Todi is often described as the quintessential morning raga. As a student of Indian music who was not brought up in “raga culture,” this classification has often perplexed me. Todi is melancholy, even severe – some say it is full of pathos – and it lends itself to a slow development with very long, gradual, even lazy meends. What does this have to do with morning – late morning, no less – a time of brightness and increasing activity, when the day is just getting into swing? One of my teachers thinks that Todi’s status as a morning raga may actually be an anomaly, a case where the ethos of the raga doesn’t correspond in a clear way to the prescribed time of day, even though the association between the two has grown strong through tradition.
I’ve always been intrigued by Ragamala paintings that aim to visually depict the spirit of each raga, but they too can be perplexing, at least to someone not steeped in their tradition. While these 16th and 17th-century images are beautiful, the scenes they depict can seem to bear little relation to the mood of a raga as one experiences it. This is how I felt about the typical illustration of Todi, which includes a female musician playing the veena, in a forest, in the morning, to a group of attentive deer. How does this serene, pastoral image capture the pathos of Todi?
Looking closer at the descriptive text that is sometimes provided by curators of Ragamala paintings, one finds a clue. A caption from the National Museum in Delhi describes the musician here as “a damsel of dazzling complexion separated from her lover and like a yogini [who has] renounced the world, abides in the grove and charms the deers with her melody.”
So then, Todi expresses the loneliness of the morning as it would be experienced by someone beginning the day in the absence of their beloved. In singing Todi, one can imagine singing of this loneliness, of this love for the absent “hero,” to the natural world, to the receptive forest, to the gentle, empathetic deer. The brightness of the morning, the hastening activity, takes on a different character when one is missing someone as it happens.
Singing Todi with a Sa-dha tanpura as I do here is revealing as the drone changes the character of each note. The minor third, komal ga, takes on an unexpected brightness since it makes a perfect fifth above the minor sixth, the dha in the drone; the komal re, a perfect fourth above the dha, is also resonant. The dha itself becomes a place of rest and security. Sa, the tonic, has an unusually somber disposition. Ni and Ma are unstable.
This clip is a first exploration of this beautiful rag, recorded before I had considered the Ragamala painting shown here. My teacher feels this clip already has a fitting ethos, but as I continue to practice, I’ll be seeing if I can connect with the rag even more deeply by contemplating the painting and its story.