A mellifluous modern form created by Ravi Shankar in 1968 (…while sitting in the backseat of a car). Though somewhat resembling a ‘komal re Bageshri’, its hexagonal structure summons its own colours and tensions – with early performances exerting hidden influence on countercultural icons including George Harrison. A captivating scale, ripe for open-ended experiments.
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Aroha: SrgmDnS, DngrS
Avroh: SDnD, Dm, mgrS
–Ravi Shankar (1971)–
“No matter how beautiful the raga: if you are the only one who can perform it, it is not considered to be of any consequence…” (Ravi Shankar)
Parameshwari is an idiosyncratic creation of global sitar icon Ravi Shankar, formed in the latter half of the 20th century. His wife Sukanya recounts its origin tale in the liner notes to a 1971 rendition, recorded at the Hollywood home of a friend but only released four decades later:
“The inspiration for this raga goes back to Chengali, a little village near Kolkata. During the filming of his autobiographical film, Raga, Ravi-ji travelled to Chengali in the morning sometime in March 1968. While riding in the car, he conceived the nucleus of a melodic form that he later developed and called Kameshwari. By using the old murchana (scale-wise progression) and swara bheda system, he discovered three more ragas at the heart of Kameshwari – and Parameshwari was one of them (the other two are Gangeshwari and Rangeshwari). Parameshwari has flashes of known ragas Bageshri, Bhairavi, and Bilaskhani Todi, but it is pure Ravi-ji”.
Thus, unlike the vast majority of ragas, Parameshwari’s murchana set ‘appeared’ via a specific set of theoretical abstractions, rather than being derived over time from an evolving compositional repertoire. In a sense, it existed in Shankar’s mind before he had even played it. (n.b. For a technical breakdown of the rotation process, see ‘Swara geometry’ section).
Such a specific origin story sits in clear contrast to the vague, mythological histories of most ragas. As with Ali Akbar Khan’s Chandranandan – improvised in the 1940s to fill up spare studio time, hastily named during a cigarette break, and soon forgotten by its creator – the ease with which we can relate to the human aspects of the situation is almost jarring.
While it’s difficult for us to imagine the atmosphere of Emperor Akbar’s 16th-century durbar (royal court), we’ve all run melodies through our head to idle away long hours stuck in transit. This makes it easier to pose other questions too – what was Shankar staring at through the window at the moment of the scale’s conception? What were his first impressions of its rotation? Would it even exist if he’d taken the train instead?
Unfortunately, I can’t ask Tansen what was on his mind when, as is fabled, he gathered together Darbari’s tones at Emperor Akbar’s 16th-century court, and neither has Lord Shiva been forthcoming about the placement of swaras in Bhairav. But the exacting birth tale of Shankar’s raga means we can come up with all manner of speculative guesses as to what he might have been mulling over in those moments.
Did the original Kameshwari melody draw from Bengali folk tunes he had been hearing around him? Perhaps the idea to rotate it came from filmic musings on murchana in preparation for a shoot interview? Or maybe the main motivation was simply to escape boredom, and to calm the swirling inner restlessness familiar to all obsessive musicians?
In the end, all this is pure speculation. But exact answers aren’t really the point here – what’s interesting is the ease with which we can pose the questions, and the uncanny relatability of the overall situation. Knowledge of the story can certainly change how we listen to the raga itself – it’s pleasing to imagine its expansion outwards from a single ‘point’ in space and time, and also to get a little further into Shankar’s mindset, feeling his wide-eyed enjoyment at the chance to fill out a near-blank melodic canvas.
• How did Shankar explore the new scale? •
The Pandit’s approach to adding colour naturally reflected his predominant musical inclinations. He found fruitful harvest in forceful fretted motions and dense, looping taans, exploring rare rhythms with Alla Rakha’s tabla – notably the ancient dhamar taal (14 beats). Listen to their captivating 1970 recording above, just a couple of years on from the raga’s roadborne inception.
Shankar’s penchant for pairing Parameshwari with dhamar – described by many as a ‘warlike’ cycle – indicates what sentiments he may have come to associate with the raga. Vocalist Dr. Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande told me in an interview that she sees dhamar as like “a warrior going onto the battlefield…displaying joy in leading his followers and finding strength in doing so”, a description echoed by Benares tabla maestro Pandit Sanju Sahai in his interview (“a warrior moving slowly forward…he proceeds like this as he is riding an elephant!”). Can you hear it in Shankar’s take?
