The usage of the two words swara and raag in music are the symbols of delight. For the simplest of definitions, swara is the interaction of breath with musical notes and tone.
The correct swara is an infallible weapon that pares a path for emancipation. The concepts of swara are applied to the Indian khayal system. Deep like an ocean and omnipresent like a sky, swara plunges into the depth of imagination of the singer.
According to Patanjali, “swayam rajante iti swarah” which means “swaras are those which embellish themselves.”
Sharngadeva while defining the swara states “swatah ranjayati shrotractittam sa swara uchyate” which translates to “that which spontaneously muses the minds of the listeners is called swara.”
When the soul wishes to express its thoughts, it prompts the mind. Subsequently, the mind ignites the fire of the body and this fire propels the air. This air situated in Brahamagranthi in ascends to the heart, throat, and head ultimately reaching into the mouth from where this air merges in the form of sound. This sound is none other than Swara.
Swara is very subtle. It contains a secret meaning hence its manifestation of sentiments can not be grasped by just anyone. Just as the sound of the mystical Om is heard only by a person having divine or superb knowledge so he only can relish the gravity of the swara.
Defining swara is beyond the expression of words.
The swara, as integrated with the feelings of high order sentiments, elevates the pleasure of the singer and the listener. Similarly, if these swaras are composed with inferior and graded words, they degenerate the singer and the listener, alike. The wise go beyond the expression of words, delve into the depth of swara and rejoice like a saint who in deep meditation (Samadhi).
The swaras of a raag adopt a number of forms. In a bandish, there is gravitation, anti-gravitation, and contraction of one swara with the other.
For the creation of art, most important for a musician is the concentration of mind; s/he is visualizing the secrets of swaras and establishing a sequence and coordination.
In the art of music, raag is an embodiment. To compose a raag, the musician practices the swaras. S/he establishes a sequence among the swaras. With these salient features, the composition of a raag is the aesthetic beauty of music.
Dr. Abhay Dubey is an Assistant Professor of Indian Classical Vocal Music for 10 years at The M.S. University of Baroda in Gujarat, and previously as a Lecturer at Indira Kala Sangeet Vishwavidhyalaya. He has performed for many years and published 4 books on the topic of Indian Classical Music. Contact him here: 91 -9510244455 .
Longtime Washington Performing Arts audience favorite Zakir Hussain is the “indisputable tabla maestro”: an artist who has not only taken his instrument to its limits within its original discipline, Indian classical music, but who has vastly expanded the presence of both his instrument and musical heritage within other genres—including jazz, rock, and Irish and American folk music.
Leading the newest edition of his long-running, biannual “Masters of Percussion” ensemble, Hussain is joined by fellow drum virtuosos representing multiple cultures, traditions, and instruments: Iranian-born percussionist Pezhham Akhavass, performing on tombak and daf; Multi-Grammy-winning American jazz drummer Marcus Gilmore; and Anantha Krishnan, a percussionist raised in America and residing in India, on mridangam. In a pre-recorded, offsite guest appearance, the percussionists are also joined by Indian musician Sabir Khan, a master of the sarangi, a traditional stringed instrument. You can watch this incredible performance from the comfort of your home for $25.
In an exclusive chat with India Currents magazine, the legend, Zakir Hussain tells us more:
How different is your experience as a percussion artist in a virtual Livestream show without the live audience?
ZH: I do miss plugging into the audience’s reaction as an inspiration source. It would be true for all musicians. However, not having the audience in person challenges me to focus more on detail and on the musical statement I want to make. The responsibility is squarely on my shoulders and the message is mine alone. This requires a different mindset which, of course, is the most challenging hurdle to get over.
Your performance was originally titled “The Story of the Tabla” and has now evolved to “Masters of Percussion”. Can you tell us more about the origin story of your production?
ZH: Originally, “The story of Tabla” was a much bigger production involving many more artists. What we are presenting here is only one aspect of Tabla’s story. Tabla is one of the youngest classical Indian instruments, but it has already made significant strides as a world instrument. This particular show focuses on how the Tabla repertoire influenced other drumming traditions and how certain drumming countries appear to have similar techniques on their drums. For example, the mridangam is adopting Tabla compositions and transposing the hand technique effortlessly. The Jazz drum and the Iranian Tombak or Daf do something similar as well. It is an interesting coincidence when the Indian bowed instrument sarangi enters the fray and how all the drums on stage easily lock in with the folk melodies of Rajsthan. Honestly, there are no borders.
