Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Introduction to Hindustani Classical Music

by Mrs. Andal Sharma, Bangalore, India

Man has always sought perfection in life and in every thing around him. But, a realisation of his limitations has prompted him to attribute divine powers to nature, as though to make up for his shortcomings. The Sun which had the power to dispel darkness, the fire which provided protection from wild beasts, the rains which could make plants grow, water and air without which man could not survive - all these have been deified by primitive civilizations. And somewhere along the evolutionary road, when the basic needs of food, shelter and clothing were satisfied, man had time to look around and derive aesthetic enjoyment from the sights and sounds presented by nature. He felt the need to embellish his life with beauty. The whistling of wind through bamboo groves, the resonance of the stretched string of a bow when it discharged an arrow, the clinking of stone on stone, the pitter patter of rain drops, the warbling of streams and brooks, the calls of birds and animals - these were the sounds which slowly left impressions on his mind. A predictable consequence was the desire to imitate nature and expand his vocabulary in order to express emotions.

The deification of the primordial elements reached the heights of sophistication in the Indian civilization where each and every minute aspect of nature which contributed to life was given an embodiment. All good things of life were considered to be of divine origin and art, as man perceived it then, was no exception. Music was considered to have emanated from the god Shiva, one of the supreme trinity, and taught by him to the god Brahma, another one of the trinity. Brahma, in turn, passed on the knowledge to the sages. Thus, like incantations to the Sun god Ra in the Egyptian civilization, the different scales like, Aeolian, Dorian, etc. in Greek music, and the Gregorian chant in churches, Indian music became inseparable from religion and music was considered to be a means to salvation and was used only in worship. It was an offering made to the gods to please and appease them. Even today, Indians love to think of music as a divine art form which elevates the soul, and devotional music is a part and parcel of their lives. (Even our movies have oodles of songs, the characters breaking into song and dance at the drop of a hat!) The earliest recorded musical form is that of the Sama Veda, one of the four divine scriptures called the Vedas. Surprisingly - because Indian music is melody oriented and highly individualistic, Sama Veda has a lot of group singing and harmonising. This must have happened because religious rituals were carried out by groups and society was more important than the individual. The hymns of Sama Veda which invoke the god of fire Agni, the Sun god Soorya, and even of the herbal juice Soma which is offered to the gods, are all chanted in a specified manner. The hymns carry notation and are even now sung by scholars who have specialised in this branch of the Vedas, the tradition having been handed down verbally from generation to generation. (The age of the Vedas is supposed to be B.C.)

The Sama Veda is supposed to make use of only 3 notes - a basic note, one slightly higher than this and one slightly lower. Consonance was perhaps discovered when many people attempted to sing these notes simultaneously. When consonant notes were added on to the basic notes the scale gradually expanded to encompass an octave; Indian music scales are not tempered scales because the microtone interval in between the notes is not the same. The intonation of the notes is a just intonation. The microtones in a major scale containing all natural notes (no sharps and flats) are distributed as follows:

Sa Re Ga. Ma. Pa Dha Ni Sa (Indian Scale with Solfas)
C D E F G A B C (Western Scale)
4 3 2 4 4 3 2 (Microtone Scale)

An octave (actually a septave) has been scientifically found to contain 22 clearly distinguishable microtones. Notes with microtone intervals of 9 and 13 have been found to he highly consonant and notes with a microtone interval of 7 are also considerably consonant. Indian music, particularly Hindustani music, relies completely on consonance and all the melodies usually have two balanced halves which revolve around two pivotal, dominant notes which are in consonance with each other. Indian music is linear in nature, the 'raaga' (as a melody is called) having specific, progressive notes in relation to a basic tonic note which is chosen by the individual singer according to the range his or her voice can comfortably encompass. Once a raaga is selected, no alien notes are allowed to enter the scale except when a brief touching of such notes can bring in some aesthetically sounding exoticism.

