Saturday, April 14, 2012

How our universe began

Today I write about the very beginning of all that is known, the big bang. This is what created the universe, and all of space and time as well. There is nothing known before this happened. This is the fundamental base of astronomy (the science of celestial objects and their study) too. This created all existing matter.

Billions of year back, our universe did not exist the same way it does today. Much happened to form the universe we presently live in. Let me make the process simple, in steps.

(Image courtesy:

1. 14 billion years - The earliest thing known to exist was a tiny, red, extremely hot (4 trillion degrees Celsius) ball. This singularity was the earliest stage of the universe.

2. Within a fraction of a second, the ball grew to the size of a football. Due to a super-force it expanded within a tiny fraction of a second to the size of the universe. This is called inflation. As it grew in size, it got cooler and cooler.

3. Forces separated from the ball and created a huge cloudy and soupy material made of very tiny particles (smaller than atoms), like quarks.

4. Quarks and anti-quarks which make matter and anti-matter respectively, destroyed each other and some of the matter survived at the end.

5. Quarks combined to form subatomic particles, and these subatomic particles fused (joined) to form the simplest atom, of Hydrogen. Hydrogen atoms fused to form Helium atoms, which in turn fused to form Lithium and so all gases were formed.

6. Due to expansion of universe radiations are stretched and diluted to exist in the form of microwaves which  are present throughout the universe.

7. These gases curdled into strands with black holes (empty spaces which suck up everything) in between.

8. Clouds combined to form galaxies and stars were created.

Our sun is a medium - sized star. All stars have their respective systems, and our sun's system is known as the solar system. The sun, the 8 planets, their moons, the asteroids, meteors together form the solar system.

(image courtesy:

Here's a timeline of the big bang:

1. 10-43 seconds - the universe starts as a little hot ball
2. 10-35 - 10-33 seconds - inflation of the ball and cooling down
3. 10-6 seconds - separation of forces and tiny particles formed
4. 3 seconds - formation of hydrogen and helium atoms
5. 10, 000 years - radiations form microwaves
6. 300, 000 years - electrons link with hydrogen and helium atoms to form neutrons
7. 300 million years - formation of stars and galaxies

What would be the future of our universe? The universe could either continue expanding, or it would experience a 'Big Crunch', which is the opposite of a big bang. Isn't it surprise to imagine our universe in such a way? Life itself appeared on earth much later. I will post about that another time :)

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Have you heard 'Hindustani' Raags of 3 minutes?

Indian classical music is of two kinds, Hindustani of north India and Carnatic of south India. Though these have many distinguishing features, many concepts are shared, the main difference being the way they are presented. They are dominated by Raags, melodic moods with fixed features for each one. These are explored and their beauty is displayed through various slow and fast speeds. There are 3 main octaves, the Mandra (low), Madhya (middle) and Taar (high) Saptaks (collection of seven fundamental notes Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa Dha, Ni, Sa equalling the western Solfège - Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti). These are explored along with restrictions like leaving behind a few or using Komal (note below its natural position) and Teevra (note above its natural position) for particular notes, depending on the Raag.

Hindustani music has many kinds of 'main' songs from various Raags, which go along with various combination displays of notes, etc (all from the same Raag when one Raag is sung). Everything depends on the restriction of the Raag. The most popular usage in vocal Hindustani music is of Bandish. Consisting of:
  • a kind of main song, a Khayal - usually with poetrydisplaying intense feelings using good lyrics. The slower one is Badakhayal (generally sung first) and the faster one the Chotakhayal. Usually 4 - 6 lines.
  • Alaap, slowly exploring the Raag with its combinations and displaying its beauty, generally sung using some phrases like Aa (called Aakar), Nom, Tom, etc.
  • Swar Alaap, showing note combinations of the Raag using the respective note - names. Generally a bit faster than the slow Alaap.
  • Bol Alaap, matching note - phrases with beginning words from the Khayal and using words to show note combinations.
  • Bol Taan, matching speedy trills with beginning words from the Khayal.
  • Taan, speedy trills using various note patterns. 
In the above, all Alaaps begin from lower octaves and slowly proceed towards higher octaves. The mood and feeling of the Raag is explored slowly and with various combinations are listed above created by self - thinking (etymology of Khayal/Khyal: either Khel i.e. game in Hindi Khayal in Hindi or Khayal = thinking in Urdu from Farsi), understanding the Raag and its restrictions. The best possible combinations are used and bring out the Raag beautifully. Hence it takes a lot of time, and usual concerts/performances last upto 2 hours.

At the beginning of recording in India (the first Hindustani recording dating to 1902), records were limited to 3 minutes and the like. So long performances were not possible. But vintage music was predominantly classical (apart from semi - classical music and folk music, the latter being quite limited to local folk). So the earliest records were classical and semi - classical. As far as Bandishes are concerned, Chotakhayals which were faster were generally sung. Bol Alaaps and Taans were the common parts to go along with these. But still, limiting it to less than 5 minutes was something really difficult, but an art which few great classical singers were quite adept at.

