Rare Ragas in Carnatic Music

Posted on May 21, 2007


Picture courtesy: hindu.com



A look at the popular trend of main pieces in rare ragas…

MAY 22, 2007 – SIKKIL GURUCHARAN doesn’t seem to believe me when I say he’s the inspiration behind this story. His email to this effect ends with a semicolon followed by a dash and a closing parenthesis – the universal emoticon for a wink, suggesting that I may be kidding. But then I take him back to his concert at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan earlier this year, when he announced midway, “The main piece I would be singing is a Thyagaraja kriti in the raga Kokilapriya.” In a trice, he wasn’t a singer so much as a scientist in a laboratory holding a strip of litmus paper – for one section of the audience instantly saw red, flinching at the very idea of a main piece in a raga other than a Thodi or a Khamboji or a Bhairavi. This may be the ultimate taste test – the ultimate indicator of belonging to (or, at least, leaning towards the preferences of) a particular generation of music listeners. Likening the main piece of a concert to the main course of a feast, the critic Sulochana Pattabhiraman perhaps speaks for this set of rasikas when she offers a culinary metaphor: “A dessert can’t become a meal.”

But there are an equal number of rasikas who are game for experiments – and Bombay Jayashri speaks for this brave, new generation when she discloses, “It is very refreshing to sing and hear a rare raga during the main piece. I do it often.” Her contemporary, TM Krishna, agrees that “it is very interesting to sing pallavis in rare ragas,” but he mulls over the qualifier ‘rare’. “Are we referring to old ragas that are no longer common or the newer ragas that have cropped up? If we are referring to older ragas not in vogue, I find that many of them – like Narayanagowla – do lend themselves to elaboration. The same cannot be said of the newer ones, which seem to give scope only for permutations and combinations.” He reveals that he is not a fan of ragas that are mere scales, and that the rare ragas he has presented “have been mostly older ragas that may not have been used for pallavis before – ragas that have a swaroopa beyond the arohanaavarohana.” Then, as if to restore the balance, he adds, “I still believe that the major ragas are the kings for pallavi singing.”

The elaboration in these clarifications could prompt you to ask, especially if you’ve grown up with the old masters, “But why, in the first place”? For many of those stalwarts, a RagamThanamPallavi (RTP) was a time to invoke what Sulochana calls, “the age-old, immortal ragas – like Shankarabharanam, Karaharapriya, Bhairavi, Thodi, Kalyani.” So today, when Jayashri confesses to delineations of Sucharitra, Hamsavinodini, Sunadavinodini and Pavani – that rustling in your head could well be from an image of the audience frantically thumbing through their Venkatamakhi charts to figure out the identity of these ragas – it makes you pause. What are the causes behind the shift? Is it the audience? Is it the artist’s desire for experimentation? Is it because there are so many concerts these days that “differentiation” becomes necessary? Jayashri says it’s a bit of everything, along with “the willingness and confidence to try.”

“I think the artist’s desire for experimentation triggers this cycle,” says Gurucharan. He or she presents rare ragas to provide that element of ‘differentiation’ in the repertoire, and this, in turn, educates the audience and they start asking for more such numbers.” Perhaps befitting the generation he belongs to, he drives home his point with a technological allusion. “Today’s audience is highly educated. They are constantly improving their raga database.” He says that rare ragas have developed an increasingly loyal following. “In fact, some people even ask me to postpone the announcement of the rare raga’s name to the end [of the piece] so that they can keep on guessing. It is a healthy sign and I feel rare ragas must occupy a place in concerts in a non-intervening fashion – that is, not necessarily taking it up as the main piece but presenting the raga swaroopa and the song as a welcome change.”

It’s tempting to put this young trend before an older rasika – and Sulochana declares that you cannot enjoy something you don’t understand. When I protest about the apparent inflexibility of this pronouncement, she relents. “At the very least, the artist must introduce the raga, specify the arohanaavarohana, tell the audience about the family it belongs to and introduce them to the prayogas, the jeeva swaras.” She quietly adds that Semmangudi had an allergy to vivadi ragas, and veers off on a slight tangent about her guru. “He used to say that, these days, the papers and the notebooks reach the stage even before the artist does. And now it’s the laptop age. How ridiculous! What is to prevent korvais being formulated on the computer? Where is the imagination?” But she does agree that there is a need for introducing vivadi ragas, “like Rasikapriya, Ganamurthi, Chalanattai… There are beautiful kritis in these ragas.” Then the caveat again: “They are needed, but not as a main piece.”