- Dhamar: Ravi Shankar & Alla Rakha (1970):
These martial associations match the strident aggression of Shankar’s recordings, and even mirror its rapid emergence into the world. Parameshwari’s path almost reads like a Bengali folk tale of old, tracking some great soldier who marches across India’s vast rural landscapes before suddenly, hastily, being put into action on the global stage, eyes darting as he seeks calm and courage amidst the chaos.
Such scenes also fit with the raga’s name – something which, as a man of letters, Shankar would have chosen very deliberately. Parameshwari derives from the Sanskrit parameśvara, meaning ‘supreme lord’ (or literally, ‘lord excellent supreme’), a term intimately tied to the mythology of Lord Shiva, the ‘destroyer’.
Shaivite Hindus, who worship Shiva as the ultimate being, revere him as Parameshwara, sitting in command of “the triple forces of creation, preservation and destruction”. Old South Indian hymns to the deity evoke fearsome imagery: “Parameshwara, worshipped by celestials and demons…the flame with no beginning or end…you burnt and reduced Kamadeva to ashes…”. A far cry from the backseat of a hatchback.
- (n.b. Shankar’s spelling is actually closer to parameśvari, or ‘supreme lordess’ – even across the Bay of Bengal, the modern Malay word for queen is permaisuri. It is unclear whether this minor modification signified anything deliberate on his part, although it seems plausible that he just tweaked the name to fit with Hindustani ‘-ri’ ending pattern. Similarly, his ‘morning’ samay designation might be down to the raga’s komal re and Ahir Bhairav-style flavours, or simply because it was morning in the car. Or because the sunrise had earlier brought Ahir Bhairav to mind, subtly reshaping whatever came into it next – in the end, all facets of the creative process are inseparable). [*UPDATE with feedback from P-IE linguists etc]
Sukanya recounts that Shiva-like themes of conflict, death, and destruction were playing heavily on Shankar’s mind on the day of his 1971 Hollywood concert: “It was during this gathering that he spoke about his distress over the plight of the people of East Pakistan [soon to become Bangladesh] in the aftermath of Cyclone Bhola. Being Bengali himself, he talked about wanting to do something to alleviate the suffering”.
The vast tropical storm had killed over half a million inhabitants of the Ganges Delta the previous year (as if everyone living in Edinburgh, Lisbon, or Abu Dhabi had been wiped from the map). It devastated many of the very communities he had passed through while filming, including the region around Chengali, the site of the raga’s seemingly prophetic inception. See the footage below, shot in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), for some of what Shankar was taking about (warning: graphic scenes).
- Cyclone Bhola aftermath in East Pakistan (1970):
Shankar took to discussing the human impacts of the crisis at length, seeking to raise awareness – and hard cash – from his star-studded living-room audiences. Sukanya explains how he would “invite friends over, and then all the four Beatles and people like Marlon Brando, Zubin Mehta, and Peter Sellers would drop by…”.
The occasion of Parameshwari’s 1971 Hollywood performance seems to have provided the spark. In Sukanya’s telling, “George Harrison, in attendance that day, listened, and from those conversations the seed was sown for what would later become the Concert for Bangladesh” – a pioneering humanitarian effort co-organised by Harrison and Shankar, that paved the way for future efforts including Live Aid and Live Earth (…so does Bob Geldof have Parameshwari to thank for his latter-day fame?).
Though fairly well-documented through Shankar’s many performances, the raga is relatively rare on the modern concert platform, partly as the master took on few long-term disciples. Bansuri maestro Ronu Majumdar, one of a select number to have learned Parameshwari directly from its creator, played it at Darbar 2015 (see ‘Recording in focus’ below). He explained on stage that Shankar had shown it to him in London while they were there to record, with none other than…George Harrison.
In Majumdar’s words, Parameshwari comes with “a unique, strange emotion…very rare…I choose the raag as a tribute to my guru-ju…a composition [with] Abba-ji [Alla Rakha] from 45 years back”. The flautist’s outstanding rendition superbly captures Shankar’s ethos of relentless experimentalism while also remaining true to the raga’s phraseological and associative roots, brilliantly aided by dhamar-specialist Sukhvinder Singh’s deep-toned tabla drums.
I hope performances like Majumdar’s will inspire future generations to take it up in greater numbers – five decades is barely an infancy in ‘raga years’, meaning it still offers up vast unexplored melodic territory. Parameshwari’s ripples will surely spread much further from here – perhaps its (car) journey has only just begun.
