Some Hindustani music aficionados and musicians believe that the gravitas and majesty of certain raags is best represented in the male voice. In fact, some even believe that specific ornamentations like heavy gamaks or oscillations on notes should be avoided by female vocalists.
The obvious presuppositions are that raags and musical ornamentations are gender-specific, that the female voice must not demonstrate elements of so-called masculinity that they believe some raags or ornamentations display, and that the very nature of female voices should be restricted to acceptable norms.
Doubtless, such gender-biased opinions about raags and their musical interpretations are indicative of a patriarchal society. The contemplative and serious mood of the morning raag Bhairav also perhaps encounters similar prejudices.
But the fourth episode of our series on Bhairav features two tracks by female vocalists belonging to the same gharana. Their voices are quite apart from each other and their interpretations are dissimilar. Yet, the presentations prove that female vocalists have broken prejudicial barriers on several occasions and charted their own courses.
The first track is a live concert recording featuring Gangubai Hangal, a significant and respected voice from the Kirana gharana. To begin with, Hangal’s voice that would be considered androgynous by many, challenges preconceived notions of what a female voice should sound like. Her interpretation of the raag is not diluted in any way, as she paints the contours of Bhairav in a forthright manner.
She sings a khayal in vilambit or slow Ektaal, a cycle of 12 matras or time units, followed by a composition in a medium-paced 16 matra Teentaal.
The next track features Prabha Atre, one of the foremost representatives of the Kirana gharana today. The three compositions she sings are invocations to the Hindu deity Shiva, also known as Bhairav.
The first khayal is set to Ektaal. Atre delivers the vistaar or free-flowing melodic section in a sweet and malleable voice that has a crisp edge to it. She moves to sargam or solfège patterns that often deviate from the conventional image of raag Bhairav. Later, she launches into a series of taans or swift melodic passages.
The second composition is set to a medium-paced Teentaal. Once again, Atre demonstrates great vocal dexterity in the taans that she sings effortlessly.
The third piece set to a fast-paced 10-matra Jhaptaal uses the mantra Om Namo Shivaaya as a single-line composition. Traditionally treated as a chant, Atre repeats the line while changing the melodic line to navigate the pathways of raag Bhairav.