Excerpt from a recent concert

Over this weekend (9th August), I had the opportunity to play with percussionist Shubh Maharaj…. we played Nayaki and Sughrai Kanada, and Bhimpalasi..

Here’s a brief except from one part of the concert…presented under the banner of Raag Rung – organised by Sangeet Sandhya, Melbourne…..

A digression for the New Year : Raga Desh (Des)

I woke up on New Year’s Day 2015 with a burning desire to play Raga Des (Desh), a beautiful raga from the Khamaj group of ragas which I’ve written about before….

Of particular interest to me were compositions in fast 12 beat time cycle (Ektaal), and by fast, I mean reasonably fast, much faster than what can be usually played on the sarod (especially in the older styles, who emphasize the plectrum hand more than the hand playing the notes).
However, this approach has great risks – the real possibility of going offkey at any time due to the speed.
So, the only way to get the perfect note is to relax. But if you are rushing at this speed, it’s hard to relax !!
Hence, perfection at this speed can only come from being in a fully meditative state – being one with the composition – from hours and months of practice, to the point that your mind has overcome the mechanical stress of getting the notes out, and is focussing on the nuances instead. A tiny nuance can completely change the whole feeling of the composition.. and this is something that should be spontaeneous, not contrived. That’s the whole appeal of Hindustani Classical Music – the element of spontaenity and surprise…
As a great fan of both the vocal style and that of my teacher -sitar maestro Ustad Shahid Parvez, I concocted two compositions from each of these idioms.


Firstly, the USPK (USPK is shorthand for Ustad Shahid Parvez Khan) composition – what I like about this is the symmetry of the composition. As with everything he plays, there is a method and a plan. I’ve changed everything except the first line, but have tried to keep the same theme going.

The second one is a very famous vocal composition called : Beeti Jata Barkha Ritu
Beeti Jaat Barkha Ritu
Piya Na Aaye, Ae Ri
Ae Ri,
(O friend, The monsoon season is slipping by,
but my beloved hasn’t come yet)
I forget the second part of the composition, having looked  at this a long time ago…
Ideally, I would have played this at a slower speed, because it allows better use of subtle embellishments, which get squeezed out at higher speeds.
Des is such a beautiful raga … compositions in every possible taal abound, so this selection is very niche…

Sound Production on the Sarod: Some Perspectives

I recently had the opportunity to discuss sound production as a subject with senior indian classical instrumentalists.

