Sunday, April 24, 2011

Raga Miya-ki Todi.... reluctant differentiation

Miya-ki Todi, also known as, Todi, Darbari Todi, and sometimes Shuddha Todi, is amongst the more popular morning ragas of Hindustani music. The raga also represents the Todi parent scale of Hindustani music, corresponding to the Shubhapantuvarali Mela of the Carnatic (South Indian) system. The raga derives its name from its association with the legendary musician, Miya Tansen (16th century)

It is a raga of considerable antiquity, documented in textual sources by the name of Varali, Varati, or occasionally, Varati-Todi. The prescribed time for the raga is the first three-hour slot after sunrise. Its character is profound, and its essential mood is somber. Despite this, the raga has attained a decent presence in the classicist as well as romanticist genres of Hindustani music.

Bhatkhande (died: 1937), the earliest modern commentator on the raga, documents the raga as heptatonic in the ascent (S-r-g-M^-P-d-N-S’) as well the descent (S’-N-d-P-M^-g-r-S). Reflecting the practice of his times, he reports several interpretations of the raga with respect to the dominant tones. He pronounces (komal) Dh as vadi (primary dominant); but acknowledges, with disapproval, the fact that some musicians accord this status to (komal) Ga. According to him, (komal) Ga, along with (komal) Re are candidates for the status of samvadi (secondary dominant). By this logic, the raga’s centre of gravity will fall in the upper tetrachord.

Bhatkhande (Bhatkhande Sangeet Shastra, Vol. IV, 2nd Edition. 1970. Sangeet Karyalaya, Hathras) distinguishes Miya-ki Todi from its closest sibling, Gujri Todi by a very simple discriminant. The removal of Pa from Miy-ki Todi makes it Gujri Todi. He acknowledges the attempt to differentiate the two ragas also by their respective centers of melodic gravity, with Gujri being anchored in the Purvanga (lower tetrachord); but he does not see this distinction being practiced by his contemporaries. Implicitly, and even explicitly, Bhatkhande allows for considerable latitude in phrasing, with no threat to the distinctive melodic character of the raga.

About half a century later, Subbarao (Raga Nidhi, Vol. IV, 4th Edition, 1996, 1st edition: 1965. Music Academy, Madras) acknowledges two variants of the raga. One is hexatonic in the ascent (S-r-g-M^-d-N-S’), and heptatonic in the descent.  The other is similar to Bhatkhande’s description, heptatonic in both directions. In both variants, Subbarao prescribes a very sparing use of Pa, and only in the descent, almost suggesting one phrase (M^-d-P) as the only permissible usage.

Subbarao regards (komal) Re, (komal) Ga and (komal) Dh as important melodic centers of the raga, but is non-committal about the vadi-samvadi pair. He reverses Bhatkhande’s notions regarding the respective centres of gravity of the two sibling ragas – Miya-ki Todi, according to him is anchored in the Purvanga, while Gujri Todi is centred in the Uttaranga. Consistent with this, he attributes to Gujri Todi the vadi-samvadi pair (Dh and Ga/Re) that Bhatkhande had ascribed to Miya-ki Todi.

Writing another quarter of a century later, Manikbuwa Thakurdas (Raga Darshan, Vol I, 1st edition. 1987. Krishna Brothers, Ajmer) agrees with Bhatkhande on the tone material – heptatonic in both directions – and with Subbarao on the sparing use of Pa, mainly in the descent. His identification of the vadi-samvadi pair does not, however, entirely resolve the problem of raga differentiation with respect to Gujri Todi. He pronounces (komal) Ga and (komal) Dh as vadi-samvadi of Miya-ki Todi, while permitting Gujri Todi to be performed with the same set of dominants. He does, of course, admit that Gujri Todi is also acceptable with the roles reversed -- (komal) Dh as vadi and (komal) Ga as samvadi.

An important feature of Miya-ki Todi, acknowledged by all authorities is the special emphasis on (komal) Re and (komal) Ga in the raga. Their documentation formalizes the use of suppressed frequencies of these two swaras.

There is, indeed, an evolutionary trend in these writings, as they appear to seek a sharper progressive differentiation between Miya-ki Todi, and Gujri Todi. The diversity in practice, however, militates against a categorical differentiation.  This has obliged authorities to unanimously acknowledge the robustness of the raga, and differentiate it from Gujri Todi almost entirely by the sparing deployment of the Pa swara.

The only other risk of confusion worthy of mention, despite being insignificant, is with respect to Multani, which deploys identical tone material. Multani has a distinct scale with a hexatonic ascent (SgM^PNS’), has three jumps and loops in the descent (S’N/ PdP /gM^g /SrS), and deploys two pivotal swaras of Miya-ki Todi and Gujri Todi – (komal) Re and  (komal) Dh – only subliminally.

The robust melodic character of Miya-ki Todi would explain why it has become immensely popular across genres of music in the North as well the South. This also explains why the Todi family has proliferated, with its distinctive melodic features being modified to shape several variants – such as Lachari Todi, Bahaduri Todi, Bilaskhani Todi, Phirozekhani Todi, Ahiri Todi, Hussaini Todi, Laxmi Todi.

The skeletal phraseology of the raga may best be documented conforming to the Bhatkhande prescription, because it is the most liberal, and legitimizes the diversity of contemporary practice. It will be noticed that the prescription permits deployment of the Pa swara in both directions, while also allowing its total omission in either.

Chalan (Skeletal phraseology).
N. N. S r g / r g r / r g M^ P or r g M^ g P/ g M^ d P / M^ g M^ d / N d P / d d  N S’ [or] M^ d N S’/ N S’ r’ g’ r’/ d N S’ r’ g’ / r’ g’ r’ S’/ N r’ N d P / M^ P d M^ g [or] N d M^ g / r g r S

Though the reluctant differentiation between Gujri Todi and Miya-ki Todi may be more widely practiced today, we need to accept that the categorical and the reluctant have both been in practice for at least a century.

Deepak S. Raja
(c) India Archive Music, New York. Producers of the finest recordings of Raga Miya-ki-Todi.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Girija Devi: The queen of Benares

For over a century now, the Benares Hall of Fame has read like the “Who’s who” of Hindustani music. The latest addition to it is Girija Devi. Born in 1929, she is amongst the most distinguished vocalists of our times, and the reigning queen of the Benares tradition of Thumree and allied genres. In a career spanning almost six decades, she has charmed three generations of Indian music lovers. In the 1990s, she started performing abroad, and acquired an enthusiastic following in Europe and North America.

Two Indian universities have conferred D.Litt degrees on her. She has been decorated with the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1978), and the Padma Shri (1973) and Padma Bhushan (1989). The Grand Dame of the Thumree has served a long stint as a Guru at the ITC Sangeet Research Academy in Calcutta, and continues to guide students at the institution.

The acknowledgment of Girija Devi as the greatest living exponent of the semi-classical genres, though well deserved, probably underrates her stature. The phenomenon has its roots in the prejudice against the courtesan culture of Northern India, which nourished the romanticist genres. In its contemporary garb, the bias seeks to portray the semi-classical genres as inferior demands on musicianship, and berates the Khayal renditions of the Thumree singers.

Like most rationalisations of prejudice, this one may not withstand scrutiny. Many specialist Thmuree singers recorded 78 RPM discs of Khayal during the pre-independence period, in addition to their semi-classical repertoire. And, HMV, then a monopoly, would not have published their Khayals had they not been acceptable to the audiences of that era as being on par with those of Khayal singers.

