Indian Raga : back to the basics

Melody and Raga : Terminology

Melody is the fountainhead of Indian music and ragas are the fundamental organizing principle of Indian classical melody.

Ragas are fixed sequences of a minimum of five notes arranged in ascending and descending order (respectively the aroha and avaroha). Unlike contemporary Western scales, but like the modes of early European music, the ascending and descending notes are not identical. Adjust the sequence or introduce an extraneous note and the result will be a different raga. Since ragas have been systematically studied for centuries their permutations have been calculated mathematically and defined scientifically. New ragas do come into being, however, through the blending of elements of two ragas to produce a so-called mishra or mixed raga with the names of the parent ragas. At times, too, apparently new ragas have turned out to be unknowing rediscoveries of ragas that have dropped out of the repertory. A double-barrelled name tends to indicate a mishra rage, but not always: “Todi” in a raga’s name — examples being “Shuddha Todi” and “Gurjari Todi” — is an adjectival construction denoting that it originated in a particular location. Hindustani musicians, to generalize, use a more limited palette of ragas than their Carnatic cousins.

Ragas unfold in a set order. The opening movement, called alap in Hindustani music, is a leisurely, precise, impassioned unfolding of the raga’s essence. It teases out the mood with melody, seeking and setting out that mood without any rhythmic accompaniment or rhythmic pulse. One of its foremost exponents is the sarodist Ali Akbar Khan. His recording, Ali Akbar Khan Plays Alap, is a perfect introduction to this art. “Alap,” he wrote in that album’s sleeve notes, “has fifteen parts. Training in alap is not for beginners or even advanced students, just as you don’t offer a drink or reveal all your property to a small child.” The second movement is called the jor. In an instrumental context this part will take on a rhythmic form but still without the assistance of percussion such as tabla or pakhawaj. The next major development is the jhala which has percussion accompaniment. This is the final fast movement. There are a number of intermediate steps in the process and etiquette varies about their inclusion or exclusion.

Carnatic music has its equivalent terms. Alapana is its equivalent of alap. The classic sequence and most elaborate item in a Carnatic concert is known as ragam-thanam-pallavi (the hyphens are optional). Opening with the melodic, unmetered ragam improvisation in the particular raga, it moves into the thanam and concludes in rhythmically metered improvisations on the pallavi (song text).
Ragas have been scientifically dissected for generation upon generation. They have even been placed in families. Ragas are attended by consorts or wives called raginis, ragaputras and ragaputris, respectively their sons and daughters. They have been analyzed to identify which `environment’ they belong to — whether they belong to a particular season or hour. “Raga Megh” or “Megh Malhar” is associated with the monsoon season, megh means cloud. “Vasanta” — literally, spring — is a raga for springtime (and by extension has characteristics similar to sunrise ragas). The psychological characteristics of notes give them a personality — a feminine aspect, a dark color, an uplifting sensation — and hence all the major ragas have their appropriate time of day. Great store is placed in getting this right, even to the extent of listening to recordings at the proper hour.

Rhythm and Tala :

In Indian music tala, tal or taal is the rhythmic cycle of a specific number of beats. A specific tala are expressed as compound nouns, sometimes split into two words. Throughout this text the convention is to give them as one word. Jhaptala consists of ten beats. Chautala is one consisting of 12 beats. Ektala is also 12 beats but the term is the one used for tabla rather than chautala which is associated with pakhawaj.

Classical Song Forms :

There are many, many singing styles and it is only possible to explain a little about the most frequently encountered. Classical song forms tend to be separated into classical and light classical (sometimes called semiclassical) forms. Light classical forms include ghazal, bhajan and qawwali. Classical forms include thumri and dhrupad. Folk styles are even more numerous. Many folk styles relate exclusively to particular regions, religions or musician castes

Bhajans :

Bhajans are the most popular form of Hindu devotional composition. They are found especially in the repertoires of Northern Indian musicians. In the South the commonest Hindu vocal style is the kriti. However, Carnatic musicians — the violinist V.V. Subrahmanyam, for example — also include bhajans in their repertoires. Thus instrumentalists will also include them in their repertoire and therefore part of the art is to capture the sonorities, mood and meaning of the words in their playing or to bring these elements out if accompanying a vocalist. The increased exposure of Hindustani music in the South has led to Northern Indian bhajans by composers such as Mira, Kabir and Tulsidas being performed. These tend to be set to the appropriate Hindustani raga but sung to Carnatic talas which are often rhythmically more sophisticated.

