Indian classical music is made up of two traditions: Hindustani music, from North India, and Carnatic music, from the south. Although these traditions share concepts like raga and tala (rhythm), in many ways they are quite separate from each other. However, from time to time, Carnatic-Hindustani interactions do occur — and when they do, the results are fascinating.
Hamsadhwani (literally, “sound of the swan”) is a popular raga that is common to both Carnatic and Hindustani music; during any Carnatic-Hindustani jugalbandi (duet), the musicians will inevitably perform that raga at some point.
Vathapi Ganapatim is one of the most popular compositions in Carnatic music, set in Hamsadhwani. It’s dedicated to the god Ganesha, and was composed by Muthuswami Dikshitar (1775–1835) in Sanskrit. The following video is M.S. Subbulakshmi’s rendition of this song (at the age of 81!). Pay attention to the first line of the song: vathapi ganapatim bhaje, “I bow to Ganesha of the Vatapi/Badami temple.”
Now, listen to this next video, starting at 1:30. Pay attention to the first line of the song: laagi lagan pati sakhi sang, “I feel joy with my lord and my friends.”
If you listen carefully, you’ll hear that both songs have the same tune!
This second song was composed by the Hindustani singer Aman Ali Khan (1888–1953), who belonged to the the Bhendi Bazaar gharana of Bombay. Upon hearing Vathapi Ganapatim, he decided to compose a khayal in Hindi using that same melody. However, he pays homage to Dikshitar, the original composer of the tune, in the first line of his song.
Going back to the Carnatic song, the first line is vathapi ganapatim bhajeham. If we look at the first line of Aman Ali Khan’s song, the first line contains the word “ganapati” in the exact same spot: laagi lagan pati sakhi sang. How clever is that?
This article contains other examples, and goes more in-depth into the religious syncretism that characterizes Indian classical music, as well as so many other aspects of South Asian cultures. The author talks extensively about how Muslim musicians composed songs to Hindu deities, and vice versa.
Ustad Vilayat Khan
On that religious note, I want to include a short excerpt of an interview conducted with the great sitar player, Ustad Vilayat Khan (1928 – 2004). He was asked, “Which are the ragas you feel you have charged with the entire power of your soul; ragas for which you will be long remembered?”
However, his answer isn’t about music at all. He describes Bhairav and Bhairavi, which are Hindustani ragas, but also names for the terrifying forms of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. The Ustad’s answer blends music with spirituality:
Bhairav is awesome, Bhairavi is compelling. The average Hindu is conditioned by the caricature of Bhairav [Bhairav, as the destructive form of Shiva, is portrayed through graphic and fearful iconography]. I wish I, a devout Muslim, could describe to him my vision of Bhairav’s infinite form and awesome power! I would say the same for Bhairavi (Parvati). How many different facts of her persona I have experienced!
O Allah! By how many different names, and in how many different forms, you manifest yourself to the seeker! It is we who give You different names, according to our limited capacity to understand You. All of them are names in praise of Your Glory. You are masculine; You are also feminine. You are the Love; You are also the Beloved. You are the Ascetic; and you are also the Emperor.
Sitting in this room, you and I talk glibly about my recording of one raga, or another recording of another raga, as landmarks. But all this reflects our limited understanding. Nothing limits the Almighty who inspires all this. Who, amongst mortals, has yet measured the heights to which He can elevate man’s endeavours?
The notes following the interview read: “He handles the apparent incongruity of himself, a Muslim obsessed by a Hindu deity, with total innocence. He is responding to an archetype pregnant with immense appeal within the culture. In explaining this vision verbally, he swings effortlessly between Hindu and Islamic ideas, emphasizing the irrelevance of religion to man’s artistic and spiritual life.”