Raga Hemant: Genesis and trajectory

By Deepak S Raja

 Raga Hemant is, without doubt, amongst the most charming melodic entities to have gained currency in the last 50 years. Most of the credit for it goes to Pandit Ravi Shankar, believed by many to be the composer of the raga. Authoritative sources, however, attribute it to his Guru, Ustad Alauddin Khan, and the founder of the Maihar-Seniya gharana. [Subbarao, B. Raga Nidhi. Vol II, 4th Impression. 1996. Music Academy, Madras]. Since Pandit Ravi Shankar has been performing this raga since the 1950s, these attributions would place the genesis of the raga between 1930 and 1950.

Musicologists contest the very idea that a raga can be composed by one musician, no matter how great. The “raga-ness” of a melodic idea is a gradual evolution requiring its improvisational potential to be developed over several generations of quality musicianship. The attribution of Hemant to either Panditji, or his Ustad could, therefore, be conceptually flawed. But, let us assume, for a moment, that a raga can, indeed, be composed by one musician. Can we, then, accept the attribution as historically defensible? Probably not, because there is evidence to suggest that the melodic idea called Hemant is of considerable antiquity.

In 1942, Khemchand Prakash composed a Dhrupad in this raga -- “Sapta surana teen grama” – for the legendary singer-actor, KL Saigal, in the feature film, “Tansen”, produced by New Theatres, Calcutta. If Ustad Alauddin Khan had composed Hemant by then, it could have entered the compositions of Khemchand Prakash through his New Theatres colleagues – either Timir Baran, a disciple of Alauddin Khan, or the stalwart composer Raichand Boral, widely respected in classical music circles.

This is, of course, plausible. But, is it likely? The character and history of film music would suggest that it relies on mature and familiar raga-s in order to grab the public imagination. In view of this, it appears that the melodic idea of Hemant was in reasonable circulation before its association with Ustad Alauddin Khan.

Further suggestion of the raga’s antiquity is a raga announced as Kandrima, impossible to differentiate from Hemant, which I heard from Ustad ZM Dagar on the Rudra Veena in the late 1970s at a Rang Bhavan concert in Bombay. In later years, I tried, without success, to get from the Dagar family an oral validation for Kandrima and its melodic personality. However, the generation of Dagars I refer to, stuck to mature ragas, and was averse to creating or adopting new ragas. For Hemant, or any other raga, to enter the Dagar repertoire, it would have needed to be around for much longer than 30 or 40 years since Alauddin Khan’s presumed composition of it.

A similar suggestion of antiquity is available from Ustad Vilayat Khan’s recording of raga Pancham, identical to Hemant, for the archives of the National Centre for the Performing Arts in March 1979. After completing the first part of the alaap, the Ustad interrupts the demonstration to state that he had presented the first part of the alaap in Dhrupad style, and would present the latter half in the Khayal style. It is known of Vilayat Khan that he built the melodic personalities of raga-s on the foundations of traditional bandish-es he had studied. In view of this, it would appear that he knew traditional Dhrupad compositions in this raga, taught to him as Pancham. I later obtained confirmation from his son, Shujaat Khan, that Pancham, identical to the contemporary Hemant, had been taught to him as a raga that had been performed in his lineage for several generations.

We thus have at least two identical ragas – Hemant and Pancham – and perhaps a third called Kandrima. As a name, “Pancham” appears to have been in circulation longer than “Hemant”. And, “Kandrima” was perhaps in circulation even before Hemant as well as Pancham. Considering this evidence, I concluded that the key to decoding the DNA of the raga would possibly lie in the name “Pancham”.

The investigation could proceed further because “Pancham” happens to be one of the several names of a much older raga, called Bhinna Shadja, also known as Kaushik Dhwani [Subbarao. Ibid]. Now, Pancham and Bhinna Shadja are possible to relate through well established theories in cultural anthropology, and the principles governing cultural transformations. The name “Pancham” is, of course, a mine-field in this context because there are, in existence, five variants of a raga called Pancham, all belonging to Marwa parent scale, miles apart from the Bilawal scale of Pancham/ Hemant/ Bhinna Shadja. But, as we shall see later, “Pancham” as one of the synonyms for Bhinna Shadja holds special significance for understanding Hemant.

The scales of the two ragas – Hemant and Pancham/Kaushik Dhwani/Bhinna Shadja -- including a suggestion of their melodic paths, are documented thus by Subbarao [Ibid]:

Ascent: N. S D./ N. S G M/ M D N S’
Descent: S’ N D P M/ G M R S

Bhinna Shadja/ Kaushik Dhwani/ Pancham
Ascent: S G M D N S’
Descent: S’ N D M G S

Hemant can be derived by adding two additional swara-s to the Bhinna Shadja descent – Pa and Re. This was probably happening to Bhinna Shadja, before the intrusion of these two swara-s into the older pentatonic entity was "legalized".

First, consider the introduction of “Re” to Bhinna Shadja. Even vocalists of the ultra-conservative Dagar tradition of Dhrupad do deploy a suggestion of Re [GMRS] in the Bhinna Shadja/ Kaushik Dhwani/ Pancham descent though it is contra-indicated. Such a tendency is frequently observed when the tonal distances become too large to achieve a smooth intervallic transition. This is consistent with the general principle of economy of effort observed in all cultural transformations.

