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Ragascape II – Swaras, Ragas, Rasas

The Path of Indian Music: this second of four Ragascape articles focuses on the central themes of Indian music including tonality, melodic formation and their relation to the character and feeling content of ragas.

Rajasthani RagamalaSwara, the Sanskrit word for tonal center, forms the fundamental basis for the Indian path of music. Although it is difficult to be precise about the etymological meaning, there are references elucidating  ‘swara’ as a tone which can shine or resonate by itself. Perhaps this means that a swara can stand by itself as opposed to a shruti, or audible element, which can ornament another note but cannot stand alone because it would not be considered tuneful. In any case, swara suggests tunefulness, and moreover, a tunefulness that arises from within. There is of course technique, however, technique alone will not suffice.  There must initially be observation and analytical presence, but ultimately there must be an inherent presence to reveal the swara in its fullness as a tonal center with an ever-expanding periphery. When fully matured, the swara shines by itself without any pillar in the same way that natural awareness or a brilliant seed syllable radiates spontaneously without any support or control.  In fact the more one just ‘lets the swara be’ the more luminous it becomes.

The main point here is that swara has a presence of its own and the experience of its  resonance must allow for the swara to reveal itself, totally open and without force.  The manifestation of swara brings along with it a natural calming of internal movement and a corresponding tuning of our own instrument as body, energy and mind. Without this fundamental relaxation of internal movement and a wider opening to the surrounding space, swara remains as a lifeless corpse.

Along with the comfort that the process of internal loosening allows for, a tunefulness arises whereby  the swara effortlessly begins to  pervade one’s entire being and the space around oneself. As one is no longer trying to improve, modify, control, or in any way alter one’s natural tunefulness, the swara takes on a life of its own and resonates without  any limit to its clarity and power.

Tunefulness never arises simply on the basis of technique  Underlying the technique there must be an internal ease which is neither too concentrated nor diffused. If it is too concentrated the swara tends to become too hard and if it is diffused, the swara loses its dynamic quality. This necessary understanding of swara is the reason why months and years are devoted to cultivating tunefulness through posture, breath control, and concentration.

Krishna RagasTo insure that tunefulness is genuine it is sometimes useful to ritualize the introduction to the nature of swara. Traditionally, a student offered a gold coin to the master, and in return the master would sing or play one note, after which the student would imitate whatever the master sang or played.  Through this ritual process of exchange the master would directly introduce the disciple to the  swaras. One may question whether this ritual is important or not. The ritual does more than just introduce the swaras to the student.  It opens the door to the whole lineage of transmission, so that one’s tunefulness no longer remains something that one has just invented but is connected to the power of the tunefulness of previous musical masters, and especially to one’s own teacher.

When awakened tunefulness arises, the whole environment is transformed into a vibratory field characterized by the qualities of a particular tonal center. As the vibration continues, the periphery expands until the sound becomes inseparable from space. When the vibration stops, the boundary between struck and unstruck sound dissolves and there is a seamless unification of one’s awareness and and disappearance of the vibration. Somehow there is a sound to this silence.

Comprehension of the ground of tunefulness brings insight into the characteristic tonal meanings of the various swaras.  In Indian music there are seven shuddha swaras or ‘natural’ tonal centers:  Shadja, Rishab, Gandhar, Madyam, Pancham, Dhaivat, and Nishad. As the second, third, fourth, sixth, and seventh have altered possibilities, we generally say that there are twelve swaras in all. When all the scatterings of mind are gathered in, absorbed and relaxed, the fundamental swara Shadja reveals itself as total balance, equilibrium, and equality. Shadja is the ground and fundamental basis for all the other notes and the perfect mirror in which all the other swaras are reflected.  Without this tonal mirror in fact, the qualities of the other notes will not be reflected. All the other swaras, when produced in front of this mirror, reveal the clarity and qualities of the respective swara.  It is not the case that we hear Sa and Gandhar, for example, as some chord, but rather that Sa, the mirror, begins to resonate as Gandhar. No other swara has this capacity.

