Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Abstraction in our times

A paper presented to a workshop for art critics,  ROOP AROOP, organised by the Raza Foundation, New Delhi, on February 19, 2018. 

I am a musician, who has been asked to address a workshop for art critics on abstraction.  If I speak on abstraction in music, this is the wrong place. And, if I try speaking on abstraction in the visual arts, I am the wrong person to be facing a microphone. I will therefore use my understanding of music to talk about abstraction in abstraction.


At the outset I must share what I understand by abstraction.The Oxford dictionary defines abstraction thus: “The act of considering something independently of its associations, attributes, or concrete accompaniments/ a thing so considered/ a thing that exists only in idea/ freedom from representational qualities”.

With reference to art in general, I understand abstraction as the seeking of a reference point outside of the artist, the subject, as well as its audience. With reference to music in particular, I have two ways of understanding abstraction:

Music has three dimensions – the contemplative, the expressive, and the communicative.  Abstraction is that territory in which the contemplative dimension dominates the expressive and the communicative dimensions.  

With specific reference to Hindustani music, I have found it helpful to draw on the notion of “Commanding Form” enunciated by Prof. Susanne Langer, and interpreted by Prof. SK Saxena.

The notion of a “Commanding Form”

In the context of Western art music, Langer accords the status of the “Commanding Form” to the composition, which determines the whole subsequent process of invention and elaboration. India’s eminent aesthetician, SK Saxena (Hindustani Sangeet and a philosopher of art. DK Printworld Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi. 2001) argues that, in Hindustani music, the Raga rightfully occupies this status.

But, a Raga is merely a set of rules governing the selection, sequencing, and treatment of selected Swara-s (tones). Can it be considered a “form” at all? Saxena answers in the affirmative because, it is possessed of a distinct shape which makes it identifiable, and distinguishable from others. A Raga is, indeed, a “Form”, but a “Formless Form”.

It is the task of the musician to translate/ interpret/render the “Formless Form” as a “Communicable Form”.  What, then, is the territory of abstraction in Hindustani music? It is the territory in which the communicable form remains rooted in its source, the Formless Form.

What does it mean to interpret a “formless form” as a “communicable form”? It means giving it a structure. And, for communicability, the structure has to be familiar. This process, which Prof. Ashok Ranade described as “Ritualisation”, involves casting the Raga into a genre.

“Ritualisation” is, in effect, a process of dis-abstraction. This dis-abstraction varies in degree, depending on the genre in which the formless form of the Raga is cast. So, the tradition gives us a choice of various genres, each involving a different degree of dis-abstraction.  

The Classification Of Genres

With specific reference to Hindustani music, a genre may be defined as a distinctive hierarchy of melodic, rhythmic and phonetic (where relevant) elements, with one of the three constituting the primary determinant of aesthetic satisfaction, and the remaining two being supportive to it. This hierarchy is reflected in the “architecture” of each genre – the specific features of the different movements and their sequencing.  In terms of their specific features, the movements constituting a genre may themselves be classified as predominantly melodic, rhythmic, or phonetic.

I present below my classification of Hindustani music genres, based on the predominant musical element.

(1) Swarashrita (स्वराश्रित = Melody dominant), where primary target for musical energies is the melody.
(2) Padashrita (पदाश्रित= Poetry dominant), in which the 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. 

These are not mutually exclusive categories, but indications of dominant tendencies.  Some genres qualify for a dual classification.  And, indeed, individual musical personalities may also tilt the balance of musical energies in one genre towards those characteristic of another.

Though these categories appear to pertain only to the genres of vocal music, they are applicable to instrumental music also, because instrumental genres derive their basic architecture from one or more of the vocal genres.

The Inverse Hierarchy Of Dis-Abstraction

The Swarashrita genres: The Raga is a melodic entity. Therefore, the inverse hierarchy is defined by the extent to which the Ritualisation imposes a dis-abstraction on the “Commanding Form”. By this criterion, the Swarashrit genres rank highest in their “abstraction quotient”. They are Dhrupad and Khayal.