India is believed to have had one single system of music in the olden days. The earliest available treatise on music, dance and drama is attributed differently to any where between fifth century B.C. and fifth century A.D. Even up to the thirteenth century A.D., the same system of music seems to have been prevalent in the entire subcontinent with minor local variations. The muslim invasion of India in the sixteenth century destroyed the cultural ethos of the country and many arts were either wiped out or went into hiding and gradually became obsolete. So much so, some of the manuscripts which survived the carnage and which dealt with the theory and practice of the music of those times have become completely unintelligible. Although much research has been done and many theories forwarded, there is no acceptable account of what the notes and scales used were, what microtones and frequencies were employed, how the music was sung etc. Since not much literature is available to link ancient music with music as it is practiced today, the music described in those surviving books is lost in the mists of time. A major factor which has contributed to this state of affairs is the fixed nature of the basic tonic note in later day music. This tonic note was movable in the early music and each raaga started on a different note and the other notes of the scale were fixed in relation to this tonic. But now, all the raagas proceed from the same note Sa, the pitch of which is decided by the singer according to his or her convenience. All the other notes, sharp and flat, are decided relative to this fixed tonic. The entire music makes use of permutations and combinations of 12 notes - 7 sharp and 5 flat. Only those arts which could assimilate the foreign influence were able to thrive and Hindustani music is one such amalgam of Indian and Persian music. It flowered in North India under the patronage of kings, but South Indian music is believed to retain some of the old flavour because the muslim invasion didn't penetrate deep down to cause major upheavals. Music scholars of the north migrated to the south in order to protect the purity of their music. Thus began the schism between the music of the north (Hindustani) and the south (Carnatic) and two separate music systems were born. It is incorrect to say that these two systems are entirely different form one another. They are , in fact, the two faces of a coin - two branches of a single tree with the same roots and same basic underlying principles, but with emphasis on different aspects.

The major differences between Hindustani music (H.M.) and Carnatic music (C.M.) are as follows:

1) The raaga or melody is of supreme importance in H.M. The composition is weak and loosely structured and is used more as a vehicle for raaga elaboration. The raaga is expanded note by note in a very slow tempo and the artiste is given every freedom to improvise and innovate within the framework of the principles governing a particular raaga. The very essence of the raaga is sketched on a broad canvas which enables the artiste to exhibit all the artistry at his or her command. The rhythm used is also such as to afford plenty of time for the artiste to weave imaginative patterns.

In C.M. the tempo is either medium or fast and the composition is a tight structure with lots of words and definite sections, all set to a specified rhythm. The rhythmic varieties used are much more in number than in H.M. and more intricate. Alteration of either the text or the rhythm is considered sacrilege because these have been composed by saintly composers and have been handed down from generations, thus acquiring sanctity.

Thus a group of C musicians can easily sing the same song together but no two H musicians can do so, and no two performances by a H musician of the same raaga will be exactly the same.

2) C.M. is predominantly devotional because it was nurtured in temples and by men who had renounced worldly pleasures.

On the other hand, H.M. was patronised by kings and emperors for whom music was a form of entertainment, and is hence largely erotic in nature (although this eroticism has been sought to be given a veneer of respectability under the guise of divine love - the hankering of the mortal soul to be one with the divine).

3) The graces and ornamentations used are different.

4) In C.M., the compositions are the same for the voice and for the instruments. Thus, instruments play the songs exactly as they are sung.

In H.M. instruments can either follow the vocal tradition or play compositions specially composed for them and instrumental techniques are different.

5) H. musicians adhere to a time theory for the raagas wherein each raaga is prescribed for a particular time of the day. There are morning raagas, noon raagas, evening raagas, night raagas etc. depending upon the notes used and the dominant note of a raaga.

C. musicians have given up this practice although it was in vogue in the olden days.

6) As the names suggest, the language used in the two systems is different. H.M. uses the language of the north and C.M., those of the south. The very name Carnatic indicates the southern region. Hindustan means the 'Land of the Indus'(river) and alludes particularly to the north where that river flows.

Three major forms of H.M. composition are in practice today.

