Raag Hindustani
© 2011, Sādhana

Different Kinds of Ragas

The previous section illustrated a few simple pentatonic ragas in an effort to show how you could get different melodies from sets of five notes. In this section, we will see how many other ways there are to group notes to form ragas, not just in terms of the number of notes, but also based on musical phrasing, or by combining two ragas to get a new raga, and so on. Again, I thought you might also find it interesting to learn something about the traditionally prescribed time for performing or enjoying a raga and the mood (rasa) or emotional content (bhāva) associated with it, and have accordingly provided a short description for each raga. My descriptions are mainly based on the mood traditionally assigned to the raga but I also go by my personal understanding and experience of it.

Let's begin with examples of ragas based on the number of notes they use.

Raag Marwa (hexatonic)

Raag Marwa is sung during the late afternoon hours up to sunset. It is one of the major ragas in Hindustani classical music and is taken very seriously. One of the interesting things about Raag Marwa is that it de-emphasizes the tonic (sa) and excludes the perfect fifth (pa). This makes it a very unsettling raga, mainly evoking dark moods of foreboding and anxiety. It can also portray compassion or resignation in the face of some inner struggle.

Scale: Marwa

Pandit Nikhil Banerjee on the sitar
Raag Marwa

Vidhushi Malini Rajurkar
Raag Marwa

Raag Bhairav (heptatonic)

Bhairav is another very important raga in the Hindustani classical tradition. It is a morning raga, and solemn peacefulness is its ideal mood. It is very easy, however, for this scale to deteriorate from peaceful to melodramatic, and artists must watch out for that. I think it was Ustad Vilayat Khan who once described Raag Bhairav as the music in the mind of Lord Shiva as he meditated in the Himalayas. That made an impression on me. Picture Shiva-the-terrible, 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, to me, is what Raag Bhairav should be.

Scale: Bhairav

Uday Bhawalkar
Dhrupad in Raag Bhairav

Utsav Lal on fluid piano
Raag Bhairav

And now, a couple of ragas that can get away with using just about any note in the octave but still retain their distinctive personalities.

Raag Pahadi

Pahadi is an evening raga that combines both playful and pensive aspects. It has a very charming, folksy flavor. The notes S R G P D form the backbone of Raag Pahadi, which makes it a very close cousin of the pentatonic Raag Bhupali. The other notes of the octave are incorporated into this framework judiciously. Here is a simple sol-fa song to demonstrate a few typical note combinations. In this example I have only combined the nine most prominent notes used. The remaining notes are used only rarely and have to be done with the greatest care and expertise to retain the raga's identity.

Scale: Pahadi

Debasmita Bhattacharya on the sarod
Raag Mishra Pahadi (mixed-Pahadi)

Ustad Salamat Ali Khan demonstrates
Indo-Pakistani, Afghani and Western variations of Raag Pahadi

Raag Bhairavi

Raag Bhairavi is a very important raga in both classical and semi-classical music. As in the case of Raag Pahadi, just about any note in the octave can be used in Raag Bhairavi, but its main structure comprises the notes S, r, g, m, P, d, and n – notice that all the main notes are flat. This gives the raga a very gentle quality. A small composition in Raag Bhairavi is often sung at the end of a long performance as a way of winding down.

Scale: Bhairavi

Pandit Bhimsen Joshi
Raag Bhairavi

Pandit Venkatesh Kumar
Raag Bhairavi

Asymmetrical Ragas

A number of ragas are asymmetrical in ascent and descent. They use a different set of notes on the way up than they do on the way down. But what does this really mean? Well, for instance, if a note is used only in the descent, what this means is that it is always followed by a note lower than itself in the octave. For instance, in Raag Yaman, the note P is used only in the descent. So, it may be immediately followed by M, G, R or S, but not by D, N or S'. You may climb up to P on the way up: 'N R G M P. But if you want to climb further, you would have to climb down at least one step first: 'N R G M P, M D N. Of course, rules can sometimes be broken, but only by those who have mastered them first. Here are a couple of examples of asymmetrical ragas.

Raag Yaman

Yaman is an evening raga, sung from sunset to late evening. It is full of grace and beauty, and the main mood it creates is one of devotion and dedication. It is a raga that suggests unconditional offering of everything one has at the altar of whatever one's calling may be, asking nothing in return.

Scale: Yaman

Pandit Ravi Shankar teaches Anoushka Shankar (sitar)
Raag Yaman

Vidushi Malini Rajurkar
Raag Yaman

Raag Bhimpalasi

An afternoon raga, sung from late afternoon to sunset, Bhimpalasi is poignant and passionate, filled with yearning.

Scale: Bhimpalasi

Sushree Shruti Sadolikar
Raag Bhimpalasi

Ustad Sultan Khan on the sarangi
Raag Bhimpalasi

Compound Ragas

Compound ragas are a fascinating group of ragas created by combining two existing ragas. The challenge here is to make sure that the final product is pleasing rather than disconcerting. There are two ways in which ragas can be combined. One way involves using a base raga and adding elements of another raga to it so that each raga retains its identity. The two ragas weave in and out playfully, keeping you constantly surprised. Another way of creating a compound raga is by using the notes of one raga and the phrasing or movement of a different raga.

Raag Kaunsi-Kanada

The late night Raag Kaunsi-Kanada is a delectable combination of Raag Malkauns and Raag Kanada, and is an example of the kind of compound raga in which the identities of both the constituent ragas are retained and weave in and out.

Scale: Kaunsi-Kanada

Debasmita Bhattacharya (sarod)
Raag Kaunsi-Kanada

Pandit Venkatesh Kumar
Raag Kaunsi-Kanada

Raag Megh

Raag Megh (also called Megh Malhar) is a combination of Raag Madmaad Sarang and the Malhar group of rain ragas, is an example of the second kind of compound raga. Below, Sushree Savani Shende shows how Raag Megh expresses the Malhar (rain) ragas using the notes of Raag Madmaad Sarang.

Scale: Megh

Sushree Sawani Shende demonstrates
the difference between Raag Madmaad Sarang and Raag Megh (skip to 3:13)

Pandit Rattan Mohan Sharma,
Raag Megh

Circuitous Ragas

Circuitous ragas are characterized by the circuitous nature of their musical phrasing. The musical phrases in these ragas rarely ascend or descend in straight phrases. Here is an example of a circuitous raga.

Raag Kedar

Kedar is sung from late evening to midnight and is said to create a mood of peacefulness. I find, however, that this raga and its circular note combinations are beautifully suited also for creating a very playful mood.

Scale: Kedar

Pandit Buddhadev Das Gupta on the sarod
Raag Kedar

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