Expressive vocalisms in Kesar Bai’s Lalita gauri

Posted on December 8, 2012. Filed under: music, musician |

Illustrations of expressive moments in Kesar Bai Kerkar’s famous recording of Lalita Gauri (1956). It is on the basis of audience response (interjections like “vah vah”) that we consider these moments particularly emotive.

movie 1: Pitch plot done with PRAAT of Kesar Bai Kerkar’s Lalitagauri 125-145s (vertical axis: semitone scale position x 100 cents, horizontal axis: time in seconds).

The first passage occurs around 140 seconds from the beginning of the recording. The ‘wah’ at the end follows immediately after the passage that goes from the major seventh through the extremely low minor second (143-44s) and ending on the tonic. The minor second is lower than 50 cents as we can well see in the graph, and as such could be considered a raised tonic. However, within the tradition, experts will say, “this the shruti of komal rishabh” (the microtonal lowering of the minor second). Theories about such microtonal positions are innumerable, the minor second being postulated by different authors at 70, 90 and 112 cents (Daniélou, 1968; Clements, 1913), though never as low as 50 cents. As has been demonstrated by several authors (van der Meer, 2000; Levy, 1982; Jairazbhoy and Stone, 1963) those postulations are indeed no more than postulations (for a discussion of the history of these notions see Rao and van der Meer, 2010). However, that the ‘essence’ (I am taking the liberty of using this literal translation of the concept rasa) of Indian music is located somewhere ‘between the notes’ remains true. The hint that Kesar Bai makes of the minor second is indeed very convincing and powerful. She evidently heavily exaggerates the lowness of this minor second. For starters let me stress that there is no accident here. Throughout the performance Kesar Bai’s intonation is very precise, and I have demonstrated elsewhere that Indian vocalists have great control over intonation (Meer, 2000), in some cases down to a few cents. It is well-known that ‘great’ artists (I am using the term great here in the sense of renowned, famous) tend to ‘play more with intonation then younger and less known musicians, i.e. they use more ‘standard’ intonation. As in all of the examples I am going to discuss, the reaction of the audience is not referring only to the last few notes. We have to look at the context, because that will provide the buildup that makes the final expression meaningful. Surely, in the case of an artiste of Kesar Bai’s calibre, the whole piece has a design. It is event driven, in the sense that one choice leads to another (it is largely improvised), and the audience response plays an important role. But every phrase, and every set of phrases, every cycle of the rhythm, has a master-plan of its own, even if it is not pre-composed. In this particular case, just prior to the passage I am discussing she has emanated a prolonged major third, that obviously plays a pivotal role in her rendition of this complex raga. And then, at 128s, there is this remarkable sound, that strange peaked form, in which we clearly hear her voice going from the tonic to the fifth, then down back to the tonic, with a very short touch on the major third and a slightly longer minor second. Then from 129 to 136s a prolonged tonic, followed by a seventh from 136 to 139s, a pause (the image shows a tonic, but that is from the drone). Then she reiterates the seventh and follows with the suggested minor second. This movement forms a whole, and so it would be inappropriate for the audience to interrupt it with approval. What I am suggesting here, is that the audience is not only approving of the extremely flat minor second, but also of the whole phrase leading up to it. In fact, if we would isolate the last portion, it would not have the same effect. What we hear (and see) in this passage is on the one hand an ostensible affirmation of one of the characteristic phrases of the raga Lalitagauri (B,Db,C), but at the same time using a minor second that is so extremely low that we could almost call it shocking.

By the way, there is a short “vah” also at 133, which I take to be an appreciation of the blending of the voice with the tanpura. Well-trained musicians in India have an uncanny level of ‘tunefulness’, what is referred to as ‘entering into the core of the note’. In the extensive measurements I have done on hundreds of recordings I have demonstrated that the tonic and the fifth are often statistically within 0.5 cents from the 0 cents and 702 cents positions.

Movie 2: Pitch plot done with PRAAT of Kesar Bai Kerkar’s Lalitagauri 135-155s (vertical axis: semitone scale position x 100 cents, horizontal axis: time in seconds).

The second excerpt continues from the first one, and overlaps with it. There is, in this frame, another reaction from the audience to the passage at 153-54s. This is a typical ornamentation called murki (a kind of mordent). The basic pattern is C-Db-C-BC-B—- (SRSNSN8), but obviously PRAAT has not captured this in an unambiguous manner. Faster movements pose serious problems of interpretation in graphs, as I have discussed elsewhere (van der Meer and Rao, 2006). I have included a stretched view (2b) of this ornamentation, in which we can clearly observe how the graphical representation is very different from what we actually hear, even if this is not a very fast movement, compared to the more common manner in which murki is performed. This is actually typical of the school to which Kesar Bai belonged, the Jaipur gharana (tradition, school), as opposed to the more rapid and jerky manner of making such ornaments in most other schools. I would estimate that the reaction of the audience to this particular event is related to the slow and deliberate execution of the ornament. There is no reason to believe that the reaction has anything to do with the interpretation of the raga, instead it is the elegance of the ornamentation itself that triggers the response.

