The cheers and clapping turned to laughter when Shankar announced that he had just finished tuning his instrument.
While most popular tunes in western music are only a few minutes long, Shankar performed at Woodstock with Ustad Alla Rakha on tabla (set of drums) for 40 minutes. In a minute fraction of the time it took most the concertgoers to get to Woodstock, Shankar made history by introducing ragas to the western world.
Allan Evans is an ethnomusicologist, music producer, and professor at Manhattan’s Mannes College of Music. He explains the composition and mood ranges of classic Indian music.
“A raga is melody,” says Evans. “There may be an absence of harmony. But there is a high degree of complexity and permutations. From silence to unfolding. There are layers behind the scenes, and harmony is more subconscious. The bass sitar has the range of a grand piano.”
In speaking of the vast mood swings that ragas can engage, Evans says that you can take one piece of music and change emotion. “You break the silence with a drone. A row of string also rings out sympathetically. A flat note can express sadness. Moods and emotions are contrasting but related. That’s the basIs of ragas.”
Musicologist Allan Evans breaks down the components of a raga.
He explains that the alap is the first movement of a raga that starts with the first sound and can last an hour or more. “The alap is slow and has no rhythm. It is floating and shows you the capacity of music. It explores the range. By hitting a note low, it releases a rainbow of colors. Some play an evening of ragas until the sun comes up.”
The beat is established in the jor, partnered in a section with drumming on the tablas, their sounds varying between clapping, clinking, or sliding on the handheld kartals.
Balaram and Ashok Pathak are Evans’ favorite sitarists.
“The Pathaks plays around the beat, in syncopation. The way it moves from one melody to another is totally unpredictable. Balaram was an innovator who played overtones on sitar.”
Ragas start slow and increase to a frenetic pace and volume. The jhala is characterized by complete acceleration. Ancient Indian sitar players tended to rock their fingers with one moving hand on the strings, as opposed to “strumming,” adopted by Ravi Shankar.
In kirtan (singing of devotional music) this is the time when the chanting reaches its climax. People may jump up in the air to the ecstatic sounds of the instruments.
Speaking Through the Tabla
During vilambit the sitar plays the melody, and the drummer warms up. The tabla player may have an improv solo, and then an exchange. Evans showcases the artistry of Alla Rakha as an example of a master tabla player. Rakha, one of the foremost percussionists in world music, and father of an accomplished tabla player, says “every sound of tabla is its own syllable.” Rakha speaks through his tabla, emitting a different sound with every syllable, or hit to his drums.
Even more exemplary than talking through hand rhythms, Evans says tabla players can play a cycle lasting up to an auspicious 108 beats, whereas most beat cycles are just ten or under.
The number 108 is common for yogis. Mantras are traditionally repeated 108 times, yogis complete 108 sun salutations during the solstice, and mala beads (and rosaries) have 108 stones. What seems inexplicable is that the distance between the earth and the moon is 108 times the moon’s diameter. The diameter of the sun is 108 times the diameter of the earth. The body has 108 main nadis (meridians/channels).
The stamp of the ancient Hindustani rishis — and musicians — lingers, in our society and in our hearts.