Tag Archives: Raga

Poetry in Bharatanatyam: Vinitha Subramanian

Guru Smt. Vinitha Subramanian, the Director of Natyalaya School of Dance in Austin, has been teaching in the Central Texas area for over 35 years. She has scores of arangetrams to her credit and has staged several dance dramas and thematic presentations such as Jungle Book – Seonee, Ganga- A River’s story, Nouka Charitram, Navahavarna, Roopa Viroopa, Ek, and Agasthya, just to name a few. I interview Vinitha Subramanian, in what was a fabulous exploration into the connections between Indian poetry and classical dance.

UA: Bharatanatyam is performed to the accompaniment of poetry in Sanskrit and other South Indian languages. Can you trace the relationship between the two genres historically?

VS: Sanskrit was the preeminent literary language in India for many centuries. The poets and playwrights wrote in Sanskrit in the various courts of India’s rulers. In addition, poets also wrote in local languages: example Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Tamizh. There has been a profusion of composers in local languages in more recent times as the support for artists moved away from the Kingly courts. Tamizh poetry is very old, dating up to 4000 years.

UA: Who/What are these classical poetry forms that are foundational to the practice of Bharatanatyam?

VS: There are so many forms – starting from very old Tamil poetry which are over 3-4000 years old.

Sangam Literature and poetry: contains 2381 poems in Tamil composed by 473 poets, some 102 anonymous, of these Kapilar is the most prolific poet. These poems vary between 3 and 782 lines long. The bardic poetry of the Sangam era is largely about love (akam) and war (puram), with the exception of the shorter poems such as in paripaatal, which is more religious and praises VishnuShivaDurga and Murugan. The most acceptable time range for the Sangam literature is 100 BCE to 250 CE

The history of Tamil literature follows the history of Tamil Nadu, closely following the social, political and cultural trends of various periods. The early Sangam literature, dated before 300 BCE, contain anthologies of various poets dealing with many aspects of life, including love, war, social values and religion. This was followed by the early epics and moral literature, authored by HinduJain and Buddhist authors, lasting up to the 5th century CE. From the 6th to 12th century CE, the Tamil devotional poems written by Nayanmars (sages of Shaivism) and Alvars (sages of Vaishnavism), heralded the great Bhakti movement which later engulfed the entire Indian subcontinent. It is during this era that some of the grandest of Tamil literary classics like Kambaramayanam  (very famous poet Kamban) and Periya Puranam (lives of the 63 saiva saints complied by Sekkizhar)  were authored and many poets were patronized by the imperial Chola and Pandya empires. The later medieval period saw many assorted minor literary works and also contributions by a few Muslim and European authors. 

In modern Bharatanatyam, it is hard to use Sangam poetry (though we use some selected verses), as it is very hard to understand the ancient language.  

We do use Christian poems in Bharatanatyam – several poets in Kerala (including a priest) have written songs for Bharatanatyam.

Generally medieval Tamil and Sanskrit poetry is extensively used: Poets like Kalidasa and Adi Shankara from (1st– 2nd centuries), Andal  and Alwars (5th-10th century), Kannada Dasa poets like Purandaradasa (15-17 century), Annamayya and Telugu poets( 12th century- 20th century), Sanskrit poets like Jayadeva (12th century) Most modern Bharatanatyam songs are, however, derived from compositions of  relatively modern composers like the Carnatic Trinity (Tyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Sama Trinity) and the Tanjore Quartet (Chinnaswamy, Ponniah, Vadivelu and Sadanandam) considered the fathers of modern Bharatanatyam. Other popular modern composers include Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavathar, Oothukkadu Venkata Kavi, Papanasam Sivan, Poochi Sreenivasa Iyengar, Ravikiran. These poets composed in a variety of south Indian languages. With Bharatanatyam spilling beyond south India, poetry in many North Indian languages are also being used: Hindi (Tulsidas, Kabir), Marathi (Tukaram and other Abhang composers), Gujrati, Bengali (Rabindranath Tagore).

The Carnatic Trinity
The Carnatic Trinity: Sri Syama Sastri, Sri Thyagaraja, Sri Mudduswamy Dikshitar

UA: Mostly, what are the kinds of poetry and poetry forms used in poetry accompanying classical Bharatanatyam?

