In India, the temples were the main centers for learning and performing the traditional art-forms. Later, with a generous support from Muslim rulers; these arts, specially music and dance came to be associated with royal courts. Since the 20th century, music and dance has received patronage from public at large. Concert halls, outdoor performances, the radio, LP, CD and cassette recordings, have all contributed to a much wider diffusion of classical music. This has had far-reaching consequences on the life of music and musicians in India.
Hindustani music is essentially structured around soloist. The set-up of a typical concert is described as baithak (from baithna meaning “to sit”) or as mehfil, suggesting a small intimate gathering.
The ensemble includes one main artist, either vocalist or instrumentalist and the accompanists (their number varies depending on the type of concert- vocal / instrumental). For vocal music, there are either one or two tanpura players, a sarangi player (nowadays often replaced by harmonium) and a percussionist (either tabla or pakhavaj), whereas, an instrumentalist receives support from percussionist and a tanpura player (nowadays many instrumentalists prefer to replace this with electronic tanpura). The soloist occupies central position on the stage and has the main responsibility of music-making. Tanpura players provide the tonic, which gives a constant reference tone. They occupy positions behind the main artist on either side and often, they may be disciples of the soloist. The percussionist and the sarangi (or harmonium) player sit on either sides of the soloist; usually, percussion on the right and the melody instrument on the left. Some vocalists prefer to play one of the tanpura-s or strum svaramandal, an open stringed zither for occasional melodic reinforcement. The sarangi (or harmonium) follows the vocalist and is only occasionally allowed to play solo phrases. The percussionist is expected to keep the tal (rhythmic) cycle going in specified tempo (lay). Occasionally, the soloist might let him improvise while he himself or the melody instrument keeps the time. In appropriate measure, such interludes can be aesthetically satisfying.
Sometimes there can be two soloists; both vocalists, both instrumentalists or one vocalist and instrumentalist each, who alternate with each other in a balanced manner. This can be an ad hoc duet (jugalbandi), or a family trend (e.g. as in Dagar family). In case of a solo percussion recital, the melody instrument assumes the role of time-keeping while the percussionist becomes the principal artist.
The ideal setting for a recital is a select and small gathering of appreciative listeners who sit like the artist on the floor. Besides providing acoustic intimacy, the close proximity helps to establish communication with the audience. Nevertheless, today, classical music concerts are also held for large audiences in modern auditoria furnished with chairs and modern amplification systems, perhaps compromising on the quality of the artist-audience interaction. There is a two-way communication between the artist and the audience involving verbal interjections and / or non-verbal expressions such as facial or hand gestures. A knowledgeable audience knows how and when to appreciate while the performer is expected to have the sensitivity to respond to the audience-reaction.
A performer of classical music (shastriy sangit, i.e. music based on scientifically and systematically formulated norms) presents one or more rag-s (depending on the duration of the concert). In the near past, the whole-night concerts and long presentations of a given rag, were very common. However, the contemporary concert duration has reduced to about two and half hours.
Elements of Rag Performance
Improvisation (upaj) with the elements of a rag within its structural framework plays the major role in a performance. Improvisation however does not mean assembling individual notes in random order; rather it entails combining notes to create aesthetically meaningful phrases and motifs leading up to an atmosphere appropriate to the rag (ragbhav). Depending on whether or not improvisation is bound or linked to a composition (bandish), there are two major categories of rag improvisation: anibaddh (unbound) and nibaddh (bound). In case of the latter, music proceeds with the rhythmic cycle (tal).
The main elements in a rag delineation are: alap (the free form introduction), bandish (composition), layakari (temporal variations) rhythmic improvisation) and tan (fast melodic runs). The details of these aspects, their order in performance, the types that are used and the emphasis placed on each of these elements depend upon the genre (dhrupad, khayal etc.) , style (ang), school (gharana) and the selected modality (vocal, instrumental music etc.).
Literally alap means discourse, exposé, and indeed it is in this section that clearly delineated phrases can reveal the individuality and flavour of the rag. It is rendered at the beginning in a very slow (vilambit) and / or medium (madhy) pace, with or without the drum accompaniment. The first section known as vilambit alap (because of the slow tempo) allows total freedom for the performer to portray minute details of the rag in a leisurely manner. The exposition starts around the tonic (Sa), moves slowly into the low octave and then gradually works its way up to the high octave; before returning to base note again. Thus the rag is delineated in the three main octaves. Every tenet of the rag concerning intonation, duration and combination of notes etc. is observed to the last detail during this part of the alap. Regardless of the school and style of the performer, it brings forth the essence of rag, and can undoubtedly be regarded as the finest medium for expressing all the salient features of a rag.
