during a concert, so one can meditate upon relevant moods. People who are ear trained can try and identify scale notes, their relationship to the drone notes, and the number of beats in the tala. While it is impossible to tap one’s foot to this music, listening to the ebb, flow and development of  the phrases leads to appreciation of the form.

The Sam or the first beat of a Taala cycle forms a very important part of the development of a Khyal. The melodic movement and variation is directed towards coming back to the Sam at the right time. The performer’s calculations have to be right, else the sam can pass and that is where the performer must return.

This Sam is identified by performers by gesticulating on the accented beat. Many times, the audience also participates in this gesture, which is a universal of HCM.

Listening to Indian Classical Music

Indian classical music consists of two distinct traditions – the North Indian and the South Indian, which share many similarities.

The exoticness of Indian music to the Western listeners stems mainly from the differences in tuning and scales from that of Western music. Both South Indian (Carnatic, Karnatak or Karnatik) and the North Indian (Hindustani) traditions share many similarities in terminology and concept – the Raga (mode + motif), Tala (hyper-rhythm), and the dominant presence of theme and variation, are basic concepts in both traditions. The following discussion is an exclusive and basic overview of both the traditions. However Hindustani music forms the major part since it is the more famous form of Indian classical music.

History and Geography

The two musical traditions seem to have branched out of a common ancestor. The Carnatic tradition, as it stands today has three revivalists – Muthuswami Dikshitar, Shama Shastri and Thyagaraja, – whose work has been seminal in creating the repertoire and the form as it exists today.

The northern branch of the tradition, Hindustani music, which is also performed in Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh – has been influenced by persian and mughal influences.  The dominant form of the tradition, the Khyal, is supposed to have found its roots in the mughal courts.

The predominant difference between the traditions, textually speaking, is the dominance of religious and prayer-related material in the carnatic form. The modern khyal was born as a new idea of having compositions that are still based around Raga, and improvisation that is set to the particularities of each ‘khyal’ or idea.

Raga and Tala which affect the melody and Rhythm respectively are the building blocks of any classical Indian piece of music. However, the approach towards other basic elements such as tuning, texture, harmony, timbre and improvisation against composition differs from that of western tradition.

Most Indian classical music is improvisational unlike the Western classical tradition. A musician improvises upon the basis of raga and tala of his choice, based on pre-composed material, which is sometimes compared to jazz standards.

Some things to know:

The performance of classical music is called a ‘Baithak’, literally means a ‘sitting’ of music. This term is literal in its concept – it’s a group of people sitting together to enjoy music. This is different from the other polar concept of a great performer entertaining somebody. The experience of a performance is shared amongst the people through physical as well as musical engagement. The relationship between the audience and the performers is not as hierarchical as in the western tradition, and the audience is often even encouraged to participate.

Khyal – is a performance of a raag. Literally, it means an idea – it is an idea in the raag. There are two forms – Bada / big, and Chhota / small. Bada comes first, chhota comes later. Bada khayal is slow moving, and sets the mood. Chhota is fast, shows the technique and skill of the singer, broadly. The poem has about 4 – 10 lines.

Alaap – Slow improvisation.

Taan – Fast improvisation.

Dhrupad – A singing style ancestral to both Hindustani and Carnatic music. Sung with long phrases, prosodic syllables.

Bitter experiences with Jazz Fusion

The world was celebrating international music day on the 21st of June. Someone procured passes for us to go to a fusion music concert happening in Shilpa Kala Vedika. Pt Ronu Mojumdar, Pt Bickram Ghosh and an array of instruments, from an electronic Veena to a Bollywood vocalist. There were two canadian Jazz Saxophonists, a keyboard player, a drummer to add to this mix of flute, veena and tabla. It sure looked intriguing.

Jazz and Indian music. The relationship goes back several decades in this century. The interests of many american performers who formed the story of jazz as we know it were piqued by similarities in Jazz and Indian classical music – the use of modality, the blending of a composer and a performer as an improviser. John Coltrane became very interested in Indian music and also wrote several pieces inspired by ragas in the early 60s. Later in the 70s with Shakti, John McLaughlin and others experimented with mixed modality, where independent styles could come together and share a piece of music. Louis Banks, with his reinterpretations of Miles Davis, and Indian sounds in Jazz writing was even nominated for a Grammy for his work.

