Song of Surrender

Wednesday, 4 September 2013


Raga Darbari Kanada
the elephantine gait and
its tonal geometry

By Deepak S. Raja

Raga Darbari Kanada has often been described as the “emperor of ragas” and the “raga of emperors”. These descriptions recall the raga’s association with Miya Tansen at Akbar’s court, and the majesty of the Mughal empire at its zenith. But such imagery could not have either surfaced, or survived through the centuries, if it had not also been supported by the melodic character of the raga.

The key to the majestic aloofness of the raga lies in the ponderous deliberateness with which it has to be rendered. This “ponderous deliberateness” of musical expression owes itself primarily to the andolit or oscillated treatment of two swaras – komal Ga, and komal Dha – in the ascent as well as the descent. These two oscillations are fundamental to the sculpting of the two phrases which virtually define the melodic personality of Darbari Kanada – (g M R) and (d n P).

These oscillations around komal Ga and Dha swaras define a very specific treatment or intonation of these swaras in Darbari. Some authorities even believe that Darbari does not use the common (komal) Ga and Dha pitch-ratios to base-Sa. Instead, it uses their suppressed micro-swaras or srutis. According to this view, these suppressed micro-swaras are accessible only as suggestions arising from an oscillation between the natural Re and the flat Ga (for komal Ga) and between Pa and the flat Dha (for komal Dha).

In imparting a sensitivity to these nuances of Darbari Kanada to their disciples, traditionally trained gurus have often used very obscure language and imagery. The logic of these oscillations is, however, easily understood through acoustic principles – essentially, the tonal geometry of the two pivotal phrases of the raga: g-M-R and d-n-P.

The fist and last swaras in these phrases, Re-Pa and Ma-Ni, are in perfect first-fourth correspondence with a pitch ratio of 1.333 between them. But, the linking swaras, komal Ga and komal Dha are only in near-perfect correspondence with a ratio of 1.367 between them.

To achieve a symmetry between the lower and upper halves of the Darbari Kanada scale, the two pivotal phrases need to be in perfect phraesological congruence. This is not possible until komal Ga and komal Dha are brought into perfect acoustic correspondence with each other.

The oscillated treatment of komal Ga and Dha explores the relevant microtonal regions for the possibility of tonal correspondence and phraesological congruence. The melodic soul of the raga expresses itself in these explorations.

The aesthetic demands of this tonal geometry might explain why great musicians often favour slow tempo renditions in this raga, and avoid the flattening out of the prescribed oscillations in ultra high-density melodic execution.

Raga Gara
folk origins and tonal geometry

Gara is a rare raga. But, if you have heard several renditions of it, you could be confused because one Gara often does not sound like others. There is a good reason for this because Gara is not the exclusive name of a well-defined melodic entity. Gara has been performed as an independent raga in some lineages of Hindustani music, and has also provided a melodic flavour to other ragas. If there is confusion about Gara, it is because the raga-ness of Gara itself is variable, and musicians might announce, simply, Gara, when they decide to perform one of the variants, each of which has a self-explanatory name.

Gara belongs to a family of melodic entities, which were apparently derived from folk melodies, and entered art-music in association with the thumri genre. (Manuel, Peter. Thumri in historical and stylistic perspectives, First edition, 1989, Motilal Banarasidass, Delhi). This family includes ragas like Kafi, Piloo, Jangula, Barwa, and Zilla, along with several others. These ragas remained loose, informal melodic entities until the 18th century, after which their grammar was organised by classically trained musicians. However, even today, as Manuel points out (Ibid. 1989), they are performed only infrequently in classical and semi-classical music, and in disparate versions.

Raga Jaijaiwanti bears the closest resemblance to Gara. However, according to some authors (B. Subba Rao, Raga Nidhi, 4th edition. 1996, Music Academy, Madras), Gara is a combination of Khamaj, Piloo and Jhinjhoti. The raga belongs to the Kafi parent scale, and is characterised by a notional scale-base at Pa of the lower octave, rather than the customary Sa. Although an antara movement ascending to the upper-Sa is often encountered in this raga, prolonged action in the upper half of the melodic canvas is contra-indicated.

Ascent: M P D N S\ R g R\ G M P
Descent: P M g r\ S n D P\ D N S

Identifying phrases: R g R S / D n P D N S/ G M R g R.

Bhatkhande regards the raga as time-neutral. Other authorities and common practice accept its performance between 9 pm and midnight.