VS: Poetry had religious and devotional themes, and romantic-mystical poetry was prevalent as it was felt that people would comprehend the texts better. Independence-based themes, social reform-based poetry, religious tolerance and moral teachings emerged over time. Indian poetry is generally classified in accordance to the language in which it is written, or the region from which it hails. However, in general, Indian poetry is generally classified into the following types: epics, couplets (dohas), ghazals, bhajans, folk poetry and others.

UA: Indian music and dance is based on raga, bhava and tala. Please help us understand each of the terms with a special emphasis on tala.

VS: Bhava – Facial expressions that help in storytelling. Raga – Melody to which dance-song is set. Tala – The intrinsic beat of the poem as reflected in the music which is set to the measures defined in Carnatic music.

UA: What are the dominant stanzaic forms and meter used in the poetry?

VS: In terms of meter – 2 line poems (haiku like) called Dohas/Shairis are popular, such as those by Kabir. This is also found in Thirukkural, an anthology in Tamil by Tiruvalluvar. Examples of other meters used are Gayathri meter poems from the Vedic literature, the octet poems of Jayadeva and Adi Shankara, longer sonnets are very popular among older and modern poets and have all found a home in bharatanatyam.

Sanskrit prosody or Chandas (meter) is the study of poetic meters and verse in Sanskrit. This field of study was central to the composition of the Vedas. The Chandas, as developed by the Vedic schools, were organized around seven major meters, and each had its own rhythm, movements and aesthetics. Sanskrit meters include those based on a fixed number of syllables per verse, and those based on fixed number of morae per verses as expounded in Pingala’s Chandasutra. 

UA: Nattuvangam- it’s practice, definition and importance to classical dance?

VS: Nattuvangam (pertaining to dance) and Konnakol (pertaining to vocal- instrumental music)  is the practice of reciting rhythmic syllables that emulate the drumbeats  that allow the elaboration of the  inherent beat of the music in various permutations to display the dancers virtuosity in pure dance movements.

UA: The relationship between nattuvangam and beats in classical Telugu, Tamil and Sanskrit poetry?

VS: When a poem is set to music, its inherent meter (determined by the poet) is interpreted in the structure of the Carnatic music tala structure. This Tala is elaborated in the nattuvangam, providing opportunity to the dancer to explore various ways of presenting it. The basic tala measure is combined in various permutations and combinations to provide a rich diversity of pure dance movements and footwork. 

UA: What are some of the more modern poetic expressions to which you composed your own choreography successfully (that are not strictly laid out in meter, yet were transferred beautifully)?

VS: The rigidity is only in the time measure of each avartana of the tala (8 beats, 11 beats etc.) in which each line of the song /poem fits.  By calculating the number of beats in one avartana or combining the avartanas or splitting them we are able to derive infinite combinations of footwork arrangement. The same song with the same rhythm (drum) can be arranged very differently by different choreographers using the hand gestures (hastas and Nrtta hastas) and adavus (choreographed steps) to provide a refreshing look at the inherent meter of the poem every time. Hence every song can be renewed each time it is performed.  

We have set Bharatanatyam movements to songs from various faiths, composed in different languages, even English/western music or Tejano music. When there is no meter but just a song or chorus without beat, Bharatanatyam allows its expression in graceful twirls and striking poses. 


Usha Akella, Austin-based poet has authored eight books. She is the founder of the Matwaala collective and festival and co- host of www.the-pov.com, an interview site.

Khayal in Hindustani Music

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.

Vilambit Laya is composed in Ek Taal, Tilwada, Jhumara, and Ada Chautal.

Madya and Drut Laya is composed in Ek Taal, Teen Taal, Jhaptaal, and Rupak. Chota Khayals are mainly in Teen Taal, a favorite of most artists.

Two Methods of Initial Alaap in Khayal Gayan

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.

IndianRaga Explores a Raga Without a Midpoint

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.

Vinod Krishnan Mixes R&B with Carnatic Music

Minnesota-based artist, Vinod Krishnan, is well known for his creative work and collaborations with IndianRaga, an arts education startup founded at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This Chennai rooted artist’s dream has always been to take Carnatic music to the world and to bring world music together. Krishnan describes his work to be inspiring, refreshing, disruptive, and culturally relevant.