Tabla is an instrument going through an evolution. What do you think is the most significant trend in the upcoming decade for Tabla?
ZH: As time marches on, Tabla still being a young entrant has the flexibility to expand its panorama. The technique applied on Tabla allows for it to be a part of any musical conversation: Jazz, Rap, Hip hop, Folk, Electronica, Classical, or any other form of music expression yet to be discovered. There are miles to go…
Piyali Biswas De is an accomplished Bharatnatyam and Non-classical dance exponent, guru, and well-known choreographer in the Greater Seattle region. When she is not dancing, Piyali works as an IT professional in Seattle and spends time with two beautiful daughters who seem eager to follow in her footsteps.
The global pandemic changed the way we live. And, it has definitely impacted the lives of independent artists in more than one way. While 2020 taught independent artists to innovate and channel their creativity, it also increased online content competition.
India Currents speaks to two independent artists, Atlanta based singer-composer-coach Vinod Krishnan and Mumbai based singer-songwriter Mallika Mehta – to learn the challenges they faced in the indie-music scene in 2020 and what’s in store for the new year.
Vinod Krishnan, who previously released viral productions with IndianRaga and his independent hits like Kaalai Pozhudhil, Saajan, etc., has been in the independent scene for more than two years now. He is popularly known for his IndianRaga Shape of You Mix, which garnered a viewership of 8M+.
Mallika Mehta, titled the “Adele of Mumbai,” released her first EP Evolve when she was 19 and has come a long way while dabbling between genres, styles, and songwriting processes. She recently released a single “Kaafi” that has been performing incredibly well on all audio platforms.
“Challenges make our journey interesting.”
Independent artists have been facing challenges like remote collaborations, remote productions, remote content, shifting trends in 2020. “But every challenge presented a learning opportunity.,” says Krishnan. When thrown with the lockdown, musicians collaborated over Zoom and released videos through online collaborations. Event management companies took concerts online and supported other artists and music communities.
“This year is going to be a learning curve,” says Krishnan. “There is more online content now because of the pandemic (concerts, movies, short series) are all coming online, so an indie musician has to now make video content to make their songs get some attention. That’s expensive.” Meanwhile, Mehta says the pandemic has definitely nurtured her creativity and gave her more time for music that she will continue to do this year. “If it hadn’t been for the pandemic, I don’t think I would have written so much music in one year,” she adds. “One thing 2020 taught us is that planning forward is not always the best idea. So for now, I’m taking each day at a time.”
Mehta adds that she enjoys the challenges for the love of her work. “I love telling stories through my songs, and when I get messages from people saying how they love the melody or lyrics or how they feel the exact same way or how it made their day better, that right there makes me want to write another song,” she says. “It’s the love for music, the support from loved ones and strangers, and the fact that you know you’re making a difference doesn’t matter big or small.” It’s intriguing to see how independent artists are highlighting the challenges they faced and growing from them simultaneously while giving us beautiful music to listen to.
We are all playing the social-media-game!”
While there are opportunities, there’s also competition on the online spectrum. Mehta says, “a lot of labels have been supporting indie artists, but the competition is incredible, the number of artists releasing music is in numbers you certainly can’t count on your fingers. So until then, independently releasing music is our only way forward.”
“Yes, there’s going to be more competition for viewer attention this year,” adds Krishnan. “That means more OTT content since people are indoors because of the pandemic. Independent artist channels without labels or sponsors are tackling hurdles like viewer reach, social media visibility, shares, and the Instagram algorithm to reach their new fans,” he adds.
“2021 is a year of possibilities.”
“Despite the curveballs, the joy of creating new music keeps me going,” says Krishnan. “Why do filmmakers make more movies, even if they had a flop one time? Creative artists have risktaking as quality.” Independent artists are inspiring the music community with their philosophy and never-give-up attitude, and that’s exactly what we need for this new year.
Mehta says that being an independent artist comes with its set of challenges, and if you add the pandemic to it, it only becomes more unprecedented. “But as I said, I create music because I love it.”
