RagAlive: Neelambari

DOI: https://doi.org/10.33008/IJCMR.2020.34 | Issue 6 | May 2021

Charulatha Mani


Confronting a pressing need for newer approaches to reimagining traditional musics, RagAlive: Neelambari is a stratified soundscape that is rigorous in theoretical underpinnings and compositional strategies, relevant to fields of poetry, literature and sound art, and makes a significant contribution to the fields of intercultural composition, and music and emotion as envisaged through a practice-based research model. This work holds originality in that it is a deliberate act of cross-contamination designed to destabilise and disrupt established patterns of musical composition, assembly, recognition and cultural representation. Through this piece, I propose that a covert sonic reframing of cultural hybridity can allow for a sensitive, yet radical, approach to fusion.

(Click on the image below to listen to RagAlive: Neelambari on SoundCloud).

Research Statement

Newer approaches to reimagining traditional musics remain interesting sites of research and practice. Revitalizing established genres, sustaining perishing traditions, and the intersection of these motives with notions of 'hybridity' and 'fusion' in music have marked the cross-over of Eastern sounds, such as that of Indian music, to the West (Mani 2019; Panikker 2010). Today there is a global audience that appreciates the presence of an element of uncertainty and surprise embedded in the form of kernels of newness often initiated by technology within culturally contingent signifiers of tradition – in music and more broadly, performing arts – rendering such hybrids an effective way to connect with newer audiences. Adding to this substrate of cultural and technological change is the now well-established trend within established genres to interrogate convention and tradition (Goehr 1992; Mani 2020). Such scholarship calls for a disinvestment in entrenched assumptions and beliefs perpetrated from within performance cultures that may not always be to the advantage of the sustainability of the musical form itself.

A fusion of traditional South Indian music with Western musical elements is the central artistic feature in the offering under discussion here, RagAlive: Neelambari. This work holds research significance and originality in that it is a deliberate act of cross-contamination designed to destabilise and disrupt established patterns of musical composition, assembly, recognition and cultural representation. A cursory listen to the work might communicate to the listener that it also interrogates what is normatively believed to constitute 'intercultural fusion' with regards to South Indian Music. Fusion in the context of South Indian music is dominated by instrumental music and the element of rhythm more than melody as much scholarship evidences (Schippers, 2009). Further, their constructs have historically involved the actual presence of a ‘foreigner’ in the performer-mix (Lavezzoli, 2006). There overhangs an assumption that audiences may not being satisfied with the sonic marker of cultural difference. Rather, there has been a need to reinforce such difference through the visible participation of a foreign 'person.’ Literal mindedness in interculturality has sadly become a trope for hybridity (Panikker, 2010).

Through this piece, I propose that a covert sonic reframing of cultural hybridity can allow for a sensitive, yet radical, approach to fusion. A collaboration of two South Indian musicians can yield a Karnatik-Western fusion without alteration of the fundamental tenet of the form – namely the raga’s grammar (lakshana), and the ornamentation (gamakas) associated with the notes (swaras). These overarching issues are problematized in this research statement that indeed reframes creativity from the perspective of a performer from a colonized past. They have informed the suite of processual lenses including composing, improvising, writing English poetry for, and singing, through which I conceptualised the piece RagAlive: Neelambari. I sought answers for the following research questions:

  • Firstly, how can I reimagine a Karnatik raga as a vertically layered soundscape involving functional harmonies through my voice and Karnatik saxophone?

  • Secondly, what emotions and visuals does the raga Neelambari invoke in me?

  • Finally, as a provocation, does this music cease to be Karnatik music because it is reimagined thus and interwoven with English poetry?

In this research statement, I contend that RagAlive decentralises Karnatik music in using Western principles of layered harmonies in an acapella style, while decolonising Western music in deploying the Western saxophone as an instrument for collaboration and the English language as the channel of musico-poetic expression.

While on the one hand the politics of fusion brought to bear on the rationale behind this work thus rendering it situated in the field of ethnomusicology and critical cultural studies, the theoretical background and research contribution of this work looks also to the field of music and emotion. The affective qualities of music are articulated and verified through research and scholarship that spans cultures and temporalities. The Rasa (sentiment) effect of various Ragas of Indian music (Balkwill & Thompson, 1999) and the 'affekt' induced by music in the Baroque (Haynes 2007) are just two well-known manifestations of the emotive power of music from two very different cultures. RagAlive responds to the compelling dimension of music as an inducer of moods and sentiment. It explores the transcendence of this dimension across lateral channels of creative expression, notably the metaphorical and the poetic and ends up anthropomorphizing the ragini, the female personification of an Indian classical melody-type (see Lavezzoli 2006: 371-372). By adopting a creative process that deployed the key musical elements of Karnatik vocal music (including raga, tala, bhava, and gamaka), interactively with Western principles of polyphony, verticality of sonic layers, and harmony, using spontaneous improvisation and electronic media art as tools, the research erected a personification of the ragini known by the name 'Neelambari.'