Dadra :

Dadra is a light classical song form similar to a thumri sung in a tala of six beats.

Dhrupad :

Dhrupad is an ancient form of the classical singing. One of the most commonly encountered forms, it places great emphasis on the lyrical content, rhythmic accuracy and clear enunciation. Lyrically dhrupad is set in a medieval form of Hindi called Brijbhasha or Braja Bhasha but it is also sung in modern-day Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali and Rajasthani. Many commentators decry the sacrificing of dhrupad’s high literary and poetic standards by today’s more popular forms. Usually set nowadays in a uniform tala or rhythmic cycle of 12 beats (chautala), historic accounts report a far greater rhythmic sophistication with each line being set in a differing tala from the preceding one. This would involve singing one line in chautala and the next in jhapatala of ten beats. Dhrupad compositions may eulogize gods or royalty. They are especially known for mining religious and heroic seams but there are worthy traditions of subject matter as varied as philosophy, metaphysics and eroticism as themes. A dhrupad is composed of four elements. These are melody (raga), tempo (laya), rhythm (tala) and its melodic components (dhatus).

Dhamar :

Dhamar is a related form which employs more gamaks or grace notes than dhrupad, usually set in a tala of 14 beats. To no little extent both forms have been displaced by the principal contemporary classical form, khyal, in particular but also by thumri and tappa. Among dhrupad’s most noted singers are Candanji Caube (1869-1944), Siyaram Tiwari, Ritwik Sanyal, Ram Chatur Mallick and various combinations known as the Dagar Brothers.

Dhun :

A dhun is a melody lighter in tone than a raga and often derived from a folk tradition. In such cases it will be labeled with the region of origin such as “A Rajasthani Dhun.” Being free from the strict discipline of the raga system, it allows liberties with the notes which the musician may include.

Ghazal :

Although an Indo-Muslim light classical form, ghazal enjoys widespread popularity. A development of one of the main poetic and literary traditions of Persia, its name derives from the Arabic for `talking to women’. It is therefore often viewed as a conversation or a dialogue between a lover and his beloved. This can be sacred, profane or allegorical. It is closely associated with the major Indo-Muslim language, Urdu. At its heart is love of either the romantic or devotional kind. Since the mid-‘30s secular and political themes have increasingly crept in, most famously through the work of the poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz (1911-1984). Ghazals have formed the core repertoire of a number of performers ranging from Jagjit & Chitra Singh to Begum Akhtar and Najma Akhtar.

Khyal :

Sometimes rendered as khyel or khayal, is generally translated as imagination or fancy — indications of its lightness and reliance on the performer’s powers of improvisation. It is also translated as whim or idea but the etymology of khyal is, as one commentator put it, abstruse, and no records of any authority exist about the beginnings of khyal. By the 18th century A.D. the form had taken shape in the court of the Mughal emperor Mohammed Shah in Delhi. Since then khyal has loosened the hold that dhrupad traditionally had to become the staple style of Hindustani classical music. Paradoxically, some musicological soothsayers have warned that popular taste looks set on loosening khyal’s hold in favor of thumri, dadra, chaiti and kajri (a folk song form originally from Uttar Pradesh).

Kriti :

The Carnatic kriti (or krithi) is a song of praise or adoration for a particular Hindu deity. Kritis are especially associated with Tyagaraja (or Thyagaraja) (1767-1847), Muttuswamy Dikshitar (1776-1835) and Syama (or Shyama) Sastri (1762-1827), a famed trinity of musician-saints or saint-composers. In order, appreciating the trinity’s work has been likened to the grape, the coconut and the banana. The first can be consumed and enjoyed immediately. The second involves cracking open a shell to get to the kernel. The third involves the removal of a soft outer layer to get to the fruit. Their era is known as the Golden Period of Carnatic Music and during their time they composed a collection of timeless compositions. Tyagaraja alone is credited with some 600 kriti compositions. Kritis are usually composed in Telugu, Tamil or Sanskrit are habitually seeded in specific ragas.

Qawwali :

An Indo-Muslim devotional music of light classical complexion sung in Urdu, Persian, Punjabi and other northern Indian languages.

Tappa :

Tappa is a song genre popularly and romantically supposed to have arisen from the songs sung by the camel drivers of the arid northwestern regions of the subcontinent. The language it is most frequently sung in is Punjabi. It is typified by passages in fast tempos.

