MUSIC A recent talk by Aditi Kaikini Upadhya was a treasure trove of both fundamental knowledge and the insider’s tips

Yes, everyone knows the basics of music: the seven notes, from sa to ni , in Indian music. But there’s a lot more: the number of notes is really 12, for one, and just knowing the notes isn’t enough to make you a musician.

A recent talk by the vocalist and educator Aditi Kaikini Upadhya took the audience through the vast world of Hindustani classical music in an astonishingly concise way.

So aren’t there actually just seven notes? No, five notes take on additional shades — either slightly higher (teevra) or slightly lower (komal) — to make a total of 12 basic notes. Her clear aural explanations of the difference between komal ‘re’ and shuddha ‘re’ had audience members exclaiming in understanding. Upadhya quickly acknowledged that an exercise in mathematical combinations will yield a finite number of ragas, given twelve notes.

But, of course, there is a lot more than mere maths; for one, there are ‘shrutis’, or microtones, which distinguish raagas. Two ragas can have the same scale but be different because of these microtones. Ragas can also be different because of what space they occupy — low, medium, or high (mandra, madhya, or taar sapthak, respectively).

She then went on to the “five elements” that comprise music, comparing them to nature’s five elements.

The musical set was, of course, svara, laya, chhanda, taal, and rasa. The first two, she said, are the most abstract, and refer loosely to the ‘note’ and to rhythm. Laya does not need a codified system of beats: there is ‘laya’ in the swinging of the trees, she explained.

‘Chhanda’ refers to the arrangement of words with respect to time. This she demonstrated to great effect by varying the placement of syllables.

The taal is a system of beats, where each taal has its own unique arrangement of phrases (here, Gurumurthy Vaidya kicked in to demonstrate the ‘dha-dhin-dhin-dha’ sound of the common taal teentaal). Just a number — such as 16 — cannot adequately describe a taal. For instance, teentaal and tilwada both have 16 beats, but are very distinctive in their individual shapes.

And it’s because each taal is so distinctive, she said, that singers do not need to keep track of the beat — there is always the individual phrase to tell the singer where in the beat-cycle she is.

As for rasa, it is the emotion being expressed. The traditional ‘navarasas’ are the basic set, while often the mood may vary. “The movement of the phrases give the raga its identity, its personality,” she said.

After explaining these five elements, Upadhya also went on to give a quick overview of most common forms of vocal music in Hindustani classical as well as light-classical, “upashastriya” sangeet, drawing some broad conclusions along the way. A dhrupad is so named because it is the “dhruva pada”, the unshaking, she said.

So there is not much room for improvisation; there is only elaboration through doubling pace. A ‘dhamar’ gets its name from the sense of fun (or ‘dhamaal’!) it evokes. A khayal is abstract, “thoughtful”, and so on.

The coming together of sound and sense — and the way the vocalist constructs this — can be a mysterious creature, one that music writers can attempt to pin down for many years.

But this precise fusion of vocal technique with emotional richness is what Aditi Kaikini Upadhya demonstrated. As much as she sought to clarify and codify the ways of Hindustani raagsangeet, she also occasionally acknowledged the mystique of things, that, for instance, some things are just “learnt by the human ear over time”.

Neha Mujumdar