Evolution of Indian Classical Music

From Note to Raga

By Rajiv Trivedi




Its status as a word connoting culture, grandeur, refinement all at once, has made ‘Raga’ familiar to the globe. In return for such popularity, price has been paid by Indian Classical Music.  Most enthusiasts consider Raga to be-all and end-all of Indian classical tradition. Oblivious to hazards and achievements that formulate its progress, they mistake the lengthy journey for its current destination. As music matured during Vedic period, Jaati-s came into existence. It was only when Shadja stabilized between 8th to 11th century, due to application of frets in Kinnari Veena, that concept of Raga began to develop. The term finds first mention in Matang’s Brahaddeshi.

Defining Raga is challenging. "Raga is a Sanskrit word that has umpteen shades of meaning – from love, affection, desire and infatuation to entertainment, pursuit, disposition, poetry and music."(Measure for Measure?) It does echo that sensibility, which defies confinement within measurable bounds. In other words, the expression of Indian music while exhibiting perfect mathematical integrity in retrospect, is guided by impulsive consciousness in practice. This leads to complex nature of musical structure that constitutes a Raga. In form, it does have a fixed number of permitted and prohibited notes following each other in prescribed permutations. In practice, a musical Raga is like a fractal that despite a well-defined aspect is neither limiting nor limited. The artiste is free to float, riding atop the buoyant pattern. One finds a close parallel in theater where different actors in separate presentations portray a Hamlet or a Romeo in styles individual and unique, yet none of them ever twists the tale. As in drama, willing suspension of disbelief results in total immersion of the viewer, the listener too gets completely soaked in the shades (or Rang) of music.

There have been several attempts at categorization and classification of raga-s. Two modern accepted forms are thaat and ang. One classifies them by the structure of notes while the other by movement of notes. Yet, like all classifications, these in no way to represent in entirety, the potential of a given raga. Scholars tried categorizing notes in different ways; the common surviving classification -- based on notes -- is that of Thaata. Theoretically 72 are possible (Venkatmakhi), of which only 10 (Bhatkhande) could be validated (Lalitkishor Singh). As there were still some Raga-s that would not fit, some preferred to identify Raga-s through Ragang system. The classification based on structure of notes is called "Thaat" and that employing movement of notes is called "Ang". For example, Raga Bilaskhani Todi, because of structure of notes (four flat Re, Ga, Dha, Ni) belongs to Bhairavi Thhat; because of its movement (Sa, Re, Ga, Re, Ga, Re, Sa) it belongs to Todi Ang. An earlier system was based on genesis, where each male Raga had female Ragini-s and sons and daughters born out of their union. It is on this fantastic classification, that ragmala painting styles were based.

Dr. Lalmani Misra had observed in an article3 that an artiste who follows the path of eternal truth does not create history whereas one charmed and fascinated by world of desire and allure is able to bring about changes. Indian music, it is believed, is the smoothest way to absolution. Yet, the element of divinity or spirituality comes at a stage realized by few; even Bharat restricts himself to the tangible, logical aspects of music in his Natyashastra.

Time theorists believe that similar to body clock there exists a note-clock, for time affects music as well.  So beginning midnight the Raga-s of ten Anga cover the day. Lethargic pre-dawn notes of Sohni, Paraj welcome Brahma-Muhoort with freer movement of Lalit and Bhatiyar. Touched by rising sun notes of Bhairav, Ramkali and Jogiya still sound nostalgic for night past. Forms of Todi and Bhairav are played from eight to ten in morning. Bilawal, Bhairavi,Deshkar occupy late morning and from 12 o'clock, forms of Sarang celebrate the day. Multani, Bhimpalasi retain strength but late afternoon promotes relaxed movement of notes. Dusk is welcomed by Patdeep, Poorvi and Shri and evening finds Raga-s of Kalyan Ang in their multi-splendored frolic. Once evening loses all contact with daylight, the notes in such Raga-s as Durga, Desh, Kedar and Jayjaywanti explore shades of beauty in their characteristic delineations. Midnight is reached through late Kalyan and early Kauns raga-s and then on, it is Malkosh that reigns supreme.

Theorists cite combination of notes in particular phrases and equate it with average activity during a particular period in day. Yet, no rule can bind fluidity of notes save that of consonance. The Raga pattern in simplistic terms, is setting the boundary or an exposition through Alap. The artiste takes up notes in proper order and dwells on them to establish and impress the aural connection in minds of listeners. Once the periphery of soundscape is drawn and connected, he goes on to fill in it with symmetric and contrasting patterns of note-phrases. Swara, Laya and Tal together constitute music. So introduction of rhythm is the next phase. Interweaving of beats with notes while covering all permitted permutations of the Raga demands for skill and practice of the artiste.