Krishnan collaborated with a wide range of artists from IndianRaga fellow, Mahesh Raghavan to India’s leading musicians Vijay Prakash and Shankar Mahadevan in recent years. He enjoys experimentation in music – from connecting Carnatic elements to a famous pop cover like Shape of You, to composing breezy Tamil melodies such as his original Kaalai Pozhudil

Krishnan’s Recent Release: Kandapadi Kaadhali 

Inspired by Krishnan’s love for A.R Rahman’s melodies like Rehna Tu and Nenje Ezhu, his new release Kandapadi Kaadhali talks to those in love and encourages to cherish love in its raw, non-judgemental form. “I adore the seamless chord progressions and a refreshing choice of sounds in most ARR hits, which inspired the approach to this song,” says Krishnan, who has a strong passion for connecting with the sound, arrangement, and emotion in all his productions.

“This song lets me step out of my comfort zone and play with R&B,” adds Krishnan. “It’s liberating how you can be rooted in timeless cultural values, and yet be globally relevant, and to be all of this needn’t be conflicting. Growing up with ARR’s music, genres no longer seemed mutually exclusive. I believe one needn’t have to pick just one particular genre all the time.”  

 

Krishnan’s Background in Carnatic Music 

Trained in Carnatic music, he spent most of his life as an ardent learner. In 2011, Krishnan started singing for local concerts and Bharatanatyam productions in the US. He also showed a keen eye towards composing, arranging, and producing music – the skills he put to use when he first joined the IndianRaga fellowship in 2016. From then, he made 35 videos both with IndianRaga and independently and garnered a collective viewership of more than 10 million views for his digital music content.

Influence of Chennai Roots on his Music 

“Chennai is like an electron – held back strongly by a nucleus that is culture,” says Krishnan, when asked how he describes his traditional roots. The culture and the traditional embrace of external influences that he was brought up with, help him understand the identity of his origin, that’s a mix of sincerity, modernization, pride, and vibrant culture. 

His culture and background made him realize that one can be rooted in timeless cultural values, and yet be globally relevant and enterprising, and to be all of this needn’t be conflicting. “Another aspect is I’ve always felt Chennai would only be personified to be a culturally-rooted and elegant human being. At some level, that has been the kind of person I’ve sought to be,” says Krishnan. 

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. A passionate dreamer and a self-professed book dragon, she is also a philosophical person who believes that everything happens for a reason in life.

Neel Murgai Ensemble’s New Album Will Reorient You on Love and Loss

With a unique amalgamation of traditional Indian Raga with chamber Jazz sound, the well known Brooklyn based music band, Neel Murgai Ensemble has come up with its new creation, ‘Reorientation’. A magical combination of ethereal overtone singing, slow-moving psychedelic-soundscapes with alluringly irregular time signatures and resonant scales, the new album boasts of an exotic musical experience for all music lovers across the world.

Recorded at Eastside Sound in Manhattan, Engineered by Sam Crawford and Lily Wang with mastering by Kane Mathis, the album is partially funded by the American Composer’s Forum, with additional funding provided by the Spark Plug Foundation. More than a new album, the musical compilation signifies a reorientation of both self and music that describes a story of loss and eventual recovery with a newfound love for the composer, overtone singer, sitarist and teacher Neel Murgai.

“The album is very close to my heart as it incorporates my journey of self-healing after I lost my old partner. Most of the compositions, especially the ensemble ones, were created in the past when I was with her and recorded them nearly 5-6 years ago. Music helped me to self rejuvenate myself, overcome the loss of someone special and move on from the tragic past. This album is dedicated to all those who are struggling from a personal loss and it is to convey to them that we can definitely move on from these tragic experiences. If I can do it, then it is a medium to inspire others too,” said Neel Murgai, the ensemble leader. “For some reason, I sat on these recordings for a long time. But just recently, my new partner and I had a baby. So it felt like it was time, like I needed to really just finish this up and move on from it in a way.”

Though the older ensemble pieces rooted in Indian classical instrumentation make up the backbone of the album, the nine tracks of Reorientation also includes recent work of solo overtone singing and looping pieces, resulting in elaborate aural explorations. The entire album is an artistic dialogue with Murgai’s older music and newer creations, providing realignment for heart and mind after devastating loss. 

