Rajan Parrikar Music Archive

Short Takes – Kafi

by Rajan P. Parrikar
First published on SAWF on October 31, 2005

Rajan P. Parrikar with Kishore Kumar (Goa, 1986)

Rajan P. Parrikar with Kishore Kumar (Goa, 1986)


The distinguished ragas, Bhimpalasi and Bageshree, associated with the Kafi that have been the subjects of an earlier inquiry.   In this paper we train our sights on Raga Kafi and its tributaries, namely, Sindhura, Barwa, Neelambari and Piloo.   Besides sharing genetic material these ragas have another common attribute: they have arisen from dhuns, with their fons et origo in the province of folk music.  Although these tunes over time have come to be formalized into ragas, they remain consigned to the bucket of kshudra ragas. That is to say, their conveyance is largely via auxiliary genres such as hori, dadra, thumri, bhajan and geet instead of the weighty classical forms like dhrupad and khayal.

Throughout this essay M represents the shuddha madhyam.

The Kafi that is among the ten proposed by Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande in his taxonomic scheme. It corresponds to the 22nd Carnatic melakarta Kharaharapriya, known in early Carnatic literature as Shree-raga mela, and wields the following swara-set: S R g M P D n.  Large swaths of the Hindustani ragaspace remain beholden to this that for it is the mother lode of not only major ragas but also of several key ragangas (Kanada, Malhar, Bhimpalasi, Dhanashree, Bageshree and so on).

Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande

Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande

For several centuries the saptaka defined by the swaras of Kafi – and not Bilawal – was the “shuddha” scale of the Hindustani system.   Ancient Indians were deeply familiar with its forerunner, the Shadja-grama of the treatises of antiquity.   Kafi the raga, however, is not as ancient.   Bhatkhande writes that the name first appears in Raga Tarangini of Lochana Pandit who lived in the Mithila district around 15th C (vide Bhatkhande’s Hindustani Sangeet Paddhati and his concise commentary,  A Comparative Study of Some of the Leading Music Systems of the 15th, 16, 17th, & 18th Centuries).   Furthermore, Bhatkhande expresses surprise that post-Lochana, occurrences of Raga Kafi and its lakshanas are found more in the works of Carnatic shastrakaras, including Venkatamakhi‘s Chaturdandi Prakashika (17th C) and Tulaja‘s Sangeeta Saramrta (18th C), than in their northern counterparts.

Raga Kafi

As mentioned in the prefatory remarks, Raga Kafi has come to us from folk music.  To those growing up in India with all its ambient cultural input, ragas such as Kafi, Bhairavi, Pahadi and Piloo scarcely require formal instruction.   One grows up with them, their spirit seeping into the dermis through osmosis.   By the time a student embarks on a systematic study, these musical memes are expected to be part of his or her mental furniture.

Let us flesh out the central lakshanas. Raga Kafi’s signature is ensconced in the following tonal phrase:

S, RgMP, M P D (M)g R
This recurring phrase and the avarohi termination on R are characteristic of Kafi.

Let us develop that motif.

S R R g g M M P, P M P (M)g R, n D n P D M P (M)g R
M P D n D P, n P (M)g R, g R S n’ D’ n’ S

Pancham and avarohi rishab are nyasa swaras.

A sample uttaranga flight path:
M P D n S”, D n D P D n S”, R” n S” n D P

Shuddha nishad is often deployed:
M P D N S” N S”

As is shuddha gandhar, in a vivadi role. For instance:
P M P G M n D n P D M P (M)g R

A couple of final observations: it is not uncommon for gandhar to be skipped (langhan) in arohi prayogasS R M P D M P g R. An uttaranga foray bearing shuddha nishad of the form M P N S” is also observed. These ploys betray an influence of Sindhura (to be treated shortly).

