Performed by musicians G. S. Sachdev and Zakir Hussain on the “Flight of Improvisations” CD, the instrumental song “Ahir Bhairov” is an example of Hindustani, an ancient form of classical music developed in the northern region of India, and dating back several centuries (Rajan 2007). “Ahir Bhairov,” like other Hindustani musical compositions, is characterized by two distinctive qualities. One is its “raga” or “raag,” which is the music’s melodic form or mood (Bakshi 2008). The second is its “tala,” or time measure between notes (Bakshi 2008). G.
S. Sachdev plays the “bansuri,” or flute, which dominates the piece; and Zakir Hussain, intermittently, performs the “tabla,” or drums, to add percussion (Sachdev 1992). Soothing and smooth in nature, “Ahir Bhairov” is a well-connected, heptatonic composition, and its elements – form, pitch, dynamics, pattern and rhythm – convey a mood that is introspective, reflective and awakening (Sachdev 1992). Approximately twenty-five minutes in length, “Ahir Bhairov’s” form, or “arrangement and style in literary or musical composition” (Lindberg, 2002, p.
527) is a “raag” or “raga” called “bhairav” (Bakshi 2008). The “bhairav” contains seven different notes, which form the basis of its melody. Two instruments are played, the “bansuri” flute and “tabla” drum, without vocal accompaniment (Rajan 2007). This “raga” is designed to be listened to during the morning (Bakshi 2008). Consequently, the combination of the woodwind and light percussion lends the composition a calming texture. The raga begins with Sachdev playing the bansuri only.
Initially, there seems to be little variation in notes or pitch, which is “the quality of sound governed by the rate of vibrations producing it, or the degree of highness or lowness of a tone (Lindberg, 2002, p. 1038). The bansuri’s pitch is soft, or “piano,” and played at a moderate, but tranquil tempo, or speed. Again, the woodwind’s light tone seems to indicate its purpose – it is a composition to be played as the day begins, and that period of time is quiet, and perhaps the audience should be engaged in prayer and/or reflection.
Hussain begins to play the “tabla” later, but its sound is secondary to the “bansuri,” and is used as a backdrop to the woodwind. With the introduction of percussion, the song’s pitch and tempo increase. This seems to indicate a progression in the time of day. For example, the morning may begin at 6am, with the rising of the sun. As time progresses, you become more “awake” or “alive” or “energetic. ” Thus, the dynamics, “the varying levels of volume of sound in different parts of a musical performance” (Lindberg 2002, p.
420), change with both the addition of the second instrument and the progression of the song. One important thing to note is that “Ahir Bhairov” uses a seven-tone or note scale called a “thaat” (Rajan 2007). This allows seven variations in pitch per octave, and is considered a complete scale in classical Indian music (Bakshi 2008). The variations are, however, very subtle. Both Sachdev and Hussain gradually change pitch as they play. This technique lulls the listener into a quiet, reflective mood; yet this tool keeps the listener alert and makes him or her more aware of the differences in intonation.
Thus, while “Ahir Bhairov’s” pitch varies slightly, it is a complex composition. The “bansuri” is designed to play “thaats” (Lyon 2005). It is a flute constructed of bamboo and brass and contains seven finger holes (Lyon 2005). The “bansuri” lacks the keys to produce real sharps and flats, the way a European flute would (Lyon 2005). Additionally, performers partially cover the finger holes to produce half and quarter notes, which can occur at the second, third, sixth and seventh notes of any Hindustani song according Indian classical music tradition (Lyon 2005).
As a result, the bansuri’s design affects another important musical element in “Ahir Bhairov” – its pattern. As Sachdev plays, there appears to be a change every third and seventh note. The sound becomes “shorter” and “lower” at those intervals, indicating a musical pattern, or “regular and intelligible form or sequence discernible in certain actions or situations” (Lindberg 2002, p. 1001). “Ahir Bhairov’s” pattern of distinguishing the third and seventh notes allows the listener to determine another aspect of the song – the amount of time between notes (Bakshi 2008).
Because tonal and tempo changes are very subtle, it is difficult to count the song’s “tala. ” However, the half notes played every third and seventh note allow the listener to discern a pattern and count a “half beat” at those intervals. In conclusion, “Ahir Bhairov” provides a contemporary example of the North Indian classical music tradition. Its musical elements – form, pitch, dynamics, pattern and rhythm – stay true to the ancient Hindustani style and provide listeners with a composition that is calming, yet complex.