The charm lies in the difference between Hindustani and Carnatic

Going by the names of the two major traditions of Hindustani music — Khayal and Dhrupad — Carnatic music might be called ‘Kriti’ after the dominant musical form in practice. Or, at an earlier period, ‘Pallavi’.

The charm lies in the difference between Hindustani and Carnatic

The compositional form that is primarily used in Khayal, the genre, is khayal. Similarly with Dhrupad and dhrupad. That a genre of music takes the name of a compositional form is intriguing.

The obvious point of difference here is that Hindustani music, unlike Carnatic music, comprises two genres (three if we include instrumental music) that differ in presentation, repertoire of compositions and, one might say, intention. And these genres simply go by the name of the composition they predominantly use.

The irony is that Khayal and Dhrupad, though named after compositions, seem less vested in composition than Carnatic music. Composition is critical but the space occupied by it in Khayal and Dhrupad presentations is significantly lesser compared to Carnatic music.

For starters, there is far greater variety of composition in Carnatic music: varnam, kriti, tillana, pallavi, ragamalika, keertana, swarajati, padam, javali etc. Dhrupad uses the compositional forms of dhrupad and dhamar. Khayal seems to be shedding the variety that it had at one time. We only ever get to hear the khayal and tarana forms in Khayal concerts: trivat, chaturanga, khayalnuma etc. are hardly heard today.

Secondly, composition is lengthier and more complex in the Carnatic tradition so that a composition sans improvisation can be a standalone piece in a concert, something unthinkable in Hindustani music.

And so it is that Carnatic music is deemed heavier in compositional content. And when this is pointed out with a trace or more of derision, as it often is, apologists argue that there is indeed a great deal of improvisation in Carnatic music, or that it being composition-laden today is a contingent feature and not a necessary one; that it’s possible to present a Carnatic concert with far less compositional content and so on.

But one might also question the underlying presumption about the inferiority of composition vis-a-vis improvisation.

Anyone who has sung or heard the Kalyani Ata tala varnam or the Yadukula Kambhoji swarajati or even a small gem like the Huseni kriti ‘Raghuvira ranadhira’ knows the glory of the Carnatic composition.

The heart of Carnatic music is its tightly knit phrases that incorporate the three kaalams or speeds in precise structures. The small, sharp ornamentations and the larger undulating ones, the unornamented swara, all have to fall in place and be held together in tight clusters with little room for laxity in laya. This is the astonishing beauty of the Carnatic phrase as well as that which makes it hard to access for the outsider. And, in a song, uttered in syllable and vowel and lines of often great poetic merit, these phrases, along with sustained notes and runs to contrast, are variedly designed in tala, offering an exhilarating experience.

Interactive setting

Apart from the melodic, rhythmic and poetic richness of the Carnatic composition, what happens during performance with good accompaniment, especially percussive, is simply magic. As it emerges in the interaction among the musicians, the same composition with same text and musical setting, offers a different experience each time. Admittedly, Carnatic percussive accompaniment tends to become overbearing and sometimes unbearable for its decibel levels, but, with restraint, percussion artistes, led by the majestic mridangam, can and do nourish the composition with their artistry and precision to take it to a different plane.

The mind-boggling tonal and rhythmic variation that they create, their knowledge of compositions, their anticipation, their dissolving themselves into the song and the performance to embellish it on the spur of the moment, the singer in turn taking cues from the percussionist — the experience of the Carnatic composition can be heady. The violin accompaniment too, in the hands of a master, buoys the presentation. There is nothing comparable in Hindustani music. Not that the percussive art is less evolved but that the compositions themselves don’t offer this kind of scope.

What then of composition in Khayal and Dhrupad?

The typical dhrupad has four sections, of which only two are sung today but, unlike a khayal, are presented together as a whole. Improvisation happens before and after the composition, which is presented with deep commitment to its integrity. Khayal engages with the composition or bandish in a manner radically different from any other genre. Typically just four lines long, a khayal has two parts, but in presentation, the composition is punctuated again and again with improvisation in alaap, bol alaap and taan. Other than the artistry of the performer, there is no general ordering principle here and so the khayal itself, the composition, seems an excuse for improvisation. This is, however, only half the truth, for the bandish is critically important and cherished by practitioners and listeners.

Unlike the mridangam of Carnatic music or pakhawaj of Dhrupad, the tabla does not improvise at all times with the Khayal singer because the tabla’s primary function is to keep time or tala. Khayal performers, unlike Carnatic or Dhrupad musicians, do not keep taal with their hands: the tabla player maintains the time cycle with the theka, thus releasing the singer and enabling them to build the presentation as they choose.

This also makes possible the unique engagement of Khayal with the composition, something that is particularly stark in the vilambit or slow khayal. The musical setting of its lines in tala is qualitatively different from the other genres. The lines seamlessly glide over the long cycle of tala finding their way between the widely separated matras with very few tacks of the meeting of syllable and matra. They are fitted into the avartan as it were by the performer — they don’t come with one precise fitting.

What is inviolable and non-negotiable is that the leading phrase or mukhada of the composition lands precisely on the sam or the first beat of the cycle. Apart from this requirement and broad melodic contours, the minute details of the composition, especially in relation to tala, are not absolutely fixed. Of course, there is such a thing as learning the bandish properly and presenting it well, but this involves an artistry that binds the composition anew in taal each time. It is arguable that the vilambit and the slower madhya laya khayal are compositions that are unprecedented in the history of Indian music.

While the presentation of Dhrupad, Khayal or Carnatic music is a coming together of composition and improvisation, there is such divergence here as to render one unintelligible to the other. Here, as elsewhere, there is a method to the madness if one only looks for it.

The author is a Chennai-based

musician and writer.

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Printable version | Aug 4, 2021 6:27:34 AM |

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