Bull's Eye - THE AESTHETIC IMAGING OF A RAGA
In work study, there is a maxim: "Never mistake activity for achievement." Yet this is precisely what seems to be happening in Carnatic music today. Vocal acrobatics and practised pyrotechnics pass for virtuosity and singing synthetic raga-s seem to be the 'in' thing. Any musician may be said to have two aims when he performs: to do justice to the ego and to do justice to the aesthetics. Almost all succeed in the first, a few attempt the second and fewer still succeed! Doing justice to the music is, in my view, a peculiarly Indian concept. Western music has progressed from notes to chords and phrases to compositions, but Indian music has gone beyond compositions to raga-s—a conceptual leap which, in my view, is comparable to the progress in science from the theory of gravitation to the theory of relativity. In Indian music, in Carnatic music too, 'doing justice to the music' always means doing justice to the raga and this is the predominant, meta-criterion for judging the quality of any performance. The raga is the soul of classical music.
A dictionary once defined an elephant as a "quadruped pachyderm with its snout prolonged into a prehensile proboscis." We are not sure whether this definition ever helped anyone to recognise an elephant when he actually saw one, but it should certainly be a warning to people who attempt to define rigorously aesthetic concepts like the raga. The ancient writer who wrote Ranjayati ithi raga—that which pleases is raga—cleverly avoided all controversy though he did indicate one essential quality of the raga. On the other hand, if one attempts a mathematically precise and objective definition, one may end up with something like: "an infinite set of non-random combinations of frequencies appearing in a prescribed, perceivable order." This, however, strongly resembles the dictionary definition of an elephant and we, therefore, discard it in a hurry! Theoretically, a raga is an infinite set of eligible combinations of certain swara-s.
But it is a set which has a personality or 'swarupa'. How does one comprehend an infinite personality? Whether in religion, mathematics or music, this can be done only by a person gifted with an unusual capacity for imagery and intuition. The closest analogy is a gifted, Sherlock Holmes-like psychologist proceeding to visualise the personality of, and deriving an endless series of breathtaking conclusions about, a person whom he has never seen, based purely on certain basic data given to him about that person. The reproduction of carefully rehearsed phrases is totally opposed to the spirit of Carnatic music. The most remarkable thing about a raga is that once its personality and identity are established, even a very short phrase or sometimes even a single note would sound as if it belongs typically to that raga. This is a ready and reliable test to determine whether a musical delineation has done justice to a raga. After establishing the identity of Todi, even if one sings only the aadhara sadja, we will find that the mood of Todi lingers. Lalgudi Jayaraman once said that when a musician sings or plays a raga wonderfully, even the silent gaps between phrases will carry the mood of the raga and appear to be an inherent, essential part of the raga.
In fact, all controversy about the styles and techniques of singing of some of our musicians, like excessive use of briga-s or producing unusual tonal effects on instruments, etc., would become peripheral if only we examine whether the musician successfully preserves the individuality of the raga all along. When the musician has a total conception of the raga, any sangati he introduces spontaneously will always fit in with the personality of the raga. When an artiste produces a sangati in order merely to exhibit his cleverness or one-up-manship, he will be concentrating on the first aim of a musician referred to earlier, that is, doing justice to his ego. But if he is spontaneously and intuitively led to a new sangati by the mood of the raga, he will be achieving the second aim, that is, doing justice to the aesthetics of the raga, arid the impact on the listeners will be so great that the first aim would be automatically achieved. This is somewhat similar to the aims of a manager: to do his job well and to please his boss. The two are related, yet distinct, values. The first subsumes the second but not vice versa. A chord can be easily produced in a veena and may fit in beautifully in Kadanakuthuhalam. In the case of Todi or Bhairavi, it will sound like a crude commercial advertisement interrupting a good programme on the tv.
This, in fact, is the crux of the issue. When an artiste does justice to the raga, he will be automatically doing justice to himself vis-a-vis the listeners. That is why artistes like Bismillah Khan or Ravi Shankar are able to dwell on and extract so much musical content from single notes and short phrases. This is the reason why a GNB was able to find new aspects even in a synthetic raga like Kadanakuthuhalam. This is real . 'depth' (though the word is often used nowadays to cover up lack of melody in some aging musicians).
It is well known that raga-s evoke certain moods in listeners. But this is a quality inherent in a well-sung raga and does not need any histrionic or acrobatic support from the singer. It is certainly not necessary for a musician to wail while singing Mukhari, nor .is sorrow the only mood Mukhari can evoke. For example, the famous song Chidambara darisanama by Gopalakrishna Bharathi in Mukhari depicts a mood of anger. Similarly, Athana could evoke a mood of devotion as in Sivan's Nee irangayenil, as well as one of anger as in Tyagaraja's Ilalo pranatharti harudu. Using the traditional rules as a mere compass, the musical navigator has to explore sangita ratnakara, the boundless ocean of melody, on his own intuition and capacity for tonal imagery and reveal to the audience as much of the infinite swarupa or image of the raga as he can, without trying to deceive them with faked effects which show only his own cleverness and not a true aspect of the raga. It is then that he will produce "notes that breathe and phrases that burn".