Sunday, November 23, 2008

Raga Shuddha Kalyan: How and why it is changing

Shuddha Kalyan is a popular, though difficult, raga of the Kalyan parent scale. The raga is pentatonic in the ascent and heptatonic in the descent.

Ascent: SRGPDS'
Descent: S'NDPM^GRS

The ascent is identical to Bhoop/Bhupali, while the descent is identical to Yaman/Kalyan. This is why the raga is also occasionally referred to as Bhoop Kalyan. But, there is more confusion surrounding the raga’s nomenclature because some gharana-s refer to Bhoop/Bhupali (pentatonic) as Bhoop Kalyan. And, some refer to Shuddha Kalyan (heptatonic in the descent) as Shuddha Bhoopal. Although varying nomenclatures are a good indication of the two-faced character of the raga, we can stick to Shuddha Kalyan as the most widely used name, with a good chance of identifying the melodic entity beyond reasonable doubt.

According to Manikbuwa Thakurdas (Raga Darshan), this raga can be performed in either of its two distinct variants -- a Bhoop-biased treatment, and a Kalyan-biased treatment. In a Bhoop-biased treatment, the use of the Ni/Ma swaras in the descent should be subtle enough to be "apratyaksha" (subliminal/ implicit/ imperceptible). This is normally achieved by using the two swaras only in a meend (glissando) as grace swaras in the transition from Sa to (Ni) Dh and Pa to (Ma) Ga. When presented in the Kalyan-biased treatment, the Ni/Ma swaras can be "pratyaksha" (explicit) or "apratyaksha" (implicit), and therefore not limited to being treated as grace swaras.

Subba Rao (Raga Nidhi, Vol.IV) points out a third interpretation of the raga which omits the Ma/Ni swaras altogether. In such a treatment, distinguishing the resulting music from Bhoop/Bhupali requires great skill. This version was heard occasionally until the 1960s, and is virtually extinct now.

According to Kalyan Mukherjea (his e-mail of June 25,1999), an eminent disciple of Pandit Radhika Mohan Maitra, his Guru resolved this multiplicity of views as only great creative minds can -- by a poetic description. According to him, Ni/Ma are "astamita", like rays of the setting sun, which has already sunken below the horizon. This description permits the subliminal as well as the explicit use of the Ni/Ma swaras in the descent, as long as they claim no more than a subtle presence in the totality of the aural experience.

The raga permits phrases to culminate only on Sa, Re, Ga, and Pa. None of the other swaras are permitted the status of “nyasa swaras” [resting points] for phrasing. The primary melodic region of this raga is the region between the lower-octave Pa and the middle-octave Pa. This also happens to be the primary melodic region of Bhoop/Bhupali. Hence the exposure of Shuddha Kalyan to the risk of confusion with Bhoop.

Shuddha Kalyan avoids the confusion with Bhoop/Bhupali by its phrases P.D.P.S and S N. R, which rule out Bhoop/ Bhupali categorically. In addition, Shuddha Kalyan utilizes the Re swara as one of special emphasis, as against the Ga-dominance of Bhoop/Bhupali. Shuddha Kalyan prefers to use the Ga swara as a transitional swara in its journey towards Pa in a loop phrase RGPM^G as distinct from the direct DSRG or RPG characteristic of Bhoop/Bhupali.

The various views on Shuddha Kalyan appear to converge on one point – that, despite its heptatonic descent, the aural experience of the raga is intended to be near-pentatonic. On the basis of modern and contemporary practice, the raga appears to be anchored in the lower half of the melodic canvas, with a notional scale from the lower-Pa to the middle-Pa. Some musicians have chosen to locate the raga’s epicentre in the uttaranga [upper tetrachord] of the lower octave, while others have opted for the poorvanga [lower tetrachord] of the middle octave. Because the raga’s tonal/ melodic differentiation from Bhoop/ Bhupali and Deshkar is most explicit in the descent, the raga may be considered avaroha-pradhan [descent dominant]. This is the raga’s esthetic grammar, which refines its melodic grammar, and drives it towards literature.