Having said this, it makes me very sad to report the utter lack of study and practice that was this concert. Masters of a style cannot hop into another and expect themselves to excel at it. A part of being a great musician is to understand your limitations. If you have to reach out beyond what you’ve always been doing, you ought to learn about the new form first. The one thing that a musician must never appear to be – at least in front of an audience that pays to listen to you – is unprepared, and that is exactly what happened on this night. The performers had a setlist of about 3 songs, after which they even said, “ok. Now we’re just going to make something up on stage and play for you”. And they continued this unrehearsed fiasco for another hour and a half. Everyone could see their lack of preparation, and they made no attempts to hide it.

Although improvisation is about coming up with music on the spot, it’s not about the lack of structure. It’s not about pulling wool over everyone’s eyes. It is about an ensemble that creates one music. Not about trying to subdue other performers. It’s about enhancing other performers. Not trying to cut into their slice of sound and constantly try to seek attention. The only rainmaker was Pt Mojumdar, whose eccentric flute saved every song except for the tabla solo. The band very much lacked a leader who had an idea of what to do and how. There can’t be an ensemble performance without a vision. The Saxophone duo from Canada, the Kay brothers did a great job of playing their parts, although the overshadowing memories of the concert were senior performers trying to be in the limelight. Sowmya Raoh was introduced almost as something to look at on the stage, but as a singer, was caught off guard in all improvisation sections. Pulak Sarkar on the keyboard did his job, but Arun Kumar was a pleasure on the drums.

It is sad to see a concert where the performers bank on the general lack of musical education and awareness that has become a norm here in our country. The average audience only wants to be entertained. I feel that it is the duty of an educated, learned classical performers to show people the different ways to be entertained in, even if the way to do this starts from popular sensibility. It is a musician’s responsibility to share joy of music, lead people to understand what to listen for in a piece of music. To explore the sensitivities of the listeners instead of overconfidently churning out the crass regurgitations of old masters.

There is a German youth jazz orchestra by the name of Bujazzo that came to India last year and made music with Rama Mani, T A S Mani and others. They had an amazing conductor / arranger, Mike Herting had carefully planned the music and the sequence. He understood the delicate balance of the styles, and of excesses. They generated soulful music – a genuine experiment with two styles. Using for example, the rhythms of Carnatic music, with deceptive cadences, typical of Jazz. As a musical population, we have to understand that what sounds ‘jazzy’ doesn’t have to be jazz. We cannot be expected to carry on like this – learning nothing from Jazz, exploiting the freedom of jazz, and reinterpreting it without understanding it. There has to be methods in which systems interact with each other where the result is not chaos. One would think this progression will be a responsibility of learned professionals.

The philosophy of Indian music is about creating rasa, bhaava. The aim is not to be a rockstar and psych the audience, but be a messenger of music itself and move them. To take them on a journey and to make them feel. Not to show off but to use your skill as a device. The audience should be able to see through performers who use their skill to intimidate. We should, in the very least – realize when we’re not touched by the music. The coming together of musical styles is also the coming together of their ideologies. The pensive meditation of Indian music and the variability and the sheer good humor of Jazz.

I think the critical reception of music is where we are lacking. The educated audience that could tell the weaknesses of a classical singer, though they weren’t singers themselves – are an audience of the past. Music journalism in this country now, is about ‘Wah-waahi’. As long as someone is entertained, we really don’t bother to look into the musicality, the sensibility, and the subtlety of our own tradition. Four speeches – not one but four – that preceded the concert talked about how music brings everyone together and crosses boundaries. Is that all that we have to say about music? It entertains us and connects us? Have we stopped thinking critically if the son of a master is performing – have we stopped bothering to really listen if a big name is playing? We need more vocabulary here! Better ways of talking about music in an educated spirit.

I realize that the world we live in is about live telecasts. Television space is crowded and everyone wants a piece of attention. What i don’t understand is when performers would try to appeal to thousands of people flipping through channels lazily in their pajamas instead of the few hundred who payed and bothered to be at their concert in flesh and blood. I am reminded of an Aruna Sairam concert i had the great pleasure of attending, where she made the organizers switch on the lights in the auditorium so she could see the people she was communicating with. She wasn’t making youtube videos. She was singing for the people who had come to hear her. While the memories i’ll carry from last night are of Bickram Ghosh trying to tell the sound engineers what a bad job they were doing in the middle of a Veena solo. I’ll carry the memories of everyone trying to tell the sound engineers to increase their own volume. I’ll remember last night because the performers didn’t know how to conclude their pieces, and not because of overflowing content but because of an overflowing ego.