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Raga (singular rag or raga, plural raga or ragas) is a complex structure of musical melody used in India and should not be confused with scales.

A raga is basically a set of rules of how to build a melody. It specifies a scale, as well as rules for movements up and down the scale, which notes should figure more and which notes should be used more sparingly, which notes take which ornamentation, which notes must be bent, which notes may be bent, phrases to be used, phrases to be avoided, and so on. The result is a framework that can be used to compose or improvise melodies in, so that melodies in a certain raga will always be recognisable yet allowing endless variation.

The underlying scale is a five, six or seven tone-scale. In the seven tone-scale the second, third, fourth, sixth, and seventh notes can be sharp or flat, making up the twelve notes in the Western scale. However, ragas can specify microtonal changes to this scale: a flatter second, a sharper seventh, and so forth. Furthermore, such variations can occur between styles, performers or simply follow the mood of the performer. There is no absolute pitch; instead, each performance simply picks a ground note, and the other scale degrees follow relative to the ground note.

Every time of the day, morning, afternoon, evening and night, has its specific ragas.

Also See Kirtan, Sikh Kirtan, Taal, Ragmala

List of 31 Ragas

The following are the ragas that are mentioned in the SGGS:

Table of Ragas
No. Name of Raga Order in SGGS Page Range Page Count
1 Asa 4 347 to 489 142
2 Bairari 13 719 to 721 2
3 Basant 25 1168 to 1197 29
4 Bhairon 24 1125 to 1168 43
5 Bihagara 7 537 to 557 20
6 Bilaval 16 795 to 859 64
7 Devagandhari 6 527 to 537 10
8 Dhanasari 10 660 to 696 36
9 Gauri 3 151 to 347 196
10 Gond 17 859 to 876 17
11 Gujari 5 489 to 527 38
12 Jaijavanti 31 1352 to 1353 1
13 Jaitsri 11 696 to 711 15
14 Kalian 29 1319 to 1327 8
15 Kanara 28 1294 to 1319 25
16 Kedara 23 1118 to 1125 7
17 Maajh 2 94 to 151 57
18 Mallar 27 1254 to 1294 40
19 Mali Gaura 20 984 to 989 5
20 Maru 21 989 to 1107 118
21 Nat Narain 19 975 to 984 9
22 Prabhati 30 1327 to 1352 25
23 Ramkali 18 876 to 975 99
24 Sarang 26 1197 to 1254 57
25 Sri 1 14 to 94 80
26 Sorath 9 595 to 660 65
27 Suhi 15 728 to 795 67
28 Tilang 14 721 to 728 7
29 Todi 12 711 to 719 8
30 Tukhari 22 1107 to 1118 11
31 Vadahans 8 557 to 595 38

'Striking the Note'

Reprint of Article by Pt.Shivkumar Sharma from the Sunday Observer magazine section August 16-22, 1992

There is an inextricable link between music and our moods. A lullaby soothes us to sleep; a love song arouses our amorousness; pop music sets our feet tapping; while devotional songs evoke our spirituality. Our sages and musicologists of yore studied this relationship between music and the human psyche and evolved raags that linked our changing moods to changes in nature. What emerged was what we refer to as the time cycle of raags. According to this theory there is a special raag for each period of the day., representing each mood. Such a finely tuned understanding of the mood created by different musical notes does not exist in any system of music, anywhere in the world.

The Time Cycle

The day is broken into eight periods (prahars) with specific raags for each

  • 1st prahar (7am to 10am) Bilawal, Sarang, Hindol
  • 2nd prahar (10am to 1pm)  : Asavari, Jaunpuri,Shudhsarang,Todi
  • 3rd prahar (1pm to 4 pm)  : Bhimpalasi, Multani, Pilu
  • 4th prahar (4pm to 7pm)  : Poorvi, Puriyadhanashee, Puriya,Marwa,Shree
  • 5th prahar (7pm to 10pm)  : Yaman Kalyan, Bhupali, Shudh Kalyan, Kedar
  • 6th prahar (10 pm to 1 am)  : Behag, Bageshwari, Khamaj, Desh, Rageshwari
  • 7th prahar (1 am to 4 am)  : Adana, Malkauns, Chandrakauns, Darbari
  • 8th prahar (4am to 7am)  : Bhairav, Lalit, Gunkali

The first cycle raag corresponds to that twilight hour, just before dawn, when the colour of the sky begins to change, the last to the velvety night, after sunset. When you see the changing colours of the sky at the break of the day or the glorious hues of sunset, you may feel the same quiet wonder at the sheer beauty of nature, yet that you experience at daybreak may be different from your reactions to dusk. Similarly, a full moon and a moonlit night evoke an entirely different kind of mood. And capturing every changing nuance in our mood as the day runs its course are the different raags.

