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Hindustani Gata-s Compilation - Book by Patrick Moutal

Review by Yogendra
(May 2012)

Gats (or gata-s) are short compositions for plucked string instruments, like sitar or sarod, in classical North Indian music. They are used as thematic starting points for further improvisations in raga and tala. Gats are one of the few relatively fixed elements of Hindustani music (except of course the sound shape of the raga itself), therefore they are an important framework for theoretical and practical studies. Ideally, they give a melodically and rhythmically sophisticated portrait of a raga, which includes the essential features in an artistically convincing form.

In his book "Hindustani Gata's Compilation - Instrumental Themes in Indian Classical Music", published early in 2012, French musicologist and sitarist Patrick Moutal presents an impressive collection of gats. On over 250 pages, he has given notations of 454 gats in 164 ragas and 15 talas which he has collected during his studying years in Varanasi between 1970 and 1983. Among them are, of course, not only the 70 to 80 well-known ragas, but also many lesser-known rare ones. Equally dazzling and intricate as the featured gats are the sources from which they originate. Most gats come from Lal Mani Misra and K. C. Gangrade, Patrick Moutal's teachers in Varanasi, and represent musical traditions, which are relatively little known outside India. But there are also gats from internationally renowned masters like Allauddin Khan, Nikhil Banerjee, Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan, Rais Khan, Imrat Khan, Balaram Pathak and Buddhaditya Mukherjee. V. N. Bhatkhande has also contributed, as well as several well-known singers from the first half of the 20th century. And last but not least Patrick Moutal has also included some of his own compositions. The gats were collected either from personal lessons, from written publications, or from transcriptions of published recordings.

All gats are notated in V. N. Bhatkhande's Svaralipi system, a letter notation using the characters of the Indian Devanagari alphabet which is explained in the book in full detail. Unfortunately the choice of the Svaralipi system is a weakness of the work in two ways at once: First, the unfamiliar letters make access to the notation unnecessarily difficult to the Western reader. Second, the rigid form of the system allows only a rigid, relatively superficial representation of the music. Ornaments and articulation rules that define the raga to a large extent are mostly missing. And rhythmic subtleties that go beyond a uniform subdivision of a unit of time are omitted throughout.

Patrick Moutal takes a very traditionalist position here, restricting the use of notations to mere memory aids and skeletal representations of the actual gats. According to this line of thought, a gat can only be filled with musical life when the student has learnt it orally from his teacher (or at least heard it in a recording), or when he has already mastered the underlying raga in all its subtleties. This biased view seems a bit outdated today. It ignores the wider possibilities of notations deliberately for mere ideological reasons and neglects the transmission of more information in more detailed contemporary notation systems like those used in Joep Bor's "The Raga Guide" or George Ruckert's "The Classical Music of North India".

Who could make good practical use of the book then? It is not suitable for beginners in Indian music, because it requires a fairly thorough prior knowledge of the ragas. Fluent Hindi readers will probably rather draw on the extensive Indian publications. And those looking for fully notated complete pieces for in-depth study of performance practice will rather find them in George Ruckert's work. This leaves us with all those who already have a good control over a wide range of ragas and talas as well as over the principles of improvisational raga development and who are looking for new gats for the expansion and differentiation of their repertoire. These people will definetely find Patrick Moutal's collection highly interesting - if they are not discouraged by Devanagari and the very heterogeneous sources. For this rather small target group the book could be a real treasure trove.