Song of Surrender

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Ragaland – A romance of many anubhavas

By Sindhuja Bhakthavatsalam

The line was all too clear. There were the raktis and there were the scales. Of course, one could be rakti and also ghanam, or deshya, or anything else but merely scalar. The scales – or the “minor” ragas – were, to put it mildly, the estranged ones. “Ha! Here comes our light-minded Latāngi!” mocked Thōdi, one of the reigning lords of Ragaland. Dhanyāsi smirked. Many of the scales had been given such fancy names by the raktis: “Jejune Janaranjani”, “Naïve Nalinakanthi”, “Humdrum Hamsanadam” and so on. Shivaranjani who’d been watching, comforted Latāngi and retorted to Thodi, “Hey, at least our swaras are in place! Look at what you folks pass off as a gandhara or a madhyama!” “Oh the poor scales, their lives begin and end with swaras and swarasthānas!”, Dhanyāsi gibed.

So who were the raktis? The raktis, or the “pleasing ones”, were the self-assumed privileged class in Ragaland. They emerged from melodic formations and had a swaroopam or form that went beyond their constituent swaras. Combinations or patterns of swaras would in most cases not exhaust all the possibilities of the raga. They were wholes that were more than the sums of their parts, if you will. Kāmboji, Athāna, Begada, Nārayanagowla, Thōdi, Bhairavi, Yadukulakāmboji, Dhānyasi, and Sahaāna were some of the prototypical raktis. The scales on the other hand, were more straightforward folks. They could be quite completely defined by their arohanam-avarohanam. Scalar members included Hamsānadham, Hamsadhwani, Hamsānandi, Ranjani, Dharmavati, Simhendramadhyamam, Varamu, Gambhīranāttai, Vāgadīshwari, Valaji and the like. A large number of the scales were relatively new to Ragaland and that was another reason for the raktis’ pride: most of the raktis had lived there forever and so for them, the land truly was theirs’ and only theirs’.

There were some exceptions among the raktis though, who were very friendly with the scales and in fact championed them. Nīlambari was one of them and was in fact very fond of Nalinkanthi. She would often say to her, “They say you’re a scale, I’m rakti and all that. Who cares? I wish I had your sa-ga-ri-ma! That looks so good on you!” And Nalinakanthi would blush, and return the compliment: “Oh, how lovely are your vakra passages, especially with the occasional kaishiki nishādha!”

Some of the scales had gotten together for their daily hangout. Among them was Revathi. She had also witnessed the earlier exchange between Thōdi, Dhanyāsi, and Shivaranjani and that had got her ruminating. “You know, sometimes I wonder about the true purpose of our lives”, she said. “We have spent all our lives fighting for equality but may be the raktis are right after all. May be they really have more intrinsic worth than us.” Vāgadīshwari slowly nodded in agreement and added, “Dhanyāsi did make a valid point: our lives do largely begin and end with swaras and swarasthānas…”

“So what?!” interrupted Valaji. “Why exactly are swara and scale-transcending ragas superior?” What followed was a brief silence. It was an important question that nobody seemed to have asked in all seriousness until now. “Well, may be they have stronger individualities and identities?” offered Nalinakanthi. “Yes, gamakas and phraseologies lend them strong identities”, added Revathi. “But don’t our swaras do the same for us?” asked Simhendramadhyamam, puzzled. “Not in the same way that gamakas and prayōgas do for the raktis, I suppose”, replied Revathi.

Begada, one of the more amiable raktis, joined the conversation. “That sounds right to me” she said. “No offense, but take Dharmavati and Gowrimanohari for instance. Or even Sarasāngi and Gowrimanohari. What distinguishes one from the other are not characteristic gamakas, not prayōgas, but just plain old notes! The exact same string of swaras can be sung in any of the three, just changing the swarasthānas – and lo and behold, you’ll have a new “raga” each time.” ““Raga”? Great, now you’re questioning our very status as ragas!”, shot back Gambhīranāttai. Begada apologized and tried to clear the air: “I’m sorry, let’s try and understand each other better.” Seeing Begada, more raktis joined. Kedaragowla added, “Begada’s right: none of us can mutually swap a note or two to exchange our identities, unlike you folks. And that’s because highly specific and unique phraseologies form our lifeline – take Begada’s own characteristic ga-ma-pa- da-pa-sa and the long, sliding nishadha in the descent for instance.”