This relation between Shadja and the other tonal centers is metaphorically significant to our own  experience.  As long as awareness is naturally balanced and we are vibrating with our own ‘SA’, all experience will manifest as some kind of reflection with our natural awareness integrating with appearance without ever distorting it.  It is only when that natural awareness appears clouded, that all experience never seems satisfactory or meaningful. On a relative level intonation of swaras can improve ones health, calm the mind, and balance untuneful vibration and energy.   On a deeper spiritual level, marga sangeet, or the musical path, was offered to the human dimension to establish an alternate path, a key to untying the knot of samsara. The goddesss Saraswati is considered as an enlightened being who bestowed the secrets of music upon Narada Muni who then propagated them throughout the human dimension.

Bhairavi RaginiThis exercise of internal balance and the resulting musical harmony ignites a creative spark fired with precision, flexibility, expansiveness, and emotive expression. Precision refers to the perfect communication that arises between body and mind and the way in which technique spontaneously responds to creative impulse. As a result, there is perfection in intonation merely through directing one’s mind at the desired note.  There is no obstacle to clarity as each swara shines the natural brilliance of one’s awareness.

Flexibility is the ease with which energy shapes itself into tuneful patterns according to the melodic structure and method. As the internal balance of tunefulness spreads throughout one’s body, obstructions are automatically removed and creative expression arises without effort. There is a sense of freedom and ease about patterning the notes as if what once felt stiff like steel is now more stretchable like rubber.

Expansiveness is the manifestation of infinite possibility once one is no longer struggling with the internal or external environment. A spontaneous flow of limitless possibility emerges and one simply rides the wave of creative experience without any judgment regarding the quality of what is arising.  The swara flows smoothly, evenly, and improvisation occurs naturally and without force. Patterns arise without any semblance of a cause– randomly, spontaneously, yet ordered with inherent meaning.

If one understands this ground of tunefulness, the architectural forms of Indian music, known as ragas and raginis can arise clearly.  Even if one’s understanding and knowledge of Indian melodic form is incomplete or limited; tunefulness will compensate and no matter how far one strays from the pure form of the raga, the raga’s fragrance will somehow pervade. This is not an excuse for ignoring the purity of a raga’s form but rather a testament to the power of having realized ‘swara’ through yogic process within the body and contemplatively in the mind. On the other hand, if one only infuses one’s play with the raga’s grammar, no matter how intricate, and ignores the fundamental source of swara; the raga will remain as only a lifeless shadow without color, fragrance, taste,or  texture.

According to the ideals of traditional Indian music, the combination of tunefulness with a true understanding of a raga’s unique melodic patterning is the process through which music really becomes a method of transformation. Within the context of the raga system each swara has a particular seat.  In fact, the seating arrangement can be said to be very important. Each raga has a different seating arrangement, and accordingly, some seats will be very stable and unmoving whilst others are always in motion.  The fundamental swara and its counterpart are generally, but not always, very stable.  There is an important relation, a kind of communication, between the fundamental swara and its counterpart which sits a fourth or fifth away. One might think of this counterpart as a minister who is always assisting the king.  Then there are numerous other relations  which are created by the multi dimensional seating arrangement. Each time a particular swara is sounded it immediately triggers a signal to another note, almost alerting it to get ready to light up. In this way lines are drawn between all the swaras in a raga creating a tight system of interconnectedness.  This dynamic relationship forms the ground upon which the character, shape, voice, face, and feelings of the raga will ripen and mature.

When all the swaras are comfortably seated and each one seemingly manifests in a space where tension and release are perfectly balanced (this is just a way of saying that they manifest in the right proportion and at the appropriate moment), the raga shines clearly through its own self potency and assumes its capacity to transform anything in its vibrational field.

