Variation of forms and traditions

Variation of forms and traditions in Indian classical music –  with example of raga Tilak Kamod

By Kirit Dave’


I wrote this article in response to a query from a person who was frustrated with raga Tilak Kamod. He was confused about how he thought that the opinions about rules of raga varied. He believed that the differences arose from varied traditions of the gharanas. The rules appeared to him rather subjective. He expected classical music to be a bit more unyielding.

Note: I will use a single quote ’ to represent mandra saptak (lower octave) and double quote ” to represent taar saptak (upper octave). I will also use Capital letter for shuddha svara (natural notes) and small letters for komal svara (flat notes).

Indian classical music is an art that is being passed down from generations to generations, akin to our religious traditions. If someone asked an Indian what is the Hindu religion, it may be hard to say what it really is. You cannot point to one scripture like Christians can with Bible, or Muslims with Koran. But that is the strength of Hinduism, not its weakness. It allows for meaningful interpretation, and therefore has sustained over thousands of years. When something is flexible but is also firmly founded (yes they both can exist together) then that survives for a longer time. Our musical traditions are like that.

Ragas for the most part are well defined, but there are exceptions. But those exceptions are not rule-less randomness. Also not all ragas have exceptions. Everything is not either day or night in our music; there are evenings and dawns also.

Ragas have definite rules and the rules are necessary to give identity and characteristic sentiment to the raga.  Rules also help create foundation of aesthetics. To the extent possible, they help create sentiments and color the mind accordingly. But all these things also give rise to various opinions especially when the raga structure is complex, for examples ragas Bilas Khani Todi and Tilak Kamod. Time of performance, classifications in the thaats (major classes of the ragas), aaroha (upward movement of the notes) avaroha (downward movement of the notes), vaadi, samvaadi are sources of differences in opinions in some ragas. We should not necessarily attribute these differences to gharanas alone, and thereby make those differences purely subjective. Within one gharana also artists differ in opinion. Artists’ opinion arises out of certain needs they discover, upon the rendering of the composition. This is a little like the study of law. We have Codified laws and Case laws that govern us. Case law emerges upon the interpretation of the law rendered by the courts in previous cases. In order to preserve consistency (which is essential to the fairness of the application of the law) judges follow the Case law. The Case law is not a random opinion of some judge. Rather it is a meaningful interpretation of the Codified law, surrounding certain circumstances and societal evolution. There is a good reason why that judge made certain ruling based on the Codified law. But then it becomes a Case Law and carries a lot of weight in the court for interpreting future cases. In music also, grammar of music exists like coded law, but rendering or creation of some specific composition caused an artist to develop alternate opinion to the existing and prevalent notion of the raga. But opinion is not for the sake of “opinion” alone.  Nor is it simply to demonstrate ones so called “individuality”.

Alternate interpretations are there for valid reasons. And that is why they are there not in all ragas but in certain complex ragas. You need to study the grammar of the music to see the reasons. In Hindi you may have heard people say, “yeh raga tedha hai .. ” (“This raga is convoluted”). They are in fact talking about such complex raga. It is ignorance to criticize interpretations without examining the origins of those interpretations. You can not have a meaningful opinion on things you have not studied. You can have an opinion on the flavor of ice cream you like. This is understood to be a personal opinion of choice, requiring no justification of reasoning. Differences of opinion in our music, is not like that.

Opinions differ quite often because artists are trying to maintain the purity of the raga. “Purity of the raga” means preserving a raga from the effect of some other raga. If you are careless in your execution of a composition, you may end up transitioning into another raga and the listener will be disturbed. The sentiment may be destroyed. For example, rendition of raga Bilas Khani Todi requires careful workmanship to save it from the effects of raga Bhairavi, and raga Komal Re-Asawari. In order to maintain the purity, artists find it necessary in some compositions to have alternate opinions.

Vaadi (most important note) and Samvaadi (second most important note) are also the sources of differences of opinions. Vaadi and Samvaadi may change for different compositions of the same raga depending on they the composition is rendered. So the rules are not always fixed but that they are made flexible in order to serve the purpose of the raga theory. This is similar to the Case Law which may appear to differ from the Coded law to a party, but in fact it is simply an application of the Code law. Actually the flexibility that Case Law offers, allows the longevity to the Coded law. Since the society and its values evolve and change, the Case Law is necessary to give longevity to the Coded Law, or else we would be re-writing the law books all the time. Similarly, occasional differences with the traditional grammar of the ragas is necessary, to preserve the purpose of the raga theory.

