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Varadarangan: scholarly effort


Tracking a kaleidoscope

Dr K Varadarangan combines traditional musical sutras with algebraic formulas in a book that music researchers will treasure

It is a painstaking achievement. Dr Varadarangan has written a scholarly book about a subject that intrigues insiders to music research but is mostly dense to non-specialists.

The idea of shrutibheda has always fascinated musicologists. A scale changes its character the moment you change the tonic key (adhara shadja). If you are, for instance, singing the swaras of raga Mohana, and someone increases the shruti of the tamboori by a full note, you actually end up singing raga Madhyamavati. It is like looking at the same landscape through glasses of varying tint, and marvelling at the wondrous tonal hues they produce. This study looks closely at that kaleidoscopic world of tonic shifts and relative frequencies.

The Bangalorean physicist, with a doctorate in microwave antennas from IIT Chennai, worked through the night for six months to produce the manuscript. It was hard to convince publishers to take up the book, aimed only at "those interested in music theory and familiar with basic algebra", but he did finally find one in Mysore who printed 1,000 copies.

"In the first place, very few books have been written on shrutibheda. Secondly, there does not appear to be any book that deals with the mathematical relationships between the shrutis, the fundamental ratios, and their symmetry properties. I have dealt with these aspects in great detail, perhaps for the first time," says Varadarangan.

He feels earlier books may have neglected the srutibheda possibilities of a large number of ragas because deducing them manually requires "an enormous amount of time". Varadarangan overcame this problem by writing a computer program. If you are interested, you can get a free copy from him.

The first part of Varadarangan’s book defines the relative frequencies, and the properties, of the 12 basic swaras of Indian music. The second part tabulates the shrutibheda possibilities of kramaswara ragas, which are ragas with the same ascending and descending swaras. "I present a new method of classifying and numbering the 726 kramaswara ragas", Varadarangan told The Music Magazine.

"I think the number of shrutis has been debated too much. I believe the 22 shrutis we now have are good enough. Even here the interval between two adjacent shrutis is as minute as 22 cents. If an octave is divided up into more shrutis, you can’t possibly perceive the intervals. Moreover, the 22 shrutis are formed from a cycle of fourths and a cycle of fifths, and a rationale exists for accepting them," he argues.

Varadarangan, who is also a performing vocalist –- he sings at live concerts and on All India Radio -- says gamakas, and not just minute sruthis, are what make Indian classical music rich.

Varadarangan is related to Kannada writers Pu Thi Na (Pu Thi Narasimhachar), who wrote many musical plays, and Gorur Ramaswamy Iyengar, humorist and freedom fighter. He says he owes his accomplishments to his family’s encouragement, and his colleagues’s admiration for his music. He works for Harita Networks as Asst General Manager (R&D).

An interview with the softspoken scholar:

How long did it take you to write the book?

The manuscript took about six months. On many days, I used to work till two in the morning.

Can you tell us briefly what the book says?

The first part deals with the derivation of relative frequencies and properties of the 12 basic swaras of the Indian system of music. The second part deals with the computation and extensive tabulation of the Sruthibedha possibilities of the kramaswara ragas. These are ragas which have a strictly ascending swaras in the arohana and the very same set of swaras appearing in a descending order in the avarohana.

There are 726 kramaswara ragas, and I have presented a new method of classifying and numbering them. The computation of srutibedha possibilities is based on relative frequencies derived in the first part.

A systematic application of elementary mathematics to well-known srutibedha sutras helped me derive the relative frequencies. I make a distinction between exact and approximate srutibedha, and provide an elaborate sruthibedha table. I think these are original contibutions.

What difficulties did you encounter while writing the book? Which scholars and books did you consult?

I had to type the manuscript in Kannada while the computer gave results in English. That was an area of difficulty. Also this is my first book and I sometimes struggled to get the right words. I hope to publish an English version soon.

