Learning with Maestro: Microtones

Chandrika Kamath

Durlabh2 004Guruji (Pt. Rajshekhar Mansur) and I were travelling from Bhopal to Gwalior. I looked forward to a journey with Guruji because he passed on nuggets of insight in music even when we were not in music session. I had been asked several times that why did not maestros of Jaipur Atrauli sing in Drut (fast-paced tempo)? I decided that this might be the occasion to learn the answer to this riddle. Once we had settled down I posed the question to him. Rightly enough, with a contemplative look in his eyes, he said, music is Shravana Vidya (aural art) and it has to be learnt Guru Mukhi (through mouth of teacher). No amount of theory can teach you a raga. Suppose I said the two notes in this raga are shuddha (natural note), how will you know how shuddha they must be? I did not understand and looked askance.

He then gave me the greatest exposition on micro tonic quality of notes. The seven notes and the corresponding Komal or Teevra Swara-s are actually a continuous band. Every note has a centre and an aura of frequency around it. As we move away from the centre we are moving into the territory of the corresponding note. Western music hits the centre of frequency of each note. Even harmonium which is used as an accompaniment in a vocal concert is able to reproduce only the central frequency of the note. It is not able to reproduce the different flavors or shades of the notes.

Each note in a different raga has a different shade. Do you understand what I mean? Let me give you an example he said.. Shudha Dhaivat is employed both in Bhimpalasi and Sampoorna Bhibas. but Bhimpalasi Dhaivat is arohi (ascending)and is looking up and almost reaching out to Nishad.The Shudha Dhaivat in Sampoorna Bhibas is avarohi (descending). The Marwa Dhaivat hits the centre of Dhaivat. Let me give you an example of what you understand. Being a painter you will understand colors better. There are seven main colors and these pure seven colors form a continuous spectrum. How it is divided into distinct colors is a matter of culture and historical contingency. A common list of seven main colors red, green, and orange, yellow, blue, violet and indigo are identified with in the spectrum. However the intensity of a spectral color is relative to the context in which it is viewed. For example a low intensity orange-yellow is called brown. A low intensity of yellow-green is called olive green. The numbers of hues are countless. As many objects are there, so many hues! Not just the frequency but also the material of the object, its capacity to reflect light, the lighting conditions, the texture of the object all influence the colour. Just like this spectral band of colors are the seven notes and form a continuum. The micro- tonic shades of the notes differ from Raga to Raga. And I call them Raga Swara-s. The micro-tonic differences take on themselves other nuances, and these depend on the rasa of the particular raga, the swara-s that are juxtaposed with them and the hierarchy they have in the raga.

Two Madhyam-s, both shudha and teevra (sharp) are employed in Lalit and Bhankar and Shudha Sarang. The distance between the two Madhyam-s in Lalit or Bhankar are closer in frequency distance than the two Madhyam-s in Shudh Sarang. Yaman Kalyan shows the same two Madhyam-s in yet another flavor. Thus the same notes play different roles in different raga-s. All the seven notes are a continuum. In fact notes can be classified as Aroha Mukhi or Avaroh Mukhi. This means that notes give or take support from the conjoining notes and do not exist in limbo. He then drew my attention to Andolit swara-s.He said look at Rishabh in Bhairav. It is Andolit. It traverses within its territory and oscillates within its scope, moving from the least Rishabh frequency to the highest Rishabh frequency. Then there are meend Swara-s which move on to the territory of other swara-s and form a beautiful arc. For example the arc in Shudha Kalyan. The meend between Pancham and Gandhara encompasses Madhyam in its bosom.

PunaW_3 058He came out of his reverie and suddenly recognized my presence. Now it was his turn to look askance at me wondering if I was following his train of thoughts. Enthusiastically I nodded and that inspired him to reveal yet another great truth. He said, although Shadja is an Achala Swara, it possesses shades. The way you employ Shadja before you begin the rendition of the raga, can show which raga you are going to sing. For example the Shadja in Komal Rishabh Asavari emanates from Dhaivat. He reiterated himself and said, ‘the Aas’ for Shadja is Dhaivat in this raga; if not for this Aas you will not get the bhaas (essence, comprehension) of the raga at all. He then said, it is very important to understand these micro-tonic shades of swara-s if you have to understand our gayaki .The Jaipur Atrauli Gharana’s rendering of a raga is a power capsule, where in the Ashta Anga-s of Khayal singing are fused as a power pack. (Excluding Sargam-s. We do not use sargam-s in our gayaki, he said) The performance does not begin with the slow alaap and notes are not treated one by one. For us notes have no meaning in a raga except in relation to the other notes. We begin the raga with one or two phrases. The hallmark of these phrases is that they show the Raga Swaroopa (form). If it’s a jod (also called Chhayalag – combination of two) or sankeerna (combination of three and more) raga, in one masterly stroke, the phrase shows the synthesis of the component ragas. A discerning person can find out the measure of synthesis. For example in Basanti Kedar I will use a phrase that will show the punch of both the component ragas: sa ma ga pa, ga ma dha, ga ma ga, ga ma dha ga ma ga re sa . What a beautiful synthesis isn’t it , he asked. Immediately after this short introductory phrase, the complete Bandish is sung a couple of times.

Again Guruji said that the Bandish is a composition that holds all the secrets of the raga in it. If you do manan (meditatation) and chintan (contemplation) and contemplate on the structure of the bandish, you can build a ‘raga mansion’. He said that the great Gunijan (aesthetes) had put immense thought into the composition and all the features of the raga were woven into it . After the rendition of the Bandish, the Ashta Anga-s of Khayal singing cascade like an avalanche of melody. The bol-s, the bol taan-s, the taan-s, the arcs or meend-s all follow one another. The inter relation of the swara-s is constantly shown. Neither do notes have independent standing nor do the various limbs of Khayal. Hence we do not compartmentalize our rendition into separate slots –  Alaap first, bol-s next, then taan-s.. – no no..that’s not the way!.. he said. A chanchal or fast moving raga can even begin with a lightning taan, he said and dazzled a smile. He then sang a brilliant beginning of Nayaki Kanada . The brilliant layakari taan-s sparkle as the crowning glory. You can increase the tempo and sing the same composition with a faster laya.

Our train had reached the Gwalior station and as I was picking up my luggage, Guruji said, that’s why I do not see the need to sing drut.

[Hallowed by Melody is another article by Chandrika Kamath, which analyses the singing style of Jaipur-Atrauli Gharana. Following articles are recommended for understanding micro-tones (Shruti) in Indian Classical Music:

Shruti Veena: Manifestation of Bharat’s Gram and ChatuhSarana

Swarit: A Brief Note

Ancient Swar-Gram

Writing Music

Music of Pt. Mallikarjun Mansur & Pt. Rajshekhar Mansur has been published by several prominent labels.]

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