Sound Matters: The SEM Blog

Thomas W. Ross – Amir Khan and the South. II

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Saraswati

Grape, banana, and coconut

Because the goddess Sarasvatī holds both the book and the vīṇā, we are encouraged to summon both mind and heart in the pursuit of any learning.

This apparent contradiction has guises such as left brain/right brain, Apollo/Dionysus, and many more. It’s handy for sketches of the familiar: Herbie Hancock/Wynton Kelly, Béla Bartók/Aaron Copland, or Steely Dan/Justin Bieber.

But Indians seem to acknowledge a middle ground between these extremes: the triumvirate of South Indian composers, Tyāgarāja (1767–1847), Śyāma Śāstri (1762–1827), and Muttusvāmi Dīkṣitar (1775–1835), are likened to the grape, banana, and coconut. The first you pop in your mouth immediately. The second has to be peeled. And the third has a shell protecting its alabaster treasure.

The three are called vagayakar, ill-translated as composer: the term implies an equal mastery of book and vīṇā, of words and music. Dīkṣitar, for one, came from an illustrious line of musician-scholars whose formidable pieces betray a poet’s knowledge of Sanskrit.

Dikshitar

Viswa told me that he first learned Dīkṣitar’s highbrow, gnarly, big-design coconut pieces, to the neglect of the other two composer-saints. Such august fare earned his early performances the gossip of being one-sided, so he added Tyāgarāja (the ultimate bhakti popularizer) and Śyāma Śāstri (a middle-ground) pieces as an appeasement. Same with swara kalpana, improvised solfege: they joined his concerts as a nod to mainstream Karnatak orthodoxy.

Dīkṣitar’s semi-legendary life has striking parallels to the eclectic and somber Amir Khan’s. The vīṇā -playing devotee of Shiva visited tirthsthans (pilgrimage sites) all over India, including a stint in Banaras. His interaction with the glacial-tempoed dhrupad singers and bīnkars of that music-drenched town (when indeed the Hindustani and the Karnatak weren’t so far apart as today) seem to me likely to have had a profound effect on his compositions.

The Word and the Lute, the Sword and the Flute. Amir Khan was an alert and thoughtful gatherer of influences that he came to call the Indore gharānā or school. A common cultural memory of Mughal/Rajput, worldly and ascetic, resonated between the disparate worlds of a Muslim animus of khayālthe North and a Hindu anima of the South. Khansahab admittedly could be downright ponderous in the slowest of his Jhumra (14-beats). I’m not the first to nod off with him occasionally. But his rāgas were leavened later in a performance by astonishing flights of tān melismas, even while retaining their bhāva or particular flavor.

The Balasaraswati family style also championed the leisurely and architectonic together with the sensual and the pyrotechnic, both by their renderings of the Dīkṣitar repertoire and in the sultry seriousness of the padams with which Bala ended her concerts. This musician’s musician’s milieu was Amir Khan’s during his visits, where the admiration went both ways. It’s a good guess that the impossibly slow tempi of his opening khayāls were encouraged, if not by direct influence, by a common taste for gravity.

In the Balasaraswati style, here’s Muktamma’s version of Dīkṣitar’s devastatingly gorgeous “Vīṇā pustaka dhāriṇī” (we were taught it in Jhampa tāla, a slow 10 beats, 7 + 3). Like Ahīr Bhairav in the North, the rāga Vegavahini (also called Chakravakam) is 1 ♭2 3 4 5 6 ♭7.

Borrowed and stolen

Amateurs borrow, professionals steal. (Variously attributed)

Two Dīkṣitar pieces have recently been given amateur or professional treatments by the North, I’m thinking: “Vātāpi Ganapatim” and Anandamritavarshini. From the latter, I hope to shed light on a mystery rāga by Amir Khan, sometimes called Amirkhani.

I was taught “Vātāpi,” the closest to a potboiler that Dīkṣitar ever wrote, by S. Ramanathan at Wesleyan in 1963. The kṛiti, in the sunny rāga Hamsadhvani, is the icing on a serious composerly cake, albeit well-wrought:

Later I learned its Northern offshoot in the same rāga, starting with the words “Lāgī lagana”. The little khayāl appropriates, as it were, the first two lines of a famous poem (and no more) without acknowledging it’s by someone called Robert Frost. This in turn has recently spawned its own grotesquerie in an army of high school-level sitārists fronted by dark-skinned ringers from the South:

Amir Khan’s quick khayāls in Hamsadhvani retain some of the rāga’s lightheartedness. Its smile is wider than a major scale. In this rendition, he keeps Lagi lagana’s basic melody but abandons the brief Brjbhāshā text, transforming Dīkṣitar’s sagati variations into a brisk drum-syllable tarānā:

But what of this mystery rāga? One of the last recordings Khansahab made, at a Calcutta gathering, featured an unknown rāga that he treated with his characteristic introspection. It combines the optimism of the Kalyāṇ family with a lowered 7th degree: 1 3 #4 5 ♭7. Any effort so far to parse it points South, either as an arcane offshoot of the Vāchaspati family or, I’m guessing, as an ingenious twist on the rāga to Dīkṣitar’s most famous and accessible tune, “Ānandāmritavarshinī.” It differs from the mystery rāga only in its 7th degree, and given the preference in Bala’s household for Dīkṣitar’s music, I think Khansahab lowered the 7th degree of Āmritavarshinī for what’s now called Amīrkhānī:

Although we must be thankful for all of Khansahab’s contributions, this last caps a career which included an openness to anything musical transpiring in the Madras home of his hosts, the Balasaraswati family.

Thomas W. Ross

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