The Dhrupad genre: The Dhrupad genre imposes the lowest degree of dis-abstraction on the Formless Form of the Raga. It does indeed feature Swarashrit as well as Padashrit movements; but treats them separately, The Swarashrit movement allows interpretations of the Commanding form – the Formless Form – as abstractly as the musician’s imagination will permit.

The Khayal Genre: The Swarashrit Khayal genre comes next in the inverse hierarchy of dis-abstraction. The genre integrates Swarashrit, Layashrit, as well Padashrit movements; but it is designed to devote the highest importance to the Swarashrit movements.

The Layashrit genres: In this category, we may classify Tappas and Taranas. They come lower in the hierarchy because they deploy rhythm for forging an engaging relationship between the phonetic and melodic elements. In this process, they permit only a limited exploration of the Formless Form.

The Padashrita Genres: The Padashrita genres, focused on the totality of the composition, present a limited perspective on the Raga, with only negligible scope for its exploration beyond the pre-composed form. In this category, we may include Bandish-ki-thumrees, and Bhajans.

The Arthashrit Genres: These genres are concerned entirely with the interpretation of literary content, and not governed by the Raga form at all. These genres may more accurately be described as poetic genres presented musically. 

What trends do we observe today?

In the Swarashrit genres: The movements devoted to the exploration of the Formless Form are shrinking in terms of duration and attention to the contemplative process. The movements devoted to rhythmicality are gaining prominence. There is a growing presence of phonetic elements --  poetic as well as non-poetic.

The Layashrit Genres: These genres, which have traditionally had a minor share of performance, are gaining in popularity and frequency of performance.

The Padashrit Genres: These genres are also gaining in terms of frequency of performance on the concert platform, and as determinants of the popularity of musicians.

The Arthashrit genres: There is a virtual explosion of the Arthashrit genres evident in the last two decades. They do not require an anchoring in the Raga as the “Commanding Form”.  They may, however, conform to definitive commanding forms in poetry, and informal/minor melodic forms.  

The trends -- In Summary

Of the three elements of Hindustani music -- melody, rhythm, and poetry/ articulation -- it is the melodic element that is receding from prominence, while the rhythmic and poetic/ phonetic elements are gaining prominence.  The aggregate “abstraction quotient” of art music available to the listener is shrinking.   

This proposition can also be stated in terms of the creative process. Currently predominant tendencies in Hindustani music suggest that the contemplative dimension of the art is shrinking and being progressively subordinated to/ replaced by the expressive and communicative dimensions.

Stated in this fashion, Hindustani music becomes comparable to other arts. Art distinguishes itself from other voluntary and pleasing human endeavors by the dominance of the contemplative dimension over the expressive and the communicative.

In music, I would ask the question – how much can you dilute the contemplative genres and movements before you are obliged to call it entertainment? In the visual arts, you would probably ask – how much loss of abstraction can an art work accept before you are obliged to call it interior decoration?

I have the impression that Hindustani music and the visual arts are both obliged to answer these questions today. If this is so, the roots of the phenomenon must be traced to the larger cultural process determined by socio-economic change.

The cultural process

The hospitability of the musical culture to abstraction needs to be viewed from three angles: The socio-economic angle, the demographic angle, and the technological angle.

Hindustani music is a legacy of the feudal-agrarian culture that dominated India right up to the end of colonial rule. After independence, that music was transplanted to the urban-industrial-commercial culture of the metropolitan cities. Aesthetic values are governed largely by the predominant means of livelihood in a society. Different means of livelihood subject man to different relationships with time and space – both fundamental to the shaping of aesthetic values. To this extent, Hindustani music had to undergo a transformation to satisfy the musical needs of its new patron class.