“Reorientation is a combination of older ensemble tracks and newer tracks of solo overtone singing like the Mongolian throat singing using looping technology. Though they are divergent and so different in many ways, it’s like they’re talking to each other like my new self and my old selves are having this existential conversation,” the composer added, who had been working on this newer project of overtone singing and looping to concoct sublime sonic landscapes for over the last four years. 

One of the older tracks in particular, “Sunflower” was written for and dedicated to Murgai’s previous partner. This second track of the album is based on Raga Yaman. Raga, the form of Indian classical music, literally means “that which colors the mind”. The name for the final track on the album “16251”, actually represents the chords played. 

In contrast to the tradition-steeped in virtuosity that characterizes the foundation of the ensemble pieces, the more recent contributions are improvisational, self-reflexive, and inherently psychedelic.  “Music can always be used for healing,” opined Murgai, “but especially this overtone singing has been great for my own self-healing and for helping others because it is spontaneous and allows practitioners to facilitate a sound meditation experience.”

Many of the compositional ideas for Murgai’s overtone singing on tracks like the lead “He’s Got a Pulse,” came out in the spontaneity of improvisation. He developed a kind of improvisatory language, singing random vowels, syllables, and consonants while at once examining how they shaped the overtones. 

For another track, “Moom Moom Gong Bong,” Murgai utilized this language, along with Mongolian vocal techniques, as well as techniques pioneered by Timothy Hill of the Harmonic Choir, a seminal group in modern overtone singing who systematized the use of vowel sounds to elicit overtones.  Yet, sometimes real words emerged out of that process too, like in the track “Speak True,” a song in which words just kind of emerged spontaneously, partially because of the way that the vowel sounds elicit certain overtones that he was going for. 

Though Neel Murgai entered the world of music by playing tambourine in school in New York City and then learned Jazz music, it was his acquaintance with Indian classical music in Varanasi as an adult that helped him gain a new direction in music. Combining Raga with jazz sound, incorporating different talas and creating own versions of different talas, it paved the way to create a signature style for the Indian American musician internationally. After the worldwide release of his new album, he is also looking at exploring new opportunities, presenters and promoters in India for next year. Reorientation’s live emanation, performances will also feature ensemble members who are also connected with the Brooklyn Raga Massive, including Trina Basu on violin, Arun Ramamurthy on violin, Marika Hughes on cello, and Sameer Gupta on tabla.

Murgai is also the co-founder and co-artistic director of the Brooklyn Raga Massive (BRM), a NYC-based artist collective dedicated to creating cross-cultural understanding through the lens of Indian classical and Raga inspired music. The collective, which has a dedicated following community who love Indian classical music, not only organizes weekly concerts but performs at bigger venues like Kennedy center and has an annual 24 hours music festival as well. 

“I want to continue experimenting with Indian classical music through our collective. We were one of the first bands to bring Indian classical influence to western minimal pieces and now we have performed nearly 80 concerts in a year. Right now Indian music just involves 3-4 musicians playing at a time and I want to experiment it with having a repertoire with over 20 people performing together, expanding and exploring the loneliness of Indian classical music,” said Murgai. Further adding on his future plans he concluded, “I have already started planning for my next record that would be completely focused on solo performance based on overtone singing. I have a new idea of presenting raga as a kind of abstract expressionist, using raga phrases with minimal music. My direction is currently headed in that way, which is also known as yamanism.”

Suchithra Pillai comes with over a decade’s experience in the field of journalism, exploring and writing about people, issues, and community stories for many leading publications in India and the United States. In her spare time, you would either find her scribbling down some thoughts in the paper trying to find a rhyme or story out of small things or expressing her love for dance on stage.

Planet Symphony – East Truly Meets West!

 

Hundreds of professional artists and students playing over 50 musical instruments. Western Classical Music. Indian Classical Music. Carnatic Tradition. Hindustani Tradition. Jazz Tradition. Folk music Tradition. The cause? A plea to tackle climate change. Anyone who thinks that Western musical and Indian musical traditions do not mix will completely change their mind, once they have heard Chitravina Ravikiran play with Western orchestras. Now, in his latest musical venture, he has taken that unique musical ability to help musical styles and nationalities converge for the cause of the environment. And what an ambitious venture it has been – Tomorrow, on June 5th World Environment Day, tune into his Youtube channel to hear the universal musical plea orchestrated through his efforts.