In the emerging paucity of specialist Thumree performers after independence, Girija Devi could have comfortably forgotten all about the Khayal and encashed her scarcity premium. Instead, she struggled successfully to restore to the Benares tradition its prestige as a reservoir of multi-dimensional musicianship.

I make these observations based on a study of about seven hours of her music spread over a sufficiently long period to enable defensible inferences. The sample includes  renditions of Khayal, Tappa, Tarana, and pieces of semi-classical genres such as Thumree, Dadra, Chaiti, Kajree. The spectrum of raga-s covered is also large enough, though biased towards “Thumree raga-s”: Madhuwanti, Abhogi, Poorvi, Devgandhar, Yaman, Bihag, Kafi, Desh, Bhairavi, Ghara, and Pahadi.

Girija Devi, the Khayal vocalist

Girija Devi’s Khayal repertoire is centred around popular ragas. A rare raga like Devgandhar, however, appears on her published repertoire. She renders even a common raga like Madhuwanti with meticulous attention to the subtleties of grammar. Mechanistic and stereotypical tan patterns, commonly found in present-day Khayal music, rarely appear in her renditions. Upto the 1980s, the speed and clarity of her tans could compare with the best.

The distinguishing feature of the Khayal genre is its “formal aloofness”. Formalism refers to its end-to-end linear architecture involving a progressive enhancement of melodic-rhythmic density and complexity. Aloofness of demeanour describes its restrain in the sculpture and ornamentation of melody. For their formalism, Girija Devi’s Khayal renditions are unimpeachable. On the aloofness dimension, they might appear to veer towards the romanticist genres.

The tilt towards romanticism is a tricky issue in the contemporary context. Since the advent of Jasraj, Kumar Gandharva and Kishori Amonkar, the Khayal itself has abandoned a good deal of its aloofness. The romanticism of these luminaries is more categorical, and more self-conscious, than that of Girija Devi. Compared, however, to Benares stalwarts the preceding generation, Siddheshwari Devi and Rasoolan Bai, Girija Devi’s Khayal renditions appear romanticist. In conclusion, Girija Devi’s Khayal renditions cannot be dismissed as “Thumree-like” by contemporary standards of demeanour.

The apparent condescension of the music establishment towards Girija Devi’s Khayal renditions warrants diagnosis. Firstly, her renditions do not conform to any of the major gharana stereotypes by which the Khayal world recognises the genre. Her style may, therefore, come through as “a style without a style”. The other reason is related to the realities of demand and supply. Her brilliance as a Thumree singer attracts an immense scarcity premium, and tends to overshadow her competence in the abundantly available Khayal. While the pattern is predictable, it does not make the consequences fair to her musicianship.

Girija Devi in the semi-classical genres

As an exponent of the romanticist genres, Girija Devi is an original musician. In its detail, or even in its broad approach, her music cannot be compared with the Benares stalwarts of the earlier generation – Rasoolan Bai and Siddheshwari Devi. Her thumrees induce a state of sustained inebriation because of the unique interaction she engineers between the poetic, melodic and rhythmic elements.

This heady quality owes a great deal to the manner in which Girija Devi deploys rhythm. By her own admission, she performs her lyrical, slow-tempo (Bol-banav) thumree-s, and even Hori-s (compositions related to the spring festival of Holi) predominantly in Teental variants (16 beats) like Jat, and Adha Theka. These forms have more commonly been performed in Deepchandi (14 beats). The distinctive cadence of teental variants exercises a tighter grip over melody than that of Deepchandi. But, at Girija Devi’ usual tempo for the Teental variants, this categorical rhythmic pattern is made to perform a reluctant rhythmic function. This paradox appears to be a potent inducer of intoxication.

It would be surprising if we did not find a method in music that has such impact. Girija Devi’s bol-banav (melodic improvisations on fragments of poetry) in her Thumrees covers all the sections of the verse in proper sequence. Though informal, the melodic progression is akin to the alap in a Khayal rendition, with clearly defined sthayi and antara stages, anchored in the lower and upper half of the melodic canvas respectively. In her renditions of Tappa-s (a fast-paced genre of semi-classical music), despite the total architectural freedom available in the genre, Girija Devi adopts a steady intensification of melodic complexity as an indication of linearity.

Considering the poetry-dominant, and architecturally amorphous character of the Thumree, Girija Devi’s international following is an enigma. It would suggest that, even in a poetry based genre, melody and rhythm do not require the explicit delivery of literary meaning to communicate emotional meaning. While highlighting the quality of Girija Devi’s musicianship, these implications also challenge those who blame Brij Bhasha, the language of the Thumree, for the decline in its popularity. Evidently, it was musicianship that failed the Thumree, more than Brij Bhasha did. No less a thumree exponent than Bade Gulam Ali Khan wondered why thumrees could not be performed in other Indian languages -- a Bengali thumree, a Marathi thumree, or even a Carnatic thumree!

The musical personality

Central to her Khayal as well as semi-classical renditions is her musical personality. She shuns excessive aloofness in Khayals as much as she steers away from seductive intimacy in her Thumrees. Her command over the melodic and rhythmic elements is such that she can deploy them within any framework with equal facility. Her depth of involvement in the poetic element drives the melodic element to achieve the appropriate emotional communication. For this, she neither requires the aggressive vocalisation and intonation found in some styles of khayal, nor the ornate embellishment of melody normally encountered in the Thumree. Graceful melodic contours defined by elongated meend-s (glissandi) are her primary device for communicating the musical idea. And, it works equally well in the classicist and the romanticist genres. This austerity in the deployment of melodic ornamentation may owe a lot to her second Guru, Shrichand Mishra, a product of the Dhrupad-inspired Seniya tradition of vocalism.

She performs Khayals as well as Thumrees at an ultra-slow tempo, and allows the poetic and melodic elements to work together conceding to rhythm no more than its role as a binding force of music. This melody-poetry dominant approach keeps her Khayals warm and friendly while it keeps her Thumree renditions free from mushy sentimentalism. In both genres, however, emotional values are delivered effectively and in appropriate doses. This feature of her music is inconceivable without a virtuoso command over raga-ness. In Khayal rendition, her grammar is, of course, impeccable. A tricky raga like Devagandhar is a cake-walk for her. But, even in her Thumree renditions, the liberties she takes with raga-grammar are extremely judicious. Despite the permissiveness of the genre, her renditions appear to deliver the complete aesthetic satisfaction of a raga presentation. Only trained musicians and perhaps a minority of connoisseurs appreciate that delivering such satisfactions while breaching the rules of grammar demands a much higher level of musicianship than by conforming to them.

It is not necessary to compare Girija Devi with earlier generations of stalwarts from the Benares tradition to acknowledge her versatility and musicianship. Nor does she require the nostalgia premium of being the last great representative of the tradition. She stands tall amongst contemporary Hindustani vocalists, independently of these considerations.

Deepak S. Raja 
© India Archive Music Ltd. New York.
The finest recordings of Girija Devi have been published by India Archive Music Ltd., New York.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Raga Ahir-Lalit: an evolving melodic entity

The creation of Ahir-Lalit is credited to Pandit Ravi Shankar. It was first recorded by him on a 78 RPM record [STCS-850176], probably in the 1950’s, and again -- this time an elaborate presentation – in 1979 [STC-850064]. The raga has been a part of his concert repertoire for several decades, and has been popularised by several younger musicians of the Maihar-Senia gharana.