Discussion on sound production in the context of Indian Classical music has been very limited – Indian classical music discussion seems to be limited to unstructured discussions with very little “shop talk” among the musical fraternity on any operational issue that they face.
For an active musician, sound production is probably a huge topic by itself. However, an objective discussion is not possible on this topic, given that the product itself cannot be well defined. And to me, that’s perfectly ok, as the whole topic of music is by its very nature, a human experience. So much of what follows recognizes the subjective nature of the topic – the idea is to stimulate thinking, and share ideas, rather than come up with a definitive model.
Our key topics for discussion were:
1. How important is sound production?
2. What makes for good sound production?
3. What are some operational considerations  re: sound production especially for a practicing musician?
The outcomes and consensus items are discussed below.
Sound production remains one of the most critical tools to enhance the entire experience for both listener and artist. The sound is essentially what the performer  is “selling” to the audience.
Sound production consists of :
1. The primary source : say the instrument or the voice
2. Secondary devices: amplification, recording or sound distribution devices.
Leaving the second category alone for the moment,  let’s consider the primary source: the voice or instrument.
My particular point of interest is the instrument (sarod), so let’s further restrict our discussion to this one instrument.
As our discussions with the maestros progressed, several key points were recognised:
1. Sound production is very individual – two people can pick up the same sarod, and produce very different sounds, playing the same notes. I have first hand experience of this, with Ustad Amjad Ali Khan.
2. Attention to detail in the technique plays a huge role in sound production. Especially on instruments like the sarod, with infiinite nuances of sound possible due to the construction of the instrument as well as the playing style, attention to detail is fundamental to improving one’s sound. As instruments have become more refined compared to older variations, the fingering and stroke technique is vital in producing the desired sound effect.
3. There is no “right” sound by itself, however, clarity, tunefulness, volume and space play a vital role. The exact combination of these  is left to the performer. Silence, or space is also very much a part of the sound.
4. In turn, the technique needs to be modified to achieve one’s desired sound. If you wish to emulate Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s sound, clean picking and smooth string changes without  noticeable loss of volume is a pre-requisite. This can be achieved to a degree with good scale practice, but the final ingredient remains elusive (this is why his disciples sound similar, but not exactly the same as him – the X factor !)
5. The musicians I spoke to summarised all these factors into one word : the musician’s “touch”. The touch is the total package of the sound production technique.  Each person needs to  develop their own touch. This takes years of study, reflection and practice to develop. Musicians often spend decades developing their final, unique touch, which is their hallmark.
The starting point of a good “touch” is tonal accuracy. This is incredibly hard to do. Even the greatest maestros have some tonal imperfections (however, senior maestros have an error rate of six sigma or less !).
Which then takes me to the next point- how do you maintain tonal accuracy if you are deliberately focussing on it? In a 3 hour concert, you cannot focus on every microtone at all times- your creativity and spontaneity will be impacted by this. The answer, as discussed by the maestros is that there is a point of technical mastery in which the instrument becomes an extension of the person. Basic technical accuracy then becomes a given. Yes, the finer points do merit special consideration, but the artist is almost running on rails as far as tonal accuracy is concerned. In that situation, the only risk is if the artist is attempting something which is highly complex or intricate. Say a “murki” (a type of embellishment) which is hard to execute. The maestros felt that with practice, these can be overcome to produce a consistent level of performance.
The key takeout for me was to focus on the attention to detail in each and every microtone and to make better use of space in my practice to further develop my desired sound and to constantly record and review my own sound to keep improving it continuously.

Playing Indian Classical Music on non traditional instruments

For some time now, I have been asked whether it’s a good idea to play Indian Classical music on western instruments. I myself used to play Indian Classical Music on the guitar, so here are my thoughts on the subject.

So, the question is: should I play Indian classical music on the guitar/piano/cello/harmonica/french horn/saxophone etc?

The answer is : It depends (on what you want)

The key point is the musician’s approach to Indian classical music. If you are after a quick superficial look, you can pretty much play the “envelope” of the music on any instrument. Even the Beatles tried their hand at sitar (with disastrous results)

However, if you are after reproducing Indian classical music in accurate detail, you will have first have to devise a method of executing melodic line improvisations  on your instrument. This is easier said than done. In some cases, you can approximate the gamak, murki and other embellishments, but if you start on a brand new instrument, you will have to develop the instrument and technique.

That will take time and effort. Unless you are a genius of the calibre of Pt Shiv Kumar Sharma who has translated traditional techniques to the santoor through brilliant innovation, you will be in for a hard slog.

The other and possibly easier option is to go for an established instrument like sitar, sarod, sarangi. These not only are optimised for the music, but also have a huge body of work behind them. One reason why old timers were in general sceptical of new instruments was that it takes generations to build up a body of work. Newer instruments need time to generate that level of optimisation.

However, if everyone just focussed on established instruments, we would not have much innovation. So, newer instruments are welcome as a matter of innovation and progress.

So, in summary, there is no wrong or right answer -it pretty much depends on what you want to achieve.

Raga Bageshri – Part 1

Of late, I’ve been studying and playing Raga Bageshri (variously called Bagesri, Bageshree, or Bageshri Kanada).  Bageshri is a grand raga, attributed to Thaat Kafi and is a staple of evening concerts. The time prescribed for this raga is evening to late night.

I learnt Bageshri when I was 7 years old from my first music teacher Smt Ruby Bose (wonder where she is these days). She taught me a drut khayal “Moha Liyo ” a Sadarang composition. As Bageshri is a staple of music schools, everyone learns it. But, like Yaman, it’s a ocean of a raga – the  more you delve into it, the further you can go.

Bageshri has the following scale :

 (italics – lower octave, bold – upper octave – Caps -Shuddha -Natural swaras, lower case – komal (flat)

Ascending: n S g M D n S

Descending: S n D M g R S

Bageshri uses the Pa beautifully to embellish the emotion of the raga. Pa has to be judiciously used, as too much or too little can ruin the raga character.

I start off with a slow (Vilambit) composition set to 16 beats recorded raw in my music room. I learnt this composition from Shri Sugato Nag, and it has Imdadkhani and Shahjahanpur elements in it. A number of other vilambit compositions are similar to this one:

The notations are (simplified form)-Starts from the 12th beat

Sthyai

S n D – M P g R D n S

D n SM g M D P D nD g-g R

S n D – M P g R D n S

Manjha – starts from 4th

N d M DD N S M g R N S

D P D n D g g M D N S

S N d M PP D M P D g R S – back to Sthayi

Antara

N D gg MM DD N S-S-S

SRRS N g g R N NSRSS

S N D n D  M D N R S- M

M g R S D N D – M PP D M P D g R S – back to sthayi

There is infinite scope to vary this composition and put in embellishments – that is the nature of Bageshri.

Next, I’ll do the Madhaylaya and Drut gats from various sources.

Raga Durga

At long last I managed to start up a Youtube channel (it’s got only one video in it so far) but I thought I’d begin with the Raga which started my sarod journey – Raga Durga. Along with Yaman, it remains a favourite of Ud Amjad Ali Khan to start off new students with. I must acknowledge that it was Shri Abhik Sarkar (a senior disciple of Ustadji) who taught me this Raga. A very nice composition, in Madhyalay Teentaal.
The notations for the Madhaylaya are here: (lowercase – komal, italics – lower octave, bold higher octave)

–  –  –  – / – –  S S/R P -P/ D M P D/ D- M -/ R – (SS – repeat)

The manjha is a bit complicated, but goes like this

MM MM R S D P M -/ PDSRMPD PM/ (SS RP-P

The antara starts from the 9th and goes like this:

M P D S SSS -/ S D S R S D D PM/ MM RR S R S D P M/ (SS RP-P)

The Drut Gat in Durga is a favourite- as it really needs fast left hand work.  Whenver you feel confident about your fingering skills, try and play this gat at a fast pace. That’s when you’ll appreciate the technical mastery of Ud Amjad Ali Khan.

The gat goes as follows:

Sthyai

S D-DP MPDP MR S D S  x R MPD

M PP DD SS DDP DP MP DP MR SR MP DP MR SR DS  SD-DP

Antara

D M PP DD SS SS D RR S x S D S R M- M RR S R S D/ DD PM PD-P

PDSRMPDPMR SS (SD-DP

Quite a workout – believe me.

I’m going to post some other compositions next.

Raga Kirwani

As part of the Ekalavya project, I’ll try and upload as many sarod bandishes/gats that I know of. The first post in this category is Raga Kirwani. It’s a popular raag which has the notes: S R g M P d N S (Caps= Shuddha, lowercase = komal, Bold= Upper Octave, Italics= Lower octave).

The reason it’s so popular is the melodious nature of the scale – it is identical to the harmonic minor scale of western music. In overseas settings, playing Kirwani is a safe bet, as the melody resonates with the audience.

Kirwani can be approached in a number of ways. Besides “strict” Kirwani, one approach is to bring in touches of  Jaunpuri and Darbari. A bit of musical license can be taken in bringing some of the moods of these ragas. In particular, I have adopted the Jaunpuri-ish ang in the phrase

R g M- P g M P g R

where a lot of sparsh/kampan etc can be used to evoke the emotion of pathos.

(note: I find written notations about ragas practically useless – these things are only explainable by playing or singing, which is why I’ve tried to keep notations only for the gat).

Anyway, here are some compositions that I’ve recorded raw on my Zoom H2 recorder at home: tabla sangat is by Mr. Taal Tarang of the digital gharana. I’ve played the basic gat, without too many embellishments and provided the notations.  Any mistakes/omissions/shortcomings are entirely mine.

1.Raag Kirwani: Vilambit Teental (Source: Ustad Amjad Ali Khan)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

I heard Ustadji play this on TV with Sukhwinder Singh Namdhari on the tabla when I was very young. I have not formally learnt this piece, and so, it is possible that I have changed the original composition.

The notations are (upper octave in Bold,lower octave italics, komal swaras in lowercase)

12    13      14   15  16        1      2     3      4         5       6        7       8          9     10      11

PPd S   RM RS Nd       P-    P-   P-   RgR    M    MP    GR   RdP      G-    R-      S-

2.Raag Kirwani: Madhyalaya Rupak Taal (Source: Ustad Amjad Ali Khan)

I consider this one of the best rupak gats on Kirwani -period. It really brings out the flavour of the raga

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Notation:

Sthayi

6   7        1 2    3     4      5    6        7           1     2       3   4   5

Rg  Ni d  P- – –           g       S    SR    gPMP   g    g        S   R   S

Antara

6  7     1   2      3       4         5     6    7    1    2    3  4   5   6  7    1   2  3  4  5  6  7    1  2  3 4  5  6  7

Pd   S   S Ni      S –     NS  R N   N   d  P   –   – d     d d  –    P d  Pd N  d P  d P  –   R g

1   2   3  4  5  6  7   1 2  3   4  5    6    7

M M P g   R Rd P g g   R   g  Rg Ni d

3.Raag Kirwani: Drut Teental (Composer: Yours truly- Rahul Bhattacharya)

I was sitting on the lawn of my college trying to develop a “palta” which would exercise my fingers to breaking point. I hit upon this as initially as a palta, but then I turned it into a gat. This is not very emotionally satisfying – it is more of a benchmark test of how fast your left (or right) hand can move. The key challenge in this piece is to maintain the volume and clarity with string changes. I’m told that I used to play this piece better when I was younger. Anyway, here is the notation of the sthayi: I’ll have to spend some time getting the antara notation ready.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Notation:

Sthayi:

5     6      7   8   9  10  11   12   13  14   15  16  1

Rg RS Rg MP dP Mg R-  R   S    R    g    d   P

4.Raga Kirwani:  Another composition in Drut/Madhyalaya Teentaal (Source: Unknown)

This is a common composition – I have fiddled with the antara somewhat

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Notation:

12  13  14  15  16  1   2   3  4   5  6  7  8   9   10   11

d    P   g     –     S  R  –    –  R    –  g  M P  d    d     P

5.Raga Kirwani: Carnatic composition (Drut Teentaal) (Source: Shri VVS Murari)

In 2000, I played (possibly the first) sarod and violin Jugalbandi in Melbourne with visiting carnatic violinist VVS Murari (son of Shri V V Subramanyam). When we got together to decide the composition, Murari taught me this one:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Notation:

9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  1  2  3  4  5    6  7   8    9  10   11  12  13  14   15 16

R M   P   g    R   S    N   P R  –   –   –  – –  –   –     S S P    d  M    P  G

1 2 3 4 5 67 8   9  10  11  12 13  14  15 16

– dMP gR  SN d   P   M   –  g  R     S  N

1     2       3      4   5    6     7     8

dP Mg  PM   gR Mg RS gR SN

Finally, this is a very recent composition:

6.Raga Kirwani: Drut Ektaal (composer: Rahul Bhattacharya)

My goal has been to adapt the popular drut ektaal khayal piece: “Tora bina mohe chain na parat ” (Without you there is no peace…) sung in Kirwani.

I had difficulty adapting it to the instrument – sounded a bit empty. So, I came up with this one:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Notation:

Sthayi

1   2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12  1

P –   d Pg R Mg R S  R   g   P

Antara

1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12

P P d  S   –  S   SR S    –   S

1   2  3   4  5  6  7  8  9  10   11   12

N N  R  N  –  d  N  – d  P     –     P

1  2  3  4   5  6  7      8       9    10   11   12

d –  d   d   –  d  RR  MM RR  N   –      N

1  2   3   4   5   6   7   8 9  10   11   12

gP MP    –  GG    M    g R  S     R   g

I know a couple of other Ustadji’s gats, but haven’t put them here. You can find them on Youtube while I get their notation ready.

Rahul

 

What they don’t tell you in most overseas sarod schools: The agony and ecstasy of “Palta Practice”

Swept up by the magnificent sound of the instrument, inspired by maestros like Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and feeling elevated by thinking about the deep and rich history of the sarod, we finally get an instrument, a guru and begin to take our first steps.

The first few days are spent in agony. The instrument sounds like someone’s scraping their nails against a blackboard and everything sounds terrible. (if you think you don’t sound terrible after your first attempt on the sarod, you must be the re-incarnation of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan). We bravely fight on, with encouragement from our guru and persevere. We learn to play Sa Re Ga Ma, focussing constantly by looking at the fretboard (although there’s not much to see there at all). In desperation, we might even put some marks on it to position our fingers accurately.  Then we are taught a raga (Yaman is a good choice) and away we go. Between maintaining the dara-diri regime, nail problems, pitch issues, sitting on the floor, plectrum technique – it’s a total disaster ! But we persevere….

The above describes the typical path of the adult overseas sarod student. Of all the students of sarod and sitar that I’ve met over the years, one crucial element of training seems to be missing – scale or “palta” practice. This is the secret sauce of all sarod training.

Palta practice, is simply, scale practice – it’s the mechanical repetition of the notes of the scale in various combinations. For example, Sa Re, Re Ga, Ga Ma and so on. Then in threes (Sa Re Ga, Re Ga Ma .. ) or fours (Sa Re Ga Ma, Re Ga Ma Pa, ….) upto the upper Sa and then back again. This needs to be done with the tabla – e.g Dadra for threes, Teentaal for fours etc, at varying speeds. Once comfortable at a certain speed, the speed needs to be increased. If you are playing da strokes, try dara strokes. Like exercising in a gym, the moment you’re comfortable, raise the bar by changing the level of difficulty.

It is also very boring.

However, the key issue is that without palta practice, you will never get the right fingering, stroke play and accuracy that is required for playing the sarod. Palta practice is like learning the basic vocabulary. If you don’t do any palta practice, you will not have the confident sound that is required on the sarod. You will continue to timidly approach notes, probably reducing the volume as you’re not quite sure where you should stop. In short, it’s highly unlikely that you will get onto the concert stage without the skills derived from Palta practice.

Why is Palta practice so effective? For starters, it gives you a good feel of where the notes are, and locks in the sound. Secondly, playing with the tabla gets your brain used to the taal cycle to the point where you don’t have to think about where the tabla is within the rhythm cycle – your brain subconsciously  knows this. Thirdly, it builds up confidence in your playing through improved accuracy.

Even the great Ustad Amjad Ali Khan practices paltas in his riyaaz sessions. This is perhaps the most accurate sarod player in the history of the instrument, whose crystal clear sound is unmatched by maestros past and present.

Try this exercise if you doubt the effectiveness of palta playing: Play your favourite gat in any raga without palta practice. Record it. Next, practice paltas for 30 minutes. Then play the gat again. Record it this time. Listen to the two recordings – and see the marked improvement in your accuracy even after 30 mins of palta practice. I’ve done this experiment with several people and it always has the same outcome.

I’m puzzled by why gurus do not prescribe rigorous palta practice to their overseas students. It could be that they realise that these “amateurs” are not upto the rigours of this exercise and may actually quit if told that 75% of their initial time should be spent on palta. Going on to raagas is inherently more appealing to the student, as they feel they are now really getting into the instrument. The problem is, almost all of them are hideously besura (the most common form can be seen on the sitar when they try to reach a note by pulling the string – and landing almost anywhere but the note. Then they compound the problem by repeating the pattern of pulling indiscriminately, thinking that they’re getting the “Indian” sound). At this point, the guru should intervene and ask them to stop pulling the string until they are sure of the note. In fact, if the student doesn’t realise that they are going besura, that’s an even bigger problem. This lack of accuracy will stay with them for the rest of their lives. (And on a humorous note, I like to think that incalculable damage is done to the health of the guru by this attack of the besura notes – you can see some gurus wince as the off key note hits them)

So while you may have great visions of the divine music that you are learning, it’s far less exciting than that. Sa Re Ga Ma, Re Ga Ma Pa — 100 times, 1000 times, slow, fast, double – is the “gym” training that we must do.

So before you rush headlong into a raag, give palta practice a good go. You’ll need it for the rest of your sarod playing days.

Accuracy of notes is the fundamental bedrock of all classical music. We cannot accept any compromise with that. When I frequented Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s house, that was the one takeaway I took – never, ever tolerate besura notes at any cost. (A later post on the whole note accuracy business). And the only way we are going to retain note accuracy is through palta practice.

 

 

Sarod Finger Nails: A primer

Firstly, you may have heard about the theory of some sarod players using their tip of their fingers to play. Well, from my limited survey of sarod players from all the two other major gharanas (Maihar, Shahjahanpur), such alleged sarod players are no longer in existence. Listening to some old sarodiyas from such gharanas, their muffled sound makes me wonder what they are using to stop the string- however, this could also be the position of their right hand too close to the bridge. I’ll discuss this more in another post.

Secondly, nails will be a big entry barrier to your sarod journey. If you are a guitarist, say goodbye to the guitar – you will not be able to play any meaningful guitar with sarod nails. In the early stages, your nails will hurt, even bleed (if you practice hard). That’s all good. The nail hardens over time. If you have serious problems with a soft nail which is being cut into by the steel strings, you may want to use false nails, however, you will not be able to get a “real feel” of the strings. No professional sarodiya that I know uses false nails for performances.  Remember, the nail’s got to keep the rest of your finger off the fretboard, but not be so long as to buckle in when you apply pressure on your finger. I used to take calcium tablets for some time to harden the nails – not sure if that helped.

Filing nails: As you play the sarod, the steel strings will cut grooves into your nail, (imagine a U shaped groove) to the point where the string will go inside the groove and the edges of the groove (ends of the U) will start touching the fretboard, causing the sound to degrade. By filing, you take out the grooves and level the edge of the nail and start again.

Typically, you’d file your nail before your playing session – so not more than once or twice a day.

Broken Nails: The worst nightmare of a sarod player. If your nails get too long (because of lack of practice and consequent filing), you are risking the nail getting broken in doing everyday tasks – (opening car doors seems to be my favourite nail busting activity). The solution is to keep well maintained and filed down nails and not to use your nail hand to do everyday chores. A broken nail will usually require 1-2 weeks to grow back to a usable state

Sarod: Tools of the trade

Ok, just picking up on the NY resolution of adding more material to the Ekalavya project:

To play the sarod, you will need:

1. Guru/Teacher : Qty 1 (real or virtual)

2. Sarod with strings : Qty 1 (see earlier post) – string gauges etc

3. Electronic Tabla and Tanpura (Qty 1 each). Widely available in India and on the net.

4.Sarod Tools (assorted)

Some other tools e.g java, (plectrum)- also called jaba (by Bengalis), a nail file, a wire cutter  (to cut strings) and a wire hook (to pull wires through the tarab string holes, especially for the tarabs located on the second row. You will also probably need a small oil box (a piece of cotton dipped in coconut or some other light oil) – I don’t use it (possibly the only sarod player who doesn’t), but you should probably get it. This is the lubricant for the nails.

Here is a picture of my tool kit (sans the oil box, as I don’t use it)

Sarod Tools
My Sarod Tools

5. Finger nails Qty : 2 or 3

This is a topic by itself, so I’ll confine myself the the Ustad Amjad Ali Khan method, which uses only two fingers. (index and middle finger). Other schools use three fingers if required

The nail’s got to be sufficient to be placed on the fretboard to form a point contact without any other part of your finger touching the fretboard.

As an example, here are pictures of my nails after a playing session (note – I can have shorter nails from time to time, so this is pretty much the max length). Ustad Amjad AK’s nails are kept much shorter – not more than 1mm from the edge of the finger.  I will post more info. on nails and their maintenance in my next post.

My Sarod Nails
My Sarod Nails
PIcture of my Sarod Nails
My Sarod Nails : 2