I had earlier studied several books in Kannada and English. Prominent among these are 'Sangeetha Lakshana Sangraha' in Kannada -- it comes in two volumes -- written by Dr Padma Murthy, and the series of books in English by Prof P Sambamurthy, 'South Indian Music'. I also studied in detail a book by C Subramanya Iyyar called 'The Grammar of South Indian music'.

I read 'Sangeetha Ratnakara' translated into Kannada by Prof R Sathyanarayana. On the vadi, samvadi and vivadi swaras, there is an excellent article by N Ramanathan published by the Music Aacademy, Madras.

Are you familiar with 'Raga Dhana', and the work of Ludwig Pesch? How would you say your book is different? Did you have to invent new names for scales?

I have heard of Pesch's book but haven't had the opportunity of reading it. But I have read many other books on music theory. There are very few books on srutis and srutibedha. None gives a systematic approach to determining the relative frequencies.

There does not appear to be any book giving the srutibedha possibilities of a large number of ragas, as I have done in this book. This is because the deducing of these possibiliies requires enormous amount of time if done manually. I have achieved my results by writing software to automate the process.

I have not invented any names for new scales... I have left them blank. However, the scales may be identified by a unique number which is described in Chapter 6. I have tried to cull out names for as many scales as possible. For this, I have referred to the list of scales published in the book 'Palaiyazhi' by B M Sundaram, published by the Murali Ravali Art Centre. I have given some names for the chakras and vrindas appearing in my book.

What exactly does your software do? Do you plan to sell it commercially?

My program outputs the names of all ragas and their swaras when srutibedha is applied to a given 'input' raga. The input raga should be a kramaswara raga. The output ragas will also be kramaswara ragas. These include the melakartha ragas as well. The user has to type in the input swaras. The output lists the raga number as well as all the output ragas and their swaras. The program has a database that contains the names of the ragas against their raga numbers. I don't plan to sell this software. I would like to give it free to anyone who wants to use it.

What reader did you have in mind when you wrote your book? How many copies have you published?

My readers are those interested in music theory and familiar with elementary algebra. Initially, 1,000 copies were printed and about 60 to 70 per cent may have been sold by the publisher.

I suppose you still go by the 22 srutis proposed by Bharata and Sharangadeva. Do you think any new srutis can be proposed? Do you believe the Indian sruti system is more sophisticated than the Arabian and the Western tonal systems?

I think the number of sruthis has been debated too much without anyone coming to any definitive conclusion. I believe that 22 srutis are good enough. Even here the interval between two adacent srutis is as small as 22 cents. If an octave is further divided into more srutis, one can't possibly percieve those smaller frequency intervals. Moreover, the 22 srutis are the formed by a cycle of fourths and a cycle of fifths and there is a rationale for accepting them.

The Indian sruti system is definetely more elaborate and complicated than the Western and Arabian tone systems. However, what really makes our music more interesting and rich is the use of gamakas, or meend, and not merely the use of the additional minute sruthis.

What do you work as? Does your work help or hinder your musical pursuit?

I work as an R&D executive with Harita Networks, Bangalore. I am an M.Sc in physics and hold a doctorate in microwave antennas from IIT, Chennai. My work has definitely helped me in my musical accomplishments. It has provided me with a good livelihood, and I have colleages who admire music. Some of them are artists themselves. The only thing that bothers me is the strain from long hours of work.

Tell us a bit about the writers in your family.

Pu Thi Narasimhachar who is my father's uncle hailed from Melkote and was an eminent scholar in Kannada. He was also greatly interested in Karnatak music and gamaka vaachana. He wrote musical operas like 'Hamsa Damayanti', many of which were broadcast by AIR. The music was provided by the famous veena player Dr V Doreswamy Iyengar.

Gorur Ramaswamy Iyengar was a great Kannada writer known for light humour. As children we used to visit his house in Gorur. He was always writing or reading something. He was a great follower of Mahatma Gandhi and took part in the freedom struggle.

S R Ramakrishna

Write to Dr K Varadarangan

Shruti Lakshana Prakashini (Kannada)
Rs 55
Navabharati Publishers,
279, 13th Main, Saraswathipuram
Mysore 570 009

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