The key concept of Indian music is the raga. The European tradition doesn’t have ragas, but somewhat similar is the work1 or piece. With European tradition I mean the type of music we generally call “classical music”. It doesn’t include popular music which also has a somewhat similar concept that we call song. The Indian music that is raga-based is also generally referred to as “classical”, a concept borrowed from the European tradition. In India it takes two main variants: Hindustani in the North and Carnatic in the South. The vernacular term for these musics is shastriya sangit (SS), which means music (sangit) based on the (musicological) treatises (shastra). In fact shastra has a wide meaning including science, knowledge, precept, manual, compendium. Some people speak of Western Art Music (WAM), and a work or piece is really a composition. Indian music also has compositions, but they are very different from WAM compositions. For one thing, WAM compositions are written whereas SS compositions traditionally are not. As a result SS compositions are much more fluid and changeable and also, we have no means of knowing how those compositions really sounded in the past. This is also partly true in WAM depending on how far we go back. In so-called Early Music (medieval music, also known as 4-line music as opposed to 5-line music) the writing is sketchy and accompaniment was supposed to be known to the musicians. I consider raga and work to be somewhat similar because of their status, which is both exalted and abstract. Both of them are manifested through performances which require interpretation. Some people think that a WAM composition is like a gramophone record, you just play it exactly the way it is written. That’s nonsense, each performance is different and much thought, imagination, emotion and practice go into it. Even for the record player it doesn’t hold true, as a child I listened to music on a primitive machine, the so-called 78RPM record player.

Old record player
Early record player

You don’t play those records on a CD player. With works some people talk about the intention of the composer. The old joke goes: “you play Bach your way and I’ll play him his way”2. There is no such thing, we simply don’t know the “intention”. Even when a living composer directs a work of his own hand there are differences in each version. Memory is dynamic and so is the way of the performance. The similarity between works and ragas lies in the idea of a perfect or ideal performance. The performance is a rendition, interpretation or execution of the work or the raga. In the case of the raga we say that it has been brought to life, that it has manifested itself through the performer, that its face has become visible. This is done through a sequel of phrases. In each phrase the weight, articulation, ornamentation has to bring out that feeling of the presence of the raga. The work works similarly. The idea of an ideal rendering implies that every detail is such that you feel “this is it”. This feeling of the ideal or perfect performance of work or raga is primarily personal: the individual experiences it. In SS the listeners will express this experience through exclamations of approval. Every time the performer hits the right ‘note’ (silly pun here, it;’s not about the note) members of the audience may shout “wah” (wah), “shabash” (well done, bravo), “kya baat” (wow), “yeh to ragabhava hai” (this is the [real] expression of the raga). However, although the individual experiences it the collective makes it relevant. The perfect rendition only becomes meaningfully perfect when it is collectively experienced and red agonized as such. The audience, the critics, the impresarios are among the parties that form this collectivity. Fellow artists perhaps even more importantly so. I asked a very famous tabla player how it was to accompany Kishori Amonkar and he answered “I was so deeply drowned by her music that I lost the count of the tala [rhythmic cycle]”. The giant of SS, Rehmet Khan, often was in the audience and listened motionless to the performance of younger musicians. If one of them would meet his standard of perfection he would ask: “has the music begun”. But generally the machine of propaganda works in a complex way.

To summarize: ragas and works are anahat (inaudible) until they become materialized in a performance. As such they are non-constructible sets, they can take an infinite number of manifestations. Note the word “can”, because many works and ragas have only a couple, or even one manifestation. In fact, many works do not have any manifestation. They are composed by geniuses of the mansard (pace Fernando Pessoa). Undoubtedly there are also geniuses who have invented ragas. But let’s agree that a work or raga that has no manifestations does not count.

For the rest there are huge differences between raga and work. The margins of interpretation in a work are much narrower than in a raga. So much so that works are interpreted whereas ragas are improvised upon. Ragas and works operate on different levels of abstraction. One of the many manifestations of a raga is a composition whereas works are compositions. Within a raga there can be hundreds, if not thousands of compositions whereas a work is usually a single composition. There are ragas that are known through a single composition, but these are rare and very ‘small’ ragas. The total number of works is much bigger than the total number of ragas. This is scientifically a difficult statement because neither the number of ragas nor the number of works is known. With ragas the situation is a little more defined: there are a few thousand ragas, of which a few hundred are more or less clear (as opposed to obscure ragas) and a few dozen are really well known, the so-called grand ragas. The number of compositions and the number of manifestations in performance are enormous in these grand ragas, obscure ragas may be known through a single composition and very rarely get performed. The number of works probably runs in the millions, although here also many of them are dead manuscripts lying in dusty drawers. ‘Great’ works are performed and recorded many times. It is only with great works and grand ragas that the debate on the perfect or ideal manifestation fully ignites.

In Hindustani classical a number of ragas have been imported from the Carnatic tradition. Musicologists in the South made a hermetic classification of 72 scales. Many of these scales were not actually used in any extant raga, but ragas were invented for those scales. Such ragas are really no more than a scale, they are a skeleton without flesh, nerve, skin or brain. Musicians in the North, especially instrumentalists, have found it rewarding to use such skeleton-ragas as a totally free basis of improvisation, much in the way jazz musicians or organ players improvise on a theme. Imrat Khan used to ‘demonstrate’ Indian improvisation on the Westminster (Big Ben) theme. This is misleading, because the grand ragas have much more body than a mere skeleton of a scale. One can even wonder if anything is improvised in those ragas. Almost every phrase, every movement, every inflection is known, is part of a huge database from which the performer draws. Rarely something is new. And the resource is so enormous that we cannot come to know a raga fully in a lifetime. To learn from a great master like my guru Pandit Dilip Chandra Vedi shows you the many inroads to the mystery of those ragas. One of his teachers, Ustad Faiyaz Khan, the colossus of the first half of the 20th century, said: a raga is like a sacred book and the musician is the priest who will explain the meaning. A performance is not only a manifestation, it is an exegesis.

It is well known that in the course of the 20th century this kind of deep insight into the life of ragas has faded. Contemporary audiences don’t have a clue and focus on technique, which has nothing to do with raga. Raga is as good as dead, and with it SS. I think the European tradition also went through some crises but presently it seems to flourish. Much of that has to do with patronage.

[1] I was inspired to write this note after a discussion with my friend and colleague Frans de Ruiter, one of the most knowledgeable persons in the field of four- and five-line music. I also remember how my colleagues at the musicology department of Amsterdam University, Jacques Boogaart and Rokus de Groot, would speak about works as a sort an abstract matrix from which many different versions could come forth.