Hindustani Classical Music

A Brief Guide to Classical Music Appreciation

If you are new to Hindustani classical music, it may at first be difficult to put together a good collection of your favorite performances. You chance by one amazing piece, fall in love with it, search for more similar pieces and soon become disappointed because not everything you come across appeals to you just as much. Even if you have access to expert guidance, it may still be difficult to find pieces that really speak to you, because with something like music, people have different tastes. Building a collection of your favorite performances is something that takes a lot of time and patience. But then, every time you find a truly inspired piece of music, you know it's been worth it.

A Few Things to Remember

When a record company puts out CDs, it usually does some quality control, either choosing only the best quality live performances, or getting artists to record in a controlled environment. But if you are attending a live performance, you must remember that a raga performance, because it is almost wholly improvised on the spot, is very liable to be affected by all sorts of factors. Inspiration plays a big part in how good a live performance turns out to be, and inspiration, after all, cannot be made to order. An artist may or may not be in form; he may start off well but get tired toward the end; then again, he may start off dull but warm up and give an absolutely scintillating performance. Also, artists have their strengths and weaknesses. Some artists excel in heady, slow raga elaboration, others execute rapid note combinations with breathtaking beauty and precision. One just has to sit through the entire performance to see how it turns out.

The other thing to remember is that not all music in any genre is necessarily good music. In many cases, people who are too familiar with a certain genre of music cannot tell really good music from music that may be technically impressive but aesthetically inferior. Also, people often value music for the associations it conjures up for them - they may like a certain kind of music because it reminds them of their childhood, for instance. A lot of people allow their judgement of the music to be clouded by the reputation of the artist, which is really not a smart thing to do. Show me an artist whose performance is always of the same quality, and I will show you an artist who is mechanical and uninspired. Good music is music that can touch you, whether familiar or strange, whether by a reputed artist or a virtually unknown one. So, trust your instincts.

Of course, it is important to realize that you cannot begin to make a reliable judgment of any music before acclimatizing yourself to that genre of music first. Your brain forms certain standards for judging the quality of music based on the kind of music you grow up listening to. In other words, when you listen to music, you are listening for certain things that feature in the kind of music that you are most familiar with. This initially acts as an impediment, preventing you from being able to fully appreciate other genres of music. For instance, if you grew up listening to polyphonic music, you probably tend to listen for harmony and are immediately disappointed when you don't find it in monophonic music. On the other hand, if you are used to monophonic music, you may find polyphonic music disappointing because its melodies are not as complex or versatile, and there never seems to be much improvisation going on, and meanwhile, the harmony just passes you by because you are not listening for it. It always takes some effort to be able to suppress what you know about one genre of music enough to open yourself up to the appreciation of another. The key is initially to listen patiently several times even if you don't get it. Slowly, you begin to make sense of the patterns and structure, and that's when the beauty of a new genre of music is revealed to you.

Some Tips for Would-Be Rasikas

We use the word rasika to mean connoisseur, someone who is capable of appreciating the finer nuances of the music. If you're a new listener, you may want to start off listening to instrumental music. Instrumental performances are much easier to understand because instruments are less idiosyncratic than people. For a new listener, the personal mannerisms that vocal artists sometimes have may be distracting.

But once you've gained a basic understanding of the music, enough to tell good music from bad, you may find that vocal performances have greater emotional and expressive appeal. A good vocal performance is also more impressive than an instrumental one because the human vocal apparatus is much, much more difficult to tune, train and keep in shape than any instrument.

Another tip - younger artists may be easier to listen to at first because...well, because they have more pleasing voices. At first, when the music is still unfamiliar, it is natural for more superficial things like voice quality to have a greater effect on the listening experience. But as you become more familiar with the nature of the music itself, you will find that younger artists may have nice voices, but they lack the character, the confidence and the sheer creative versatility of more mature artists. Some of our best singers are in their fifties and sixties.

Structure of a Raga Performance

In more leisurely times (barely a few decades ago), raga performances were intimate events that would go on for hours on end. In many small towns, where performances are organized in informal settings and private homes, this is still true. Formal concert-hall performances, however, are much shorter these days, even full-length performances lasting only an hour or two.
Raga performances typically start out very slow and increase in tempo gradually until they reach a breathtakingly rapid climax. The structure of a performance varies from school to school and even from artist to artist. The audience, the occasion, time constraints and other factors also influence how a performance is structured and how much time is devoted to which part of the performance. However, there are some basic elements that are common to most full-length raga performances, and I will try to explain them.

The Introduction - Free Improvisation Without Rhythm or Lyrics
When presenting a raga, the first thing an artist does is to introduce it gently to the audience. But he is not just introducing the raga to his audience, he is also reacquainting himself with it, meditating upon its notes and the intervals between them, warming up to how the raga moves and flows. He starts with just a few of the lower notes, romancing them gently and showing them in their different facets, and gradually expands his reach to include all the notes in the octave.
This section is called aalaap (introduction) or vistaar (elaboration), and involves free improvisation, not bound by rhythmic structures or lyrics. The aalaap is considered to be one of the most challenging sections for an artist, as it is here that his musical skill and knowledge are put to the test. Think about it - when there are no distractions in the form of tabla, lyrics, or nimble note combinations, what are you left with? Just the notes and the intervals between them. The interval between two notes is not empty space. It is filled with musical potential waiting to be brought to life. The aalaap can be quite heady to listen to for those who are already familiar with the music and the raga in question, but it can be somewhat disorienting for those who aren't.