This is the year of possibilities, and indie artists are hopeful for a positivity-filled 2021. “Independent musicians are coming up by the dozen, which I think is absolutely great. A singer-songwriter is a storyteller, and it’s funny how a lot of people across the globe do share a similar story with you.“2020 itself had a lot more independent music released, and 2021 would just add onto that,” says Mehta.
Krishnan agrees that 2021 is the year where more indie musicians will join, build, and create content. Because being an independent musician, this year, means, as Mehta says, “all the power and decisions are in your own hands.”
According to Mehta and Krishnan, this year will show more growth and opportunities. We are looking for an indie-filled 2021, where more artists emerge and put out their music and share their talent with the world.
Sruthi Dhulipala is a San Francisco-based communications professional and writer. She is also an independent singer-songwriter and you can find her music on all audio platforms. Sruthi enjoys the art of writing and has been priorly published in an International Anthology, “Lakdikapul II,” through an Indian Poet’s Association. She is passionate about music, writing, expression, and her goal to promote music to the benefit of the people through her own art and others’ art.
(Featured image: Zakir Hussain (left) and Ali Akbar Khan (right) in the 1970s)
It was May 29, 1970, at the Family Dog, a venue located at the edge of a deteriorating amusement park on San Francisco’s Great Highway, where a decidedly psychedelic crowd was spellbound by Indian music legends Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (sarod), 19-year-old Zakir Hussain (tabla), and Indranil Bhattacharya (sitar).
In the control booth, on the stage and wriggling through the crowd in constant movement was genius sound engineer and recorder Owsley Stanley, lovingly known as Bear. Owsley was an alchemist, a philosopher, a scientist famous for the sounds he amplified and the acid he created. He believed in the transformative power of Indian classical music and understood that mastery of it demanded the highest level of dedication and discipline. The night in question would satisfy a quest of Bear’s – to work with the great Ali Akbar Khan, an artist he fiercely respected.
“This is a historical concert that gives a potent glimpse into the blending of cultures, energy, and magic that was made possible here in the Bay Area,” says son of Ali Akbar Khan, Alam Khan.
“The Family Dog was more of an enterprise than a place,” commented Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, a venture made real through the resolve of concert promoter Chet Helms and run on the fuel of great music, psychedelics, a cosmic light show, and the raw energy of its youthful audience. The Pied Piper behind both the sound and psychedelics was Owsley Stanley.
“I remember this short man,” shared Zakir Hussain, “wearing glasses with curly hair, running around the stage madly setting up microphone stands and cables while talking a hundred miles a minute about his concept of recording. I did not understand Bear Owsley at that time. What he was speaking did not make sense to me but I later came to realize he was one of the original audiophile recording engineers of his time. He set the bar.” Needless to say, Bear was in good company that night.
The 2-CD set, released in partnership with The Ali Akbar College of Music, includes frame-worthy original cover art by Chris Gallen, unpublished photographs, and an extensive 28-page booklet with notes featuring new interviews from Ali Akbar Khan’s family and colleagues.
Then and now, Ali Akbar Khan, or Khansahib, is considered one of the world’s greatest musicians. “He gave new direction to the instrumental interpretation of the ancient Indian ragas. He transformed the way sarod is played now and is singularly responsible for giving a new voice and an expansion of language to sarod. In my humble opinion,” stated Hussain, “he is without exception the most important Indian instrumentalist of the 20th century.” Hussain, who has himself been internationally recognized for his musical genius and heralded as one of India’s national treasures, points out his youth in this recording. “I was a young whippersnapper out to impress the hell out of the audience. The technique was all-important; playing fast, strong, and loud was the goal.”
Of Indranil Bhattacharya, Hussain expounded, “He was a dear friend and colleague in India, an exceptional sitarist, the student of Khansahib’s father Allaudin Khan and the son of one of the most well-known composers for theater and film in Kolkata.”
That Which Colors the Mind is a musical time machine, a rare recording with a quality and weight so tactile it fills space up like smoke in a bottle. “This is an intimate telling of the Indian music story”, recounts Hussain, “music as understood, interpreted and conversed by us, 3 musicians. There was a thousand-year-old sound behind us as we played, but it was fresh and new on that day because of the spontaneous interaction in the telling amongst us. It had a meditative quality, to be listened to with focus and calmness.”
