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Literally Raaga (or Raag in Hindi, also spelt Raga or Rag) means color, mood or feeling. Raaga is so called because, it creates a particular mood in the listeners. Raaga is a central concept in Indian music. A Raaga has many aspects to it. Only when all the aspects or characteristics of a Raaga are adhered to does the music sound like a Raaga.

1. Aarohana and Avarohana : Each Raaga has a particular scale. The ascending scale is called Aarohana and the descending scale is called Avarohana. A Raaga can have 7, 6 or five notes. A 7 note scale is called Sampooran (in Hindi) or Sampoorna (in Sanskrit) or heptatonic Raaga eg. Kafi or Shankarabharanam. Six note Raagas are called Shadava or hexatonic, 5 note Raagas are called Odava or pentatonic (eg. Durga, HamsaDhvani). Incidentally all over the world, pentatonic scales are common esp. in folk music. Unlike in the western modes, the Aarohana and Avarohana can contain different notes i.e. the ascending scale can be different from the descending scale (Eg Rageshri, Naata). Also, in some Raagas, the ascending or descending note sequence is not purely ascending or descending. In the middle there might be some reverse movement in a note or two (see Kedar, Sahana). Even though, two Raagas might use the same set of notes, this difference in the way ascending or descending note series is sung would make the two Raagas different. Some Raaga scales do not even begin with the reference Sa ( Multani, Pannagavarali). Some Raaga may even skip the reference Sa. For eg. in Lalit, the ascent begins with the Mandra Sthayi Ni. The ascending Madhya Sthayi Sa (the tonic) is omitted and while descending the Tara Sthayi Sa' is omitted. Such Raaga do not traditionally occur in Carnatic, though. Raag Lalit also uses, both shudha Ma (m) and Teevra Ma (M). This is not allowed in Carnatic.

2. Vaadi, Samvaadi, Vivaadi : Each Raga has one important note, called Vaadi (Sonant or King). The related note to this swara note is called Samvaadi (Consonant or Queen). Usually the Vaadi and Samvaadi notes are in simple ratio with each other making them rather pleasant as a pair, so ideally samvaadi is the fifth of the vaadi (ratio of 3:2), though a third or a fourth is the note used in most Raaga. Elaborate patterns are thus woven around these notes and also, they can be used as the stop notes in a musical phrase. The note which might be in conflict or dissonance with Vaadi is called Vivaadhi. The Vivaadi Swara in contrast is to be just touched upon or sometime entirely omitted in descent or ascent. The other notes in the scale which agree with vaadi are called Anuvaadi. Two Raagas with the same scale can have different Vaadi-SamVaadi-Vivaadi swaras making them different and giving them their characteristic flavour.

For eg. Deshkar and Bhoopali have the same Aarohana and Avarohana. Shudh Kalyan has the same Aarohana. But all three are different because of the stress placed on different notes. Deshkar and Bhoopali have their Vaadi and SamVaadi swaras switched. Also, in Deshkar Re is the Vivaadi, so it is fleetingly used. In Shudh Kalyan the descending scale uses two more notes Nishad and Teevra Madhyam, but fleetingly.

3. Ambit or provenance : Usually a Raaga needs to be elaborated in 3 octaves (Sthayi/Saptak). But, each Raaga has a characteristic octave which is more important than the others. Most of the time, the artist has to stay in this register (another name for octave). For eg. Darbari, Bhoopali are centered on mandra Saptaka, while Bihag, Shudh Kalyan primarily use Mandra-Madhya (i.e. the upper part of Mandra and lower part of Madhya). Gunakri, Deshkar use Madhya-Tara and Raag Desh, Adana use Tara Saptaka i.e. the upper register.

4. Pakad : Each Raaga has characteristic phrases or Pakad (meaning catch). The catch phrases help in identifying the Raaga and bring out its mood and also establish the important swaras vaadi-samvadi. For eg. the phrase for Deshkar is Ga-Pa-Dha-Pa-Dha,Dha-Sa, emphasizing the Vaadi and SamVaadi.

5. Meend or Gamaka : Moving from one note to the other in a smooth manner is called Gamaka or Meend. In English it is called slide or glissando. In this process the pitch is gradually changed without stopping on any shruthi, but all in between shruthis are covered. This is a peculiarity of Indian music. In general, Carnatic uses frequent and heavy Gamakas, while in Hindustani the usage is limited.

Some Raaga require the use of Gamakas esp. during alaap and taans. For eg. in Darbari Kanada the Aarohana is given as S R g ^^^, m P d ^^n S' , where ^ represents meend. Here while moving between Komal Gandhara (g) and Shudh Madhyama (m), meend or gamaka is employed. Also between Komal Dhaivath (d) and Komal Nishad (n). Sometimes, the meend is done such a way that the artist comes back to the same note he started with after touching the adjacent note. For eg. m^^^g^^^m-R-S is the Pakad of Darbari Kanada. Here the pitch first continuously lowers from Shudh Ma to Koaml Ga and then raises back to Shudh Ma, before falling off to Shudh Ri and Sa.

