Home 2018 Ragas for the Rest of Us: Attaining an appreciation of Hindustani Classical music

Ragas for the Rest of Us: Attaining an appreciation of Hindustani Classical music

by Nandu Kulkarni
Ragas for the Rest of Us: Attaining an appreciation of Hindustani Classical music

Photograph by Clem Onojeghuo

“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” ― Albert Einstein

Close your eyes for a minute and try to imagine a world without music. When I do that, life without music evokes in me visions of being forced to trudge through a dreary and endless desert under a scorching sun with no water and no food. Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th-century German philosopher said “Without music, life would be a mistake”. Many centuries before him, Plato is quoted as saying “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” And Khalil Gibran, the Lebanese-American poet and a contemporary of Nietzsche, wrote “Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life bringing peace, abolishing strife.”

Research suggests that man first made music over 40,000 years ago, and it may have allowed our distant ancestors to communicate before the invention of language. (Link: BBCEarth). Contemporary research in music psychology and neuroscience shows that all kinds of music have always been used to arouse and express a wide range of positive emotions, including joy, contentment, and a sense of personal meaningfulness. (Link: Music Matters). Music, like all other forms of human activity, has evolved over the millennia, and the primitive musical sounds that man produced from his vocal chords have evolved into thousands of music genres originating in different parts of the world. The crude musical instruments crafted by prehistoric man out of animal bones have evolved over time into instruments made from membranes of skin and synthetic material, wind and reed instruments, string instruments made from animal gut and metal, and finally electronic instruments that can produce virtually any kind of sound. Wikipedia lists not hundreds, but thousands of different kinds of musical instruments from different parts of the world.

Music, like all other forms of human activity, has evolved over the millennia, and the primitive musical sounds that man produced from his vocal chords have evolved into thousands of music genres originating in different parts of the world.

But the intention of this article is not to trace the historical evolution of music and its many genres. The present focus is on Hindustani Classical Music (also referred to as North Indian Classical Music), and my intention is to provide an introduction to some of the fundamental concepts of Hindustani Music. An article such as this can barely scratch the surface of a subject as vast as Indian Classical Music, and I would refer the curious reader wanting to dive a little deeper to RagaSphere, a website that a close friend Nitin Amin (who also is a Hindustani Classical flute teacher from whom I learn the flute) and I launched earlier this year. RagaSphere is focused on the listener, with the aim of drawing the casual and curious listener of Hindustani Music into becoming a serious listener and to learn enough to be able to understand and appreciate the finer nuances and aesthetic beauty of a Hindustani Classical Music performance.

If you attend a typical Hindustani music vocal or instrumental performance, you will see a small knowledgeable group of listeners in the front row, who catch on to the Raga being presented in the first few seconds of Alaap, understand the finer nuances of what the artist is presenting, and respond to every aesthetic phrase and every graceful landing on the “sam” with a “wah wah” or “kya baat hai”. They seem to be completely immersed in the performance along with the musicians on the stage, and often you will see a two-way communication between this core group of listeners and the musicians performing on the stage. The musicians seem to get inspired by these listeners to greater heights of aesthetic virtuosity. Outside of this core group of listeners, there is always a much larger section of the audience who is also enjoying the music and is deeply moved by it. The main difference between the two is that the first group in addition to being emotionally moved is also able to “understand” what the artist is doing and take in the performance with their hearts and their intellects, whereas the larger part of the audience is missing out on the second aspect. I can say from my personal experience that as my understanding improved, my enjoyment of the music increased in even greater proportion. This is borne out by the large turnout at music appreciation workshops that Nitin used to conduct around the country, and the feedback from people who had attended his workshops. So I have tried to outline here some of the basic concepts of Hindustani music at a very high level, and given pointers to the content on where the concept is explained in more detail for the curious and interested reader.

The musicians seem to get inspired by these listeners to greater heights of aesthetic virtuosity.

First, a little bit about RagaSphere. It has three main sections: RagaQuest, which explains the concepts of Swara, Raga, Laya/Tala, and how these are used by the musician in a vocal or instrumental performance, with the use of 33 videos divided into five chapters and containing explanations, demonstrations and animation; RagaTarang, an internet radio streaming classical music round the clock in three streams, one each for Asia, Europe, ME and Africa and the Americas; and RagaForum, a discussion forum for asking questions and sharing experiences. You can watch 1-2 minute sample excerpts of the videos, listen to the internet radio, and read posts on the forum by registering for free. If you become an annual member for a small fee (currently Rs.1200 or US$60 depending on where you live) you can watch the complete videos each averaging around 12 minutes, read and post on the forum, and of course, listen to the internet radio.

