The Raga Guide: A Survey of 74 Hindustani Ragas

    -- edited by Joep Bor, Nimbus Records, 1999.

This multimedia set (196-page book with 4 CDs) does a marvelous job of providing insight into the raga system through text, paintings, transcriptions and recordings. Each of the 74 individual ragas has a short introduction dealing with its history, musical analysis, emotional mood and associated time of day; a chart of the ascending and descending notes of the raga; and a transcription of the melodic outline written in Western notation and sargam superscript. On the facing page is a detailed transcription of each performance’s introductory alap movement, again using both notation methods. From here, each raga recorded on the CDs goes into the next movement in a tala (rhythmic framework) which is named, but this part of the raga, accompanied by tabla drums, is not transcribed (with one exception). The first raga receives a full 5-page transcription and analysis in the book as a “performance in miniature,” and I have found it very helpful to go over this piece in class with students.

The performers of the music include Hariprasad Chaurasia, one of the most famous bansuri flute players in all of India; a sarod player, and two vocalists, accompanied by tabla. “The model these musicians have used had its origin in the 78 rpm discs which were recorded during the first half of this century. In these recordings, great vocalists and instrumentalists were capable of bringing out the essence of the ragas in just a few minutes. Like their predecessors, the artists recorded for this project have been able to create little raga jewels, masterpieces in which they portray each raga in three to six minutes.”

A set of short introductory essays provides much illumination, dealing with such topics as melodic embellishments, and the back of the book provides scholarly footnotes, a good bibliography and helpful glossary. A beautiful bonus is the set of 40 color plates of old ragmalla miniature paintings, visual analogues that correspond to the emotional moods of various ragas.

“What is a Raga?” is explained in terms of structural features, classification systems, the performance of ragas in different genres, and an introduction to tala. Song texts are provided in Devanagari script with English translations.

The set has sold more than 10,000 copies, and it’s easy to see why. One knowledgeable reviewer says the Guide’s relevance to contemporary Hindustani musical performance practice is “indisputable,” and that the essays make one of the best concise introductions to the topic available. Taking into consideration the well-written notes, the detailed transcriptions, the exquisite paintings and the more than 5 hours of digital recordings by the masters, it’s a bargain at the list price of about US $40. (Amazon.com has sound samples to listen to.) If you’re trying to understand the classical music of northern India, Pakistan, Nepal or Bangladesh, this set is indispensable … and thoroughly enjoyable.

    -- reviewed by Paul Neeley

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