British Raj and Indian Classical Music

When you think of Carnatic music, you think of temples, music which has retained its pristine purity over the ages and something strongly South Indian. But Carnatic music like all Indian art forms has been open to various cultural influences from all over the country and across the seas. Strange as it may sound, the British Raj and its bands have left a firm imprint on this most traditional music form. Muthuswami Dikshitar and Thyagaraja, two of the most revered composers of Carnatic music, were certainly influenced by the strange tunes from the British.

Perhaps the earliest innovation was the violin. This very Western instrument became part of the Carnatic music tradition when the family of composer Ramaswami Dikshitar moved from Tiruvarur to Madras in the 1790s. The five-year stay exposed brothers Muthuswami and Baluswami Dikshitars to the ‘airs’ that were being played by the Fort St George orchestra.

Baluswami Dikshitar learnt to play the violin from an Englishman and introduced it to the Carnatic concert platform. Muthuswami Dikshitar composed around fifty verses in Sanskrit, based on the orchestra’s music. The most famous among these is ‘Santatam Pahi Mam Sangita Shyamale’ which is set to the same tune as ‘God Save The King’! Muthuswami Dikshitar’s contemporary, Thyagaraja, composed ‘Raminsuvar Evarura’ in the Raga Suposhini, which was clearly inspired by music that accompanies march pasts.

His ‘Vara Lila Gana Lola’ in Raga Sankarabharanam, is also completely based on Western band tunes. Thyagaraja used words that had come into Telugu from English in some of his compositions. The usage of the word Landaru (from Lantern) in the kriti ‘Emi Jesite Nemi’ (Raga Todi) and Shalu (from Shawl) in the kritiJutamurare’ (Raga Arabhi) are examples.

The British were not immune to the beauty of Carnatic music. We have instances of singers such as Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan being appreciated by British officials. The antics and contortions of Sivagangai Periya Vaithi, are said to have scared at least one British Mem into hysterics.

Gopalakrishna Bharat’s Nandan Charitram moved a French official of Karaikkal to such an extent that he funded the first publication of the work. The Madras Jubilee Gayan Samaj opened its office in 1883 and among its patrons were such senior officials as Sir Charles Turner, Col McLeod and Gen S Chamier.

Programmes featuring Carnatic music were held at the Pachiappa’s Hall in George Town, Madras and many Englishmen attended these events. Patnam Subramanya Iyer, the composer who lived in Madras for 12 years, thereby acquiring the prefix Patnam (city), created the Raga Kathanakutoohalam, which can easily pass off as a melody in Western Music. His song ‘Raghuvamsa Sudha’ in this Raga is a favourite among instrumentalists, specially when they are performing to an International audience.

At the turn of the century, the Harikatha movement (story telling with music) was at its peak. Innovations were happening in this genre. Exponents such as Harikesanallur L Muthiah Bhagavatar and Tirupazhanam Panchapakesa Sastriar were in the fore front. A popular item in their repertoire was the description of Rama’s marriage to Sita. During their discourse they let their imagination run riot and even described a ‘band’ that belted out music during the wedding procession. The ever popular ‘English Note’ was created for this.

The Imperial Durbar of 1911 marked the zenith of the British Raj. The visit certainly influenced classical music. Gauhar Jan of Calcutta and Janki Bai of Allahabad performed a mujra for King George V, and for their song ‘Yeh Hai Tajposhi Ka Jalsa Mubarak Ho Mubarak Ho’ they were given a gift of 100 guineas. M Lakshmana Suri of Madras, father of Judge and musicologist T L Venkatarama Iyer and uncle to Harikesanallur L Muthaiah Bhagavatar, composed a set of 100 verses in Sanskrit on the King. It was titled ‘George Deva Shatakam’. He was awarded the title of Mahamahopadhyaya for the effort.

The Muthialpet Sabha of George Town, Madras, announced a competition among composers for coming up with a song on King George. The eminent vocalist and composer Ramanathapuram ‘Poochi’ Srinivasa Iyengar was awarded the gold medal for his kritiSatatamu Brovumayya Chakravartini’ in Raga Todi. A mangalam (benediction) too was composed. It goes ‘Jayatu Jayatu Sarvabhauma George Nama, Sundari Mary Ragni Sahita Vijayi Bhava’.

