RAG / RAGA and its fundmentals

The rag/raga is the most important concept that any student of Indian music should understand. The Hindi/Urdu word rag is derived from the Sanskrit raga which means “colour” or “passion”. Therefore a raga may be thought of as an acoustic method of colouring the mind of the listener with an emotion. A raga is basically a set of rules for building a melody. It specifies a scale, as well as rules for movements up (arohanam) and down (avarohanam) 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, phrases to be used, phrases to be avoided, and so on. The result is a framework in which melodies can be composed or improvised, so that melodies in a certain raga will always be recognisable yet there can be endless variation.

Ragas are a combination of the following different characteristics:

  • There must be the notes of the raga. They are called the swar. This concept is similar to the Western solfege.
  • There must also be a modal structure. This is called that in North Indian music and mela in Carnatic music.
  • There is also the jati.  Jati is the number of notes used in the raga.
  • There must also be the ascending and descending structures. These are called arohana and avarohana respectively.
  • The various notes do not have the same level of significance. Some are important and others less so. The important notes are called vadi and samavadi.
  • There are often characteristic movements to the rag. These are called either pakad or swarup.

In addition to the above main characteristics of a raga, there are some other less important ones. For instance, ragas have traditionally been attributed to particular times of the day in Hindustani music. They have also been classified into families of male and female ragas (raga, ragini, putra raga, etc.). The Carnatic system is based on 72 parent scales (known as melakartas), while the Hindustani system is based on 10 parent scales known as thats.

The swar / swara are the components of a raga. They are the seven notes of the Indian musical scale. Swar is also called sur. At a fundamental level they are similar to the sol-fa of Western music.

The that (thaat) is the specification as to which of the alternate forms of swar will be chosen. The permutations of the various forms give rise to numerous scales with vastly differing intervals. Therefore the concept of that is essentially the same as the Western concept of a mode. That can be defined as the root or parent raga from which another raga (child) can be derived. For example, Jaunpuri is derived from Asavari. There are about ten thaats: Asavari, Bhairav, Bhairavi, Bilawal, Kafi, Yaman, Khamaj, Marwa, Purvi, Todi.

The jati or jaati literally means a “caste” or “collection”. In the musical sense it can mean a rhythmic patter, in ancient musical mode, or the number of notes in a modern node.

The arohana and avarohana are the descriptions of how a raga moves. The arohana, also called aroh or arohi, is the pattern in which a raga ascends the scale. The avarohana may use certain characteristic twists and turns.

Such prescribed twists are referred to as vakra. Such twisted movements are a reflection of the pakad.

Vadi/Samavadi: The different notes (swar) of a raga have different levels of significance. The note which is strongly emphasized is referred to as the vadi. Another note which is strong but only slightly less so is the samavadi. A note which is neither emphasized nor de-emphasized is called anuvadi. Notes which are de-emphasized nor de-emphasized are referred to as being durbal, while notes which are excluded are called vivadi.

The pakad, or swarup, is a characteristic pattern for a raga. This is often a particular way in which a raga moves. Often the pakad is a natural consequence of the notes of arohana/avarohana (the ascending and descending structures). It is customary to enfold the pakad into the arohana/avarohana to make the ascending and descending structures more descriptive.

The two major styles of music in India, Hindustani and Carnatic, have their respective sets of ragas.

Indian classical music is alwas set in raga, but all raga music is not necessarily classical. Many popular Indian film songs are based on ragas.

These are some of the following ragas having all the seven notes. The arohana  and avarohana are monotonic (straight).

Hindustani Raga

Ahir Bhairav, Bhairav, Bilawal, Kalyan, Kirwani, Poorvi

Carnatic Raga

Chakravakam, Mayamalavagaula, Dhira Shankarabharanam, Mecha Kalyani, Kiravani, Kamavardhini.

These are some of the following ragas have missing notes (do not have all the seven notes) but have straight arohana and avarohana.

Hindustani Raga

Abhogi, Bhupali, Durga, Hamsadhwani, Malkouns, Madhukons

Carnatic Raga

Abhogi, Mohana, Shuddha Saveri, Hamsadhwami, Hindola, Sumana Saranjini