Schema Theory and Aesthetic Categories in North Indian Classical Dhrupad

Sumitra Ranganathan

bani (lit. word or sound) is an elusive concept in the performance of Dhrupad, a genre of north Indian classical music with medieval origins that circulates in oral tradition. Historical sources refer to four distinct banis: gaurhar, dagur, khandar, and nauhar. A fifth bani, shuddh, combines the characteristic effects of other banis. Today the concept of bani is mired in debate. Some musicians use the word to describe their entire style. Some say it applies only to the domain of composition, while others apply it to improvisatory sections of performance.  Many say that the word has little relevance to current practice. Meanwhile, in scholarship, some musicologists have tried to map it to musico-aesthetic forms in twelfth-century treatises.[1]

However, the expert Dhrupad musicians I work with—who are descendent from multiple lineages associated with the erstwhile Princely court of Bettiah, Bihar—have a clear conception of what bani is. Based on substantial traditional repertoire and a continuous oral tradition, they understand bani as an aesthetic concept that categorizes stereotypical aesthetic experience with specific musical characteristics and distinctive perception effects in Dhrupad performance. It is best distinguished within the well-defined structure of a Dhrupad composition, but can also be invoked in improvisatory sections of performance.

Here is an excerpt from a gaurhar bani Dhrupad composition. Listen for its characteristic perception effect: “a feeling of space.”

Example 1: excerpt, gaurhar bani Dhrupad, composer Maharaja Anand Kishore Singh of Bettiah, raga sampoorna hindol, tala chautal (sung by Indra Kishore Mishra, Chennai, August 2009).[2]

The Dhrupad banis serve as a case study to investigate whether and how aesthetic categories function meaningfully as conceptual models in composition and performance without necessarily constraining performance by a universal set of rules. I had to contend with some limitations while conducting my research—there are very few references to Dhrupad bani in written sources prior to the nineteenth century and even fewer recordings from the early twentieth century. I hence focused on oral tradition and handed down repertoire to investigate them more generally as musical concepts.


durga anand sagar, a 19th-century bhojpatra (birch leaf) manuscript contains the Dhrupads of Maharaja Anand Kishore Singh. Only portions of this manuscript in tattered condition are available with Bettiah’s hereditary musicians.

To understand the banis musically and conceptually, I investigate the cognitive processes through which musicians perceive, stabilize, interpret and communicate them. In developing an analytical framework, I found work on schema theory and categorical thinking in music to be particularly useful. My use of the term schema is consistent with Frederick Bartlett’s definition that emphasizes both the experiential and heuristic character of schemata.[3] Within Western art music, Robert Gjerdingen’s analysis of eighteenth-century style is based on some fundamental claims of schema theory first proposed by Leonard Meyer: (i) prototypical features (schemata) are extracted based on repeated exposure to a musical situation; (ii) they lead to the abstraction of stylistically appropriate mental templates that produce meaning and manipulate expectation during listening; and (iii) such interpretive context is historically and stylistically specific.[4] An important implication of schema theory is that templates function top-down, even if the activation of a template in any given situation occurs bottom-up. Schemata produce approximate models of higher-order musical situations that provide interpretive context, which can be activated by the detection of a sub-set of lower order compositional devices and stylistic figures. (I’ll call these sub-schemata). Schemata are hence basic to the organization of conceptual knowledge, and the cognitive processes of expectation and recall.

In the context of Dhrupad performance, heuristic schemata support and stabilize the aesthetic category of bani. Perception effects operating as higher-order schemata distinguish the overall aesthetic of each bani. As a case in point, all the musicians in my project have said at different times that the overwhelming perception of gaurhar bani is a stretching of tonal space, or a “feeling of space.” An attendant category of perception is a slowing down of time. The evidence for this includes verbalization of the experience, gestural and bodily actions, sensory and bodily memory maps, effort metaphors, analogies, pedagogical instruction and misunderstandings with accompanists in finding the pace of the song.

Compositional and interpretive performance strategies manipulate the interaction between melodic phrase, lyrical phrase and metrical structure to produce the characteristic aesthetic of each bani. These strategies often employ sub-schemata. For example, sub-schemata that work together to produce the gaurhar bani’s characteristic perception effects include (a) the sparsity of musical events reflected by a low syllable-to-note ratio, (b) the masking of strong beats in the tala (underlying metric cycle) by the use of glides and vowels, (c) the use of large loops and loops within loops in executing melismatic phrases, and (d) the use of a series of small gliding arcs to traverse ascending or descending melodic phrases. The song excerpt below exhibits several of these features.

