By Anjum Altaf
I hope you have watched the video clip I linked in the last installment. If not, I will urge you to do so now because what you will be watching is a visual demonstration of Hindustani classical music. This video will enrich your understanding of classical music more than any number of words.
Let me explain. What you are watching is an incredibly skilled performer who can keep three balls in the air for an extended period all the while creating new and intricate patterns that are non-repetitive. This is an output that rests on an enormous amount of training and endless hours of regular practice. To appreciate the performance you have to keep your eyes open and focused on the patterns made by the balls. And the response that it evokes is less one of entertainment and more one of awe and amazement.
Now think of the analogy with classical music. Think of a performer rendering the raga Malkauns. In effect, he/she is working with not three but five balls (the swaras S g M d n). These swaras have to be kept in the air for an extended period and they have to create intricate and pleasing patterns that are non-repetitive. To appreciate the performance you can keep your eyes closed but your ears have to be open and focused on the aural patterns made by the swaras. The response that the performance evokes is less one of entertainment and more one of awe and amazement.
Needless to say, this kind of performance requires an enormous amount of training and endless hours of practice; more so, because classical music goes well beyond the boundaries of juggling. The juggler is performing with three similar white balls; the performer of raga Malkauns has five dissimilar swaras in the air (think of them as differently colored balls) each of which has a precise ‘musical distance’ from the others. On top of that, the musician is working with the additional challenge posed by an accompanying beat from the tabla. If the tabla is executing a repeating cycle of 16 beats (1 2 3 4, 5 6 7 8, 9 10 11 12, 13 14 15 16, 1 2 3 4, ….) then the skilled performer has to demonstrate that he/she can throw up particular balls (swaras) such that they arrive back in his hand on a particular beat (say 1 or 9 or 13) in the tabla cycle.
We are not done yet. The musician has also to emphasize certain swara patterns that communicate to the audience that he/she is rendering raga Malkauns without having to tell them so. These are the signature patterns of Malkauns (for example, gMgS or gMdn[S]) and every raga has its own DNA or signature pattern; it is called the pakaD of the raga – in effect this is how the discerning audience ‘catches’ the identity of the raga that is being performed.
These are just a few examples to illustrate both the characteristics of a musical performance and the amount of skill and practice that goes into mastering it. I refer to classical music as skill-based for this reason. One can usefully characterize subjects on the spectrum between practice and theory. Classical music is very light on theory – we took fewer than a dozen short installments to cover the physics of sound and the technical foundations of music but most performers do not even know or need this amount of theory to be good at what they do. This is why even formally illiterate individuals can become good performers by being in a house of musicians from childhood provided they practice, practice, and practice. At the other end of the spectrum is a subject such as quantum physics; one cannot learn it by osmosis from one’s parents or by extended practice – it is entirely theory-based. In the middle of the spectrum one can place a subject like medicine that requires both theory (which one obtains in medical school) and practice (which one acquires through residencies and internships).
I am belaboring this to drive home a number of points. First, that classical music is almost entirely skill-based and therefore anyone who is willing to put in the time and effort can learn it. Second, classical music is not intended to entertain; rather, it is an exhibition of extraordinary skill that challenges the limits of individual innovation and creativity. To work with five swaras for an hour and not be repetitive is not easy. When the audience is unable to imagine how the performer can come up with a new permutation of the swaras, and the performer manages to do so, it is at that point that a collective response of amazement comes forth from the audience. That collective response is a tribute to the skill of the artist.
[Try this as an experiment. Think of the name of the person you love most. Now say the name in as many different ways as you can. Keep an eye on a clock and let me know in a comment how long you were able to keep this ball in the air without repeating yourself. Record your effort to check if you remembered to observe the rules of music. Learning music can be agonizing – for example, when one pays attention to the sur, one forgets the taal; focusing on the taal makes one lose track of the sur. If you wish or need to serenade effectively and longer you would need to first practice the basics of classical music.]
If you go to a performance of classical music with the expectation of being entertained you will be disappointed and perplexed. If you go with the expectation of witnessing an exhibition of extraordinary skill, you will be amply rewarded. But to get the most out of it, you would have to know what the challenge consists of. One can go back to the analogy of sports: if you watch a game of chess between two grand masters without knowing the objective or the difference between a bishop and a knight, you will get precious little out of the exercise. At best, it would be an occasion to socialize or impress others which is what quite a few musical occasions have turned into these days.
I have made a strong claim that the essence of classical music is in the skill that inheres to it. Let me now support this with some evidence. Ustad Rashid Khan is amongst the leading classical vocalists in the Hindustani tradition today. Here is how he describes the nature of classical music once it left the religious domain and entered the secular one of the princely courts. “The older ustads, being essentially court singers, put the emphasis on polished technique, skillful execution of difficult passages and the power to astound with their musicianship. The Nawabs and Mahrajas and their courtiers who were their prime audience found these things more interesting and did not bother about emotional appeal. For the khayal to them was classical art song and emotional appeal was not an important requisite for this type of music.” The move away from an almost exclusively skill-based orientation is relatively recent following the demise of the princely states. “But after independence and especially in the second half of the 20th century, classical music, including khayal which, like the thumri, was the most popular vocal form, was patronised by audiences coming from the middle and upper-middle class segments of the society. The modern listener thus tended to find Mushtaq Hussain or even Nissar Hussain rather dry for their taste. As a result these singers were not as popular as certain contemporaries who infused emotions into the khayal.”
This skill-based orientation was reflected in the training of the musicians. Here is how Rashid Khan describes the training of Inayat Hussain, one of his ancestors: “Inayat Hussain was put under the charge of Bahadur Hussain from his childhood. According to his third son-in-law, the late Ustad Nissar Hussain Khan (1912-1993) who was Rashid Khan’s maternal grand-uncle and guru, Inayat Hussain was initially taught only paltas (ascending and descending permutations and combinations of notes) in the ragas Gour Sarang and Bhairav. This was apparently done to build his vocal prowess and grasp of the tonal compass for the scales of the two ragas together cover 10 notes of the 12-note chromatic scale. This went on for a very long time. When asked by interested ustads what kind of progress young Inayat was making, Bahadur Hussain used to say that the boy was very young and was not being taught any compositions or ragas proper, he was only practicing paltas to build up his voice. Once he developed sufficient control over the notes he would be taught ragas and songs proper and the means of elaborating these, he used to say.”
And here is an anecdote about Pandit Ram Sahai of the Benares tabla gharana: “The Benares tabla gharana was developed a little over 200 years ago by the legendary Pandit Ram Sahai (1780-1826). Ram Sahai began studying the tabla with his father from the age of five. At the age of nine, he moved to Lucknow to become the disciple of Modhu Khan of the Lucknow gharana. When Ram Sahai was seventeen years old, Wazir Ali Khan, the new Nawab, asked Modhu Khan if Ram Sahai could perform a recital for him. Modhu Khan agreed, on the condition that Ram Sahai would not be interrupted until he finished playing. It is said that Ram Sahai played for seven consecutive nights. After this incredible performance, Ram Sahai was praised by all the members of the community and was showered with gifts.”
It should be obvious that it would not be entertainment but a challenge of skills that would keep an audience engrossed for seven consecutive nights and result in praise and gifts for the artist. This is something essential to keep in mind: one doesn’t make an attempt on Mount Everest for entertainment; it is an aspiration to scale a peak, to demonstrate the limits of human endurance and a mastery of the necessary skills.
What Everest is for the mountaineer, a raga is for a musician – scaling a peak. If you appreciate that fact you would begin to appreciate classical music because your expectations of what it signifies and entails would have altered radically.