Lord Krishna came to teach Dharma and elucidated it in Bhagavat Giita. But try explaining it to someone who may not know about Krishna or His philosophy. Krishna destroyed not one, but all top Kaurav leaders namely, Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Jaydrath and Duryodhan, apparently going against the laws of war at that time. To protect the very Dharma that He had come to re establish, and for which He created the entire Mahabharat, He appears to have gone against the laws of the war at the time. The real life is not sealed in rigid rules. If we do so, we will violate the very purpose of the rule.

One day I asked to Shujat Khan (son of great Ustad Vilayat Khan sahib) about raga Bilas Khani Todi. I said to him that in Bilaskhani Todi I have heard a prominent singer sing Pancham (Pa) right after Dhaivat [Dha] in the descent. He became very upset. He said that can not be, and it is wrong no matter who does it. I played one rendering of the Avaroha of Vina Sahasrabuddhe, which was like this:

Avaroha: re” ni dha Pa, Pa dha ni dha Ma ga re, ga Ma ga re, re ga re Sa.

Traditionally and commonly accepted practice is to sing:
re” ni dha ma, Pa dha ni dha Ma ga re, ga Ma ga re, re ga re Sa.

This would have satisfied Shujaat Khan. He was upset. He said this goes all against what he had learned all his life and his forefathers would not approve it. Frankly, I agree with Shujaat Khan. However, even more disturbing fact to me personally, is that it sounds more beautiful the way Vina Sahasrabuddhe did! That rendition seems to maintain unresolved pressure for a longer time (because Ma is held off longer) and so when it does resolve, it gives a greater relief. I am assuming that this is done very sparingly by Vina Sahasrabuddhe. As a matter of fact, I have heard no one do that or play that way except her. So to save one raga from the other or as in this case to put just a little “spice” in it, artists do uncommon things occasionally.

Tilak Kamod is also a complex raga that requires some thought process to preserve it from raga Desh and raga Khamaj. It is a prominent raga of Khamaj thaat and so Komal Nishad (ni)  is important in its descent. But often it is removed altogether in order to save it from Desh. Additionally to save it from raga Desh and Khamaj, the note structure requires certain sequence of rendering. That sequence is: Sa Re Ga Sa Ni’. This sequence should be prominently used throughout the composition. Regardless of gharana, artist, vocalist or an instrumentalist all MUST employ Sa Re Ga Sa Ni’ as the prominent note combination. There must also be the prominent use of reverse meend (an ornament that is a continuous sliding from one note to the other) from Sa” to Pa. You will hear that in the pakad (defining pattern of the raga) of the raga also. One can look for these items as identifying marker in the compositions based on this raga. Towards the end of this article I will write more about this raga.

In an interview, my most revered musician and in my opinion the greatest singer of the 19th century, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan sahab said: and these are his words “… aaroha avaroaha mane hai sidha aana, or sidha jana” (“ascent and descent means to go straight up and straight down”). Late Ustad Ali  Akbar Khan sahab also personally told me the same thing about aaroha and avaroha at his house in California. So if you adopt that definition, raga definition becomes a little more fixed in general. And then in the Pakad phrase, you can deal with the sequential nature of the patterns. Then in the actual composition, you can render proper vaadi,  samvaadi, alpattva (notes that are sung very sparingly) bahuttva (notes that are sung frequently), nyaas (notes on which you can stop or rest) etc. These small things are not at all insignificant. For example, improper use of nyaas can literally destroy the composition and entire raga sentiment. In some ragas the note structures are so similar that it is hard to explain the differences in the theory. But you may find that the nyaas is very different in them and, that changes everything. These subtle things also cause differences of opinion among the artists (practicing scholars) let alone the purely theoretical scholars. You can see why our music requires a strong guru-disciple’s traditional relationship and personalized intense teaching. For this reason, it takes many years of training and commitment to master the art. Gharanas have developed in order to preserve and pass the classical art on from family to family, so that the compositions can be properly learned and then rendered correctly, and accurately.

Briefly speaking the picture of Tilak Kamod is:

Pa’ Ni’ Sa Re Ga, Sa Re Pa Ma Ga, Sa Re Ga Sa Ni’.
Re Ma Pa Dha, Ma Pa Sa” Pa, Dha Ma Ga, Sa Re Ga Sa Ni’.

Notice the prominence of Sa Re Ga Sa Ni’ combination and the Sa” Pa meend above.

Tilak Kamod is karun (pathos) raga. It creates sadness and a type of longing arising from sadness. Desh although very similar to Tilak Kamod in note structure, portrays the sentiments of beauty, light nature and a bit of romance. All three ragas (Tilak Kamod, Desh and Khamaj) are well suited for folk music and thumari style of performance.

Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahab said in the same interview that I referred to earlier, “jo kuchh bhi banaya gaya hai, voh bahot soch samaz ke banaya gaya hai”. He said, “whatever has been designed has all been done with careful and rational thought process”. This means that the rendering of the composition should follow the rules that are prescribed. In the interview he was explaining how people go off and make variations of raga based on some other raga, but these so called variations are so terrible that they lack the fundamentals of making any meaningful music. In his words “… in rago ki niv itani kharab hai ki jaise puri imarat dab jayegi ” (“The foundation of these ragas is so bad that the whole building will collapse in its own weight”). He gave an example of raga Megh Ranjani that some one had composed. Khan Sahab pointed out that in this raga two successive notes are missing. This is a very serious violation of fundamentals and cannot be supported from any angle of aesthetics. Yet other time someone asked him why folk music seems to adopt raga Sarang a lot. He said .. it does not matter .. what is important is that in the end what will survive in time and will be acceptable to people is the truth. What he meant by “truth” of course are the compositions that are designed and executed properly with proper rules.

Bade Khan Sahab, born on April 2, 1902 (died 1967) was not only a supreme musician but a seer of music and was not a dogmatic person. He understood musical traditions in proper light. He did not support false following of traditions that were wrong. He said that God has given us intellect and if we respect our elders we should correct their mistakes and not follow them. To say this took a lot of guts in a highly conservative musical societies of that time where traditions are revered like God. Today, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahab’s legend lives all around the world. His singing styles are being studied at research institutions internationally notably in Canada, USA, and Holland. My eyes become wet every time I write or think about this incredible legend of our time.

But once again the point I am making is that, one need not be frustrated by various opinions about the ragas. There are valid reasons for those opinions. You must understand them in the backdrop of aesthetics, grammar of music, in the traditions of gharanas, and in an effort to save the raga from other raga. When in doubt, study the compositions and see how those opinions are implemented by different musicians. I used to be confused on these matters and I used to ask many musicians personally but ultimately you do have to use your mind and ears to see how those opinions are used in real compositions. Then you may see the reasons for those variations in opinions. Bade Khan Sahab was more conservative than Pandit Bhimsen Joshi; partly perhaps because he was much older than Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. Yet Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahab was very intelligent man who knew the pulse of musical traditions. Bhimsen Joshi (recently died 2011) among the modern musicians also has crossed traditional bounds across gharanas to still produce a very authentic music that shows unique style within Kirana Gharana. He developed his music by learning from various gharanas. Many may not admit, but are going cross-gharana traditions. You can tell if you listen to their gayaki-ang (limbs of singing style). Listen to Ajoy Chakravartti, who is one of my favorite singers and a man who presents excellent Patiala gharana style today. If you listen to his taans (rapid successions of notes) carefully, you will also see Agra style lurking behind Patiala, his main style, especially in laykari (playing with complex tempos while maintaining strict rhythmic movements). So rules are fluid, but for good reasons. This is true not only about the ragas but also about the styles of singing.

About raga Tilak Kamod:

This raga is well suited for folk music, thumaris and bhajans. It can also be a full scale serious raga. Many scholars use all natural notes in it, but some (including Khurshid Anwar Sahab) suggest Komal nishad (ni) in order to legitimize its classification under Khamaj thaat. Nonetheless Komal-nishad is only sparingly employed.

The Ni is a nyaas note. Meend from Sa” to Pa is necessary along with Sa Re Ga Sa Ni’ combination. These rules keep Tilak Kamod safe from  Desh and Khamaj. Pa is also an important nyaas note and can be used as nyaas in the ascent and descent both.

This raga is dominant in the Purvanga (first tetra chord i.e. Sa Re Ga Ma). Large majority of composition in this raga follow Sa as Vaadi (most important note) and Pa as Samvaadi (second most important note) notes. Very few follow Re as Vaadi note because Re Vaadi brings the danger of raga Desh in this raga. Ga Vaadi would bring the shadow of Khamaj. And because this raga is predominant in Purvanga, the only sensible thing to do is to use Sa as the Vaadi note.

In this raga some scholars only allow Ni while others allow both Ni and ni. Some allow the use of Ga in aaroha while others do not. Decisions should not be absolute but based on the structures of the sthayi and antara parts of the composition. This raga’s allocated time of performance is late evening or early night.

Although its name is Tilak Kamod, it has nothing to do with raga Kamod and raga Kamod has no influence on it. Some mistakenly point out the Re-Pa movement in both ragas as an element of similarity. But that is not correct. The Re-Pa movements are very different in Kamod and Tilak Kamod.