Example 2: excerpt, gaurhar bani Dhrupad, composer Maharaja Anand Kishore Singh of Bettiah, raga bahar, tala chautal (sung by Falguni Mitra with long-term accompanist Apurbalal Manna pakhawaj, Biswanath tanpura, Kolkata, March 2015).

The activation of interpretive context and (top-down) schemata is fundamental to the cognitive function of sub-schemata in maintaining the distinction between banis in performance. This has at least two implications. First, for experienced performers of gaurhar bani songs, a piece of notation can immediately invoke the mental schema of gaurhar bani if any of its common sub-schemata are encountered. As an example, the fragment in the example below is a simple ascending line. In most other Dhrupad traditions, it would be sung in a plain, even staccato manner. However, in the Bettiah lineage of Indra Kishore Mishra, the ascending line is executed using a series of small arcs that connect the notes in a stretching of tonal space.

Example 3: excerpt, gaurhar bani Dhrupad, composer Maharaja Anand Kishore Singh of Bettiah, raga bhairavi, tala sadra (student demonstration, Chennai, January 2010).

The second implication concerns the status of particular stylistic ornaments as lone-standing evidence of a bani’s aesthetic. Ornaments do not function as sub-schemata by themselves. Rather, sub-schemata should incorporate these ornaments in ways that invoke the interpretive context of the bani. For example, the mere presence of loops, glides, arcs (all called by the generic term, meend) does not constitute evidence of gaurhar aesthetic. These ornaments must occur within sub-schemata such as ascending lines, descending lines, loop within loops, hidden strong beats, etc. to prompt the perception of schema characteristic of gaurhar bani enough times in the piece to transform the listening experience. The musicians of the Bettiah gharana have repeatedly demonstrated the distinction to me with examples to drive the point home.

This observation counters one of the prevalent misconceptions about banis amongst both musicians and analysts, many of whom conflate the presence of stylistic figures alone with the creation of an aesthetic. Schema theory also helps us understand why the aesthetic category of bani is perceived more readily within the bounded, repetitive structure of a Dhrupad composition. In contrast, the improvisatory sections of a Dhrupad performance (alap) may only engender fleeting experiences of categorizable aesthetics.

As these few examples illustrate, musicians use many different kinds of schematic knowledge to interpret and communicate stereotypical aesthetic experience in Dhrupad performance. Other dimensions that prompt bani schemata include choice of tempo, choice of raga, and lyrical meaning—topics for a more detailed analysis. Far from making the aesthetic category of bani meaningless, such fluid and multi-dimensional decision-making supported by schemata significantly increases the number of expressive possibilities in composing, interpreting and performing Dhrupads.

Acknowledgments: A big thank you to Leon Chisholm, Stephanie Probst and Preeti Rao for giving me the impetus to extend my dissertation work, a dimension of which is discussed here. Without Leon’s help editing, this blog post would not exist.

[1] For a review of the Dhrupad banis in literature and oral tradition, see Ritwik Sanyal and Richard Widdess, Dhrupad: Tradition and Performance in Indian Music (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004)Their analysis is both preliminary and inconclusive, however, as it does not include the musically significant oral traditions and traditional corpuses that are the source material for my study.

[2] All recordings included here are field recordings done during the course of my research.

[3] Frederick C. Bartlett, Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology (London: Cambridge University Press, 1932).

[4] For schema theory in Western art music see Leonard B. Meyer, Explaining Music: Essays and Explorations (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), Robert O. Gjerdingen, A Classic Turn of Phrase: Music and the Psychology of Convention (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988), and Vasili Byros, “Towards an ‘Archaeology’ of Hearing: Schemata and Eighteenth-Century Consciousness,” Musica Humana 1/2 (2009): 235–306.


With aspiring Dhrupad musicians in Bettiah, Bihar, Oct. 2010

Sumitra Ranganathan received her Ph.D. in Music from the University of California, Berkeley (2015). Her interests include theories of tradition, performance and aesthetics. She uses approaches from music cognition, music theory and the anthropology of the senses to investigate senses of tradition, intelligibility and categorical knowledge in Indian classical music.