Notation: Where has It Led Us – Gundecha Bandhu

Our Raga system is based on the principle that any pitch can be tonic, or SA ( or Shadaja) . All other musical pitches derive their position and musical effect in relation to this fundamental pitch. Also, if like to imagine the Indian scale as a family , each pitch has a specific relationship with all other pitches of the scale, just as members of a family have specific relationships to each other. From this it is apparent that the basis for all intervallic relations within the scale is the SA.

If we choose to alter the position of the Sa within the scale, all the other intervals change accordingly. The character of the raga also changes. Therefore, if we choose to change the position of the Sa in any Raga, then each pitch in the scale of that Raga would also change. Sometimes these changes can be so minute that they are difficult to perceive.

Many Indian musicians and scholars believe that it is not only difficult but impossible to notate Indian pitches and Ragas properly, especially using the musical notation commonly used today. On the other hand many musicians feel that we have to notate our music, even we lack a suitable system of notation. So we notate our music somehow. However it is time we asked ourselves if notating our ragas is contrary to the nature of this ancient music.

By carrying on with inexact notation of our musical pitches, have we been able to preserve the soul of our Ragas ? The present authors believe that the needless compulsion to notate pitches has negatively effected to the basic nature of our Raga music.

Perhaps because we are no longer aware of the melodic intervals in our ragas, we have tended to identifying our Ragas by “catchphrases” reducing them to the simple Tunes. We have started relying on fixed melodic models rather than using the traditional approach – that of identifying the relative positions of the notes in the raga –scale to create new music.

For those who believe that the SA is fixed , and that the multitude of frequencies within the octave must be reduced to only twelve semitones , it is almost inconceivable that the phrases SA Re Ga could be sung in many ways to create the mood of various Ragas, such as Bhoopali, Jaijaivanti, Yeman, Chayanat and Shuddha Kalyan. The secret to creating a particular Raga from this phrase lies in placing each pitch in the appropriate position for each Raga. But this has become inconceivable for many of us today.

It is because we have become unable to identify our Ragas by fixing (by hearing) the position and intervals of the pitches within each Raga , that we have begun to create and rely on “catchphrases” for various Ragas. We have thus abandoned the subtle distinguishing features of each Raga and have conversely become fixated on the gross differences between Ragas.

For example, we have established the phrase Ni Sa Dha Ni Re as the catchphrase for Raga Jaijaivanti, and we believe that no performance of this Raga could be complete without that phrase. We have been taught to believe that Jaijaivanti should be identified by this phrase and have altogether forgotten that the true nature of Jaijaivanti revealed in the slow glide (Meend) from Gandhar to the Rishabh finally resting on the later note. Indeed we are no longer taught to pay attention to this subtle glide as the distinguishing feature of Jaijaivanti.

In this way the subtleties of the entire Raga system have been disappearing. And it is happening because of our misinterpretation of Ragas In our obsession with catchphrases, reproducible even on the harmonium.

For example , the phrase Pa Ni Sa Ga when sung correctly , can communicate the precise mood of Raga Bihag. But this essential Bihag phrase is also present in other Ragas, and must be intoned differently in each Raga. However , when this phrase is played on the harmonium, it always sounds the same, because the harmonium is only able to produce twelve equal semitones in the octave. So then , if we are using the harmonium , how do we distinguish raga Bihag from other Ragas containing this phrase? We adopt another phrase as the “catch phrase” for Raga Bihag. It becomes necessary to use this new phrase , Pa Ma (Sharp) Ga Ma Ga ,although it is not essential for Raga Bihag, it is not present in other Ragas, also can be notate easily.

Thus the phrase-based approach to Ragas corrupted the essence of our Ragas. We have abandoned the Swarbhed system , which is emphasizes listening rather than writing, and have started identifying each Raga by a few fixed phrases. We are compelled to do this because we are no longer sufficiently trained to hear the subtle differences of pitches in various Ragas, and because we have needlessly put our faith in notation. The whole trouble began with our coming to regard the SA as immutable, in accordance with western practice, and then reducing the scale to only twelve pitches.

Ten years ago, our Ustad Z.M. Dagar related to us a story about the Dhrupad maestros Allabande Khan and Zakir-ud-din Khan ; this story relates to the subject we are talking about. The incident occurred around 1920. The two brothers were giving a recital of Raga Kedar at a conference , and while singing the true form of this ancient Raga , they purposely avoided singing the catch phrase associated with this Raga. The famous musicologist Pandit V.N. Bhatkhande was seated in the audience. Even after listening to the brothers’ lengthy Alap , Pandit Bhatkhande ji was still unable to identify the Raga, and eventually asked the Ustads for the name of the Raga. Only then the Ustad sang the common Kedar catch phrase “Ma (Sharp) Pa Dha pa Ma ” . At once the entire audience exclaimed : ” Oh, so this is Raga Kedar ! “.

Pandit Bhatkhande established schools which taught the general public the catch phrases in many common Ragas. For this task , some notation was necessary . The traditional Guru Shishya mode of one – to- one teaching was not possible in these schools where large classes were the norm. And students can be trained to grasp the minute variations of pitches and intervals in each raga only through one-to-one teaching and learning.

In the Dhrupad tradition of Hindustani music , much attention is given to the exact position of each pitch, and there is no obsession with catch phrases. The Guru demonstrates to the each student the subtle position of each note in the Raga , makes no attempt to notate the pitches. This is not because he is indifferent towards preservation and propagation of his music, it is because practiceners of Dhrupad understand the true nature of the Ragas, and refuse to ruin their music through superficial rendering of the Ragas.

Pandit Bhatkhande chose to preserve and teach our Rags through notation. Even though it is not possible to capture the essence of the Ragas in notation , he was driven to use notation because he wanted to make our classical available to the general public. In our opinion this has resulted perpetuating in the minds of musicians and listeners fixed forms of ragas which are often far removed from their original conception.

Perhaps Pandit Bhatkhande ji never considered these issues , or perhaps his thinking was faulty. The use of catch phrases in Raga identification can be exemplified by a layman’s trying to understand Raga Malkouns through hearing a film song in that Raga. Many years ago , Shri Naushad composed a film song ” Man Tarpat hari darsan ” based on raga Malkouns. Bhatkhande ji used this same superficial approach to our Raga system when he assigned the catchphrase ” Ga Ma Ga Sa” or some others to Raga Malkouns.

Translated by NANCY LESH

(Ms. Nancy Lesh ,from Madison WI, is a student of Ustad Z. M. Dagar and Ustad Z.F. Dagar. She performs Dhrupad style on Cello.)

Published in Sangeet Natak Volume XXXVI Number 1, 2001