Rasa LilaRagas and their inherent tonality are woven into the daily and nocturnal cycle. Just as each period of the day and night has its own particular character and vibration, correspondingly, the ragas portray moods associated with those times.  The power that  a raga  possesses to transform our vision is more evident when it is intoned at the appropriate hour.  Particular swaras seem to go in and out of focus according to the time of the day. There are numerous examples of this process and although it is beyond the scope of this work to go into those details, suffice it to say that the inclusion or exclusion of a particular swara, or its emphasis or lack thereof, is influenced by the time of day that one is playing.  Critical moments of the day such as sunrise and sunset also reveal peculiarities in the raga’s tonal system.  Similarly, ragas associated with seasons such as the spring and monsoon demonstrate identifiable patterned tonal qualities that define them as seasonal ragas. In fact the scope of a seasonal raga can become more focused according to the moment of the particular season one is dealing with.  For example, monsoon includes the very active thunderstorm as well as the moment when the sun reveals itself through the clouds after the storm is over. These are distinctly different moments-in color, mood, environmental vibe, etc. Ragas can reflect these changes.

Emotive expression in a raga is not simply a reflection of the vibratory tone of experience. We can have all kinds of experience in our lives, some good, some desirable, and some bad that most of us seek to avoid.  Each one of those experiences throughout our daily lives resonates with some kind of vibration, maybe pleasant, unpleasant, relaxing, tense, sad or joyful. If we reflect on it, we can notice some kind of tone or vibration.  Music is an attempt to infuse that vibration with emotive presence, and thereby separate the conflicting tones of ordinary experience from the harmonious balance of emotive presence. This emotive presence is called rasa in Classical Indian aesthetic terminology.   Rasa is the essential flavor of vocal music, instrumental music, and dramatic art.

RasaRasa is more than just some abstract concept and suggests something related to tactility, vision, smell, sound, and taste.  Rasa arises when the structural and defining limits of conceptualization are relaxed.  Somehow we become more “moist”, our creative juices begin to flow and we lose our grip on what to accept and what to reject.  As the dualistic context and the conflicting vibration of ordinary emotion is relaxed, an artist has the possibility of discovering an immediate wakefulness which can lift or separate the emotion from its contextual limits and arouse profound lucid feeling.

Classical aesthetics considers nine experiences which give rise to this instant emotive presence. They are actually broad categories and encompass the whole spectrum of experience.  Within   the context of Indian music their scope becomes more specific according to the melodic form one engages. The nine rasas include:

1) Sringara – love, joyful,happy-the adi rasa because there can be no rasa without love.
2) Karuna – sadness, longing, grief, resigned acceptance.
3)Shanta – tranquility,balance, sometimes considered  the goal of  all the other rasas.
4) Vira – noble, dignified, energetic, warrior like.
5) Adbhuta – wonder, surprise, astonishment.
6) Hasya – laughter, humor.
7) Abhyanka – fear, terror.
8) Krodha – anger.
9) Vibhatsa – disgust, revulsion.

If, for example, one considers sringara rasa (love) the Indian musician awakens this presence by integrating with the melodic patterning of the the raga. “Massaging” the swaras according to the balance and proportion that the raga calls for, and allowing the swaras to fall and rest in their seats accordingly opens the space for this presence to arise.  This presence will be colored with feelings associated with love but free from any dualistic or conflicting emotion.  Even when the raga suggests painful separation, grief, or loss, those feelings do not condition the clarity of the musicians’ view but become the pathways for an aesthetic presence to arise.  This may not be the condition when we are speaking of separation or painful loss in real life.  We get caught in the web of thoughts and emotions, clarity is lost, and confusion ensues.  The musician-artist, on the other hand, sheds the ‘corpse’ of conceptual context or what we may call the ‘storyline’, and reveals the archtypical juice of emotion-nakedly raw, joyful and awake.

