Girl At the Opera welcomes critic and scholar Theodore Bale for this special essay.
Despite that fact that both of us are published music critics, we admit that we do not really know how to talk about Hindustani classical music. The specialized vocabulary we have developed for Western music, stemming largely from our specialized musical education, seems mostly inadequate in the case of Indian ragas. At the same time, we know that we are stirred by this music, and that at each concert we feel ourselves in the presence of truly great artists. The effects of their music are mesmerizing, if not hypnotic. To witness a great performance of a traditional raga is like visiting another, and perhaps more enlightened, planet. This short essay is a first attempt at trying to characterize the experience.
Early last Saturday morning, we attended a concert of morning ragas sung by award-winning artist Pandit Sanjeev Abhyankar, presented by the Indian Music Society of Houston at University of St. Thomas’ Jones Hall. Lineage being of primary concern to Indian musicians, it is important to mention that Abhyankar began as a protégé of the legendary classical vocalist Sangeet Martand Pandit Jasraj. The latter belongs to the Mewati gharana of Hindustani classical music. “Gharana” is all-important in any significant discussion of raga. According to musician and writer Samarth Nagarkar, the term indicates, literally, “family.” Informally, it means the line of musicians who carried the practice and thinking forward to subsequent musicians. Each gharana has a distinctive style, and there are four principal gharanas of Hindustani music. Mewati became popular in the late 20th century because of Jasraj, though the “family” (we might say “school” in the west) is a branch of the Gwalior gharana.
In the 25 years since Abhyankar began with Jasraj, he has won multiple awards, most recently the Pandit Kumar Gandharva National Award in 2008. He has developed into an international luminary of classical and devotional Hindustani music, and we were fortunate to have him performing here in Houston. Sitting cross-legged on the floor in a triangle formation with Ajinkya Joshi on tabla and Milind Kulkarni on harmonium, Abhyankar opened the morning slowly, warming up to a simmering sound. There is a term for this opening exploration of the raga itself, and during the intermission, a long-time fan fluent in Hindi, Mundar, explained it to us, but we can’t remember the exact word.
We did, however, get some of the names of the ragas on the morning program. One of them was called “Lalit.” In keeping with an early morning sensibility, Lalit is considered a somewhat serene raga, to be performed just before sunrise. It is also associated with the concept of a lover either leaving or approaching his “sleeping beauty” (Bor, page 104).
The worst cliché in the west is that a raga is like a western scale. The pattern of whole steps, half-steps, and even microtones is perhaps the skeleton of the raga, but not its soul. In our attempt to understand, however, it can be useful to trace the pattern of a particular raga (for a nice beginning raga, check this site out). The ascent of intervals in Lalit differs from the descent, which makes the second half feel as if it is full of surprises. For those who would like to play this raga on a keyboard, the notes in the opening ascent are B (just below middle C on a piano), ascending through D-flat, E, F, A-flat, B (a Western octave higher than the beginning pitch), and then C. The “descent” of the raga occurs a half-step higher, on D-flat, and then proceeds through B, A-flat, F-sharp, F-natural, E, D-flat, and then C. As neither of us has perfect pitch, it is difficult to say whether or not the performers transposed this system of intervals in Saturday’s performance.
Philip Glass’ music acts as a tentative bridge from our Western musical education to Hindustani classical music. In 1965, Glass met legendary sitar player Ravi Shankar and, later, studied with tabla player Alia Rakha. We see the Indian influence in his earlier compositions from the 1960s and 70s, where repetition and patterns open into added beats that expand the phrase and drive an engrossing pulse woven through a simple harmonic tapestry. His 1976 opera with Robert Wilson, Einstein on the Beach, came to mind in the second half of the Hindustani concert. In particular, Glass’ third “Knee Play” where sung numbers one through four are voiced quickly, breaking traditional Western boundaries of measures, beats, and pulse in a five-note repeated phrase.
Much like comparing a raga to a Western scale, it’s easy to succumb to the cliché of comparing a tala to a Western time signature. A tala is rhythm repeated in cycles, fixed in for a distinct time span and determined by hand or drum beats. When we hear a raga like the Bhoopali (one of the most prominent pentatonic ragas performed in contemporary practice), which was the first raga in the second half of Saturday’s concert, our Western ears think of a duple meter working in a triple meter. It’s a simple—and ignorant—analysis (the Harvard Dictionary of Music, for example, just defines tala as an “abstract pattern of beats”). Like Glass’ third “Knee Play,” the Bhoopali works with five notes in an ascending and descending scale. Listening to it feels like a slow and peaceful entrance into illuminated territory where sound seems to glow.
Sight and sound come together in Hindustani music—not as Western shades of timbre, but as something altogether unique. Some of the traditional “meanings” of ragas are found in Mughal painting. An exhibition last year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, featured a series of ragamala paintings, and specifying that, “the celebration of music in painting is a distinctly Indian pre-occupation.” A stunning and useful book by Joep Bor, The Raga Guide, A Survey of 74 Hindustani Ragas, contains plates of the raga-ragini illustrations from a ragamala album painted in the Provincial Mughal style, circa 1610. What could these paintings tell us about Lalit? Number 26 appears with this explanation: “Bearing a garland of sapta-chada blossom, his eyes bright and shining and wearing his festal garb, the youth departs in the morning from the bridal chamber. He is said to be Lalit.”
Houston’s Indian Music Society has a loyal following, and the atmosphere is welcoming and friendly. The line-up features some of the most prominent Hindustani musicians. The next IMS concert is Saturday, May 9, at 7:00 pm and features Niladri Kumar on sitar and Aditya Kalyanpur on tabla. For tickets and more information, check out IMS’ website.