1) DHRUPAD: This form of music is said to be a relic of ancient Hindustani music called the 'Dhruva Pada' which is even today sung in its traditional pattern in some temples. Exponents of Dhrupad claim that it is music in its purest and pristine form. Note by note elaboration of the raaga without the usage of any textual composition is the main characteristic of Dhrupad. Frivolous ornamentation is strictly prohibited and just a few syllables such as Nom, Tom, Ta, Na etc. are employed. The entire edifice of the raaga is built brick by brick using almost straight notes which are approached from various angles. The absence of frivolities and the very slow tempo gives Dhrupad a sombre, austere and almost abstract hue and enables the artiste to observe all the rules that govern a particular raaga. After running the gamut of the entire raaga, the tempo is increased in two stages so as to cover the whole fabric in just a few movements. Only then is the composition taken up for singing. It consists of 4 sections and the major attraction is the rhythmic patterns woven using the words of the composition in various combinations. The composition is sung in single speed, double speed, fractions of the basic speed etc. and rhythmic accompaniment is provided by an instrument called the 'Pakhaavaj' which is a horizontal drum with its two sides covered by leather. Dhrupad is losing its popularity these days and is a dying form because it is unable to adapt its rigid and uncompromising format to the changing demands of the times - the craze for speed and a hankering after the technical virtuosity that can produce gimmicks rather than a need for aesthetically satisfying and deeply contemplative music. Audiences don't have either the patience and time or the inclination and education necessary for plumbing the depths of pure music. Instant gratification and cosmetic makeup have become more important than a search for the inner soul of music. There are few exponents of Dhrupad today in India.

2) KHYAL or KHAYAL: This word of Persian origin means 'imagination' and, true to its meaning it gives full scope to the flight of fancy that an artiste is capable of. Being a very flexible form which makes allowances for all kinds of liberties, Khyal is the most popular and prevalent form of H.M. There are different schools of Khyal singing which lay emphasis on different aspects, but the general modus operandi is as follows.

A brief rendering of the raaga without using the text but indicating the notes of the scale, the dominant note and the characteristic phrases introduces the raaga to the listeners. The composition which is immediately taken up for elaboration consists of just about two lines of matter with a single theme. The first line follows the contours of the raaga in the lower and middle registers and indicates the theme. The second line complements and completes this idea and is set in the middle and upper registers so that all the three registers are traversed by the time the full song is sung. The theme is mainly erotic and represents a woman who is

a) pining for her lover (supposed to be the husband, for the sake of propriety and decorum),
b) anticipating a lover's return,
c) mourning the separation,
d) happy at the thought of the impending union,
e) chiding him for dallying with another woman,
f) mourning her inability to meet him outside the house for fear of the mother-in-law and neighbours,
g) requesting the clouds or birds to carry the messages of love to a far off lover,etc.

There are, of course, devotional songs too, meant especially for early morning and sunset when the mind is free to commune with god.

The idea contained in the song is elaborated using all the notes of the raaga in myriad ways. Embellishments like graces, jumps, swings, trills, twists and turns are all employed to beautify and adorn the exposition and bring out the subtle nuances of the raaga. The singing starts at the tonic note Sa, drops down to explore the lower register, then gradually moves into the middle register, eventually soaring up to the upper register, as far as the voice can reach. When the octave of the tonic note Sa, i.e., the upper Sa is reached, the second half of the song is taken up for elaboration and the same method of note by note progression is followed. But this does not last long because of the voice's limitation in reaching the higher notes and staying on them for long periods of time. So, after a few forays, the singer returns to the beginning of the song and to the tonic note. All this while (which may take up to 45 minutes or 1 hour depending on the singer's ability to improvise and retain audience interest) great care is taken to see that no alien notes creep into the melodic scale and due importance is given to the stressing of the characteristic notes and phrases which set the raaga apart from other raagas. The starting tempo is very slow and the rhythm is cyclic and has a specific number of beats per cycle. The beginning phrase of the song has to coincide with the beginning of the rhythm cycle. The singer builds up tension while traversing the rhythmic cycle and resolves the tension by returning with a flourish to the start of each cycle. (This reflects the Indian philosophy which believes that life is a cycle of birth and death and only god can lift you out of the eternal cycle.) Thus, the singer has the unenviable task of executing three simultaneous operations:

