This year, at the Dover Lane Music Conference, in Kolkata, there was some discussion about Pandit Venkatesh Kumar’s choice of raga. Kumar sang Yaman. A few eyebrows were raised because his performance started around 11 pm — past the ‘appropriate’ time for performing the raga. This was not the first time that listeners at Dover Lane have found occasion to fuss over such an anomaly. A few years back Pandit Vinayak Torvi sang Miyan ki Malhar (in January) and on another occasion, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan had played Jhinjhoti early in the morning (this year, too, he played Durga early in the morning). Every time this happens, the ‘connoisseurs’ relish the opportunity to shake their heads. Instead of lamenting this practice and viewing it as an affront to traditional performance norms, it might be more useful to wonder why senior artistes are disregarding the raga-time anomaly.

Raga and time have forever been a couple. Each raga corresponds to one of the eight prahars in a day, and a musician is expected to perform it accordingly. There are also ragas that correspond to different seasons. A listener’s experience is supposedly enriched when s/he listens to a raga at the ‘correct’ time. Darbari Kanada holds the grandeur of the night, and Bhairav the solemnity of the morning.

But how much of this association is a consequence of conditioning? An accustomed listener, who knows that Bageshree is a night raga, is likely to associate another raga with largely similar notes — say Rageshree or Bageshri-ang Chandrakauns — with the same time of day. S/he may or may not be right, but the conditioning will push the listener in a particular direction. Every time I have asked friends — who are not trained in Hindustani music — to match ragas with times of the day or seasons, I have received wildly varying answers, most of them not ‘correct’. Does the raga-time relationship, then, hold only for an advanced listener?

I discussed this with vocalist Ashwini Bhide Deshpande. She does not deny the role of conditioning, but emphasises that there is an inherent connection between a time of day; how we feel at that time; and how certain notes enhance that feeling. She recounted an experience with middle-school students in a village in Uttarakhand where she only sang an alaap in Raga Bhairav (without any lyrics). She then asked the students to describe an image that the alaap conjured in their minds. The responses she got were — three hills with the sun rising from between them; a figure of Nataraj; and a mother cleaning a courtyard at dawn. Each corresponded perfectly with Bhairav.

Carnatic musicians, though, are unfettered by the raga-time theory. They are free to play Malkauns at midday. Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna had told me that the treatises in Carnatic music do specify times of day for the ragas, but these guidelines have been ignored across the board. He said that he is sure that in the past hundred years, performers have not paid heed to the raga-time specifications. Krishna’s hypothesis is that practicality trumped all else: most of the concerts were held in the evening, so the artistes figured that it made more sense not to limit themselves to the evening ragas.

This had once prompted Pandit Ravi Shankar to say that the Carnatic musicians, in this regard, have been much smarter than their Hindustani counterparts. The imposition of time is often as much a burden for the listeners as for the artistes. Most concerts start at 6:30pm or so; regular listeners are known to pray (I certainly do) for the artiste to not perform raga Puriya, Puriya Kalyan, Puriyadhanashree, Marwa or Shree.

The broader question is if it makes any sense to literalise an expression that is meant to be abstract. Just like it is possible to enjoy a poem about the dawn in the evening, or a painting depicting the monsoon in winter, then why not Yaman at midnight? Also, restrictive interpretation perhaps works only in theory and not in actual experience. Mehdi Hassan’s immortal ghazal Ek Bas Tuhi Nahi is classic Miyan ki Malhar. But does that ghazal invoke the rains? Even if we take lyrics out of the equation, and consider the ragas in their absolute form, it would be difficult to justify aligning a raga exclusively along a time of day or a season, leaving out myriad other possibilities.

Critics continue to use the raga-time theory as a punching bag. Musicians are habitually attacked for their incorrect choice of raga for a particular time of day. The conclusions drawn are harsher than necessary: lack of proper taalim and a disregard for tradition, are the most common. It is silly for anyone to take an extreme position with respect to the raga-time theory, but more discussion on the subject would be welcome. It is perhaps time to give more generous consideration to the dissenting voices rather than rejecting them outright as upstarts. Now that leading musicians like Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and Pandit Venkatesh Kumar have decided that there is room for play, more musicians might feel encouraged to question the raga-time notion.

Arunabha Deb is a Kolkata-based lawyer and music writer

shubhodeb@hotmail. com

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