The hyper-hexatonic raga [S r G M M^ D n] is, ostensibly, a combination of raga Ahir/ Ahiri, and Lalit, both early morning ragas. However, since Ahiri is heard mainly as a Bhairav variant, Ahir-Bhairav, for most listeners Ahir-Lalit will be unable to escape the shadow of Ahir Bhairav over the Lalit facet of the raga.  In this respect, Ahir-Lalit belongs to a group of compound ragas introducing the Lalit flavour into other ragas, all of which were created around the middle of the twentieth century. During this period, the legendary Kesarbai Kerkar of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana made Lalita-Gauri, a blend of Gauri and Lalit, her trademark. A little later, Yunus Ahmed Khan, an Agra gharana vocalist, reportedly created Lalita-Sohini, a blend of Sohini and Lalit.

In all these cases, the melodic idea was simple – that of adding the unique twin-Ma effect of Lalit to another raga, while keeping the other raga substantially intact as the major presence in the resultant melodic entity. Interestingly, in all these cases, the base-ragas for the introduction of the Lalit effect, happen to be ragas of fragile independent raga-ness. Gauri is treacherously close to Puriya Dhanashree, and difficult to render in its purity. Sohini, which shares its tone material with Puriya and Marwa, is a raga of very limited melodic potential. Likewise, Ahiri too is a raga difficult to sustain as an independent melodic entity. This is also why Ahiri is almost always encountered in its Ahir-Bhairav manifestation. This could also have provided the inspiration for the creation of Ahir-Lalit.

This evidence would suggest that the main purpose of the Lalit- effect has been the enhancement of a base-raga’s melodic potential, and/ or enabling it to shape a more distinctive melodic entity. This logic may not explain why, and how, these Lalit-blended ragas were created. But, it could explain why they caught the imagination of the music community, and acquired legitimacy, and even gained currency.

Ahir-Lalit can be understood by reference to the tone material and the Vadi/ Samvadi swaras [primary and secondary dominants] of three ragas, Ahir/Ahiri, Ahir Bhairav, and Lalit, as documented by Subba Rao [Raga Nidhi, 4th edition, 1996, Music Academy, Madras].

Ahir/Ahiri: S r G M P D n  [Vadi: S, Samvadi: P]
Ahir Bhairav: S r G M P D n [Vadi: M, Samvadi: S]
Lalit: S r G M M^ d N  [Vadi: M, Samvadi: S]
Ahir-Lalit: S r G M M^ D n [Vadi: M, Samvadi: S]

Speaking strictly in terms of tone material, you get Ahir-Lalit by substituting the Pa of Ahiri or Ahir-Bhairav with a tivra [sharp] Ma. Another way of looking at it from the Lalit perspective. Viewed from this angle, Lalit becomes Ahir-Lalit by replacing its komal [flat] Dh with a shuddha [natural] Dh. Ahir Bhairav and Lalit could have an additional basis for compatibility by virtue of sharing the same Vadi/Samvadi [Ma, Sa]. This, however, is controversial because some authorities consider Pa/Sa to be the Vadi/Samvadi of Ahir Bhairav. [Thakurdas, Manikbuwa, Raga Darshan, Vol.IV, 1st edition, Lakshminarayan Trust, Rajpipla].

On the evidence of Pandit Ravi Shankar’s rendering considered here, the melodic centre of gravity of the raga is in the purvanga. It appears that the vadi/samvadi of Ahir-Lalit are intended to be Dh and Ma respectively. A reversal of these roles would push the raga too close to the early 20th century Lalit, which utilised the shuddha Dh, instead of the contemporary komal Dh; and such does not appear to be the composer’s intention.

Beyond these basic issues of raga grammar, the melodic personality of Ahir-Lalit can be documented only by reference to its skeletal phraseology [chalan], as evident from the vilambit alap rendered by its composer, Pandit Ravi Shankar [STC-850064 of 1979].

Chalan: S D. n. D/ D. n. S r/ n. r S/ r G M M^ M/ M^ D/ M D n or M^ D n/ D n r’ S’/ r’ n S’ n D/ M^ D G M M^ M/ r G M G/ G r S n. D./ D. n. r S. 

There are several noteworthy aspects to this chalan. Firstly, Dh is given considerable importance, as it is in Ahir Bhairav. The oscillated and accentuated treatment of [komal] Re, characteristic of Ahir-Bhairav [D-n-r-r], has also been retained. But, the G-M-r-S characteristic of the Bhairav facet in Ahir-Bhairav is missing.  As in Lalit, Ahir-Lalit ascends into the uttaranga either from the shuddha Ma or from the tivra Ma, -- more often from tivra Ma. Again, as in Lalit, Ahir-Lalit uses both, Ga and shuddha Ma as resting points, with shuddha Ma being the more frequent of the two.

It is fair to acknowledge that this chalan, documented from a single recording, may not represent either the entirety of the raga’s image in its creator’s mind, or its evolution over the years. It must also be recognised that even if Pandit Ravi Shankar has performed this raga a hundred times during his long career, he has merely set it on the path of evolution. The raga will continue to evolve for several generations on the concert platform and in the recording studios before it gets established as a member of the raga pantheon. To this extent, any rendition of the raga cannot yet be subjected to an authoritative yardstick of “authenticity”.

Deepak S. Raja
(c) India Archive Music Ltd., New York, producers of the finest recordings of Hindustani music.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (1922-2009)

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan was amongst the handful of musicians to have achieved iconic status in the post-independence era. As the heir to the legacy of his father and Guru, Ustad Allauddin Khan (died:1972), he was at the forefront of the renaissance that enabled instrumental music to match vocal music in terms of maturity and surpass it in popularity.

With over a 100 commercial releases, he was amongst most prolific and successful recording artists of the 20th century. As a missionary of the Hindustani music tradition in the West, he was, arguably, the most influential. The legendary violinist, Lord Yehudi Menuhin, who introduced him to the West, called him “an absolute genius” and “the greatest musician in the world”.

Ustad Ali Akbar was perhaps the single most decorated musician of his generation. In India, he was decorated with the Padma Vibhushan. In the US, he received the National Heritage Award conferred by the National Endowment for the Arts at a White House ceremony. Principal amongst the many awards he received are Honorary Doctorates from a large number of Indian and American universities, the Kalidas Samman, the Mahatma Gandhi Cultural Award, the Ustad Enayet Khan Memorial Award, and several Grammy nominations.

In 1997, the Indian Ambassador to the US invited him to perform at the United Nations in New York, and at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC to commemorate 50 years of India’s independence.

Pioneering contribution

As a Sarod player, the Ustad created a distinctive vocabulary for the instrument which now influences the idiom of all Sarod players, cutting across gharana affiliations, and whose echo can also be heard in the artistic style of other plucked lutes, such as the sitar and the Classical Guitar. This achievement is more significant than is commonly recognized.

Until his father’s time, the Sarod, newly evolved from the Persian and Afghan Rababs – both relatively unrefined instruments -- was incapable of delivering sophisticated music acceptable to contemporary audiences. In the 1930s, Ali Akbar’s father, Allauddin Khan, and uncle, Ayet Ali Khan, re-engineered the instrument to respond to modern musical requirements. It took Ali Akbar Khan less than 15 years after its re-engineering to exploit the Sarod’s new-found musical potential, and emerge as one of the most mesmerizing musicians of the 20th century.

Ali Akbar Khan’s contribution was also significant in another respect. In the tradition he inherited, instrumental music attempted to mould itself after either the vocal genres – Dhrupad, Dhamar, Khayal, and Thumree – or the idiom of the medieval Rudra Veena. While being well versed in the traditional idiom, Ali Akbar pioneered the drift of instrumental music away from traditional reference points, and towards a more purposeful exploitation of unique features of the instrument. Indeed, he personally guided the Hawaiian Guitar pioneer, Pandit Brijbhushan Kabra, towards re-engineering the instrument for Hindustani music, and developing a unique technique and idiom for it.