Ramashreya Jha “Ramrang” (© Rajan P. Parrikar)

Kafi is accorded a great deal of latitude in the interest of ranjakatva.   In all kshudra ragas, ‘contamination’ on account of swaras not part of their intrinsic makeup is par for the course. A ‘pure’ version of Kafi is seldom heard in performance; almost all instances fall to the “Mishra Kafi” lot.   With this understanding, the explicit Mishra qualifier shall be dispensed with altogether.   Bear in mind that strict conformity to etiquette is not expected of kshudra ragas.

These preliminaries are appositely summarized by Ramashreya Jha “Ramrang in a conversation recorded over the California-Allahabad telephone link.

Kafi comes in several flavours – Sindh Kafi (a touch of komal dhaivat), Zilla Kafi (seasoned with shuddha gandhar), De-Kafi (with sugar and cream) and Bengali Kafi (who cares?).   We shall forego these finer distinctions since most musicians today peddle variations simply under the “Mishra Kafi” roof.   Horis, thumris and dadras set to talas such as Deepchandi, Dhamar, Jat, Dhumali and Keherwa abound.

We have marshalled a lavish spread for your delectation.   There is so much material available in Kafi that there is a good chance you won’t find your own nanny goat in this caboodle.  If you develop an urge to bring it to my attention it would be a great idea not to.  With that said, Bon Appetit!

We hit the movie circuit first.   On the few occasions he ventured there, Ravi Shankar disclosed a keen talent for composing film songs (Alu, on the other hand, turned out to be a thundering flop).   His composition from GODAAN (1963), in Mohammad Rafi‘s voice: hori khelata Nandalal biraja mein.

A couple of Lata sparklers follow.

Movie: CHACHA ZINDABAD (1959); Music: Madan Mohan.

Movie: MUNIMJI (1955); Music: S.D. Burman.

Stamps honouring the legendary singers

Stamps honouring the great singers

Yesudas and Haimanti Shukla in CHASM-E-BADDOOR (1981), with music by Rajkamal.

Several years ago, a vast Bong conspiracy was uncovered & busted in the deep bowels of Tollygunge, and the gifted composer N. Datta (Datta Naik) was finally revealed to be not a macher-jhol Bong dork but a true blue Goan stud.   Sudha Malhotra in DHOOL KA PHOOL (1959).

Kundan Lal Saigal

Kundan Lal Saigal

In the company of the great: K.L. Saigal‘s hori is set to Chachar tala: Hori ho brijaraja dulare.

Saigal‘s gem: main jo dinana ki thori.

Marathi stage music has throughout its history looked to Kafi and Sindhura for sustenance.   From the drama SHAKUNTAL (premiered in 1880), in Sharad Zambhekar‘s voice: sadhya nase munikanya.

Govindrao Tembe composed the music for VARAVANCHANA (1925). Bapurao Ketkar‘s vocals.

Drama: SWAYAMVAR (1916); Composer: Bhaskarbuwa Bakhale; Singer: Manik Varma: roopabali to nara shardula.

Over to the Department of Devotional Music where Kafi has an abiding association.   We begin with a Kali kirtan in bongspeak.

A callow Mallikarjun Mansur, from his pre-Atrauli-Jaipur days.

The genre “Kafi,” popular in Gujarat, Punjab and Sindh, consists of Sufi poetry set to music.   We offer a Punjabi Kafi of Shah Hussain sung by Hamid Ali Bela: maai ni main kinoon akhan dard wachore da hal. (to whom shall I relate the state/condition of parting’s anguish?)

Basavanna’s vacana in Kannada is rendered by Basavaraj Rajguru: nudidare muttina haradantirabeku.

Bhaskarbuwa Bakhale (seated) and Govindrao Tembe

Bhaskarbuwa Bakhale (seated)
and Govindrao Tembe

Vande Mataram by Omkarnath Thakur.

Ramashreya Jha “Ramrang recites a prabandha with its tightly structured antaras, in Zilla Kafi.

Ramrang’s own tappa composition.

Another Kafi tappa by Malini Rajurkar.

