Gurus required within

The Raga Guide

September 10, 1999

The concept of raga is India's most distinctive and yet most elusive contribution to musical art. Ever since Sir William Jones published his Treatise on the musical modes of the Hindus in 1792, western musicians and scholars have been intrigued by a musical system that is wholly melodic, and articulated not primarily through written theoretical works or notated compositions (though both exist) but through the partly memorised, partly improvised performances of musicians trained in the oral tradition. Like the religious traditions of India, music must ultimately be learned from a guru.

There is now an extensive repertory of recordings of Indian music on CD, but it is difficult to compare performances that are regularly in excess of 30 minutes' duration. The solution adopted in the Raga Guide is to present very brief (three to four minutes) performances of the principal north Indian ragas, recorded specially for the project by four distinguished musicians: two instrumentalists (flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia and sarodist Buddhadev Dasgupta), and two vocalists (Shruti Sadolikar-Katkar and Vidyadhar Vyas). The four CDs are accompanied by a book, giving a brief introduction to and outline of each raga, and a transcription of part of the recorded performance. There is an introduction to the history and theory of raga, a useful glossary and bibliography, and a selection of colour reproductions of miniature paintings representing ragas in their traditional iconography.

The recorded performances may be short, but they are miniature gems, in which the performers succeed in capturing the essential flavour and demonstrating the distinctive structural characteristics of each raga. The historical and theoretical materials are authoritative but readable. The work could be invaluable as a textbook to support academic or practical courses in Indian music or ethnomusicology, or as a guide for the individual listener with a grounding in music notation, or simply as a highly pleasurable listening experience.

It is disappointing that the differences between vocal styles, which are partly correlated with ragas and on which instrumental styles are based, do not emerge very clearly. Such matters are the stuff of traditional instruction and musical discourse in India, but perhaps take us into realms properly reserved for oral transmission and direct demonstration.

Gurus may rest assured that despite the usefulness of this welcome guide, they remain indispensable.

Richard Widdess is head of music, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

The Raga Guide: A Survey of 74 Hindustani Ragas

Editor - Joep Bor
ISBN - NI 5536/9
Publisher - Nimbus Records
Price - £32.99
Pages - 196

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