by Rajan P. Parrikar
First published on SAWF on November 13, 2000
[Update: Pandit Ramashreya Jha “Ramrang” passed away on January 1, 2009. He was 80 years old.]
The early decades of the 20th century were a period of social and intellectual renaissance in Hindustani music with the two Vishnus, Paluskar and Bhatkhande, at the helm of the movement.
Bhatkhande had initiated and brought to fruition his investigations of the shastraic basis of our music, uniting it with the practice of the day. He had also successfully assembled and documented hundreds of traditional compositions from diverse sources. In him were joined a powerful intellect, formidable musical talent, and tenacity, all of which he brought to bear on his epochal work. The formalism he developed has become the touchstone in our times informing all musical discourse in Hindustani music. Bhatkhande’s oeuvre – the volume and quality of its content – is a miracle. That it was accomplished single-handedly in a single lifetime is an inspiration and a revelation what a man armed with resolve and fixity of purpose can achieve. At the conclusion of his opus Bhatkhande made clear the scope of his work. He declared that he had only laid the foundation and that it was the responsibility of the generations following to extend and improve upon him.
Bhatkhande’s mantle was inherited by his primary disciple, Acharya S.N. Ratanjankar. In his time, Ratanjankar was acknowledged as the most accomplished student of ragadari. He was also, like his mentor, an outstanding vaggeyakara and will long be remembered for his superb 600+ compositions, notated and documented diligently by his disciple K.G. Ginde.
Cut from the same cloth as Bhatkhande and Ratanjankar is Pandit Ramashreya Jha “Ramrang” – Vidwan, Shastrakara, Vaggeyekara, Teacher and Performer. Ramrang joins Ratanjankar as the two most significant Hindustani vaggeyakaras of the past 50 years. To be sure, there have been well-known performers who have composed and composed well. But none that matches the combination of breadth, volume, gravitas, and musicianship manifested in these two.
Sangeetacharya Ramashreya Jha “Ramrang” was born on August 11, 1928, in Darbhanga in the Mithila region of Bihar, once a thriving centre of dhrupad music. His father Sukhdev Jha and his uncle Madhusudan Jha were his early mentors. But his final calling was nurtured and honed during the 25 years he spent in Allahabad at the ashram of his distinguished guru Bholanath Bhatt. Allahabad was to remain his karmabhoomi. Ramrang also had the benefit of instruction from other vidwans such as B.N. Thakar of Allahabad and Habib Khan of Kirana. Around 15 years of his youth were spent with a drama company in Varanasi. This experience helped widen his musical vistas and attune him to the pulse of the rustic antecedents of our Art music. In 1968 he was appointed to the faculty of Allahabad University and later, in 1980, elevated to the position of Head of the Music Department. This singular move by the University was in recognition of genuine merit for Ramrang holds no formal degrees. He retired from active professorial duty in 1989.
Ramrang’s composite musical personality unravels into four interrelated strands that are briefly touched upon:
(a) He is a shastrakara of the highest class and the fruits of his lifelong meditations into the nature of raga constitute the five published volumes of Abhinava Geetanjali. These classics represent a signal contribution to Indian music, dazzling us with the keenness of their author’s intellect, revealing his extensive knowledge, agile mind, and quality of scholarship. The volumes disclose an unusual talent in formulating and communicating ideas elegantly and simply. The insights and critical analyses of ragas together with hundreds of Ramrang’s own high-quality musical compositions purveyed impel us towards the inescapable verdict: Ramashreya Jha “Ramrang” is the Bhatkhande of our time.
(b) As a preeminent vageyakara, Ramrang’s fertile imagination, retentiveness and quickness of mind are the key strengths attending his creative impulse. He carries all the essential music in his head and it is always at hand for instant recall. A high quality bandish must represent the précis of a raga’s melodic content (lakshanas). A typical Ramrang composition goes farther: each word, swara and matra are tied together in a symbiotic melodic ecosystem of an aesthetic unity not usually found in your run-of-the-mill ‘traditional’ bandish. Among the earliest musicians to appreciate Jha-sahab’s erudition and come under the spell of his compositions was our own Jitendra Abhisheki, who sang, popularized, and taught many of Ramrang’s bandishes. Over the years, these compositions have found their way into the repertoire of several leading vocalists.