When alap is performed to the accompaniment of a drum, as in the genre of khayal, it is also known as badhat (from badhna meaning to grow) or vistar. Here the exposition is woven with the tal cycle and the mukhda (from mukh meaning face, the refrain) of the bandish (precomposed composition) is used to conclude each statement. On the other hand when it is performed without the drum accompaniment, as the case is in dhrupad, instrumental music and Agra gharana khayal tradition, a phrase akin to mukhda is introduced to complete each musical statement. This is also known as mohra. Although not bound by a rhythmic cycle, the exposition is not exactly a-rhythmical. The phrases flow in a definite pace, albeit without a measurable pulse.
In vocal music it is common to sing alap with the vowel sound ‘a’. However, when it is rendered using words (bol) of the composition (accompanied with the tal), it is known as bol alap. In dhrupad, abstract syllables such as ta, na, nom, tom etc. are used to enunciate alap phrases and the section is often referred as nom-tom alap.
The above movement; devoid of a clear pulse, gradually transforms into movements having a definite rhythmic pulse, albeit without the tal cycle. This is known as jod alap or jod (lit. joint). The phrases proceed in double the vilambit tempo, resulting in lilting movements.
The concluding section of alap that follows fast jod is jhala, which is even faster and more vigorous. It involves alternation between two notes enunciated using abstract syllables. A single utterance of a note (may be the tonic) with one syllable is followed by the recurrence of 1,2 or 3 syllables on another note; resulting in combinations of twos, threes and fours, e.g. patterns like ta na, ta na na or ta na na na can be created with different notes like NS, DSS or PSSS etc. Such varied combinations give rise to rhythmic patterns (chhand) that ultimately build up to a super fast tempo. In some instrumental styles jhala also features as the concluding item of a concert.
Bandish (chiz/gat) is a composition in which rag, tal and sahity (text, except in instrumental music), have been aesthetically combined. Bandish is the seed from which a rag performance evolves. It represents the central idea or the edifice upon which a rag performance is sculpted and realised. A good composition reveals the distinctive features of rag and helps portray its personality in an unambiguous manner. Although a bandish may be relatively short (ranging from 2-16 cycles), due to its inherent completeness it plays a vital role, both in portrayal of the rag and in the structure of the performance. Rag-s are known to musicians primarily through compositions.
As a structural element, the bandish is the kernel to which the musician returns after every section of improvisation. The textual content of compositions covers a wide range of themes, from religious and philosophical matters to love, nature and music itself. Compositions are in diverse languages and regional dialects: Hindi, Brajbhasha, Avadhi, Bhojpuri, Marwadi, Punjabi, Farsi, Sanskrit, Hindi and so, thus encompassing pan-Indian expressions and ethos.
A composer (vaggeykar, rachanakar, nayak) as creator of both lyrics and melodic or rhythmic content is a much revered figure in the Indian tradition. Mostly the composer is anonymous but there are works in which the composer’s pen-name (mudra) is mentioned.
A composition should have at least two parts, sthayi and antara. The sthayi portrays the rag’s main properties in the middle and low octave, and the antara shows how to approach the high octave. Some compositions, especially dhrupad, may have a third and fourth part (sanchari and abhog), which melodically resemble sthayi and antara, but give scope to include longer texts.
Although precomposed, good compositions hold enough potential for melodic improvisation and interpretation by the performer. It is no wonder therefore that the present-day performers find pride in drawing upon the traditional compositions to lend credibility to their art.
Layakari (laya + kari meaning to work on tempo) is the introduction of temporal / rhythmic variations with reference to the assumed tempo. This may consists of playing the composition at various tempi such as ad (one and half times the original tempo), dogun (two times), tigun (three times), or using off beat (khala) melodic phrasing. In some vocal genres, spacing the words in different ways over the rhythmic cycle is a form of layakari known as bolbant (dividing the words).
A rapid melodic run is known tan. In ancient and medieval theory, the term tan designates a melodic phrase in general, but in contemporary practice it exclusively refers to fast and often long series of notes of equal/unequal duration, usually at a tempo that is two, four, eight or sixteen times higher than that of the accompanying tal cycle. The tan phrases are not composed randomly; there is a logic in its development, which aims at creating a meaningful melodic structure within the bounds of rag.
Two main varieties of tan-s as mentioned in theory are: shuddh (pure) and kut (complex / puzzling). The contemporary performance displays a great variety, both in melodic and rhythmic structure as well as in technique. The most common melodic varieties are sapat (the straight moving) tan and vakr (zigzag) tan. The notes may be grouped in varying numbers, thereby creating interesting rhythmic patterns (katav). could be is underlined by a syllable/word (bol) of the composition (bol tan). Furthermore, different techniques of sound production may be applied to tan, of which the gamak (shaking) tan is a common example. Presentation of tan-s of great variety with clear enunciation of individual notes requires a sound training, skill and creativity. Nowadays a general craze for speed in tan and also excessive indulgence in tan-s is noticed; which has done much harm to the variety of tan-s with respect to form and technique.
For an in-depth analysis of role of each of the above elements in dhrupad and khayal performance, see (van der Meer [Hindustani music in the 20th century] 1980)