Commentary on Raga Jhinjhoti

As a lover of classical Indian music, I cut my teeth on raga Jhinjhoti.

In the ever-shifting wilderness of Arohi-Avarohi (ascending and descending modes), in the profuse orchards of Raga-Mala (garlands of modes), or in the shadows of the towering Thaats (dynasties of modes), the neophyte will always have a little trouble telling one thing from another. But with Jhinjhoti this has never been the case. Nevermind which instrument, nevermind which master — from any handful of notes I can pick it out at a thousand yards. Such is the great tunefulness of its nature.

Moreover, as the very first raga I experienced in a live performance, I can never listen to Jhinjhoti without the happy onrush of memory, the remembered sweetnesses that attend the beginnings of any new love.

I remember I was staring out the window, holding the telephone, waiting for Mary to return my call. Outside, the redbud was in full autumnal splendor, the oblique sunshine was lighting up its cordate leaves like fat flames. I remember thinking how the dark seedpods, hanging in clusters amid the foliagefire, looked like corpses on a Persian gallows. Yellow-jackets were swarming like winged bits of anellucite in and out of a knot in the rotting sideboard. People beneath swatted as they passed.

Suddenly the phone rang and I started, these impressions dissolving in an instant. I answered and braced myself for what she would say. Instead, I heard my friend Shouri’s voice. He said:

“Ustad Shahid Parvez will be playing at Professor Cooray’s home. Apparently Cooray wrote him and expressed disappointment with his last performance, so the Ustad will come to prove himself. Arrive in the evening, November 3rd. I have invited you.”

Then he hung up. It was not Mary, but for the moment that did not matter. In the world of classical Indian music Shahid Parvez has the stature of a Chopin or a Debussy; he is an institution unto himself; three thousand years of knowledge and tradition incarnate, refined; scion of an ancient musical family; a living jewel of India. And he was going to give a private concert because a layman had challenged his credentials.

I would have thought the situation absurd, had I not been struggling to comprehend my luck.

A few days later, when Mary finally returned my call, I asked her to coffee. “I’ll be studying at the café tomorrow,” she said, “you can sit with me for a while, if you like.” I wanted her to join me. Were she to sit with me (I theorized) and hear what I would hear (which would be Nada Brahma, the sound of God), and feel what I would feel (which would be Moksha, liberation and bliss), then everything would be alright.

But by then it was too late. At the café I gawked like a fool before I found her sitting at a corner table. I had to remove her books from the chair so that I could sit. I finished a whole cup of coffee before she even looked up at me from her reading.

“Will you come to a concert with me?” I asked. “It’s at a professor’s home; it will be relaxed.”

“You know I can’t do that,” she said, folding papers and closing her books.

“No, I really don’t,” I said. “I don’t understand why you cannot see a concert with me.” She was stuffing things into her bag.

“It is a matter of principle.”

“What kind of principle? The kind that requires you to be an insufferable snob and unkind to old friends?”

“The other kind,” she said, standing up, “that requires one to know when old friendships should be ended.”

She paid for her coffee and left. I remember reflecting, as she walked away, how once a person is known so well you can never see her back without perfectly imagining her face.

On November 3rd I witnessed Shahid Parvez perform Jhinjhoti. Shouri had the foresight to make a recording, which I possess and have listened to innumerable times. What follows is my commentary on the salient moments of his nearly hour long exposition of the raga in Alap, Jor and Jhalla. I have it playing as I write this.


Thaat: Khammaj (Mixolydian)
Jaati: Audav-Sampoorn
Vadi/Samvadi: Sa/Pa
Prahar: evening
Mood: shringar (love, romance)
Arohi: Sa Ga ma Pa Dha Ni Sa
Avarohi: Sa ni Dha Pa ma Ga Re Sa
Chalan: Dha Sa Re ma Ga, Re Ga Sa Re ni Dha Pa Dha Sa

When I came up the front walk to Professor Cooray’s house I found a note attached to the door: “please enter quietly, the door is unlocked”. Obeying the note I entered without knocking. Inside, above a murmur of voices I heard the ringing of a sitar, which lent the closed interior an expasiveness as of seagulls calling above the rush of waves. I was in time, Shahid Parvez was tuning his instrument.

Entering the large living room Professor Cooray’s wife greeted me, handing me a mug of chai. About two dozen people were present. All the furniture had been removed and everyone sat on the floor. In the center, before the fireplace, sat Ustad Parvez speaking with his tablist, Akram Khan.

