The seven notes in an octave are known as Swar in Indian classical music. Specific combinations of these swars, performed in prescribed ascending and descending scales, make up a raga. Each raga has its own grammar and nuances such as emphasis on a particular note, which give it its unique character. Particularly in North Indian classical music, a musical performance can or will have an element of improvisation, but always within the confines of the raga’s grammar.
Swar sadhana - the discipline or devotion to the pursuit of finding the perfect rendition of swar, is undertaken through regular riyaaz or practice, often under guidance. Exercising the vocal chords and muscles is executed through patterns of notes, sometimes in pyramids and sets, at times in different tempos - often some of those exercises look like those for training your whole body in physical exercise. Importantly, it’s not just about practicing a popular song and singing it really really well, but more about building your core to be able to do everything else really well by having more units of ability to orchestrate and improvise with. Similarly, people turn up to throw a perfect pot on the wheel straightaway, I am guilty of that ambition, whereas it can take time, patience and application to get to that place. Musicians who take this practice very seriously may eventually go through a chilla - forty days and nights in isolation doing nothing but practice and pure focus on the pursuit of excellence with no distractions.
Traditionally, the learning has been through oral tradition in a guru-shishya relationship, where the teacher guides and hones the skills of his or her shishya (pupil) or shagirdi (disciple) in a particular school of music called a gharana.
Nowadays, particularly in the West, physical access to such gurus can be difficult, therefore those relationships can be more disparate and fluid. Ironically however, the internet and technology - which could be regarded as an impersonal connection, can enable this relationship to be even more longer lasting and personal by enabling people to stay more connected not only via social media and the likes of Skype, but also by having ready access to performances on YouTube etc. to follow, compare and learn.
I was taught my groundwork by Nitai Dasgupta in North London, following a chance introduction to his daughter several years ago. Sadly he passed away a few years ago, and I’ve had fits and starts of all sorts since. The importance of a good teacher or mentor cannot be overlooked, and I have chosen to bypass many opportunities in the meantime. However, when I first moved to Northampton, a random find on the internet led me to tabla player Jagdeep Mudan, through whom I have now been introduced to Harkirat Kaur and now Kankana Banerjee whilst on tour. Bizarrely, both Nitai Dasgupta and Kankana Banerjee knew each other, having shared some tutelage themselves!
This is how I recently went through ganda bandhan. It is a ritual marking the acceptance of a student under the guru. An agreement to pass on knowledge by one, and a commitment to learn and practice purposefully by the other. Kankanaji tied the string round my wrist seven times - each circle representing each of the seven swaras - Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni - which are more familiar as Do Re Me Fa So La Ti. I don’t know what my destination is, but I intend to make the most of my journey.
Have a listen:
Kankana Banerjee with her long term shagirdi, Mehram Singh
Parween Sultana, 3 octave queen, who I’ve seen live twice
Shubha Mudgal, has a creative, often modern collaborative approach - seen her live three times, including once at the South Bank with a jazz singer and cuban singer I think - at one point all of them singing their own thing but together, stunning.
Tahira Syed, not into all her work, but heard this on a classical collection, song with a classical basis, one of my all time favourites, never heard her live