A survey of available recordings of this raga reveals some interesting patterns. To begin with, Suddha Kalyan appears to have been performed only by musicians of considerable stature. Even these musicians appear to have performed the raga primarily at concerts, and rarely on commercial recordings. These facts suggest that the raga is regarded as a considerable aesthetic challenge, and those who do perform it do so after they have ascertained the receptivity potential of their audiences to the raga’s melodic subtleties. These subtleties of raga grammar might explain why vocalists have remained far more faithful to the near-pentatonic aural experience of the raga than instrumentalists performing on the plucked lutes – sitar and sarod.

But, there appears also to be a generational angle to the diversity in the handling of the raga’s near-pentatonic character, especially with respect to sitar and sarod renditions. Evidence of recordings by three generations of sitar/sarod players suggests that the ergonomic and acoustic aspects of music making have encouraged a steady drift towards a bolder expression of the raga’s heptatonic character and, by implication, a dilution of the near-pentatonic aural experience.

This tendency could partially also reflect the growing audience-friendliness amongst the younger Hindustani musicians. They are a part of the new “in-your-face” culture, which makes them abandon the subtleties and nuances of ragas in favour of the more explicit expression, which also happens to be less demanding in melodic execution.

By way of support for these observations, I rely on recordings of the raga by Ustad Ameer Khan [Vocal: HMV:STC:851005], Roshanara Beghum [Vocal: HMV:STC: 04B: 7702], Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande [Vocal: Music Today:A-92060], Shrafat Hussain Khan [Vocal: Concert: Unpublished] Ustad Vilayat Khan [Sitar: Concert at National Centre for Performing Arts, Bombay, February 8, 1998. Unpublished], Kalyan Mukherjea [Sarod: India Archive Music, NY], and a recording by Shujaat Khan [India Archive Music, NY].

The issue of maintaining the near-pentatonic aural experience of a raga with a heptatonic scale revolves primarily around the subliminal use of [tivra] Ma in the descent from Pa to Ga, and the equally imperceptible use of [shuddha] Ni in the descent from Sa to Dh. Since the ergonomic and generational issues stand out in bolder relief in the instrumental renditions, a detailed look at the sitar/ sarod recordings is revealing.

Ustad Vilayat Khan [born: 1928], the seniormost of the instrumentalists surveyed, remains remarkably close to the near-pentatonic experience of the raga throughout the concert. In the low-density melodic movements, he hardly ever executes the Ma/Ni swaras on the frets, always using the meend [string deflection] technique to approximate the vocalist’s subtlety. In the high-density movements, the Ustad sparingly uses the Ni fret supported with a plectrum stroke, but almost never the Ma fret. The dilution of the raga’s near-pentatonic character in Vilayat Khan’s Shuddha Kalyan, if any, [Example: S’NDPGRS] does not go beyond a near-hexatonic experience.

Sarodist Kalyan Mukherjea [born:1943] is more explicit in the use of the Ma/ Ni swaras, including supporting them with plectrum strokes. His interpretation of the raga permits medium density passages such as SN/ ND/ DP/ PM^ /M^G with gamak execution, which allow the Ma/Ni swaras as much weightage as other swaras. Despite its explicitness, this usage remains broadly “apratyaksha” [subtle/ imperceptible] because swaras taken in pairs do not constitute a phrase, and stop short of defining an explicit melodic contour.

Therefore, while Mukherjea treats the raga as being pentatonic in the ascent, and heptatonic in the descent, the experience of the Ma/ Ni swaras remains– as described by his Guru -- akin to the rays of the setting sun, after it has dipped below the horizon. Because the fretless sarod is a more hospitable instrument with respect to the Ma/Ni subtlety than the sitar, the liberality of Mukherjea’s treatment -- relative to Ustad Vilayat Khan’s -- may, therefore, have an element of generational preference.

The generational issue acquires some merit because, Shujaat Khan [Born: 1960] goes beyond Mukherjea in permitting the Ma/Ni swaras a presence in the raga. Shujaat’s deployment of these swaras is perhaps more prominent than even the “pratyaksha” treatment envisaged by Thakurdas [Ibid]. Shujat freely deploys phrases such as RGM^GR and PDNDP which can be interpreted as using Ma and Ni in the ascent as well as descent. Shujaat also feels free to construct descending alankar tans which define melodic contours with Ma and Ni as nyasa swaras [Example: GGRS/ RRSN/ SSND/ NNDP/ DDPM^/ PPM^G/ M^M^GR/ GGRS].