I took a seat next to Shouri and waited, quietly sipping my tea.

I. Alap

While most in attendance spoke hushedly to their neighbors I watched Shahid Parvez — with deliberation in his gestures, like one enacting a ritual — smooth the blanket on his lap, remove his watch and place it at his side, bend the strings on the sitar until the wood creaked. Professor Cooray tried to light a stick of incense but the Ustad held up his hand.

Then everyone fell silent. He brushed his finger across the sympathetic strings and a cascade of notes hung in the air, as if to indicate in the abstract every tone from which he would build the ensuing architecture.

(00:00:01) Asthai — Sometimes, as a raga opens in the unmetered Alap, if it is an old, noble Dhrupad piece like Darbari or Malhar, the musician will progress in the vistar style introducing one note at a time, showing the space around each swara and carving phrases in tight clusters. In this way many minutes will pass before the audience will catch a glimpse of the raga — like a curtain lifted achingly slow upon a scene.

(00:00:25) — Parvez hinted at the Chalan, the raga’s defining phrase. Because Jhinjhoti is kshudra and, as it were, “mired in the native soil”, a “melody of the folk idiom”, its exposition is less learned and cerebral. It reveals its origin early like a crocus pushing through snow.

A murmur floated through the audience, and sighs; the first of many a wha! and kyabat! which are the exclamations of pleasure and appreciation Indian musicians strive for.

(00:05:17) Antara — The first full touch upon the Chalan sent a shiver down my spine. Until now most melodies had been explored in the lower and middle-lower registers. Then with this one concrete phrase Parvez finally broke into the higher register. It was unexpected and incomparably sweet.

For some reason I could no longer keep my eyes open, yet I was anything but tired.

(00:09:32) — Frank Zappa once noted: “an essential quality of the jazz solo is the sense it conveys of forward movement throught time . . . in the typical rock solo there is an amount of space to be decorated, with the emotional curve (excitement to ecstasy) a foregone conclusion”. — In Indian music it is a circular movement, almost like an interrogation trying to get at the nature of a specific state, whether it be love or sorrow; even rage. It can be vicious, like vultures spiraling in.

With my eyes closed I noticed two things: 1) there seemed to be a completeness in my private dark, as though opening my eyes would not restore me to the world, and 2) consciousness of all sensorial systems except my ears had ceased, as though my mind had to be totally devoted to extract every nuance from the aural atmosphere.

(00:14:43) Sanchari — After the sweet, falsetto phrases of the higher register Parvez descended gracefully to the lower notes. “Dha” and “ni” functioned as starting and ending points for new forays, summarizing with deft economy and synthesizes in strange freefalls every musical statement heretofore.

There was no sensation of light through my eyelids, as often happens — even though in the room a few lamps were still lit — but slowly, in my total dark a few pure colors, internally bright, began to expand.

(00:17:09) — Shahid Parvez had a way of constructing a whole melodic sentence and then, before the sound dies off, quickly include a whole new phrase like a whisper hinting at an even more brilliant idea. Then the following melodic sentence would explore a part of that whisper. These were perfect transitions.

I watched as an image began to gather in my mind, colors arranged themselves on the netherside of my eyelids. I chuckled to myself when I finally recognized the shape as a representation of Shahid Parvez with his sitar. As he struck his notes severed chrysanthemums rained accordingly from the sky. I was enjoying this very much, until I realized this image was too perfect to be my mind’s interpretation of some random patterns. Then I grew a little uneasy.

(00:20:51) Abhog — Without any haste or any heightening in dramatas to suggest the heavy work had been done, that the state of shringar (romantic love) had been established and all now was a rounding off of edges, Shahid Parvez commenced the final section of the Alap.

Blinking (my mind’s eye, so to speak; my eyes of flesh were already closed), and finding things still intact, it occurred to me I was experiencing visions such as I had know only a few times before. They were out of my control. And thus, given the abstract nature of the Alap (each phrase the the memory of something more complete) I was surprised by the concrete nature of the images. Behind Shahid Parvez and the literal fioriture of his swaras the fireplace was taking shape, brick by brick, with the precision of Gothic masonry. Nevertheless, upon all these recognizable forms the intaglio of an infinitely detailed arabesque was spreading like ravening vines. In the chiaroscuro of these designs I recognized a panic mounting within me.

