Thursday, April 30, 2015


I gave a short speech recently about the concept of Raaga - the basic element of Indian Classical Music. How would you explain a color, say, red to a blind person? The concept of raaga is as abstract as colors. Explaining the concept in a 10 minute speech was a daunting task. Nevertheless, I believe my audience got some idea about raaga, especially those who had basic knowledge about western music.

I started my speech with a demonstration - a swara prasthaara in Raaga Valachi (I come from the school of Karnataka Sangeetha or Carnatic Music, therefore my examples were from this genre of Indian Classical Music). The audience was delighted. Some even clapped to my rhythm. The mood was happy and gay. Right at the point when Valachi had reached its peak, I switched to Shubhapantuvarali, the most sombre raaga (in my opinion, of course). Everybody noticed the change in the mood - from joy to melancholy. It took only about 40 seconds to convey the basic idea of raaga. From there, I walked through my presentation.

A raaga induces a particular mood. As per the tradition, a composition is set to a raaga. A performing artist will not only sing the composition, but also express his or her imagination by improvising various patterns of the raaga. A high level definition for a raaga is: “It is a melodic pattern that evokes mood and emotions.”

Three things contribute to a raaga - 1. Scale, 2. Order of notes, 3. How you render particular notes. Many experts believe that the last point is the most important one.

There are seven notes in the Indian Classical Music. In the 12 scale system, S and P are constants. R, G, D, and N have 3 variants, and M has 2. A scale that has all seven notes is called a Sampoorna or a Melakarta Raaga. Typically a scale has an ascent and a descent. You will see later that the notes and their order in the ascent and the descent could differ. In Melakarta Raagas the notes in the ascent and the descent are the same.

There are 72 Melakarta Raagas totally. The scale of Shankarabharana and Kalyani differ by just one note - the M. The former has M1 and the latter M2. Pantuvarali is yet another main raaga - Melakarta Raaga with R1, G3, M2, D1, N3. 

Some raagas don’t have all the 7 notes. They are the derived or the Janya Raagas (the correct technical term is Varjya Raaga, but Janya Raaga is a more commonly used term). For example, Mohana has only 5 notes - S, R2, G3, P, D2. A composition that’s set to Mohana will have only those five notes, and the improvisation will involve the same set. Even though the derived raagas are a subset of the main raagas, the absence of certain notes gives a totally new emotion to the raaga.

The order, or the pattern of notes (sanchaaras) matter a lot. For example, in Andolika the ascent has P, but descent has D2 instead of P. There are many raagas where the ascent and descent are different. 

In Vakra Raagas, or the crooked raagas, the notes don't go in an order. For example, the Nalinakanti can never have SRGM pattern. If you have to reach M from S, you must first go to G, then go down to R, and then jump to M. However, this rule doesn’t apply for the descent for this particular raaga. There other raagas where the pattern is crooked in the descent too.

How you render notes is extremely important in Indian Classical Music. For example, even though Shankarabharana and Kalyani differ from only one note - M1 and M2, the way every note is rendered is very different in those two raagas. It’s because of this reason many hard core followers of Carnatic Music refuse to accept piano. Note about Aarabhi, an example shown above: Even though G appears in the descent, it’s position on the scale is same as M’s. If you are singing Aarabhi, you cannot stay at G for more than a beat.

Bhairavi is a versatile raaga. One can spend hours explaining the details of every note.

Many who appreciated this speech seemed to like the Vakra Raagas - the crooked ragas the most. 

Lastly, I have referenced these raagas in my presentation: Valachi, Shubhapantuvarali, Shankarabharana, Kalyani, Pantuvarali, Mohana, Andolika, Nalinakanti, Aarabhi, and Bhairavi. Google those raagas, and you will find many examples on YouTube.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Viva Chile - Part 2

My second trip to Chile commenced with some confusion. The visa stamp said:

Duration: 180 days
To be used within 90 days

I was on the 100th day since the visa was stamped, and I had already used the visa once within 90 days. My understanding was that the visa was valid for 180 days since my first entry. As I had a multiple entry visa, I believed I could travel to Chile. The airlines attendants at the gate had to get an expert officer to verify my visa. The expert had the same opinion as mine and let me in. The confusion surfaced once again at the immigration counter at Santiago International Airport. A higher-up officer came to the counter for clarification. He verified my visa, and let me in without saying a word. In that brief moment, I was preparing myself to take the next flight back home. I am so grateful that I did not have to fly back immediately.