Release of Planet Symphony on June 5th

Chitravina Ravikiran, a phenomenal Indian musician initiated work on the Planet Symphony, a musical composition which will go live tomorrow to mark World Environment Day. He says, “The Planet Symphony Orchestra (PSO) upgrades Art-for-entertainment to Art-for environment in response to the agony felt by billions all over the world, including millions of students who have literally taken to the streets demanding climate justice. This effort is non-political but we aim to inspire decision makers of governments and corporate houses to prevent an environmental meltdown within ten years, after which several effects due to global warming will be irreversible.”

Work started in March – he notated the composition, invited musical collaborators and soon word spread like wildfire. Professional musicians – student musicians – everyone wanted to pick up their instrument and play – at once as an individual and joint plea for action to tackle climate change. 

Chitravina Ravikiran is no stranger to working on artistic collaborations with musicians drawn from varied genres. Listen here for his version of the famous tune Fur Elise by the Indian Carnatic maestro, with an improvisatory prelude in the specially created Indian raga Veetavanam and rare touches of Melharmony, created in honor of the romantic composer, Ludwig van Beethoven.

East truly meets West in the love for music and the deeply felt need to save our planet – both music and the environment do not adhere to narrow national boundaries. Listen and join the movement!

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the editor of India Currents magazine.

 

 

 

Sarod Maestro Rajeev Taranath Interview

One of India’s foremost classical musicians, Rajeev Taranath is a master of the sarod. His career spanning over four decades, has drawn accolades from critics and audiences throughout the world.

A distinguished disciple of the late legendary maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, he also received guidance from the great sitarists Ravi Shankar and Shrimati Annapurna Devi . Rajeev Taranath is the recipient of many honors including India’s highest government award in the arts, the esteemed Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 2000.  He has received critical acclaim for his deep introspective style that melds imagination and emotional range combined with technical skill, and a highly disciplined approach to the development of a raga. “Rajeev Taranath’s sarod improvisations mixed the spiritual and the spirited…the raga began with introspective meditation and proceeded into an exuberant rhythmic celebration.” said critic Edward Rothstein of The New York Times   A noted linguist, he speaks eight languages fluently. From 1995 to 2005, Taranath served on the music faculty of the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles. Currently living in Mysore, India, Rajeev Taranath travels worldwide teaching and performing.  Given below is an interview with this esteemed musician. 

Did you grow up in a musical family?

My father was deeply interested in music. He used to sing and play the tabla. Although he was not a professional musician, I grew up with a lot of music around me. He started teaching me very easy songs. When I was around 3 years old, he made me listen to a lot of classical and vocal records and performances. I soon started singing and gave my first public performance at 10.

So, how did you leave singing for the sarod?

The most vivid moment in music I remember is the first experience of hearing Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, it was electrifying. I was and am a great admirer of Ravi Shankar’s music, so I used to attend every performance of his when he came to Bangalore, the city in which I lived. That particular time, he came with Ali Akbar Khan, who said that he would play the sarod along with him. Before that, I had heard very little of the sarod being played and definitely I had not heard Ali Akbar Khan play. It was a life-changing experience when he played his first movement on the sarod. That was my moment of epiphany, a moment of total grace.  As I was listening, my life changed. Music moved to the centre of the universe.  I was hooked and never looked back.

 Can you explain why it spoke to you so much?

Well, you know, it’s like falling in love. How can you explain it?

So, one performance changed your life?

My life changed direction after that point. After I heard Ustad Ali Akbar Khan for the first time, it was a year and a half or more before I got introduced to him. I was just past 20 when I went to him and he soon accepted me as a disciple.

Please describe the training.

It was daily, sometimes twice a day, but then there would be periods with no lessons for a month or more, because he would be away, performing. By the time I went to him, the demand for his public performances was very high. I started practicing one hour, two hours. Then, for some time, it went on for up to 12 hours a day.

How do you work when you’re practicing music for 12 hours a day?

