Shree is a very old North Indian raga of the Purvi thaat said to have been related to Lord Shiva: it also appears in the Sikh tradition from northern India and is part of the Guru Granth Sahib. In the Guru Granth Sahib composition appear in 31 ragas and this is the first raga to appear in the series. The composition in this raga appear on 80 pages from page 14 to 94.
Shree is amongst the oldest raga-s in the Hindustani art music pantheon. But, it is not clear whether the melodic entity currently identified by this name is, indeed, the one that claims considerable antiquity. Quite irrespective of its evolutionary path, the contemporary Shree also commands immense stature amongst raga-s because of its profundity, and its association with a powerful archetypal entity in Hindu mythology.
Shree: The archetype
The “Shree” syllable is one of the two most powerful sounds in the psycho-phonetics of the Vedic tradition, the other being “Om”. While “Om” represents man’s relationship with the spiritual world, “Shree” represents the material man. Together, they represent the totality of man’s aspirations.
In mythology, the “Om” phonetic, because of its abstract nature, remains a calligraphic deity. But, “Shree”, the phonetic-calligraphic archetype, is also personified as the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, the giver of wealth and prosperity, and the consort of Lord Vishnu, the preserver of the universe.
Amongst the major female deities in the Hindu pantheon, Lakshmi occupies a pride of place, ahead of the ferocious Durga, the destroyer of evil, and the gentle Saraswati, the giver of knowledge and accomplishments in the fine arts. Interestingly, Durga and Saraswati also have Ragas dedicated to them, although, neither of these two enjoy the status of Shree either in the popular mind, or in the world of music.
The Shree Suktam (Hymn to the goddess Lakshmi) from Rig Veda, considered the most powerful Mantra for invoking the blessings of Lakshmi, describes her as the Great Facilitator of all the material tasks of the world, and thus, the symbol of ultimate effectiveness. In this hymn, the supplicant prays for protection from hunger and poverty, and for the boon of fame and prosperity.
Interestingly, the Shree Suktam is totally silent on the legitimacy of the means by which man may acquire wealth, as also on the ends to which wealth might be deployed. In a sense, thus, mythology treats the blessings of Lakshmi as being desired, or desirable, for their own sake.
Whether oppressed by the fear of poverty, or fired by the lust for wealth, man has the choice between turning supplicant before the goddess, and setting out to conquer the world. But, quite irrespective of the stance he adopts, and perhaps precisely because he has a choice, man cannot escape oppressive anxiety as a permanent feature of dealing with his material self.
In comparison, the other two major goddesses do not give man any options. Militancy or even anxiety are totally inconsistent with Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and the fine arts, who represents the highest level of culture. And, the ferocious Durga is the one whose help man seeks in order to destroy his enemies. In either case, supplication is the only route to divine grace.
Pandit Omkarnath Thakur (Sangeetanjali Vol. VI) provides a different perspective on the mythology and Rasa values of this raga. Of the six primary raga-s of the Hindustani tradition, five are said to have emanated from the five mouths of Lord Shiva, while the sixth is said to have emanated from the mouth of Parvati. Having emanated from “Shree-mukha”, it was named Shree. He carries forward this association into describing the mood of the raga.
He suggests that Shree is a raga of the “Bhayanaka Rasa” (the sentiment of fear). To him, the prescribed time for performing this raga (around sunset) is the time when nature and humans are at peace, but the disembodied spirits (of whom Shiva is the Lord) become active, and aid the black magic of Tantriks. To him, the atmopshere created by the raga suggests activity in the netherworld — spooky, and eerie in a manner that makes ordinary mortals fearful.
Even if the genesis of the association of the archetypal Shree with the Raga is no longer traceable, the metaphor is not out of place.
Shree: The melodic entity
“Shree” belongs to the Purvi Parent Scale, one of the ten modal structures which form the foundation of the Hindustani Raga system. Like other members of this Scale, it is prescribed for performance around sunset.
Ascent: S r M^ P N/ Descent: S N d P M^ G r
Re and Dh are Komal (flat), Ma is Tivra (sharp)
The primary dominant Swara is Re, and the secondary dominant is Pa. All other Swaras are of normal emphasis. Dh can be, occasionally, used subliminally in a Ni-Pa melodic descent. In Shree, unlike most other Ragas, Sa (the tonic) is not considered a raga-neutral resting point or melodic centre because of its proximity to the Komal Re, which has to be kept in sharp focus.
Orthodox musicians believe that post-sunset Purvi scale raga-s ought to be centred in the upper tetrachord. In accordance with this belief, they frequently take advantage of the ascent-oriented character of the Raga, and perform compositions which have the Sam (first accentuated beat of the rhythmic cycle) falling at the “Re” in the higher octave. Such orthodoxy accentuates the ascent in the treatment of the Raga, and imparts to it a distinctly strident quality.
The Raga, as currently performed, is identified by two catch-phrases: Sa-Ni-Re and Re-Re-Pa. These phrases define the two faces of Shree. Sa-Ni-Re has an abbrasive quality while Re-Re-Pa imparts a supplicant character.