(c) As a performer, Ramrang’s gayaki is best appreciated by those with a grasp of the nuances of swara and raga. One listens to Ramrang not for his vocal gymnastics and high velocity tans – to be sure, he indulges in neither – but to drink from the wellspring of raganubhava. His is a lakshana-oriented approach. Even the familiar, well-worn ragas when refracted through Ramrang’s mental prism acquire a distinct conceptual body and flavour. Unlike most Hindustani renditions of the day, Ramrang does not believe in making short shrift of the text of the bandish. Instead, with his acute sense of the dramatic and the poetic, he reminds us of the values intrinsic to the older genre of dhrupad, marrying verse and swara with such felicity as to make the two seem inseparable. Ramrang’s creative acumen lies not only in his superbly conceived compositions but also in his manner of uccharana accompanying the build-up of the raga edifice (known in the trade as asthaai bharnaa) from the skeletal bandish.
(d) Ramrang’s final facet appertains to his role as an educator. He has trained and counseled several students over the years. His senior disciple, Dr. Geeta Banerjee, is an eminent author, scholar and musician who later succeeded him as Head of the Music Department at Allahabad University. Another pupil, Shubha Mudgal, has attained international recognition. On this website we have adduced numerous examples of Ramrang’s talents at exposition and the inspirited delivery he brings to it. His discourses have come to be highly valued as both pedagogic masterpieces and as vignettes of aesthetic delight. (Update: In 2005 the President of India conferred on him the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for his contributions to music.)
Today, as he has done for the past 6 decades, Ramrang spends his waking moments immersed in the contemplation and creation of music. True to his calling, Ramrang’s intellectual wanderlust shows no sign of abating; every day turns in a new insight or a new asthai. In this context we are reminded of Einstein who famously observed: “Only in Science and Art are we permitted to remain children all our lives.”
Ramrang has spent most of his musical life in relative isolation, away from the glare of public adulation, and on the fringes of the community of active performing musicians. This is entirely in keeping with his character and inner conviction that music is a lifelong sadhana requiring of self-discipline. In summing up the musical life of Ramashreya Jha “Ramrang,” the understated flourish of Professor G.H. Hardy comes to mind: “Whatever we do may be small, but it has a certain character of permanence; and to have produced anything of the slightest permanent interest…is to have done something utterly beyond the powers of the vast majority of men.” (A Mathematician’s Apology).
In the present essay, we return to Ramrang’s garden (see the earlier Ramrang – A Bouquet of Compositions). This package has been put together from postings made earlier in the Usenet newsgroup rec.music.indian.classical (RMIC).
The opening sequence comprises four compositions in Raga Bhimpalasi. Jha-sahab opens with his lovely vilambit Roopak bandish and then quickly sketches three druta compositions, interjecting the proceedings with pertinent comments.
Raga Chhaya Bihag is a hybrid of two ragas, namely, Chhaya and Bihag. The primary marker of the Chhaya component is the P->R swoop. Ramrang’s compositions here speak of the episode of the baby Krishna wanting the moon for himself and Jashoda’s reaction to his intransigence.
He first explains the sahitya.
…and then sketches his vilambit composition. (Recorded in September 2000 in Goa. Tabla: Shri Vaman Naik, formerly of AIR Panjim.)
Raga Savani of the Kalyan anga is rarely heard today. Jha-sahab sings a traditional bandish that has come down to him from his guru, Bholanath Bhatt: banata bana’oon bana nahi aave.
Ramrang’s tarana in Raga Jaijaivanti set to Jhaptala shows arresting cross-play with the laya.
Some 30-35 years ago, a pupil of Omkarnath Thakur called on Ramrang and sang his guru’s beautiful Shyam Kalyan composition. A couple of days later he dropped by again and was astonished to find that Jha-sahab had not only remembered Omkarnath’s bandish but had produced a near-identical match by stitching new words onto the melody. We hear in Jha-sahab’s own voice Omkarnath’s original composition and then his matching riposte.
Bhatkhande‘s monumental exegesis Hindustani Sangeet Paddhati has a reference to the Carnatic import, Raga Pratapvarali (he may well have been the one to introduce it in Hindustani music although, in keeping with his self-effacing nature, he doesn’t claim credit).
The sangatis in Pratapvarali are vakra, especially the ones around the avarohi gandhar. Durga (of the Bilawal that) is kept at bay through special phrases (the alert reader will figure them out). Other ragas of similar persuasion are the Carnatic Arabhi, Sama/Shyama and Devagandhari (incorrectly labeled on Abdul Karim Khan‘s HMV tape as Devagandhar, a very different puppy).