At that point, I was a beggar. I couldn’t find a job, but there was a benefactor Mr. P.K. Das of Kolkata. This man had nothing to do with music, but he gave me a room, and not very much later, he and his wife insisted I should have my meals with them. I had some sort of job afterward to keep me going, but they took care of me for six more years. That gave me an opportunity for which I am profoundly grateful, to practice many, many hours a day.

You had a very successful career as a vocalist when you were young. You were even described as a child prodigy. I have heard that you were and are profoundly moved when listening to the great vocalist Abdul Karim Khan. Why did you decide to switch to sarod? Many people say that the voice is the ultimate instrument for Indian music.

There is no doubt that vocals are at the center of our music. But Ali Akbar Khan is for me the paradigmatic example of excellence. I would say that in his sarod playing there is a kind of vocalism. He has a flexibility and versatility to his imagination, all of which have vocal sources. It’s not that he actually plays vocal bandishes. There are sarod players that do that, but he is not one of them. Vocalism is for him an abstract, silent, but immediate storehouse for the movements of the raga. It’s the thing that makes a raga more than a scale. I can almost say that given two very good instrumentalists, the person who is the better vocalist—in this special metaphorical sense—is the one whose music will have more “juice.” He might not be the fastest, but that’s because he would have no need to be the fastest.

Has Hindustani music changed over the years?

To answer that question, I think it’s helpful to compare music to both language and physics. If you compare the English of Shakespeare’s time to modern English, you can see that it’s essentially the same. There are noticeable differences, but we can still understand Shakespeare. The physics of Shakespeare’s time, however, has been completely replaced by modern science. Throughout the history of Hindustani music, there’s been the same kind of growth and change that you can see in a language. But you don’t have the new completely replacing the old, as is the norm with scientific progress. For example, Ali Akbar Khan made profound changes in the sarod. Before him, the instrument sounded quick and staccato, with lots of trills. Khansahib still uses those trills, but his innovative playing gives the instrument a new profundity and depth.

What do you think is the biggest challenge in playing Hindustani music?

First, of course, you must practice and study diligently. If you do that, you will become either a competent or an incompetent player, and you will get to know which very soon. But once you have crossed the bar of competence, in about three or four years, what do you do then? You know how to play the raga correctly, but then what? At that point, playing the raga is rather like spreading butter on bread. You’ve got to see how well you can spread it, and how widely you can spread it. You must push at the frontiers of the raga, and yet see that it doesn’t break. If the raga breaks, you are in a kind of melodic anonymity, which ultimately breaks you as a musician.

Have you managed to stretch the borders of any of the ragas you play?

I try. When I play Patdeep, it’s difficult to make it long. You can feel very comfortable playing Yaman long, because
it’s quite spacious and flexible. So is Bhairavi. But Patdeep is very brittle, and can’t be stretched easily. The rules for Patdeep are very strict, which is why it makes such an immediate effect. Once you’ve heard the identifying phrases, you know exactly what it is. But that’s a double-edged sword, because the audience is immediately “Patdeeped,” and it seems to be near closing time right away. Then you’re left with the challenge of where to go from there. For Patdeep, I try to unfold the scale of the raga a little bit at a time, so you can hear every nuance. You have to hold the raga back, stop it from exploding through you. That enables me to stay inside the raga, and not let the raga go, even when I’m playing for a long period of time.


Last month I did a concert in which I played Patdeep for the alap-jor-jhala, and then switched to Madhuvanti for the gat. Madhuvanti has almost the same notes as Patdeep, and many of the same note arrangements. But Madhuvanti has tivra ma (raised fourth) and Patdeep doesn’t. Even though the notes are similar, the mood is very different, and these differences have to be kept. I wanted to create a natural change in mood, while still maintaining a sense of unity in the performance.

When you play two ragas together, how do you decide which ragas to combine?

There’s a kind of dialectic involved between a technical closeness, and yet the need and challenge to keep the moods different while playing in very similar scales. There are also other factors not as capable of tidy articulation. You might combine a raga that has a certain kind of gravitas with something that is not quite so serious—moods that are contrasting, yet still very close.

Can you speak about your approach to developing a raga throughout the many years of riyaz?  

There’s a kind of patience that you learn to take with you to the raga. If you’re patient, the raga will speak to you eventually.

Can you discuss the ideas you have regarding teaching Indian classical music?