In Carnatic more elaborate system of gamakas are used. Every raaga has a set of permissible gamakas. Various shakes, graces, ornaments and embellishments are used. Infact, except for Sa and Pa, almost every note has some kind of gamaka associated with it. To a first time listener, the primary difference between Hindustani and Carnatic is the abundance of Gamakas used in carnatic. For example, in Raaga Mohana two Gamakas are allowed in the Aarohana. The default gamaka for "ri" is Sa^^Ga^^Ri i.e. starting from Sa the pitch is increased all the way to Ga and then lowered to Ri. Also, this whole thing needs to be done in the time frame used for one the note Ri. Similarly the gamaka for Dha is Pa^^Sa^^Dha. No gamakas are allowed for Ga (and Sa and Pa as always). Also, for Ri, an artist might fit in Sa^^Ga^^Ri^^Ga^^Ri if the tempo is slow.

Mohana - S R2 G3 P D2 S S D2 P G3 R2 S S^^G3^^R2, P^^S^^D2 Sa^^Dha, Pa^^Ga, Ga^^Ri

For Avarohana different Gamakas are allowed - Sa^^Dha, Pa^^Ga and Ga^^Ri.

6. Time of the day : Another important characteristic of a Raaga is the time of the day it is associated with. This aspect is very prevalent in Hindustani but has mostly fallen out of practice in Carnatic. It is thought that the time of the day (or a season) can create a particular mood and thus, a Raaga with a mood needs to be sung in the time of the day which can best help create that mood.

Traditionally a Raaga were classified as morning, afternoon, evening or a night raaga. Pt Bhatkhande divided the day into 8 Prahars, each of 3 hours duration and assigned all the Raagas according to the prevailing tradition to these time periods. The first prahar starts at 6 a.m. and ends at 9 a.m. Only early morning Raagas like Deshkar (i.e. those belonging to first prahar) are sung during this time. The last prahar, number 8, starts late in the night at 3 a.m. and ends at 6 a.m. and only late night raagas like sohani and vasant are sung during this time. Also, there are some raagas which can be sung at any time, called Sarva Kaalina, like Bhairavi, Kafi, Piloo.

Apart from time of the day, some raagas which are associated with particular seasons - Miya Ki Malhar or Gaud Malhar to be sung during the rainy monsoon season. Similarly Raaga Basant is associated with the Spring season.

7. Mood : Usually there is a mood or sentiment associated with each Raaga. The tempo used, the wording of the song sung reflect this mood. Inherently, the notes used in the Raaga help to create this mood among the listeners. The notion of moods can be associated with the ancient concept of Rasa (inadequately translates to aesthetics) and Bhaava. Infact, mood is one of the ways in which Raaga can be translated. For eg. Raaga Deshkar can be described as a lively mood. Thus it is rendered in a fast tempo, moving from note to note in jumps rather than glides. Raaga Hindol is said to be masculine and needs to be performed with vigour and bursting energy. Raaga Multani on the other hand, has a tender melancholy mood.


Raaga Classification

Considering the great number of Raagas in use from ancient times, musicologists have tried to classify and group the Raagas in various way. The earliest efforts were to classify them as Raagas (male) and Raaginis (female). While very colorful this method was not practically useful. Venkatamakhin classified the known (and unknown) Raagas of South India into 72 sampoorna Raaga groups called Melas in 17th century. This practically useful (some would say scientific) classification went a long way in making Carnatic music lot more organized and structured, compared to the chaotic state of Hindustani Raaga classification, which relied on the old Raaga-Raagini system until 20th century. Pt. Bhatkhande tried to correct this by classifying the known Raagas in to ten Thats. While this was slightly better, ten thats were simply not enough to satisfactorily classify all the Raagas, with the result that even now a lot of Raagas have been forced uncomfortably (unscientifically ?) into one of the ten Thats.

Raaga - Raagini

Based on the emotional impact (Bhaava) of the Raaga, Raagas were classified into six main Raagas (Male). Each Raaga had five associated Raaginis (or female Raagas). Then there were several Putra Ragas which were classified as the children of the Raaga-Raagini. This classification system also formed the basis of historically important Raagamaala paintings.


Another popular way to describe and classify a Raaga is based on the number of notes it uses in Aarohana and Avarohana. - Sampooran (sampoorna) - 7 notes - Shaudva - 6 notes - Audava - 5 notes There can be many combinations of these, since Raagas use different number of notes in Aarohana and Avarohana.

Venkatamakhin and Melas

Venkatamakhin's (link - 1635) classification of Raagas and its subsequent development and support by the trinity has had a decisive role in shaping Carnatic Music. Classification of Raagas was based on the scale used by a Raaga and thus, Venkatamakhin was in effect classifying various scales, called Melas. His system not only classified known Raagas but also introduced several new ones, based on the possibilities that the system of classification he used, threw up. All melas are full scales, having 7 notes.

