Understanding Hindustani Raagas

Indian music is based on melody (raaga) and rhythm (tala). A Raaga is a broad framework of musical notes of a melody in its Arohan (ascent) and Avarohan (descent). The fundamental purpose of the Raaga is to please the listeners by evoking the requisite mood or emotion in the hearts of the listeners. Raagas can be differentiated as they follow fixed musical notes in their arohan and avarohan. Those Raagas that do not follow any strict rule of arohan or avarohan are known as Vakra (crooked or nonlinear) Raagas.

Raagas can be broadly classified according to swaras, thaats or time. A swara is a musical note. Raagas can be Audava Raagas (having five swaras or musical notes), Shaadava (six musical notes) and Sampoorna (seven musical notes).

Vishnu Narayana Bhatkhande (1860-1936) classified innumerable Hindustani Raagas into ten Thaats, namely, Bilawal, Kalyan, Khamaj, Bhairav, Poorvi, Marwa, Kafi, Asavari, Bhairavi and Todi. There are also Raagas by the name of the Thaats. The difference is that a Thaat gives the basic framework of the notes; however, in exposition it is the Raaga that has numerous variations and brings out the true emotion. For example Thaat Asavari has arohan or ascent as Sa Re Ga (shuddha or komal) Ma Pa Dha (Shuddha) Ni (Shuddha). But while singing Raaga Asavari the ascent is Sa Re Ma Ga and later Ni Pa Sa (upper) Dha Pa. So the arohan (ascent) and avarohan (descent) bring out the emotion of the Raaga, which is possible only in exposition. To properly familiarize oneself with the Thaat, a critical understanding of a Raaga’s exposition is necessary. The Thaat classificatory system although limited and perhaps flawed, is nevertheless a useful tool to understand thousands of Ragaas.

The Raagas may be classified according to time and juxtaposed with Thaat. Although there is no hard and fast rule when a particular raaga may be sung; however, it is noted that a particular raaga is most effective during a particular time. Based on this logic, an example is given below with few Raagas only.

2am-4am is Pre-Dawn: Raaga Sohini (Thaat Marwa); Raaga Paraj (Thaat Poorvi).
4am-6am is Dawn: Raaga Bhatiyar (is a Sandhi Prakash Raaga and belongs to Thaat Marwa); Raaga Lalit (is a Sandhi Prakash Raaga and belongs to Thaat Marwa).
6am-8am is Early Morning: Raaga Bhairav (Thaat Bhairav); Raaga Ramkali (Thaat Bhairav); Raaga Jogia (Thaat Bhairav).
8am-10am is Morning: Raaga Ahir Bhairav (Thaat Bhairav); Raaga Bilaskhani Todi (Thaat Bhairavi); Raaga Komal Rishabh Asavari (Thaat Bhairavi); Raaga Todi (Thaat Todi).
10am-12noon is Late Morning: Raaga Bhairavi (Thaat Bhairavi); Raaga Deshkar (Thaat Bilawal); Raaga Alahiya Bilawal (Thaat Bilawal); Raaga Jaunpuri (Thaat Asavari).
12noon-2pm is Afternoon: Raaga Brindavani Sarang (Thaat Kafi); Raaga Shuddha Sarang (Thaat Kafi); Raaga Gaud Sarang (Thaat Kalyan).
2pm-4pm is Late Afternoon: Raaga Bhimpalasi (Thaat Kafi); Raaga Multani (Thaat Todi).
4pm-6pm is Dusk: Raaga Poorvi (is a Sandhi Prakash Raaga and belongs to Thaat Poorvi); Raaga Shree (is a Sandhi Prakash Raaga and belongs to Thaat Poorvi); Raaga Patdeep (Thaat Kafi).
6pm-8pm is Evening: Raaga Yaman (Thaat Kalyan); Raaga Puriya (Thaat Marwa); Raaga Shuddha Kalyan (Thaat Kalyan); Raaga Hameer (Thaat Kalyan).
8pm-10pm is Late Evening: Raga Jayjaiwanti (Thaat Khamaj); Raaga Kedar (Thaat Kalyan); Raaga Durga (Thaat Bilawal); Raaga Desh (Thaat Khamaj).
10pm-12midnight is Night: Raaga Bihag (Thaat Bilawal); Raaga Bageshri (Thaat Kafi); Raaga Shankara (Thaat Bilawal); Raaga Chandrakauns (Thaat Kafi).
12midnight to 2am is Midnight: Raaga Malkauns (Thaat Bhairavi); Raaga Darbari Kanada (Thaat Asavari); Raaga Shahana (Thaat Kafi); Raaga Adana (Thaat Asavari).
2am-4am is Pre-Dawn: Raaga Sohini (Thaat Marwa); Raaga Paraj (Thaat Poorvi).

