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What is a bandish?

Arunabha Deb | Updated on November 07, 2014

Is Arati Ankalikar Tikekar as post-modern as Paul Auster when it comes to bandishes?   -  Special Arrangement

Arunabha Deb

A composition at the heart of a recital or a reflection of how an artiste understands the raga

The primary peril of writing a column on Hindustani music is that your friends think you are ever equipped to meet their questions. This has led to several awkward interactions, where I have stuttered and struggled to explain basic concepts of Hindustani music, which I thought I knew pretty well. Recently, I was asked, “What is a bandish?” After waxing platitudes (like “The bandish is the backbone of a recital”), I realised that I was embarrassingly incoherent. I try to make amends here.

Simply put, a bandish is a composition. But a song is a composition. A sonata is a composition. Any set of notes, with or without words, even when held together ludicrously, is a composition. How, then, is the bandish distinctive? The Indian classical music lexicon is notoriously off-putting, so it’s best to look for a simple answer.

A bandish is the summary of a raga. Whether it contains words ( bandishes for khayal) or doesn’t ( bandishes for instruments), it has to encapsulate the character of the raga in which it is set. That is the primary distinguishing feature between a bandish and, say, a song. Both are contained within a melodic structure, but the composer of a song is at liberty to introduce any note that makes aesthetic sense to him. The composer of a bandish cannot be as instinctive: his set of notes and their arrangement with respect to each other have to be governed by the grammar of the raga.

And yet, there are hundreds of bandishes in each raga. In the Hindustani tradition, most bandishes are composed by musicians themselves; each bandish, therefore is a reflection of how the artiste understands the raga. Two bandishes in the same raga may focus on different aspects of the raga and evoke contrasting moods. A bandish is often a token of musical lineage: many bandishes acquire the stamp of certain gharanas and singers from other gharanas would never sing them.

Apart from being a melodic interpretation of a raga, a vocal bandish also contains lyrics. But, unlike a song, the quality of a bandish, is almost never judged by its lyrics. The lyrical content of bandishes often doesn’t inspire engagement (to put it politely): repeated references to torment inflicted by the saas-nanad (familial squabbles) duo or to the sound of the payal risk making for mediocre literature. It must be said, though, that the simplistic lyrics did not compromise the syllabic value of the compositions. The sounds of the words somehow managed to blend with the notes; to listeners across generations, that is all that seemed to matter.

In 1954, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan was performing in Kolkata at the Dixon Lane residence of Pandit Jnan Prakash Ghosh. It was a riveting Chhayanat. During the recital, just after he starts his drut bandish,Newara baaje, baaje re mori payaliya / Jhanana jhanana jhana nana nana,” he stops singing to tell his audience that the bandish is beautiful in spite of the “ mamuli bol, gharelu bol (ordinary and routine words)” that it contains. This is true for several bandishes: the lyrics don’t make for compelling literature; yet, the syllables placed in a particular melodic context create magical compositions.

Many artistes, however, feels that undermining the lyrics of a bandish has historically created a barrier between lay listeners and Hindustani music. Most people, even with casual interest in music, relate to a song: the familiar combination of word and tune. If the lyrics of bandishes were richer, perhaps they would have attracted more listeners. The problem is compounded by the fact that Hindustani vocalists in general (there have, of course, been exceptions) have never taken enunciation seriously. Words are often mumbled and sometimes even left incomplete. There is a common joke amongst young Hindustani vocalists that if someone forgets the antara (second part of a composition, the first being the asthayee), he can just mumble his address; as long as the melody is intact and faithful to the raga, nobody will mind.

There is no reason why younger Hindustani musicians cannot compose bandishes with lyrics that they feel have greater literary value. It is not as if the tradition is bereft of bandishes composed around poetry. In fact, the light classical genres have for long embraced the likes of Kabir, Surdas and Tulsidas. Many contemporary khayal singers are also prolific composers; it is easy to notice that their concerns do not include squabbles with the saas and the nanad. A few years back, at the Dover Lane Music Conference in Kolkata, Arati Ankalikar Tikekar performed a bandish in Raga Bhairavi that referred to the nature and structure of Bhairavi itself. That is almost as post-modern as Paul Auster. Not all endeavours need to be as adventurous, but even if there is a hint of a movement towards a different lyric-aesthetic, uninitiated listeners might find Hindustani music less alienating.

( Arunabha Deb is a Kolkata-based music writer and lawyer)

>shubhodeb@hotmail. com

Published on November 07, 2014

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