A child of destiny

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan was born at Shibpur (East Bengal, now Bangladesh). He learnt vocal music and several instruments with his father, Ustad Alauddin Khan, and the rhythm instruments from his uncle, Fakir Aftabuddin. Finally, as desired by his father, he pursued the Sarod.

Of his apprenticeship with his father, the Ustad told an American interviewer  – “ up to the age of sixteen or seventeen, I had not been allowed to say anything except yes or no. If I said no, my father would beat me. I learnt to speak only here in America, because I had to teach”. In his autobiography, Pandit Ravi Shankar recalls – “Ali Akbar told me he had been compelled to practice fourteen to sixteen hours a day, and there were times when Baba tied him to a tree for hours and refused to let him eat if his progress was not satisfactory.”

The Ustad gave his first public performance at Allahabad at the age of 13 or 14, and cut his first commercial disc at 21. His professional career began soon thereafter, when he was invited to join the service of the Jodhpur Maharaja. He served there for seven years till the Maharaja’s demise.

Thereafter he moved to Bombay to pursue a career as an independent musician. The turning point in his career came when, in 1955, Menuhin invited him to perform in the US. During this trip, he performed Indian music for the first time at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, gave the first TV performance of Hindustani music in America, and cut the first Long Playing (LP) record of Hindustani music, which was introduced by Menuhin himself.

In 1956, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan set up the Ali Akbar College of Music in Calcutta. In 1967, he set up the college in San Rafael, California. Thereafter, he remained a resident of California, and guided a branch of the college at Basle in Switzerland, run by his disciple, Ken Zuckerman. Under the Ustad’s stewardship, the Ali Akbar College became a veritable powerhouse of Indian cultural influence, at which a galaxy of eminent Indian musicians assisted him in propagating the Indian musical arts.

The Ali Akbar College is believed to have, by now, trained over 7000 Americans and students of other nationalities from its three bases in San Rafael, Basle, and Calcutta. The San Rafael establishment is preserving over 35 years of recorded training sessions conducted by the Ustad, and documenting over 10,000 compositions, which his father, Allauddin Khan had learned or composed. Several of the alumni of the Ali Akbar College head departments of music at some of the most prestigious universities in the US.

His music

The Ustad’s repertoire was a rich mix of common raga-s like Durga, Shree, Todi, popular light raga-s like Piloo, Sindh Bhairavi, Zilla Kafi, and classical and semi-classical or folk-based melodic entities created by him. Amongst his own creations, the most successful classical raga-s have been Chandranandan, Gauri Manjari, and Jogiya Kalingara. Amongst his more celebrated semi-classical creations are Bhoop-Mand and Palas Kafi.

He had a peerless command over melody, and evolved several new directions for exploring the melodic potential of ragas (melodic matrices). He was an unmatched master of the rhythmic element in music, and performed in a wider range of talas (rhythmic cycles) than any of his contemporary instrumentalists. He was a “musicians’ musician”, held in awe by the musicians’ community for his uncanny blend of orthodoxy and path-breaking innovativeness.

The duet artist 

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan was amongst the most successful duet artists of the 20th century. Partnering with only sitarists, he gave memorable duets with Ustad Vilayat Khan in the 1950’s. For films, he also did a few duets with Pandit Nikhil Banerjee. The most durable, partnership, however, was forged between him and Pandit Ravi Shankar in the 1960s.

Of the Ali Akbar-Ravi Shankar duet, Lord Yehudi Menuhin had said – “To be present, as I have been, at a chamber music recital by Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, each goading the other to new heights of invention, is an experience more magical than almost any in the world. One is in the presence of creation”.

The film music composer

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan enjoyed a long and fruitful association with the film industry. In 1953, he composed the music for Chetan Anand’s “Andhiyan”. Thereafter, he composed the music for Ivory-Merchant’s first film, “The Householder”. His music for Tapan Sinha’s “Kshudita Pashan” won the President’s award for the best music of the year. In 1960, he composed the music for Satyajit Ray’s “Devi”. He collaborated later with Bernardo Bertolucci on the music for the film “Little Buddha”.

Unaffected soul

The Ustad created, and inhabited, a world of his own – a world in which there were only Swaras (musical notes), Ragas, Talas, and Bandishes (compositions). This world of his remained insulated from the world outside. His worldly affairs were managed entirely by his family members and trusted disciples. Even when he performed on the stage, he was oblivious of audiences. He spoke to his Sarod, and his Sarod responded with the grace, depth, and luminosity that no other Sarod has been able to match.

Despite having settled in the US, he was never, even feebly, accused of transgressing the aesthetic boundaries of Hindustani music. He remained untouched by the torrent of recognition and media attention that flowed towards him. His personal life remained personal. He lived for his music, and music alone.

Thus spake Ali Akbar Khan
Excerpts from interviews

“For us, as a family, music is like food. When you need it you don’t have to explain why, because it is basic to life.”

“Real music is not for wealth, not for honours or even the joys of the mind… but as a path for realization and salvation.”

“If you practice for 10 years, you may please yourself; after 20 years you may become a performer and please the audience; after thirty years you may even please your Guru; but you must practice many more years before you finally become an artist – then you may please even God”.

“Singing instrumental music is most important because while you play an instrument, you are singing through the instrument. Actually, you are singing inside.”

(c) Deepak S. Raja, 2010

Marwa, Puriya & Sohini: The tricky triplets

Marwa, Puriya, and Sohini are three ragas born from the same scale (S-r-G-M^-D-N). The three are also amongst the most popular ragas in Hindustani music. So, evidently, most musicians believe they know how to handle these ragas. For the discerning listener, however, renditions of these ragas are often uncomfortable  because their skeletal phraseologies alone are not sufficient to differentiate one from the other.

The true test of differentiation would be for a musician to perform them one after the other. In living memory, only Ustad Bade Gulam Ali Khan, and Ustad Vilayat Khan are reported to have performed this feat.

How, then, are these ragas differentiated from one another? Of course, each of them has a distinctive emotional content. But, communicating these distinctive moods relies on certain well-established rules of melodic grammar, and prescriptive devices for the treatment of the melody.

The three ragas are distinguished from each other by their phraseology, by the melodic region in which their respective centers of gravity are located, and by the relative importance of ascending and descending melodic thrusts in their rendition.

Notional scale bases

By definition, all ragas are performed to base-Sa, at whatever pitch the musician fixes it. In addition, Marwa, Puriya and Sohini, have notional scale-bases, defining  their primary territory on the melodic canvas. The contemporary Marwa has a notional scale-base at the lower-octave Dh swara, thus making D-N-r-G-M^-D its notional scale. Similarly, Puriya's notional scale-base can be considered to be at the lower-octave Ni. Sohini, a resident of the higher frequencies, has its notional scale-base at the middle-octave Ga.

Haunting signatures

Each of these ragas has its unique haunting signature. Speaking of their respective identities, Vilayat Khan had once said that if you walk out of the auditorium where a Marwa has been performed well, and re-enter after ten minutes, the walls should be resounding with the phrase lower-octave N-D-D. Similarly, the lasting aural image of a well-delivered Puriya should be the phrase M^-M^-G in the middle octave. And, finally, the dominant residual impression of Sohini should be D-N-S'-r-S' on the border between the middle and higher octaves.