Based on the Dhrupad Gayan, the contemporary style of Khayal Gayan emerged and the music lovers welcomed it! Let me walk you through what Khayal Gayan has to offer.
Khayal word is a Persian word which means imagination, thought, logic. In modern times Khayal Gayan is very popular. As everyone knows, change is a universal law and customs, costumes, language, and lifestyle change with time too. In line with this change, Khayal was originated after Dhrupad. Khayal Gayan has shorter compositions with two parts only, Sthayi and Antara versus the Dhrupad style which has four parts, Sthayi, Antara, Sanchari, Abhoga.
The tendency of an artist is to explore something new. Our culture has been influenced by external cultures and so has our music. During this transition period, from Prabandh originated Dhrupad and from Dhrupad came into existence the Khayal. Thus we can say that Khayal is the modified version of its previous two counterparts.
In today’s prevailing singing genre of Hindustani music, Khayal Gayan is most popular. It has been so much identified with modern classical music that without it a Raagdari Sangeet can never be thought of. Its popularity is such that even on playing instruments Raagas are being played with Khayal in mind.
Khayal is Mainly of Two types: Bada Khayal and Chota Khayal.
Bada Khayal is sung in Vilambit Laya (slow tempo) and the second is Chota Khayal which is composed in Madhya and Drut Laya (medium and fast tempo). In Khayal, the importance is on swaras (notes) rather than words. Normally composition of Khayal is made up of fewer words, which means poetry is limited.
The rhythm tempo of Bada Khayal is Slow (Vilambit Laya) so its one cycle takes more time to complete than the Chota (small) Khayal, therefore it is called Bada (big) Khayal.
The first happens before singing the composition (bandish) of a Khayal. The form of a Raag is to be established by taking Alaap in Aakar.
The second method is the form of a Raag established by Nom – Tom Alaap as in Dhrupad.
In Gwalior, Kirana, Jaipur Gharana (School of Music) the first method of Khayal is prevalent while in Agra Gharana second method is prevalent. Initial Alaap is often sung in short in which Raag is fully explicit. Before beginning Raag Gayan one should take care to expand the Raag according to the Khayal.
In Khayal, Khatka, Murki, Kan, Meend are profusely used. As compared to Dhrupad, Khayal is of fickle nature and devoid of seriousness. Though Vilambit Laya of Bada Khayal enhances solemnity to a certain extent.
The gradual growth of Khayal from Dhrupad can be easily understood by Bada Khayal. It is also bound with certain codes but provides a space to express feelings through improvisation.
Dr. Abhay Dubey is an Assistant Professor of Indian Classical Vocal Music for 10 years at The M.S. University of Baroda in Gujarat, and previously as a Lecturer at Indira Kala Sangeet Vishwavidhyalaya. He has performed for many years and published 4 books on the topic of Indian Classical Music.
Ragas Live Festival has grown to become a vital element in the cultural landscape of New York City. Since its inception in 2012 when 50 musicians volunteered to create an FM-Broadcast at WKCR 89.9 FM-NY with the theme of “Community, Unity, and Harmony,” the festival has expanded to become a popular live event at locations including The Rubin Museum of Art and for the last few years, Pioneer Works. As the initial broadcast blossomed into an annual event, it attracted global attention, expanded the audience of Indian music, and documented and catalyzed what the New York Times would declare a “A Raga Renaissance Flowering in Brooklyn.” Now, Ragas Live has transformed that renaissance into one of the live music industry’s rare COVID-era success stories, managing to bring together over 90 musicians, from the deserts of Rajasthan to the mountains of Kathmandu, to perform remotely from 13 global cities in a celebration of ‘Community, Unity, and Harmony’.
There’ll be cutting edge cross-cultural performances: Terry Rileywill be performing raga based improvisations from Japan preceded by Brooklyn Raga Massive who will be premiering a 24 person performance of In D their homage to Riley. Amir ElSaffar will be collaborating with the Brooklyn Raga Massive as well with Raga Maqam a 14 piece ensemble that explores the intersections between maqam, the tonal language of Arab, Turkish, and Persian traditional music, and raga, the classical music of the Indian subcontinent. Andy Statman, the legend of klezmer and bluegrass will be exploring both Jewish doinas and ragas from the 200-year-old synagogue B’nai Jeshurun. Zakir Hussain will perform a tabla solo from San Francisco, Toumani Diabate will perform kora from Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, and Betsayda Machado y Parranda El Clavo will perform in El Clavo, Venezuela.