It must have been very pleasant for Queen Mary to be called a beauty. Sadly the composer is not known. In the mid-thirties, Chittoor V Nagaiah released a 78 rpm recording of a Javali, that began with the words ‘O my lovely Lalana’. The song is a delightful mix of Telugu and English. Much closer to Independence, Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar had the occasion to perform before an English collector. In order to impress him, Iyengar began with the English note. The man was not happy. ‘‘When will you sing ‘Entaro Mahanubhavulu’?’’ he asked. Carnatic music had come full circle.

The influence has not vanished with the end of the British Raj. During the Rishabha Vahanam procession at the Kapaleeswarar temple in Mylapore, it is customary for the bearers of the idol to dance to the tune of a band during the last lap of the event. The tunes played are the English note and… hold your breath, ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’! But then that is quite a good description of the Lord.

Listen to this song by Zohra Bai Agrewali that reminds us of that lost era of Kings and Maharajas and their courtesans :

Courtesy : Sriram V

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

Sawani Shende

Sawani Shende is a very popular up-and-coming vocalist of her generation. She is a student of Smt. Veena Sahastrabuddhe, a well known classical vocalist of international repute. Sawani has performed in prestigious music conferences all over India and also toured U.S.A/Canada in 1998. She has received prestigious awards like Pt. Jasraj Gaurav Puraskar, Smt. Manik Varma Puraskar and Pt. Ramkrishnabua Vaze Puraskar. Sawani has several cassettes and CDs to her credit.

Sawani was born in a musically rich family. She was introduced to Indian Classical Music at a tender age of six by her grandmother, Smt. Kusum Shende, herself a noted singer of Kirana Gharana. Quest for more and more knowledge in music at the age of 12 Sawani started her training under the expert guidance of Dr.Smt Veena Sahasrabudhe, a noted classical vocalist of Gwalior Gharana. Sawani’s father, Dr.Sanjeev Shende has groomed her in semi classical generes like Thumri, Dadra, Kajri, etc.

Sawani made her debut at the age of 10 to celebrate her grandmother’s 61s birthday. The journey of concerts started when Sawani was invited to perform at the prestigious Pt. Vishnu Digamber Jayanti Samaroh in Delhi when she was just 12. Sawani was honored when she performed for the then President of India, Mr. R. Venkatraman at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Since then she has never looked back.

Sawani’s music is a beautifull soul searching combination of Kirana Gharana and Gwalior Gharana, where she mesmerizes audiences with enchanting melody & strength of both.

Sawani’s confidence and mastery in Khayals, her crystal clear diction and overall sensitivity in presentation takes every performance to a very high aesthetic level. Her rendition of semi classical genres highlights the emotive and expressive quality of Indian Classical music and adds a very important dimension to her performance leaving audiences spellbound.

Sawani gave concerts in prestigious music festival all over India. She has also performed in 30 states all over USA and Canada. She also gave performances in Doha, Dukhan and Umsaid.

Listen to one of her mesmerizing rendition in Raga Durga ‘Bajavat Veena‘ which is one of my favourites :

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 :

Kalapini Komkali

Kalapini Komkali is the daughter of Kumar Gandharva and Vasundhara Komkali. An awesome inheritance resides in her genes. The curious consequence of this circumstance is that it is not only an affirmation of what is called the Gwalior Gayaki, but a wholly reconstructed and transformed style that revolutionized Hindustani Classical Music. The Gayaki of Kumar Gandharva is a difficult inheritance to claim. The reason for this difficulty is obvious when you consider the formidable issues involved in making a credible claim to it.

Kumar Gandharva’s impact on this century of Hindustani Classical Music has not yet been fully understood. This will take time. It is this inheritance however that gives Kalapini a very special place in the art and puts before her the opportunity for a unique evolution in her musical growth. In the last few years Kalapini has been able to cut a path of her own drawing from the inspiration of her father and Guru and has begun to show signs of sudden and unexpected intimations in her art. There are some major elements to be observed in her music. The hardest thing in Hindustani Music is to be able to transcend the scales and make a Raga come to life without making it seem like the notes of the scale being sung. Kalapini has begun to do this.

Kalapini has performed independently across the country to appreciative audiences. After her post graduation in Library Sciences, Kalapini learnt music from her father and is now an active trustee of the Kumar Gandharva Sangeet Academy, which has been structured to present and promote his genius. At present, she trains intensively with her mother.

Here is a rendition in Raga Kafi from her :

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