Is the time-raga theory still relevant in Hindustani music?

‘Kedar at sunrise is an outrageous idea for a majority of Indian connoisseurs’

July 26, 2021 06:39 pm | Updated 06:39 pm IST

Hindustani vocalist Satyasheel Deshpande at a monsoon concert in Hyderabad, July 2007.

Hindustani vocalist Satyasheel Deshpande at a monsoon concert in Hyderabad, July 2007.

There are several issues in Hindustani classical music that have remained unresolved for decades because of a host of reasons, foremost among them being the heavy weight of tradition and an unwillingness to face the ever-changing reality. However, this does not mean that those who are deeply interested in this art form are not grappling with these issues at all.

What is the relevance and importance of the famed ‘gharana’ system today and what changes have taken place in the last century and more? What does the term ‘gharana’ connote these days? Is the time-raga theory still relevant and should it be adhered to when Hindustani classical music can be accessed any time on the Internet? How has social media impacted this music? What is the raga-ness of a raga?

All these issues and more have been discussed threadbare by sitar and surbahar player and musicologist Deepak Raja who is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and Watford College of Technology, U.K., besides being a former Editor of Business India and Secretary General of Indian Newspaper Society. Raja has authored many articles and books, including Hindustani Music: A Tradition in Transition , Khayal Vocalism: Continuity with Change and The Musician and His Art: Essays on Hindustani Music . Top musicians like vocalist Ulhas Kashalkar and santoor maestro Shivkumar Sharma, and musicologist Lyle Wachovsky have written forewords and introductions to them. And, they bring us the happy revelation that the leading lights of Hindustani classical music like Kashalkar and Sharma do think about the theoretical as well as practical problems that crop up from time to time.

Demise of the gharana

Gharana is specific to Hindustani classical music and has a two-fold meaning — a clan of musicians, as well as a style identified with a particular clan. Ever since Kumar Gandharva announced the demise of the gharana system, an unending discussion has been going on in the music world about the gharana and guru-shishya parampara . Kashalkar, who has successfully integrated elements of the Agra and Jaipur gharanas into his Gwalior gharana style, has this to say: “Considering the strengths of the gharana institution, no one can argue that it has no relevance today. Though the major gharanas stand considerably weakened in recent years, their wisdom is not totally lost yet. The urgent need is to ensure the transmission of this wisdom from one generation to another.”

Kashalkar questions the burgeoning practice of incorporating Carnatic ragas into the Hindustani repertoire because, “In addition to differences in scales and intonation practices, the very notion of raga-ness is very different in the two traditions.” He adds: “…there is no yardstick for validating the raga-svaroopa (melodic personality) of Carnatic ragas in Hindustani transformations.”

Raja feels that the gharanas are fading away but “this truth calls for neither lament, nor rejoicing. Hindustani music is builit on the foundations of continuity within change. This reality will remain operative as long as Hindustani music remains an improvisation-dominant tradition, impossible to transmit without a substantial dependence on the aural experience.” Unlike Western music, Hindustani, and also Carnatic, music is not written, it has to be learnt from the guru. And, the disciples have to add their own creative input to whatever they have learnt from the guru. This gives rise to different styles within a gharana as well as among the gharanas. In Raja’s opinion, stylistic diversity will remain “as long as India remains a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic sub-continent.”

Enabled by technology

Raja’s books are rich in technical explanations and historical information, and also offer a wide glossary of musical terms. A man with a modern outlook and vision, he takes into account the various ways of transmitting and receiving music that technology has enabled. This journey began with the advent of the recording and playback technology and reached the present times when more music is listened to in virtual spaces rather than in musical soirees or public concerts or homes. This change has also prompted him to have a second look at the time-raga theory, which is specific to Hindustani classical music.

In a provocatively titled chapter ‘Kedar at sunrise’, he puts the theory to critical examination. “In Hindustani music,” informs Raja, “every raga is prescribed for performance during a specific three-hour time-slot of the twenty-four-hour daily cycle.” A few ragas can be performed any time of the day or night, and there are a few seasonal ragas that are performed only during those seasons. There are many musical as well as psychological arguments for this association between ragas and time but Raja, like so many other musicologists and music lovers, does not find the theory very convincing.

And, he is not alone. Many a present-day top musician feels that the theory has outlived its utility as one cannot tell the difference between 12 p.m. and 12 a.m. inside an auditorium where lighting and other conditions are fully controlled. However, the weight and awe of the tradition is so much that musicians continue the tradition. That’s the reason behind the title of the chapter as “Kedar at sunrise is an outrageous idea for a majority of Indian connoisseurs”.

The uneasiness with the time-raga theory as well as its violation are quite visible in the world of Hindustani music these days. Some years ago, this writer attended an evening music programme where the organisers asked the musicians to sing morning and afternoon ragas. A vocalist, almost in tears, begged for the audience’s forgiveness with folded hands as he began to sing Todi. But, in this age of YouTube and Spotify, if one can listen to a raga at any time of the day or night, why can’t musicians replicate the experience for their audience in a live concert? Something to seriously think about.

The writer is a senior Hindi poet and journalist who writes on politics and culture.

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