Mai Ri Shyam


माई री श्याम श्याम श्याम रटत श्यामा श्याम भई
अपनी सखिन सों पूछत हैं श्यामा कहाँ गयी
ब्रज बीथन में ढूँढत डोलत बोलत राधे राधे
रही निहार सोच कर सखी सकल मौन साधे

By chanting ‘Shyam Shyam Shyam’ Shyama (Radha) became Shyam
So our friends ask ‘Where did Shyama go?’
Searching everywhere in Braj & Beethan, they cried out ‘Radhe Radhe’
Thinking that there was a mist, they became silent.

We, who take so much pride in our individuality, what do we know of the pleasure of drowning ourselves in the Universal? The greatest of our Indian Saints have sung of this, have they not?  And yet we hold on to our separateness, our egos, our individuality. In this world of no absolutes, why do we think that ‘I’ is absolute?

I recently saw a Ted talk recommended to me by one of my readers (Thank you Ravi). The speaker is Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard trained neuroscientist. She talks of her experience during a stroke in her left brain. As a scientist, she observed herself and the world around even as her brain failed. When the left brain stopped functioning, she says that her consciousness shifted into the present moment and she experienced herself ‘at one with the universe’. In a heartfelt and touching speech she says ‘I looked down at my arm and I realised that I can no longer define the boundaries of my body. I can’t define where I begin and where I end’. Is this what the mystics talk about? Is this how Radha, chanting the name of Krishna, found herself to be Shyam? In my last post, I asked myself if the brain was what we called Maya, the illusion which stopped us from seeing the universality of the world. Today I refine my question to myself, is it the left-hemisphere which is the culprit?

It is not often that I pick up Hindustani Classical Music for my posts; though I love it, my understanding of it is abysmal. Yet today it can be no song but this. I am featuring a special kind of Jugalbandi today, called a Jasrangi. Typically, male and female voices have different pitches, the male voice being deeper and occupying a lower frequency range. To sing together, men and women have to sing a whole octave apart so that the notes match. This is why we find very high pitched singers in the Bollywood as this is needed in duets. However, in classical music where men and women sing in their natural pitches, duets are hard to achieve.  To overcome this problem, Pandit Jasraj has developed a style of duet in which the male and female voices sing different ragas at the same time. The ragas chosen are such that shifting the tonic of one raga to the madhyama creates the scale for the second raga. Whilst singing, the madhyama of the male singer matches the shadjam of the female singer. Choosing ragas which, after a tonic shift (Graha Bedam/Moorchana), use the same frequencies, there is no clash. And we the listeners hear a note which weaves from being one in the first raga and something else in the second raga. Is this what Radha felt, when she went from being Shyama to Shyam and then back to Shyama? In this rendition, the lyrics chosen are wonderfully appropriate as the ragas morph from Puriya Dhanashree to Shuddha Basant and back.


Filed under Hindustani Classical Music, Sanjeev Abhyankar, Tripti Mukherjee

7 responses to “Mai Ri Shyam

  1. Ravi

    I heard the first few minutes, Suja.

    “So we are singing two different ragas at the same time. They will stand out separately, but still they are together because the notes in both the ragas are the same. So they won’t clash to each other. I am singing ragam Puria Dhanashree taking her madhyam, her “ma” as my “sa,”says Sanjeev Abhyankar in the beginning.

    I heard the sounds and understood some of it, but I felt like Dr. Taylor when she called for help as she was experiencing what would turn out to be near-catastrophic stroke. When her colleague picked up the phone and started talking, all she heard was, “Whoo woo wooo woo woo.” She thought, “Oh my gosh, he sounds like a golden retriever!”

    Fortunately for me, Mr. Abhyankar continued, “Now you enjoy with total blank… blank mind. No need to understand anything. Just enjoy the experience.” I certainly can do that, but I’ll have to do it another time when I have more time to spare.

    Thanks for posting this.