Some musicians believe that, in order to fully express the emotional content of Shree, the Komal (flat) Re and Dh ought to be distanced from their neighbours, Sa and Pa, by the use of fractionally sharper microtones of Komal Re and Dh. But, there is also the opposite view, which reccommends suppressed microtones of Re and Dh. Authorities also acknowledge non-standard intonations of Ga, Ni, and tivra Ma in this raga. Shree is thus amongst those ragas, where the aesthetics of intonation play a far greater role in the communication of musical ideas than its melodic grammar.
Pandit Omkarnath Thakur (Sangeetanjali Vol.VI) observes that Shree is considered a difficult raga to perform as much because of its requirement of non-standard intonation, as of its restless, spooky, eerie phraseology.
Phraseology: Re and Dh are Komal (flat), Ma is Tivra (sharp)
S N. r/ N G r/ r M^/M^ G r / r M^ P/P M^ G r OR r r P/P M^ G r/r M^ P d/M^ G r/ r M^ P N S’/ P N S’ N r’ OR P S’ N r’/r’ N d M^ d OR r’ N d P / d M^ G r OR M^ P d M^ G r/r d M^ G r OR M^ N M^ G r/G r S N. r/S N. r/ G r S
Note: In an increasingly rare version of the raga, the ascent into the uttaranga goes r-M^-d-N-S rather than r-M^-P-N-S indicated above.
In the lower tetrachord, and in the descent, a mis-handling of the melodic phraseology of this Raga exposes the Raga to the risk of confusion with Puriya, or its Puriya Dhanashree variant.
Shree: The experience
Although Shree is amongst the Raga-s popular with audiences, its performances are rare. Commercial recordings of Shree, and recordings in private collections establish that this Raga demands musicianship of a high order.
Amongst vocalists, Pandit. DV Paluskar (HMV-8TCS-048-3836) and Ustad Ameer Khan (unpublished) have treated Shree as a deeply devotional, though anxiety-laden Raga, while softening its aggressive stance. To achieve this, they adopted a variety of devices.
They sang poetry which is explicitly devotional in content, and biased their Raga development towards the lower tetrachord. In the melodic treatment, they made generous use of the Sa-Pa movement, in addition to the comparatively restless Re-Pa movement. They de-emphasised the strident Sa-Ni-Re catch-phrase and replaced it often with the less disturbing Re-Re-Re. The structure of their Tan-s is dominated by the characteristic phraseology of the raga, and avoids geometric or kaleidoscopic melodic devices.
Ashwini Despande’s Shree (recorded in 2000 for India Archive Music, New York), is broadly in the Paluskar-Ameer Khan territory of Rasa values. Her ati-komal Re and ati-tivra Ma intonations assure for her rendition the anxiety-laden quality that characterises the raga. But, in her rendition, it is possible discern a yearning for peace and tranquility — a drift towards Shanta Rasa.
Flautist Pannalal Ghosh (HMV-6TC-O4B-7182) appears to see this Raga as primarily disturbing and unsettling in character, with a touch of stridency. His treatment is ascent oriented and upper tetrachord dominated. He accepts the Re-Re-Pa movement as the primary identity of the Raga. The other catch-phrase Sa-Ni-Re comes into focus in the higher octave. His fast-paced composition has its “Sam” on the Upper-Re. His Tans predominantly use the phraseology of the Raga. The leaps between tonal clusters are less prominent than in Paluskar or Ameer Khan. The juxtaposition of tonal pairs is absent.
Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, who has articulated the eerie, spooky facet of the raga’s personality, would have been the ideal musician to demonstrate it. Though his recordings of the raga are not available, we do have wothwhile specimens in renditions by Kumar Gandharva (concert 2/2/1975) and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (concert undated). In addition to being masters of intonation, these two musicians have deployed unorthodox phrasing and acoustic effects like variations of volume and timbre with stunning effect for shaping the atmospherics of the raga. The two recordings I cite here will probably remain amongst the most interesting and original recordings of Shree for this reason.
A drift towards aggressiveness is evident the Shree recording of Sitarist Pt. Ravi Shankar and Sarodist Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (Duet:HMV-EALP-1296). The raga form appears to support Pannalal Ghosh’ interpretation. But, because of the plucked character of their instruments, they tilt towards a strident expression. Their melodic focus remains in the lower tetrachord. But, the use of Jhaptal with irregular cadences (10 beats in 2-3-2-3 subdivision) for the medium-paced composition makes it mildly menacing. Their melodic approach utilises the raga’s phraseology, as well as geometric and kaleidoscopic devices. The powerful strokes of Ali Akbar Khan, supporting the kaleidoscopic patterns of tonal pairs, impart an eerie virility to the under-current of tension in the Raga.
(Text Excerption Courtesy of Deepak Raja Sept 2009)
Nayan Ghosh on Shree Rag
Ira Landgarten: People sometimes have different descriptions or interpretations of a rag – its implications, its mood, the way it’s performed – that’s why we’d like to hear specifically about Shree rag directly from you.