Treatment of melody

Broadly, Marwa emphasizes the robust treatment of the swara material,  with a generous dose of geometric/symmetric improvisation. The Puriya treatment is subtle, and largely melodic. Sohini's character, because of its limited improvisational potential, is lyrical, replete with ornamentation and frills.

In Marwa, one expects to find melody dominated by descending melodic phrasing. In Sohini, it will be dominated by ascending melodic phrasing. In Puriya, ascending and descending phrases/ passages will be almost equally present.

Now, you might ask how this is possible, because you cannot play any raga by avoiding either ascending or descending phrases. True, you cannot. But, the proportions can vary, and the desired aural images can engineered by clever devices. Careful analysis of great renditions reveals that, when appropriate to the raga, musicians construct ascending passages out of overlapping descending phrases, and also descending passages out of a combination of overlapping ascending phrases.

Time for performance 

By the time-theory governing music performance, all three ragas belong to the twilight zone. Marwa and Puriya are prescribed for performance around sunset, and while Sohini is considered appropriate around sunrise. (Bhatkhande 1944)


The contemporary Marwa has changed substantially since its documentation by musicologist Bhatkhande in the 1940's. Bhatkhande describes Marwa as having its center of gravity in the r-G-M^-D region of the middle octave. Bhatkhande also states that Marwa is not as somber as Puriya but, instead, has a strident, aggressive demeanor.

Since then, the melodic focus of the raga has moved downwards into the lower-octave Dh to middle-octave Re region. As a result, Marwa has acquired a pathos, and lost a little bit of its stridency. The contemporary Marwa retains the (komal) Re and Dh as its dominant swaras, as traditionally accepted; but the middle-octave Dh has been replaced by the lower-octave Dh.

This transformation of Marwa is, substantially, the contribution of vocalist, Ustad Ameer Khan, probably the most influential male vocalist of recent times. Since the publication of his Marwa (EMI/HMV: STC:048:7327), an ascent-dominated interpretation of the raga, concentrated in the mid-octave region, has become a rarity.

Marwa risks confusion with Puriya in the lower tetrachord, and Sohini in the upper. The Marwa ascent towards the upper-Sa is encouraged to omit the Ni swara (G-M^-D-S'), thus permitting a suggestion of raga Hindol.

One of the ways in which Marwa evades the shadow of Puriya and Sohini is by discouraging the use of base-Sa in its phraseology, and prescribing it for use only as an isolated swara. This feature imparts to it a predominantly pentatonic character. In addition, the resultant scale (D-N-r-G-M^-D) creates an interesting tonal geometry, making the raga amenable to geometric/ symmetric, as well as kaleidoscopic types of improvisation.

If we break down the notional raga scale into three pairs of contiguous swaras (D-N/ r-G/ M^-D), the lowest pair (D-N) stands out as a virtually isolated pair, with a frequency ratio of 1:1.125. The other two pairs (r-G/ M^-D) have higher, and identical proportions (1:1.185), and thus constitute similar pairs.

This also explains the special status, and attraction, of the N-D pair as the melodic signature of the raga. It leaps out from the fabric of the music, because it is different, and has a wedge-like sharpness that the other two pairs don't. This wedge becomes poignant when rendered in the lower octave (the contemporary Marwa), and severe one octave higher (the traditional Marwa).

Skeletal phraseology:

S/ N. r N. D. D./ N. D. r/ G r/ M^ G r/ r G M^ D/ D M^ D/ M^ N D/ D M^ D S'/ N D r'/ N r' N D/ D M^ G r/ G r/ N. D. r/ 


The dominant swaras in Puriya are Ga and Ni (Marwa is re-Dh). According to some musicians, the (komal) re to be used in Puriya is a suppressed micro-swara of the normal flat Re swara. Vilayat Khan utilizes this suppressed micro-swara routinely by pulling the string from base-Sa.

Puriya makes a normal use of base-Sa (Marwa discourages, Sohini virtually ignores). In the ascent towards the upper-Sa, the raga encourages omission of Dh and Ni swaras, so that the Sohini illusion is avoided. In the descent, Dh and Ga are recommended for subliminal treatment, so that the Marwa shadow does not fall on Puriya.

Despite the lower tetrachord (middle octave) center of gravity, Bhatkhande (1944) considers it permissible for Puriya to descend deep into the lower octave down to Ga. Ustad Ameer Khan, whose Puriya (Navras: NRCC: 0092) too is some kind of landmark, used this feature generously. Vilayat Khan does not do so, and retains a strong middle-octave focus.

Skeletal phraseology:

G N. r S/ N. D. N./ N. r G r G/ M^ M^ G/ G M^ D G M^ G (or) M^ N G M^ G/ G M^ D M^ S'/ N r' N M^ M^ G/ M^ r G/ N. r S


Sohini attempts to utilize whatever remains of the melodic potential of this swara material, after Puriya and Marwa have exploited it. In reality, what remains is very little.  The skeletal phraseology of the raga is also virtually its exhaustive melodic potential. Sohini is, thus, not very much more than a song.

The melodic span of the raga is also limited to its notional scale. Its presentation is discouraged from going either below the middle-octave Ga, or above the higher-octave Ga.

This is why Sohini is performed most commonly in the semi-classical or light genres of vocal music, whose esthetics are governed by the varied and subtle ornamentation of each poetic idea enshrined in a melodic phrase. This is also the reason why classical performers either present this raga with dazzling artistry, or feel encouraged to take liberties with its melodic frame.

The dominant swaras in Sohini are the higher-octave Sa and the middle-octave Ga. In the ascent, the (komal) re swara is generally omitted, and in the descent, it is treated subliminally. Unless deftly handled, the descent into the lower tetrachord can, therefore, provide a fleeting glimpse of Puriya.

Skeletal phraseology:

G M^ D G M^ G/ r S/ N. S G/ M^ D N S' r' S/ S' r' N S' D N/ N D G/ M^ G r S

In actual performance, the skeletal phraseologies of the three ragas do, exhibit some common or tangential phrases. This is the heart of the issue. These ragas are differentiated as much in the sculpting of their residual aural images as in what can be laid down as their grammar.

(c) India Archive Music Ltd. New York
The finest recordings of Marwa, Puriya and Sohini have been produced by India Archive Music Ltd. New York

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Pandit DV Paluskar and the Paluskarite tradition

DV Paluskar, through his father, Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, belonged to the Maharashtra stream of the Gwalior gharana, founded by Balkrishna Buwa Ichalkaranjikar.

The Gwalior gharana is considered the fountainhead of Khayal vocalism in Hindustani music. It was founded by Natthan Peer Baksh, an eminent vocalist of Lucknow, who migrated to Gwalior in the early 19th century. His grandsons, Haddu Khan and Hassu Khan crystallized the Gwalior style, and achieved eminence at the feudal court.

Amongst the eminent students of Hassu Khan were two Maharashtrian Brahmins, Ramakrishna Dev Paranjpe (Devji Buwa) and Vasudev Buwa Joshi. In succession, both these musicians trained Balkrishna Buwa. According to some accounts, Muhammad Khan, the elder son of Haddu Khan, also trained Balkrishna Buwa. With this intensive training in the art of the gharana, Balkrishna Buwa returned to Maharashtra, and laid the foundations of the Gwalior style in his home state. Amongst the outstanding vocalists he groomed was Vishnu Digambar Paluskar.


