Sunday, May 10, 2015

Krishnan's Hindustani guru

Travelling light: a journey in music

By V Ramnarayan

Chapter 5

Krishnan first met Guru in 1963, when he was doing his Pre-University Course (the equivalent of today's 12th standard) at Vivekananda College, run by the Ramakrishna Mission at Mylapore. Facing the college was a dhobi settlement advertised by the slow moving traffic of donkeys carrying laundry. The college itself  was located in a fairly large tree-shaded complex of buildings constructed in a non-descript style, but cool and reasonably friendly with its spacious classrooms and high ceilings serving to keep the heat out. Except for the Monday morning religion classes, there was no attempt at indoctrinating the students into the teachings of the mission. The teachers were generally of a high standard, but other than the general emphasis on academics, there was no overt pressure on the students to perform.

Krishnan, his old schoolmate Bala and Guru hit it off straightaway, all three in the Natural Science section, as they found many things of common interest to share with one another.
Bala was the most studious of the trio, though he wore his industriousness lightly, never showing off his academic superiority over the other two. Krishnan was the middle-order batsman and Guru the tailender, so to speak, in order of effort put in, which all showed in the results. Bala topped the class, and Krishnan was not very far behind, while Guru did just enough to pass tests and exams. Though all three were close to one another, Guru and Krishnan forged a special bond thanks to their common interest in music.

The bonus was that Guru was an accomplished tabla maestro, taught by the eminent percussionist Tabla Nawaz Shaik Dawood of Hyderabad.  Krishnan had always been fascinated by Hindustani music ever since he heard Nikhil Banerjee and Ravi Shankar as a boy, and he was proud to call himself a friend of Guru. He regularly went to the concerts in which Guru performed. He was thrilled when Guru was introduced before a concert at the SGS Sabha as The Young Man with the Magic Fingers.

That was the time Krishnan got to listen to some LP records of Hindustani music and such devotional music as Lata Mangeshkar's renderings of Meera bhajans, and the non-film music bhajans and ghazals of Mohammad Rafi, another great Hindi film singer. The Meera bhajans by Lata Mangeshkar had been set to music by her brother Hridaynath Mangeshkar, and many of Rafi's bhajans and ghazals by such iconic music directors as Khayyam. These the two youngsters listened to at the T'Nagar home of Guru's cousin who had been named after the Rajasthani songstress of yore. Meera, her mother and her siblings were lovely hosts in whose company the truant friends spent many an afternoon talking nonsense and listening to great music on the radiogram in their spacious, gracious home. In what was proving to be a completely unstructured if eclectic initiation into Hindustani music, Krishnan started listening \not only to the likes of Amir Khan, Paluskar and Bhimsen Joshi, but also to Lakshmi Shankar, A Kanan and Malabika Kanan, Bismillah Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, Omkarnath Thakur and N Rajam.

From Guru, Krishnan learnt some Hindustani music basics, and also tried to share some of his amateur knowledge of Carnatic music with him. He not only introduced Guru to the music of some of the leading Carnatic artists, but also made an attempt to explain the history and rationale of Carnatic music as well as the structure of a typical concert.

If we stitch together the bits and pieces of Krishnan's intermittent explanations to Guru over a period of about a year in college together, and flesh it out with the knowledge he acquired through reading and listening to through the years, it would read somewhat like what follows:

Carnatic music or karnataka sangitam is the classical or art music of south India—the area covering the four states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala.

Traditional followers of Indian music believe that it is of divine origin. In this, people who listen to north Indian or Hindustani and south Indian or Carnatic classical music, are united. In particular, the 

Vedas, more specifically the Sama Veda, are said to be the wellspring of what has evolved through the millennia into Indian classical music.

Carnatic music, like its northern counterpart, is essentially raga music—raga and tala music, to be more precise—with a vast number of songs based on an austere structure of melodic and rhythmic fundamentals. In short, every Carnatic music composition is rendered in a particular raga and a definite tala or rhythm cycle.

In Tamil Nadu, ancient Tamil compositions such as the Tevaram or Devaram and Tiruvachakam have been sung for centuries by a community of temple musicians known as Oduvars. The music they render is based on melodies called panns, which predate raga music.

A raga is a unique arrangement of the seven swaras or solfa notes—sa, ri, ga, ma, pa, dha and ni, with the microtones in between distinguishing it from western music. In practice, 12 such srutis are identified—with two ri-s (rishabha), two ga-s (gandhara), two ma-s (madhyama), two dha-s (dhaivata), and two ni-s (nishada).

In the melakarta scheme of ragas, 72 parent ragas are identified, and divided into two sets of ragas, based on the two types of madhyama—suddha and prati—with 36 suddha madhyama and 36 prati madhyama ragas.

All 72 parent ragas are complete ragas, with each raga containing all seven notes in both ascent and descent. In other words, each melakarta raga will have the scale sa-ri-ga-ma-pa-dha-ni-Sa in the ascent and Sa-ni-dha-pa-ma-ga-ri-sa.

The two subsets are further divided into 6 chakras each, consisting of 6 ragas each. Each of the suddha madhyama and prati madhyama ragas is differentiated by the positions of the other swaras, with only the shadja and panchama constant.

While the parent ragas are known as mela or janaka ragas, their offspring are known as janya or offspring ragas. A large number of permutation-combinations is possible, with such variations as 5 swaras in the ascent and 6/ 7 in the descent or vice versa, 5 and 5, or 6 and 6, so on and so forth.  

Thousands of ragas are the result.

A tala is a rhythmic cycle with a specific number of beats. Carnatic music uses a comprehensive system of talas called the Suladi sapta tala system. It has seven families of talas, each of which has five members, one each of five types or varieties (jati or chapu), thus allowing 35 possible talas. In practice, a small number of talas are regularly used.

Sophisticated, arithmetically intricate rules govern the elaboration of tala patterns. Once the tempo of a song is decided, the musician can accelerate. The vilambita is the slow pace, while madhyama is double that pace and the durita four times the vilambita kala. The singer maintains the tala or tempo by slapping his hand on his thigh, while instrumentalists may resort to tapping their feet.   

This is Carnatic music in a nutshell, though it is an oversimplification of a complex, sophisticated system.

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