Raga Pilu- Some old compositions

After an extended break, here is a video of various compositions in Raga Pilu (Piloo) that I recently had the opportunity to play:

Pilu, like Bhairavi, is an evergreen raga, and brings together the joy and sadness of love in its mood…

Pilu is used in a variety of “thumris” – semi classical compositions which sing about the waiting for one’s true love… with hope (natural notes) alternating with sadness (minor notes)… for example, one famous composition in Pilu (called a Dadra) is:

“Barsan Lage Saawan Bundiya Raja” [Many monsoons go by my love]

Tore Bina Lage Na Mora Jiya [My heart pines without you]

Rendered by countless semi classical and Bollywood singers, this is exactly the kind of composition which brings out the character of Pilu.

Another classic dadra is :

Nath Besar Balamwa Mangwa De

[O my  love,(who’s not paying attention to me)- get me an ornament – (nose ring))  – the word Besar loosely translates into “Be-Asar” – someone not paying attention or beyond influence (Asar)…]

Barna Me Tose Nahi Bolu [Otherwise I will not speak to you anymore]

The structure of Pilu alternates between phrases which stress hope and joy and phrases where the same hopes are dashed and recede into sadness. This mesmerising mix of emotions makes Pilu an eternal source of joy and sadness – the definition of human emotion. Skilled musicians in Pilu often draw this out, inventing a myriad ways of portraying this struggle.

I was once told by an audience member that Pilu feels like a conversation where someone is telling the story of their love.

While the vast body of work in Pilu is of the romantic variety, it has been successfully adapted to other forms e.g

Mere Angane Me Tumhara Kya Kaam Hai” – a popular song from the Bollywood film

Laawaris (1981) sung by and filmed on popular actor Amitabh Bachchan.

and also:

Saare Jahan Se Accha Hindostan Hamara” – [Our country – Hindustan – is the best in the world] -a very popular patriotic song composed in Urdu by Poet Mohammed Iqbal and set to Pilu by Pandit Ravishankar, which is a fixture at National events in India and also used as a march by the Indian Army.

Mishra Pilu

The world Mishra (which means -Mixed) is used to denote variants to the raga which are acceptable but not formalised. In many ways, affixing Mishra to a raga means that the raga will be extended in directions  which are not part of the core raga. It must be kept in mind that Mishra usually is used for light ragas (e.g. you cannot have Mishra Marwa or Mishra Darbari).

Mishra Pilu allows musicians to add tasteful, subtle and aesthetically pleasing phrases to core Pilu. In doing so, they may use notes that Pilu doesn’t usually use. In the performance above, I have played a composition which uses the Tivra Ma which is not used in Pilu. These notes have to be sparingly used to embellish tastefully. Calling a raga Mishra is not an open invitation to wreck the core emotion of the raga by adding whatever you feel like !

In this Mishra Pilu, I end up using all 12 notes in various compositions.

The first one is Pilu Jungla, which used to be played by Ustad Amjad Ali Khan last century

The second one again is vintage Ustad Amjad Ali Khan – a terrific composition using the komal dha which is no longer heard commonly.

Barwa, is a raga similar to Pilu. There are two schools of Barwa : one which uses the shuddha gandhar (ga) and one which doesn’t. I’ve opted for the former.

Some Shahajahanpur compositions – I did not play a popular composition from Shahjahanpur players composed by Pt Buddhadev Dasgupta who interpreted a song composed by Tagore in Pilu called “Shedin dujone” as I wanted to focus on compositions not usually heard in the public domain….

Then onto some more serious compositions from sitar maestro Ustad Vilayat Khan who composed a technically challenging piece where the first section (sthayi) has no gaps, the second one (manjha) has a gap of 1 beat between key phrases and the last one (antara) has a gap of 2 beats between phrases all perfectly landing correctly in the end…

It is a challenge for tabla players to hang on to the beat as the instrumentalist goes off in a completely different cycle.

And finally a fast composition by Ustad Shahid Parvez.

As always, my gratitude to gurus: Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Pt Sugato Nag and Ustad Shahid Parvez.







I performed with Nicolas Buff (Saxophone) and Pandurang Torvi (tabla) at the Temple in Melbourne. We played Raga Gorakh Kalyan in Jhaptaal (10 beats) and Teentaal (16 beats)

We had no time to meet and practice, so resorted to sending each other sound clippings recorded on the phone ! The composition below is originally from sarod maestro Pandit Buddhadeb Dasgupta as communicated by his senior disciple sitar virtuoso Pt Sugato Nag…. I’ve played the full composition including the antara, which is usually missing in other recordings of this piece.
Gorakh Kalyan (a raga with a curious name since it has no obvious relationship with the Kalyan group of ragas such as Yaman Kalyan, Shyam Kalyan, Shuddha Kalyan or Puriya Kalyan) is a raga of peace… and is especially suited for the sarod.

Here is a small clip of the performance: (pls excuse the sound quality)
Due to the acoustics of the venue, the sound is raw.

New compositions: the art of mulling over things

At a recent concert by a visiting vocalist  (Shri Kuljit Singh Sangar), he sang a fast 16 beat composition in Bageshri. I heard it and then went about my own business, but the composition stayed with me mentally.

A few days later, I was able to take the gist of the composition and translate it to the sarod.  I initially thought I’d come up with a new composition based on the above khayal, but later on it turned out that I had actually made a similar composition with a similar structure.

Here is the composition: This is a good example of how compositions can emerge based on mulling a raga over in your head:

Next step: to compose a matching antara…..

Excerpts from a recent concert

First post for 2016… have been away for some time ..

Here’s a post from a recent concert….raw audio/video…

The setting was in a private residence in a beautiful part of Melbourne called Eltham… and it had a resident peacock which kept calling out at times..

I have added some description of the content sequence in the Youtube video notes…

Eternal Favourite: Raga Darbari

I’m back again on my all time favourite raga, the king of the Indian Raga pantheon : The King of Ragas, The raga of Kings : Raga Darbari

Darbari lends itself naturally to the sarod, with its deep introspective tone. There are many good compositions in Darbari, and I thought I’d showcase one particular one which is not heard publicly much nowadays,

I’ve recorded – Raga Darbari, Drut Ektaal (fast 12 beat tempo) by Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, which he first played in the 80s – and then very rarely thereafter. In fact, this composition is hardly heard nowadays. I outline the composition without rhythmic metre and then the “implementation” of it at 250 bpm fast 12 beat cycle (Ektaal) -which is a tad faster than the original.

This compositions was originally played to tabla accompaniment with Sabir Khan, in what constitutes one of the definitive Darbari recordings of all time.

I decided to play the composition at length without rhythm to expose the subtleties of this composition. This is a multi layered construct – there are a lot of things going on – the mood of this grave raga, an underlying rhythmic framework, as well as a structure built on that famous masterpiece by Ustad Amir Khan (vocal) – Yaare Man Biyan Biyan. The composition balances the competing pressures of technical activity with keeping the mood of the raga intact (it doesn’t take much to destroy Darbari’s gravity, turning it into a Bollywood song – the poor raga has been much abused in this manner)

Then I play the full composition with the metre at 250bpm.

Here is the Youtube video:

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.