The elemental reaction of the human mind and body to the changes in nature was known to our great masters and that is why they were able to create the raags that evoked the right mood. The correspondence between nature and our feelings is natural because the human body is made of the five elements - fire, air, water, earth and sky.

If you study the way our musical notes unfold, you realize that they synchronize completely with nature. The different combinations of notes and the patterns in which they are played have a very distinct effect on emotions.

Moods and feelings

A raag creates an atmosphere which is associated with particular feelings and sentiments. If Bhairav has the serenity of early dawn, Darbari has the splendour of midnight. Bhupali can never be associated with mirth and fun whereas Bageshri is more suited for a lighthearted romantic mood. The Raagmala paintings of Rajasthan depict beautifully the underlying 'ras' or mood expressed by every raag.

In the time cycle, you first have raags based on 'komal swaras', what we call the flat notes. In all the komal swar raags you ( Bhairav, Gunkali), you have one thing in common: the note rishabh and dhaivat. The fourth note, madhyam, is also a komal swar, but it is used in teevra swar (sharp) when singing the twilight raags after sunset to define the change in mood between the two hours before sunrise and after sunset. So, with the subtle change in one note, the entire mood of the raag changes. All these twilight melodies called Sandhiprakash raags in our musical terminology, covey a certain pathos, a certain yearning. These are followed by the raags of the first quarter of the morning and night, such as Todi, Asavari, and then the midday and midnight raags.

Our response to the sight of rolling waves crashing against the bank is not the same as our response to the still waters of a placid lake, or a thundering waterfall, or a babbling brook, though in all instances we are talking of water in its natural surroundings. Similarly, raags set to different taals (beats) evoke dissimilar responses though they are made of the same komal or teevra swaras - sa re ga ma pa dha ni - that form the basis of our entire music system.

We also have some 22 microtones, which we call shrutis, that can be used to introduce a slight variation in each raag. But you cannot move out of the structure and parameters set down for each raag. The improvisation is only within the set notes. An introduction of any outside note jars, it takes away from the beauty of the raag and spoils the mood effectively. And that is the charm of Indian classical music.

Tale from Puranas

There is a tale in our puranas about how Narada boasted of his musical prowess and challenged anyone to outshine him in this field. Lord Vishnu, on hearing this, took him to the abode of the gods and goddesses of music. There they found the raags and raaginis created by Mahadeva., weeping ; they complained that Narada had broken their limbs by his reckless singing. Saraswati, the goddess of music, was sent to set right the damage by her perfect rendering of the raags. There is a moral in this quaint tale. In Hindustani classical music, one single note can change the entire tenor of the raag. For example, when I play Bhopali, I can never use gandhar komal . In Western music, there are no such restrictions.

I have noticed too that each instrument evokes a different kind of mood. Which is perhaps why the shehnai is singled out to be played at weddings. The santoor, the way I play it, creates a soothing, ethereal kind of effect, romantic of course, but it always reminds you of water. The very flow of melody reminds you of flowing water. I call it liquid melody.

Flow of the notes

I have been studying this relationship of music to moods all through my career. In fact, I clearly remember when I was just eight or nine, not old enough to really understand the meaning of romance or pathos, I had an inclination to play raags in komal swaras that expressed precisely these feelings, much to my father's annoyance. He would often rebuke me for pursuing these sad raags. But I couldn't help it. When my father taught me Bhopali, I woul sit practicing Shivranjani; when he asked me to play Shankara or Shudhkalyan, I'd play Madhuwanti or Puriya Dhanashri. Later, as I grew up, I realised that my happy-go-lucky father preferred the happy notes, whereas I the dreamer, identified more with the sad or, rather soft notes.

I have noticed this affinity for particular raags in several people. Their tastes in music reveal their basic temperament. Of course, this subject needs to be developed and researched but, if it is done, I am sure we will find a correlation between personality and musical preferences.

I vividly recall when I was recording at the AIR station in Jammu as a college student. Two ladies happened to be present at the recording. One of them a vocalist, kept nodding her head and saying " Wah!Wah!" to show her appreciation of the music, while the other lady, who was not a musician, had tears in her eyes as she listened to me play raag Todi -- this raag's mood is one of yearning and pathos. This incident made me realize how deeply music can affect our emotions. A musician sometimes may get so inextricably lost in the technicalities of a raag that the mood may miss him but the layperson always reacts instinctively to it.

