An Introduction to the Concept of Raga
A scale can be defined as a musical theme created by choosing a specific set of notes from within an octave. Think of the twelve basic notes in an octave as twelve basic colors. Now, what if you limited yourself to a select few out of these twelve colors for a painting? That would be like giving yourself a theme.
A palette comprising blue, green, violet, gray, white, black and yellow colors, for instance, would produce a very cool picture. Red, brown, yellow, black and orange, meanwhile, would make for a fiery combination. You could use colors that are similar, or you could choose contrasting colors for a more dramatic effect. The possibilities of mixing and matching are endless. And even though you could create any number of paintings using a given color scheme, they would all share an easily-recognizable underlying quality that is distinct from paintings based on other color schemes. That is how it is with a scale.
The idea of a scale is actually quite fundamental to all music. The music of ancient Greece, for instance, was based on modes, which are essentially scales. And then, of course, there are major scales, minor scales, pentatonic scales, jazz or blues scales, and many other scales. Here are a few examples of common raga scales.
Getting Ragas from Raga Scales
A raga is like a scale or mode, but with a more distinct flavor or personality. Some note combinations can be extremely evocative of that raga while others may sound strangely out of place even when you use only the prescribed notes of the scale. Unfortunately, there are no fixed rules for precisely which combinations are characteristic of a raga and which aren't. Familiarity with the raga and an intuitive feel for it are what help you understand the way a raga moves and flows. This is why, in Hindustani classical music, we discuss ragas in terms of their chalan (movement).
Having said that, there are a few broad rules that are specified for each raga to help you get started. For instance, a raga specifies which notes are used in ascending phrases and which ones are used in descending phrases. Each raga has its prescribed home note (griha swara), its most important (vādi) and second most important (samvādi) notes, possible landing/resting notes (nyāsa) and so on. To continue with our color-scheme analogy, let us see how we can fine-tune the blue-green-gray-white-yellow color scheme. An emphasis on blue and green with sparing use of yellow, for instance, will produce an effect that is dramatically different from a liberal use of yellow and white with only a touch of blue and green.
Click on the audios below to see how changing the home note, leaving out certain notes or combining the notes in specific ways immediately fine-tunes the mood of the scale for a more specific effect.
Here is an exercise to help you understand how a raga functions. I have embedded four illustrative videos of simple raga compositions, two each in Raag Kedar and Raag Kafi. The first is Raag Kedar and the second one is Raag Kafi. See if you can use this information to identify the other two.
Socha Samajha Manmeet Piyarava (key C)
Simple composition in Raag Kedar
Chado Chado Chaila Mori Baiya (key C)
Simple composition in Raag Kafi
1. Bol Bol Mose Nand Kuwarava (key C)
Raag Kedar or Raag Kafi?
2. Aaj Khelo Sham Sang Hori (key C)
Raag Kedar or Raag Kafi?
Scroll to bottom of the page for answers. The above exercise only helps you understand how a raga functions. Learning to recognize a raga aurally is a somewhat more complex process and can be daunting for beginners. The most effective way, especially with the first few ragas that you learn, is to learn to sing or play at least two or three songs in that raga. Another way is to listen to several songs or performances in the raga, but something about the process of learning a song helps in the recognition of the properties of the raga much more effectively.
Grouping and Combining Notes to Form Ragas
You can group the twelve notes in an octave in hundreds of ways to make five-note ragas, six-note, seven-note, eight-note, nine-note, ten-note...even twelve-note ragas. You can have ragas that use a certain number of notes in ascent and a different number in descent. You can create variations at the microtonal level. There are other ways in which the same set of notes can be combined in different ways to create melody types that are distinct enough to warrant independent raga status.
Of course, not all the permutations you can come up with, mathematically speaking, are pleasant. So, a rough formula was created for grouping or combining notes to make it easier to come up with pleasing ragas. A raga ideally comprises a minimum of five notes in an octave (three-note scales are used in religious chanting, but they are not versatile enough for music. I do know of one four-note raga, but it is not very widely sung). All ragas must include the tonic sa. All ragas must include at least one or both of the notes ma (the fourth) and pa (the fifth). A raga may use both the pure and flat/sharp versions of any of the variable notes (re, ga, ma, dha, ni), but not in succession (this rule has a few exceptions).
Check out the next three pages for examples, simple audio demonstrations and excerpts from real performances of many ragas of different kinds. But first, I would suggest that you read the Taal (rhythm) page and take a look at the video demonstrations there for a better understanding of how melody is structured around rhythm, and how artists improvise within a given rhythm structure. And before that, let me tell you about fixed raga compositions and the role they play.
Fixed Raga Compositions
Students begin their study of ragas by learning to sing fixed raga compositions. There are several kinds of fixed compositions. The most common are bandish. There are many well-known bandish in each raga. The structure of a bandish is very simple - it has only two stanzas, the first one in the lower register and the second one in the upper.
Bandish are composed with specific ragas in mind and set to specific rhythms and tempos. A good bandish paints a brief yet effective melodic outline of a raga. So, it can be used not just as a learning exercise by students, but also as one of the basic themes in a real raga performance, which an artist can then take and develop in his own style to create something unique and original. Here is an example of a bandish in Raag Durga.
Definition of Raag Durga
Bandish in Raag Durga
Rhythm: Jhaptaal (10 beats)
baadala garaje barase
kaise jaaun piyaa paasa
baadala garaje barase
And now, the same bandish fleshed out and performed in his own style by Pandit Venkatesh Kumar (from 0:59 to 13:15).
Pt. Venkatesh Kumar
If you can't figure out the rhythm of the bandish and how it works, check out the videos on the Rhythms page. Or move on to the next section to see how notes are combined in various ways to form ragas.
Answers to Identification Exercise:
1. Raag Kedar
2. Raag Kafi