There are thousands of Raagas and many are similar leading to confusion in their recognition, if they are not properly rendered or understood. More than the musical notes that the Raaga comprises of, the importance is given to the mood or the emotion that the Raga evokes, by which the Raaga may be easily recognized. Other recognition features are the chalan or how the raaga finds its exposition by the use of main phrases, emphasis or de-emphasis on certain notes, meends, gamaks, alankars, aandolits, glides, sargams and taans. Although the musical notes of the Raagas may be same but their exposition differentiates them. Raaga Jaunpuri and Raaga Darbari Kanhada have the same notes but their renderings are very different and thus the moods evoked are also very different. Both raagas are of thaat Asavari and have komal gandhar, dhaivat, and nishad. Alankars or ornamentations are balanced in Jaunpuri whereas meends and gamaks are much used in Darbari Kanhada. In Jaunpuri, the arohan is Sa Re Ma Pa dha ni Sa (upper) and the avarohan is Sa (upper) ni dha Pa Ma ga Re Sa making the Jati of the raaga as Shadaava-Sampoorna (six notes in arohan and seven notes in avarohan). Whereas in Darbari Kanhada, the arohan is Sa Re ga Ma Pa dha ni Sa (upper) and the avarohan is  Sa (upper) dha ni Pa Ma Pa ga Ma Re Sa, making the Jati of the raaga as Sampoorna-Shaadava (seven notes in arohan and six notes in avarohan). In Jaunpuri the main note or Vadi is komal dhaivat and the supporting note or samvadi is komal gandhar. Whereas in Darbari Kanhada, the vadi is Rishabh and the samvadi is Pancham. These and many other distinguishing features can be fully realised and understood by careful exposition and listening. Some raagas that are commonly confused are:
– Sohini, Puriya, Marwa
– Gurjari Todi, Todi
– Jaunpuri, Darbari Kanhada, Adana
– Bahar, Mian Ki Malhar
– Piloo, Gara, Sindura, Barwa
– Shyam Kalyan, Shudh Sarang
– Shudh Kalyan, Bhupali, Deshkar

An expert singer can distinguish between raagas and thereby evoke a particular mood or emotion in the listener. The ultimate aim of any raaga and any singer is to evoke the necessary mood or the emotion in the hearts of the listeners. In the end, the listeners must be pleased with the renditions of the singer.

Few music terms and their meanings are given below:

