The Raga Guide: A Survey of 74 Hindustani Ragas
Produced by Nimbus Records with the Rotterdam Conservatory of Music
Joep Bor, Editor
Suvarnalata Rao, Wim van der Meer, Jane Harvey, Co-Authors
The phonograph arrived in India along with the twentieth century, and until the 1950s many of India's greatest musicians documented their artistry on 78 rpm discs, in performances averaging three minutes or less. Many of these records have been remastered onto cassette, lp and CD compilations; giants of Hindustani tradition like Abdul Karim Khan, Faiyaaz Khan, Kesarbai Kerkar and Mogubai Kurdikar can still be heard today — their voices emerging, still powerful, from a murky haze of surface noise and tape hiss. Other musicians of earlier days are not so fortunate. Their recordings are gradually turning into dust in the back corners of Bombay antique shops; dedicated antiquarians may paw through the boxes, griming their fingers with molecules of music sixty or seventy years old, but most listeners will never hear those forgotten voices.
It's a pity, too, for a salient feature of those old recordings is the extraordinary way the artists captured the essence of the raga in an impossibly short time. Commentator after commentator remarks on the iconic power of records from the 20s and 30s — how Abdul Karim Khan's high tenor expresses every nuance of raga bhairavi in a perfectly balanced reduction of what in concert might have lasted ten or twenty times as long. These records profoundly influenced twentieth-century performance practice; musicians all over the subcontinent learned repertoire and conception from the discs, internalizing, too, a more concise approach to presentation. Narayanrao Vyas, for example, recorded a 3-minute version of the khyal "Sakhi Mori Rum Jhum" in the raga Durga, and in so doing made the song a permanent fixture in every singer's repertoire.
With the advent of recording media which encompassed longer stretches of time, the expansive genius of Hindustani tradition could finally be captured. LP records, cassettes and finally compact discs allowed documentation of full-length, hour-plus performances. While these recordings preserve traditional modes of presentation with great accuracy, there is increasing concern that the indefinable essences of the traditional ragas are vitiated by overexpansive and self-indulgent performances — critics and musicologists have wished for years that mature and competent performers would attempt new "crystallizations" of the available repertoire, offering short, readily digestible renditions of raag-material. Occasionally short items appear as "filler" at the end of lengthy performances on CD or lp; Ustad Amjad Ali Khan released an attractive selection of four to five-minute renditions (collectively titled "Guldasta") some two decades back, but he stands alone in this regard. In short, there's nothing available that's simultaneously brief, beautiful and recent.
As Hindustani music increasingly reaches American ears, another need is felt: for a straightforward reference work which allows those interested in the music to identify and distinguish the various ragas in current repertoire. The currently available references include Walter Kaufman's "The Ragas of North India" (irritatingly in and out of print, and in any case far too large for convenient use by a "lay" listener), Alain Danielou's book of (almost) the same name, which is beautifully put together and relatively easy to obtain — but all too often utterly, dismally wrong, and B.S. Subbha Rao's 4-volume "Raganidhi" (an excellent resource but unavailable in the West) and Patrick Moutal's "Comparative Study of Selected Hindustani Ragas," both of which have English texts but musical notation in the Devanagari alphabet, ruling out their use by "newbies." George Ruckert's fine compilation of the repertoire of Ali Akbar Khan is beautifully produced with ample examples, but it is first and foremost a resource book for those already studying the music; moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, the Batish Institute's "Ragopedia" reduces the complex melodic terrain of Hindustani ragas to simple ascending and descending scales given in staff notation. In short, there's nothing available that's simultaneously concise, comprehensive, accessible and accurate.
Until now. Nimbus Records, in collaboration with a team of musicians and musicologists from the Rotterdam Conservatory of Music (under the direction of Joep Bor), has come out with The Raga Guide, a handsomely produced book and 4 CD set which gives short, cohesive descriptions of 74 Hindustani ragas, musical examples (in a well-executed mix of Indian solfege syllables and staff notation) — and short, cohesive performances of the material by four highly-respected performers, instrumentalists Buddhadev DasGupta (sarod ) and Hariprasad Chaurasia (bansuri ) and khyal vocalists Shruti Sadolikar-Katkar and Vidyadhar Vyas.
It's a hell of an impressive package. I received my copy two months ago, and I've been circling it warily for quite a while, trying to figure out how to structure an effective review. The first question that I needed to answer was one of species: is The Raga Guide a 4-CD set with an accompanying book, or a reference book with 4 accompanying CDs? I think it's the latter.
The performances on the four discs are sequenced in English alphabetical order, following the raga listings in the book. This means the music isn't arranged in any programmatically significant way (for example, following the familiar time-of-day sequence, starting with morning raags and finishing with late night or dawn material). This ordering wasn't particularly coordinated with the process by which the material was divided between the artists: the vicissitudes of alphabetical order may give us five or six performances in a row by the same musician, or sudden jumps from flute to sarod to voice and back again. In other words, despite the generally high quality of the recorded performances, the discs themselves aren't particularly easy or satisfying to the listening ear.
