Read

Into the heart of khayal

Malini Nair | Updated on April 07, 2021

Strings attached: The impact of music on listeners is difficult to map as it plays on memory, feelings, received wisdom and context   -  ISTOCK.COM

Understanding a raga and its philosophical and emotional universe is a daunting task. Author Amit Chaudhuri makes an attempt to do so in his latest book

* Each raga is invested with a face, an emotion, a time of day, a season, a whole persona

* Chaudhuri offers insights into the khayal, how it arrived in his early life isolated in a Mumbai high-rise and stayed on

* This is music that does not want to get to the point, takes pleasure in straying, evading, delaying in the pursuit of improvisation

***

We were being taught raga Jaunpuri when my guru, an otherwise reserved soul, threw her hands up in exasperation. “I am okay with raga Bageshwari, that air of sadness, the quiet tears. But not this,” she said, waving disapprovingly at raga Jaunpuri. “Standing on a street, wailing and breast-beating.”

There is something totally endearing about the Hindustani raga system — profound as it is, each raga is invested with a face, an emotion, a time of day, a season, a whole persona. I am not sure that those from other music systems — practitioners and audiences — feel this or it is something that is only sensed by those who are totally absorbed in Hindustani music, particularly the form called khayal. I have a friend who would rather have her ears lopped off than listen to the evening raga Yaman in the morning; I will listen if I chance upon it but am racked by a sense of guilt like I am betraying a loved one.

In Finding the Raga, An Improvisation on Indian Music, writer-musician Amit Chaudhuri makes an attempt to understand the raga, its philosophical and emotional universe. This is really hard work. What music does to any of us is difficult to describe because so much of it is a play of memory, feelings, received wisdom, context and a whole bunch of other factors. The late neurologist Oliver Sacks has studied the fascinating and unfathomable links between music and the brain, its ability to survive in our consciousness even when critical organs are winding up in our body, its manifestation as colour in those who have certain neurological syndromes.

Finding the Raga / Amit Chaudhuri / Hamish Hamilton / Non-fiction / ₹499

 

This task of articulating our connection with music becomes even tougher when you are talking of khayal which as the word suggests is an ‘idea’, more than a performance. Chaudhuri offers insights into the khayal, how it arrived in his early life isolated in a Mumbai high-rise and stayed on through years of experimenting with lyrics and musical forms.

The khayal is not easy music to connect with. Chaudhuri points out that this is music that does not want to get to the point, takes pleasure in straying, evading, delaying in the pursuit of improvisation. In a world where bullet points rule, this digression cannot go down well. There are other unique aspects of this music that Chaudhuri discusses. The fact that it does not put a premium on smooth, sweet, flawless voices. It is perfectly okay, as anyone who has heard a khayal performance knows, for the greatest of musicians to clear the throat, restart a taan if it does not seem to head in the direction you want, retune the tanpura, wait for the tabla to refix a slipped note. Few other music systems will be forgiving of these displays of imperfection mid-concert. But then, as Chaudhuri points out, there is also an expectation that the audience will be patient.

There are quirky takes in this book on the quirkiness of Hindustani music. For a visual illustration of how Ustad Amir Khan further slowed down the tempo of the already vilambit khayal to ati-vilambit, Chaudhari leaves 12 pages nearly blank save for two syllables of the tabla.

This is a book for the khayal fiend. Like the khayal, it is in no hurry to “get to the point” but if you are intrigued by this wonderful musical form, it articulates a whole lot of things you thought you could never put words to.

Malini Nair is a journalist based in Delhi

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

Published on April 07, 2021
  1. Comments will be moderated by The Hindu Business Line editorial team.
  2. Comments that are abusive, personal, incendiary or irrelevant cannot be published.
  3. Please write complete sentences. Do not type comments in all capital letters, or in all lower case letters, or using abbreviated text. (example: u cannot substitute for you, d is not 'the', n is not 'and').
  4. We may remove hyperlinks within comments.
  5. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name, to avoid rejection.