Founder and Executive Producer of Ragas Live Festival, David Ellenbogen says, “This has always been a festival with a pan-global vision. This year that dream is fully being realized. We’ll have artists and listeners from every continent. We reached out to many of our heroes and to our astonishment, they all said yes. These are the people that have changed the history of music. The artists felt a kinship with our idealistic vision and we are all working together to make it happen. We’ll have both artists and audiences all around the world: it will be 24 hours of global resonance.” Says the festival’s Artistic Director Arun Ramamurthy, “These legendary musicians are the torchbearers of their traditions who have brought their music forward. To have them all participating is so inspiring.” “I love Indian music, I love Indian culture, I’m doing this because I think it’s a beautiful idea and I want to share life and music,” says Toumani Diabate, the legendary Kora player, who will perform a set from Côte d’Ivoire.
The entire event will be available free on November 21-22nd from 7pm-7pm to all as a video livestream at www.pioneerworks.org/broadcast and on broadcast as audio on WKCR-FM 89.9 FM.
Lata Mangeshkar turned 90 a little more than one year ago, a momentous milestone in a life whose story is the very chronicle of Hindi Film Music in the post-Independence era. Any superlatives used to describe this life seem banal, and indeed many of the tributes that flowed in hewed that line.
A different kind of tribute was shaping up in the heart of Arun Sampath, an unassuming IT professional based out of the NY area. He has been pursuing whistling – what he most evocatively calls MukhVenu (translates to face-flute) – as a hobby for a long time. Being an ardent fan of Lata-didi’s music, his Upahaar is an album of MukhVenu renditions of classic songs of Lata-didi.
At the outset, this seemed like an impossible endeavor. Can one hope to create even a faint shadow of the golden voice? Or to emulate the magic of the golden era? But the results are sure to take your breath away (no pun intended).
I have had the privilege of witnessing the creation of this monumental project. Each step was planned and executed meticulously. Songs were selected from 1949-58, decidedly one of the best decades of Lata-didi’s career. The final track selection is a fine representation of the great music composers that Didi worked with, as well as of their profile in the popular imagination. Arun’s perfectionism surfaced during the recording and finishing stage, as he fretted over minor deviations which I could hardly detect. It is also noteworthy that the recording was done in the traditional style (takes, retakes, and all) without resorting to autotune.
The polished and packaged product is astounding. The great Anil Biswas (whose honey-sweet romantic composition ‘man mein kisi ki preet basaale’ from Aaram is recreated by Arun) noted that Lata-didi’s voice was like a piccolo, sharp yet sweet, and impeccably in tune. MukhVenu turns out to be singularly suitable to mimic that voice. The fidelity of the recreations to the original is evident to the keen listener, the MukhVenu following the voice very closely, including the subtle pauses and even breath-stops. One drifts into a nostalgic journey as the immortal tunes impinge on the mind’s ear as much as the physical ones. And one cannot stop listening.
There is a hoary tradition of recreating Hindi Film songs on instruments. When one listens to the haunting gypsy violin or Hawaiian guitar of Van Shipley, the mesmerizing piano of Brian Silas, or the sonorous saxophone of Manohari-da, one realizes that these musicians must have been the keenest listeners of the original melodies, understanding and absorbing not only the tunes but the intent of the creation before reproducing it in the chosen medium. This is the greatest tribute one can pay to the original.
In this sense, Arun’s MukhVenu renditions are a profound and heartfelt tribute to the legend that is Lata Mangeshkar.
Chetan Vinchhi is a tech entrepreneur based out of Bangalore. He is keenly interested in Indian classical and old film music, is active in music appreciation groups, and occasionally writes about music.
Staying inspired requires energy in the best of times. Doing so while sheltering-in-place, dealing with canceled shows, complete lack of a real audience, and asynchronous, socially distant jam sessions strikes a discordant note in the life of artists and art organizations alike.
In the face of these odds, Sangam Arts’ Mosaic Silicon Valley initiative and San Jose Jazz are continuing to bring harmony into our lives. On Thursday, Sept 24, “Making the Mosaic” will bring us not just music, but a premier collaboration between two musicians from different cultures, Saxophonist George Brooks and Sitarist Arjun Verma. The two musician-composer-educators will first improvise in words and then in melody, virtually.
