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The magic of "Ta Da Ri Na"

by Deepika Rajagopalan

“Ta da ri na”, coyly murmurs my 4 - year old niece, when asked how her father sings. This is the impact of Raga Alaapana on a listener, how it characterizes Carnatic Music, making it one of the most important aspects of Manodharma Sangeetham.

Manodharma Sangeetham or “Improvisation in Music” is the most distinguished feature of Carnatic Music. It comprises of Raga Alaapana, Neraval, Kalpana Swarams, Tanam and provides ample opportunity to an artist to improvise, extemporize and embellish the art. Early in the learning process, a student is introduced to what is known as Kalpita Sangeetham, a dominant feature of Carnatic Music consisting of structured compositions like Geethams, Varnams, Krithis, Thillanas. These elements form the basis for attaining in-depth knowledge of the Carnatic style and introduce the student to a variety of ragas, covering various aspects of rhythmic patterns. Manodharma Sangeetham on the other hand, brings creativity within an artist to the fore, allowing each artist to develop an individualistic style. This makes every Kutcheri a unique experience for the audience.

The word Alaapana means “to expand" and can be compared to a painting on canvas where the musician attempts to draw out an elaborate sketch of the raga while confining to the framework (parameters of the raga). It is the most abstract form of Manodharma Sangeetham with minimal rules and structure and is rendered based on an artist’s imagination and interpretation of the raga being sung. Although seemingly simple, it's no easy feat! A strong grasp of the raga and rigorous practice are critical in bringing out the unique character of the raga or raga bhava, rendering a pleasing alaapana.

Phases of Raga Alaapana
An alaapana begins with a short sketch or introduction of the raga. My guru's instructions counseled a simple maxim, "A good alaapana is one that can bring out the raga chayya (the shade/essence of the raga) in the opening phrase distinguishing it from other ragas that bear close resemblance to it".

This is followed by an elaborate depiction of the raga. In this phase, the artist attempts to uncover the beauty and mood of the raga, gradually ascending from lower octaves to mid to higher octaves. Ideally sung in akaaras, artists use the syllables like "Ta da ri na" at times to emphasize on certain phrases. The artist begins weaving the raga beautifully into slow and medium paced sangathis (phrases), interlacing duritakala (fast paced) sangathis that exhibit technical expertise.
Phrases are built around jiva swaras, aptly named to symbolize life of the raga. Ga (Gandharam) and Da (Daivatam) for instance act as jiva swaras in the raga Abhogi which bring out the distinct shade and feel of the raga. Another important aspect one must consider in an alaapana is the right treatment or prayoga of swaras. Adding gamakam (oscillations) to Ma (Madhyamam) in the raga Kalyani is as important as singing a flat Ga (Gandharam) in Sankarabharanam, any of these subtleties omitted, results in the raga losing its identity.

The length and tempo of the alaapana usually depends on the krithi to be followed (raga preceding a pallavi has slight differences, hence is not discussed in this article). Let’s say, the Tyagaraja krithi Raghuvara in the ragam Panthuvarali, being rendered as main piece in a concert may be preceded by an elaborate alaapana decoding all nuances of the raga. Whereas, a lengthy alapanaa before a crisp madhyamakalam (medium tempo) krithi like Aparama Bhakti in the same raga wouldn’t be that appropriate.

Learning the art
Alaapana singing cannot be learnt by reading up theory books and neither by cramming a handful of important phrases of a raga (lamentably I have encountered some students who do this in haste to perform a full-length concert).

When my Guru felt I had the potential to advance to manodharma forms of Carnatic Music, she asked me to start an alaapana on my own in Kalyani, a raga fairly familiar to me. So, I picked up some sangathis from the krithis/varnams I had learnt in that raga – Ninnuvina gatigaana, Vasudevayani, Eta Unara and so on and sang them in akaram. She demonstrated how one must commence with a brief introduction, and later added in some phrases that brought out beauty of the raga. It is only natural that a disciple will imbibe their guru’s bani or style, but with experience musicians develop their own distinctive style.

The best method is to learn numerous krithis and varnams in the same raga. Each composition brings out a particular flavour of the raga, as it is nearly impossible even for the most renowned composers to bring out all shades of the raga in a single composition. Another approach to gain exposure to a raga is to practice Janta Varisai and Dhattu Varisai in the raga of interest. This is an excellent way to establish artistic vocalism. For example, practicing Janta Varisais, arranged in double patterned swaras like SaSa RiRi Ga, SaSa MaMa GaGa RiRi in akaraas helps in rendering gamakas with ease. A student gains firm hold over swara sthanams (placement) by practicing the interleaved swaras in Dhatthu Varisais. With rigorous practice comes steady improvement in the clarity of gliding phrases sung like Sa Da Ma Ri Sa. And, the most important approach remains, the more you listen, the more you learn; the most illustrious musicians continue to learn even today.

An amateur to expert alaapana rendition evolves over time, with practice and experience. All technical aspects apart, realization of raga contributes to a captivating alaapana.

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