Waiting on the tarmac at San Francisco International Airport for the flight to depart

I wanted to climb Cerro San Cristobal, the hill that's in the middle of Santiago city, by foot. However, at the foot of the hill I learned that I did not have enough time to walk up as it was already evening. I found a taxi that took me up for 4000 Chilean Pesos. The view of the city from the top was fabulous. The statue of Virgin Mary at the top of the hill was magnificent. People in Chile say that you should drink "mote con huesillo" that they sell on the hill. My taste buds weren't acquainted enough with the Chilean taste to appreciate the drink. There was no short cut to come down the hill; had to walk down via the 6 kilometer motorway.

 Statue of Virgin Mary at Cerro San Cristobal

Devotees light candles for Virgin Mary to make a wish 

A view of Santiago city from the hill 

Costenara Center, the tallest building in South America. Also notice ice cap on Andes Mountains 

Parque Forestal, Santiago

During my last trip, I took a guided tour to Vina del Mar and Valparaiso. This time I wanted go to Valparaiso on my own, and I did, and I am so glad I did so. Guided tours do no justice to the beauty of the city. I recommend every tourist to explore the place on their own. I shot many pictures on my iPhone. I truly missed my SLR gear.

Valparaiso Market 

Valparaiso Market 

Valparaiso Market 

An ascensor at Valparaiso - you need to ride one if you visit this place

Colorful Steps 

Murals at Valparaiso 

Murals at Valparaiso 

Colorful homes. Long ago, sailors identified houses by their colors. So every house on a street was painted with distinct color. That remained a tradition.

 Murals at Valparaiso

 Murals at Valparaiso

Murals at Valparaiso 

 Murals at Valparaiso

Colorful Clothes 

Murals at Valparaiso 

An old tin house. There are many such houses. It's surprising that they stand 9.0 earthquakes 

 Murals at Valparaiso

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Winter Vacation at Death Valley National Park

Visiting Death Valley National Park is never boring. You discover something new every time you go there. It’s also a great destination to carry your camera gear. However, if you go with your family and kids, as I did two weeks ago, do not expect to spend too much time on photography.  

Day 1 was cold and windy (ironically, Death Valley National Park is the hottest place in North America). Kids had great fun in the sand dunes. We spent about half a day in the dunes. Kids were reluctant to get out of the dunes. They had left behind their sandals on the sand while playing. By the time we returned, one pair was buried somewhere deep in the sand not to be found. Hard lessons learned!

Death Valley is a vast place. We spent a lot of time just driving to the vista points. For example, it is about 30 miles from the sand dunes to the next main vista point, Devil’s Golf Course. Our next hops were Devil’s Cornfield, Devil’s Golf Course, and Bad Water Basin. Because of the tall mountains all around, the sun set very early - around 4:30. It got dark by 4:45. 

One good thing about early sunset was, it gave us more time to see the stars in the clear sky. It is impossible to see so many stars from anywhere near a city. I excused myself from my family to perform some night shot experiments. Night shots require long exposure. Unfortunately family members of photography enthusiasts do not have the same level of patience as the latter do.

Day 2: We started our day with a trek on the Mosaic Canyon. Mosaic Canyon gets a lot of visitors. Yet, the 2 mile road from the main road to the entrance of the canyon is a gravel road. I wonder if there is a reason why they have left it so. The walk inside the canyon was nice. I carried my little one on my backpack carrier. The canyon got narrow and slippery at places. It wasn’t extremely hard, but I had to be a little more careful at such points. 

We had missed the Artist’s Palette the previous day because of the early sunset. I haven’t seen any hill or mountain as colorful as this one. Artist’s Palette pictures look great. However, it is impossible to capture the real look and elegance of the place.

Zabriskie’s point was closed due to road construction. That was a disappointment. We drove to Dante’s Point by 4 PM - just around the time for sunset. The view of the valley from the top was awesome. It was a punishment to get out of the car. The temperature was below freezing. Wind chill contributed more to the misery. I started shivering as soon as I stepped out of the car. I held my camera to shoot a picture. I could barely feel my fingers and could not press the shutter button however hard I tried. I decided to hell with the picture and rushed back to the car immediately. 

 Panamint Mountains on the west rim of the national park

 Sand dunes in the foreground, Black Mountain in the background

Panoramic view of the sand dunes 

Sand Dunes

 Kids having a blast

 A windy day at the sand dunes

Sand dust provide a hazy view of the mountains 

Devil's Cornfield 

Devil's Golf Course 

Son at Bad Water Basin 

Night sky 

Light Painting experiment - applied the lessons learned from here  

 Son at Mosaic Canyon

Artist's Palette