Some are ‘marriages’ — two ragas wedded together, fusing and melding to produce a whole new entity
In our already well-populated ocean of Indian classical music ragas, there is one species that intrigues both performer and audience alike: the jod-raga. A combination of two ragas, it is something like a portmanteau word — you know, those clever words that blend the sounds and combine the meanings of two separate words, like motel or brunch. Or podcast, a made-up word coined from a combination of the words iPod and broadcast (or on a lighter note, nicknames like Brangelina and Saifeena). Portmanteau itself is a combo word, made of ‘porter’, to carry, and ‘manteau’, coat; it is a large travel case for clothes, one that opens out into two parts. But let’s not digress down the fascinating rabbit hole of word origins. To come back to jod-ragas, musicians have experimented over the ages to come up with these enchanting hybrids. There are lively and sometimes not-so-pleasant debates about who exactly invented and performed this or that jod-raga long ago, but this is an area best left to those who tend towards fractious and contentious music debates and forget about the music. For us listeners, the older jod-ragas, at one time an experiment, have slowly and surely passed into the listener’s consciousness and have become entities of their own, like a Kausi Kanada, a Lalit Bhatiyar, Jog-kaus, Madhu-kaus, and many other utterly felicitous combinations.
What is endlessly fascinating about the jod-raga is how it comes into being. Some are ‘marriages’ — two ragas wedded together, fusing and melding to produce a whole new entity. These are ragas that are complementary to each other in some way, like Basant-Bahar.
Then there are those where one of the two ragas is the boss. As a listener, you identify this one first, then settle down in anticipation of the swaras going in a particular direction. But the performer deftly knocks you off your perch by introducing a thin silvery stream of the other raga, darting through in a barely-there but unmistakable way.
Without getting into the technicalities (one can access that on the Internet with explanations, examples, sound clips), a jod-raga like Asawari-Todi comes about with the interplay of Poorvang and Uttarang ragas (which describe which part of the octave they reside in). A skilled musician balances his presentation on that wonderful see-saw and takes you swaying up and down on both sides, while sometimes staying in suspended animation right in the middle, so you see the faces of both ragas.
Sometimes, as in Bageshri-Kanada, the aaroha or ascending notes are in one raga and the avroha or descending notes in another. This is not melding, it is not a compound, it is a mixture (if I remember my chemistry right) whose elements show themselves clearly. At a recent concert, as the instrumentalist tuned up, we indulged in our favourite guessing game from what the strings were saying before the performance began: Lalit, we said, and then heard what at first sounded like an ‘off’ note. Hemant, someone else whispered. Then the performer announced he would play a Hem-Lalit. Both ragas danced together in the composition.
Most jod-ragas are so cleverly combined they manifest themselves like the ‘shot’ saree. Purple in the warp and green in the weft. Or, more intriguingly, two colours very close to each other — red in the warp and orange in the weft. So the raga combinations may be highly contrasting, or deliciously similar yet different. And through the performance, the listener is treated to an almost Brechtian alienation technique: don’t get too comfortable with the familiar, the musician seems to say, and keeps you on your toes with unexpected notes, as he or she weaves in and out of two ragas.
Some jod-raga experiments may seem like strange bedfellows, not producing a transcendent experience so much as a rigorous intellectual exercise. This is a completely subjective sentiment, and perceptions may vary. The Des-Malhar, for some of us, is that kind of curiosity; while it plays, you are drawn into the experiment, but when you leave the mehfil, it slips away from you. While the Jasrangi jugalbandi is a whole different way of combining two ragas by two musicians, it is equally a mathematical construct and a sublime brainteaser.
The jod-raga then is as much about playfulness as about intellect; the performer brings to the listener a challenge, sets a puzzle, which both then solve together. A magic trick, which sometimes catches you by complete surprise, and sometimes slyly shows you how it’s done.
Gouri Dange is a novelist, counsellor, music lover who’ll take readers on a ramble through the Alladin’s cave of Indian music. The article was first published in The Hindu