And, then consider the introduction of “Pa”. A name like Pancham for Bhinna Shadja, a raga that does not use the Pancham [Pa] swara at all, is intriguing. It is, therefore, conceivable that the “economy of effort” principle had informally added Pa to the Bhinna Shadja descent long ago, and called it Pancham without formally legalizing the use of Pa.

Bhinna Shadja thus completed its transformation into Hemant by formally adding Pa, also in the descent. Once the transformation was complete, yet another principle of cultural transformations came into operation. Bhinna Shadja, the more difficult raga to handle, almost went out of circulation, while the easier Hemant – by whatever name known – gained currency.

All this is pure speculation based on various pieces of evidence. In the absence of textual evidence, however, it might serve as a defensible hypothesis. If it has any merit, Ustad Alauddin Khan might be credited with formalizing a melodic idea whose time had come, and setting it on the path of evolution and popularity after giving it a new name although, evidently, it already had a name (Pancham). This is probably how the modern Hemant, and the traditional Pancham, came to be identical manifestations of an older melodic idea.

The historical perspectives notwithstanding, this raga of all shuddha swaras [natural tones], pentatonic ascent, and heptatonic descent is now commonly known as Hemant, as christened by Ustad Alauddin Khan. Its popularization was spearheaded during the 1950s, and 1960’s by Pandit Ravi Shankar, and Pandit Nikhil Bannerjee. In later years, its performance has spread little beyond the Maihar-Seniya gharana of instrumentalists. In the vocal segment, the raga – or probably its predecessor by name – had entered film/ popular music by the 1940s. In later years, it found favor amongst composers of the light ghazal genre. The Khayal segment has accepted this raga only since the 1990s.

The earliest available rendition of this raga is the Dhrupad from the film, “Tansen” sung by KL Saigal. Another memorable film song in this raga was Manna Dey’s rendition in Jhaptal – “Sudh bisara gaee aaj” – I forget the film and the composer’s name. In the ghazal genre, the raga appears to have acquired its popularity because of its suitability to romantic sentimentalism, and its potential for pathos. Sitar and Sarod music, which took to the raga after Pandit Ravi Shankar, has also concentrated on the pathos and romanticism of the melody, though occasionally treating it with a touch of playfulness. Khayal vocalists, the last to adopt Hemant, appear to take a varied view of the raga’s melodic personality and emotional content.

The raga gained national attention in classical music with a 78 RPM disc in the 1950s by Pandit Ravi Shankar [STCS-850176]. This was followed, in later years, by an elaborate rendition by Panditji under the Music India/ Universal label [6337-926-MCB]. The bandish-es on these recordings, in all probability Ravi Shankar’s own, have had a considerable influence over Hemant bandish-es played on the sitar and Sarod in later years. In the 1960s, Pandit Nikhil Bannerjee, yet another Maihar-Seniya maestro, recorded an alap-jod-jhala of Hemant [STCS-02B-6222]. In the 1970s, Brijbhushan Kabra, the Hawaiian guitar virtuoso from the same stylistic lineage, and a disciple of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, released Hemant under the EMI label [6TC:04B:7193]. Amongst the leading instrumentalists of gharana-s other than Maihar-Seniya, Ustad Vilayat Khan does not appear to have performed this raga often enough. No recording of his was available in this raga, other than the NCPA archive of 1979. His son, Shujaat Khan, has performed it on a CD duet with Tejendra Majumdar, and perhaps also rendered it in concerts.

Hemant apparently took a long time to find a place in Khayal music. I had the opportunity of discussing Hemant with Dinkar Kaikini, a senior vocalist who has performed the raga on several occasions. According to him, in the late 1980s, he became the first significant vocalist to be attracted to the raga, to compose bandish-es in it, and to perform it on stage. The raga had a “catchy quality” [his own words] that appealed to him. He thought this quality could be expressed very well in Chhota Khayal [fast-tempo] bandish-es. According to Kaikini, Dr. Veena Sahasrabudhe, the other major vocalist to publish a rendition in this raga, was present at his first performance of the raga, and was inspired to apply her own musical energies to it. Jitendra Abhisheki, whose performance of Hemant was released in 1994, probably introduced the raga in his repertoire at about the same time.

At the time of writing (April 2007), the raga – Hemant/ Pancham – is quite popular in light music, moderately popular in classical instrumental music, but still rare in Khayal music. Dhrupad musicians appear to ignore it altogether, probably preferring to stay with its austere predecessor, Bhinna Shadja.

Raga Hemant has generally been performed in evening concerts, after sunset. However, the word “Hemant” means autumn. If the raga had seasonal associations in Ustad Alauddin Khan’s mind, these have yet to strike deep roots in the musical culture.

Deepak Raja, the Repertoire Analyst for India Archive Music Ltd., New York, has just launched a significant new Internet resource on Hindustani music ( http://swaratala.blogspot.com). Deepak is a trained sitar and surbahar player, who has also received training in Khayal vocalism. His book "Hindustani Music – a tradition in transition", has received widespread acclaim in India and abroad. His second book incorporating a survey of 20th century Khayal vocalism is due for publication by end-2007. Deepak Raja holds an MBA from India's most prestigious business school, and has a distinguished career in the media industry and as a financial consultant. He is well known in publishing circles for his contribution as a former Editor of Business India, and Secretary General of the Indian Newspapr Society.

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