Tarana :

A song genre in which meaningless rhythmic syllables substitute for a lyric similar to syllables replacing words in, say, Ella Fitzgerald’s scat singing or jazz vocalizing. While the concept is easy to grasp, maintaining artistic integrity and musical interest over the length of a tarana is not. A tarana section will frequently conclude a khyal performance and will be substituted for the fast tempo or drut khyal. Unlike its Southern counterpart known as the tillana, taranas are opportunities to extemporize.

Thumri :

Thumri is another well-known classical song form.

Courtesy : Ken Hunt

Bhimsen Joshi

Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, was born in Gadag (Karnataka) on 14 Feb 1922. Pt. Bhimsen Joshi left his home for Gwalior, then to Calcutta then Rampur where he took lessons from Mushtaq Husain Khan.

He finally became student of Savai Gandharva (Pt. Rambhan Kundgolkar), the eminent khyal singer student of Abdul Karim Khan.

Pandit Bhimsen Joshi is the long-reigning king of Hindustani classical vocal music. His unpretentious style, his soulful appeal and his divine sur have made him the paragon of reverence. Loyal to Kirana tradition, yet innovative, he has contributed immensely to Indian music.

A few years of his youth were thus spent in the company of well known musicians at Gwalior, Lucknow and Rampur, serv ing them and learning as much as he could from them. His father, coming to know of Bhimsen’s fervent desire for knowledge in music, abandoned his policy of opposition, fetched his son back and made arrangements for him to learn under the guidance of Sawai Gandharva of Kundol. This opportunity opened the vaults of rich and rare musical treasures to Bhimsen. Bhimsen’s natural tuneful voice received further polish from his guru. Like a diamond which sparkles all the brighter after it is expertly cut, Bhimsen’s voice began to shine with a new lustre and brilliance which has dazzled and cast a spell on the entire country.

With his increasing popularity Bhimsen started getting invita- tions to sing at various cities and towns in Maharashtra and Karnataka. To facilitate the keeping of these engagements, he bought a big car and took to driving. The car was so big that it could easily accommodate him and his 4 accompanists besides two tanpuras and other instruments. In this car Bhimsen travelled extensively. One day he would go from Bombay to Belgaum – then on to Bangalore the next day, and back to Pune- only to go off again to Nagpur, Raipur or Bhilai. Back again in Pune, he would rush off to Hyderabad, Solapur and so on these whirlwind tours became a habit with him and in a short while he became an expert driver.

His unbelievably flexible voice enabled him to traverse at terrific speed, the great range of 3 octaves. While at the wheel, he used the same technique as in singing. The spread of his fame and popularity beyond the boundaries of Maharashtra brought him invitations from far off places like Jullundur, Jammu, Srinagar, Delhi, Calcutta and Gauhati. Bhimsen, who had so far matched the speed and agility of his voice with the speed of his car. He then had to switch to air travel. The pilots of Indian Airlines and airport oficials came across Bhimsen so frequently that he was soon known as the ‘flying musician of India’.

One can easily imagine the tremendous difficulties involved in getting hold of an ever-busy singer like Bhimsen for recording. Fortunately as his popularity increased rapidly, the recording technique also improved for the better. 78 R.P.M. records were now replaced by the 45 R.P.M., extended play records and 33 R.P.M. long-playing records. Extended play records played twice as long as the 78 R.P.M. The long-playing microgroove records were also proportionately higher priced. These records gradually became the exclusive privilege of the affluent in society. His EP included Zanak Zanakuva in Raga Darbari. Piya To Manat Nahee, (link below at the bottom of this Post) a thumri, Jo Bhaje Hari Ko Sada, a bhajan, and the most enchanting thumri – Piya Ke Milan Ki Aas.

Every performer has his favourite items, in which he excels. On the strength of these- his mehfil becomes a memorable experience. Bhimsen is no exception. After hearing a number of his concerts some people remarked that his programmes are repetitive. It is a peculiar characteristic of our music that the ingenuity of a musician is known by his ability to unfold and create new and novel facets of known raas. The same composition, same notes in the same ragas, presented on successive occasions can sound ever-new, fresh and enchanting and receive enthusiastic approval from listeners and critics in the audience. It is very necessary therefore that the listeners should cultivate a knowledgeable interest and a musical ear to appreciate our classical music.