Movie 3: Pitch plot done with PRAAT of Kesar Bai Kerkar’s Lalitagauri 195-215s (vertical axis: semitone scale position x 100 cents, horizontal axis: time in seconds).

The next passage (Figure 3) starts from the tonic (196-202s), after which she sings the same murki that we have seen in example 2 (203-204s), followed by the movement 11-0-1-4 (B C Db E from 203-213s)). There is a clear audience reaction immediately after the major third from 208 to 213s. This major third is typically ‘harmonic’ (just intonation), probably even lower than the 386 cents of the harmonic major third of 5/4 (my measurements indicate it is approximately 375 cents). This seems to corroborate the idea that she intentionally exaggerates the ‘desired’ intonation,9 which is clearly appreciated by the audience. I need to stress here that it is quite unlikely that this intonation would be a random coincidence or ‘error’ by the performer. I have demonstrated elsewhere (van der Meer, 2000) that intonation in Hindustani music is extremely controlled and precise, and even if we accept that the cassette recording may have considerable fluctuations in speed/pitch this would not affect the relative positions of intonations within their context. But here it is not only about the remarkably low intonation of the major third, it is also about the way she slowly rises from the minor second upwards by a long drawn glide (mind). We saw in figure 2 an example of slow ornamentation of the murki-type, and here we have an example of a slow glide (if we can call it ornamentation at all – as the spaces between the notes seem to play as crucial a role as the notes themselves or even more so). In this case we can safely say that the movement is part of Lalitagauri’s ethos, but that its expressivity is also of a more general nature resulting from the elegance of rendering the ornament and intonation; first rising slowly from the minor second to the major third, and then holding the steady major third at a very low position. I may add that in India there is strong sensitivity about this harmonic major third as it is very audible in the drone (tanpura). This major third is referred to as svayambhu gandhara (the major third that is inherent in the drone, i.e. the fifth partial). In fact the tempered major third is felt to be extremely dissonant.

Movie 4: Pitch plot done with PRAAT of Kesar Bai Kerkar’s Lalitagauri 260-280s (vertical axis: semitone scale position x 100 cents, horizontal axis: time in seconds).

Also this fourth excerpt contains a melodic movement towards the major third. The movements I have discussed all reflect the raga Lalitagauri, but it is in this passage that some of the most characteristic features of the raga are highlighted. This is particularly marked at the beginning (260-265s), by the phrase F# E Db E Db C C. This phrase is highly characteristic of the raga Gauri (as explained before the raga Lalitagauri is a combination of ragas Gauri and Lalit) and appears very often throughout the performance. It is however the subtle manner by which she steps upward from 272s onward that impresses most. Though the words are unintelligible the vocal inflections give the movement a distinct touch of the intimacy of speech in music. The brisk peaks at 272 and 274s are hardly discernible by ear but yet, we do notice that there are delicate touches that convey the idea of a parlando style of singing. Of course, there is also an element of timing, a kind of speech-like freedom from the musical rhythm. Completely liberated from the pulse of the rhythm, the consonants seem to move independently in their own way. It should be noted that the major third at which this movement ends is quite flat again (380 cents), like the major third in movie 3.

Figure 5: Pitch plot done with PRAAT of Kesar Bai Kerkar’s Lalitagauri 320-340 (vertical axis: semitone scale position x 100 cents, horizontal axis: time in seconds). In the previous figure we saw the Gauri aspect of Lalitagauri being rendered, and in this passage it is the Lalit aspect that comes to the fore. First she moves upward B Dd E (320-326), a movement that is repeated with a faster attack (327-329) and then the chromatic passage E F F# E is repeated four times, with increasing speed and adding small touches in such a way that the two fourths (F and F#) seem to turn round and round with E as a base. Below I have schematically rendered this in staff notation: 

N r G – – , r G – , m M G mMGmMGmG – – –

lalitagauri 5

Figure 6: Schematic transcription of the pitch plot of figure 5. The audience response is clearly heard at 335s, and obviously a reaction to the well executed pattern that so characteristically delineates the raga Lalit.

A large part of the recording is also on line at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kCmboWq5kNY

For additional information on Lalitagauri see: Lalita gauri at the AUTRIM site

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