I wrote this during Finals week, but post-production delays (i.e, lack of time to edit) have pushed it back to a pre-Christmas release

My family has often been regaled with my comically poor raga-identification skills. This came about as a result of my unfortunate tendency to pronounce the name of Hamsadhwani on any unknown raga confronting me. Habitually. I wouldn’t be surprised if my internal raga-meter had once assigned the name of Hamsadhwani to a heavy-weight like Bhairavi. In the early days when I first honed this identification scheme, figuring out ragas meant spending quality time paying close attention to music – time that I would have much rather consumed watching Sharjah highlights on TENSports or playing Fifa 05.

Times change; my attitude towards music certainly has. Now I feel that identifying ragas is a very impressive thing, not too dissimilar from swallowing fire or driving in Chennai. That sort of thing. Unfortunately, the people who are good at it don’t seem to realize just how complex and tricky this skill is.

Just like a simple amalgamation of limbs and internal organs doesn’t result in a complete human, a raga isn’t just a straightforward extrapolation of a musical scale. You hone the ability to recognize it by listening to lots of music. The expert is intimately familiar with a raga; it’s like they are married to it, understand its movements, know its every trait and characteristic. The raga connoisseur doesn’t break a song down into individual notes and then match these with a bound copy of the “Table of Ragas” inside their head. The more elegant, natural, Music Academy-approved way of identifying a raga is by connecting it with a song that sounds similar, perhaps one made uncomfortably familiar by the reach of pop music. The next time you’re listening to L Subramaniam’s Keeravani, for instance, see if you can tell that a large chunk of Manmatha Raasa is in the same raga.

My difficult relationship with ragas seems to stem from a fear of intimacy. I am on a first-name basis with only a few and even then, I can only see their bare outlines. They’re like shy figures in the distance, shrouded by a misty fog. Until today.

Soon after the sun had started its downward plunge, my iPod was shuffling Carnatic music while I was slogging away at Geology. I’d never shuffled Carnatic before, and that in itself was a pretty interesting experience. After some time, my iPod decided it would present to me a Lalgudi Jayaraman piece. As is customary, the legendary violinist played a short exploration of a raga before beginning the song. My concentration was tied up with Cricinfo (I have a very short attention-span when it comes to Geology), but I remember briefly reflecting on what sprightly raga it could be. As the alapana concluded and the virtuoso’s bow dawdled over the final, extended shadjam, I started humming Vinayaka. Following which the veteran started playing Raghunayaka! (For those who are worse than me at this sort of thing, both songs are in Hamsadhwani.)

Identifying a raga correctly always puts a smile on my face. Even when it is as simple as Hamsadhwani. Of course, my raga identification skills are a lot better now than in my Fifa 05 days (let it be known that I don’t mix up Hamsadhwani and Bhairavi). Perhaps I have finally graduated to a stage where I can listen to something and just understand, just feel what raga it is. Or maybe it’s because I’ve moved onto Fifa 11.

I can’t help but wonder – would I have come up with as elegant an identification if I’d actually paid close attention to what was being played? My sub-conscious might just be much better at this.


An Indian Music Player

I manage my music on an Apple product called iTunes. I’m not particularly fond of the application, but it makes it easy to sync to my iPod. In the world of music software, iTunes is the best compromise. And by definition, a compromise lacks the inner quality that would make it a truly definitive, all encompassing, ZOMG-this-is-what-I-dreamed-of music manager.

To borrow from the IT man’s jargon, iTunes is definitely not feature-rich (who am I kidding, that’s not IT jargon). Some of the features it does include are about as useful as trying to paint a sinking boat; it just might come in useful, but it’s not worth the hassle. Think about the green + sign on the left corner of the app – it doesn’t maximize the screen but launches the ridiculous ‘mini’ player, which manages to take away even more functionality. Or the iTunes store which, at the click of an accidental mouse press, eats up my bandwidth and turns the Pause button into a Stop.

It seems that Apple wants to make a music player that is as anodyne as possible in order maximize its market appeal. When was the last time such an approach resulted in a Great Product? Compromise is the last thing a truly Great Product has in mind. Look at Bugatti, for instance. They didn’t give two square inches of carbon fiber about what Joe the Plumber was driving when they designed the Veyron. And they made the greatest car in the world. Tata didn’t have time for people who care about superficial and unnecessary modern luxuries like leg room, air conditioning and a ride that minimizes permanent damage to the spinal cord – hence was born the Nano. The best small car in the world.

Similarly, what I want is a music player with some character and gusto, something unabashedly calling out to me, damn everyone else’s musical interests. Unfortunately, it seems that only someone like Sonia Gandhi will have access to such sycophantic tools.

Those who have considerable collections of Indian music – film or classical – will agree with me on this, I’m sure. So, Apple, here are some things you can and should do for us folks me:

  • If I have an album of Indian classical music, I don’t want the track name containing everything from the song title to the raga and thalam. Give me tags for both. Right now, I make do with entering the raga under the mysteriously named Grouping tag.
  • Lyrics. I don’t usually pay attention to them but, when I do, I like to know who the poet is.
  • Auto-correct A.R.Rehman to AR Rahman. And Illaiiyaraajaa to Ilayaraja.
  • Auto-recognize these important genres of music: ‘Rajni Intro Song,’ ‘Deva Copy’ and ‘Vaseegara wannabe’
  • Delimit the artist tag. “AR Rahman, Shreya Ghoshal” is not one artist, but two. This would also help keep my last.fm account from going crazy
  • Crash if someone attempts to add a Himesh Reshamaiyya song
  • Insufferable fanboys We Tamil folk love giving our celebrities special titles. We therefore demand a special ‘title’ tag for the singers/composer. This way, we get to idolize and pay respect to demigods like UlagaNayagan Kamal, Isai Puyal Rahman, Maestro Ilayaraja, or even a Little Super Star Simbu (for those unfortunate enough to have an mp3 of Loosu Penne sitting in their hard drive).

As you are well aware, Apple is a company that listens to consumers and accedes to their requests at lightning speed – think about the commendable rapidity with which they brought copy/paste to the iPhone. Don’t be surprised if the next iTunes meets my demands. Just remember where the ideas came from.

A Short Listening Exercise

Listen to Mitwa, the famous song from Lagaan, paying attention to the tone of the plucked instrument in the first 60 seconds.

Listen to the beginning of another AR Rahman song, this time from the movie Indira (especially the portion beginning at 0:14). Listening to the rest of this brilliant song is an added bonus, but is beyond the scope of this exercise.

Pay heed to a song composed by Amit Trivedi from Dev D. The first 13 seconds would do:

Each of these songs has a distinctly different tune, but the similarity in the instrumentation is uncanny. Is it because of the instrument used?