Sonic Saturdays

Listen: Decoding the shruti, the smallest detectable note in Indian classical music

These are 22 micro-tonal interpretations within broader swaras or notes.

The Indian saptak or heptad is commonly perceived as a group of seven swaras or notes. Four of these have komal or flat variants and one has a tivra or sharp variant. However, since time immemorial, scholars and practitioners have held that there are micro-tonal intervals spread across the saptak, thus bringing the total number of tonal variations to 22 shrutis (literally, the smallest tonal interval that is audible to the human ear).

While this aspect was deliberated upon in various texts, it was largely generally believed that the shrutis could not be pinpointed and were instead tonal areas that could be experienced in a specific musical context.

During the colonial period, the nationalist project of classicising Indian music and establishing it on a par with Western music prompted some scholars to project Indian music as much as a science as an art. One of the ways to further this cause was to calculate and define mathematical values of the shrutis within a saptak.

Several discussions pertaining to the shrutis took place during music conferences held in the early part of the 20th century. In addition, many scholars wrote on the subject. For instance, Krishnaji Balwant Deval alias Ballal alias Balaji (1847-1931), District Deputy Collector of Ratnagiri, wrote prolifically on this between 1886 and 1908 and his treatise, Hindu Musical Scale and Twenty-two Shrutis, was published in 1910. Similarly, Mangeshrao Telang (1856-1949), Assistant Registrar in the Bombay High Court and a veena player, wrote The Twenty-two shrutis of Indian music.

In practice

The discourse on shrutis was not restricted only to scholarly writings. It even saw its practical application through the work of GB Achrekar (1885-1939), a musicologist, musician and artisan of Poona (now Pune), who constructed a shruti-harmonium called shrutimandalmanjushe and delivered lectures on the subject along with demonstrations at Bombay (now Mumbai), Poona and Kolhapur.

Over the centuries, practitioners have continued to use the shrutis in their music. Some believe that they can actually define each shruti as a discreet tonal unit, while others regard the use as a more contextual occurrence that is difficult to pinpoint and yet provides a distinct character to each raag.

A project titled Music in Motion, initiated by Bernard Bel and later led by Suvarnalata Rao (National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai) and Wim van der Meer (University of Amsterdam) towards developing a system of notation that would best represent the special characteristics of Hindustani music, also examines the use of the shrutis in performance.

Individual presentations in the raag Darbari Kanada by well-known dhrupad singer Uday Bhawalkar and khayal singer Ram Deshpande accompanied with a graphic notational display of the music that can be accessed here

Vidyadhar Oke  

Play

Harmonium player and researcher Vidyadhar Oke has also spent several years in studying the shruti phenomenon and has constructed a harmonium that reflects the 22 shrutis. Here, he demonstrates the mathematical values for each.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Watch Ruchir's journey: A story that captures the impact of accessible technology

Accessible technology has the potential to change lives.

“Technology can be a great leveller”, affirms Ruchir Falodia, Social Media Manager, TATA CLiQ. Out of the many qualities that define Ruchir as a person, one that stands out is that he is an autodidact – a self-taught coder and lover of technology.

Ruchir’s story is one that humanises technology - it has always played the role of a supportive friend who would look beyond his visual impairment. A top ranker through school and college, Ruchir would scan course books and convert them to a format which could be read out to him (in the absence of e-books for school). He also developed a lot of his work ethos on the philosophy of Open Source software, having contributed to various open source projects. The access provided by Open Source, where users could take a source code, modify it and distribute their own versions of the program, attracted him because of the even footing it gave everyone.

That is why I like being in programming. Nobody cares if you are in a wheelchair. Whatever be your physical disability, you are equal with every other developer. If your code works, good. If it doesn’t, you’ll be told so.

— Ruchir.

Motivated by the objectivity that technology provided, Ruchir made it his career. Despite having earned degree in computer engineering and an MBA, friends and family feared his visual impairment would prove difficult to overcome in a work setting. But Ruchir, who doesn’t like quotas or the ‘special’ tag he is often labelled with, used technology to prove that differently abled persons can work on an equal footing.

As he delved deeper into the tech space, Ruchir realised that he sought to explore the human side of technology. A fan of Agatha Christie and other crime novels, he wanted to express himself through storytelling and steered his career towards branding and marketing – which he sees as another way to tell stories.

Ruchir, then, migrated to Mumbai for the next phase in his career. It was in the Maximum City that his belief in technology being the great leveller was reinforced. “The city’s infrastructure is a challenging one, Uber helped me navigate the city” says Ruchir. By using the VoiceOver features, Ruchir could call an Uber wherever he was and move around easily. He reached out to Uber to see if together they could spread the message of accessible technology. This partnership resulted in a video that captures the essence of Ruchir’s story: The World in Voices.

Play

It was important for Ruchir to get rid of the sympathetic lens through which others saw him. His story serves as a message of reassurance to other differently abled persons and abolishes some of the fears, doubts and prejudices present in families, friends, employers or colleagues.

To know more about Ruchir’s journey, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Uber and not by the Scroll editorial team.