Can there really be such a thing as a learner raga?

For many learners, the ‘early’ ragas get translated as something very basic or mundane

May 11, 2019 04:15 pm | Updated 04:15 pm IST

Every kind of music has a protocol for ‘beginners’ or ‘learners’. Students must practise paltay, alankaras, scales, études, tonalisation exercises, depending on the kind of music they pursue.

At this stage, the student (not yet a disciple, but a mere student) learns to produce sounds and notes tolerably (if not perfectly), whether from the throat, fingers or lips or the bow, strings, frets or keys. Any learner must master this stage, and this can take a while. But while diligently running up and down the sargam, the student will be impatient for some ‘real’ music learning to begin. Which means, to be taught at least one tiny bit of a raga or a standalone piece. To be allowed entry into the music arena and not just be stuck with the limbering-up exercises.

For Western music learners, there are pieces like ‘Für Elise’ that mark one’s entry into music, and not just the preparation for it. For students of Indian music, there are a handful of ragas that signal the beginning. In Hindustani music, there is Bhoop, Yaman, or Durga — ragas with a simple challan , a simple melodic structure. In Carnatic music, I am told, one such raga is Mayamalavagowla. From here, a learner may even get to venture next into a raga with a komal nishad thrown in, like Kafi. The newbie is thrilled by these small early excursions.

The student is first taught the lakshan geet of each raga — a kind of mnemonic, a deft device whereby the lakshans or particular attributes of a raga are rendered easy to remember, in a little ditty or song. The simple lyrics of the song actually describe the features of the raga. Once the lakshan geet is memorised, it is easy to quickly recall the aroha-avaroha , the prominent notes, the notes that are skipped, the time and/or season in which the raga is sung, its mood, etc. No doubt a nifty invention, the lakshan geet .

However, here’s the rub: for many learners, these ‘early’ ragas get translated in the mind as something very basic, or ‘ shikau ’, with a novice ring to them.

They are seen, most misguidedly, as mundane, without the strut and stature of the ‘larger and later’ ragas that are taught after you are deemed fit to learn them.

In this way, a slew of ragas (besides the ones mentioned above) like Hindol, Jaunpuri, Khamaj, Bibhas, and Bilawal are stamped as something one learns and ‘moves on’ from. On to the more ‘grown-up’ Malkauns or Bageshree.

Get a fix

What a colossal disservice to these ‘early’ ragas. Perhaps, while teaching a raga in its very basic mode, the more evolved teachers also get students to listen to it in the hands of a maestro, a vidushi , a pandit , an ustaad . This way, while the student struggles to ‘get a fix’ on a raga, he or she simultaneously gets to hear its coiled power unfurled to its full glory. If, for instance, a learner struggling with Bibhas gets to hear Kesarbai Kerkar’s rendition, the raga will blossom early in his or her mind into something glorious, and not just a box ticked before moving on to the ‘grown-up’ ragas.

It is surely a disservice to a raga and to those who lift it to its best potential, and even more so a disservice to the young student, to allow the mental stamping of some ragas as ‘learner material’. A Yaman, a Bhoop, a Durga, a Pilu or a Sarang, in the hands of a consummate singer, are nothing short of magical.

Some years ago, at a concert in Pune, Vidushi Malini Rajurkar began by saying, out of the blue, “Today I am in the mood to sing a lakshan geet. ” A murmur and some laughter passed through the audience. She said, “No, really. Let me sing you the lakshan geet of Gaud Malhar. I’m in the mood.”

With that, she embarked on a simple and utterly charming rendition of the lakshan geet of this raga. It came through like a lec-dem (without the lecture). She then moved with grace and ease into the full-bodied bandish . Outside the hall, it rained obligingly.

There really is no such thing as a ‘learner’ raga.

The novelist, counsellor and music lover takes readers on a ramble through the Alladin’s cave of Indian music.

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