Having separated himself, at least temporarily, from the world of desire, the artist abandons both acceptance and rejection, recognizes union and separation as waves of creative play and remains undistracted in a sea of infinite potential.  Similarly, when the musician plays ragas which are associated with the moods of the nine rasas-whether of painful longing, love, noble, or  tranquil- he is no longer a player in a real life drama trapped and distracted by conceptual context, but rather a vehicle for pure creative expression revealing a melodic patterning of swara filled with emotive presence.

In the next Ragascape article we’ll be looking at “Surbahar Sources.”


Narada Muni


Ragascape I – The Tambura

It seems appropriate to write the first ragascape essay on the tambura, as the all-encompassing sound of this instrument is the source from which arise the melodic centers (notes) of Indian music.

Tambura IThe tambura is more than just a four-stringed instrument providing the sonorous drone and the basic environment in which the music enfolds. The tambura is the acoustic potential for the whole harmonic series; and, as such, represents the cosmic potential for all apparent phenomena. Although the tambura is tuned with three strings tuned to the tonic (in Indian music we call this tonic Sa or shadja) and one string to the fourth or fifth, we can find all twelve notes in the harmony that is created by the four strings vibrating simultaneously. This acoustical phenomena occurs because the harmonic series is activated through a process called jawari or cyclical wave formation in which the bridge upon which the strings are resting is filed into a particular curve.  When this process is completed properly, the notes are no longer just blunt tones but rather rich tonal landscapes with a precise sharp center and expanding periphery.

TamburaLike a mirror, the tambura has the capacity to reflect whatever is sung or played ‘over’ it. For example if you sing a note along with the tambura other than the notes that are part of the tambura, you can hear the tambura mirror that sound and ‘sing’ it back to you. The tonic in this instrument has the capacity to appear in the form of  whatever you place before it. It is as if you took a piece of clear glass and put it on top of a blue cloth. The glass does not become blue, but it appears blue. In this way the tambura is an acoustical symbol of total integration.

Tambura headWhen tuned properly, the tambura is a clear support for the vocalist or instrumentalist. He listens to the tonic note of the tambura, integrates with it, and adjusts his ‘sur’ so that each note finds a perfect resonance in the vibrational field of the tambura. Notwithstanding the great support the tambura provides to a musician, it is possible for Indian musicians to sing or play tunefully without the support of the tambura. By tuning into the anahata (unstruck) quality of the tonic, the musician becomes his own silent drone; and as he begins to vibrate with the tonic, his tuneful precision arises. This is obviously more difficult as there is no external support for the tuning.

Tambura bridgeThe tambura, as a plucked instrument, is the acoustical metaphor for all unstuck sound. It represents the empty side of clarity and the potential for all apparent phenomena.  It is the feminine space to be filled by the masculine skilfulness of melodic form.

When a musician plays or sings along with the balanced stroking of the tambura, it is not the case that he hears two different sounds—the droned tonic of the tambura and the sound of his voice or instrument. He plays and at the same moment releases the melodic configuration into the field of the tambura.

Shrimati Subbulakshmi with tambura

MS Subbulakshmi with tambura.

The artist blends with the space filled by the cyclical expansion and contraction of the tambura and allows the tonal centers of his melody to spread into that edgeless expanse. When he does this without conceptualizing either the sound of his creation or that of the tambura, there is a moment when the division between singer, song, and the act of singing dissolves.  The artist, fabricator of forms, suddenly jumps the hoop of time and space and enters the dimension where pure sound becomes a vehicle to supersensory cognition and awareness. Although conventionally we say that the singer is singing a song, in this case it is as if the song is singing the singer.

In the next Ragascape article we’ll be looking at “Swaras, Ragas, and Rasas – The Path of Indian Music.”

Tambura (Wikipedia article).
Tambura  (Article at Music of India).
Ragascape (original article in Ragascape by Steven Landsberg, 1999).
Mushtaq Ali Khan (recordings from the collection of Steven Landsberg).