Terms :  Meaning
Acchop raga :  Lesser known raga
Aftab-e-Mousiqui :  An honourable title conferred on an eminent musician.
Alaap/Alapchari :   Gradual unfolding and development of a raga through monosyllables and without a fixed composition.
Alankar :  Notes and other features which prominently indicate a raga. The alankars in common use today comprise Meend (varieties of glides linking two or more notes), Kan (grace note), Sparsh and Krintan (both dealing with grace notes – especially as applied in plucked stringed instruments), Andolan (a slow oscillation between adjacent notes and shrutis), Gamak (heavy forceful oscillations between adjacent and distant notes), Kampit (an oscillation or a vibrato on a single note), Gitkari or Khatka (cluster of notes embellishing a single note), Zamzama (addition of notes, with sharp gamaks) and Murki (a swift and subtle taan-like movement).
Ang :  Limb or part ; Raga-ang indicates towards the root to which a given raga might belong.
Baithak  :  Informal music session within the close proximity of the performer.
Bandish :   A composition that is bound within the frame of a raga. The text, normally in Brijbhasha, provides space for musical elaboration through a felicitous selection of vowels.
Barhat  :   Development of a Raga.
Bhajan  :  Devotional compositions.
Bol : Text of the lyrics
Bol Bant :  Rhythmic variations in Dhrupad or Khayal with the text of the song.
Chaiti  :  Folk songs of Uttar Pradesh, sung in the month of Chaitra (March – April).
Chaturang :  Composition with four distinct features – Khayal, bols of tabla, sargam and tarana.
Dadra :  Form of semi-classical compositions / idiom.
Desi :  A regional version of music, more flexible than the classical style.
Dhamar :  Ancient form of music set to Dhamar tala of the beats, the text describing colour play between Krishna and Radha and the inhabitants of Vrindaban.
Dhrupad  :  Ancient,structured form of classical music reigning supreme for centuries in North India before the advent of Khayal.
Drut :  Fast tempo.
Gamaka  :  A melodic alankar giving special vibratory effects.
Gayakee :   Style of singing.
Gharana  :  A concept peculiar to Hindustani Classical music. ‘Gharana’ is comparable to a style or school of dance or music (vocal/ instrumental). The names of Gharanas are almost always derived from the city, district or state that the founder lived in. Various Gharanas adopted their own particular approach to presentation, technique and repertoire.
Gharana Gayakee :  Authentic style of singing following a specific gharana.
Gharenadar  :  A musician belonging to a traditional school.
Gul:  Flower (Literally) – a feature of qawwali
Guru :  Preceptor who shows the life – path, guide.
Gurukul : Abode or a traditional retreat where a guru teaches his students
Jhoola :  Folk songs of Uttar Pradesh describing swings.
Kajri :  Folk music of Uttar Pradesh sung during rains.
Khayal : Imagination ; elaboration of a raga with lyrical composition consisting of two stanzas.
Layakari :  Use of different rhythmic patterns.
Meend :  Glissando, glide from one note to another, faintly going over the intermediate notes.
Mishra Raga :  Mixture of two or more ragas.
Mukhda :  First line of a song or composition.
Naqsh :  Impressive (Literally) – a feature of qawwali
NomTom  :   Syllables employed in development of a Raga in alaap/alapchari.
Pandit  :  Honorary title given to an expert.
Parampara :  Tradition.
Prabandha :   Perfectly composed piece of music.
Pukar  :   A musical intonation using higher notes.
Purab ang :  Characteristics of style of music prevalent in the eastern Uttar Pradesh e.g. Benaras
Raaga  :   Aesthetically pleasing (Literal). The basis of Indian Classical Music, raga is a musical structure of five or more notes with an identity and mood.
Raga Lakshana :   Notes and other features which prominently indicate a raga.
Raga Vistar   :   Elaboration of a raga.
Riyaz  :   Practice.
Sadhana  :   Practice with devotion.
Sadra  :   Khayal composition set to slow Jhaptala.
Sangeet  :   Sam (together) + Geet (Song); earlier included vocal, instrumental and dance but now used only to refer to music.
Saptak  :  Octave. The seven notes, namely, shadja, rishabh, gandhar, madhyam, pancham, dhaivat and nishad.
Saptak (mandr or kharaj)  :  Lower octave.
Saptak (tivra or taar) :  Higher octave.
Sargam  :   Sol -fas.
Shastriya Sangeet :  Classical music
Shruti  :   Micro Notes
Soz  :  Emotional appeal; a kind of composition (Qawali) sung in praise of Hasan Hussain
Surshree  :   An honourable title given to an eminent lady musician.
Taan :  Musical notes rendered with speed weaving different patterns.
Taan Pradhan :  Prominence of taans.
Taan Samrat :   A title awarded to musicians who excel in the rendering of taans.
Tala  :  Rhythm – cycle containing a particular number of beats.
Tap Khayal  :  A blend of Khayal and Tappa.
Tappa  :   A semi-art music developed in Punjab, created by Shori Mian – and later evolved into an intricate semi classical style with bol and taan thickly knitted at every possible step.
Tarana :    Idiom / composition using musical syllables based on Persian and Arabic phonemes.
Thaat  :   10 different sets of musical scales with seven primary notes in order of ascent and in sequence only to help categorise the maximum number of Hindustani ragas under it.
Thumri   :   Popular semi classical idiom.
Trivat  :  Idiom / composition with three prominent features – sargam, bols of tabla and tarana.
Ustad  :  Guru, Expert, honorary title given to a learned musician.
Vilambit  :   Slow tempo.
Vistaar  :   Elaboration of a group of notes in a particular raga.


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