From Finding the Raga, which was published last month by New York Review Books.
What is a raga? To answer this question we must first acquire a sense of what it isn’t. It isn’t a composition, though compositions are set to ragas. It isn’t a melody, in that a melody can be sung without preoccupations to do with form and shape; with a raga, the emergence during its exposition of its rupa—the features and shape that make it recognizable—is of primary importance. A raga is not a scale. It is not the sum total of its notes. You may know the notes of a raga but have little idea of what it is.
The sa, or the tonic, in a raga is not only the first step, it is also the last. The sa is one’s introduction, and surrender, to sur, or svara—words that mean melody, music. Unless the sa is engrossed in sur, one can’t attempt the glissandi that connect one note to another. The meend—an arc, or bent note—carries grace and movement. The voice that sings it needs to be assured in a way that’s different from a voice producing voluble single notes. The meend isn’t about loudness, or emphasis. Nor is it a cartilage joining two notes. It’s an undulation—something ranging from a wave to a nuance. Getting it right requires control. Before attempting the wave, you pause at the sa, deepening it.
Every raga in North Indian music has a time, and sometimes a season, of performance: it can’t, or shouldn’t, be performed in contravention of the time of day or season it’s linked to—it would be plain odd if it were. Kedar is sung after eight o’clock in the evening, and to sing it at twilight, at six o’clock, would create slight discomfiture. I needn’t mention the incredulity singers would face if they performed Kedar in the morning. The same holds true of a seasonal raga such as Megh (literally “cloud”), which is added to the repertoire specifically for the duration of the monsoons. It would be strange to hear a musician playing Megh in January. Of course, Western music has time-adhering chants, and evensong, but these originated in pre-Renaissance religious practice or liturgy. The raga has long ceased to be temple-specific, if it ever was; it’s a way of experiencing the world.
There is no obvious, or mimetic, or representational, or narrative connection between a raga and a time of day or season, as there is, say, between Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony and spring, nature, and the countryside. What I mean is that there are no scales or sets of notes in North Indian classical music that have a reliable mimetic identity, by which we can safely associate them with morning or night, light or dark, joy or sadness. The relationship that the raga has to time or day or season—that is, to the world—is not narrative or representational, but linguistic; that is, the relationship between raga Kedar and evening is as arbitrary and ineluctable as the relationship between the word “evening” and that time of day. Arbitrary in that “evening,” as a term, has no inherent evening-like qualities; unlike onomatopoeic words—say, “glug”—its sound doesn’t mimic what it means. Yet the relationship is ineluctable, too. Once we’re aware of language, it becomes, for us, the world it refers to. To use “morning” to refer to “evening” would lead to dissonance. Similarly, to sing a morning raga in the evening is not so much inadmissible as incongruous. Once we’re aware of the ragas, they become part of what can only be called a linguistic consciousness of the world in the present moment, the world being, in this case, “India” or “North India.” Music becomes a text that is not so much about the world as it is, like language, a way of both being in and deciphering it, its waning and returning of light, its subtle changes of weather. The raga is not about the world; it is of it. A significant leakage in both directions is allowed: the raga’s into the world, the world’s into the raga.