The Romance of Raga

Vasant Desai and Kumar Gandharva

Lata Mangeshkar and Kishore Kumar

Discussions of aesthetics typically contrast two ideals: classicism, that values order, intellect, and craft; and romanticism, that emphasizes imagination, feeling, and originality. Think of the difference between Lata Mangeshkar, disciplined and controlled, and Kishore Kumar, madcap and unpredictable. Both geniuses, but in entirely different ways.

More broadly, India has the classical traditions of Hindustani and Carnatic music, and the romantic traditions of folk and film songs. In the classical traditions, the guiding force is fidelity to raga grammar and paramparaa. In the romantic ones, the key aim is the imaginative expression of emotion.

The greatest artistes manage to have the best of both worlds, classical and romantic. Lata’s purity of sur and her trained thoughtfulness puts her in the classical camp, but she certainly had plenty of imagination and originality. Kishore may have been original to the point of idiosyncrasy, but he certainly had intellect and craft to back it up.

Vasant Desai

Among music directors, Vasant Desai was a master at blending the classical and the romantic. He suffuses ragas and bandish with tenderness and warmth without ever compromising their grammar. The only other composer I know who could consistently combine classicism and romanticism in this seamless way is Roshan.

Roshan, however, rarely approached classical musicians themselves to render his compositions. Vasant Desai is perhaps unequaled in the sheer number of classical performers who have lent their talents to his music. Medha Gawai has listed some of them in her marvelous overview of Desai’s work: Bismillah Khan, Haleem Jafar Khan, Bhimsen Joshi, Jasraj, Amir Khan, Shiv Kumar Sharma, Shobha Gurtu, Samta Prasad, etc.

To her list one may add Kumar Gandharva. Kumar Gandharva’s achievement is parallel to Desai’s: if Desai brought the classical into the romantic world of film music, Kumar Gandharva brought the romantic into the classical world of Hindustani music. His creative liberties with tradition earned him the censure of many purists, but his pathos-laden gayaki exerts an irresistible pull.

The maverick genius lent his voice to Vasant Desai’s compositions for the Marathi sa.ngeet naaTak Dev Dinaghari Dhavala (1970). I had heard one of them, R^uNaanuba.ndhaachyaa (ऋणानुबंधाच्या), during my childhood, but I fell madly in love with the song only when I re-encountered it as an adult. It’s the song that plays most often on my computer; iTunes tells me that I’ve played it nearly twice as many times as the song in the second spot. Here’s the song.

Kumar Gandharva (pictured) and Vani Jairam sing Vasant Desai’s melody

The Pahadi-based composition is ravishing. The leisurely kahar_vaa Thekaa on the tabla (धिंत्रक धिंधा । तिंत्रक तिंता, as Medha points out); the orchestration that manages to be simultaneously sparse and lush; Bal Kolhatkar’s evocative lyrics (सागर तीरी आठवणींनी वाळूत मारल्या रेघा); and above all, Kumar Gandharva’s singing, these are beauties that beggar all description.

Vani Jairam

What of the other singer in this duet? It takes guts to sing alongside someone like Kumar Gandharva. Vani Jairam acquits herself quite admirably: her Marathi accent is lamentable, but her sur is flawless, and her alaap in the second verse captures the raga beautifully. Desai had earlier given Vani Jairam her first big break, and his faith in his protegée is not misplaced.

Finally, some thoughts on the lyrics. Molesworth says ऋणानुबंध can mean simply a “friendly relation or footing”, but the primary definition is “the connection of indebtedness or desert: as contracted in some preceding birth, and forming the ground or reason of certain sufferings or enjoyments in the present” (“desert” here means “that which is deserved”, as in the phrase “just deserts”). In other words, it’s a karmic connection. The song is about a love that spans several lifetimes, where the couple are bound to each other as by an unpaid debt.

The twist, however, is that while such a love over multiple reincarnations, जनम जनम का साथ, is usually celebrated for its deep and enduring bond, this song describes such a love as frustrating and unfulfilled. Over and over again, the lover takes birth, longing for the beloved, who seems capricious: now laughing, now offended. For eons, says the lover, I have sought her, and even enjoyed her company; but जमली ना गट्टी, our bond was never permanent.

One word that has occasioned much questioning is तृष्टता, in the second line: भेटीत तृष्टता मोठी. Nobody quite knows what it means, and it’s absent from the Marathi dictionaries I’ve consulted. Some folks claim the word is तुष्टता, meaning contentment or happiness, as in संतुष्ट. I think that’s plain wrong. For one thing, both singers clearly articulate an “R” sound, and it’s impossible to hear the word as तुष्टता. Also, the song’s depiction of the delights of रूठना-मनाना in lovers’ quarrels notwithstanding, any song that says रुसण्यावाचुनि परस्परांच्या कधी न घडल्या गोष्टी (“Nothing mutual happened, except for taking offence”) and ends with जमली ना गट्टी doesn’t strike me as commemorating a contented relationship.

Others say that the word is रुष्टता, a Sanskrit term meaning “unhappiness”. Etymologically the word fits, as the derived word रुसणे (to sulk, to take offence) is central to the song. Such sulkiness, such resentment defines the relationship between the couple and vitiates their union.

It has been pointed out that तृष्टता is another Sanskrit word, meaning “coarseness”. More generally, it can refer to something having a level of disagreeability or unlikeability that it causes one to want to turn away from it. That meaning seems to fit here, particularly in the context of ऋण. A debt may create an enduring bond, but it’s hardly an agreeable one.

Despite repeated listenings, I’m not able to decide one way or another whether the word is रुष्टता or तृष्टता. I think only Bal Kolhatkar’s holograph will settle the question for sure. Until it comes to light, all I can do is listen to the song over and over again, trying to decipher the word. Or at least that’s my excuse for constantly hitting the reload button on the YouTube video above.


Credits: Aditya Pant, for running the Guzra Hua Zamana series on Facebook, where this article was originally published; U. V. Ravindra, for drawing my attention to the Sanskrit word तृष्टता and supplying the definition given above; Sushrut Vaidya and Yogesh Kalantare, for correcting some misapprehensions I had about this song while simultaneously making a strong case for रुष्टता.

The songs linked off Vasant Desai’s and Roshan’s names in the fourth paragraph are both in Kalavati. It’s instructive and fun to compare and contrast the ways in which the two deploy the same raga.

Quotations from songs are rendered in Devanagari, untransliterated. Words naturalized into English (“raga”, “tabla”) are given their conventional English spelling. Other Hindi or Marathi words are transliterated using the iTrans scheme.