The World of Shrutis

Dhrupad singer Ashish Sankrityayan demonstrates the subtle nuances of intonation in the art of Indian ragas.
Two sessions recorded on Skansedal, Hilleroed, Denmark, September 2007. 
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Duration of programme: 31:22 minutes. 

The demonstration was preceded by a recording where the issues were discussed informally over a cup of tea: 

This 11½ minute recording 

A North Indian tanpura. 
This precision instrument brings out the overtones of each particular note and functions as navigation tool for the singer throughout the raga.

The shrutis are born from the so called Murchanas: By tuning a veena in half tone steps by generation of pure fifths and while keeping the frets in position you may hear the shrutis if you play the scale, first from one Sa, afterwards from a new Sa, half a tone higher etc.

The veena is a fretted melody string instrument.

Please observe: In order to hear and appreciate the subtle details of these demonstrations you will probably need a better rendering than what a set of standard computer loudspeakers provides. The use of headphones may be a help to obtain the necessary sound quality.

A traditional way of presenting the 22 shrutis from a Danish reference work, Miunksgaards Musikatlas. The structure is composed by perfect fifths (kvinter) and fourths within the frame of the octave.

Following days of intense studies and discussions about the shruti phenomena and tonal systems between Ashish, Knud Brant Nielsen and the microphone holder, Skye, we arrived at a common understanding of the process which generates what is called a shruti - microtone - in Indian music.

Knud and Ashish discussing music by the bus stop in Soerup. near Fredensborg, Denmark.

Through a generation of perfect fifths - the frequency proportion 2:3 - the music reveals its cyclic nature by returning to the same tone it started from after 12 fifths, but 7 octaves higher and - very importantly -the two tones do not coincide exactly but differs by a ratio called 'the Pythagorean comma'. 

The Indian musicians have been aware of the structure and its significance for the actual music through hundreds of years. The Indian musicians basically pick 7 tones for a scale from a selection of 22 shrutis whereas Europeans select 7 from 12. 

The 22 shrutis, the radii of the structure. Each winding of the spiral represents one octave: A return to an already established tone quality on a new level, either higher or lower. Starting point, Sa (do), is 12 o'clock. From here we generate 11 successive fifths upwardly/outwardly and 10 successive fifths downwardly/inwardly all in all covering 7 octaves and providing two versions of each half tone step. The fifth remains unaltered.  The nomenclature here is the Indian solfege: Sa- re- ga- ma- pa-dha- ni- sa. Each note except for the fifth exists in a low (komal/ flat) and a high (tivra/ sharp) version.

Alain Danielous spiral of fifths illustrates the same principle:

Knud and Skye didn't realize that they missed the cream on the top of the cake before Ashish gave these very instructive demonstrations of the subtleties of Indian music. He shows how the singer may deliberately intonate a shruti - or less - below or above the just tone. It is all a tapestry of tonal relations, which gives colour and life to the music. European listeners may notice something, but are usually not conscious of what happens.

Most remarkably Ashish demonstrated how a trained singer may divide what we consider the smallest interval - the half tone - into several microtonal steps.