An Evening of Rare Ragas
In western music, scales are defined by two factors, the key note or the root, and the musical intervals between the successive notes that follow. Scale names are varied and their applicability seems boundless. In Indian Classical music, while the popularly known octave is the basis of all Raagas, it is known that more than the notes you play, the feel of a Raaga is subjective to how you play it or sing it. While you may go up the Raaga (Aarohan) with one set of notes, you may come down the Raaga (Avarohan) playing either the same or a completely different set of notes. While Raagas are categorised by the number of notes, many of them have the same set of notes. It is the way certain notes are embellished and approached and several other characteristics of playing that define a Raaga and distinguishes one from the other. One thing that distinguishes Indian classical Raagas from Western Classical scales is that there are some Raagas that non-linear or Vakra, which implies that notes in these Raagas do not progress in the typical ascending/descending fashion, they are played or sung by moving back and forth between fixed notes.
The Raaga provides the artist with a set of rules by which the melody produced will sound. One of the more popular rules is that certain Raagas are to be played at particular times in the day or during a particular seasons. For example while Raaga Ahir Bhairav is known as the morning, Raaga Malhar on the other hand is known to be played during the monsoon time. While these are specific to Hindustani Classical Music, Raagas from South India’s Carnatic style can be played at any time of the day. With the extent of interaction of Hindustani and Carnatic musicians over the years, variations in the way Raagas are performed and understood are apparent and discussed greatly.
Students start learning at very young ages at well-known Gharanas all over the country where the secrets of a multitude of Raagas are passed down from teacher to student over years of Taalim—Lessons. Since the intricacies of each Raaga have been taught orally, over the years there have been observed variations in the tonality of certain Raagas. It takes a sharp ear to be able to distinguish, not only one Raaga from the other but also assess the subjective nature of each performer’s rendition of it.
The G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture recently hosted Sarod Maestro, Rajrupa Chowdhuri, who along with Tabla player Bhushan Parchure, performed a set of Raagas that are rarely heard. She began her learning the instrument at the age of five at the famous Shahjahanpur Gharana. She now continues to learn under Prof Sanjoy Bandopadhyay.
Rajrupa claims that these Raagas are so rare because few Gurus know them and teach them to their pupils. She says, “Only some Gharanas have that Talim, all that we learn from our Gurus. My Guru learned these Raagas from his Guru and I from him.” Even the most popular Raagas with all their intricate details, take years to master, requiring not only committed practice, but also the dedicated supervision of a Guru. For uncommon Raagas to be learnt and performed, it is a privilege for both the performer and the audience.
That evening, out of the three Raagas performed, the first was Raaga Purvi –the main Raaga of the Purvi Thaat— this Raaga is a popularly known one. Here is a performance of Raaga Purvi by Amjad Ali Khan.
The second Raaga, a rare raga known as Dibavati, was handed down to Rajrupa from her Guru Prof. Sanjay Bhandopadhyay. Here is a performance of Raaga Dibavati by Rajrupa.
The third Raaga performed by Rajrupa was Raaga Hussaini Kanada. You can listen to her performing it here.
Singer K J Yesudas stated in an article with the TOI, that short concert durations are the reason performers prefer to play Raagas that audiences are familiar with. In agreement with author B Sivakumar, along with some Raagas that are rarely performed because of their technicality, Raagas that are rarely thought by Gurus should be called for at performances and recitals because otherwise, there is a possibility of them being forgotten, which would be a shame.
While new to the technicalities and intricacies of Indian Classical Music, I couldn’t help but get lost the fleeting feeling of hair rising off my arms and the back of my neck at each bend and slide of the steel strings of Rajrupa’s instrument. The melodies produced will not be heard often, yet will be remembered in the treasury of tradition that they represent. In a performance space as technically sound as the G5A studio, the simplicity and minimalism of it’s dark interiors illuminated by dimly lit paper lanterns gives one a perfectly blank sheet to paint upon. While Rajrupa plays Raaga Dibavati, I close my eyes and find myself walking across an abandoned field next to my family’s old summer house. Ahead of me, a tangerine sun sets over the valley and a gentle evening breeze combing through the dry blades of wild grass tempt them to dance away, without a care in the world.