Monthly Archives: April 2011

Raga Notes

I’ve been playing two ragas in my violin classes lately. Valaji and Garudadhwani. They are both beautiful, distinctive and so nuanced.

I had never heard of Garudadhwani when I started learning the piece composed by my teacher’s guru – Sri Lalgudi Jayaraman. It is a restrictive raga – it has all seven notes on the ascending scale, but only five on the descending. This means that certain patterns are created which make the raga both instantly recognisable, as well as hard to elaborate on for long. It is bright, playful, optimistic and powerful. It also has a fascinating name. I know the meaning of the Sanskrit words ‘Garuda’, the eagle carrier of Lord Vishnu and ‘dhwani’ – ‘sound’, but wasn’t sure what this meant in reference to the raga. I asked my guru why it has this name, and his answer wasn’t abstract at all – ‘It means the sound that the divine eagle, Garuda makes.’ Of course it does!

I love that a raga exists, based on the sound of a divine eagle’s cry. Here’s an example of the raga – what do you hear?

The second, Valaji, is a pentatonic scale – it has five notes on the way up and down. It is languid, confident and I think, bluesy.  Aside from anything else, it reminds me so much of the classic blues minor pentatonic scale that my Dad once showed me on my old Casio keyboard.  I’d love to hear a Valaji collaboration with a blues clarinet. Here’s an example that goes part of the way. Valaji on electric guitar – they say almost any stringed instrument can be adapted to Carnatic music…

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It’s cliched, but Spring demands haiku!

Gazing up at the
fat pink pom-poms, I sometimes
lose my balance.

Hesitant blossoms
have the last laugh, those that pop first
get rained on

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Synaesthetic Santoor


Last night I went to hear Kaviraj Singh play santoor with his brother, Upneet on tabla. It was so wonderful. I’ve never been a big fan of the santoor. Somehow the cross between the plinky-plonky hammered strings and the sometime delicacy of Hindustani music didn’t excite me so much. But this was incredibly beautiful. The faster sections, known as jhalla – sounded like standing under a shower of diamonds – precision cut, refracting light in all directions.

Whenever I attend a concert, I am amazed at how different the experience of listening to music live is to listening to a CD. In my car, I hear the music plain – it may be moving and interesting but there’s a missing layer. In the concert hall, the music rises and shimmers – images and impressions fill the air like mirages. It’s the closest thing I’ve experienced to synaesthesia – the condition of the brain that causes colours or other sensations to be triggered by certain sounds. My friend studying bansuri flute in India has synaesthesia, and it’s particularly fascinating for someone studying raga-based music. She can easily identify a raga, as each effortlessly appears as a specific colour in her mind when she hears it. She described how the colour of a word manifests as a mix of the colours of its individual syllables. Usually I keep a book handy to record the images that arise. Last night while Kaviraj played Raag Gorakh Kalyan – a poem appeared.

Dancing grass shudders wildly with every gust;
and starlings swoop across the sky.
Trees laugh, shaking their arms.
A smile spreads across the earth,
all spinning and alive.
Flowers must burst
at the sound of this music.
Spring weaves a lattice –
ribbons of light,
yellow, white and gold,
and a stretch of blue
that never ends.

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