    • 🙂 You made me laugh with your reference to Dr Taylor’s phone call 🙂

      Would you like an easy explanation of what’s happening? As you probably know, an Octave is the interval between one musical note and another one which is double its frequency (or half its frequency for the lower octave). In Indian music it is the interval between, for example, the lower sa and the upper sa. As you must have experienced, though we can hear two different sounds, we can think of it as basically the same. Now take the Octave and divide into 12 equal intervals. Well, not exactly equal but it does not matter to us for this explanation. These make up the 12 notes we sing, the sa-ri-ga-ma-pa-dha-ni you know, and the alternate positions of ri, ga, ma, dha and ni. These are not absolute frequencies. Depending on the pitch of the singer, they can start sa at their comfortable level and everything else fits in relation to that. The human ear is attuned to hearing the gap between the frequencies and that is how it knows what the note being sung is. A man has a lower pitched voice and starts his sa at a certain frequency X. He works his way up the scale and reaches ma, which is at frequency Y – a fixed, pre-defined distance from X. We hear it distinctly as ma when we hear it sung after sa, because we know that the distance between X and Y is the ma-interval. Now a woman has a higher pitch naturally as compared to a man. She cannot sing from the frequency the man has chosen for sa. She starts higher, at Y, where the man has his ma. Her ma will fall at a higher frequency, lets call it Z. When we hear the X-Y interval, we register is as a sa-ma. When we hear Y-Z interval, we register than also as a sa-ma interval. So far so good?

      In this performance, the singers sing two different ragas (determined by the notes selected within the 12 possible notes), which have different swaras but are sung at the same frequency due to the difference in their pitch. So we hear one frequency in the male voice and our brain registers this as madhyama and then we hear the same frequency in the female voice and register it as a shadja. The notes change in front of our eyes as it were! Its magic 🙂

      I tried to draw a pic of the two ragas sung, but I am not 100% sure of it. Still, it will give you an idea. I have added it to post. Hope it helps.-
      cheers Suja.

      • Ravi

        Let me put it to you this way, Suja. I am an old dog (wrong side of 50, but few years shy of60). More a mutt than a Golden Retriever, I hasten to add. Maybe I can balance a ball on my nose or do an occasional pirouette every now and then, but this? I sort of understand what you explained, but let me assure you that it is not your lack of lucidity that is the reason for my lack of complete understanding. See, if you ask me to repeat what you just explained and I gave it the old college try, you are liable to repeat this old joke that you may have heard: “I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize what you heard is not what I meant.” Would you settle for a pirouette?

        Getting serious for a *second*, what I lack in this area, I made sure my two children didn’t. Both have Carnatic music background, with my son playing mridagangam occasionally for aragethrams and other programs. (Both claim to have perfect pitch, whatever than means!) My son once tried to explained to me about the quarter notes that is more prevalent in Carnatic music. When my eyes stopped spinning like a slot machine, he said, “maybe some other time.” I jest, of course, but you get the idea.

        I am back to taking consolation in Mr. Abhyankar’s statement, “Now you enjoy with total blank… blank mind.” I hope you don’t think of me as conceited, but I am quite certain he was thinking of *me* when he mentioned, “blank mind”!!! He is on to me and I *know* it!

        To enable my blank mind to enjoy the concert, I just converted the video to audio using so that I can listen to it more than once with the faint hope that some of your explanations will at last sink in. In any case, hope some of your readers will find the aforementioned YouTube to MP3 conversion link useful. See, I am not totally useless, or so I hope! Pirouette?

        Frivolously yours, etc. 🙂
        – Ravi

  2. indigoite

    Wow. I am amazed by the versatility of your taste in music. And the level of your knowledge although you continue to be self deprecating.

    Sometimes it pays to be a complete ignoramus. That is exactly how I listened to this piece. I found parts of it wonderful and parts not to my taste. cannot even explain how and why – just that it was so.

    I am very thankful for the day I found your blog. Its been an exhilarating experience “learning” music through your words and long may it continue.

    • Thank you yet again for your encouraging words. You have been so kind since you started following my posts and have been the one constant commentator for a long time. I am very grateful indeed. It is nice to put a ‘face’ as it were to the largely anonymous readership that I have 🙂

      I am glad you listened to this performance even though it was not all to your taste. They have done something very interesting in this duet and it is worth listening just for the technical expertise they have demonstrated. It must have been incredibly hard to concentrate on their own ragas and not get distracted by what the other is singing!
      Cheers. Suja

  3. Neetika

    Suja…..this is the first time I have been on your site. I totally get your explanation and interpretation of the Jasrangi jugalbandi. Both the rendition and your explanation are music to my ears.

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