Sulochana remembers older singers who did employ the rarer ragas. “MLV used to sing RTPs in Malavi and Gamanashrama (a raga that’s not heard much because her daughter Purvikalyani is more accessible to the ear) without boring audiences. But you need an artist of her calibre to bring out the colour.” Fellow-critic Gowri Ramnarayan makes the same point, but with the instance of an artist from a newer generation. “When Sanjay [Subrahmanyan] sings a rare melakarta, he endows it with character and an intellectual component. Less gifted artists simply scamper up and down the scale.” Sulochana explains what she means by ‘colour’. “If a raga has to have colour, there must be at least half-a-dozen kritis in that raga. With Thodi, for instance, there are so many kritis, and there are so many different takeoff points. One begins at sa, one at ri, one at ga… The singer has so many options.”

The singer – or the player of the raga – is what matters, feels Gowri. “Someone like Ravikiran can make Vagadhisvari sound like meditation. Someone less gifted can make it crash around like pebbles in a tin can.” Yet, she says – echoing an argument that finds favour with almost everyone – that with so many concerts packed into a festival, “a rare raga can grab your attention and liven things up.” That’s the reasoning behind Jayashri’s selection of Pavani for her RTP during a December-season concert at Mylapore Fine Arts. “When we look at December, when we do something from 7 to 10 concerts, I am bored of constantly singing Thodi or Shankarabharanam. I imagined the audience would be bored too. So I tried to do a pallavi with the word Pavani. It was very challenging and new for me and for my co-artists.” She adds that one can make [listening to rare ragas] interesting enough to not invite boredom, and “what’s important is that the presentation is remembered for the experience and newness.”

That point about boredom with familiar ragas is something Krishna wouldn’t exactly agree with. “There is a belief these days that singing rarer ragas with complicated arohanaavarohanas is much harder than going for a Shankarabharanam. I believe that reinventing something that exists is much harder.” He feels that the rarer ragas can be sung for a change and as a challenge for the artists themselves, “but they cannot become the norm.” Gurucharan talks about one such challenge while performing recently in Australia. “I had to sing a pallavi in most of the concerts. The words were set and I was looking for a suitable raga. I came across an ashtapadi sung by Tanjore Sri Kalyanaraman in the raga Shudh Saarang. It immediately struck the right note and the pallavi was set in the same raga. I had already included main ragas like Lathangi and Thodi in the concert, so this would be a lighter – but interesting – experiment. Moreover, the raga was extremely catchy. It went well with the lyrics of the pallavi.”

The experience appears to have left Gurucharan with an insight into the employment of rare ragas. “If you already have a big, elaborate raga as the main piece, it would be ideal to have such rare ragas for the pallavi. They can be delineated in a crisp and non-repetitive manner. But if the pallavi is itself going to be the main piece, I would rather choose a popular and rakthi raga so that it can be presented in all its grandeur. Nothing can match their beauty.” Krishna has his own – and somewhat overlapping – rules for handling rare ragas. “Choosing a rare raga for a pallavi is fine as long as the raga itself does have scope for elaboration, especially during thanam singing. If the scope is limited, the pallavi must be kept crisp. A pallavi in a rare raga must be tried only after one practices singing ragam, neraval, thanam and kalpanaswaram in all the major rakthi ragas like Surutti, Dhanyasi and so on.”

Gowri points out a problem with rare ragas. “Few artists know how to handle them. Rare ragas have their shape and form, mood and feeling, just as familiar ragas do. Individuating the rare ragas – especially the rare vivadi ragas – is an art in itself, since there is so little kelvi gnanam of these ragas. So the artist has to work harder to avoid a monotonous replay of phrases gathered from the one or two compositions in the raga.” This, of course, is never a problem with a Thodi or a Kalyani, for not only are there many, many big kritis that define and bring out every shade of these ragas, they’ve also been handled by seniors in a variety of styles, which serves as reference. And because this isn’t the case with the rare ragas, Gowri says, “Sometimes, even frontline vidwans tear a limited raga to shreds by overstretching it. Repetition is unavoidable in such ragas, but the smart singer will know how to hide it through canny modulation, well-paced glissades, pauses, karvais and arresting permutations.”

What she means, in other words, is that these repetitions can be made part of a deliberate design. “One can’t do much emotionally with a Kamalamanohari or a Rishabhapriya, but we can have fun with them. It’s great when such pallavis are offered in a concert where the artist has already dealt with a Khamboji or a Bhairavi as the main piece, throwing in a Sahana or a Kedaragowla as another (earlier) alapana. A fun raga – with sparkling swaras and exciting rhythms – makes a welcome change in the pallavi.” And somehow, we’re back to discussions of main pieces being delineated in the big ragas – and Gurucharan reinforces this faith. “They will always remain big as long as there is Carnatic music, simply due to the immense scope they offer for elaboration. Each time you present the raga alapana, you come across a sangati or a sequence which you might not have explored before. And if you want to present the same sequence the very next day in a concert, it might elude you. Such is the dynamic nature of these ragas.”

Copyright ©2007 Sruti

Posted in: Music: Classical