Tuesday, January 1, 2013

When raags become ragas

First published in The Hindu

Charukeshi, Kirvani, Hansdhwani… (note the spellings). We heard them all this season or in the months leading up to it. So did we listen to Sohni, (Hindustani) Todi, Hindol, Durga, even Shudh Sohni. In case you are wondering if a constellation of Hindustani musicians crashlanded in Chennai, we heard all these ragas in Carnatic music concerts. Some of these north Indian avatars of ragas have been masquerading as Carnatic ragas in cutcheris of recent vintage—as Charukesi, Keeravani, Hamsadhwani, Hamsanandi, Suddhasaveri, Vasanta and so on. Not to mention Kafi, Patdeep, Behag, Bairagi, Brindavani Sarang, Madhmat Sarang and Shudh Sarang, besides the notoriously popular Ahir Bhairav, Kedar, Madhuvanti and Bhairavi, with or without Carnatic monikers.

The crowning glory was achieved by Yaman, that staple offering of Hindustani musicians visiting Chennai, when one southern star made it the piece-de-resistance of an epic journey of winding, gliding twists and turns through three octaves.  Kalyani was however the raga announced.

Jugalbandis and fusion concerts may be popular among a section of our audiences, but others—no doubt hidebound in their views—find that these concerts are ill rehearsed, and offer no new music. New music can only emerge from the collaboration of masters of their genres who have also worked hard at learning another, these critics say. Their usual tired joke is that fusion concerts produce more confusion than fusion. The idea of presenting Hindustani ragas in Carnatic concerts is therefore perhaps an attempt to avoid the fusion tag, yet appeal to a youthful audience.

I do not refer to the bhajans, thumris or abhangs that dot the tukkada section of the concert, but main or “sub-main” ragas being presented in typically Hindustani style, deficient in, even shorn of, the gamakas and azhuttam so typical of their orthodox delineation. 

Vowels and consonants of undoubtedly north Indian origin sometimes replace the standard tadarina, cooing or exploding forth from the vocal chords of our futuristic tyros accoutred in flashy kurtas and splendid saris with blazing earware to match. Some even adopt the typical Hindustani opening sally in deep mandra sthayi tones, as well as ultra fast taans during raga alapana.

On their way out are stern countenances or unseemly gesticulations on stage, demonstrating the next aspect of the makeover cutcheris seem to be undergoing. In their place are bright smiles to ostentatiously demonstrate the extent of enjoyment of one another’s music on stage, and carefully choreographed mudras and arm-stretches to pinpoint the note struck or emotion emoted—just in case you missed it in the listening. Beatific smiles and bheshes, sabhashes and bale-s (a friend swears he actually heard the exclamation ‘kya baat hai!’ on the stage in a recent concert) in praise are not just reserved for accompanists but also bestowed on your singing or instrumental partner, sometimes in mid-phrase or sangati. This can create new sounds for the rasika to mull over, on top of the confusion created by mridangam, ghatam/ khanjira and morsing. 

The whole effect is one of bonhomie, a convivial jam session among friends, calculated to win applause every three minutes, standing ovations after every two kritis and a thunderous mega-ovation at the end of the concert. Fortunately, the habit among some rock musicians and fusion bands of demanding applause from the audience (“Don’t be shy, give us a big hand!”) has so far not caught on in Carnatic music.

One welcome development has been the general reluctance to burst into applause when the vocalist touches a dramatic high note. (I remember a Hindustani pair of vocalists a few years ago pleading with listeners to defer applause to the end of an item, as during a piece it interfered with their manodharma). Recently a Carnatic vocalist so interrupted signalled a silent appeal to stop, followed by a eyes-closed namaste to his listeners. They immediately acceded to his request, even sportingly laughing at themselves. Polite courtesy seems to work better than a show of annoyance. 

Returning to the original theme, Chennai audiences have this year also had to suffer Hindustani musicians trying their hand at Carnatic compositions. The popular cry as a result has been “Give us Hindustani ragas in Carnatic concerts any day!”

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