(00:22:36) — Phrases became more expansive and fluid, neither containing themselves to the easy loci of certain tonal clusters, nor staying within certain registers. An idea might begin anywhere and consume the whole range of the sitar before concluding.

Studying the patterns spreading across the bricks of the fireplace I realized that they were words, and that the objects were not bricks at all, but books. On their spines the titles were written in the garbled language of academia. I took a step back from the shelf and found myself in the English stacks of the University Library. Sunlight poured through the high windows upon the tables with a fat dictionary open in the center of each. At one table sat a girl, her back to me, papers and notebooks spread all around — I knew that it was Mary. She kept brushing words from the page before her, some of which fell to the floor, others spun in the cataclysm like dust, wafting up against the windows and diffusing in the light. I went to sit across from her, but when I looked up to speak she was somehow at the opposite table, her back still to me.

II. Jor

Jor means “pulse”, or “with a pulse”, and in introducing rhythm also introduces time. For previously the music seemed to satisfy itself with exploring the contours of the flat canvas of space, whereas now it sought to penetrate its dimensions as well.

(00:25:37) Tans — The rhythm was leisurely at first, with the chikari strings regularly punctuating the middle and end of melodies. However, every now and then an explosive run would add a bit of breathlessness to the easy stroll.

Before I could stand up she stood. I watched her pluck a volume from a nearby shelf and page through the leaves with impatience. She was not finding the sentence she sought, so she began shaking the book. A few words tumbled out, and then a few leaves cut semi-circles to the floor; seeds and twigs and flakes of bark followed; dazed insects with translucent wings took flight. “This is not how we treat living things,” I admonished her, for she held a broken tree limb in her white hands, still green and full of lymph. She finally looked at me. “Why, what is living?” she said, ripping pages from the tree limb and scattering them so that lines of Shakespeare and Cervantes landed in the dirt. “These are dead scrawls in a sepulchral silence,” she said. “Come with me if you want the other thing.” So I followed her.

(00:32:29) — Climbing over the mammoth trunks of fallen oaks I hurried to take the hem of her skirt and never let go. But as I reached for her she had turned down one of the stacks and her fabric vanished behind the underbrush. Every time I turned a new corner or rounded a new tree I would just glimpse her going into the shadows. I feared these shadows encroaching on my world of light, just as the vines spread across the shelves and the forest was reclaiming the mausoleum of its dead. And then, right at the pursuit’s most labyrinthine moment, when progress was reduced to Zeno’s paradox and every distance remained perpetually half uncovered, I broke into a clearing of the trees.

(00:38:07) Lari — The rhythm steadily building, Parvez began a series of protracted tones, long stretches and meends which gave a fluid, warped feeling to the regularity of the rhythm.

The brightest thing, a bronze sun holding still on the horizon: I ran with all my speed to meet her. She was waiting for me with open arms. I kicked up a cloud of wildflowers in my wake while grasshoppers and butterflies fled before me. Space no longer proved a sticky subject and distances collapsed, defeated by my haste. Such momentum, how would I be able to stop once I reached her? Fortunately, logical transitions had went the way of space, and like a conclusion standing unaided by its axioms we were stretched out in our little deer-bed amid the grasses — where I finally embraced her.

(00:41:47) — Warmth and light! Simultaneously I felt like a mammal tucked against its mother’s flank and a castaway exposed on a shore of congealed light. Yet when she tried to kiss my mouth I stopped her. “In a world of images,” she said, “one does not need to think.” But I could not help that. “The arabesques are swarming again,” I said, “and they have sinister angles.” Indeed, in every direction I looked they were like intricate spiderweds spread amongst the grasses. Nor did I care for the prismatic dews which clung to them. She kissed my ear and spoke: “nevertheless, heavenly labials in a world of gutterals will undo you.” Then she pulled her shirt off over her head, and immediately, the world over, the foundations of square buildings sighed into spheres; degrees became obsolete since circles could never be divided. My hands were two derivatives determining the volume of a curve. My mouth was a pursed cipher.

III. Jhalla

After the intricate fireworks of the Tans and Lari, the Jhalla (which means “sparkling”) doubles the pace of the rhythm. The focus is no longer on quick, well constructed runs, but on the repetition and accumulation of small phrases, balancing these against the quickening rhythm to keep the tension just bearable and yet prolong the resolution.

