What Makes a Raga Difficult?
~A selection of difficult ragas~
Some ragas are more difficult to master than others. This could be because they involve difficult note intervals, because they use complex note patterns, because they use microtones, because they are too similar to other ragas, or other reasons.
This page explores a few such ragas. Ragas like Hamsadhwani, Kedar, and Deskar can be challenging for the artist even though they are pleasant and easy to listen to. On the other hand, ragas like Todi, Bhairav, and Marwa are both difficult to perform and intense in their moods.
Bright and happy Raag Hamsadhwani can be quite challenging, especially on instruments like the sitar, because it involves many wide note intervals. This raga is performed in the evening hours, after sunset, and lends itself beautifully to medium and lively tempos.
Nikhil Banerjee (sitar)
Raag Todi on the other hand, has too many notes that are too close to each other. This makes it not just difficult to perform, but also disconcerting to hear. It is a serious and sombre raga, filled with pathos that is somehow accentuated by the mid-morning timing prescribed for its performance. Also note that the flat re (♭2) in this raga takes the grace note of flat ga (♭3).
Shahid Parvez (sitar)
Raag Kedar is a circuitous (vakra) raga. Circuitous ragas can be identified at a glance by their undulating ascending and descending scales. This happens because some of their notes are typically accessed through other notes or in specific note patterns. Ragas can be circuitous to different extents. Some ragas may have just one note that tends to be accessed indirectly, others may have several. The more circuitous a raga, the more challenging it is to improvise in it, because you're limited by the specific patterns and rules.
Kedar is serene at slower paces, but becomes lively and playful as the tempo rises. It is traditionally performed from late evening to midnight.
Buddhadev Das Gupta (sarod)
Bhairav (literally "awe-inspiring") is another name for Shiva in one of his more fearsome moods. Picture him absorbed in the deepest meditation in a dark cave in the Himalayas. Everything is still, except for the occasional dripping of a stalagtite. Then dawn breaks and the first rays of sunlight penetrate into the cave. Imagine the music in the mind of this man of terrifying passions at that time in his state of perfect peacefulness. And that is what Raag Bhairav is.
This ancient and very important raga is difficult for many reasons, but the reason I want to focus on here is its use of microtones. The note re (♭2) in this raga is extra flat, which makes the interval between the notes Sa (1) and re (♭2) extremely small and takes skill to execute. (Note the difference between the re in this raga and the same note in Raag Todi above.)
Uday Bhawalkar (vocal)
Dhrupad in Raag Bhairav
Raag Marwa is one of the big ragas and is taken very seriously. It is performed during the late afternoon hours up to sunset and mainly evokes dark moods of foreboding and anxiety because of its disconcerting note intervals. However, artists often de-emphasizes the tonic (Sa) in this raga by using it infrequently, and this makes the scale less unsettling by removing the middle note in the difficult sequence 'Ni Sa re ( 7̣, 1, ♭2).
Nikhil Banerjee (sitar)
Some ragas are difficult because their identities need to be kept separate from other ragas that are very close. Bhupali and Deshkar are two such ragas, as they both use the major pentatonic scale, Sa Re Ga Pa Dha (1, 2, 3, 5, 6). The reason these two ragas are different is because they belong to different raga families.
Deshkar is challenging for an artist because of the care required to keep its identity separate from the much more prominent Raag Bhupali. Deshkar is usually sung at a moderate to brisk tempo during the morning hours and has a great positive energy to it.
A couple of famously difficult ragas, Darbari Kanada and Miya Malhar, are not on this page because they were featured on the previous page on raga families & compounds ragas. For some lighter ragas, check out raga classification by structure and scale (thaat).