Raag Darbari

Category Hindustani 10 August 2019

• Part of Darbar’s ‘Know Your Raga’ series. 

Raag Darbari is among the most revered in the Hindustani tradition. The name, like our own, is derived from durbar, Persian for ‘royal court’ - sitarist-scholar Deepak Raja describes it as “the emperor of ragas, and the raga of emperors”.

It is little stretch to imagine its majestic tones echoing across the marble floors of a durbar (such as the one depicted above), bringing solemn relief to kings, warlords, and diplomats. Performances tend to be slow, grave, and reverential, balancing vocalistic turns with a precise microtonal geometry.

It is sometimes referred to as Darbari Kanada. The suffix indicates its membership of the Kanada family, a group of Carnatic-derived ragas that share a similar minor-scale phraseology. Some consider it to have been imported North by Mian Tansen, the legendary musician of the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s 16th-century durbar.

"With Darbari Kanada I imagine a strong power, a kind of manly essence - but it has no face…such a meditative, heavy, serious raga. Only after 50 or 60 years will I think of performing it.” (sarodia Debasmita Bhattacharya, in an interview with Darbar)

Theoretical breakdown (terminology explained here)

—Darbari is suited to vocal performance, often at vilambit laya (slow tempo), with a focus on mandra and madhya saptaks (low/middle octaves). It takes Re as the vadi (king note), indicating it to be poorvang-dominant, with a melodic centre of gravity in the lower half of the scale.

There is strong use of meend (bends) and gamak (heavy oscillations), particularly around ga and dha - Deepak Raja describes these swaras as unlocking the heart of the raga's "ponderous deliberateness", and notes that some consider them to be "suppressed micro-swaras", intoned lower than usual. On the way up they are often played a touch of the notes below - like (R/)g and (P/)d - and on the way down with a touch of the notes above - (m\)g and (n\)d.

In addition to ga and dha, musicians can use Pa as a nyas (resting tone). As with other Kanada family ragas, Darbari uses the characteristic phrases (P/)n P in ascent and m, gm(S/)RS in descent, and has a similar tendency for vakra (zig-zag) patterns. Ornaments, used frequently, tend to loop around themselves, staying within their own scalar region (SRgmP or PdnS).

n.b. A raga is much more than its musical guidelines. They are complex, interconnected forms, each combining theoretical abstraction with a wealth of aesthetic and cultural colour. For more on how to conceptualise them, and explanations of all terminology, see our 'Understanding Raga' page.

Darbari in performance

Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar has mastered the nuances of the Gwalior, Agra, and Jaipur khayal gharanas. His version of Darbari, live from Darbar 2011, sets the raga to vilambit tilwara taal (slow 16-beat rhythm). He alternates long sustained tones with rapid taans (melodic elaborations), often resolving with a m\g slide.

He even teases the tonal boundaries of the raga, adding touches of shuddha Ni (natural 7th) at points (e.g. 2:35 and 7:38) - an unusual trick he may have picked up from Agra gharana forebears such as Ustad Faiyyaz Khan, who does the same on this 1936 recording. And watch the movements of his hands - they're a direct window into how he is feeling the structures of tension and release.

Further listening:

Ustad Nishat Khan (sitar) - a mournful, almost bluesy rendition

Irshad Khan (surbahar) - dominated by heavy, deep-toned bends

Ustad Amir Khan (vocal) - a classic recording from the Indore master

Related ragas include Kaunsi Kanada, which (to oversimplify) takes Malkauns in ascent and Darbari in descent, and Enayat Khani Kanada, a reinterpretation by Ustad Vilayat Khan which alternates shuddha ga and ni with their komal variants (i.e. natural 2nd and 7th as well as b2 and b7). Ustad Ali Akbar Khan incorporated Darbari-style ideas into the avroh of his own Raag Chandranandan - read our full article on this curious raga hereDarbari's closest Carnatic equivalent is Natabhairavi.

• Thoughts? Favourite recordings? Differences of interpretation? Or just let us know about your own personal reaction to the raga - email raga@darbar.org

—Also see Living Traditions: 21 articles for 21st-century Indian classical music, our new series exploring how music with ancient roots continues to innovate in a fast-paced, interconnected modern world. Expand your appreciation!

Darbar Arts & Heritage believes in the power of Indian classical music to stir, thrill, and inspire. To find out more, get the Darbar newsletter, explore our YouTube channel, or subscribe to the Darbar Player to watch extended festival performances in pristine HD quality.


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