Vishnu Digambar (1872-1931) belonged to a family of Haridasi-s, a community engaged in Harikatha -- reciting the Hindu epics, giving religious discourses, and singing Bhajans. Haridasi-s were trained in classical music, but their art was subservient to their evangelical profession. Vishnu Digambar’s father was a Haridasi, who enjoyed the patronage and personal affections of the feudal chief of Kurundwad in Southern Maharashtra.

At the age of 15, young Vishnu damaged his eyes in an accident with firecrackers, after which he was pronounced unfit for academic pursuits. The Kurundwad ruler arranged for Vishnu to be trained in music in neighboring Miraj under the tutelage of Balkrishnabuwa Ichalkaranjikar. After more than a decade of rigorous training, Vishnu Digambar launched his career, traveling from place to place demonstrating his musicianship.

Everywhere he went he was generously rewarded for his art, and was even offered patronage by some of the most powerful of princes in colonial India. He turned down the comfortable life of the courts in order to pursue his missionary dream. His compelling concern was to elevate the status of musicians in society. In his era and context, this was possible only by creating a community of musicians, connoisseurs, and teachers, independent of the feudal courts on the one hand, and the world of courtesans on the other.

His mission required a large-scale formalization and institutionalization of music education which had, for long, been managed under highly personalized relationships. This meant the development of a new teaching and evaluation system, a comprehensive documentation of the musical tradition, preparation of teaching materials, and grooming a band of dedicated and competent teachers drawn from non-traditional backgrounds. But, along with all these, his mission required massive funding, because it aimed at attracting those social segments that were, at that stage, either unwilling or unable to pay viable fees. Vishnu Digambar decided to manage every one of these activities personally.

Thus was born the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, a chain of music schools, which is now a full-fledged university, and a major force in ensuring a place for classical music in the mainstream culture. The institution was launched from Lahore, and spread speedily to Bombay, Pune, Nagpur, and several other cities. Vishnu Digambar traveled the length and breadth of the country giving concerts, and diverting all the proceeds to the institution. Predictably, at some stage, the cash requirements of the institution outstripped his funding capacity. In 1922, Vishnu Digambar started constructing a new building in Bombay to house the institution, and soon found himself deeply in debt, with creditors at his doorstep. Despite all the prestige and goodwill he enjoyed, his wealthy admirers could not bail him out because of legal hurdles. He was a broken man when the building had to be auctioned in 1924 to repay debts.

Thereafter, he donned saffron robes, almost gave up performing as a classical musician, and revived his ancestral profession – Harikatha. Though originally a devotee of Lord Dattatraya, he had, by this time, become an ardent follower of Lord Rama, and was much in demand as a presenter of religious discourses based on the Ramayana epic, and songs in praise of the deity.

A musician who could have died a very rich man, finally died a near-hermit, bequeathing to his son only his knowledge, his art, his religious, spiritual and ethical values, and a princely sum of Rs. 100 – in those days, just enough to cover household expenses for a couple of months. But, to the nation, he bequeathed his priceless work as the renaissance man of Hindustani music.

Vishnu Digambar’s son, DV Paluskar, lived a life worthy of his parentage in every respect. His desire to repurchase and donate his father’s ill-fated building in Bombay to the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, however, remained unfulfilled.


Pandit DV Paluskar (1921-1955) is the only vocalist of the 20th century to have achieved national stature by the age of 20, and to secure his place in the Hindustani music Hall of Fame before his death at the age of 35. The prodigious singer was a disciple of Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, and his two protégés, Pandit Naraynarao Vyas, and Pandit Vinayakrao Patwardhan.

DV Paluskar, better known as Bapurao, and sometimes called just “DV”, rose like a meteor on the musical horizon in the sunset years of the Faiyyaz Khan era. He built for himself a formidable reputation and following while sharing the stage with the likes of Bade Gulam Ali Khan, Kesarbai Kerkar, Amir Khan, and Omkarnath Thakur. In his short performing career, he attained a rare combination of stature and popularity.

He was amongst the most successful recording artists of his generation. Starting from 1945-46, and through the 1950’s, his 78 rpm recordings were to be found in every music loving household. His renditions of Bhajans by Kabir, Tulsidas, Surdas, and Meerabai remain, to this day, the standard notation for every verse he sang. His duet in raga Desi with Ustad Amir Khan sung for the film “Baiju Bawra” (1952) made him a household name amongst moviegoers. He did not live to record for Long Playing discs. But, every posthumous release of his radio broadcasts on concert length storage media has been devoured by a hungry market.

Bapurao was the only 20th century musician, with the exception of his father, Vishnu Digambar, to have been revered like a saint. One of Bapurao’s admirers once invited him all the way to Lucknow supposedly for a concert at his daughter’s wedding, with fees settled in advance. On arrival, Bapurao found that there was no concert, and he had been invited merely to bless the couple. Bapurao’s son, Vasant recalls his father’s visit to his school, when he was about eight years old. When Bapurao entered Vasant’s class, the teacher vacated his chair, offered it to Bapurao, and prostrated himself before him. Many years later, Vasant – by then a merchant navy officer -- visited the well-known Kairana vocalist, Malavika Kannan in Calcutta to find photographs of Vishnu Digambar and DV Paluskar at the family altar, being worshipped along with those of gods and goddesses.

In these phenomena, we could be seeing a reflection of veneration that his saintly father, Vishnu Digambar enjoyed in society. We could also be witnessing a subtle response to the devotional fervor in Bapurao’s music. But, it was substantially a recognition of the humility, honesty and dignity with which he lived his life. He was incapable of greed, lust, and every kind of pettiness. His life remained unblemished by the licentious lifestyles common amongst musicians in his times. He remained single-mindedly focused on his music,  his obligations towards his audiences, students, and family.

Childhood and grooming

DV Paluskar was the twelfth child born to Vishnu Digambar and Ramabai, after eleven of their children had died in infancy. He was named Dattatraya, as a gesture of gratitude to the family’s presiding deity. In childhood, he was affectionately called “Bapu” and later, respectfully, “Bapurao”.

The first ten years of his life were spent in Nashik, where Vishnu Digambar had built a hermitage. In true Brahminical tradition, Bapu’s training started after he received his sacred thread (1927, age 6). Vishnu Digambar died in 1931, with less than five years of training given to Bapu. For five years thereafter, Bapu was trained by his elder cousin, Chintamanrao.

At the age of 15 (1935), Bapu was sent to Bombay to study with one of his father’s eminent disciples, Pandit Naraynrao Vyas. Soon thereafter, Pandit Vinayakrao Patwardhan, another senior disciple of Vishnu Digambar, who ran the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya in Pune, took charge of Bapurao’s grooming and shifted the Paluskar family to Pune under his direct care.

With his amazing capacity for hard work, Bapurao’s personality flowered at Pune. While under the care of Patwardhan, he attended school for formal education, studied and taught music at Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, gave private tuitions out of economic necessity, received personal guidance from Patwardhan every night, and took occasional lessons with the visiting maestro, Mirashi Buwa, an eminent disciple of Balakrishna Buwa. While doing all this, he also burnt the midnight oil for four hours every day for his own practice, finished editing several of his father’s unpublished books on music and arranged their publication.

He spent seven years at the institution, obtained his Sangeet Praveen qualification (equivalent of a Master’s degree), and continued to teach there till the demands of his career forced him to leave.

