Laya : Musically

We said earlier that Laya is about time intervals. Imagining time intervals and keeping them equal one after the other is the first step in maintaining a laya. If the time interval is long, we say that the laya is slow, and the laya increases if we reduce this time interval.

While creating music, we also go on to make patterns with Laya. This requires us to divide the time intervals into parts, and then using these parts. The clip below would demonstrate just how this is done.


You would perhaps have made two observations from the exercise:

  1. The longer the time interval between the beats, i.e. slower the laya, the more difficult it is to maintain it. As the pace increases, it becomes much easier to hold the beat. We will go on to see later, that a very slow tempo of compositions or Bandishes, is also a uniqueness of Hindustani Music. No other music in the world uses such slow tempos.
  2. While dividing the intervals, even number of parts are easy to manage, than the odd ones. The twos and fours seem to be easier than the threes and fives. At least initially. This is perhaps due to the symmetry element. In any case, for a musician, over the years, the difference ceases, and he is equally comfortable at all times.

There are a couple of more things to know about laya in the context of Hindustani music. Firstly, there is no standard for the tempo, such as a certain number of beats per minute being called as vilambit, or Madhya or drut laya. So what is slow or vilambit for one could be medium or Madhya for another artist. Broadly, we can imagine the three tempos as bands which overlap. This is similar to the swara scales in Indian Music, where there is no fixed standard for the pitch frequencies. We will see more about this later.

Secondly, We do not use laya in a metronomic form. A metronome is an instrument which gives a click at regular intervals, and the intervals are adjustable. The metronomes in the earlier days were mechanical, using a pendulum, which, like a lot of other things, are replaced by electronic ones or software today. We do not use the beats in a staccato way for our compositions, but rather also employ the space between the beats. Going around the beats, exploiting the entire space in an aesthetic manner, is seen as a sign of maturity in a musician. This is also quite similar to the use of swara, where we not only use the defined swara points, but the entire space between swaras, across the saptak.

Thus, while using both the fundamental ingredients of music, the swara and the laya, we visualise these as a continuum, rather than just discrete points.

Lastly, the word laya actually means decay or death. For all things being, we imagine them to be passing through three stages, the utpatti ( birth), the sthiti ( being) and the laya ( death), and then utpatti again, going in a cyclical manner. The concept of laya further evolves into the Tala, which uses laya in a cyclical form, known as the awartan.

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