Monthly Archives: April 2016

RaagTime Episode 8 – One Melody, Different Styles

How does the same melody or raga sound in different styles of Indian music? The 8th episode of RaagTime explores this around the popular Carnatic raga Shankarabharanam. Raga Shankarabharanam is a Melakartha raga with all the seven notes. The same melody is known as raag Bilawal in the Hindustani school of music.  

M.S.Subbalakshmi sings a composition in the raga Shankarabhanam in the Carnatic style.

Listening to Pandit Ravi Shankar playing raag Bilawal on the sitar in the Hindustani style indicates how the same notes sound when it is presented in a different style.

The national anthem of India Jana Gana Mana written by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore is based on this melody. In this episode, the anthem is being sung by various musicians of India.

English Note was a quirky composition by 19th century Carnatic composer Muthiah Bhagavathar which created a sensation when it was initially presented on stage. The musician who breathed life into this unusual musical composition was Madurai Mani Iyer.

Speaking of the English language,  the song Doe a Deer from the movie Sound of Music comes to mind. The song by Julie Andrews is based on raga Shankarabharanam and corresponds to C major in western classical music.

Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti – S R2 G3 M1 P D2 N3

Click here to listen to Episode 8 of RaagTime.

RaagTime Episode 9 – Movie Songs Part II

The episode begins with a rollicking Bollywood song Dhoom Machale from the Hindi movie Dhoom.

The movie song tour of RaagTime continues from Maharashtra. The city of Mumbai in this state produces the most number of movies in the world. Nearly 300 kms from Mumbai is a small town called Pandharpur where the chanting of the word Vittala is heard. Vittala or Vittoba is the presiding deity of the temple in the town.  The song Mauli Mauli from the Marathi movie Lai Bhaari recreates the fervour of the devotees in this temple town.

With the sounds of Vittala ringing in our ears we move along the west coast towards Gujarat. The song Garvi re Gujarat from the Gujarati movie Thakor Ni Lohi Bhini speaks of the locals’ pride in their land.

Rajasthan, the land of deserts and palaces and culinary delights such as dhaal-bhaati-churma draws millions of tourists every year. The song Jai Jai Rajasthan from the Rajasthani movie Thari Mhari celebrates the beauty of this state.

It’s time to pick up those dancing shoes for the bhangra beats as the song  Gaati Gutti from the Punjabi movie Dildariyaan plays.

Food ranks high up there on any traveller’s list. A mad dash across the country towards the eastern side for a taste of rosogullas, a Bengali sweet rich in sugar and cottage cheese has one listening to the song Prithibi Hariye Gelo from the classic Bengali movie Guru Dakshina.

On the eastern coast lies the state of Orissa or Odisha with its beautiful lakes and forests. The natural beauty of the land creates a romantic ambience much like the song Golapi Golapi from the movie of the same name.

Click here to listen to RaagTime Episode 9 – Movie Songs of India Part II


Abhangs – Music of the Bhakthi saints

You will reap wholesome fruits if you sow a pure seed. He, who speaks sweet honeyed words, puts his body to good work and has a mind as pure as Ganga, relieves you of your sorrows and agony on casting a look at him. source:Tukaram’s abhangs translated to English

Vittala Vittala! The words reverberate in the air. There is a huge procession of  pilgrims chanting these words. They are playing the dholak and singing in Marathi as they head towards the Vittala temple at Pandaripur. The devotional songs of these pilgrims are called Abhangs.

Abhang means that which is endless. Abhangs are Marathi compositions of  saints which speak of their  intense devotion towards Lord Vittala. The songs throw light on the social issues of the times. Jnaneshwar, Namdev, Tukaram and Eknath were some of the pioneers of the abhang form.

Here is a popular abhang of Eknath sung by Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. In this abhang, the composer draws an analogy between a new bride and himself. The composer feels most at ease in Pandaripur which he regards as his home and the Lord as his parent just like a woman feels most comfortable in her parental home even after getting married. The word maher in Marathi refers to the maternal home.

Soyarabai was a mystic who belonged to the Mahar community. Her abhangs which are few in number, reflect her anguish at the injustices meted out to her in society and convey her intense piety towards the Lord. Here is an abhang of Soyarabai rendered by Kishori Amonkar.