In the profession

In 1936/37, at the age of 16, he won the first prize at the prestigious Palnitkar Trophy competition for budding talent in Pune. In 1938, at the age of 17, he exploded upon the music scene as an empanelled artist of All India Radio (AIR), Bombay. Through the chain booking system of AIR, he broadcast from radio stations in all parts of the country. Gandharva Mahavidyalaya branches started inviting him to perform under their banner. These appearances stimulated the demand for his concerts amongst impresarios from all over. By 1940, Bapurao, barely 20 years old, was a musician of national stature. He spent the next 15 years of his life performing and teaching as tirelessly as he had lived his early life.

He had no inhibitions about accepting concert invitations from anyone. He was equally happy performing for major music festivals, small music circles, private gatherings, religious congregations, radio stations or recording companies. For every platform, he had the appropriate repertoire, and on every platform he invariably made an impact with his music.

Bapurao’s approach to his life as a musician and teacher was totally devoid of commercialism. He was averse to bargaining for his fees, often gave free concerts, and readily offered fund-raising concerts for worthy causes. Once he had committed a concert for a certain fee, he would never renege on it even if someone else came with a bigger offer for the same day. In an era when accompanists were ill-treated and exploited by lead musicians, Bapurao treated them with respect, and paid them well. Even in his early years, when he taught music for the income it generated, he never bothered about collecting fees from his students on time, and often waived them for students who were going through a difficult period.

His thoroughness and dependability were exemplary. Every letter sent to him was replied by return of post. He replied personally to every letter, either in English or Marathi. In his time, he was a rare musician to have invested in a typewriter to ensure that his letters were neat and legible. He personally addressed every envelope in excruciating detail. He planned his travel well in advance to ensure arrival at every destination a day before the event. Even when unwell, or when climatic conditions were hostile, he delivered brilliant concerts. His consistency rating as a performer was on par with the best in his era.

He maintained a diary in which he entered his planned repertoire for each appearance, in anticipation of concert conditions and audience profiles. He even had standard “sets” of ragas and bhajans, which he would schedule at different venues without risking repetition. There was always scope for last minute changes in response to the situation. And, indeed, these were occasionally necessary.

On one occasion, he found his concert sandwiched between violinist Prof. VG Jog accompanied by Samta Prasad on tabla before him, and the Kathak danseuse Sitara Devi after him. He feared some difficulty in holding audience attention under such circumstances. With his characteristic charm, he persuaded Jog and Samta Prasad to stay on after their concert, and joined them in a duet. Uncharacteristically, he chose a lively madhyalaya piece for the first item. When that was over, Bapurao received a thunderous applause, and then held the audience firmly in his grip until he had finished.

He always had appropriate repertoire for every occasion and every audience. In 1954, he was performing at the Shanmukhananda Society in Bombay. The audience was primarily of rasika-s attuned to Carnatic music, and he was the only Hindustani musician featured at the event. After rendering a Khayal in Yaman, accessible to Carnatic rasika-s as raga Kalyani, Bapurao sang a  kriti in the Carnatic raga Simhendramadhyamam, delivering the text in chaste Telugu – a language he did not know. Faced with such situations at other venues, Bapurao loved performing the famous Muthuswami Deekshitar kriti – Vatapi Ganapatim Bhaje in the Carnatic raga Hansadhwani.

While his radio broadcasts gave him his launching pad starting from 1938, a further boost was given by the release of his gramophone records, starting from 1944. His first 78 rpm release of six raga-s was a sensational success. Later came his Bhajans that made him a household name all over the country – Chalo mana ganga jamuna teer, Thumaki chalata Ramachandra, Payoji maine Ram ratan, Jankinath sahay kare, and Raghupati Raghav Rajaram. Recording company executives were thrilled with his meticulous planning and perfect execution of music for the discs.

In 1951, the famous music director, Naushad Ali, was looking for a voice to sing playback for Baiju Bawra in a film of the same name (released 1952), with Ustad Amir Khan singing playback for Miya Tansen. In the visualized sequence, Tansen is challenged, and defeated by Baiju in a singing contest. Amir Khan reportedly insisted that, he would be willing to lose a singing contest – even in a fictional context – only to DV Paluskar. Bapurao feared the cramping of his style under instructions from a  director. Naushad Ali assured him of total freedom. All his apprehensions vanished when he and Amir Khan established an easy rapport at the first rehearsal. As was his wont, Bapurao wrote down detailed notations for his part, and the immortal duet between the two was recorded flawlessly in one sitting.

With the release of the film Baiju Bawra, and the duet in raga Desi, DV Paluskar achieved iconic status. After that, every concert of his was widely publicized with the billing – “DV Paluskar of Baiju Bawra fame”. At concerts, he was often requested to sing his Baiju Bawra song, but steadfastly refused to oblige, arguing that every piece of music has value only in its proper context.

In 1955, Bapurao visited China with a cultural delegation, and performed in several Chinese cities. After his return in August, he spoke and wrote widely about his experiences of the visit and his impressions of Chinese classical music. Two months later, he succumbed to an attack of encephalitis, an infection he had contracted in China.


DV Paluskar was gifted with one of the finest voices in 20th century khayal vocalism. His was also one of the earliest truly microphone friendly voices to emerge in the post-amplification environment. It had a velvety sweetness, astounding pliability, and effortless agility through more than two octaves. With his powerful, yet gentle vocalization, laser sharp intonation, and confident command over raga grammar and rhythm, he was as well-endowed a musician as Hindustani music has seen in recent history. As described by his contemporaries, Bapurao’s music caused a curtain of peace and tranquility to descend on the hall, creating a “heavenly” atmosphere. His music had a sincerity, nobility and dignity, which were effortless expressions of his qualities as a human being.

Despite his grooming entirely in the Paluskarite stream of the Gwalior gharana, his music had an original spark. He was not a Xerox of any of his Gurus; nor was he an obvious  rebel against his stylistic legacy. He advised his students to study the recordings of musicians of all gharana-s and absorb what appealed to them. In his personal diary, Bapurao expressed reservations about the gharana system in Hindustani music. He was concerned that its stylistic indoctrination might have made the tradition resistant to change. He wondered how all the gharana-s could be brought together and welded into a unified musical tradition.

Like most Gwalior maestros of the era, he was a scholarly musician. But, he performed music as music, and not as a demonstration of scholarship. He greatly admired the music of Faiyyaz Khan (Agra), Anant Manohar Joshi (Gwalior), Omkarnath Thakur (Gwalior-trained original), Mirashi Buwa (Gwalior), Amir Khan (Indore/ Bhendi Bazar), and Bade Gulam Ali Khan (Patiala). He was an enthusiastic learner of Bandish-es, irrespective of gharana source, from anyone who would share them with him. He was an avid collector of recordings of great musicians of all gharana-s, and studied them carefully.  His collection also included a large number of Carnatic music recordings. Had he lived longer, the world of music could have expected to see a more complete flowering of this catholic musical vision.

His concert repertoire consisted largely of popular raga-s, and Bhajans of Meerabai, Tulsidas, Kabir, and Surdas. Judiciously, he also performed some of the “patent” raga-s of the Gwalior gharana, like Khambavati and Malgunji, which were not commonly heard from vocalists of other gharana-s. He had a ready stock of Khayals as well as Kriti-s in a few raga-s of the Carnatic tradition, and performed them with great facility. He performed only Khayals and Tarana-s, and stayed away from Thumree and Tappa-s, both of which were traditionally part of Gwalior repertoire. On rare occasions, and on public demand, he performed Dhrupad and Dhamar with as much competence as Khayal and Tarana.

