Indian singing at the BM


Ragamala for rag Bihag. Yale University Art Gallery.

After some time immersed in the rich harmonies of Mahler 10, it made a nice contrast for me to bask in the purity of monophonic Hindustani music in the Indian gallery of the British Museum. With the arhat at the other (Chinese) end of the gallery gazing on serenely from afar, Kaushiki Chakraborty sang with the lucidity and intensity characteristic of the style, accompanied by tabla and harmonium (the latter, alas, only intermittently suggestive of the bandoneon—call me old-fashioned, but you still can’t beat the sarangi).

She began with a khayal in the late-evening rāg Maru Bihag—whose relation with rāg Yaman (and Yaman Kalyan) is a subtlety to be explored by the aficionado. But even for the less attuned ear it’s worth homing in on the basic vocabulary of raga: the pitch relationships, always expounded most clearly in the opening alap.

To simplify absurdly the ascending and descending scales, and the choices of phrases within them (NB upper-case letters denote higher degrees, lower-case their lower degrees; S and P, do and so, are invariable), Ms Chakraborty’s version of the rāg featured N and M prominently, using an ascending scale of

N  R  G  M  D  N—

as in many ragas, feeding on the tension with the tonic drone of S. The natural-fourth degree m is introduced as a subsidiary theme (N G m, or S m, and G m G), and later a sustained P also features. Here’s a version she sang in 2017:

Indeed, focusing on the pitch relationships of solfeggio is a good way of listening to Chinese ritual melody—albeit a very different process of composition, with a far more limited tonal palette. Neither of these systems, nor that of WAM, is “superior”: they are all valid means of organizing sound.

Some would date the “decline” of “Western music” from later Miles, or from the Second Viennese School; one might playfully suggest (pace Bach and Mahler!!!) that it began a millenium or so earlier, with the spread of harmony, and even the invention of graphic notation… Comes in jolly handy for Mahler 10, though.

8 thoughts on “Indian singing at the BM

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