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.