I will briefly discuss here the key concepts important to Hindustani Music: Swara (musical note), Raga, Laya / Tala (Tempo / Rhythm), and the form and structure of a vocal and instrumental concert.

Hindustani music uses the same 12 pitches or tones in the chromatic scale used in many genres of music, but with some subtle but important differences. The first is that the “tonic” Sa is not a fixed pitch but depends on the pitch of the singer or the instrument, and all the remaining notes are defined in relation to the Sa. Secondly, the Hindustani scale uses “natural” tuning as opposed to the “equal-tempered” or other types of tuning used in other genres. Thirdly, our music makes extensive use of Shrutis (microtones). All these and more concepts are explained in detail in the first chapter “Swara” in RagaQuest. Here is a sample of how concepts are explained: Komal Swara.

Perhaps the most important concept in Hindustani music, something that separates it from all other genres of music (with the exception of Carnatic music, of course) is the Raga.

Perhaps the most important concept in Hindustani music, something that separates it from all other genres of music (with the exception of Carnatic music, of course) is the Raga. A Raga is a melodic theme, with a rigid grammar defining the notes that can be used in the ascending and descending scale, and is characterized by certain distinctive signature phrases called the “Chalan” of the Raga. There are over 600 Ragas in Hindustani music, of which around 100 are commonly performed in vocal and instrumental concerts in the present day. According to the Rasa theory, the melodic theme of a Raga is intended to evoke a certain aesthetic emotion or mood in the consciousness of the performer as well as the listener. Traditionally, every Raga is performed at a certain time of the day or night. Although there is considerable debate among musicologists on whether this has anything to do with the intrinsic structure of the Raga or is just a result of tradition, all performers follow the “Raga Samay” theory and would not perform a morning Raga in the evening or night. It is important to note here that although the structure of the Raga is defined by the ascending and descending notes and its “Chalan”, the melody is essentially created by the way different notes are connected to each other using glides, microtones or “shrutis”, with rules defining the length of the sustain for the different notes. These concepts are explained in the second chapter “Raga” in RagaQuest. Sample this in Chalan of a Raga.

The other important element of Hindustani music is the Tala, the rhythmic cycle defined by the number of beats in the cycle and a structure that provides the musical meter for the performance.

The other important element of Hindustani music is the Tala, the rhythmic cycle defined by the number of beats in the cycle and a structure that provides the musical meter for the performance. The rhythmic accompaniment is usually on the Tabla, a percussion instrument that has its own “language” and grammar. There are around 10-12 Talas commonly used in vocal and instrumental music performances, with varying numbers of beats in the cycle such as 6, 7, 8, 10, 12, 14 and 16. A Tala can be played in a range of Layas (tempos, for lack of a better word) from the Ati-vilambit (ultra slow) through the slow, medium, fast and super-fast, depending upon the needs of the composition, the style and even the Raga. Do take a look at The Structure of the Tala for a sample of how the concept of Tala is illustrated in the chapter on Laya / Tala.

This brings us to the question of how all this is used or applied by a vocal or instrumental musician in his or her concert. A typical vocal concert of Indian Classical Music has a “main” artist (male or female) sitting on a stage along with an ensemble of accompanists – one or two vocalists playing Tanpuras and providing vocal support to the main artist, a percussionist on a Tabla or Pakhavaj providing the Theka, and an accompanist following the main artist on a harmonium or sarangi or violin. The main artist presents one or more Ragas using one or more compositions in each Raga at different Layas (tempos). The choice of Ragas is based on the time of the day, and on the artist’s own preferences and abilities. The exposition of a Raga has several elements such as Alaap, Taans and Bol-taans, Sargam, etc.

Instrumental Hindustani music is probably more popular in the West than vocal music, and is played on a variety of string and wind instruments such as the sitar, sarod, dilruba, sarangi, violin, flute and the shehnai. The same Ragas are performed usually in a different format consisting of the Aalap, Jod, Jhala and Gat. Some schools of instrumental music perform in a format close to the vocal format, called the “Gayaki Ang” or vocal style. The format of an instrumental performance is dealt with in the Performance Instrumental chapter of RagaQuest. Check out the sample video excerpt at Forms of Presentation.

What is unique about Hindustani Classical Music (and the Carnatic genre as well) is that it allows the artist an almost unlimited freedom of expression within the rigid structure of the Raga and Tala the artist is presenting.

This article has turned out to be longer than I had intended even though it barely scratches the surface, but I hope it will induce the reader to take a deeper dive into the subject. And I hope our labor of love RagaSphere will draw you into the community of Indian Classical Music that we are trying to build.

Happy listening!

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