Supreme confidence in his own abilities and unfailing loyalty are two prominent qualities of Bhimsen. Every year he observes the punyatithi (death anniversary) of his guru Sawai Gandharva with a music festival at Pune. Those privileged to attend it are indeed very fortunate, for the spectacle is one fit for the gods. For three consecutive nights about 10,000 people attend the programme from 8 at night to 7 the next morning. Eminent artists in the world of Indian classical music vie with each other for a chance to appear on the stage on this occasion. There are two reasons for this. Firstly the programme is at the behest of a great fellow artist like Bhimsen, and secondly it is rare and almost impossible for a musician to get a chance to perform before such a vast, discerning and appreciative audience. During these celebrations, Bhimsen works like an ordinary volunteer. On occasion he is even noticed sweeping the stage, bringing the instruments on stage and helping the artist to tune the tanpuras perfectly. He looks after the comforts of the artists and audience alike. He does this untiringly for three successive nights. One cannot help but admire him for his love and reverence for his guru.

The late Sawai Gandharva was a disciple of Abdul Karim Khan. A galaxy of veterans are among his disciples. They include top names like Gangubai Hangal, Hirabai Badodekar, Phiroz Dastur and Bhimsen, who is the youngest of them all. The characteristics of the Kirana gharana are precision-oriented tunefulness (lagav of swaras) presentation of a bandish with an impressively grace- ful style, and a disciplined, systematic and methodical raga de- velopment, punctuated with an elegantly elaborate alap and skil- ful decoration with the choicest forms of embelishments – taans. With the help of all these, Bhimsen makes such a terrific favourable impact on his audience right from the start of the concert that listeners remain glued to their seats till the last notes of his Bhairavi. Within a few minutes of his arrival in a concert hall Bhimsen measures correctly the pulse of the audience. His discerning eye unfailingly recognizes the knowledgeable in the congregation and, by the time the tanpuras are tuned, and accompaniment arranged, he has decided on the musical menu he will dish out to achieve a resounding success.

Bhimsen is a versatile singer; he is an expert in khayal singing but he is also adept in the presentation of thumris, songs from plays, or devotional compositions. His lilting thumris (Jadu Bhareli, Piya Ke Milan Ki Aas or Babul Mora) and his innumerable popular Abhangs composed by the saints of Maharashtra are instances in point.

Bhimsen is a prodigy – unique – a divine miracle. We should admire his tremendous accomplishments in the realm of music, revel in the heavenly experience of his gayaki and pray to God Almighty to bless this musical genius with a long life. In the whole of India there is no one else who has atained so much and given so much to music lovers. Listeners in he U.S.A. and the U.K. love and admire him. It is a pity that our Government has only bestowed a mere Padmashri on him, instead of the higher honours deserved by an artist of Bhimsen’s calibre who has received the greatest acclaim abroad.

Listen to a Thumri in Raga Kafi performed by him, which is an all time favourite of mine :

Mitali Banerjee Bhawmik

Mitali Banerjee Bhawmik, a rising star of the Hindustani Classical vocal music, was born in Nogaon, Assam. She started her music lessons at a very early age from Sri Ajit Dutta. Later she received extensive training in classical vocal music from Pandit Sri Biren Phukan of Guahati Assam. Mitali then came to Calcutta where she received lessons from Srimati Meera Banerjee, the renowned vocalist. Since 1983, Mitali is under the tutelage of Padmabhusan Pandit V.G. Jog, the famous violin maestro.

Mitali has performed in several concerts in India and USA. In India she has performed at the Sangeet Research Academy, Bhawanipur Sangeet Samaj, Salt Lake Music Festival in Calcutta, the Calcutta School of Music, the World Bengali Conference, Spic-Macay at IIT Kharagpur and several others.

In USA some of her performances include, Ali Akbar College of Music at San Raphael and Fremont in California, concerts in Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, Dallas, Princeton University, Yale University, Rutgers University. Mitali has also been a regular performer at the Hindu Milan Mandir Annual Music Conference in NJ, Sangeet Prabhaat organized by Marathi Viswa of NJ and many others.

Mitali has been gifted with a very strong and melodious voice which is perfectly suited for the Khayal and Thumri style of Hindustani music. Her soulful rendition of the Ragas have kept the audience mesmerized and has won her many appreciations and accolades. She also performs the more lighter forms of Hindustani music like Bhajans, Ghazals and Geets with equal grace and perfection.

