Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Critical Environment And The Musical Culture

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

The Critical Environment And The Musical Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.