By Anjum Altaf
I feel I should explain once again why we are proceeding slowly with this introduction. It is because we are not trying to learn to perform music. We are trying to learn to understand music. This is a difference that people are often impatient with but it is a fine difference. In music, it is possible to learn to perform without understanding the underlying theory. But, quite clearly, understanding becomes severely limited in the absence of knowledge of the basic principles. It is my belief that if we learn to walk right, we will be able to run much faster in the future.
This can seem abstract so let me illustrate with an example. A number of the readers of this series are more familiar with Carnatic music about which I know relatively little. In order to be able to continue the dialogue I looked for an introduction to Carnatic music and turned to Rajan Parriakar’s site which I consider among the best online resources for advanced students of North Indian music. There, for his readers, Parrikar has included an introductory series on Carnatic music. I will use that to explain the point that I am trying to make.
The series is written by a performer who can be considered a prodigy; she is described as one who, when barely three years old, was able to identify more than 200 Ràgas and the 175 Tàlas, besides answering numerous technical questions pertaining to Carnatic music. The series begins with a traditional Overview which states that “Carnatic music, like other important music systems of the world, has the basic elements of melody and rhythm” and concludes with the promise that “in the coming weeks, we shall go into the details of each aspect of Carnatic music.”
Let us now move to the first article in the series. Here is how it proceeds:
Any lover of Indian music would have definitely come across the word Raga. Needless to say, this concept is a very ancient one. But what exactly is it and how did it evolve? Before we go into it, we need to know some basic stuff. Let’s start with the skeleton of the Raga, which are the notes or swara-s, as they are called in Indian music.
Well, like most systems of music across the world, Carnatic music also has seven basic notes, the Sapta (seven) Swaras (notes) in an octave. They are Shadja (Sa), Rishabha (Ri), Gandhara (Ga), Madhyama (Ma), Panchama (Pa), Dhaivata (Dha) and Nishada (Ni). While Sa and Pa are the constant notes that remain fixed in any given pitch, the rest of the five notes have variable values of two each. That gives us a total of twelve notes or swarasthana-s in the octave (sthana literally means place or position). Isn’t it amazing that different civilizations across the globe have arrived at the same results through the centuries?
Anyway, here’s what makes Carnatic music different. Although there are twelve swarasthana-s, they are called by sixteen different names. This obviously means that there is some overlapping of the notes. This probably happened only to accommodate peculiar ragas like Nata or Varali which already existed before all these theories were propounded. So it was not with a view to be different that this idea was conceived, but only to properly classify these differences. Here’s a table of the sixteen notes with their Hindustani equivalents…
You can go ahead and look at the table but let me pause here. This approach is perfectly alright if you already know quite a bit about music but if you don’t you will just as quickly get lost. This will not serve as an adequate introduction at all.
Almost all introductory texts about Indian music follow this pattern and whenever I used to read them a set of questions arose in my mind: Why do most systems in the world have seven notes? What exactly is a note? What is the place of a note? What is the relationship between the seven notes? What do we mean by constant and variable notes? Why do the variable notes have only two values each? What is pitch? Why if there are twelve notes they are called by sixteen names in Carnatic music? If different civilizations across the globe have arrived at the same results through the centuries there must be some very fundamental relationship or truth underlying music. What is that relationship? And so on…
Now, in the Indian system if you are learning to perform you need not know any of this. When I despaired of the books I turned to the gurus and found myself sitting in front of a teacher who pressed a key on the harmonium and told me that was Sa; then the next which was Re. Then I learnt to imitate him as he went from Sa to Ni and back down again. After a few months I became quite adept at going back and forth between Sa and Ni and was ready to progress to learning Ragas which are particular combinations of the seven notes.
I could have become a performer but I would not have learnt what Sa is and why all civilizations have discovered the same seven notes. If I had looked up Swara in a glossary like the one on the Sangeet Research Academy site, it would have told me that a Swara is a note which would not have left me any wiser. This is something I would have had to take on faith as most of every generation has done in our oral tradition.
I would have been fine as a performer had I wanted to be one but as one trying to understand and appreciate technique or explain it I would have had a very shaky foundation to my edifice. A Raga made up of Swaras is like a structure made up of bricks. Imagine describing the intricacies of the structure without knowing much about the nature of the bricks, why there are seven types and how they fit together. Had I persisted, I would have ended up speaking a lot about things that were not at all clear in my mind.
Overcoming this limitation is the task I wish to address in this series. I know there are people who are interested in music but not excited by the thought of answering such questions. And there are many people who already possess this knowledge. For them sites like those of the Sangeet Research Academy and Rajan Parrikar would offer a much more rewarding experience. For the rest, which may be a small group, this series can try and provide some food for thought.