Last June, on his then-active, now regrettably dozing blog, the eminent Carnatic vocalist Sanjay Subrahmanyan wrote a series of engaging posts about growing up in a rabidly musical household, and in particular about his grandfather Thyagu. “My grandfather was most happy when I started singing,” Subrahmanyan wrote. “Every time I sat down to practice he would just wander in and listen.” And not surprisingly, like so many other Carnatic aficionados, Thyagu prized the heavy ragas above all else: “He would make me sing the heavy ragams like Todi, Bhairavi and Kambhoji all the time and keep telling me the choice phrases that he liked.”
The depth of the divide between heavy and light ragas lies partly in the critic’s eye, but the divide itself is an organic one, inherent to the music. The heavy ragas—and there are more in that list, such as Kalyani, Sankarabharanam and Karaharapriya—are complex and academic, and they offer plenty of what Carnatic music writers like to call “scope for elaboration”. They are laden with gamakas, which are microtonal oscillations of notes, variously rendered, and which need to be lavished with attention. They are made up, too, of large batches of classical phrases, to be permuted and combined with aesthetic care. Invariably, these ragas—and the songs set to these ragas—form the monumental centrepieces of a Carnatic music concert.
Weighty: Sanjay Subrahmanyan. Arjoon Manohar / Mint
If, as a performer, you toss a 5-minute alapana of Kalyani, or a superficially explored Bhairavi as your main piece, you must be prepared for the unsettling ripples of discontent that will inevitably follow. But those ripples will turn into waves if, instead, you choose a lighter raga—Behag, Sindhubhairavi, Senjurutti—for your main piece. Only in the latter half of a concert do these ragas traditionally make their appearance. Their notes are less nuanced and their structures less complex, which is the reason some purists shrug them off as lesser ragas.
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But in some concerts—and I’m thinking here of the violin maestro T.N. Krishnan in particular—I wait with some impatience for these light ragas. Krishnan plays them with such sweetness and purity that I get goosebumps every time at their simple, unadorned sound. I was struck at one point by a culinary analogy to this. In multi-stage gourmet meals, the main course is often followed by a small serving of lemon sorbet, its sharp citrus intended to cleanse and reset a palate that has been inundated by excesses of rich, complex tastes. The tongue responds to this; in fact, it grasps eagerly at the prospect of only processing one uncomplicated flavour.
A similar phenomenon of sensation guides the ear in a Carnatic music concert. The main course, the Bhairavi, say, carries weighty and intellectual appeal. The Sindhubhairavi sorbet that comes after it, in a sense, resets the ear with its visceral, goosebump-y appeal of just a beautiful arrangement of plain (even plaintive) notes. Neither Bhairavi nor Sindhubhairavi—neither heavy ragas nor light ragas—could be quite as effective without the other. It’s a wonder of sonic balance that rounds off the banquet perfectly.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org