Ten lakshana or characteristics ensure that only a compatible innovation is accepted as a valid Raga. Loyal adherents of a school are averse to unstudied ‘invention’ of new Raga-s. Admits Pandit Rajshekhar Mansur – “I have not created any new Raga-s… because I do not feel the need to. I have so much that I received from elders, that all my time and efforts get spent in embracing this treasure.” On other hand there are those, who can come out with a novel Raga for every occasion. Karnatic Raga-s do not follow the regimen of Ten-Lakshana and therefore several musicians draw upon this trove to create a unique bouquet. Musicians like Pandit Ravishankar, know how to avoid the discordant note that might mar an otherwise melodious composition. But when an enthusiastic novice tries the same Raga, her rendering may not sound as pleasant. That does not mean that new Raga-s cannot be created. Ustad Alluddin Khan created Raga Hemant which employs perfect consonances and has been performed successfully by several disciples. Sameshwari, a perfect Shastrokta Raga was created by Dr. Lalmani Misra, which again has been performed by several artistes. But often, a perfect invention may still be unable to capture attention of musicians and is likely to disappear with time.

Indian music – north Indian and Karnatic, together – has a repertory of over 650 Raga-s. Combine this with possible Tal-s and almost every Indian may have a unique Raga-Tal melody for himself. While this may appeal to the digital citizen, this mammoth repertory is not conducive to mass production. Hence, the projection of a limited few artistes has introduced the concept of brand-marketing in Classical music. Recordings follow a set pattern prescribed by limits of media; so instead of preparing for a two or three hour presentation, artistes now focus on 28 minute, 14 minute or 12 minute presentation. Within this short duration, they try to present new Tan-alankar patterns. Increasingly, it is the miraculous instead of melodious that dominates these presentations. This affects learning of music as well. Instead of learning to explore the character of a raga through Alap, the contemporary learner devotes greater time to novel permutations. A great deal of classical learning is about the “don’ts” so that one may understand the limits of a Raga. Innovation without knowledge of constraints leads to novel sounds that lacking cohesion and integrity fail to appeal to a Rasik. So as well-known Raga-s like Gauri, Malgunji, Patdeep, Gunkali, Jogiya, Jait, Shree, Suha, Bihagada, Bilawal, Shankara and even Multani go into oblivion, experimentations that vandalize Jhinjhoti, Khamaj, Bageshri and Gorakh Kalyan abound. Unimaginative performances of Yaman, Bihag, Maru Bihag, Rageshri, Bageshri, Malkauns, Chandrakauns, Todi, Ahir Bhairav, Vrindavani and Madhumat Sarang, Darbari Kanhada hurt sensibilities of connoisseurs. Repeated performance of a Raga in a flawed manner by different artistes creates controversial application that drives the original out.

In an earlier age of non-virtual reality, an artiste would be responsible to a live audience. It was a true exchange of appreciation. Only when the performer got consumed by his performance, did this Anand-Atirek or ecstasy permeate to the listener. Such personal, experiential performance was likely to attain Ras-Nishpatti or emotional satiation. It has been replaced by alienated, selective packaging of notes which are carefully rehearsed for a predictable response. There is little Anand or bliss experienced by the performer who is far too conscious a creator and consequently the audience never becomes his Anand-Sahodar – they are no longer on the same side. By its design, classical music had transcendence as its goal; joy and merriment were aimed by popular music. While for grandeur and exaltation, lip-service is still given to transcendence, in practice it is entertainment that producers keep their focus on.

The Raga tradition of India is under dire threat of oblivion; only profit-making stake-holders try to cover up this obvious fact. Despite several government and private agencies created to foster Indian art and culture, unbridled commercialism has almost succeeded in subverting this age old legacy. Whereas learned enthusiasts and scholars were able to check any deviation fifty years back, there is a strong need for strengthening the voice of dispersed scholars/ enthusiasts that may inform and guide the performers. Unless a body dedicated to cause of conservation of our intangible heritage empowers these lone voices, the art would be silenced in time.  


This article was published under title "Serving Muse through Raga" in June 2013 issue of One India One People as second of three-part series on Indian Classical Music.

Evolution of Indian Classical Music - 1: From Sound to Notes

Evolution of Indian Classical Music - 3: Congegating Notes

Evolution of Indian Classical Music - 4: Timless Notes

Evolution of Indian Classical Music - 5: Why Classical not Art?

Back to Articles