The very slow aalaap gradually transitions into something more playful and catchy. This is called jor, especially in an instrumental performance, where the instrumentalist will introduce a regular pulse against which the melody is structured. In a vocal performance, the pulse is implied by the tempo and the lilting combinations of notes. Often artists will use solfa syllables or nonsense syllables (called nomtom) for added texture and variety.
This section is very pleasant to listen to and also quite easy to understand for those who are new to a raga or to classical music, as it paints a very clear outline of the raga though leaving out some of its subtler aspects.

Introducing Rhythm and Lyrics
Midway through the performance, rhythm and lyrics are introduced. A bandish is a short raga composition involving lyrics and structured around a specific rhythm (taal). A gat is the instrumental equivalent of a bandish. Once a bandish or gat is introduced, the tabla comes in, and improvisation takes place within the framework of the composition and the rhythm.
Most performances feature at least two compositions, the first one in a slow-medium tempo, increasing in pace with time, and the second one set to much faster tempo. In some schools of Hindustani music, artists begin their performance with a very cursory introduction of the raga and launch straight into a slow composition. In such cases, the slow composition is quite elaborate and takes on the role that would otherwise be played by the free improvisation aalaap in terms of revealing the raga gently.
Having played with the slow composition and brought it to a climactic point in terms of melody and tempo, the artist will suddenly switch to a different composition in the same raga, usually set to a different rhythm and at a perceptibly higher tempo. This section of the performance can be very exciting. The rhythm reaches rapid tempos, and the artist gets to show off his ability to improvise spontaneously at dizzying speeds while interacting with the complicated rhythm structures. It can be fascinating to listen to if you understand the interaction between the melody and the rhythm, but even if you don't, it can still be exciting. Again, it takes a very skilled artist to do this section well.

Check out the videos below for a complete raga performance by Ustad Rashid Khan (vocal) and Ustad Shahid Parvez (sitar) in the late-evening scale Raag Bageshree. The performance begins with an aalaap (free improvisation with no rhythm) and slowly transitions to jor (lilting/rhythmic improvisation, though without tabla accompaniment). Then the tabla comes in at the start of the bandish/gat section. This section features improvisation structured first around the medium-tempo composition "balma mori tore sangva" in teentaal (16-beat rhythm cycle) and then around the fast composition "apne garaj se pakar leeni baiya mori" in ektaal (12-beat rhythm cycle). The performance ends with a tarana, which is a playful composition that uses nonsense syllables rather than real words for lyrics.

Ustad Rashid Khan (vocal) and Ustad Shahid Parvez (sitar), Raag Bageshree
Part 1: Alap (up to 16:45 or so) and Jor (from around 16:45)

Ustad Rashid Khan (vocal) and Ustad Shahid Parvez (sitar), Raag Bageshree
Part 2 (Bandish/gat): balma mori tore sangva (up to 11:45) and apne garaj se pakar leeni baiya mori (from 11:45)

Ustad Rashid Khan (vocal) and Ustad Shahid Parvez (sitar), Raag Bageshree
Part 3: Tarana

Samay - The Time Theory of Ragas

Every raga has a prescribed time or a season (samay) and is said to be most beautiful when performed or enjoyed at that samay. For instance, Yaman is an evening raga, Bhairav an early morning raga, Miya-ki-Malhar a monsoon raga and Bahar a spring raga. Tradition has a lot to do with why a raga is sung at a particular time and not at other times, but perhaps tradition was not created out of whole cloth. Most Hindustani classical artists decide on what raga they are going to sing just before they begin their performance. I once heard Pundit Jasraj say that this was because the air waves had their own music, that different notes predominated in the atmosphere at different times, and that the notes present in the air made the decision for him.

The "music in the air" may not be an idea we relate to in today's noise-filled world, but in simpler times, maybe the natural harmonic field in the atmosphere at any given time had a clear influence on the way different notes resonated. So, people sang certain ragas at certain times because it just felt right that way. There is nothing wrong in performing/enjoying a raga outside its prescribed samay, but maybe it just won't sound as good as it might.

For my part, for some reason or other, I find the monsoon raga Miya-Ki-Malhar breathtakingly beautiful during the Indian monsoon (or summer storms for those who do not have access to the Indian monsoon), but not so much at other times.

Hindustani Classical Music Resources

1. The Raga Guide
This is an excellent resource for beginners who are trying to get a feel for a variety of ragas. This 4-volume CD collection offers short samples (3 to 6 minute pieces) of 74 different ragas. The pieces are not real raga performances, they simply give the listener a taste of the raga. Each piece begins with slow introduction for the first minute or two, and moves on to something more lively during the second half.

2. MUSIC IN MOTION - The Automated Transcription for Indian Music (AUTRIM) Project by NCPA and UvA
Still lost because you cannot visualize exactly what is going on in a Hindustani music performance? Visit this site above for videos of performances in close to a hundred ragas showing real-time graphical representations of the pitches being sung, including microtones, inflections, and pitch modulations during ornamentation. The technology, at this point, only works well for slow to medium-paced sections of the music, but it is groundbreaking, nevertheless, and very useful in helping those new to Hindustani music gain an immediate understanding of its melodic contours.

3. The Rajan Parrikar Music Archive
This is a valuable resource of old and new music recordings, indexed by musical tradition, raga or artist, all available free of charge.

4. Patrick Moutal's Site - Hindustani Rag Sangeet Online
Another valuable resource of Hindustani classical music audios and videos painstakingly collected by Prof. Patrick Moutal over many years. Follow the links to find what you want if you are searching for a specific piece of music, or simply enjoy browsing. The raga radio programs (introductions given in French) are also very instructive. Again, everything is free.

5. Music India Online
An excellent portal of Indian music in all genres. Its collection of Hindustani vocal and instrumental music is also phenomenal for both the wide selection on offer and the quality of the audios. Once again, all the music here is free. (Sorry, I am unable to provide a link to this site for technical reasons, but it is easily searchable on Google.)