Vachanas – Music of the Bhakthi Saints


Speech should be like a string of pearls
Speech should be like the  flash of a ruby
Speech should be like a bar of crystal
Speech  should make the ‘linga’ say yes yes
If you don’t act within the bounds of your words
how will you win Koodalasangamadeva’s love –  source:Vachanas of Basavanna

Anyone familiar with the work of Andal or Akka Mahadevi wouldn’t know whether to laugh or cry over the present controversy about women in temples. Akka Mahadevi was considered a pioneer of the Kannada literature movement. She broke several barriers to pursue her path of spirituality. Being a woman did not deter her from participating in debates with other scholars. Her poems though relatively fewer are deeply philosophical and highlight the beauty of nature and living beings. Here is the singer M.D.Pallavi singing a popular vachana of Akka Mahadevi.

Vachana means that which is spoken. Vachanas are devotional octets in Kannada composed by Shaivite saints expressing their devotion to Lord Shiva. The simplicity of the vachana lyrics made them accessible for the common man.

Basava or Basavanna was a Kannada poet and social reformer born to a Brahmin family in the 12th century. He refused to wear the sacred thread  and encouraged people belonging to all castes to wear the ishtalinga necklace with an image of Lord Shiva to reaffirm their devotion. Here is Pandit Venkatesh Kumar singing the vachanas of Basavanna at a special concert.


Graying matters

There is only one cure for gray hair. It was invented by a Frenchman. It is called the guillotine.”  P.G.Wodehouse

The first few strands hardly created a ripple. Then came the next wave. It caught my friend’s attention as she kept giving me discreet glances during our customary walk. “You still have time – you don’t need to do anything now!” she said. I stared at her perplexed. What was she talking about? What on earth was I supposed to do or not do?

When my hair started graying my friends in the club started hounding me. At every party, they would discuss my apathy to camouflaging the gray strands.” My friend’s explanation caught me by surprise. I’d heard of peer pressure in schools, even colleges but this was certainly a first. Middle-aged women needing to color their hair in order to belong! My friend succumbed to the call of her sorority sisters. But when her husband too joined the fray by dyeing his hair jet black (a knee jerk reaction from male drumming circles) I threw my hands up in despair. What was happening to everybody around me?

Once the idea was planted in my head, I found myself paying more attention to everyone’s crowning glory. “Is there something on my hair?” my neighbor asked me belligerently when she noticed my eyes remain glued above her forehead. How could I tell her the real reason? I was having a hard time reconciling with her new black mane.

Unfortunately the disease had spread to my own family. My aunt whom I had always admired for her three-tiered look had become a brunette. Now I knew what a midlife crisis was. But the final straw was when I met my cousin after nearly a decade. When the fifty year old preened over her cascading black hair, I was impressed. “What brand do you use for colouring?” I blurted out. When she indignantly broke into a long-winded monologue about good genes and how hair dyes had never figured in her life, I seethed with jealousy.

I had to get away but little did I suspect that my usual refuge, the beauty parlour, would also offer no solace. “Madam, why are you not doing something?” the beautician would wail and moan dispiritedly, her sense of aesthetics greatly offended. Instead of plucking my eyebrows, she was busy clucking over the hair on my head. The sight of my gray strands brought her to the verge of tears.

“Why don’t you just take the plunge? What’s stopping you?” my friends asked. “What if I get a skin rash?” I retorted. “And if I start, there would be no end to it. I’ve got enough on my plate.” I thought I had put the whole thing behind me till I got an early birthday gift. The sender’s name was missing. My heart pounding with excitement I tore open the brightly coloured package. When I saw the bottle of hair dye I burst out laughing!

This article first appeared in the Sunday Herald.

