Measure for Measure?

By Rajiv Trivedi




In his essay1, Grierson narrates how a Chinese student's casual remark started a chain of thought resulting in Richard Nisbett's book, The Geography of Thought. The student had said that he considered the world to be a circle, while his western professor thought it was a line. Nisbett found that the Eastern mind considers the world not to be a length of rope but a 'vast closed chain, incomprehensibly complex and ever changing'.

I was reminded of an attempt at defining Raga. "Raga is a Sanskrit word that has umpteen shades of meaning – from love, affection, desire and infatuation to entertainment, pursuit, disposition, poetry and music."2 It does echo that eastern mind, which refuses to be confined within measurable bounds. There have been several attempts at categorization and classification of raga-s. Two modern accepted forms are thaat and ang. One classifies them by the structure of notes while the other by movement of notes. Yet, like all classifications, these in no way represent the potential of a given raga. Dr. Lalmani Misra had observed in an article3 that an artiste who follows the path of eternal truth does not create history whereas one charmed and fascinated by world of desire and allure is able to bring about changes. Indian music, it is believed, is the smoothest way to absolution. Yet, the element of divinity or spirituality comes at a stage realized by few; even Bharat restricts himself to the tangible, logical aspects of music in his Natyashastra.

The world is far open-minded these days even though the racial and religious differences across the globe seem to belie this. However, there is a limit even to freedom. Being conservative serves academia to a great extent -- it preserves a semblance of original discipline which if led by tearing experimentation would turn into chaos. The various Gharana-s, despite their flaws, helped in anchoring Indian music to its roots. Music is a sensibility that develops in almost all persons (Prof. Jagdish Chandra Bose would insist on including the plant kingdom as well), even though in varying degrees. Perhaps for this reason this is also the most abused of art-forms. Euphemistically speaking, one might attribute music with a huge range. Poets have eulogized music, artistes have painted it; from divinity to modern electronic media -- all have made it work for their ends. So much so, that very few people go to music for its own sake. Art for Art? Not in music!

Centuries back Bharat had realized the utilitarian aspect of music and signified how it was to be used in theatre4 and yet had revealed the universal, eternal principles which would allow music to retain its quintessence. Greatest of these is the law of consonance. There exists a natural consonance between shadja-pancham (3/2) and shadja-madhyam (4/3) as does in rishabh-dhaivat (3/2) and gandhar-nishad (3/2). For music to indeed be that, a note in the lower tetrachord should be in consonance with a note in upper tetrachord The assonance and even dissonance of notes is permissible at times5 but Prof. Lalit Kishor Singh gives credence to experience of the artiste who have observed that in direct opposition to shadja-pancham which appeals to every ear, the most unpleasing sound results from two notes at interval of a semi-tone (16/15). Helmholtz traces it to interference of waves or beats between two notes. A large number of beats (33 beats per second being the most unpleasant) does not please the ear. Answer to a natural question, why is that so, belongs not to science but to domain of art.

It is with this admixture of scientific fundaments and personal experience that an artistes forays into realm of music. Donald Sosin6 piqued by the use esoteric traditions make of Indian music posed a relevant query -- if different pitches affect the chakras differently, should not the sitar or tambura (be) always tuned to a specific frequency in order to have that effect? Although the law of consonance grants the freedom to an artiste to consider any note as shadja and base his composition accordingly, most sitarists, like Pandit Ravishankar tune their instruments in C#. But in the past when there was little use of meend work, sitars were generally tuned in C or even B. Iliyas Khan Saheb is known to tune his sitar in A. Ustad Vilayat Khan in early days tuned in C but later used C#. Nikhil Banerjee preferred to tune his sitar in D. In the sitar if the main string is tuned above D, neither the string would sustain the pressure nor would the artiste's finger; the range of meend would also come down. Surbahar artistes may sometimes use B, while Vicitra Veena is tuned in A and Jal-tarang in A#.

But as Prof. Singh has said this is just the starting point. The music that would emanate is born out of an artiste's experience and sensibilities. And still, that is half the picture. The experience nears perfection only when the listener's sensibilities respond to the artiste's and ras-nishaptti (congruence of aesthetic experience) occurs. That is the underlying principle of Ras-Siddhant, the ancient discipline of Indian aesthetics. A raga was classically treated as a human being. Raga alone is not music, the rendering of raga is music because it involves a dialogue between artiste and the raga. Just as a human being can feel the stare of another, the raga responds to feelings of the artiste. Familiarity might breed contempt elsewhere, in Indian music it only brings a raga into sharper focus. It is like moving up or down a circular staircase. You go to the next level or chakra and find that horizontally you have reached the starting point. Creativity is best exemplified in Pt. Mallikarjun Mansur. You always arrive on the same note but from a different direction. His singing is like a ride on a swing -- the motion is ever the same, but the view last time you reached the crest is different from what you see now.

References :

1 Bruce Grierson. The Age of U-Turns in TIME, April 16, 2007

2 Definition on page, RagRang

3 Contemporary Problems for Indian Music

4 ibid.

5 "Like consonance the assonance between two notes located at interval of a semi-tone too has been given consideration in Indian music system bound with scientific rules." Dhwani Aur Sangeet (Sound and Music). Prof Lalit Kishor Singh

6 Donald Sosin has been enthralling audiences in the US and Europe with his silent film music for over thirty years.

Classicim of Art in Postmodern era. An Article by Rajiv Trivedi in Bharatiya Shastriya Sangeet: Shikshan, Shastra Va Prayog.

Back to Articles