“But there’s a razor-sharp difference between Keeravani and myself!”, argued Simhendramadhyamam. “Although we share six swaras, don’t our madhyamas make a world of a difference? It gives us our distinct, individual flavors. It’s the same with Dharmavati and Gowrimanohari and so on. Agreed, each of us shares subsets of our scales with many others but please look at us as in our entirety – we have a swaroopa too! Yes, we are not defined by typical pidis and prayōgas and phraseologies – I’ll admit that unabashedly. But it’s unfair to gauge our stature by your standards. Why is your phrase-based uniqueness superior to our note-based one?”

Gowrimanohari chimed in at this point: “Right. Why should resemblance in parts be grounds for dictating the intrinsic worth of our existences? If strong individuality manifested within a small set of notes is the criterion for deciding who’s more of a “raga”, then sure, you raktis win. But that seems like an arbitrary criterion.”

“But”, responded Kedaragowla, “intending to present you, Gowrimanohari, when a musician opens with an akāram involving pa, ma, ga, ri, sa, ni the listener doesn’t know what’s coming: you, or Keeravani, or…..”

“Well, a musician can make it clear at the outset which one she’s presenting.”, said Gowrimanohari – “And once the identity of the raga is clearly established, it doesn’t matter if in the process of exploration the musician dives into certain specific regions of our scales, leaving out the rest.” “But to be fair, I should add that there are some musicians who like to deliberately obfuscate the raga they’re presenting.”, said Vāgadīshwari in an almost confessional tone. One time, in the hands – or rather vocal chords – of T.K. Rangachari my rishabham was simply not touched on for a good three-and-a-half minutes into the ālapana, leading unwitting rasikas to conclude that what they were hearing was Harikāmboji!”

Kedaragowla seized the moment: “See! That’s what we’re talking about!”

“But all this speaks more about the prowess and sensibilities of musicians rather than about us, ragas!”, muttered a bewildered Dharmavati. “It’s no fault of Vāgadīshwari that when her scale is presented only within the ga-ma-pa-da-ni-sa range she sounds identical to Harikāmboji – her rishabha makes all the difference and once sounded, lends her her unmistakable identity. Whether or not a raga should be presented unambiguously right at the outset is to be settled between the musician and the rasika – it doesn’t have anything to do with us!”

“And by the way!” thundered Nīlambari who had been listening silently all along, “We’ve been boasting about our strong individualites and all that – what about our Chāyālaga friends?! Darbār and Nāyaki; Bhairavi, Mānji, Huseni and Mukhāri; Rīthigowlai and Ānandabhairavi to a good extent; Kedaragowla and Surati? If we don’t have a problem with some of us raktis sharing close similarities with each other, we shouldn’t have a problem with similarity among the scales either. I don’t see why swara-based similarities are in any way worse than so-called lakshana-based ones. The difference between Gowrimanohari and Sarasāngi is in fact much sharper than that between say, Bhairavi from Mukhari.”

Dhanyāsi jumped in: “We’ve been focusing too much on our similarities – or the lack of them. The real differentiator is our gamakas. Take for instance my gāndhara – or for that matter every single of my vikruti swaras! Render them plain and it won’t be me anymore! None in the scales clan has any such individualistic gamakas.”

 “It’s the same argument again”, grumbled a slightly annoyed Varamu: “Yes, you have highly specific gamakas that make you who you are, and we don’t. But why does that make us inferior? The type and degree of gamakas also seem like arbitrary criteria for deciding our worth. Don’t you realize the beauty of pure, plain swaras? Moreover, take Shanmugapriya or Chārukeshi – they originated as scales. But over time they have come to acquire beautiful gamakas for their nishadhas. Think of Shanmugapriya’s in the very opening of Pāpanasam Sivan’s Āndavane!”

Begada protested: “But we offer so much more scope for elaboration by musicians. And we present them with greater challenges.”

“Agreed, there’s lesser a musician can do with us” – admitted Kīravani – “but it’s a difference in degree, not in kind – even among you folks some of you have more layers to be unraveled than others. Moreover, a good musician can handle a scale skillfully and aesthetically for great lengths of time.” “Very true”, chipped in Vāchaspati: “I was once presented for an hour in a ragam-thanam-pallavi by Ālathur Brothers. It helped me discover facets of me that I myself hadn’t been aware of – it was cathartic.” “And sure, a musician might find it less challenging to present Dharmavati than Nārayanagowla.” – continued Kīravani: “But once again, we’re talking about the skills and sensibilities of musicians, not about who’s better among us ragas!”

Bhairavi retorted: “Oh, but it’s us who’ve been here forever. Most of you have come to live here fairly recently. She quickly glanced around and asked with a scoff, “How long have you been here, dear Vāsanthi? Or even you, Bahudhāri? And on the other hand, you folks – Mukhāri and Begada?” Bahudhāri got quite offended and said, “On top of being gamak-ist and phras-ist, now you’re being ageist!”

