Amidst the din of slogans proclaiming nationalism and patriotism, it would perhaps be appropriate to pause and enjoy the strains of raag Desh, also called Des. Historically, the raag has had nothing to do with the idea of the Indian nation and the Indian nation state. In fact, it predates such concepts, although it had been harnessed a few years ago to project India’s cultural unity through a short film, which featured some of the country’s celebrated North Indian and South Indian musicians and dancers.
But moving beyond this obvious effort at representing Indian nationalism through raag Desh, one can experience different moods of this raag through various musical forms.
Of the tracks featured this week, we begin with one that is chronologically the earliest. This is Gauhar Jaan’s 78 rpm recording of raag Desh. She sings a bandish ki thumri that has virtually every syllable of the song-text latched onto the units of the time-cycle. The composition is set to Teentaal, a sixteen-matra or time-unit cycle. Interestingly, while thumri is elaborated using the bols or words of the song-text, Gauhar Jaan uses aakaar or the vowel "aa" through the vistaar or free-flowing elaboration. She also sings many taans or quick melodic passages in aakaar.
Agra gharana doyen Faiyaz Khan (1881-1950) sings a hori in raag Desh. Traditional hori compositions celebrate the colourful environment that surrounds festivities related to Holi, the festival of colours. Set to Teentaal, Faiyaz Khan alternates between exploring the raag through free-flowing use of specific words of the song-text and a more rhythmic elaboration. The rendition is also marked by taans, but neither do these nor does his stentorian voice take away from the playfulness that the composition demands. In fact, they only add to the beauty of the performance.
In sharp contrast to Faiyaz Khan’s powerful voice, Patiala gharana maestro Bade Ghulam Ali Khan (1901-1968), sings a self-composed piece in raag Desh in his unmatched richly textured voice. Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s rendition displays his archetypal unpredictability through strong and delicate phrases, and slow and swift taans. His son Munawar Ali Khan provides vocal accompaniment.
Gwalior gharana doyen Krishnarao Shankar Pandit (1893-1989) sings a chaturang in raag Desh. As the term suggests, the chaturang has four colours or components – song-text, tarana syllables, sargam or solfège, and pakhawaj syllables. The composition is set to Teentaal. Krishnarao Shankar Pandit uses heavy gamak or rapid oscillations around the notes, taans, and changes the scansion of parts of the song-text to offset the regularity of the Teentaal cycle.
The last track features thumri exponent Hiradevi Mishra in a recording that has inspired many contemporary vocalists. The composition is set to the sixteen-matra Sitarkhani or Addha taal. Tabla wizard Nizamuddin Khan accompanies her on this track.