(00:44:21) Thok — For every down stroke of the chikari string Parvez gave a triple touch to the melody string. I could not place what this rhythm was reminiscent of.

Something was not right. I backed away and could not explain the expression on her face. “Don’t remove your hands,” she said. But I did, and watched the halos of her breasts darken like Indian ink, like an aspic befouling her milk. “What did I break?” I asked her. Rising, she wrapped herself in a cloak of grass and web and walked off, down a road with a river to her left and a row of cypresses to her right. I followed at a distance. Onset of evening and crepuscular sounds. As we went along the riverbank grew muddier and sunflowers grew up among the cypresses. In the twilight I began to discern pairs of dim figures along the river, one stooped, pulling clams from the slime and cramming them in a sack held by the other. Then Mary stopped and faced me. “Without taking refuge in crypsis and symbol, explain to me what is happening,” she said. But I had no answer and like a bashful child kicked at a stone in the dirt to dislodge it. Disappointed, she pulled the hem of her skirts up over her knees and waded into the mud. I thought of white stamens in a crumpled red bloom.

(00:51:02) Siddh — The pace moved from a jog to a run. Everything which had once been sweet and lyrical about the sitar was shattered and the instrument was a shrieking banshee, too horrible to not be captivating.

By the time the greedy mud had sucked her in up to her knees the clamdiggers were gravitating towards her, like dead leaves in an eddie. When a dozen had encircled her they pulled her out and began forcing her into a sack. Everything was a pall of sulphur and cyanide. Furious, I hurried out to save her. But not finding the edge I stumbled. Like in a dream where the closest one comes to flying is falling in an abyss I was tumbling over a precipice. Except now I watched the rocks rush with alacrity to greet me. Then I was wreaked among the the tidal pools beneath, broken apart by the waves. I didn’t want to get up, I didn’t care to stop the silver minnows and reddish crabs from consuming me. Even Mary was leaning over me picking her own piece of flesh. I said through shattered teeth: “two-hundred and six bones in the body and forty-five miles of nerves — which part do you find the tastiest?” With a napkin she daubed blood from her lips. “You’ll know it,” she said, “when I shit it out.”

(00:53:39) Mohra — Suddenly, following a thunderous sequence of quick phrases which had grown frantic, discordant, emphasizing the shrieking capabilities of the sitar, Parvez suddenly reverted to the calm of the early Jor, making everything momentarily sweet — like the fabled calm in the midst of drowning. Then just as suddenly the music was again screaming.

But when she had finished stooping over me and when I could no longer look down the yawning neck of her shirt I had to finally sit up. It troubled me to see that the landscape did not conform to the frenzy within my heart. Grey rocks and coral extended calmly on either side of me with each pool cupping its sinking sun like a peeled orange. Before me the sea and sky were blue and peach, then all blue. Mary was on ahead down the sloping beach. I could see that she intended to continue into the waves. In a world of images one simply goes ahead and I followed her in. But when Mary entered the ocean she sank, whereas I could not seem to penetrate the waves. After a while my feet where at her breast. I took a seat on the swelling tide until she finally sunk from sight. The shimmering water had erased her.

(00:55:12) La Fine — Without resorting to crypsis and symbol I still could not explain what had happened. Not even in retrospect.

Following something like this it could never be appropriate to applaud. So in the sudden silence following the onslaught of the Jhalla I was shaken from my trance. I must have had a bewildered look on my face. Shouri asked me if I was alright, but I got up without saying anything.

“Where are you going,” he asked, “the tablist is just now uncovering his drums?”

I told him I needed to stretch my legs, but that was a lie because I was going home. I could only take so much: a surfeit of beauty tends to sadness.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

For anyone who has never heard classical Indian music before and is interested, here are a few clips.

First, an incredibly melodic Zila Kafi on sarode by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.

Second, a very sweet Alap in Anandi Kalyan by Pandit Ravi Shankar.

Finally, of course, part of a sublime Alap in Shyam Kalyan by Ustad Shahid Parvez.

~ by Peter on February 4, 2008.