The recording happened in Chennai India over a span of three days. On the first day, I had spent all day at the recording studio, living with the raga and collaborating with saxophonist G. Ramanathan on vertically growing the soundscape. Over the next few days, I would record a short raga phrasing (prayoga) and overlay it another shorter 'bite-sized' ornament or phrase that I would then work with the recording engineer Maniratnam to loop and move within the visual soundscape. I often found myself creating a vertical stack of staggered prayogas – the embedded microtonal ornamentations sometimes clashing with one another and at other times embracing one another. Ramanathan would respond to a prayoga and embark on a dreamy foray into it, which Maniratnam and I would record even without announcing. We would play the 'take' back to Ramanathan, after positioning it strategically on the sound canvas, who would be overjoyed and quip, 'now when did I play this!' The flow state in creativity when captured is unsurpassed and during the RagAlive recording this was experienced without a doubt. Ragini Neelambari is one that brings about calmness and restful sleep. In my journal from the day I had remarked, 'I slept like a baby with Neelambari watching over me.' In retrospect, the researcher in me realises that music is realized multi-sensorially and the vocalizing of music is a process that would have deeply touched both my emotional and physical processes; the works of Bonenfant (2012) and Eidsheim (2015) are ample testament. Interestingly, the poetry that you hear from 2’ 25” until 4’ came about as I was waiting at a noisy and polluted traffic signal in the Chennai heat inside an auto-rickshaw making my way to the studio the next morning. I “wrote” it down quickly on the Notes app of my iPhone and recited it after further raga exploration during the recording session of the day (Day 2). Underlying the poetry in English are syllables typical of a South Indian lullaby, ‘araro.’ I later journaled my reflections on the strange ways in which creative impetus grips, overwhelms and urges one towards inspired action at the most unexpected of times, a manifestation of choice and opportune action in moments of contingency in the context of composition which Coessens (2009) describes using the Greek rhetorical term Kairos. Yielding to Kairos and deploying the South Indian principle of manodharma (spontaneously designed operational modules of improvisation) were the two key methodologies that I adopted in the design and delivery of this work.

Operationally, the Western principles work on the raga from a grass-roots level in this work. They catalyse the repurposing of the raga’s signature elements into active tonal spheres and rhythmic substrates. For instance, in the phrase starting at 4’41” I have formed a chord using the tonic, third, fourth, and fifth scale degrees of the raga by overlaying my voice as three layers, while retaining the microtonal oscillation typical of the raga’s third scale degree. In centralising the melodic and syncopated identity of the powerful idiom of raga, the compositional process also demonstrates an intertwining of the saxophone with the voice. Between 55” and 2’11” for instance, the relaxed raga exploration from the saxophone is layered over a tonic-fifth repetitive loop generated by the voice. The warmth of the female vocals complements the feminine gender of the “ragini” rendering the piece overtly feminine. A statement amplifying the feminine in Karnatik music related fusion is important to make. Karnatik music has been a site of patriarchy, chauvinism, and gender imbalances for over a hundred years now, ever since the female courtesan singers were disenfranchised from the performance culture (Krishna, 2013). A respectful invocation to the feminine in the raga through a female voice is a deliberate statement. Musically, the saxophone player, Ramanathan, responded to the mood invoked by the raga’s bhava (emotion). The windy texture of the saxophone affords a harmonic substrate at certain times, and expansive melodic phrasings that complement the vocally-created verticality in texture, in certain others.

Overall, RagAlive is a stratified soundscape that is rigorous in theoretical underpinnings and compositional strategies, relevant to literature, and makes a significant contribution to the fields of intercultural composition, and music and emotion as envisaged through a practice-based-research model. In anthropomorphizing the ragini I may have conveyed an account of my singular experiences as composer/researcher/singer derived from a multisensorial connection with the ragini’s rasa(sentiment). By adopting a practice-centric and generative approach to research, I have privileged my experiences as a practitioner of Karnatik music of over two decades. Overall, RagAlive, for me, holds dream-like quality and confronts a pressing need for newer approaches to reimagining traditional musics. It is interdisciplinary in character; it melds poetry-writing, music, and sound-art. Importantly, like most practice-based research works, RagAlive is both a research project that has yielded new insights and a piece of art that deserves to be cherished.


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