“She’s not”, replied Thodi. “Pidis, phraseologies, gamakas… these are not arbitrary criteria: these were the traditional criteria. We didn’t come into existence by humans handpicking certain notes and arbitrarily putting them together. We came into existence organically. But you on the other hand, were artificially created. And back in the day, only musical formations that came into being the way we did were truly ragas!”

“I knew you’d get here.” Shanmugapriya said wryly: “We understand that the special gamakas we may have today were put in by hand, as opposed to the gamakas of say, you, Bhairavi, Begada or Sahāna. Our genesis has been “bottom-up” – from swaras to (what you may think of as contrived) gamakas and prayōgas – whereas with most of you, it’s been “top-down”: you originated from your gamakas and phraseologies first, and probably then became associated with swaras. But why does all this matter so much to your acceptance of us as ragas? Why don’t you just look at us as new arrivers with a different kind of genesis, nevertheless as worthy as you of being considered ragas?”

Nāttaikurunji, another voice for equality among the raktis added, “If the scales were “artificially created”, did we raktis just land here as swayambhus? Don’t forget that you were creations of humans as well. We may have originated more out of aesthetics, and they, more theoretically – but that doesn’t make them inferior. Importantly, it doesn’t ipso facto make them less aesthetic! And do you realize that Ragaland has been continuously evolving and welcoming new settlers from time to time? And as Varamu just said, do you also realize that there are ragas that originated from scales but are hard to classify as purely scalar today – like Chārukeshi and Shanmugapriya? Moreover what about ragas like Hindōlam and our age-old Mōhanam? They are primarily defined by their swaras and don’t have special prayōgas or gamakas – now would you call them raktis or scales? They have such strong personalities! Swaras – and combinations of them – are capable of lending strong character to a raga regardless of gamakas or phraseologies. I’d argue that in fact Dharmavati and Simhendramadhyamam have distinct personalities owing to their madhyamas despite sharing the other six swaras.”

Dhanyāsi resisted: “If unique phraseologies and gamakas, and traditional origins and age are all arbitrary criteria for determining Ragahood then what according to you is an acceptable criterion for defining us ragas?!” 

“I’ll tell you!”, announced an unfamiliar voice suddenly. The ragas were all startled. Out of nowhere, a being had just manifested. “Who are you?” they asked in chorus. “You aren’t a raga – you aren’t a musical form. We have never seen anything like you! What are you doing here?” “I am Chitta”, came the reply. “Chitta? We don’t understand!”, they gasped. “We can tell that you’re here since we seem to be able to walk in and out of you, but we can’t perceive you!” “I am the human mind – I form the very core of the humans who created you – I reside in the humans and embody the feelings, moods, and experiences they get from you”, said Chitta.

“We create feelings and experiences for humans?! And you’re saying you’re the embodiment of those?”, asked a confused Begada.

Chitta continued: “Indeed. You ragas evoke in humans different experiences and feelings – or anubhavas. I think the only criterion for what makes one a raga is their ability to create a meaningful anubhava for the musician and for the rasika – be it listening, performative, cerebral or anything else. For instance, I can say that Nalinakanthi and Hamsadhwani give pure visceral joy to a lot of people, whereas Shubhapantuvarali can make them deeply melancholic. Hamsanādam often evokes passion and is deeply moving, while Shankarābharanam can stir up a sense of blissful contentment. Nīlambari is reassuringly soothing while Thōdi and Bhairavi evoke a sense of grandeur and loftiness.

While a musician may on a particular occasion prefer to present Nārayanagowla to Dharmavati to showcase her talent, her knowledge of and/or preference for “tradition” and so on, another musician – or even the same musician on another day – may prefer to elaborate Dharmavati over Nārayanagowla perhaps because it makes her deeply contemplative and emotional. Yet another musician might derive great intellectual (as well as aesthetic) satisfaction by presenting a ragam-thanam-pallavi in Nirōshta. All of you are important in your own right as far as the human experience is concerned.”

All the ragas had been listening with rapt attention. This all proved to be profoundly revealing for them. Although they were keenly aware of their origins and geneses, they had never contemplated the effect they have on the human mind and the anubhavas they create for them – and so it took them a while to wrap their heads around what they had just heard. “So you mean each of us creates different anubhavas for humans and have the power to move and touch them emotionally and intellectually?”, asked Mukhāri, still a bit curious.

“Yes, exactly”, replied Chitta.

Dharmavati wondered aloud: “That’s amazing. If we all create a variety of anubhavas for humans then there’s really no reason for us to judge each other so rigidly – unless we get into a commentary on the human experience and rate various anubhavas from highest to lowest, which sounds absurd on the face of it.”

