Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


RAGA or Rag

Indian classical music is composed of Ragas, described by B. R. Deodhar as 'combinations of notes guided and ruled by variations and timing. Every individual exponent of a raga, while adhering to its broad rules, can demonstrate his mastery over the raga by presenting it in its manifold varieties, at the same time tinging it with his own individuality, and this is the reason why in spite of the fact that we hear the same raga again and again, its freshness is kept up because it is presented to us in ever varied forms.' Like many musical or cultural genres, Indian classical music has its share of terms which have precise connotations in their homeland but which are only partly understood outside their birthplace. Melody is the fountainhead of both systems of Indian classical music, that is, the older, South Indian, Hindu-based system called Karnatic, Carnatic or Karnatak music, and Hindustani, the North Indian grafting of Persian and Islamic traditions on that Hindu rootstock. Ragas (rags or raags are widely used variant spellings) are the fundamental organizing principle of Indian classical melody; harmony is an incidental or accidental effect, unless used as a Western borrowing. A raga is a fixed sequence of notes. This sequence ascends and descends in a precise order (known as the aroha and avaroha respectively) which does not have to be symmetrical; with a minimum of five notes, a raga is neither a melody or a scale in a Western musicological sense. Substituting another note will change the raga's character, or may cause it to mutate into something else. Whereas Western improvisation in jazz or folk will modulate and switch keys, Indian classical improvisation requires the musician to adhere to the rules of raga. (In the Hindustani system this is further compounded by the requirement to be innovative within the particular style or gharana, a word derived from 'house' in the sense of an artistic school, to which the teacher belongs; the gharana system does not operate in South India, although musicians will follow the styles they have been taught.) 'To show a new approach and at the same time maintain the character of this rag [''Marwa''] is a hard job,' wrote Ali Akbar Khan in the booklet notes to Passing On The Tradition on AMMP '96.

For many centuries Indian musicians and scholars have studied the permutations of notes mathematically; their relationships are seen to have family ties, based on their characteristics. Thus a raga (linguistically, a masculine noun) will have consorts or wives called raginis and ragaputras and ragaputris (sons and daughters respectively). Another aspect of raga derives from their scientific analysis. Particular notes have certain characteristics. In the case of 'Marwa' they range from devotion and peace to a heroic mood. The psychological characteristics of notes combine to develop a personality -- a feminine aspect, a dark colour, an uplifting sensation. All the major ragas have their most auspicious time, perhaps a particular season or time of the day. 'Megh' or 'Megh Malhar' betray their season linguistically, since megh means cloud; hence their time is the monsoon. 'Hemant' means winter; 'Lalit' is something for dawn, 'Todi' for early morning, 'Bhairavi' for late morning, 'Shri' for afternoon, 'Pilu' for early evening, 'Kanada' for the depth of night. There are many points between these, and many ragas to fill those moments. Mishra or mixed ragas are characterized by double-barrelled names, and these will tend to be less formal expositions. Other combinations may indicate a particular provenance such as 'Shuddha Todi' and 'Gurjari Todi' where the adjectival construction points to a particular source; other names point to attributions to particular historical figures: 'Miyan' as it is often transliterated refers to Mian Tansen, a gifted musician of earlier times. There is a long tradition of composing using a raga or writing lyrics set to a raga; a raga may therefore be sung using this long tradition of composition as a springboard, or played instrumentally.

In the South Indian tradition this has been taken further. The Karnatic kriti (or krithi) is a song of praise or adoration for a particular Hindu deity, and is associated with a trinity of musician-saints or saint-composers, whose status rivals that of Beethoven or Bach in the West. This trinity comprises Tyagaraja (or Thyagaraja) (1767--1847), Muttuswamy Dikshitar (1776--1835) and Syama (or Shyama) Sastri (1762-- 1827). There is a handy analogy for grasping their work: it is likened to the grape, the coconut and the banana. Tyagaraja's, the grape, can be consumed and enjoyed immediately; Dikshitar's work involves cracking open a shell to get to the kernel; Sastri's requires the removal of a soft outer layer to get to the fruit. During their time, the Golden Period of Karnatic Music, they wrote timeless compositions; Tyagaraja alone is credited with some 600 kriti. They are recognized as easily as the latest massive hit in the West would be by teenagers, except that all quarters of Indian society from the young to the very old have at least a fleeting familiarity with the trinity's compositions. Most kritis are sung in Telugu, Tamil or Sanskrit; most are set in a specific raga.

In Hindustani music a raga performance traditionally unfolds in a set order. The opening movement, alap, unfolds in a leisurely, precise, impassioned way; it can seethe with coiled energy. Alap reveals the raga's mood but does it without employing any rhythmic accompaniment or rhythmic pulse. It may also stand alone; the sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan is one of alap's foremost exponents. His Ali Akbar Khan Plays Alap on AMMP '93 is a dictionary definition of the art of alap but his Passing On The Tradition provides a concert demonstration of the same art in its exposition of 'Raga Marwa'. Jor follows alap, assuming a rhythmic form while eschewing percussion; and the last stage is jhala, the fast movement, in which percussion accompaniment enjoins, most commonly tabla (the well-known set of two hand drums), or in some stylistic forms pakhawaj (a double-headed barrel drum). Compositions improvised in the particular raga may follow, known as gats, further opportunity to shine musically. Karnatic music has its counterpart terms; alapana is its alap equivalent. The classic sequence and most elaborate item in a Karnatic concert is known as ragam-thanam- pallavi. Opening with pure melody, the unmetered ragam improvisation in the raga being played, it moves into the thanam and concludes in rhythmically metered improvisations on the pallavi (song text: in the case of an instrumental performance the unsung lyrics will dictate and colour the mood of the raga). In Karnatic recitals a raga performance will tend to be shorter and more condensed intellectually, and South Indians often view Hindustani recitals as ostentatious (as Northern Indian Hindus view qawwali performances as over- flowery beside their own bhajan tradition of religious song).

From this description raga may appear elitist and highbrow; but in India it is a well of inspiration, not only for classical musicians and music buffs but also for filmi (which see), which recycles ragas such as 'Bhairavi' over and over again.