Monday, January 30, 2012

Reverse engineering a gruhabhedam: the genius of Raja

If there's one piece of music that leaves me transfixed every time I listen to it, it's Composer's Breath from Ilaiyaraja's album Nothing But Wind featuring the flute maestro Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia.

-Art by my amazingly talented sister Sumi.

Where do I begin...I bought Raja's two non-film albums (read "cassettes") - How To Name It and Nothing But Wind back during my undergrad days and for almost a year I would pretty much listen to nothing else. Raja taught me several lessons and each one of those would vie with the others to make me feel it was the sole purpose of my life :) But one lesson stands out till today as the most revealing, the most intriguing, and the most awe inspiring. Unfortunately, it came to me much later - I hadn't quite seen the genius through for until numerous times of involved listening. But come, it did, and to this day it gives me goosebumps.

Amidst trying to get a grip on the treacherous equations and derivations of Electrodynamics and Statistical Mechanics - not to mention, in the dingy IIT hostel room - solving Raja's puzzles in Nothing But Wind was a much more satisfying experience, needless to say. The epiphany under discussion hit me on one such occasion of listening to Composer's Breath. Let me try and explain to my understanding, one of the underlying theoretical ideas behind this piece that the man has so ingeniously woven in - the reason for this post.

Disclaimer: my apologies in case this is all too familiar to you and sounds platitudinous.

First, here's the track:

It starts off with a lovely Hindolam/ Malkauns. Hariprasad Chaurasia's bhava-rich and masterly playing
make it a most pleasurable experience. The main melody (starting at 3:54) is beautiful. It goes, Sa,, ni da ma ga ni da ma gm da# ni# sa,,,,. I'm certainly not an expert on analyzing chords and harmonies but parts like 4:26 that recur throughout just sound heavenly. The drama starts at 6:12 (and there is a lot of build up to it in the chords that just precede) when you start hearing Hamsanandi/ Sohini. What's happening here? Just an ordinary raga change? Absolutely not. A random change in shruti as well as raga? No again. Let's do this piecemeal. First, notice that the shruti is reduced by half a step - or half a note. The new sa is at ni3 of the original shruti. Next, observe that the absolute positions of all the other swaras remain the same. So basically, what starts at 6:12 is Hindolam relative to a new sa; but what's most crucial here is that unlike in a standard gruhabhedam, the new sa is *not* one of the swaras of Hindolam itself: it is a newly introduced swara. So what was a pentatonic raga becomes a hexatonic one due to the additional swara and that turns out to be Hamsanandi. And when you do this, lo and behold, a thrilling coincidence (pun intended) occurs: every swara of Hindolam remains the same, albeit of another variety. ni2 becomes ni3, da1 becomes da2, ma1 becomes ma2, ga2 becomes ga3 (and of course, sa becomes ri1). It is obvious and stunning at the same time. The main melody in Hindolam that I mentioned above now changes to Hamsanandi as follows: Sa,, ni3 da2 ma2 ga3 n3 da2 m2 ga3 r1 sa d2# ni3# sa,,,.

Okay, so far so good. But this made me rack my brains: I had never come across such an unusual way of doing gruhabhedam - such a gruhabhedam would probably not be permitted on a Carnatic stage. I was wondering if there was any way of reconciling it with the standard process. And then, I started thinking about how we might bring about the opposite gruhabhedam: Hamsanandi to Hindolam. Hamsanandi's ri would have to be taken as sa... and... if you do a sa varjya (omit sa), you get Hindolam. And immediately it dawned on me that THIS one was indeed a standard Carnatic gruhabhedam! It is not unusual in Carnatic to do a gruhabhedam transpose from hexa (or heptatonic) ragas to pentatonic ones by omission of sa (and pa)! (And that's because gruhabhedam or no gruhabhedam, one often renders phrases in a raga without sa - and sometimes pa- just to add beauty) In fact, here is a reference that talks about the Carnatic master of all times, T.N. Seshagopalan doing exactly this:
(There is also a youtube video of a breathtaking Hamsanandi alapanai by TNS where he shifts base to Madhyamavati using the same concept)

So WOW - the brilliance of Raja in Composer's Breath lies in that he has actually reverse engineered a (standard) gruhabhedam! Who would've thought of it! If only I could enter his head and see the workings.

The rest of the track goes in and out of many, many ragas - malayamarutham, bhageshri, sindhubhairavi etc which all sit smiling and pretty in Chaurasia's safe custody (and bring poignant flashes of 80s Tamil cinema along with them - probably because they remind me of many of Raja's 80s songs). But the highlight for me is that even after the Hamsanandi episode is over, Raja teases you with some brilliant sparks alternating between the two sa's (thus alternating between the two ragas) within a matter of seconds, like between 6:44 and 7:33 - pure magic! Also at the very end of the track starting at 15:32.

Sometimes I wonder if I'm overly pedantic. Sometimes people say that too much analysis especially in art is not healthy and robs it of its beauty and charm. But the more I think about it; no...I beg to entirely disagree. This situation always reminds me of something a celebrated Astrophysics prof G. Srinivasan told us in a class - a physicist apparently once said that understanding that stars are nothing more than huge blobs of gas and studying the equations governing their behavior doesn't make them seem any less pretty and poetic! :) Unfortunately I don't remember which physicist this was.

As I complete another year of existence on this planet today, I cannot thank Raja the God enough for giving infinitely more meaning to my appreciation of human creativity, godliness in art, and life.