Abdul Karim Khan‘s attempt at Tyagaraja’s kriti in Kharaharapriya: rama nee samanamevaru.

Switching to the instrumental lane, we catch Ravi Shankar.

Biswajit Roy Chowdhury on sarod.

Kafi provides excellent opportunities for Horing, as the actress said to the bishop.   We begin with Siddeshwari Devi.

Of her hori Shubha Mudgal says, “It is so close to the traditional Kafi horis that are sung in Krishna temples by the raas artistes.  In fact, the musical accompaniment that Aneesh [Pradhan] suggested for this is also influenced by the use of pakhawaj and jhaanjh or kaansaa that you hear with haveli sangeet, and raas performances.

The Senior Dagar Brothers, N. Moinuddin and N. Aminuddin, sing an old dhamar lyric in hori style: kesara ghar ke ranga.


Senior Dagar Brothers

Senior Dagar Brothers

This hori recording (1930s) serves as a marker for Kesarbai‘s evolution as a musician.   At the time she had freshly emerged from the exacting regimen imposed on her by Alladiya Khan: ab to khelale phag.

Faiyyaz Khan.

Baba Allauddin Khan.

This Zilla by Mushtaq Hussain Khan of Rampur paints Khamaj-like vistas.

Bandish in Kafi by Laxmanprasad Jaipurwale: kari ghata ghoomakara aayi.

Ramrang’s bandish-ki-thumri comes to flower in Jitendra Abhisheki‘s vocals: ranga jina daro.

The high-octane Krishnarao Shankar Pandit.

Jitendra Abhisheki

Jitendra Abhisheki

We complete the Kafi circuit with two cuts of the well-known composition, jab se Shyam sidhare.

Begum Akhtar.

Kishori Amonkar.

Raga Sindhura

Known in earlier times as Saindhavi, this raga has cleaved a trail going back to the Sangeeta Ratnakara of Sarangdeva (13th C) where it was considered a desi raga (as opposed to margi), suggestive of its roots in the folk traditions of the land.   Saindhavi is in circulation in Carnatic music although, as Subbarao notes in his Raganidhi, it is the Carnatic Raga Salaga Bhairavi that more resembles the contemporary Hindustani Sindhura. Despite its chronological seniority, the lakshanas of Raga Sindhura have been subsumed under the Kafi framework. Let us examine its key features.

S R M P, [PDMP] (M)g, R M g R S
S R M P D n D M P D S”
M P N, N S”, R” g” R” S”
S”, R” n D P, n P (M)g, R M P (M)g R, S

The gandhar is varjit in arohi passages. The approach to S” takes two pathways: one drops nishad as in M P D S”, the other adopts the shuddha nishad-laden strip M P N, N S”. The gandhar becomes deergha on occasion in avarohi prayogas. Sindhura being an uttaranga-pradhana raga, a judicious elongation of dhaivat can be put to good effect. These are the primary points of distinction with Kafi.

Begum Akhtar

Begum Akhtar

Jha-sahab gives the rundown.

D.V. Paluskar presents a chatarang composed by his great father Vishnu Digambar. The elongation of madhyam is idiosyncratic.

B.R. Deodhar‘s hori is textbook Sindhura: saja saja avata hai Brijanara.

Deodhar’s protégé, Kumar Gandharva.

Baba Allauddin Khan of Maihar on the violin.

Nikhil Banerjee, sitar.

Raga Barwa

Most Hindustani musicians today make ‘light’ of this raga but not the bards of Agra to whom Barwa is serious business, deserving of a respectable khayal treatment. Barwa maintains a filial association with Kafi and Sindhura, and a fleeting dalliance with Raga Desi in its poorvanga.  Let us outline its chalan.