Chitta beamed. “Rightly said! At the end of the day what matters both for the musician and the rasika is the rāgānubhava – the complete musical experience. And raktitvam of raga, the way we have been construing it isn’t a necessary ingredient for meaningful raāgaānubhava! When a Valaji moves a rasika, how she moves!”

Ranjani had been quietly absorbing everything that said up to now and she had a question for Chitta: “Just for a second, I want to play devil’s advocate and take Dhanyāsi’s side: what you seem to be saying is that any bunch of swaras can be put together to make a raga. But doesn’t that make way for a dangerous relativism? Does anything go? Can say, a computer-generated scale ever become a raga? Should we prepare for an eventual overcrowding here?”

Chitta listened patiently and said, “You’re going down a slippery slope. I did not imply that anything goes. The rāgānubahva created is the ultimate decider. Let me elaborate. I ask that you not be opposed to “randomly generated” ragas on principle. Welcome them. The point is, time will tell. If musicians and rasikas find meaning and value in the anubhavas such ragas create for them, they will stand the test of time and stay, or else, they leave. If a raga is not able to make an impression on the mind of the musician and the rasika, they won’t last.”

Bhairavi who’d been listening intently and pondering had quite remarkably come around: “Come to think of it, remember how we ragas were defined in the treatises? ranjayati iti ragaha: that which pleases the mind is a raga. It now seems silly that we were arguing among ourselves and completely ignoring the human experience. We ought to understand carefully what Chitta has said: we should all be proud of each other for having the ability to create unique anubhavas for humans. It comes as a great revelation that our Nalinakanthi and Hamsadhwani can make one’s heart leap with joy, our not-so-humdrum Hamsānadham can create a sense of longing and passion, whereas our Shubhapantuvarāli can make one intensely melancholic. What value can we place on these abilities to create such intense experiences? And we call them “mere” scales and claim Ragahood solely for ourselves.”

Nāttaikurinji added, “The beauty and strength of our land lies in our diversity; in our pluralism. Together, we sport a variety of swaras and gamakas and phraseologies, and together provide a whole spectrum of anubhavas to musicians and rasikas. And together, we have to celebrate this. Isn’t it greatly satisfying when we all come together taking turns in a concert? Just yesterday, as I exited one fine musician’s vīna and entered another’s voice elsewhere, Nāgaānandini made an entry into the vainika’s strings. The more of us represented in a concert (not compromising on our depths and breadths of course) the wider the range of anubhavas created for the musician as well as the rasika, and the bigger our collective triumph.”

Thōdi who had been silently listening the whole time then remarked with a tone of contemplation and also a certain finality, “How arrogant and naïve have I been – I think we’ve arrived at an important lesson: rāgaānubhava lies at the core of our relationship with humans. And rāgānubhavas cannot be ranked!” The raktis slowly nodded in agreement and Chitta smiled approvingly.

A long, solemn silence followed. Today had been an important day in the history of Ragaland. For the first time, the raktis and the scales had engaged in an important and meaningful exchange, a largely mutually respectful Socratic dialogue at that – and thanks to Chitta, they were slowly but surely paving way for momentous social change.

Ragathil sirantha ragam ethu?... Sruthi shuddhamāgavum swara shuddhamāgavum, shuddha bhāvaththudan pādum ragame siranthathu – Kadalur Subramaniam.

-Sindhuja Bhakthavatsalam

Note: Some readers will recognize that this piece is (loosely) inspired from Edwin Abbott Abbott’s brilliant 1884 mathematical fiction, Flatland – A Romance of Many Dimensions. I submit that this is an earnest – albeit probably feeble – tribute to the masterpiece that is Flatland, and of course, to the theory and praxis of Carnatic music, an incredibly sophisticated and beautiful art form.


  1. This is an interesting and deep analysis that I enjoyed reading. Looking forward to more from you!

  2. Thanks for the article, Sindhuja. Quite informative and fun to read. Sruti should definitely publish this in their magazine.

  3. Enjoyed reading this... Makes so much sense. And as one who loved Flatland, the joy was doubled (or squared?!)

    On similar lines (but on a different plane!): which ragas are Male? And which are Female?
    This discussion heated up amongst my friends during the recent IPL / World T20 cricket season. We started assembling Men and Women cricket teams complete with batsmen, fast bowlers, spinners,...
    Probably a "story" of their cricket match will be interesting. I hope to write it one day!

    PS: have you read The Mouse Cricket Caper, where a cricket match between a team of poor mice (inhabitants of the Lords pavilion, no less!) and their aggressors, a team of street rats, is described? Please do, if you are a cricket fan.