He therefore appears to treat the Ma/Ni swaras as permissible for sparing deployment, but not necessarily only in the descent, and not merely as incidentals to phrasing. Contextually, however, Shujaat’s usage hardly creates dissonance except for the abnormally critical ear. Despite the magnitude of his deviations, the aural experience of his Shuddha Kalyan remains within the recognisable boundaries of the raga.

This discussion could invite the argument that sitarists and sarod players should refrain from performing ragas like Shuddha Kalyan, whose subtleties their instruments cannot handle. But, this is an irrelevant line of reasoning in Hindustani music tradition, built on the assumptions of continuity within change. It accepts that ragas can, and do, alter their melodic grammar over time, even in the vocal expression. The motivation for these alterations is either greater ease of melodic execution or responding to changing aesthetic values.

Instrumentalists alter the raga form with the same motivation. Their alterations are merely more obvious than those of vocalists because of the perceptible mechanics of sound activation and melodic execution. And, to the extent that instruments increasingly dominate society’s experience of Hindustani music, their melodic-acoustic features reflect contemporary aesthetic values, while also altering our melodic experience of ragas and, indeed, our notions of raga-ness.

This perspective is easier to appreciate by visualising Shuddha Kalyan being attempted on the santoor, the Indian dulcimer, a staccato instrument. Even in the hands of the greatest santoor maestro, the instrument would be severely limited in its ability to deliver the micro-tonal subtleties of Shuddha Kalyan as hitherto prescribed. Unlike western classical music, which composes music uniquely for individual instruments, the Hindustani tradition accepts Shuddha Kalyan on the santoor with all its limitations, and will judge the results by the same fundamental yardstick – whether the melodic experience remains within the recognisable boundaries of the raga, as currently understood.

The operative phrase in this proposition is “the raga as currently understood”. Audiences acquire their notions of raga-ness from the mix of aural experiences to which they are exposed.

As long as the subtle and the not-so-subtle interpretations of Shuddha Kalyan are both in circulation, listeners hearing the less subtle versions will tend to mentally “fill in” the subtleties which they were supposed to hear, but do not actually hear in the music being performed. This great ability of the human aural mechanism constitutes some protection against the dilution of an exquisitely subtle melodic entity.

But, the music-scape of society is dynamic in nature. If the santoor should ever dominate our society’s musical experience, the ergonomic and acoustic uniqueness of the instrument will reshape the experience of Shuddha Kalyan, along with every other “raga as currently understood”.

If such an event comes to pass, nobody needs lose sleep over it because it will not happen either for the first time, or the last. The Hindustani tradition is robust enough to accommodate different notions of a “raga as currently understood” for vocal music, and for as many categories of instruments as are in vogue.

Deepak S. Raja
© India Archive Music Ltd. New York
The finest recordings of raga Shuddha Kalyan have been produced by India Archive Music Ltd.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Nancy Lesh (Kulkarni): “Dhrupad is the music for me. India is the place for me.”

The US-born Dhrupad Cellist, Nancy Kulkarni writes about her journey in Hindustani Music

My journey in Indian music started completely by chance. When I first came to India In I982, I had been playing Western cello for 13 years, had played in several symphony orchestras, including Principal Cellist of the Rome Festival Orchestra, and was currently Section Cellist with the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale of Florence, Italy. I was blissfully playing Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and all the greats of Western classical music.

Every summer was a three-month holiday from the orchestra, and that year I saw a special for a $500 round-trip ticket to Bombay. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to vacation in such an exotic land. However, I knew nothing of India and its music, and knew nobody who lived there. Nevertheless, I sewed a backpack for my cello with the intention of backpacking throughout India, and returning to the orchestra in the fall.

When I stepped off the plane in Bombay that June morning, I was immediately struck by the fragrance of burning campfires, mixed with cooking spices. That particular smell was very familiar to me, and I felt immediately that I had come home. I still relish that delightful smell each time I come to India. All the sights and scenes I experienced that first month were also strangely familiar. The next day I started wearing a sari with bindi, and soon had my nose pierced,Indian-style.

