Vol. 4 Num 242 Thu. January 29, 2004  

Music musings
A rage for ragas

Ever heard a rooster during afternoons? It's not totally unheard of --but unusual isn't it? It is a common phenomenon that roosters do crow at dawn and that also is heard mostly in the villages. The city has lost its charm of any natural music. How about a cuckoo cooing in the hot sultry summer afternoon? That too goes for a seasonal imbalance, as cuckoos do sing, but only in spring. How about the croaking of the toads or the hooting of the bats...these all have a discordant and eerily musical effect, creating uneasiness doesn't it?

Now if that is not music, what is? Music is a melodious tune often hummed or played in the instruments. Once the tunes are set with 'words' it becomes a song. So songs are possible or sung only by humans.

Now what is a Raga? Ragas are in simple words our emotional expression either through the instruments or vocals depicting various 'moods'. This might be seasonal, or it may vary according to the time of day. Like I said, it will be discordant if the rooster crows at any time other than dawn or if even the birds chirp en mass any time after dusk. This is because it will go against nature.

So ragas are basically set musical notes attuned with nature.

Lets compare a Raga with that of a flower in full bloom. Firstly it has to belong to a particular species like a Rose, a Marigold, or a Dahlia. This can be compared to a Gharana, meaning that it has certain characteristics and belongs to a certain school of thought. Gharanas or styles emerged from certain areas or developed according to certain Ustaads. This developed during the reign of Alauddin Khilji in the late 13th Century. After the death of Mia Tansen, there emerged the Seni Gharana.

Just as the characteristics of a flower may vary from colour to its size; petals maybe round shaped or edged, fragrance could be mild or overwhelming; some bloom in autumn while others in monsoon or spring.

Similarly compared to Gharanas some are styled with intricate filigree work like that of the Patiala Gharana or Kirana Gharana, the Tappa based Rampur or Lakhnao Gharana, the Agra Gharana to name a few. Some ragas are less complicated than the others.

While the petals begin to bloom, it can be compared to alaap in a raga. The alaap explains the mood of the raga. It is a prelude to the whole raga. Alaap is the tune expressed by the performer without lyrics. It is through the alaap that a musician begins to explore any raga. It helps one to understand the technical nuances and mystical depths.

This is followed by Bandish or the lyrics which are the visual presentation of the mood accompanied by variety of rhythms.

If a raga is based on a season, for example the Megh it has the gentleness of a rainy season. Similarly the raga Basant depicts the full flurry of spring depicting the emotions of a lover. Ragas are categorised through different moods or ras like Sringaar (romantic), Korun (sad), Bir(heroic), Odhbhut(queer), Shanto(mild) Bibhotso( grim), Bathshollo( child-like) etc.

In ancient times Dhrupads reigned the classical music scenario. Depth, control and combinations are the qualities of dhrupada music. But its slow tempo and style was soon over shadowed by Kheyal. Amir Khusro of the late 13th century was the propagator of the style. Kheyals were very popular with its regal lyrical beauty as it unfolded the various moods firstly in vilambit ( slow)and later in drut ( fast)rhythm.

Thumri and Tappa are the typical presentation of light classical songs. Its tunes are melodious, sweet and depict the emotional outbursts of a lover. This was sung mostly by the songstress at the courts, known as Baigees.

The great masters Bade Gulaam Ali Khan, Amir Khan, Omkarnath Thakur, Bhimsen Joshi, Bala Murali Krishna, Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Malkaye Mousequi Rowshan Ara, Amanat Ali, Fateh Ali, Allah Rakha, Zakir Hossain and many more of the finest musicians have enriched pure classical music in the subcontinent.

'It is not just about knowing when the alaap ends and the composition begins or how many notes the ragas have, or about knowing which raga it is. It's about developing a psychological status. That demands love, attention and self forgetfulness.'

And just as the cooing of the birds have blended into our psyche, the ragas have over the ages, blended into our sense of what is truly a work of art.

Even though classical music has been a long cherished tradition in Bangladesh, one wonders if it is fated for an early death. There seems to be no meaningful local programs to excite the young or mature listeners. But there is hardly any dearth in interest. Many of you will remember, how a few years back, hundreds of people crammed into the Osmani Memorial Hall everyday on the aisles, on the seats, the floor in front of the stage listening to the great masters of Indian classical music. From instrumentals of Allah Rakha, Zakir Hussain , Hari Prasad Chaurasia, Sultan Khan to the vocals of Jasraj there was never an inch of space left in the hall.

Ragas, like the different melodies of nature, have an incredible range of compositions to appeal to all of one's emotions. But unless we make it more accessible to listeners, it will remain enigmatic and unappealing not very different from the birds chirping long after the sun has set.

Photo : India: Continuity in change

Ustad Alla Rakha Khan, and Pandit Ravi Sankar