It is also important to acknowledge the role of growing sexual freedom in shaping aesthetic values. The relative anonymity of urban-industrial-commercial societies grants much greater sexual freedom to its members than feudal-agrarian societies did. Superficially, these two might seem unrelated. In reality, however, they are intimately connected. Art and sexual activity both belong to the pleasure principle in human nature. Art represents the sublimation of the pleasure principle, while sexual activity represents man’s proximity to the animal kingdom.

The investment of emotional energies and intensity of the induced pleasurable experience may be equally great in art and in sexual activity; but the two differ substantially in the speed with which they build and release tension. Orgasm-directed sexual activity delivers a speedy build-up and release of tension. Art, on the other hand, delivers a gradual build-up and release of aesthetic tension. The two fall at different -- and indeed, very distant -- points of the pleasure-seeking spectrum of human behaviour.

The greater sexual freedom characteristic of the urban-industrial-commercial environment shapes what may be called a culture of extended adolescence. Though we must grant hormonal activity its legitimate due in this reality, adolescence -- as a cultural force --  is not merely an age-group. It is a heightened awareness of physicality and a subdued awareness of emotionality. It is, in effect, a culture of cerebral and emotional laziness. The contemplative dimension of art demands exactly the opposite – the cerebral and emotional interpretation of the manifest form in terms of its formless source.

In the Indian context, the notion of “extended adolescence” is unnecessary for defining the culture. The demographics of the country make adolescence almost literally a here-and-now reality. India’s median age is 27. Statistically, half of India’s population is below 27. That is adolescent enough. Impelled primarily by biological forces, and aided by socio-economic realities, today’s culture dominated by the 25-30 age-group cannot be particularly hospitable to abstraction as a significant quality in the arts.

Yes, India is a young country; but not for long. The median age will be touching 30 by 2025, and 35 by 2045. Birth rates are falling; but death rates are slowing faster. Demographic trends point towards increasing life expectancies, and the emergence of a “counter culture” or a “sub-culture” shaped by the “Grey Generation” (60+). This is a generation outside the realm of sexual activity, and hospitable to abstraction as a significant presence in the arts.

I find it interesting that the pre-independence high of median age around 22 comes down for about 30 years, before it rises, and crosses 22 again in the year 2000, a time-span of 53/55 years, conforming to the cyclicity indicated by the Kondratiev model and the generational perspectives of the modern Spanish thinker, Jose Ortega Y Gasset. 

What appears to be a polarization of society in terms of generations -- and implicitly aesthetic values – may well be the germ of a new cultural paradigm emerging from the nascent demography. India appears to be on the threshold of a radical change in the pattern of interaction between co-existing generations. I shall review the Ortega and Kondratiev propositions later in the paper.

The third issue is technological. The explosion of recording, storage and distribution technologies has isolated the musician from the audience in time and space. This isolation has played a major role in replacing the “process” of music with the “product”.  

Unlike the visual arts which are created in the absence of its audience, Hindustani music is interactive, and relies on the presence of its audience for shaping the musical endeavour. Hindustani music requires the musician to simultaneously perform the roles of composer and performer in real time during a performance. It can therefore be said that Hindustani music does not exist except in performance. Implicitly, it acquires an existence only in the presence of the audience, with the audience being a participant in the music-making process. 

The “absence” of an audience affects the contemplative dimension of the endeavour more than the expressive and the communicative. As recordings became the primary vehicle for delivering music to its audiences, the contemplative inclinations and abilities of musicians tend to fall into disuse, even as audiences experience the growing sterility of music.

What was really happening to Hindustani music in the latter half of the 20th century? Hindustani music – rooted as it was in the feudal-agrarian modes of presentation and in direct interface with audiences -- was struggling to remain aesthetically relevant. In this process, it drifted away from the process (contemplative), and focused on the product (expression and communication).  The result was interesting.