Except when bound by time-limits, Bapurao’s concerts were planned for a duration of three to four hours. It was common for him to enter the stage to a thunderous applause, which could easily take three minutes to die down. After checking on the tuning of the instruments, he always began with a prayer to his Guru-s. The performance would start with a bada khayal, chhota khayal and a Tarana in a major raga. That would be followed by a Bhajan, and then an intermission. After the interval, he would render a Chhota khayal, followed by a Bhajan, followed by a Madhyalaya bandish, and end with a Bhairavi.

Like every other aspect of his life, DV Paluskar’s music was highly disciplined. His khayal architecture was impeccable, with every movement in its place, and with no blurred boundaries between them. His raga grammar was unimpeachable, and gripped audiences with a sense of immediacy. If his treatment of raga-s lacked contemplative depth or an axiomatic individuality, it is probably because, in Hindustani music, these qualities generally surface around the age of 40, which he did not reach.

DV Paluskar is considered a musician of exceptional, but unrealized, potential. This assessment is fair. The magnitude of his potential cannot, however, diminish the magnitude of his accomplishments. More than 50 years after his demise, his music retains its youthful freshness as well as unique appeal, defying all notions of aesthetic obsolescence. This is sufficient to earn him a place in the history of 20th century music.

(c) Deepak S. Raja 2011

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Bhairavi: The global impact of Indian music.

Title: Bhairavi
Sub-title: The global impact of Indian music
Author: Peter Lavezzoli
Publishers: Harper Collins Publishers India. (2009)
Pgs: 430 (including glossary and bibliography)
Paperback: Indian Price: Rs. 450.00

In its obituary for Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, the New York Times quoted Peter Lavezzoli's study on the influence of Indian music in the West, but more particularly, the US. His personal credibility amongst the American intelligentsia must therefore be acknowledged. For this very reason, the infirmities of the present work need also to be considered.

Lavezzoli’s work, perhaps the first of its kind, is an eminently readable and well researched account of the fifty years in which Western music discovered the Indian sensibility. The title “Bhairavi” commemorates the performance of the raga in 1955 by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Pandit Chatur Lal on the first ever LP of Hindustani music, recorded in New York, with Yehudi Menuhin’s spoken introduction. Being an American, the author can be forgiven for the subtitle of the book, which virtually equates the US with the world.

Despite the substantial, and historically justified, presence of Pandit Ravi Shankar throughout the book – including the Foreword penned by the maestro -- it is not a biography of India’s supreme cultural ambassador. It is a panoramic historical survey, covering a large number of Western personalities in search of their musical selves through the adoption of Indian approaches to musical expression. In many cases, these journeys coincided with their sojourns through Indian religions and spirituality. This might be a regrettable coincidence because it could have hindered the appreciation of Indian classical music as an organic art form. The author himself is not entirely free from such fuzzy notions, as he frequently describes Indian classical music as “mystic”, “spiritual” and “sacred”, and glibly throws around phrases like “Nada Bramha” and “Nada Yoga”.

The book was first published in the US in 2006, and appears to address a western audience. The glossary appended to the book, for instance, provides notes on Indian musical genres such as Dhrupad, Khayal, and Thumree, but ignores Western genres such as bebop, rock, pop, reggae, bluegrass, ragtime, funk, jazz, modern jazz, free jazz, electronica, hip hop, ambient music, trance music, fusion etc. These omissions will bother Indian readers who are not well-versed in Western genres of popular music.

Lavezzoli, an American vocalist, drummer and author, studies Dhrupad vocalism and the Tabla in India. He undertook the present endeavor to explore what it was about Indian – primarily Hindustani – music that attracted western musicians. The book pursues the theme through elaborate biographical notes, riveting descriptions of their landmark performances and recordings, and interviews with several important personalities.

The book does a thorough job of documenting the contribution of the powerhouses on both sides – Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Ustad Alla Rakha, Ustad Zakir Hussain and Pandit Pran Nath amongst Indian missionaries, and Yehudi Menuhin, Zubin Mehta, Philip Glass, John McLaughlin, George Harrison, Mickey Hart, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, and John Coltrane amongst the receptive Western influentials. Beyond this first generation of cross-cultural pioneers, the book also does justice to the roles of the subsequent generations of musicians who have shaped new genres of multi-cultural music.

Amongst the interviews featured in this book, I liked the one with percussionist Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead, who debunks the idea of  “World Music”. Of the many interviews I have read of Pandit Ravi Shankar, the one he gave Lavezzoli will qualify amongst the most candid.

The author’s understanding of Indian classical music is as rudimentary as the adoption of its features by Western musicians. According to the book, Indian music is primarily about tonality (a fixed scale base), improvisation based on scales or modes, bending the notes in executing the melody, using the Tanpura or other types of drones, executing melody on Indian instruments, and a cyclical approach to melody and rhythm. The very foundation of Indian classical music -- the archetypal character of ragas – finds no place in this configuration of features. According to the author, the raga is merely  “a specific melody in Indian classical music, based on a scale or a mode, but with a unique pattern of movements”. Even the notion of “Rasa” has been excluded from this explanation, though covered by a separate entry in the glossary.

The author is often on slippery ground when he deals with music. A few examples: Disregarding history, he observes that  “the Karnataka  music of the Hindu temples mutated into North Indian Hindustani during the reign of Akbar, when Muslim styles and instruments tempered the Vedic character of music” (Pg. 413). In  my study of books on Hindustani music -- whether by Indians or aliens -- I have yet to come across a more ill-informed and confused observation. An eyebrow must also be raised when he calls Malkauns “one of the most difficult ragas to master” (Pg. 129). He speaks of  “composing ragas” in a wide range of rhythmic cycles (Pg. 70), when, in fact, he means  “composing bandishes”.

Lavezzoli also has considerable difficulty with Indian languages and names. In his chapter on Ustad Alauddin Khan and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, he often refers to his subject as, simply, Khan or Khansahib, making you wonder which of the Khans he is speaking of. He mentions “The Ali Brothers” (Pg. 232) without being specific, unaware that the subcontinent has produced two famous pairs of Ali Brothers – Nazakat and Salamat Ali, and Amanat and Fateh Ali. His translation of the raga name “Chandra Dhani” as “Moon over the capital” (Pg. 91) makes you wish he had consulted either a Hindi dictionary or a competent musician.

The book evades significant issues -- the profundity and durability of the phenomenon it is tracking. Implicitly from Lavezzoli's work, the Indian sensibility emerges as a dalliance, adding variety to the African, Middle Eastern and South American flavors with which American musicians were already flirting before they discovered India. From the point of view of Indian musicians, the process has created a lucrative Western market for their talent, to be encashed while India remains the flavor of the season.

The phenomenon has now shaped an entire generation of Indian musicians – primarily instrumentalists --  who remain so busy in the US and Europe that they no longer need Indian audiences either as a market, or as validators of their art. In collaboration with Western musicians, they now perform hybrid genres of music globally, and do so far more profitably than pure Hindustani music would be at their levels of musicianship. This phenomenon should ring some alarm bells because music is akin to food, and quickly adapts itself to the tastes of its consumers.

One of the popular jokes in China today is that -- thanks to American influence -- the Chinese no longer recognize the "Chinese" food being served to them in China. A similar situation now confronts Indian audiences of Hindustani classical music.

The pioneers of Indian music movement in the West took their initiatives with the utmost respect for the profundity of the art they were promoting. But those, who hopped on to the gravy train, were tempted to market instant Nirvana to Western audiences, and a Bonsai of a banyan tree to Indian music lovers.

Nobody cares about the “de-culturation” of Indian classical music. Even if somebody did care, there is nothing he can do about the artificially undervalued Rupee, which makes it all happen.

(c) Deepak Raja  2010