There is an older composition in Pratapvarali courtesy Aman Ali Khan of Bhendibazar. Ramrang’s two compositions presented here were huge favourites of Jitendra Abhisheki.
In the vilambit bandish, Jha-sahab makes the raga look deceptively easy. Notice how the key lakshana is captured in the mukhda.
Moving along, we bring an magnificent monologue in which Jha-sahab ranges over Ragas Devgiri Bilawal, Yamani Bilawal and Sarparda Bilawal. The act concludes with his reciting a traditional vilambit composition in Sarparda.
Next on the menu, a course of five delightful compositions, two in Raga Bhoopali and three in Shuddha Kalyan.
Ramrang sings of Lord Shiva in Har Har Mahadeva in Raga Bhoopali.
Another cheez in Bhoopali, set to Ektala: mana leeje sundarwa.
Shuddha Kalyan co-opts elements of Bhoopali, padding them with vital additional tonal artifacts. Jha-sahab first sings a traditional composition, mandara bajo re.
The next two are his own compositions. Satyasheel Deshpande provides both ‘daad’ and vocal support.
Shuddha Kalyan: bairana bha’i ri.
Shuddha Kalyan: neendariya tu kahe na.
The Yaman flowers are in full bloom in the next patch. A full suite of four delectable compositions is ours to ‘pluck and play.’
Ramrang expands on his vilambit bandish, devana deva. This has to be among the most sublime Yaman ever conceived. Although an abbreviated excerpt, the clip furnishes a master class in the procedure known as “astha’i bharna” (lit. filling up of the astha’i). Jha-sahab’s impromptu remarks dot the proceedings.
In the final lap of this clip, Ramrang talks about some features of the composition and ends with a dramatic flourish: ranga de ranga de rangarejawa.
Another cheez in Yaman, a different design and flavour. Ramrang has composed close to 50 bandishes in Yaman/Yaman Kalyan spread over roughly 5 decades, mining every conceivable inch of the raganga territory: tumhari aasa lagi aaja.
This khayalnuma in Yaman is set to Teentala.
The nonchalent touch of shuddha madhyam in this Yaman Kalyan composition register pleasingly on both the heart and mind: sangata keenhe guniyana ki guna.
We make a nodding acquaintance with a prakar of Nat known as Nat Nagari. This is a creation of Ramrang, and with moorings in Chhayanat. A deft chalan bheda imparts to it an independent swaroopa. Notice the Kukubh-like prayoga of the rishab. The text addresses a prasanga in the life of Bhartrhari. At the conclusion of his sanyasa he returns to his unfaithful wife and asks for alms, as enjoined by his guru. The penitent wife now responds: kahe alakha jagayo jogi tum mere prana adhara.
Ramrang’s activities in ancillary forms such as thumri, hori and dadra must find mention in any survey of his work. While primarily wedded to classicism, his facility in these auxillary genres is a result of his long association with his guru, Bholanath Bhatt who was an expert of the thumri (vide B.R. Deodhar – Pillars of Hindustani Music). Of Lucknowi extraction, these thumris fall to the older lot known as ‘bandish-ki-thumri‘ characterized by a faster laya and a taut wrap around the tala.
Jha-sahab’s first clip is a full rendition of a traditional thumri he received from Bholanath Bhatt. This objet d’art based in Raga Tilak Bihari uses Tilak Kamod for its base, renders its rishab deergha, and borrows elements from Khamaj: ho maharaja kevadiya khole, rasa ki boonda pare.
A traditional dadra.
Ramrang himself has composed several exquisite thumris and tappas. Two samplers follow.
A bandish-ki-thumri in Khamaj, set to Ektala.
A tappa in Kafi.
The next offering is a composition in Raga Bhankhari (not to be confused with Raga Bhankar). This composite raga is formed from strands of Bibhas (of the Marwa that), Jait, Deshkar and Marwa. The deergha bahutva role accorded to dhaivat is noticeable. Vocal accompaniment is provided by Satyasheel Deshpande: sanga na keejiye manuva.
Three aprachalita prakars of Malhar follow.
First, a traditional composition in Raga Nat Malhar.
Raga Jhanj Malhar: the raga is obtained by administering a small dose of the Kanada anga to the uttaranga of Miyan Malhar.
Raga Chanchalsas Malhar: elements of Megh, Desh and Shahana are woven into the Malhar fabric.
Our promenade of Ramrang’s garden concludes with a type of Raga Patmanjari. I leave it to the reader to figure out the 5 constituent ragas of this hybrid.