Nayan Ghosh: Shree rag is definitely one of the most revered among ragas. It has a gravity, an intensity that is really difficult to match. The rag itself has a very strong inherent strength. It is a dusk-time rag. My uncle (Pannalal Ghosh) was one of the two or three artists who were almost synonymous with Shree Rag; the others being Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and D.V. Paluskar. My father used to mention about his meetings with Mamman Khan, the uncle of the Sarangi legend Bundu Khan. Mamman Khan always brought in references of Shree Rag to whatever he spoke about. That was everything for him.
The Shree Rag as my father taught me – he used to teach me more the alaps and the actual rag, and the first time I received my training in Shree Rag was very interesting. It was at a hill station near Bombay; no cars go up it, you have to walk all over the hill station. There are ponies and hand-pulled rickshaws and all that. It’s a beautiful hill station and one evening he took us to an edge of that hill station, on the cliff, and we were facing the west side and in front of us between our mountain and the opposite one was a deep valley. It was evening, sunset time and the swallows and the birds were returning home. A very light breeze was there and for some time the breeze stopped; he told us to stop talking – all of us, the whole family was sitting there – and he said, “Just listen to the silence.” We listened to it for about twenty minutes or half an hour, and that was a very great experience! Then he started humming the Shree Rag, and I, my mother, my brother Dhruba and my sister Tulika gave the backdrop, the sa and pa – we created the tanpura effect by humming. And my father was very inspired; he was looking at the pink sky, the setting sun, and he went into the alap of Shree. That was the first time I heard Shree; I was maybe ten or twelve years old and it had a very deep impact on me. He sang and he sang for half an hour and we all lost consciousness of things happening around us. Everything was still. After he finished singing there was a long silence then he told us, “Always sing to the mountains, to the ocean.” I don’t know how much all that meant, but he said, “Sing to the mountain; you don’t know what response and blessing you’ll get.” The next morning again we were at the same spot, the next evening, too – we were there for a few days – and we just had fun singing open-throated and the voices would go to the mountain across and come back echoing a couple of times. And we sang Adana; one night we went there in absolute pitch dark . . . Oh, what an experience it was! And we sang Shankara, open-throated Shankara, with the same thing – sa and pa humming. These experiences . . . but Shree was the first and even today I remember it so vividly – the birds returning and even the breeze stopped for some time. The sun had set and the sky was absolutely glowing pink. So whenever I play Shree, I imagine that. That whole landscape comes in front of me; it’s very intense. Then, of course, I try to invoke my uncle, or Ali Akbar Khan and all these people when I play Shree. Those are the people who I have heard play Shree, I still haven’t heard any other artistes play or sing Shree. So those impressions are deep.
Isn’t Shree considered one of the ‘Adi’ ragas?
NG: It is one of the Adi ragas. My father once just by the by casually mentioned that there is another way of classification of ragas known as ‘Janaka-janya’ ragas, that is, ‘father and son’ or ‘father and children’ ragas. Just as there are ragas and raginis; that’s another way of classification. For example, he said Shree is the father and Desh is the son. I asked how, so he said, “Sa ri ma pa ni sa ri – Shree.” He said they have the same features, the shades of notes are different. Then Shree comes back – ri ni dha pa dha ma ga ri, ri pa ri ga ri sa. Desh comes back – ri ni dha pa dha ma ga ri, ri pa ri ma ga ri ga ni sa. A little different at the end, at the very end, but he said Desh is the son; he must have read it somewhere. So Shree is a janaka rag and Desh is one of the many sons, he said.
That’s very interesting; the Adi rag system predates the ‘thaat’ system of Bhatkande.
Yes, the thaat system dates just from the beginning of the 20th century.
About the structure of Shree; what is the vadi? The samvadi? The aroha and avaroha?
The vadi is komal ri; in fact, ati komal ri, and the samvadi is pa. The aroha is – sa, komal ri, tivra ma, pa ni sa. The avaroha is – komal ri, ni, komal dha pa dha ma ga ri, ri pa ri, ma ri, ga ri sa. The chief phrase is ‘pa ni sa ri’ or ‘dha ma ga ri.’ These are the two main characteristic phrases of this rag. And ‘ri pa,’ of course, which stands out from all the ragas of the same scale – Puriya Dhanashree and all those. ‘Ri pa.’ It’s one of the most solid ragas for that time, the dusk time, like Marwa.
One really doesn’t hear that sort of scale in the west, and the mood it creates is very unusual…What ‘rasa’ or mood is attributed to Shree?
Shree basically is ‘vira’ ras; vira means ‘brave, warrior, heroic.’ But it is certainly extremely, entirely meditative in nature – I think for an evening prayer or evening meditation, Shree is more suitable than any of the other evening rags. It’s spiritually very intense. And therefore the bhakti (devotion) ras is also dominant. Marwa has a different flavor; some people say it is vira, but no, it’s more karuna (longing). There is a feeling of loneliness in Marwa because the ‘sa’ (tonic) is used in such little quantity; you feel something is missing! You feel something is missing, and finally you get it but as soon as you get it, it’s gone again from you! It’s fleeting. So Marwa makes you feel lonely.
(Courtey of Ira Landgarten New York, November 1999 )