This is quite an impressive feat and some artists like Gauharjaan Ji, Zohrabai Ji of Agra, Jankibai Ji of Allahabad and Malkajaan Ji of Agra among others, who were paid princely amounts for performing for a period of time for the first recording company in India, HMV (His Master's Voice). They were famous for showing the best possible substance of the Raag within a limited period of time. The artists had to announce their names at the end for technicians to produce it on the records. These date back to the period 1900 - 1930.

Listen to some mellifluous renditions by the above mentioned sweet and powerful voices. Video courtesy of respective uploaders from Youtube.

Gauharjaan Ji - Raag Bhoopali - Chotakhayal
Gauharjaan Ji - Raag Multani - Chotakhayal
Zohrabai Ji of Agra - Raag Bhoopali - Tarana
Zohrabai Ji of Agra - Raag Sohni - Chotakhayal
Jankibai Ji of Allahabad - Raag Bhairavi - Chotakhayal
Jankibai Ji of Allahabad - Raag Sohni - Chotakhayal
Malkajaan Ji of Agra - a Hori (a kind of song dedicated to the Indian festival Holi)

In the last video's page wrong information has been given that Malkajaan was Gauharjaan's mother whereas they were just contemporaries.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Yakshagana performance

Friends, a couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of watching a "Yakshagana" performance by the Shri Idagunji Yakshagana  Mandali Keremane group. This group is lead by Shivananda Hegde Ji (don't miss my photo with him at the end of this post). Earlier the same group performed at my school and I enjoyed it. I wanted to see this one too after such a nice experience and it was worth it.
Shivananda Hegde Sir in a kingly role
Yakshagana is a traditional theatrical form  of Karnataka (musical - dance theatre). It is a traditional musical theatre which originated from the coastal and Malenadu areas of Karnataka.

Yakshagana is the major theatrical art in certain regions of Karnataka, with practice originating from the famous theatrical text Natyashastra. It owes its title to the 2 - part word Yaksha - Gana which means 'song of Yakshs' (exotic tribes in ancient Sanskrit and Prakrit literature). This art form is dominated by males, and they play even female roles. It generally starts with a prayer to Ganesh, the elephant - headed religious god whom Hindus invoke for a proceeding without any hinderance and for removing obstacles, and worship first in all prayers. Two dancers dance for the prayer song and a mask represents Ganesh.

The performances depict various tales from Hindu religious mythology, including stories from Hindu religious scriptures like the Purans, and epics Ramayan and Mahabharat.

Its music is based on Carnatic classical music of South India and the orchestra consists of a Bhagwat (lead singer), Maddale (a percussion instrument), Harmonium, Drone/Pungi, Chande (loud drums), narrating the background story or particular characters' dialogue parts. Actors perform a dance - drama and depending on their merit, improvise their dialogues (for eg. creating jokes for more entertainment).
Shivananda Ji in a princely or religious role

Shivananda Ji in a religious saintly role
Yakshagana costumes are fixed and very colourful, and vary depending upon the kind of character. The ornaments are made from light wood, mirror work and coloured stones though thermocol is also used in modern performances. These are covered with golden foil. Basic elements include a headgear (a Kirita - crown or a Pagade - turban), Kavacha which decorates the chest, Bhuja Keerthi (armlets) used to decorate shoulders and Dabu (belts). Mirror work is used in these and reflects light, adding their colourfulness. A colourful tunic is worn on the upper body. A Kacche (traditional unstitched garment) is worn on the lower body, coloured with a checked - mix of red, yellow and orange. Bulky pads are worn under it. Some cotumes require detailed facial makeups like those used to depict villians and the like. Sari and other decorative ornaments are used for female roles.
All these female roles are played by men
The performance I witnessed was a Hindu religious story titled "Kartveeryarjun Ravan". Here is the story:

King Kritveerya has a child Kartveeryarjun during an inauspicious time at his wife Rakavati's insistence. Because of his untimely birth, Kartveeryarjun is born without hands, so Kritaveerya seeks a boon praying that his son gets 1000 powerful hands instead of 2 ordinary hands from his dynasty's Guru. This is fulfilled.

Kartveerya grows up to be a great ruler of his dynasty, the Haihays of Maahishmati. One day he goes with his wives to enjoy a splash at a nearby river. But the king of the Asurs (type of tribe with people considered demonic), Ravana, wants to conquer Maahishmati and defeat Kartveerya. When he arrives there, he meets some comical attendants of Kartveeryarjun and the impact of Kartveerya's arms sends him aloft while worshipping his favourite religious god Shiv. This results in a battle with Kartveerya and finally the just Kartveerya wins. He captures Ravan, and releases him when his Guru asks him to do so as an offering to his teacher. The preacher blesses him saying that whenever one wants to find something, he can do so by chanting the Kartveeryarjun Mantra (chant). The play was good and had a different artistic style. I was lucky enough to get a photo with Shivananda Sir who kindly agreed.

Here are some photos I captured during my watch:
Shivananda Ji as Kartveeryarjuna (right) and another actor (left) playing Ravan. The musicians can be seen at the rear.
Shivananda Ji (as Kartveeryarjuna, left) and another actor playing his preacher (right). Behind is the Bhagwat.
Close up of Shivananda Ji, lead actor, playing Kartveerya
A male actor, playing a female role, lights a lamp at the end.
A memorable moment, a personal photo with Shivananda Ji