Every Mela has both Sa, the reference and Pa, the secondary reference. Notes, Re, Ga, Dha and Ni are of 3 varieties each. For a mela, one of the 3 types of each of the 4 notes need to be picked up. This gives us 4x3x3=36 possible combinations. Since Ma can be of 2 types we get a total of 36x2=72 Melas.

If we were to use, only two variants of Re, Ga, Dha and Ni, we would not be able to get the last two combinations. This is the reason for three variants of these notes. For eg. the last two can also be written as,

since R2=G1, R3=G2, D2=N1 and D3=N2. But, we can't denote a scale as having two variants of the same note, necessitating invention of overlapping 3 variants of these notes. Since, there were existing Raagas with these scales, Venkatamakhin had to invent three variants of these notes. Since Hindustani music uses natural scale only, no Raagas with these scales are to be found in Hindustani. Venkatamakhin's grandson Muddu Venkatamakhi gave names to all the Melas. This naming convention was used by Thyagaraja and has come to be accepted as the current naming convention. Muddu Venkatamakhi used a simple system where the first two letters of the Raga denoted the Mela number. He used a numbering scheme for the Indian alphabet that was already prevalent called Katapayadi Samkhya. He took the mela number and found a corresponding letter for each number. The letters were reversed and a name made out of those two consonants. Note that only two letters denote 0, n and ~n. He couldn't have possibly made nine names starting with these letter to denote Melas 1 to 9. This was possibly the reason for reversing the letters before making up the names.

For eg. 1st mela was called Kanakaangi (ka=1, na=0). The eighth was called hanumaTodi (ha=8, nu=0). There are some Melas for which the names do not easily yield the mela number since the first two letters are not simple consonants, but complex (vyanjana). In a complex letter, where there are two consonants, it is not clear which one should be picked. For eg. in Ratnangi we should use Ra(2) and the second half-letter Na(0) to get Mela 02. But in Divyamani, we should use Di(8) and first half-letter Va(4) to get Mela 48. So, in these cases the naming is not consistent. The rest of the letters of the Mela name usually does not have any significance. In some cases, where there was already a well known Raaga in that scale, first two letters according to the scheme were used and these two were added to the well known Raaga to make the mela name. For eg. DheeraShankarabhara was used for 29th Mela. Deera indicated 29 and Shankarabharanam was the well known existing sampoorna raaga using that scale (S R2 G3 M1 P D2 N3 S').

Among the trinity, Thyagaraj completely followed the scheme, where as Muthuswami Dikshitar didn't. But since Thyagaraja Shishya Parampara has been more influential, the naming scheme has been mostly accepted in carnatic music. Venkatamakhin not only classified the known Raagas but his system allowed him to invent a lot of new Raga scales. Thyagaraja and other composers composed in several of these new scales and now they have emerged as popular new Raagas.

The 72 Melas or Melakarthas, are what are called Janaka Raaga (i.e. Parent scales). All the Raagas which use a subset of a scale are classified under that mela as Janya Raaga (i.e. child scale). Janya Raagas are asampoorna Raagas, using fewer than seven notes. For eg. Hamsadhwani comes under Mela 29 since it uses the same scale as DheeraShankarabharana except for M1 and D2 (S R2 G3 P N3 S'). Behag (taken from Hindustani) also belongs to the same mela and drops R2 in Aarohana (S G3 M1 P N3 D2 N3 S'). Hundreds of Janya raagas are known and used in Carnatic. A comprehensive list is given here.


Chaturpandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande (1860-1936) ( link ) tried to classify the Hindustani Raaga a full 270 years after Venkatamakhin, but was unable to do so satisfactorily. He toured important centers of Carnatic music like Tanjavur, Madras and Mysore and studied the Melakartha scheme of Venkatamakhin. It was clear that he could not directly use the Mela system. Of the six combinations given below, Hindustani does not allow the bottom two combinations in either lower tetrachord or upper tetrachord, since, Hindustani does not use both Gandharas (komal ga and shudh Ga) without using even one variety of Re or both Rishabs (komal re and shudh Re) without using one variety of Ga etc. Using 4 combinations in each tetrachord would have given 4x4x2=32 Melas (or Thats, to use a Hindi word).

But, Bhatkhande decided to not use this scheme, after seriously considering it. One reason was that for some of the scales, there were no existing Raagas. Instead of using all the Melas for which Raagas existed, for ease of memorization, Bhatkhande came up with a ten That (meaning framework) system. These were like the Genera and each Raaga classified under it was a species belonging to the Genera (plural of Genus, as used in biology). Each of the thats were named after the most famous Raaga using that scale. Incidentally, six of the thats are ancient scales got through Moorchana.

There were several well known Raagas which do not fit any of these scales, but were subjectively grouped under one of the thats by Pt. Bhatkhande. For this reason, his classification has not been universally accepted, though its is the system that has been accepted most.

Thanks to Musical Nirvana

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