S, R n’ D’ P, M’ P’ D’ N’, S
S R M, M P D g R, M g R M, M P
M P D g R, P g R, R P R g (S)R S
M P D S”, R” n D P, M P D N, N S”

Breaking it down we have:
S R M P or P g (Sindhura); M P (M)g R or M’ P’ D’ N’ S (Kafi); R P R g (Desi);

The key point here is the deergha nature of madhyam, a clear departure from both Kafi and Sindhura.

Vishnu Digambar Paluskar

Vishnu Digambar Paluskar

Pandit Ramashreya Jha “Ramrang” holds forth on Raga Barwa.

Faiyyaz Khan (“Prempiya”) begins with a robust alap and tops it with his own composition, now standard issue for Agra-ites: baje mori payaliyan.

Sohan Singh, Faiyyaz Khan’s disciple, is not a familiar name.   A fluent vocalist, he was the guru of the brilliant film music composer Jaidev.

Vilayat Hussain Khan “Pranpiya,” attractive in his rough-hewn manner.

Latafat Hussain Khan.

Kesarbai Kerkar‘s lapidary approach, swara-smithing if you will, never ceases to inspire awe.  Take stock of the gentle hints of Desi in this unpublished mehfil.

Amir Khan.

Sarangi-nawaz Bundu Khan.

Another instrumental performance, this time on the sitar by Vilayat Khan.

Vasantrao Deshpande.

Ramkrishnabuwa Vaze‘s interpretation stands out from the rest.   He does not appear to be a votary of a deergha madhyam.   His Barwa and Sindhura are cut from the same cloth, with subtle points of difference such as, for instance, the R g S sangati in Barwa.   Vazebuwa does acknowledge a modicum of Desi in his brief remarks in Sangeeta Kala Prakash (1938): bol Radhe ab to chook pari.


Vasantrao Deshpande

Vasantrao Deshpande

It ought to be obvious by now why avirbhava of these ragas – and the ones to follow – are viewed as a “tod-marod” of Kafi.

Raga Neelambari

This exquisite raga was popularized by Omkarnath Thakur.   It has no resemblance to the Carnatic raga of the same name.   Raga Neelambari draws on both Kafi and Sindhura but carves out its identity with two special pathos-imbuing prayogas: the melodic molecule D’ n’ g R (heard on the mukhda in the clips below), and the chromatic avarohi slide from shuddha to komal gandhar, to wit: R M P D M G g R.

Kumar Gandharva with wife Bhanumati in 1947

Kumar Gandharva and
wife Bhanumati (1947)

Susheela Mishra has written: “I still remember how at a huge music conference in Calcutta many years ago, the audience requested [Omkarnath Thakur] to sing Neelambari.  But he begged to be excused as Neelambari had been a favourite of his late wife and he felt he would have a breakdown if he tried to render it that evening!” (Great Masters of Hindustani Music, Hem Publishers Pvt Ltd, 1981.)

Omkarnath Thakur: mitawa balamava.

Following in her guru’s footsteps, N. Rajam.

Ummeed Ali Khan of Gwalior.

Raga Piloo

Piloo is, in essence, a dhun, and the least structured of the ragas considered here.   Which means all the 12 swaras have visitation rights.  But this is not to say it is an indiscriminate gangbang.   There is a definite kernel available on which to sew the supporting ad hoc melodic threads.  Bhatkhande recalls that its extreme popularity notwithstanding, the poo-bahs of his day turned their noses up at the idea of regarding Piloo as a raga.

The following constitutes the kernel of Piloo:

P’ N’ S g, g R S N’, N’ S
The nyasa on gandhar and shuddha nishad of the lower register are Piloo’s genetic markers.

A few of the supplementary strands used to constitute Piloo are:

S, g R S N’, S N’ d’ P’, M’ P’ N’ S g, R S
S g, g M P (M)g, g (R)S N’, S
S G, G M g R, S G M P n D P, G M d P (M)g, (R)S N’
S, N’ S r S N’ d’ P’, M’ P’ N’ N’ S

A young Kesarbai Kerkar

A young Kesarbai Kerkar

A couple of final remarks before we repair to the audio parlour.