- Did Ravi Shankar’s Raag Parameshwari lead to Live Aid? Hollywood to Bengal via George Harrison – more on this winding narrative strand in an overview for my Ragatip column (2021)
- Exploring Ali Akbar Khan’s Raag Chandranandan: metaphysics of a modern creation – essay from my Darbar collection on another recent raga with another odd origin tale (2019)
- Up to 11: how Nigel Tufnel’s ‘Trademark Solo’ in Spinal Tap has hidden roots in jazz, J.S. Bach, and Indian raga – April Fool’s ‘analysis’ for Guitar World…and also a cautionary tale in the ease of ‘over-recognising’ fictitious East-West connections (2020)
- …for more on early East-West interchanges, read about India’s thriving 1920s jazz scene, and How a teenage Zakir Hussain ended up living on the Grateful Dead’s ranch – also the Ravi Shankar bio section of my In-depth sitar primer series for Darbar
—Parameshwari’s six-note swara set of SrgmDnS, unambiguous from Shankar’s recordings, appears to have few real melodic ‘competitors’ (Deen Todi shares its swaras, but is seldom-performed). It can be related to known ragas in various ways – Ahiri with no Pa, or the aroha of a ‘Bageshri komal re’, or a ‘Komal re Ahir Bhairav’ with no Pa – but sits apart from all of them, challenging artists to experiment with it directly.
—Being a new and rarely-performed raga, with no living creator to guide its abstractions, Parameshwari’s characteristic movements are unclear. Or rather, they are not yet well-established – even Shankar’s own explorations go in many different directions, veering through most interval combinations at some point.
—Nevertheless, some patterns emerge. As mentioned, he often brought out the raga’s warlike associations with rare talas such as dhamar, favouring strong yet unpredictable, ‘wandering’ melodic movements. Dha very much comes through as his vadi (primary note), and he sometimes uses the absence of Pa to draw focus away from the root Sa, with long phrases coming to temporary rest elsewhere. The re is often played weakly in ascent, and approached with a bend in descent, as (g\)r.
—As mentioned in Sukanya’s notes, “Parameshwari has flashes of known ragas Bageshri, Bhairavi, and Bilaskhani Todi”. Bageshri comes out like gmDnS in ascent, whereas the other two also feature the nSrgm run. Bilaskhani Todi ascends sparsely with Srg, similarly taking a Dha vadi (albeit a komal variant), and Bhairavi’s general sense of phrasal flexibility can fit with Parameshwari’s too.
—Majumdar’s rendition (analysed in more depth in ‘Listening’ below), broadly reflects Shankar’s original tendencies. Dha is prominent throughout, as both the main melodic launchpoint and the tuned tone of the bayan bass tabla, coming in on both instruments as the sam (one-beat) of the main composition: ‘D, mrgrS, gmDn’. He even references the raga’s capacity for experimentation out loud, telling the crowd “I will try something new…” before launching into daring crossrhythms with Sukhvinder Singh’s tabla, stretching 10 beats into 16 and more besides.
—Tanarang’s brief summary gives illustrative swara combinations of Srgm, gmDm, mDnS, DnrS, SnDm, mgr, nrS. Sources are generally sparse, but ‘student notes’ occasionally turn up on the internet, ascribed to various gurus around Shankar. While I can’t directly vouch for their provenance, the suggestions in a 2007 thread on David Courtney’s Chandrakantha site provide some good ideas:
“The re is not so prominent as in Ahir Lalit [or, I would add, Ahir Bhairav, or Bilaskhani Todi]…where Ahir Lalit goes nrS or DnrS, Parameshwari would go DnS or nDnS. The way the phrase mgrgm turns in on itself suggests resignation to the inevitability of spiritual isolation…which is at the heart of this raag. There is a certain pathos and hopeful longing in the important phrase m/nD, played with a very soft touch. There is an important reaching movement via [D-n-S-r] to a soft komal ga. The ga is not held, only touched.”
—Parameshwari’s unique structure is, through murchana, shared with the three other ragas created along with it – Kameshwari, Gangeshwari, and Rangeshwari (see ‘Swara Geometry’ below). To better understand its intervallic possibilities, we should internalise these ragas too.
As explained in Sukanya’s liner notes, Shankar created (or ‘discovered’) Parameshwari through murchana (modal rotation) of Kameshwari, a raga he had just devised, also coming up with Gangeshwari and Rangeshwari in the process. Essentially, the thinking steps behind the ‘car ki seat’ murchana set would have gone something as follows:
—First, take an initial shape – in this case, Kameshwari‘s six-note pattern of SRMPDnS – and ’rotate’ it through all of its six possible positions (i.e. moving the Sa to Re, then Ga, and so on, going round the whole circle).
—Then, see which of the resulting patterns are permissible under Hindustani music’s traditional axioms – e.g. that some variant of ma or Pa must be present, and that some interval of a fifth must exist either upward or downward. (Or…consider whether these ‘rules’ must always apply).