Mitali currently resides in Monmouth Junction in New Jersey and teaches music to the students in the area. She and her students have won the prestigious New Jersey Arts Council fellowship grant to continue learning Hindustani Classical music from her.

Mitali has recently released her debut CD album “Vandana”. In this CD Mitali is blessed by her Guruji Pandit V. G. Jog’s violin accompaniment. Mitali performs Khayal in Raga Anandi Kalyan, followed by a Hori Thumri, a Dadra, and a Bhajan.

Here is a Kajri sung by her :

Moumita Mitra

Moumita Mitra, born on 22nd Dec.,1980 is a Hindustani (North Indian) Classical and Semi-Classical Vocalist. She is a disciple of Lt. Pt. A.Kannan and Sri Anjan Majumdar. She stood first in Khayal and Thumri in The DoverLane Music Competition in the years 2001 and 2004 respectively.

Moumita has received the Championship Award from The DoverLane Music Conference Organization in both the years for being the Highest scorer and Best Vocalist. She was given the honour to perform at the inauguration ceremony of DoverLane Music Conference 2002 on its Golden Jubilee celebration.

Moumita is a National (India Government’s Department of Culture) Scholarship holder from the year 2003. She has been conferred the title of “Adwitiya 2004”for becoming the winner in the Classical round of the music competition organized by Anandabazar & Shalimar, all over West Bengal. Second runner’s up in All India based competition organized by Swar Vilas, Vadodara, Gujrat in 2005. Winner of “Gaan Antaheen”, a Music competition in Doordarshan(National Television Network).

She has also performed in various prestigious Concerts in India, some of them are…. The Dover lane Music Conference, Kolkata in August,2002, Swar Vilas Baroda (Gujrat) in 2004 and 2005, The Youth Conference on Indian Classical Vocal Music in Kolkata, 200 3, The Annual Classical Music Conference by “Aanandi” at Kolkata, 200 5, Shalimar “Adwitiya” title giving ceremony at The Science city auditorium, 7th Aug., 2004. She also has a Music Album from HMV(Saregama) to her credit.

“The girl (Moumita Mitra) who sang on stage just now, if she gets the right opportunity, she will sing all over the country sooner or later. She has a flawless voice.”……..quoted by Pt. Jasraj on stage at the inaugural ceremony of 50th year of Doverlane Music Conference. 22nd Jan., 2002.

I myself highly rate this new and upcoming artist and predict, if I may do so, a very bright future for this young girl.

You can listen to one of her rendition, a Thumri in Tilak Kamod – ‘Ab Ke Sawan Ghar Aaja’. I hope you will enjoy as much as I did.

Kaushiki Chakrabarty

Blessed by prodigious natural talent and a cool temperament, Kaushiki has not been distracted for one moment by all the accolades and acclaim she has justly received at such a young age. Her last Sense World Music recording ‘Pure’ received worldwide recognition beyond the circles of traditional classical music listeners and confirmed a level maturity and depth in her singing which defies her years.

Following on from her success at the BBC World Music Awards in 2005, this unique collection of both studio and live concert recordings demonstrates why Kaushiki has become the great hope for the future of Indian classical vocal music, giving us an invaluable insight into the full range of her musical prowess.

Kaushiki was born in 1980 in Kolkata, the cultural capital of modern day India. Her parents noticed that she could reproduce complex musical and rhythmic phrases at the age of just two years. Being an able teacher her mother Smt. Chandana Chakrabarty took care of her ‘taleem’ (music training) adopting the role as her first Guru. Subsequently, Kaushiki had the fortune to become the youngest Ganda Bandh disciple (or shishya) of the renowned Bengali educator Guru Jnan Prakash Ghosh when she was just ten. Ganda Bandh is a traditional knot tying ceremony which cements the relationship between guru and student. Later on, after intermittent ill-health, Jnan Prakash Ghosh ordered Kaushiki to continue further training under the tutelage of his most successful disciple, her father Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty, one of the most creative and influential Indian vocalists of the modern era.

The guru-shishya system of teaching is the most intensive and effective route of musical learning in North Indian Classical music. Based on the oral tradition, it embodies the living and learning relationship between master and pupil, involving the complete emotional, intellectual and spiritual surrender of the ardent shishya (trainee) to the guru (teacher).

Here is a sample of Kaushiki’s prowess in singing :

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