“Making the Mosaic has provided me with a wonderful opportunity to get to know Arjun as a composer and performer. It has been a unique experience in that we have not been able to be in the same space as we developed the material for this program,” shared Brooks. ”To stay true to the spirit of improvisation, which sits at the core of jazz and Indian classical music performance, the final layers of the performances are recorded live and in single takes. It has been demanding work, but very rewarding.”
The musicians have been creative not just in their art, but in overcoming the challenges of collaborating during shelter-in-place. Since they did not have the option of working with an actual band, they created a virtual band using layers of sitar, saxophone, and bass clarinet.
Mosaic Silicon Valley’s mission is to connect communities through inter-cultural art. The organization purposefully commissions work that brings together high-caliber artists from disparate cultures with the goal of celebrating the differences while highlighting the common threads. As co-founder Usha Srinivasan puts it, “We see artists as the ambassadors to their cultures; when we bring them together, we bring entire communities together.”
Verma is a Mosaic Fellow and believes that “All music from every corner of this planet has the same fundamental building blocks, and when we, as artists, reach across the boundaries of musical genre, we realize this fact. More importantly, we realize the same is true about our humanity. Indian classical music shares an important feature along with jazz: the use of improvisation, or ‘composing on the spot’ as my teacher Ali Akbar Khan described it. This gives us the freedom to express ourselves spontaneously through music in a way that is extremely fresh and personal.”
Vinod Krishnan is a singer, composer, music producer, and educator. He is the Creative Director of music at IndianRaga and has performed with India’s top musicians like Shankar Mahadevan and Vijay Prakash. Trained in Indian classical music and piano, his work explores taking Indian classical music to newer audiences and bringing world music together.
He talks to India Currents about the beauty of the raga Abhogi and all things that make the scale a bright myriad of emotion.
“Abhogi is symmetric and is also one of the few ragas that does not have the note Pa, which is sort of the midpoint of the musical scale,” says Vinod, who recently released a piece exploring the spectrum of this bright raga.
According to you, what stands out about Abhogi?
The more compositions you learn in a raga, the more you uncover these hidden gems and mysteries in it. Abhogi is an eclectic ragam, some might also call it symmetric or striking. But, finding a way to blend the same raga in both Hindustani and Carnatic, and finding that sweet spot between genres is the challenge when you begin to explore meeting points of two genres.
How did Abhogi capture your recent attention?
Do you know those contemporary designers who create unique looking furniture? If you ask a designer, they will have so many ways to build it. I’ve felt the process is the same for musicians. When we explore a raga, you can build it in so many different ways. There is no one right way to do it (as long as you conform to the basic structure of the raga). Some ways evoke deeper responses within you and from those listening to it, while some let you hover amidst the subtle etches of the rendition the notes remind you of. But the first step is it should overwhelm you. Only then does the listener stand a chance.
What are your favorite Abhogi film and Classical compositions?
The first time I heard Abhogi in the film is the song “Indraikkku yen indha anandamide” by Ilayaraja sir. Not much after that. This is why I enjoy this ragam – we know that Abhogi isn’t that common of a raga picked up by contemporary musicians or by film composers, but that also makes it novel and gives a lot of scope for exploration.
Can you talk about your recent Abhogi collaboration with IndianRaga?
The recent Abhogi 2.0 music video I released with IndianRaga was in collaboration with Hindustani singer and senior IndianRaga fellow, Apoorva Deshpande. This production was a sequel to the “Swara Sadhana” series that we previously released with IndianRaga, a creative arts start-up that nurtures Indian art forms in the new age. Swara Sadhana is the concept of ardently exploring the “swaras” or notes rooted in different Indian classical ragas, but with contemporary arrangements. The entire production was an idea that developed over dinner when we brainstormed in Abhogi itself, and I then spent the entire night producing and arranging this composition. It came out well, much to our satisfaction. Hope you enjoy it!
Sruthi Dhulipala is a San Francisco-based communications professional and writer. She has been priorly published in an International Anthology “Lakdikapul II,” through an Indian Poet’s Association. She is passionate about music and her goal in life to promote music to the benefit of the people, through music therapy.