In order to appreciate Raja, you need to unfortunately get a bit technical about music. We will take a quick look at Classical Music at a 40,000 foot level. While Indian Classical music in general and Carnatic Classical Music (CCM) in particular has a great tradition and has a long and rich history, it does have a few characteristics that are undeniable. Most Indian classical music is an individualistic experience. It is seldom a team effort. Most instrumentation is merely to support the main vocalist/instrumentalist. We speak about Bhimsen Joshi or Balamuralikrishna and rarely speak about a group of musicians. As Raja once said, ‘Indian classical music is so lonely compared to Western Classical Music (WCM)’. In Carnatic music, there are sections of ‘thani avarthanam’ to demonstrate the skill of the instrumentalist. Beyond that, there is rarely a need for intense coordination. In fact, we use the term ‘accompaniment’, meaning that the support instrumentalists play along with the main artist! In other words, there is very little room for ‘harmony’ in Indian classical music. Most of our music is traditionally carried forward through the generations. There is limited documentation on our music and there is hardly a way in our music to notate everything.
Western Classical Music (WCM) is team sport. For centuries, WCM had composers, conductors, arrangers and players who used notations developed it to the point that composers can work freely on musical ideas and get conductors to do the actual performance. This lends easily to exciting things – coordination of several players to contribute to smooth and melodious music (harmony). Even singing in the classical sense can be notated – there are choral conductors that conduct chorus singing in most WCM concerts. In other words, every sound emerging out of an orchestra can be pre-written, conducted and played. Very unlike CCM!
There are several differences between WCM and CCM that it appears almost incompatible. Here are some:
- In the world of WCM, everything is based on what is called as ‘scales’ – this is to select the tone. A scale consists of a pattern governed by strict rules but set on a tone. You can vary the tone of the scale, but you are not allowed to vary the pattern. In other words, you can transition from one scale to the next – you might have heard terms such as C-Major or E-Minor – these are naming conventions for scales. I do not want to go deep into WCM scales as this is not about musicology, but to understand Raja, you must be aware of WCM scales.
- In the world of CCM, you have to fix the tone of the scale, but you are allowed to vary the pattern. If you closely observe any Cutcheri, before any song is rendered, we try to fix the tone (using a thumpura). (It has now become common place for a number of musicians to say, ‘this is in the mayamalavagowlai scale’ – nothing can be farther from the definition of scale – what they mean is the base pattern of the raga).
- In the world of WCM, there is no room for microtones. Microtones are referred as ‘gamakams’ in Indian music. All our music is rich in microtones. In fact, the entire Raga pattern is dependent on gamakams. Microtones are essential parts of our music to enhance the raga. The raga itself is a pattern and the standard Indian notation (Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ne) can be mapped to the Western keyboard. However, we have additional connotations beyond these basic notes, and so does the Western system. 'Solfege notation' in WCM is when they say notations. Example, when Raja narrates his 3-note song to the Italian audience, he uses the 'Solfege notation'. (The Music Journey of Ilayaraja). The C,D,E,F,G,A,B is a written Western notation.
- In the world of WCM, there are two major methods of playing music with an orchestra – homophony and polyphony. Homophony involves the arrangement and playing of the various instruments and ensuring that there is overall melody in the resultant sound. Most Indian composers have a good grounding on this – this does not mean that it is easy. Polyphony involves several melodies at the same time being played and the resultant music must be pleasant to hear. There is nothing called polyphony in Indian music. There is a view that homophony is the horizontal part of WCM and polyphony is the vertical part. Raja is an expert in polyphonic music. More on this later.
- WCM has just two patterns – Major and minor – CCM has millions! The CCM world is so mathematically precise, that the 72 main ragas (there are several derived ones – called janya ragas) in the Melakartha scheme have been even named mathematically. For example, the popular ragam Shankarabharanam is actually called Dhirashankarabharanam due to the mathematical nature of naming in the melakartha scheme. The melakartha scheme is similar to Mendeleev’s Periodic table for chemists and physicists. Those of you who want to wonder more at our ancestral mathematical genius are welcome to visit: http://mailvarun.blogspot.com/2007/11/interpreting-melakartha-chart.html
- CCM enthusiasts cannot change the tone – abswaram. That’s supposed to be sin!
- WCM enthusiast cannot understand mindless (don’t freak out – in their minds) pattern variations and cannot appreciate Indian music. They think ours is some freaky free form music – nothing can be farther from truth.
- Shifting from one scale to the next is called ‘modulation’ in WCM. There are modulation rules, but nothing prohibits you from modulating. Now you can understand why Carnatic purists dislike Raja – he is full of abaswarams! To appreciate modulation, here are two examples you can try and understand – The first part of Hey Ram (2000) mini symphony, the prelude of Andhi Mazhai Pozhikiradhu (Raja Paarvai – 1980). These are also sometimes described as sliding scales.
That’s a ton of boring music theory stuff, though we have hardly touched the tip of the iceberg. The idea is not to display my knowledge, but impress upon you the genius of Raja. You cannot appreciate Quantum mechanics, unless you appreciate Classical mechanics.
In essence, we learned that both CCM and WCM are based on solid grounds but have conflicting rules that can almost end up with religious type wars! No system is the better of the two – they are just simply designed that way. What’s one system’s rigidity is another system’s flexibility! What if you can play with the flexibility and the rigidity of both these systems and come out with music that the world has never heard before? That’s Raja and his genius. He does not care about WCM or CCM gurus complaining. While they do, neither did we hear SPB singing in abhaswaram for Raja, nor have we seen an improperly harmonized song from Raja. This requires such solid grounding on music theory, he is deservedly a genius. While this is a rare gift and everyone who understands one or the other, or both systems keep wondering about this little villager, he calls his craft as just fraud!