Full-scale khayal style presentations of Gara were popular with Agra gharana vocalists from the 1940s to the 1960s. During that period, some instrumentalists adopted several Agra favourites. Gara was one of them. While studying this raga, I was able to locate recordings only of Sharafat Hussain, and Yunus Hussain, both Agra vocalists, Bahadur Khan, a sarod maestro of the Maihar-Senia lineage, and Vilayat Khan – the recent torch-bearer of the Imdad Khan/ Etawa gharana. You would be hard put to locate a Gara recording made by a musician of the post-independence generation.

Sharafat’s treatment of Gara is broadly consistent with the melodic outline available from Yunus Hussain’s unpublished recording, and the recording of the raga by the sarodist, Bahadur Khan. Even between the two Agra vocalists of the same generation – Sharafat and Yunus – there are minor differences in melodic phrasing. Bahadur Khan broadly follows the Agra phrasing strategy, veering a little towards Piloo around base-Sa by emphasising Ni. Sitarist Vilayat Khan (EMI/HMV: ECSD: 2828), also of the same generation, adopts the Piloo-Jhinjhoti axis of the raga described by Bhatkhande. Towards the upper end of the melodic canvas, however, Vilayat Khan’s Gara tilts mildly towards Jaijaiwanti of the Bagesree ang or bias.

Considering that melodic informality virtually defines the raga, we need not attach significance to the differences in its interpretation, as long as it remains identifiable, and distinct from ragas of the same family, but most crucially, from Jaijaiwanti.

This raga is characterised by limited improvisational potential and a zigzag phraesology, both protecting it from the shadow of Jaijaiwanti. But, its phrasing strategy exposes it to risk of confusion with other ragas, such as Piloo and Desi in the poorvanga, and Barwa (Agra version) in the uttaranga. The most comprehensive risk of confusion for Gara comes, of course, from Jaijaiwanti.

The phraesological distinctions between Gara and Jaijaiwanti are subtle, and the mood is often believed to distinguish between the ragas. Conventional wisdom regards Gara as vivacious and romantic, and Jaijaiwanti as profound, though not unromantic. This confirms the historical fact that Jaijaiwanti has acceptance in the formal dhrupad and khayal genres, while Gara’s primary territory has been the romanticist thumri. The raga apparently lends itself, within limits no doubt, to a range of moods broadly towards the lighter end of the emotional scale.

Tonal geometry and the additive fragrance

Outside the context of a full-fledged raga, and as an additive fragrance to compatible ragas, Gara is associated with a single phrase: D-n-S-N-S around base-Sa. The melodic key to Gara, the fragrance, is the tonal geometry of this phrase. With Sa as the base =1, this phrase has relative pitch values of: Dh = 0.8333, ni = 0.88889, Sa = 1.00, Ni = 0.9375, Sa = 1.00. This is considered the signature of Gara, the raga, which is actually “Gara to the base-Sa”. By the principle of first-fourth and first-fifth correspondences, this geometry delivers congruent or near-congruent phrases in different regions of the octave.

If the scale base is shifted to Ma = 1, the phrase R-g-M-G-M will give you near-identical relative pitch values: Re = 0.844, ga = 0.872, Ma = 1.00, Ga = 0.9375, Ma = 1.00. This phrase, along with a scale-adjusted phraseology, defines a raga called Madhyam-se-Gara or “Gara to the base Ma”.

If the scale-base is shifted to Pa = 1, once again, we get G-M-P-M-P with near-identical tonal geometry. Ga = 0.8333, Ma = 0.888, Pa = 1.00, Ma = 0.9375, Pa = 1.00. This phrase, along with a scale-adjusted phraseology, can define a raga called Pancham-se-Gara or “Gara to the base Pa.”

Neither of the Gara fragrances, whether from Ma or Pa, yield independent self-sustaining ragas. They get mixed up with thumri genre ragas like Piloo, Khamaj, Kafi, and Barwa as additive flavours to enhance the melodic potential and lyrical quality of these ragas in rendition.

If you think you have never heard Gara as an additive fragrance, think again. The song Mohe panghat pe Nandalal chhed gayo re in the film Mughal-e-Azam, is composed in Panchamse-Gara. If you jolt your memory now, you might also recall having heard light compositions in “Madhyam-se-Gara” without quite knowing what the melody is called, and why.

Deepak S. Raja (c) India Archive Music Ltd., New York

(The author is an accomplished sitarist, musicologist, music critic and author. He blogs at and has edited and written books on Hindustni music)

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