 When it comes to teaching of music, there is a trio – a teacher, a learner and an instrument. The teacher demonstrates how he has put the instrument to use and what he has been able to achieve. The attempt here is a give and take of such experience. This exploration of possibilities, initially in the form of bits and pieces, as alankaras or tabla bols or whatever, later on turns into an exercise in bringing together these little experiences to construct a creative whole. Further on, it is a kind of invitation to the learner to live with the teacher in the common world of music and in this journey together, the learner may even reach beyond. Each one’s style of playing is guided by one’s own possibilities, difficulties and impossibilities.

What is special about your gharana?

Unlike other gharanas which for many years remained closed-door, teaching freely with openness is a major preoccupation with the Maihar. Allauddin Khan, the Paramahamsa-like saint-musician took to vigorous teaching. This can perhaps be traced to the difficulty he encountered in learning and the fact that Allauddin was compelled to choose the sarod in a veena-dominated tradition which confined its veena–teaching to its kin alone. But his ingenuity incorporated the possibilities of veena into the sarod, remodelling it for the purpose. Several nuances of the veena came into sarod-baaj and later years saw the promotion of sitar, sur-bahar and sur-singar.

The Maihar-Senia gharana, which traces its lineage to Tansen in the 16th century, was one of the few schools that taught women music and we find historically the presence of many distinguished women instrumental performers within it from Saraswati, Tansen’s daughter, to Annapurna Devi, the daughter of the legendary Allauddin Khan.

In the context of our guru-sishya parampara and the oral/aural tradition, you once mentioned the ‘mediation of the eye’ in western classical music. Don’t you think a guru’s role is equally vital there in guiding….?

Mediation of the eye is important in Western classical music because of the reliance on the system of notation. The journey is from note to note but nothing as much may happens between the gaps. It is in the movement between notes that one’s culture operates. Mimesis is the basis of our music-teaching. Our music fills up with meends, gamaks, bols and these cannot be written down. We clutch the guru’s imagination, his mind that is so private. A guru gives good active seeds… but can one teach creativity?’ The artist or maestro, as T.S. Eliot says, lives at a conscious point where past and future are gathered. He has all the richness of the past, waiting to pass it on to the future, for his students to gather it all.  So I try to teach, but a problem which I have repeatedly faced is this: I can transfer musical information but I don’t know yet, how to transfer the sense of relish. This is important in the kind of music we play and teach because the given is so tenuous.    

Can you explain the artist’s process or desire for mastery?

To make better music– there is a desire, which is a life-long process- to create a match – to bring the thought and performance nearer and nearer.  Actually it is the desire to translate what is happening in your mind into your fingers – even without that gap. The finger itself becomes imagination.  But curiously the more you master, the more your imagination becomes active. Because what strikes you or me is seriously limited by what we can execute in singing or playing.  And as that capacity improves, your imagination improves. The more you go toward mastery the more you see, the more you climb, the more you see. So there is no end to that – they feed on each other.  Because you see, you want to climb more. Because you climb more you see much more. And so it goes on.  And that act itself is a matter of very profound satisfaction – a  fullness, which I suppose is why you are really after this exploration of mastery.   In music it is more obvious perhaps, but it is there in everything.

In the education of a performing art, there is the finding of greater and greater satisfaction in the possession of the knowledge you are seeking. The same art can be treated as a discipline or can be treated more casually, mechanically as a subject.  When music becomes a discipline, that’s your life, when music is a minor subject, it’s very different.  If anything becomes a discipline, you seek a fuller kind of satisfaction.  Simply being well- trained in something is not enough.  Often many are well-trained for a purpose which quite often lies outside the central subject.  Their own interests are elsewhere.    When something becomes a discipline, that becomes a center of interest.  If it isn’t, it shows.  And in some artists it becomes obsessive.  And when it isn’t obsessive or the central interest you can make out at some stage.  

How would you describe mastery in this art form?

If given more time, I will go more and more toward radiant simplicities. Those simplicities are the product of a lifetime. Any durable experience has to arrive into a state of simplicity. Courtship is complex, a durable marriage is simple.

This article was compiled from several interviews by Leslie Schneider and is reprinted with permission from the Canadian South Asian magazine, “AAJ” (Oct 2016).