What does a raga mean to you ?

The heart and soul of Indian classical music is the raga, comprising the variants of the seven swaras, and derived from the 72 Melakartha or parent seven note scales, thus enabling composers and performers to provide music lovers with a vastly variegated melodic experiences — all in the same concert. It’s like partaking of a sumptuous 15-course meal, and coming out of it feeling sated and elevated. Staying with the culinary metaphor, you can have your appetiser in Saurashtram, sub-main dish in Pantuvarali, the main course in Thodi, and dessert in Sindhu Bhairavi. Not to forget, the digestive vettralai pakku in Madhyamavati.

However, I am fascinated, not so much by the technical DNA of a raga — its arohanam and avarohanam, its derivative source or janyam, its relationship, close or distant, with other ragas — but more with what kind of aural or visual depiction the raga actually conveys to me. How do I actually feel, the emotions I experience when the artist begins to essay an alapana in a particular raga? One never consciously thinks about this at a concert where, most of the audience sit back comfortably when a known raga is being performed, or agitatedly seek guidance from their nearest knowledgeable neighbour if the raga is unfamiliar.

In my long years of attending concerts or listening to recorded music, I have tended to respond, sub-consciously, to ragas in a variety of ways. I tend to unwittingly colour code the ragas, as they appear to me. At other times, it is the equivalent of a particular type of everyday experience that a specific raga can convey. Here I attempt, for the first time, to put down such experiences which are normally visceral. It’s a bit of a challenge, but one I felt was worth taking on. It’s not unlike lying on a couch and attempting to respond to your shrink, whose questions are usually quite oblique and hard to fathom. Not that I’ve actually been to a shrink, mind you, but you get the Freudian parallel.

A caveat. This is a purely personal take on the subject, and I do not expect readers to readily weigh in with my flights of fancy. So here’s a selection of ragas, chosen subjectively.

Thodi — the colour red flashes strongly when this king of ragas is performed. Also, whenever the artist opens with the first few telling bars of Thodi, you generally shift back into your seat, as if to say, “Right, fasten your seat belts folks, this is going to be a long and heavy ride”. One needs great expertise to pull off a Thodi to the complete satisfaction of a discerning audience, and only a handful of outstanding artists, over time, have been able to master the Thodi challenge. Nagaswaram maestro, T.N. Rajaratnam Pillai springs readily to mind. Favourite kritis in Thodi? Many, but if I had to pick,

Syama Sastri’s ‘Rave Himagiri’ and Papanasam Sivan’s ‘Kartikeya Gangeya’ would top the list.

Kambhodi — don’t ask me why, but a bright and pleasant yellow surrounds my senses when this great raga is taken up by the artist, not unlike a colourfully attired trapeze artist at a circus. An instantly appealing raga, Kambhodi is probably easier for most musicians to render. Much of the alapana can be rendered in the upper reaches of the raga, which can keep the audience in a sustained, buoyant mood. Muthuswamy Dikshitar’s ‘Sri Subramanyaya Namaste’ and Tyagaraja’s ‘O Rangasayee’ would top an unending list of brilliant compositions .

Sankarabharanam — a muted green is the colour that my brain triggers when this magnificent raga is taken up for elaboration. Lacking the instant, uplifiting appeal of Kambhodi, the artist has to work hard to develop a tempo and momentum to get the audience involved. Once that is achieved, the raga can virtually go on auto pilot because the scales are so basic, the Indian equivalent of the western solfége Do Re Mi, only with the gamakams added. Muthuswamy Dikshitar’s ‘Shri Dakshinamurthe’ and Tyagaraja’s ‘Swara Raga Sudha’ are all-time favourites.

Bhairavi — an expanse of azure blue sky envelopes me when Bhairavi is in full swing. A raga that has so many twists, turns and ‘aha’ moments that you are constantly on the edge of your seat, waiting for the next adrenalin rush. Again, not an easy raga to do full justice, but in the right hands, it can be tamed and made to sprint like a true pedigree filly. Dikshitar’s ‘Balagopala’ and Tyagaraja’s ‘Koluvayunnade’ have been perennials, though Syama Sastri’s swarajati, ‘Amba Kamakshi’ would be my favourite.

Kalyani — Bright, joyful and easily the most melodious of all the heavyweight ragas, a close relative of Sankarabharanam as well. Sea green waves lapping on the shoreline, specks of ships in the distance bobbing up and down, and a gentle breeze wafting through. That is Kalyani for me. My earliest recollection of this ragam was listening to Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and G.N. Balasubramaniam, on 78 rpm shellacs, essaying Tyagaraja’s ‘Etavunara’ and ‘Vasudevayeni’ respectively. Those two will be at the top of my charts.

These were a random selection of five of Carnatic music’s most-loved and-performed ragas. One can add to this list and append appropriate descriptors. The purpose of this exercise was to share a uniquely personal relationship I have with ragas, and to engage with the reader on what I felt was the most interesting way in which to communicate that bond. Why don’t you try it out for yourself? All it requires is a bit of visualisation.

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2022 12:07:43 PM |

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