—Finally, run some melodies through each of the remaining rotations (‘modes’), and decide which of them are worth exploring in further detail. In this case, Shankar found he could turn all four of them into new ragas, releasing all except Parameshwari on a 1972 CD. Seen from the original Kameshwari base, they come out as follows:
- 1 – (on Sa) SRMPDnS Kameshwari (‘goddess of love’)
- 2 – (on Re) SGmPdnS Gangeshwari (‘lord of the Ganga river’)
- 3 – (on Ma) SrgGMdS (unused – M but no P and gG but no m)
- 4 – (on Pa) SRgmPNS Rangeshwari (‘lord of colours’)
- 5 – (on Dha) SrgmDnS Parameshwari (‘supreme lord/lordess’)
- 6 – (on ni) SRGdDNS (unused – dD and none of mMP)
—From Parameshwari’s perspective, you can produce Kameshwari by starting on ga, Gangeshwari from ma, and Rangeshwari from ni. The shared interval pattern of these ragas is irregular, absent of any reflective or rotational symmetries.
—However, balanced geometries are not so far away – moving the ma to Pa would allow the whole shape to mirror itself around the ma-Ni axis (in other words, its symmetry is destroyed by moving one tone onto its line of symmetry – a pleasingly symmetrical concept. I’m unsure exactly what to draw from it, but our intuitive minds cannot help but notice all these details).
—It is packed with half-resolving intervals – three of the six notes (SrD) have no perfect fifth above them (most seven-note thaat scales contain only one of these ‘imperfect tones’). Two of them (rD) are also ‘perfectly isolated’, with no fifths above or below (many scales contain no such notes). This summons a distinctive, perpetually tense set of moods, always tempting further elaboration and rarely seeming to settle even when static on the Sa. For a raga derived from geometric abstraction, it contains few clear regularities within itself.
Ronu Majumdar’s invigorating Parameshwari rendition, performed at London’s Southbank Centre for Darbar 2015, was dedicated to the raga’s creator – one of the bansuri master’s many gurus. Sukhvinder ‘Pinky’ Singh, the world’s leading jori master, accompanies on unusually deep-toned tabla:
–Ronu Majumdar (2015)–
—In this excerpt, approximately an hour into the concert, Majumdar enters with uttarang-based flurries (e.g. DnSrSn), painting the open canvas with quick ascending lines and long, looping descents (at 0:11 it’s almost like the Dn pair is juggling with the notes above it, throwing them higher each time – DnD:Sn, DnD:gr, DnD:mg…).
—Dha plays a special role in the performance. Apart from being the main melodic launchpoint, it is also the note to which Singh’s bayan (bass tabla) is tuned, bringing an inescapable gravity throughout. In fact, the raga’s overall sense of root is somewhat unstable – Dha seems to exert the most ‘pull’, often winning the tug-of-war with Sa (e.g. gmDnD and DnSnD).
—This ‘ambiguous root’ effect is accentuated by the comparatively quiet tanpura, and by the bansuri’s lack of a ‘drone tone’ (unlike a sitar, it has no root-tuned chikari to strum). The raga’s general unfamiliarity is also disorientating – none of our existing ‘maps’ quite fit the melodic terrain.
—Such feelings of displacement only seem natural. After all, the raga’s oddly-scattered tones were derived through murchana (modal rotation, or ‘displacing the Sa’). But in the end it is far from truly ‘rootless’ – partly because building from the Dha results in an ‘impermissible’ scale (SrgGMdS, which has both ‘M with no P’ and ‘gG with no m’). So naturally, our ears also remain drawn to the ‘true’ Sa.
—Later passages, in keeping with Shankar’s original inceptions, give percussion a co-starring role. They overflow with bold explorations, including dense layakari (rhythmic-melodic interplay) and emphatic tihai (three-part resolutions), including phrases of gmDnS, mDnrS, and DmDmgmDnD.
—Singh’s ominous tabla solo (1:20-2:20) is supported by lehras (looped melodies) of ‘SDm gRS, gmDnD’ and ‘D, mrgrS, gmDn’. Majumdar’s angular note combinations run through the full range of his flute, lengthening over time and concluding with aggressive cyclings around DDmgm. In the words of our YouTube commenters, their performance is “mesmerising…a morning kickstart with force”.
- See their full 70-minute performance on the Darbar Player
• More Performances •
—Naturally, Ravi Shankar’s original takes are essential immersions. He conceived the raga “sometime in March 1968”, recording it several times over the following years. Highlights include his 1970 Parameshwari album, and his 1971 Hollywood rendition, recorded in a friend’s living room on Highland Avenue (“a slow gat in tintal of 16 beats…and a fast gat in ektal of 12 beats”).
