A Carnatic raga seeking a Hindustani identity
By Deepak S. Raja
The raga Basant Mukhari is widely acknowledged as the Hindustani adaptation of the Carnatic raga Vakulabharanam. The Hindustani avatar is, associated with the eclectic initiatives of Acharya S.N. Ratanjankar, the founder principal of the Maris College of Music in Lucknow. Some of the greatest musical minds of the country have, in recent years, worked on giving the raga a Hindustani personality. Despite this, the raga remains, to this day, subject to a considerable diversity in treatment.
The import of Vakulabharanam from the Carnatic tradition was, in fact, more like a second coming for this melodic entity. The first was a mature raga called Hijaz, a melody of Persian origin, documented by V.N. Bhatkhande in the 1930s. We do not know approximately when Hijaz entered Hindustani music.
The basic grammar of Basant Mukhari is near identical to Hijaz. Even their chalan (skeletal phraseology), as documented by authorities, differs only in minor detail. Unless a musician tells you whether he was taught Hijaz or Basant Mukhari, you have no indication about its possible source. There are very few musicians today who have been taught Hijaz. The melody of Persian origin was almost extinct when, in the 1950s, Basant Mukhari gained currency. What is heard most commonly today is Basant Mukhari – the Hindustani (north Indian) adaptation of the Carnatic raga.
Ratanjankar, a great scholar and a disciple of Bhatkhande, certainly knew the Hijaz connection. In his wisdom, however, he gave it a new name – Basant Mukhari. This nomenclature suggests a melodic affinity to the raga Basant or Suddha Basant/ Adi Basant or Malti Basant, the other ragas with similar names. None of these suggestions has much support in the melodic personality of the raga.
The tonal structure of Basant Mukhari comes into being by replacing the suddha (natural) ni swara of raga Bhairav with a komal (flat) ni. Another way of looking at the same scale is that it replaces the komal (flat) ga swara of raga Bhairavi with a suddha (natural) ga.
Because of the poorvanga dominance of Bhairav, and the madhyanga dominance of Bhairavi, the Bhairav character tends to dominate Basant Mukhari, thus qualifying it as a variant of Bhairav. A common departure from the Bhairav-dominant character of this raga is a tilt towards raga Jogia, also a member of the Bhairav family. Some musicians try to emphasise the Bhairavi facet of Basant Mukhari by focusing more of their melodic development in the uttaranga.
The contemporary practice of Basant Mukhari suggests frequent, and qualitatively divergent, departures from the raga’s description in the authoritative texts.
Vocalist Amir Khan (bada khayal, 1969) treats Basant Mukhari squarely as a variety of Bhairav, virtually ignoring the Bhairavi facet in the uttaranga. He appears to adopt an Ahir Bhairav bias in the treatment of the raga in the poorvanga, and allows Malkauns to influence his treatment of the uttaranga, thus imparting a melancholy quality to the raga.
Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar performed Basant Mukhari frequently since the late 1950s, and consistently favoured the Bhairav oriented approach to this raga. In a relatively recent recording, his interpretation (BRI, 1991) was predominantly Ahir Bhairav oriented, with a touch of Jogia. The raga form is well integrated, with no overt effort at isolating the Bhairavi facet of the raga for special attention.
Basant Mukhari was also a favorite with sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan. In his most recent recording (Chhanda Dhara: SNCD:3386), the Ustad presented this raga explicitly as a Jogia variant. Because of this orientation, the Bhairavi facet is almost missing. The somber quality (gambheerya) of the Bhairav facet is replaced by the “viraha rasa” of Jogia.
In one of his published concerts that was available for study, flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia (EMI: STC: 851041) opted for a treatment which is more light than classical, ignoring the explicit influence of both, Bhairav, and Bhairavi. You can see shades of Jogia and Jaunpuri/ Asavari in the phrasing. But, the kaleidoscopic melodic patterns woven around the basic theme, which are most appropriate for a semi-classical treatment, prevent any of these aural images from stabilising in the listener’s mind.
The earliest record of sitar maestro Vilayat Khan’s performance of Basant Mukhari is a concert of 1963 (unpublished). The recording reflects a serious and balanced treatment of the Bhairav and Bhairavi facets of this raga. However, in a later recording of the same raga for India Archive Music (late 1990s), the Ustad allowed the raga to tilt towards its Bhairavi facet, especially in the faster movements.
After recording Basant Mukhari for India Archive Music in 2001, the sarangi maestro Abdul Lateef Khan told me that, in his youth, he was taught this raga as Hijaz Bhairav. But, since nobody today knew the raga by its original name, he always announced it as Basant Mukhari when he performed it. His rendering of it adopts a serious, Bhairav-biased approach to the raga form. The interpretation makes no attempt at the isolation of the Bhairavi and Bhairav elements in the two tetrachords. Basant Mukhari is presented as an independent raga with an identity of its own, but comes through as one of the cousins of Bhairav.
In its totality, Abdul Lateef’s treatment of the raga is very close to that of the vocalist Amir Khan. Interestingly, Abdul Lateef hailed from Bhopal, and Amir Khan from neighbouring Indore. It is known that the musicians of the two principalities had links of kinship and enjoyed frequent interaction. Is it, then, possible that the musical culture of the Central Provinces had somehow kept the old raga, Hijaz Bhairav alive? This would explain not only the similarity of the two interpretations, but also the aesthetic coherence and maturity of their melodic entities, compared to the divergent interpretations of the Carnatic raga.
It appears that the majority view favours a Bhairav family bias in the treatment, with shades of Jogia and Ahir Bhairav being considered permissible. Within this consensus, however, the handling of this raga in the Hindustani tradition exhibits a wide range – from the very solemn pure Bhairav orientation to a lightclassical treatment going well beyond the melodic liberalism of the contemporary Bhairavi. Since the aesthetic coherence and maturity of the Hijaz Bhairav source has been lost, the Vakulabharanam-inspired Basant Mukhari finds it necessary to struggle for achieving a stable Hindustani identity.
Basant Mukhari is not unique in this respect. It is true that some Carnatic ragas, like Kalavati, Hamsadhwani and Abhogi, have by now acquired a reasonably stable character in Hindustani music. But, there are several others – such as Vachaspati, Saraswati, Salagavarali, Janasammohini, Keeravani and Charukesi – which can only be considered at an exploratory stage of adaptation by the Hindustani tradition.
An interesting question arises here. What is the yardstick for determining when, and if, the Hindustani interpretation of a Carnatic raga is “satisfactory”? Is it sufficient for the interpretation to acquire a reasonable stability of melodic grammar in the Hindustani tradition? Or is it also important that Carnatic vidwans should scrutinise and validate the Hindustani effort? The issue is debatable.
Deepak S. Raja (c) India Archive Music Ltd., New York
(The author is an accomplished sitarist, musicologist, music critic and author. He blogs at swaratala.blogspot.com and has edited and written books on Hindustni music)