15 Responses to “Commentary on Raga Jhinjhoti”

  1. Fantastic. i haven’t read all of it, but i will. It’s brilliant writing. i don’t know anything about this music even though i have heard bits and pieces over the years and i have full confidence that by reading your work i will discover new, original ideas expressed with great clarity, insight, and depth and i look forward to the journey,
    (note to me, i’m up to the frank zappa quote which stopped me cos it is so appropriate yet unexpected in this context, brilliant touch)

  2. that is just sensational writing, it’s so dense like the whole universe is packed into it almost, the confluence of sound primary colours and philosophy is so convincing, i will finish it as soon as possible, but i am never going to be able to fully express my appreciation of the kind of heroic nature of the task you have chosen as a writer and the consumate ability you demonstrate in achieving that task,

  3. This is real literary Yoga. I have read this piece twice now and feel as if I have over-stretched various muscles that I have not used in sometime. Some postures (sections) need to be held for longer times in order to feel the full effect, so I will read again tomorrow and refrain from over stretching (this text needs to be savored, read slowly until you can hear the sounds echoing in your ears). If Nabokov was to take up Yoga, and Borges was writting about it a story similar to Raga Jhinjhoti may be the end result. This is the kind of writing that makes mine eyes happy to see.

  4. I agree, it’s mindboggling good. There’s a sense that infinite rereadings would reveal more. Like the musicianship it describes it is a virtuoso performance with incredible detail and understanding. And there is, I think, a kind of virtuousness to it, a kind of discipline to the task that is awe inspiring. Move over Marcel Proust. I salute you, simply wonderful,

  5. Just got stupefied by such marvellous piece of writing and your deep knowledge of the subject.

  6. It is
    Sa Re Ma Pa Dha Sa
    Not “Sa Ga ma Pa Dha Ni Sa” and ni is always Komal

    • Thanks for the corrected info Ifthikar. I’m a jazz muso who’s getting into Indian/jazz fusion and performing this raag tomorrow evening so your comment was very helpful.

  7. Thank you for the correction, Iftikhar.

  8. duuuude Peter, your writing is good!! I mean reeeeally GOOD. I like it because I can understand and picture it pretty good. How old are you? Do you have more stuff???

  9. Writing is really good, deep and engaging. But the writer seems to have gone overboard a little bit. Maybe it was one of the early Indian concerts he has gone thru. No doubt Shahid Parvez is a virtuoso on Sitar, but there are quite a few others in his generation who are as good, deep and far more knowledgeable. 3000 years is a bit too much, folks will be happy if he can enlighten us on Indian music just 300 years backward. That might quite likely be a bigger challenge than the re-performance. Today there indeed ARE masters who can enlighten us not just with info but actual demonstrations of that music. The writer needs to delve far more deeper into the world of Indian music, and not get easily carried away. There are much bigger giants giving us much more massive monoliths of Indian music. Just search. However, what I appreciate is that the music indeed moved the writer very deeply, and that is the moot point. Likewise, a slight correction is required about Aarohi/Avrohi and Vadi/Samvadi, both. Once again, wonderful writing.

  10. I “stumbled” upon this unusual explanation of the rag. I was privileged to be invited to a private performance by Ustad Sujaat Hussain Khan Son of the legendary Villayt Khan Sheib, (Thank you Mala and Ranjan). It coincided with an “awakening” for classical music. (may be it is an age thing). Not knowing a thing about this raag I decided to Google this raag and I came across this very nice introduction. How do I get to know more about the various raggas??? Any advise anyone!!!

  11. […] Jhinjhoti is a delicate name, appropriate for a goddess or fairy princess. Perhaps a dancing girl of sophisticated learning and skill.   It is also the name of a raga that is best performed as evening moved toward midnight. When Jhinjhoti is performed well it gives rise to feelings of joy and spontaneous happiness.  (To learn more about this raga click here and here and here). […]

  12. Yes an extraordinary account of an extraordinary musical experience. Just one thing Peter – I’m a jazz muso who’s getting into Indian/jazz fusion and I did read your story as part of educating myself in the raag system, so I’m grateful that Ifthikar corrected your technical errors. I’m surprised that you slapped him with the name “pedant” when he just cares enough about the music to want to share his knowledge. But anyway thanks for your great story. I did find it instructive and inspiring.

  13. I would enjoy listening to the track you are describing here in such beautiful detail. Is it available?

  14. To Mr. Peter
    You can experiment with some of the western notations given by me at my blog The notations can be converted into midi files by using linux software such as abcmidi (abc2midi). I specialise both in North Indian and South Indian Music with flute & sitar. I have shifted to computer-generated abc2midi music, after I lost my physical fitness owing to aging process.

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