Dec 27, 2012


Recently, we wrote a piece on Alapana for the first edition of Alap, a performing arts magazine. We reproduce the article below.

Alap or Alapana means to speak, discourse and communicate. The fabric of Indian music is made up of thousands of melodies, called ragas. A raga literally is a melodic framework sans rhythm, consisting of a given combination of notes or swaras arranged in a particular fashion. The swaras and their arrangement determine the outline and form of the raga. It is from the concept of raga that Indian classical music gets its melodic identity. When a musician develops and interprets a raga, it is called alapana.

At first glance it may appear that when one knows the notes and the way they combine in a raga, one can delineate an alapana. However, knowing the swaras is only the first step, very much like learning the alphabet and knowing a few basic words in the language. Just as a writer uses the building blocks of words to make phrases, sentences, sparkling prose and lyrical poetry, a musician has to master much more than the basic tenets of classical music to be able to conceive a raga alapana.

A raga cannot be merely understood or expressed through the syntax of swaras. To truly experience the beauty of a raga, one must get under its skin. Gamaka or the way a note is oscillated is one of the most important indicators of a raga’s unique beauty. To intimately know a raga, one has to understand the subtle relationship between the swaras, their shades, tones and characteristic phrases that makes the raga distinct. Great compositions are spotlights which throw light on the beautiful facets of the raga and make the process of understanding a raga simpler. Can one try to understand Kambhoji without knowing a O Ranga Sayee or a Subramanyaaya Namaste?

Raga alapana is generally acknowledged to be one of the most difficult and challenging aspects of the classical art form. For it is here that the threads of discipline, training, and the creative mind all come together. There are no props- of words, composition or tala (rhythm). It takes years of assimilating, learning, applying and meditating to conceive and deliver a raga alapana that breathes life into the notes and lifts it to an exalted plane. As the colloquial Tamil saying goes “Paada Paada Ragam!”

Generally speaking, there are two techniques of raga elaboration. One is the veena technique, where the raga is explored using short, beautiful phrases and building up the picture of the raga with little, telling sangathis. As the sound is produced in the veena using the meetu or pluck, the picture of the raga is painted using shorter phrases. The other style of rendering a raga is the Nadhaswaram style, where the artiste blows into the pipe to produce sound. Here, long kaarvais (long resting periods on the same note), and continuous flow of phrases make up the raga. The two styles represent the opposite ends of the spectrum- one is deliberate and spaced out, giving the raga a sedate and disciplined feel, while the other is eloquent and flowing, like a torrential river in spate!

There are some memorable raga alapanas that stand out in our memory. One is a Thodi by the great Nadhaswaram Vidwan Sri.T.N.Rajarathnam Pillai. Oh, what breathtaking leaps of imagination, what majesty in its sweep! Thodi remains incomplete without listening to this maestro’s conception of it! Another unforgettable raga alapana is the Karaharapriya of the grand doyen of music Semmangudi Srinivasaiyer. The Kambhoji and Kalyani of Sri.G.N.Balasubramaniam is the stuff that legends are made of! The elusive charm of the Sahana, Begada and Bahudari of Ramnad Krishnan, and the adventurous yet timelessly beautiful Shanmukhapriya of S.Kalyanaraman - all of this are rapturous examples of raga alapana. A brilliant alapana of Nattakurinji that our guru Sri.P.S.Narayanaswamy sang in a chamber concert forever changed the way we looked at that raga.

What is magical about the alapanas of these great maestros and many other great artistes is that they extended and redefined the scope of a raga. A raga was not a static thing in their hands, something to be merely diligently learnt and conscientiously delivered. The raga flowered under their treatment, the boundaries extended. They raised the bar; widened horizons and their creative genius have influenced and inspired several future generations of students and musicians.

Rendering a raga well is the true test of the musicianship and maturity of the musician; it cannot be taught. Like poetry, raga alapana lives and breathes in the inspiration of a gifted artiste. Grammar and technique, as important and vital as they are, have to be so deeply internalized that they must operate at the sub-conscious level. For when one sings a raga, one has to soar with it. This is possible only when being grounded in tradition and opening one’s mind happens simultaneously. To us, a raga alapana is the ultimate music of freedom, and the most beautiful metaphor of life. It is the ultimate proof that pure music, without the aid of words or rhythm can touch you in a way that nothing else can.

A raga alapana can be the most intimate statement of an artiste’s musical perspective. It lays bare his or her values and clarity of thought. Moods, emotions, thoughts - it expresses them all, and reflects the personal and musical journey of an artiste. Can one measure the joy that comes when one explores a raga with utter abandonment and when the artiste and the raga become one? Little wonder that it is said, music is a way of giving voice to the inexpressible. And an inspired alapana is the ultimate experience of that magic.


Unknown said...

Thanks a lot for sharing this article. Anybody can learn music and get trained. But only those who are blessed, can give a divine performance.Thanks for this eye-opening in your article.

paramu said...

Your veiws on raga alapana have given me a fesh insight on Carnatic Music. Great raga alapana is like inspired literature. By just knowing words and grammar you cannot conceive of or create inspired literature. In the same way, mere knowledge of swaras and their combinatorial rules will not make one capable of painting an aesthetically satisfying picture of a Bhairavi or a Begada! Dr K Parameswaran, Coimbatore. (My blog runs at