Movie: Sangamam (1999) – Song: Sowkiyama

Lesson: The devil is in the detail.

This song was composed in Mand Ragam. The Ragam has its origins in Rajasthani folk music.

This is important to know, because in Rajasthani folk music, the poetry and the melody have an entangled relationship, where one cannot be separated from the other. The words convey meaning only when they are saturated with the rhythm and melody that they were set to.

If you extricate the melodic mode from the poetry, it alters the character of Mand, and Mand is not Mand anymore.

Carnatic music has adapted Mand to its style well. As has Indian cinema.

For instance, both the famous Rajasthani song Kesariya Balam, and AR Rahman’s Sowkiyama Kanne are about longing and separation, sung by women to their beloveds, asking them to return home. They express what the separation is doing them both physically and emotionally.

A lot of bengali bhajans are sung in Mand style as well. Typically, Meerabai’s bhajans, which too are filled with longing, as she expresses her passionate devotion for Krishna.

But, while Carnatic music honors the origin of this ragam (by retaining the original name among other things), Hindustani music does not consider Mand a full-fledged raag. It is accepted only as ‘a singing style’ with a sophisticated melodic framework that is best suited for light music such as ghazals or thumris.

Here’s why Carnatic is more flexible. There are 72 fundamental ragams (melakartas) or parent scales in Carnatic music, all of which contain seven notes called swaras (Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Da Ni), whose sequence is strictly in ascending and descending scales, where the ascending scale has the same notes as the descending scale, and begin and end with the same swara ‘Sa’  (Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Da Ni Sa. Sa Ni Da Pa Ma Ga Ri Sa).

Every other ragam that is not one of the 72 ragams is a derivative (janya) of it! For instance: Mand Ragam is a derivate of Dheerashankarabharanam (or Shankarabharanam for short), because it has all the notes of Shankarabharanam, but omits a few notes in the ascending scale (Sa Ga Ma Pa Da Sa. Sa Ni Da Pa Ma Ga Ri Sa)

The equivalent of Shankarabharanam in Hindustani is Bilawal. And the equivalent in western music is the Ionian mode – major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C), which was made popular in the movie Sound of Music (Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do)

In Hindustani Music, there are only 10 main ragas or parent scales (as opposed to 72 in Carnatic) that are called thaat. All ten thaats have seven notes called swaras (Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Da Ni), and must not contain any emotional quality (unlike its derivative ragas). Bilawal, like Shakarabharam, is therefore a parent raga, and one of the 10 thaats.

Because of the strictness of the fundamental ragas, there may be an overlap in ragas between Hindustani and Carnatic, but for the most part, even when the names of ragas are the same, they are said to possess “false friendship”, meaning they look and sound the same but differ in form or meaning. In other words, the similarity is only accepted out of politeness.

If Hindustani has only 10 parent scales and Carnatic 72, it should mean that Hindustani is less rigid about its derivate ragas, since there are so many ragas. There is also a lot more room for subjectivity within it! But, the problem with subjectivity is, it is dependent on the experts to gain approval as a raga, and experts are not easy to please.

I am mostly amazed at how different the north and south indian versions of Mand are, and how well it adapts to new forms, while maintaining its personality! There is some food for thought there, on what makes a song Hindustani or Carnatic, when it is sung in the same ragam.

To help you understand, listen to these pieces performed in Mand and see if you can tell how each song varies from the other in ornamentation, emphasis and microtones (sruti), and how they take higher or flatter varieties of the same notes (swaras). Can you tell that they were all sung in the same ragam?

Rahman: Sangamam – Sowkiyama
Carnatic: Thillana – Jayanthi Kumaresh (Veena) / Lalgudi Jayaraman (Composer)
Hindustani: Mand – Ustad Nishad Khan (Sitar)
Rajastani Song: Kesariya Balam – Allah Jilai Bai

(This is an exercise you can also do to understand why two ragams that share the same notes sound different. eg: Mohana ragam and Shivaranjani ragam)

Fair Use Request: Please consider listening to no more than a minute of each song, and buying a legal copy.

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6 responses

  1. I think you’re taking this copyright thing too far. Music India Online does buy the rights off the companies to the music, so that everyone can listen to them. There is no question of fair use here. Everyone is entitled to listen to the whole thing in full as many times as one wishes to.

  2. This is brilliant! I have spent years looking for something like this because this is exactly what I’ve been wanting to do, but dont believe I have enough of the technical knowledge required to have a fulfledged blog such as this..

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