Wednesday, July 6, 2011


by Sam J Christopher

 Tabla, mirdangam, veena, sitar……… Sigh! Gone are those glory days when I used to drool over melodious keerthanai sung in sweet Indian classical style to the accompaniment of intricate Indian classical percussion - offerings worthy of presenting to the Almighty Himself!

As much as my heart goes thaka-thina-thom at the mention of those long-gone days, I tend to shy away from opportunities that come knocking once in a while. The shying away is not just because the three blind mice mistook my tabla for a chunk of cheese. You see, too often, I have found myself being asked to beat out a pathetic rhythm for either an ill-suited song or arrangement. And as if that wasn’t enough, more than once, I’ve been bushwhacked by a nefarious PA system that all but murdered my tabla. Alas, what can I say? The silly mice probably got more out of my tabla than I did in the last 8 years!

Lack of knowledge and interest in Indian classical music seems to have elbowed out the Indian classical music format (especially the tabla) from current music trends, including in today’s church worship format, in favour of the much louder and popular drums and guitars. The following little gems of information that I have begged, borrowed and stolen over the years, might (hopefully) help to put some of the “awe” back into the awesome Indian classical music. Not being a professional musician but just an enthusiastic hobbyist, I shall attempt to share this tongue-in-cheek, so, real pundits out there are welcome to correct and add on where necessary. So here goes my version:

In the beginning God created Indian classical music. The angels brought it down to the Indian subcontinent, where it eventually evolved into two forms – North Indian (Hindustani) and South Indian (Carnatic). Both have common musical foundations but the Northern form seems to be less constrained by rules, yet comes across sounding more complicated (sounds like the New Testament, no?). I’ll refrain from commenting further on this until I can figure out what the Northerners are up to.

South Indian Carnatic music is built on 4 foundational pillars –
sruthi (the fundamental note – like the ‘key’)
swaram (the musical notes - like ‘do-re-mi’)
raagam (pre-set musical scales – like ‘Cmajor’ chord)
thaalam (rhythmic patterns – like ¾ , 4/4 etc),

Those accustomed to western music will immediately notice, that the most obvious component is missing – the melody! Aha! This is where a paradigm shift (a big word that simply means “forget what you know and just think like I do”) is mandatory to understand and appreciate Indian classical music. More on this later.)

Sruthi- is the fundamental tonic or the key of the piece being sung or played, corresponding to sa (‘doh’). This note is droned throughout the presentation, sometimes with an accompanying fifth (dominant) - pa (‘soh’). This is usually strummed on a dedicated instrument like tambura by a bored-looking pretty young thing with restless fingers. Nowadays such nimble-fingered PYTs are quite scarce, so devices like sruthi peti, or electronic tambura, have hit the market. This acts as an anchor to help the singer keep his pitch from flying off at a tangent, especially in the more challenging improvisations during the presentation.

Swaram - the 7 basic music notes in Indian classical music - sa, ri, ga, ma, pa, tha, ni - all short forms of longer names (which I forget now), corresponding to the western do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti.

Raagam - pre-fixed scales unique to Indian classical music – not to be confused with “melody”. Each raagam has a string of specific ascending notes (arohanam), and descending notes (avarohanam) and is given a specific name. e.g.

Raagam Shankarabaram
arohanam: sa(C) ri(D) ga(E) ma1(F) pa(G) tha(A) ni(B) sa(C)
avarohanam: sa(C) ni(B) tha(A) pa(G) ma(F) ga(E) ri(D)  sa(C)

Raagam Mayamalagowla
arohanam: sa(C) ri(C#) ga(E) ma(F) pa(G) tha(Ab) ni(B) sa(C)
avarohanam: sa(C) ni(B) tha(Ab) pa(G) ma(F) ga(E) ri(C#) sa(C)

Various arrangements of these 7 notes (together with their sharps and flats) are pre-defined and classified into 72 main raaagams called melakartha. Strict rules define this main family of melakarthas – e.g. ALL seven notes must be included in the ascending and descending scales. I shall not bore you with the rest of the rules which often elude my memory. The closest equivalent of these raagams in Western music are found in the chords – major, minor, sevenths etc.
From each of these melakarthas, numerous modified scales (janya) have been created by various maestros where some notes are skipped, others repeated, or the sequence of the notes altered and so on. Each “new” variation brings out subtly different emotions or moods and is given unique names, either reflecting its parent melakartha, or the maestro who first came up with it, and added to the archive of raagams.
So the melody in a presentation is actually a composition based on some chosen janya.  The performer actually executes a musical equivalent of a cut-n-paste job on the notes in that janya, such as to become a song that portrays (to the initiated) the skill, experience and mood of the artiste.
By the way, one of the characteristics of Indian classical music is the bending of these individual notes at varying speeds as a form of emotional expression (a bit like exaggerated vibrato effect). So now you can understand why in an Indian classical concert, the violin has to be held between the chest and the foot while seated, whereas the western violin can be played jumping around on the stage!

Thaalam – rhythmic patterns designed to accompany the main instrument or vocal.
roopakam – 3 counts per bar
aathi - 4 counts per bar
eka - 5 counts per bar
chapu - 7 counts per bar
and many other thalams that I have difficulty counting.

The counting-off of the beats is slightly different from western music. For example the 4/4 in western music is counted as :
You must be going, “obviously, duh!” But watch closely how its equivalent – the aathi - is counted in Indian classical music:
Gotcha! It must start and end with the ONE count, or else you’ll be stared at as if you have a bit of lunch dribbling out of the corner of your mouth!

 So there you have the basics of Indian classical music (as I see it).
…………to be continued if I am not arrested for giving false information!

No comments: