Raga Darbari: The King of Ragas, the Raga of Kings

Back to posting after a while… busy with working on a musical project – I thought I’d get on with my eternally  favourite raga : the emperor of Ragas: Raga Darbari.

Words cannot adequately describe the majesty of this Raga. In many ways, Darbari encapsulates all there is to say about Hindustani Classical music: the repose, the space, the meditative nature, the plaintive aspect, the introspection… the list goes on. For those who ponder the difference between Carnatic and Hindustani music, Darbari is the prominent example of the philosophical difference between these two systems and the contrast in their approach. While some say the origins may have been in Carnatic music, Darbari is the encapsulation of the Hindustani style, in particular, the meditative nature of the music.

Darbari has influenced everyone from ancient Dhrupad singers to Himesh Reshammiya to Abhijit Pohankar.  Such is the scale of this monumental raga, etiquette demands its performance in a respectful manner, taking care not to transgress the boundaries of the raga.

Historically performed by Miyan Tansen in the court of Mughal emperor Akbar, Darbari has been restricted to performance by senior musicians only – as a matter of tradition. For a long time, women performers were not allowed to sing this raga. Darbari is also not well tolerated by purists on newer instruments.

The essence of Darbari is its repose and majestic build up. Due to heavy meend work (portamento), Darbari carries shades of previous notes onto the next notes.  Without sympathetic strings, that flavour is lost.

The perfect Darbari that I can think of has been rendered by Ustad Amir Khan : the link can be found here:

Why do I consider this the perfect Darbari?

One, it is slow and full of repose. Two, it dwells upon the lower octave and draws out the gravity of the raag. Third, it “lets go” down to the lower Dha and stays there for a while, without rushing back to the Sa.

Instrumental Darbaris

Darbari rendered on instruments face the challenge of keeping the music interesting after the alaap. As the raga is not designed for high speed, this proves a bit of a challenge. The sarangi, surbahar, veena and sarod are particularly well suited for rendition, however, the published repertoire on the sarod does go up to higher speed, which, in my opinion, diminishes the appeal of the pure raga.

Note that dwelling on a lengthy, repetitive alaap is probably not good either – unless you have the musical material, you’ll put audiences to sleep.

Three instrumental renditions stand out – each for different reasons

The first is Pt Ram Narayan on the sarangi: pure Darbari -vocal equivalent



The second is Ustad Vilayat Khan with Shankar Ghosh – recorded in the 60s – he takes Darbari on a “sitarised” journey – it’s spectacular though – I was gobsmacked when I first heard it. This is also an adaptation of the famous khayal “Anokha Ladla”.

The third is Ustad Amjad Ali Khan with Sabir Khan  – this is a master class of how to approach Darbari on the sarod – the approach of the compositions is very fresh and not the traditional sarod approach. I will record and document the notation in my next post.

More on Darbari compositions soon

PS – following comments by Smt Maitreyee Sarcar of www.surtarang.co.uk, I edited this post, by linking to the masterpieces of Ustads VK and AmAK. A few points about these two masterpieces:

Ustad Vilayat Khan’s piece is loosely based on the drut khayal “Anokha Ladla” sung by greats such as Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan.

Ustad Amjad Ali plays no vilambit (he has a policy of not playing vilambit if the alaap jor jhala is extensively treated, especially in a time constrained situation -e.g cassette recording). Secondly, the drut ektaal piece has two parts: the second part settles into the famous ektaal composition Yareman Biyan Biyan, however, the mukhda is a complex rhythmic piece which uses an off beat Sam (I’ll publish the notation shortly). Thirdly, the drut teentaal piece is possibly the highest clarity Darbari played on the sarod at that speed – especially if you pay attention to the right hand bols being executed at the same time in the ekhara phrases. Fourthly, the sound engineer has gone nuts over adding a concert chamber effect to the sound, although it sounds ok. Fifthly, I was advised that Ustadji waited for a long time before recording this masterpiece and used his largest sarod for this performance.

Thoughts on Sound

This is a favourite topic of mine – the sound of the performer. Having recently performed with some top notch western classical musicians, I couldn’t help but contrast their sound to the school teachers who teach music to kids. The sound is completely different.

What constitutes a “sound”? I’m not big on scientific theories of acoustic analysis, but it comes down to the texture, feel, emotion, accuracy and a whole lot of other things.  There is a distinct difference in the sound of a Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and other sarod players even though they may be playing exactly the same notes. Ditto with sitar and sarangi player.

Getting our sound right should be the first priority of any student. This involves attention to detail. Is the note pitch perfect? When you do a meend (portamento/glissando) from one note to the other, is it just right or rushed? Is the stroke volume ok? Is the string change clean or did you just brush past some other strings in the process? Did the tarab strings light up as you played the notes ? Was the landing on the sam correct?

While it is impossible to match the sounds of the all time greats, I feel we can go a long way with riyaaz. Musical content is secondary – you must sound good first. Anyone who has listened to any of the well known maestros without any knowledge of music can attest to that.

In the sarod, the overall sound of the musicians is improving. From the rough sound of the rabab to the refined sound of the sarod is a journey. It is encouraging to see musicians lift their game on this one, and not focus on the “clackety clack” pluck attack type of wooden sound that so typified the sarod playing of the early 20th century.

The pinnacle of consistent clean sound on the sarod is Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. Every note is clean and delivered perfectly, even at full speed.  He has always been the benchmark of sound on this instrument, and its most capable technician, bar none.

Pt Bhimsen Joshi passes away : Jan 24

Another musical institution lost to Indian Classical Music. My exposure to Bhimsen Joshi began in the most non-classical setting. There was a television serial called Raag Darbari (based on Sri Lal Shukla’s novel of the same name). As the title montage would come on, there was a powerful voice singing in the same raag for about 10-15 seconds with the lyrics “Darbari ke saat suro me… saat rang hai, tere mere” (Translation: In the seven notes of Darbari, there are seven colours, yours and mine…). That was Pt Joshi. Years later, I heard him live at Siri Fort Auditorium at a concert called Morning Ragas. I could barely afford the tickets – he started at around 11 am with Raga Jaunpuri. I still remember the drut khayal – not the usual Payal Ki Jhankar, but Sat rang sune gayeji (don’t remember the full lyrics).

Interestingly, Srinivas Joshi, his son, was studying at IIT Delhi at the same time (I think he was doing his Masters – I was an undergraduate) and it was widely known that he was not the least interested in music and kept a very low profile. I was surprised to see that he had turned into a vocalist.

Pt Joshi – a great loss for the music world. RIP

Rare Pic: Three legends of Indian Music

In this picture, Ustad Amir Khan, Ustad Vilayat Khan and a very young Ustad Amjad Ali Khan together. (taken from the Facebook group: Ustad Vilayat Khan – rare moments – see my links section for the link to this album)

Ustad Amir Khan influenced an entire generation of musicians, including Ustad Vilayat Khan, who changed the sitar landscape forever and in turn had a lasting impact on Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, who was inspired to develop the vocal style on the sarod as a result.

Ustad Amir Khan, Vilayat Khan, Amjad Ali Khan
Legends of Indian Music

Inspiration for the Week: My Inspirations by Ustad Amjad Ali Khan

This is a release by Navras (I think) of Ustad Amjad Ali Khan talking about famous musicians who inspired him – thanks to Musicindiaonline for uploading this album. Since this is in English, it’s easily understood by everyone. In particular, I relished the Malkauns by Khansahib Bade Ghulam Ali Khan: Mandir Dekh Dare Sudama (based on the story of Sudama returning after meeting Krishna to find his hut replaced by a grand palace) – here’s a Youtube video of the original rendition : what a gem !

Lyrics are hard to follow but rasikas on the indian classical usenet group have found the following from Malti Gilani’s biography of the legendary Ustad:


mandar dekh Dare sudAmA       (Sudama is fearful on seeing the temple(palace)
yA to atI morI vAm manRaiyA   (my humble hut -where is it)
kaun bhUp utare, sudAmA         (which king has arrived here -or- which king decided to bring down my hut)


ek taraf hAthI jhUlat hai   (on one side there are elephants)
dUje asab khaRe                 (horses on the other side)
ek taraf shivjI baithe          (on one side is Lord Shiva)
hIre ratan jaRe                    (decked in diamonds and other gems)

With such short lyrics, it’s hard to get definitive translation- the antara is easy for anyone knowing a bit of Hindi and related dialects of North India.

My personal favourite is Ustad Amir Khan’s “Aaj More Ghar Aayi Na Balma” -lyrics have been provided by one of the comments