Hindustani music lost young concert hall audiences in India, but was retaining the loyalty of the 60+ generation. Simultaneously, the art expanded speedily in the West. There is sufficient evidence to believe that Hindustani music enthusiasts in the West tend to be, on an average, people of much higher intellect and academic accomplishment than average Indian audiences. Evidently, therefore, the “Grey Generation” in India and intellectual elites in the West were supporting the contemplative dimension of Hindustani music, while young Indian audiences were dropping out. But, were they really demanding its abandonment? This question may be tentatively answered later in this paper.

The question before the critic is – is the decay of abstraction/ contemplative process  irreversible? The answer depends on whether we regard the cultural process as being linear or cyclical, or entirely open-ended with no pre-determined destination.


In the last decade, we have seen indications that the contemplative dimension of Hindustani music is resisting its inundation by adolescent values. The second post-independence generation of musicians exhibits a considerable involvement with the contemplative dimension, and a fresh – and sometimes even baffling -- approach to it, relatively unfettered by the influence of the pre-independence generation in music.  

A parallel movement has emerged with the aim of reviving the intimate concert (Chamber-music) format with small, knowledgeable audiences. This format is gathering momentum with the support of audiences cutting across generations and social class. Simultaneously, it is also bringing young audiences back into the orbit of Hindustani music.

This is probably to be expected, considering the historical perspectives of the Russian scientist, Nikolai Kondratiev and the Spanish thinker, Jose Ortega Y Gasset. This is a vast area. I have written about it in detail elsewhere. I shall deal with it only briefly here.

Using economic, sociological, political, and demographic data from 1790 to 1920, Kondratiev published (1925) a highly respected model of socio-economic cyclicity, which suggests a mega-cycle of 50-60 years in the lives of societies, and in human history. The Kondratiev cycles consist of 25-30 years of economic expansion and as many years of economic contraction. The expansionary phase has been found to coincide with productivity enhancing technological developments. The comprehensiveness of the model obliges us to regard it as culturally significant. 

As an observer of the culture environment, I am inclined to read Kondratiev’s work along with Ortega’s generational analysis of history and culture.

The Ortega perspective defines 30 years as constituting a “psychological/ cultural generation”. His theory implies that imperceptible changes are taking place in society constantly because of the interaction between various co-existing generations. Their cumulative effect becomes perceptible as a paradigm shift approximately every 60 years. In simple terms, all the environmental forces acting upon the values of the “grandfather generation” have either faded away or become impotent by the time the “grandchild generation” begins to interact with the world.

The Kondratiev and Ortega models of cyclicity, derived by entirely different logical processes, exhibit a striking similarity of cyclical durations, and are therefore collectively even more significant.

The Paradigm Shift

If we regard independence (1947) as the watershed in India’s cultural history, the first post-independence generation of musicians came on the scene in around 1977, and remained active till 2007 (30 years). It is during this period that Hindustani music lost audiences in India, and gained audiences in the West. It is with the arrival of the second post-independence generation (born around 1977) and emerging on the stage around 2007, that the abstractionist/contemplative dimension of Hindustani music appears to be making a come-back.

Music now appears to be making contemporary sense despite a massive churning – or perhaps emerging from it. Established genres of the pre-independence era are exhibiting signs of aesthetic obsolescence. Their idiomatic boundaries look increasingly blurred. Discontinuities are evident, but continuities have not been jettisoned. At the core of this seeming chaos appears to be an attempt to rediscover the abstract foundations of this music in the Raga – the “Commanding Form”.

If my reading of the “straws in the wind” of Hindustani music is valid, we could today be welcoming the dawn of the post-independence renaissance in Hindustani music.

© Deepak Raja. February 2018

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.  

This perspective has great value for performance because it focuses the musician's attention upon the "aesthetic grammar" of a Raga -- as distinct from its "melodic grammar", which merely identifies the Raga beyond reasonable doubt. The three-way overlapping partitioning of the octave implies that each Raga resides in a specific region of the melodic canvas, and an indiscriminate distribution of melodic activity in performance does damage to the aesthetic intent of a Raga, 

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