– Bhatkhande says that the preferred Piloo flavour of the heavyweights of Rampur (such as Wazir Khan and Nawab Sadat Ali Khan) was grounded in the scale of the 9th Carnatic melakarta Dhenuka: S r g M P d N.   Some of the compositions he heard in Rampur are documented in Panditji’s Kramika Pustaka Malika.

– Although Hamsakinkini and Piloo share some phraseology there are significant differences in their constitution.

Jha-sahab‘s words of wisdom.

A Saigal classic from the movie TANSEN (1943), music by Khemchand Prakash: kahe gumana kare.

Saigal again, with a ghazal.

Movie: HOSPITAL (1943); Music: Kamal Dasgupta; Voice: Kanan Devi.

Asha Bhonsle in JORU KA BHAI (1955), with music by Jaidev: naina kahe ko lagaye.

Movie: DURGESH NANDINI (1956); Music: Hemant Kumar; Voice: Lata Mangeshkar: mat maro Shyam pichkari.

O.P. Nayyar gets his Piloo swing going in the Geeta Dutt number from 12 O’CLOCK (1958): kaisa jadoo balama tune.

Mukesh in CHHOTI CHHOTI BAATEIN (1965) to Anil Biswas‘s music: zindagi khwab hai.


Faiyyaz Khan

Faiyyaz Khan

The celebrated Marathi natyageeta, nacha sundari, from SAUBHADRA (premiered in 1882) is exquisitely rendered by Abdul Karim Khan.

This 1923 Marathi bhajan by Hirabai Barodekar is not for those dainty sucklings accustomed to the warm feel of Dolby’s tit.

Faiyyaz Khan takes on a ghazal.

A pregnant thumri session awaits us.

Bade Ghulam Ali Khan: kate na biraha ki rat.

His brother, Barkat Ali: Radhe bano Shyam.

Durgesh Nandini Bai.

Ghulam Mustafa Khan: sham bhayi bina Shyam.

A few instrumental selections are in order.

Dinkarrao Amembal (D’Amel) on the flute.

Govindrao Tembe and his digital dexterity on the harmonium.

Bundu Khan on sarangi.

Bundu Khan

Bundu Khan

Alu whips out his lil Piloo. (O behave, Alu!)

Laxmanprasad Jaipurwale (Caution! You are about to enter the No-Dolby-tit zone).

An unpublished recording (1957) of Krishnarao Shankar Pandit.

We conclude with Kishore Kumar, who has meant more to me musically than anyone else.  This is his own composition, from his movie DOOR KA RAHI (1971): khushi do ghadi ki mile na mile.

This pièce de résistance from ZINDAGI ZINDAGI (1972) was composed by S.D. Burman.  Its haunting refrain was included by the film-maker Sandip Ray in a collage depicting Kishore Kumar‘s final journey in October 1987. Few among us are so fortunate in the manner of our death as to have a hand in our own requiem: tune humein kya diya ri zindagi.


Vijay Kumar of www.thumri.com permitted the use of Saigal’s unpublished hori in Kafi.   Taimur Khan of www.sarangi.info supplied the Punjabi Kafi by Hamid Ali Bela as well as its import.   Suresh Chandvankar of the Society for Indian Record Collectors (SIRC) made available Hirabai Barodekar’s 1923 Piloo recording.

Romesh Aeri

Romesh Aeri

For all the kindness showered on me by Romesh Aeri and Dr. Ashok Ambardar I am in their debt.   It is been my good fortune to have access to the prodigious Sir Vish Krishnan whose sage counsel has quietly embellished these ruminations.   To Professor V.N. Muthukumar, Shubha Mudgal and Dr. Ajay Nerurkar I owe many rounds of thanks.

Anita Thakur

Anita Thakur

Anita Thakur of SAWF seeks no meed for all her efforts.   Therefore, I shall simply record that without her these pages would not have seen the light of day.