I spent the first month in Bombay, playing the Bach suites for solo cello in parks and hotel lobbies, and listening to concerts of Hindustani classical music every evening. I was amazed by all the new sounds I was hearing: sitar, sarangi, surbahar, bansuri, tanpura,tabla, pakhawaj. Growing up in the West, I had assumed that Indian music was of the “folk” category. I was thrilled to hear so many styles of classical music, and an amazing array of ragas. I was aching to learn some of this music on my cello. But where to start? With whom to study?

Fortunately I made the acquaintance of the noted scholar Dr. Narayana Menon, that time Director of the National Center for the Performing Arts. He gave me some advice which I have always cherished. He said that I must not be in a hurry to choose a teacher and begin studying. He advised me to spend my entire 3-month holiday listening to as many concerts as possible. From this, I will naturally find an attraction for a particular style or instrument. Then in my next trip to India, I can pursue a formal study with a chosen master.

I did as he said. The next day, I left for a music-listening tour of the major cities of Northern India, cello strapped to my back. Everywhere I went, I played Bach for locals in parks and hotel lobbies by day, and attended concerts at night. After a month of travel, I came to my favorite city, Banaras. I gave a recital for the Banaras Hindu University’s School of Music, playing the famous Fifth Suite for Solo Cello by Bach. At that time, Dean of Music Dr. Ranga Naiki, and musicologist Dr. Premlata Sharma were present in the audience.

After my recital, Dr. Sharma came to see me, saying, “It always amazes us how you Westerners are able to play note-by-note memorized pieces for hours.” I replied, “Its even more amazing how you Indian musicians are able to go on improvising in a single raga for hours, always fresh, and never repeating a phrase!” I asked Dr. Sharma her advice about pursuing a study of Indian music. “This instrument is perfect for Dhrupad,” was her reply. Only many years later, I came to know the wisdom in her statement. “We have one fine teacher of Dhrupad here at BHU, Dr. Ritwik Sanyal. I will introduce you to him.”

The next day, I went to Dr. Sanyal’s home for my first Dhrupad lesson, not having any idea what is Dhrupad! In all my travels, I hadn’t even one opportunity to hear this wonderful musical genre. As soon as I heard Dr. Sanyal’s alap in Bhim Palasi, I knew this was the music for me. The low ringing tones of his voice, the timeless un-measured movements of his alap, the poignant melody, all had me mesmerized. But what was even more thrilling, was when I found that I could somewhat reproduce those phrases on my cello. Hearing the familiar sound of my cello take in a new exotic expression, I could hardly contain my excitement! I came daily for lessons with Dr. Sanyal until it was time for me to return to Florence.

But, when the time came, I just couldn’t do it. In those days, public telephones were a rarity in Banaras, and after a many-hour wait, the connection was often bad enough to be useless. So I sent a telegram to Maestro RichardoMutti, Director of the orchestra in Florence, to please fill my post , I had to stay in India. I remained in India for seven years, studying two years with Dr. Sanyal, and five years with his guru, the Dhrupad veena master, Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar. I was joined my husband and son, and my daughter was born in Panvel on the outskirts of Bombay.

Along with Dhrupad cello, I studied Hindi and Marathi. Those were wonderful years, and I will always cherish the memories of the Ustad and his celestial music. After the untimely demise of my Ustad in 1990, I visited India every year to continue my Dhrupad cello study with his brother, the eminent vocalist Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar of Bombay.

During these last 25 years of playing Dhrupad on my cello, I have tried all kinds of modifications to my cello, with the guidance of my guru. This has been an interesting adventure in itself. I currently have two extra strings, which are plucked in the chikari style of the rudra veena. My four melodic strings pass over a sloping elkhorn nut, modeled after the veena to produce a ringing tone. One can see from my photo that I have adopted the Indian posture, holding the cello while seated on a carpet. I have eliminated the vibrato, which I had so carefully groomed in my Western classical training, so that the subtle ornaments of Dhrupad are clearly articulated.

The rest is just the life of a striving musican. I can only thank my Gurus for the inspiration and guidance they have given me, which was so strong as to last all these years. I am looking forward to shifting myresidence permanently to Pune in 2008. India is the place for me!

(c) Nancy Kulkarni
The finest recordings of Nancy Lesh (Kulkarni) have been produced by India Archive Music Ltd., New York. Nancy’s biodata and other CD releases can be accessed at