Having said that, I'll reiterate: the recordings weren't designed or intended to that end. Rather, they serve as illustrative material for the reference book, and in that respect they are admirable and useful.
The bulk of the slim volume is taken up with raga descriptions. Each raga is allotted a two-page spread, with the exception of Raga Bhairavi, which gets three. Several short paragraphs give historical background and theoretical information about the raga, including occasional discussions of variant melodic structures and relationships with similar ragas. The authors gained this theoretical information both from the pedagogy of the late musicologist Dilip Chandra Vedi and from extensive consultation of other reference sources. The raga's ascending and descending sequences are given in staff notation (C is the nominal tonic throughout), with superscript sargam notation in the Roman alphabet. On the facing page is a detailed transcription of each performance's initial alap movement, in the same syncretic notation. All the renditions move into gats or bandishes (melodies or songs in particular rhythmic frameworks) with tabla accompaniment, but transcriptions of these are not provided (with the exception of one performance, Shruti Sadolikar-Katkar's Raga Alhaiya Bilawal, which is transcribed in full in the expository chapters which open the book). Song texts are provided in Devanagari script with English translations of varying quality. No transliterations are given; readers who can't follow Devanagari won't be able to recognize actual words as they are sung.
I am compelled to raise a point here. The texts of khyal repertoire exhibit remarkable fluidity over the geographic and historical spread of Hindustani music. It is extremely common for a single opening phrase (or mukhda) to have following lines in which words, melody or both may vary extensively. Sometimes words or phrases in the mukhda itself may change from one branch of oral tradition to another — and in other cases, entire song texts in one raga are shifted to other ragas (as in Sadolikar-Katkar's khyal in raga Dhani, the Punjabi text of which is also a song in the related raga Bhimpalasi). Similarly, instrumental compositions may be restructured melodically or rhythmically by different performers, retaining only the merest vestige of their original identities. This parallels the variation between different versions of particular ragas, and is an example of the difficulty involved in assigning "definitive" status to particular aspects of Hindustani repertoire. People have been trying this for centuries, but the music stubbornly continues to evolve: raga definitions given by Bhatkhande, Paluskar and Patwardhan no longer correspond exactly with contemporary practice, and because of the mutability intrinsic to oral transmission, song texts, too, have undergone considerable transformation. The Raga Guide may be forgiven for failing to discuss this issue — but it is thereby twisted in a Heisenbergian conundrum: any reference work is inherently an attempt to assign definitive status, "freezing" the subject matter at a particular point in time...and since Hindustani music is a still-evolving artform, the Guide's definitions may not all hold up when applied to the ragas and performance forms of future generations.
This is, however, a philosophical point: the Guide's present-day relevance is indisputable. Whether the ragas will match contemporary practice in the next century is anyone's guess. The individual performances by DasGupta, Vyas, Chaurasia and Sadolikar-Katkar are fine items, but in a glutted market, it is unlikely that any of these short recordings will set a standard against which future artists are judged. Whether the pieces' brevity will inspire a new genre of truncated raag-renditions is another question; I do hope, however, that in this age of television-attenuated attention spans, concert performances won't get any shorter than they already are .
These short items have another potential use; if Nimbus is nimble, they'll reissue the material separately, sequenced idiomatically (perhaps by performance time) rather than alphabetically. Radio stations in the West have generally eschewed Hindustani recordings precisely because of their length; this set offers enormous possibilities for creative broadcast programming.
The introductory chapters are very short, occupying about ten pages. Clearly written and supplemented with diagrams, musical notation and a complete performance transcription, they offer a concise introduction to the various elements of contemporary Hindustani performance practice — one of the best such introductions I've read anywhere. The back of the book provides extensive footnotes, a good bibliography and glossary, and an attractive bonus in beautifully reproduced color plates of ragamala miniature paintings. Originally conceived as visual analogues to the emotional valences of various ragas, these paintings represent an artform that flourished in past centuries and is effectively extinct today; they may be irrelevant, but they are beautiful.
The Raga Guide is a musicological reference work designed for that near-mythological creature, the "educated layperson." Professional Hindustani performers don't use reference books, relying instead on traditionally formed musical memory to resolve nomenclatural or taxonomical problems. Ethnomusicologists will add it to their shelves, but continue to refer to Kaufman, Subbha Rao, Bhatkhande et al. for definitive information. Music students will find the material given here useful, with the caveat that specific items may not correspond exactly with their training; certainly it is risible to expect anyone to learn a raga performance from the Guide. Hindustani cognoscenti will find much valuable information, but will be reluctant to admit any prior ignorance (hubris is endemic among afficionadi, and the fear of embarrassment very strong). Casual listeners in the West are often drawn by the music's "surface"; many don't care about theoretical niceties. The ragamala paintings, astonishingly, clarify the intention of the work: The Raga Guide is a gift. The Rotterdam team has offered us a labor of love, packaged beautifully and thoughtfully. All of us will want to own The Raga Guide — while its practical utility may be elusive, there is no denying the scholarship and dedication it embodies, and no gainsaying the beauty of the final product. As I said, a gift. - Warren Senders
See also: Anthology of World Music: North Indian Classical Music
Warren Senders is a musician and writer.