(i) evolving spontaneous and imaginative patterns of note permutations and combinations in his mind,
(ii) transferring these instantaneously to his voice so as to evoke the emotion to be conveyed by the song, and
(iii) keeping his ears open to the accompanying rhythm so that he is aware of his position in the rhythmic cycle and is able to return unerringly to the beginning of the cycle. (This problem does not arise in C.M. because, the tempo being fast, a singer can mark time, with his hands.)

The exposition is a continuous process, executed cycle by cycle, taking up from where the previous cycle ended. This upward movement ensures that, unless the singer runs out of ideas, there is minimum repetition. After the entire composition is sung, the tempo is slightly increased (usually, more than the initial speed but less than double speed). The tempo is dictated by the singer according to his requirement. This is the stage when the singer's ability to perform verbal acrobatics comes to the fore. The words of the composition are used in various permutations and combinations in a free ranging exercise, up and down the scale, and solfa patterns and very fast passages called 'Taans' are executed. Gymnastics and gimmickry take centre stage and the music becomes more flamboyant and extrovert. The quickening of pace (rather akin to Adagio, Andante etc. of the Western music) leads the listeners on to the climax which comes in the form of an entirely different but short composition in the same raaga sung at a fast pace (like the Coda of Western music). Once again there is word-play, solfa patterns, taans etc. but at a fast speed. The singing of this rounds off the entire exercise and concludes the exposition.

3) THUMRI: This originates from folk forms and is a lighter variety (eminently suited to the female voice), to be indulged in after the weighty Khyal, either toward the end of a concert or in between two major items. Thumri, which derives its name form the prancing gait of a woman (surely not a twentieth century liberated one!) is entirely erotic and emotion oriented. The emphasis is on the words than on maintaining the purity of the raaga. The compositions are set in such raagas which allow alien notes to be brought in and the mixed melodies which ensue are more suited to flirtation with words and emotions. Thumris are also set to dance items in a North Indian dance form known as 'Kathak', in which gestures are used to express the song.

There are other folk-based forms and devotional songs called 'Bhajans', all sung with a classical touch, which a singer likes to include in his or her repertoire in order to cater to all sections of an audience.

There are many traditional schools of Hindustani classical music which specialise in one or the other aspect of presentation. These are known as 'Gharanas' and represent particular styles of singing which have been handed down from teacher to pupil over many generations.

The Kirana Gharana stresses the melody aspect and the beautification of the notes with graces and embellishments. The Agra Gharana stresses the rhythmic aspect and develops the composition around the main notes of the raaga. The Gwalior gharana, which is said to be the mother of all Gharanas, believes in an overall, balanced development of the composition. The Jaipur Gharana specialises in the delineation of rare and uncommon raagas with innumerable variations. There are several other schools, each highlighting some characteristic or the other. The purity of these traditions was kept intact in the days when there was an absence of mobility and communication amongst people residing in different regions of the country. But with the spectacular advances in the fields of media and mass communication, the stylistic distinctions of the different gharanas are vanishing. Increased exposure to all kinds of music which is available at the finger tips is resulting in the boundaries getting blurred and in the emergence of a more homogeneous quality of performance.

This is but a feeble attempt at highlighting some technicalities of Hindustani classical music. Indian music is considered to be aesthetically the most perfect system of music in the whole world. It has grandeur, majesty, delicacy, tranquility, excitement. But the most awe-inspiring fact is that this system attained such perfection in an age when no scientific instruments were available to put theories to test. The system is the culmination, over centuries, of all the wisdom and practical knowledge of hundreds of human beings who sought to unlock the mysteries of sound. An open, discerning and empathic mind is all that is needed to perceive the hidden vistas of beauty in music. As Keats rightly put it, 'beauty is truth, truth beauty', and nothing seems to illustrate this better than an understanding of Indian classical music.