Ragas and Rhythms

By Sunil Kumar

Apart from all the tosh that gets written every day; by a million people; including Vinod Mehta; I thought there could be something more entertaining and engaging that does not necessarily delve into the murky psyche of subcontinental politics.

Hindustani classical music; the calm contemplative introspective strain of Indian culture; is not understood by a vast majority; all of whom seem to be focused on the more earthly mundane jarring rhythms of films.

Like everything in Bharat; the hallowed history of the raga and shrutis can be traced back to mythical seers such as the author of the “Natyashastra“. Unlike the precise equi-tempered scales of Western octave based music; the “desi” genre is more real; in tune with the naturalness of the world.

One thing both the classical systems share is their initial audiences; royalty. And that is where the similarity ends. Although India as a country is more collective(millions of people jostling for space); classical music has always been a solitary individual pursuit with improvisation and flashes of brilliance limited to the performer.

The Western classical idiom is geared towards ensembles; groups of musicians working together deriving inspiration from the palette of instructions written on a sheet.

Due credit should be given to the first researcher in the modern era who developed a novel method of Hindustani classical music notation; Vishnu Bhatkhande. Living in an era of “gharanas”(usually groups of a pandit or an ustad with a couple of cronies); Bhatkhande endured many trials and tribulations to develop a comprehensive method of classification.

The sound of music can be sublime or crassness personified; depending on the way you look at it. Creative pursuits are often denigrated; apart from being revered. In the even more hackneyed environment of the previous century; Bhatkhande dedicatedly pursued and noted down his understanding of ragas; shrutis, alankars, gamaks and other improvisational gimmicks intrinsic to Hindustani music.

The South Indian system of melakarta ragams; which paved the way for the Carnatic system to evolve; was another system that Bhatkhande emulated. His journey across the subcontinent led him to encounter many dedicated but obstructive practitioners and connosieurs of the art who did not take kindly to his attempts to codify music. Indians had always relied on oral tradition and memory; however antiquated or restrictive that would have been.

Medieval rulers in North India also destroyed much of the ancient system; although it was also preserved. Moving away from spirituality to a more earthly poetic metier meant changes in subject matter and intent.

Initially destructive; some of the Nawabs were some of the most dedicated practitioners; the most obvious example being “Wajid Ali” of Avadh; who was a versatile composer as well as an ardent devotee of Kathak. Although jaded for the present day; there is a certain innate grace and sublimeness in ancient dance forms that is sorely missing in contemporary times.

The British in India; noted for their criminal deviousness; Residencies, ingratiating habits and the insidious nature of “Divide and Rule”; cheapened the classical dance forms to give it a singular moniker; the “nautch girl”. Sahibs and courtesans; Kothas and “tawaifs” have subsequently been the subject of many a Hindi movie; but classical music and its understanding had slackened even during the time of Bhatkhande.

In the jigsaw-like mosaic of the princely states and British India; he also introduced a system by which eager students could learn the arts; in musical colleges that produced many musicians as well as theoretical exponents who could transmit the ancient arts to the common man.

The inaccessible nature of ragas; their introspective and contemplative feel; may not relate to the present day and its rather instant “noodle” karma ethic; and like many other disciplines; gradually be swept away by the sands of time. Apart from music channels; if this formed a part of daily life; it would help preserve classical music for generations to come.



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