I often hold recitals at schools and colleges where the majority are uninitiated in the theory of Indian classical music. Here I never tell them the raag I am playing. I only ask for their reactions to the music and they have always been able to identify the mood of the raag. And this reaction is common all over the world because though we may speak a different language and barriers of borders may segregate us, our human emotions still remain the same. That is why the language of music is universal.

Doing the ground work

The mood of the raag is set by the alaap. It is the most important part of a composition because it creates the structure of the raag. Hindustani classical is not instant music; you cannot switch it on or off. Our music grows gradually. I always compare it to a painting. You cannot throw colours on a canvas and call it a painting; it has to be created slowly, slowly, stroke by stroke. Similarly, when we develop a raag we use the notes in various combinations and permutations and unfold the raag, note by note.

People who are not well versed in music believe that the real composition begins when the tabla joins in. This just shows the significance of the tempo in defining the mood. The beat of the tabla synchronizes with the composition and produces a harmonious blend of melody and rhythm. You cannot create a happy mood if the tempo or laya is slow; if the tempo is not right, tragedy can turn into comedy. Can you imagine the composition Piya milan ki aas being played to a fast beat? The laya is an important part of the music and crucial in setting the mood.

One aspect of Hindustani classical music which has not received much attention is the lyrics. Very often, the words of the song do not match the raag they are sung in. Take the famous composition from the Agra gharana, Main to kar aayi piya sang rang raliyan. The words are erotic, teasing, but it is sung in Puriya, a sad melancholy raag.

The wide appeal of Hindi film music, which basically mood music, is proof of the importance of lyrics. The words of the song, the musical score and the beat, together create a powerful impact. The song appeals straight to the heart of the listener.

Of course, you do have people like Pandit Jasraj, who are attaching a lot of meaning to the words of the song and are conveying the emotions so clearly that more and more people are drawn towards this kind of music.

Music has the power to sway even animals, leave alone man. This incident was narrated to my father by his guru, who was the disciple of Kudau Singh, a renowned pakhwaj player in the court of Datiya in MP. Singh once hurt the king's feelings by saying that he was not in the mood to sing when the king asked him to. The slighted king bent on revenge, forced an elephant to imbibe alcohol till he was drunk and sent it Kudau Singh's way. Panicking on seeing this elephant veering towards him Kudau Singh began playing the Gajparan and the elephant sat down in front of the percussionist and calmly listened to him play. Immediately humbled, the king begged forgiveness.

So you see music has the power to calm the senses and lull you into a good mood.

Illustrations accompanying this article are Rajasthani miniature paintings depicting Behag, Megh, Bhairav and Deepak raags.

Music Magic

Musicians who wrought miracles with their singing

• Many tales abound about Tansen. Once, it is said he sang a night raag at midday and lo behold day became night and darkness spread all round Akbar's palace.

• Gopal Nayak's command over the raags was the envy of Allaudin Khilji's court singer, the famous Amir Khusroo. He cleverly persuaded his emperor to command Nayak to sing the fiery raag Deepak. Nayak couldn't flout the king, so he took the precaution of standing in the river Jamuna before he began to sing. His perfect rendering of the raag of fire set the river aflame and the water began boiling. But the king insisted he continue singing and the singer was finally consumed by flames of fire.

• Muthuswami Dikshetar, a Carnatic vocalist of great repute, caused a downpour of rain in Ettiyapuram when he sang the raag Megharanjini. This raag is believed to be particularly powerful and there are many tales about it. On one occasion, a dancing girl of Bengal is said to have saved the crops in the time of drought by singing Megh Malhar and inducing the heavens to open up and bring water to the parched earth. More recently, two years back Balmurali Krishna sang at the devi temple at Vizag where it hadn't rained. He asked all his listeners to pray for rain as he sang and everyone was surprised when it rained !

• When the composer Thyagaraja sang Shri Rama Padama, a dead man came back to life as though he had just woken up from his sleep. His singing is said to have moved Lord Rama to bless him with a personal darshan. • Music has that kind of supernatural power. King Akbar, disguised as a Brahmin, once went to meet Swami Haridasji, Tansen's guru. Entranced by Swamiji's singing, Akbar presented a bottle of perfume to Swamiji, which the guru promptly poured into the pond. Akbar was offended.

After the recital, Swamiji led Akbar to the inner sanctum of the temple. A strong fragrance of the perfume wafted over. Akbar was taken aback. The guru explained that when he was singing Lord Krishna was sitting before him and he had offered the perfume to him. Later, when Akbar asked Tansen why his music was not as effective as his guru' he replied with his usual wit. "That is because I sing to please you, he sings to please the lord above. "

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