—Non-Shankar recordings of the raga remained rare in his own lifetime, but other artists have explored it over the years, often to great effect. Aside from his Darbar concert, Ronu Majumdar has set it to dhamar on national TV, and other Shankar students have also laid it down, including Gaurav Majumdar, Kartik Sheshadri, and Tarun Bhattacharya.
—Brij Bhushan Kabra recorded it on slide guitar, and Abhijit Pohankar even did so on electric keyboard (Scintillating Synthesiser), while in recent times Kushal Das seems to have been teaching it to his son Kalyanjit. And like Shankar himself, Neeraj Mishra is a Benares-born sitarist who has chosen to record Parameshwari in a living room – this time that of the Sahai household in Kabir Chaura, the historical home of the Benares tabla gharana (just up the road from the residence of my own guru Pandit Shivnath Mishra)
—Intriguingly, the rare raag Deen Todi uses the same swaras. Few recordings of it are available – the only proper one I’ve ever found is an astonishing ten-minute rendition by Kamalesh Maitra on the tabla tarang (‘wave of tabla’ – a circle of 13 scale-tuned dayan drums). Interestingly, his chosen drone is a four-note sequence of DnrS. Parveen Sultana has also sung Deen Todi live, but not, seemingly, on record.
—As covered, Sukanya cites “flashes of…Bageshri, Bhairavi, and Bilaskhani Todi”. It also resembles a ‘no Pa Ahiri’, and also, as highlighted by a discussion on the Chandrakantha site, Prabhateshwari and Jaiwanti Todi. The latter four ragas draw from Parameshwari’s underlying ‘komal re Kafi’ scale, but differ in their inclusion of Pa – albeit in varying amounts and guises.
—While some ragas fit into several different seven-note ‘parent scales’, Parameshwari’s absent Pa means that adding it is the only permissible possibility, making SrgmPDnS. The process of Pa’s removal illuminates phraseological parallels – e.g. Gujiri Todi is to Todi as Parameshwari is to Ahiri (the former ragas being ‘no-Pa’ variants of the latter).
—Composer William Zeitler listed Parameshwari’s tone set (1-b2-b3-4-6-b7) as the ‘Sagimic’ in his All The Scales compendium, having, like Shankar, derived its shape through abstraction rather than observation. But I don’t think he’s used it yet (which is a real shame: Zeitler is one of the world’s leading masters of the ‘glass armonica‘, a ghostly instrument built from rotating wine glasses, seemingly invented by Benjamin Franklin).
As far as I can tell, Parameshwari’s specific shape is barely documented as being in use elsewhere in the world (perhaps due to its scarcity of perfect-fifth resolutions). But its six-note simplicity tempts me to think this seeming absence may be down to the sketchy English-language searchability of global scales, rather than a literal lack of use – few scales are truly unique. I’d love to hear what artists of other cultures might have made of it (please get in touch if you hear it turn up anywhere!).
- Sukanya Shankar’s full liner notes to the 1971 release can be read here, delving further into Ravi’s concern for the post-hurricane plight of Bengal. Also see more of examples of Parameshwara hymn lyrics, translated here by Lakshman Ragde.
- You can complete Shankar’s ‘murchana set’ with his 1971 album containing all three of Kameshwari, Rangeshwari, and (my personal pick) Gangeshwari. It remains to be seen whether the unique geometry of these four ragas will eventually inspire a new ‘car ki seat’ murchana family…
- Also see my pages on other modern creations, including Jagannathbuwa ‘Gunidas’ Purohit’s Jogkauns, an 1940s blend of Jog and Malkauns, and Ali Akbar Khan’s Chandranandan – hastily improvised in some spare studio time, named in a cigarette break, forgotten by its creator soon afterwards…and then, years later, relearned to global acclaim…
- Header audio: Sitar elaboration in dhamar by Ravi Shankar (1970: Raag Parameshwari)
- Header image: ‘Shankar in the 1940s, in his late 20s, playing his Kanal Lal sitar’ (Southbank)
An open-ended project seeking to bring North Indian raga closer to all who approach with open ears. Combines direct input from dozens of leading Hindustani artists with in-depth insights from music history, global theory, performance practice, cognitive science, and much more! [out 2023]
George Howlett is a London-based musician, writer, and teacher (guitars, sitar, tabla, & santoor). Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the voices, cultures, and passions behind them. See Homepage for more, and hit me up for Lessons!
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