Varanasi and the holy spirit

Hordes of people sit patiently on the steps in front of a makeshift stage. They seem unfazed by the chilly weather on a December evening. Men garbed in dhotis, sherwanis and turbans are already on the stage gearing for a performance. Suddenly the sound of cymbals fills the air, and the men on stage start swaying to the music. With lighted lamps in their hands, they gracefully perform the arathi. The stunning show of sound and light goes on for nearly an hour. At repeated intervals, the sound of the drums reaches frenzied heights. My family and I are on a boat along with a group of friends watching the scene unfold on the Dashashwamedh ghat. The sound of cameras clicking in the background is a mild intrusion. The city of Benares — known for its spirituality, saris and paan — has begun to weave a spell on me.

When we drove through the city earlier in the day, I was startled by the picture of incongruity. SUVs and jeeps rubbed shoulders with two-wheelers and cows on the road causing traffic pile up at several junctures. The mall with its flagship stores of international brands stood out like a sore thumb in a neighbourood of dusty ramshackle buildings. The sylvan surroundings of the Banaras Hindu University gave me a sense of a wormhole. Tree-lined avenues, endless rows of playgrounds and distant buildings greeted me at every turn. The Birla Mandir, a white sandstone building stood tall, like a sentinel guarding the campus.

At the crack of dawn on the second day of our trip, we head towards the famed Kashi Viswanath Temple.

Our guide who whisks us as soon as we step into a bustling thoroughfare near the temple is on a roll. ‘As today is Monday, its very crowded here, come quickly!’ he mumbles as he deftly steers us through narrow lanes. I walk through a labyrinth of small streets jam-packed with stores. Chants of “hara hara mahadev” echo in the air. Any semblance of a single line queue becomes distorted as we get closer to the sanctum sanctorum. The Kashi Vishwanath Temple built by Maharani Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore is believed to house the first manifestation of Lord Shiva in the lingam. I barely catch a glimpse of the lingam on the ground, when I am jostled by a burly man chanting feverishly under his breath. The devotees are unmindful of the slippery ground or the lack of breathing space.

“I’m ready for some lavanga latha!” my husband says. When I give him a bewildered look, he explains in detail about that special Benarasi sweet. After that surrealistic visit to the temple, I’m having a hard time making that transition back to the real world.

A quick stop at Pahalvan’s eatery outside the BHU campus reveals a hole in the wall, nothing fancy. Tossing aside all concerns of hygiene and willing my stomach to behave, I dig into the kachoris, the jalebis in hot milk and the frothy lassi. It’s a gastronomic delight. When I look back at the campus behind me and the dusty roads ahead of me, I realise the city has multiple facets.

The town and the village trying to meet halfway on one of Hinduism’s hallowed grounds, even as visitors come here seeking answers to the mysteries of life. My sticky fingers holding the jalebis keep me grounded though.

That’s when I remember this is Benares, the city that makes one think beyond the mundane. Even as it offers a feast for all the senses.

This article first appeared in the Hindu Metro Plus.

One padam Two sisters

If I wasn’t paying close attention, I would have missed it. The nuances are subtle and the music is striking sans the frills. I am listening to Carnatic vocalists Brinda and Mukta singing the padam Ososi in raga Mukhari. The opening notes of the song are in the higher octave and the tonal quality is resonant. One voice is hoarse yet it blends beautifully with the melodious timbre of the other voice. The pace in which the song is presented is unhurried. Every note sounds like a caress. The attributes of raga Mukhari comes through when every phrase has a refreshing take and varies from the earlier ones. I am reminded of my own music lessons from my first teacher N.S.Chandrashekhar of Mumbai. He was a student of the Kanchipuram Naina Pillai school along with Brinda and Mukta and a perfectionist. I sense the same perfection when I hear the padam now being sung. With clarity and passion, the sisters demonstrate their mastery of this genre of music – the padam.

A padam is a musical composition that is romantic, even erotic in nature. The words of the padam is like a banter between lovers. Whether it’s the hurt or pathos from a lover’s departure or jealousy over infidelity (imagined or real) the lyrics invoke a gamut of emotions from the listeners. From a classical musician’s point of view, learning and singing a padam becomes an important part of the training. It imparts a better understanding of the rhythm and the melody.

This padam in Mukhari continues to be one of my top three favourites of the genre. Every note is touched upon with a reverence and the gamaka allures and overwhelms the senses often rendering one bereft of words. As Victor Hugo says, “music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent” and this padam rendition does precisely that.