Friday, October 01, 2004

the raag numbering scheme

I have always wondered how students of the western/classical/insert_suitable_appellation school of music would react to the variegated schemes of indian (both hindustani and carnatic) classical systems. I learnt the guitar in the western mode -- minus staff reading and other fun stuff about counterpoint, syncopation, inversions and blah d'blah. I have always nursed the desire to go back in time and grab an opportunity to marry my ear-training with staff reading acumen (Mahler could probably finish his 10th while I read and played a single page of dancing men), and even learn classical guitar. Since that bridge has been vogonized, I only have my desire to learn (and the fact that the majority of my participation as a guitarist has been with Hindi and Marathi songs from films, private albums and the like, deriving in whole, part or not-at-all from classical sources) guiding my choices of chords for classical expositions, and my hunger for opportunities to sneak in musically interesting chord progressions and melodic fragments.

Which brings me to one of many questions that have plagued me. I love all things about percussion, and one of the things that struck me most about hi.ndustaanii taals was their nomenclature. After all, it's a big leap of faith from 4/4 and 3/4 to digest the fact that 'tiin taal' (tiin == '3' in Hindi/Marathi) refers to a beat cycle of 16 beats. One could attempt to use numerous mathematical formulae of varying complexity to derive a relation between these two numbers: (taal_number * 5) + 1 being a simple example). But they'd all break down with our next candidate: 'ek taal'(ek == '1' in Hindi/Marathi) which refers a cycle of 12 beats. Most other taals have names: ruupak (7), diipacha.ndii (14), jhap(5). And names are better than this deceptive numerical scheme. Having failed to receive any explanation that would set my mind at ease, I now propose one explanation.

Back in the good old days, when the creators of the rules of hi.ndustaanii music were discovering and formalizing beat cycles, they followed a very simple process: try out a certain taal, pick out a number of beats and create a cycle, evaluate the effect of this rhythmic ambience on the senses, select the taal for future generations, proceed to try new taal. Now these great entities decided to simply note the taals serially. They should have used the number of beats in a cycle instead, you scream. Pick up some Zakir Hussain or Vikku Vinayakram CDs and you'll see why that might not have been such a good idea (unless you wanted to use fractional numbers as taal names). Here's what happened. Day I: They liked a cycle that ended up having 12 beats. The diary entry was tagged as "ek taal". Some taals got lost in the sands of time as centuries passed. Somewhere along the way some smart individual decided to give posterity a thought and renamed a few of these taals -- giving us names like ruupak and jhap.

Apparently these guys took breaks as well. And the taal counter did not budge on these holidays. On one such bright and clear day, one of the more enthusiastic and passionate inventors received a package in the mail. Buried with numerous pieces of junk leaves and the latest issue of the Journal of Allography was a banana leaf with chads on Archimedes and his number. Yep, pi indeed. Well, the literature gives him an idea and he decides to create a pi taal. By doing this he violates the norm by actually naming the taal for the number of beats in the beat cycle. Unfortunately, he is still drumming away long after the sun has set, waiting for the sam. The reason shoule be very clear to all of us who stayed awake during those mathematics lectures. He was playing with an irrational number. Which meant that he would have achieved glory in history as the first percussionist to explore infinite convergence. However, sleep and basic human frustration caught up with him. His name was lost in history as were all records and rumours of his deeds. Pi lives on, but the taal doesn't.

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