Ragas – what do they mean to you?

The plaintive notes of raga Sahana is playing in the background while I fold the freshly laundered clothes. The deep bass voice on the CD player has an astonishing depth and range.

Certainly not one that jumps at you with its tonal quality but like fine wine grows on you. The singer is M D Ramanathan and the song is Giripai Nelakonna, a composition of Tyagaraja. MDR’s voice like his music is unique –  a class apart.  Sahana is a popular raga with musicians and composers alike. I have mixed feelings when I listen to it. I run through a gamut of emotions ranging from joy, despair to compassion. The raga is meditative in nature and makes me contemplate a state of mind that’s far removed from the mundane. Calling it a vakra raga (owing to its zig zag nature) or a rakthi raga (because of its emotive appeal) or giving it labels like ‘intellectual’ are just technicalities.

The real question is what does Sahana do for you?  Does it make you stop whatever you’re doing and wonder why you haven’t listened to it before?

Ragas have to do with human feelings and gut level reactions. They should make you forget those bills that need to be paid, the pending doctor visits, the upcoming visit to the college principal or the last fight you had with your recalcitrant sister-in-law.

Different ragas evoke different emotions. Whether its the joie de vivre of Bilahari, the pathos of Subhapantuvarali, the quirky nature of Kathana kuthuhalam, the soporific effect of Neelambari or the grandeur of Thodi, a raga is a calling to the human soul. Not just the emotions, ragas also have a therapeutic effect on the human system. The flip side to this theory is when a musician performs poorly and the listener wishes he or she were elsewhere even while looking for the nearest exit!

Sometimes musicians are strongly identified with certain ragas as their rendition has raised the bar for listeners. The carnatic stalwart Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer’s name was synonymous with the raga Mohana, one of the oldest ragas in the history of music.

A raga becomes a melody only when the musician breathes life into it. Otherwise it is a mere collection of notes. People often ask me which raga is my favourite. I find that’s almost as hard as answering the question which is my favourite child. My daughters may have something to say to that but mercifully the question is not directed to them!

This article first appeared in the Deccan Herald. 

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