What is a RAGA

  • Article explains key concepts, musical attributes and cultural importance of Ragas, what is a Gharana, Types of raagas and their Therapeutic Properties.

Having been thrust upon to write about this difficult subject by an esteemed university of music, in a few pages, got my head scratching.......


What started with a document of 40/50 pages, now sits at a few pages to obtain the essence of this subject. I hope to ignite your interest for further meanders into this area.


The author's attempt to give a summary of WHAT IS A RAGA, is a miniature version at best. The views in this article are totally the authors, and hopes that it does justice to this vast subject area in a few pages for understanding how to listen to a RAGA.


Key Concepts

There are two streams of Indian Classical Music namely Hindustani Tradition – North India style and Carnatic Tradition – South Indian style. To know similarities and differences between the two


(As there is no direct equivalent of Raga found in Western Music, it makes it a bit difficult to draw similar examples)


Raga (derived from root RANJ in Sanskrit) is to color (create happiness) the universe with the sound. Something the painter does with his brush, colors and canvas. The specific structure of a family of notes in a melody derives happiness and brings specific moods of visualised thoughts, giving rise to the various names of Ragas.


In short, it is therefore conceptually a melodic organisation (melodic movements) using various scales and their melodic structures.


Various ragas or melodies may share similar scales, and infinite number of compositions. But the improvisations, are the key to the understanding of a/the raga. The musical sound links being all encompassing are firmly embedded within the cultural aspects, mixing with visual arts, dance, drama, folklore, mythology, Vedas, shlokas, emotions, moods and seasons.


This indeed could be interpreted as the central core of Hindustani and Carnatic music.  

Ragas and their Musical Attributes

Ragas can be further sub defined with the usage of Strong or Weak notes, use of pitch, or loudness, and particularly techniques as Glissando (glide) or what is called MEEND. Omitted notes, re-emphasised notes, or a group of notes played quickly, and are handed down in a mostly oral tradition by a guru to his disciple and so on.


What also makes it probably a bit more puzzling is the prevalence of so many schools or gharanas, or styles of Indian Classical Music, that makes it difficult to focus on the object of the raga.


So let us take a sojourn and understand this aspect of GHARANA for clarity!


What does Gharana Mean?

The courtyard or verandah (called angana) of the house (ghar) is where your guru teaches music, or used to teach becomes the name of the gharana or school.


So MAIHAR GHARANA would be the town of Maihar in North India where Baba Allaudin Khan Saheb taught music. Ravi Shankar sitar, Pannalal Ghosh bansuri, Ali Akbar Khan sarod, are few noted musicians of this gharana.


Another example is Agra Gharana tradition of Indian Classical Vocal Music. Here the tradition descends from NAUHAR BANI 1300 A.D during the reign of Emperor Allaudin Khilji. The best know vocalist in this gharana was Nayak Gopal (1790-1880).


It is recognised that each school of musicians will play similar named Ragas in a different style, as their guru has taught them that interpretation. It is a unique concept that brings richness and variety into the Indian raga systems.


A point of distinction to be noted would be some schools or gharana concentrate solely on an instrument for e.g. Etawah Gharana and Farukhabad Gharana focus on Tabla (the Indian two piece drums).


So the next time you hear the word Gharana, you may ask further, the name, the place, instrument where the musician learnt from, and what are its unique characteristics?


There is no fixed number of ragas. A performing musician may have a collection of 40, and yet it is a dynamic list, many old ragas disappear, and others emerge as the world and universe change. And that is the unique beauty of the Raga Concept. A core number of Ragas exists, as others tend to dissolve or evolve over time. Some core ragas are KALYAN, BHAIRAVIN, DEEPAK and MEGHA.

The Cultural and Mathematical Importance of a Raga

A raga has various nuances of thought and approach. The division of the day into 8 prahars (periods of 3 hours each), have a significant impact on it.


The moods and emotions that a living being goes through is distinctly different at various times, depending upon sunlight, food, water, and air mixtures within. They evoke a unique supply of chemicals in our brains, through the hypothalamus in our base of the pituitary glands; giving rise to different emotions. Further, the seasons of winter, summer, autumn, spring bring various differences into a raag.


In India for example we add the monsoon season, which is known for an outpour of emotions, happiness, (good crops for farmers), or harvesting season considered auspicious). Coupled with that come a combination of various types of percussion instruments, like tabla, pakhawaj, mridanga, khol and dholak. Each, with its own distinct sound vocabulary, has to be studied.


All taals (or beat patterns) are in circular cycles of 8, or 12, or 16 etc. giving rise to the mathematical precision of the melodies.


The mythological stories, art, paintings, temple architectures are all important cultural elements that can be found in a Raga.


So as you listen, try counting the number of beats from the familiar sound in a circular manner.


Raga and how is it Performed?

The Raga starts with an ALAAP - introduction (where the performer introduces the main elements of his story of notes, and the plot (one example is the cluster formations of the notes called PAKAD-key phrase).

The Raga then goes on to faster phases of JOD, JHALA where one can feel the pulsating beats, but the tabla or actual beats comes in the next stage. 

Next stage is the GAT - (or gati meaning speed). Here the RAGA is joined by beats, typically tabla. An interesting fact to be noted is that instruments have their own preferred percussion preferences. The SHEHNAI (Indian oboe), is best played with Tigara twin (percussion instruments played with sticks) exactly as the Western Drummer does.

The Gat or (what is called the head in Western Music), is a pre-learnt and memorised note sequence with the help of beats in a cycle of choice. The beat cycle cements the notes beautifully into the beat cycle mould.


Then follows the meat of the Raga, what we will name as (improvisations -TAANS). There could be many different natures and structures of these Taans.


The improvisational capabilities and training, is what Indian Classical Music concentrate upon. The aesthetics of each Raga, melody, step etc. can be learnt only from the GURU, as it is predominantly an oral knowledge transfer method of learning. It is called the Guru Mukhi Vidya or learning from the mouth of the teacher in the oral tradition of a Gurukul.


The Raga may have several compositions (Gat) set to different beat cycles, Fast DRUT, and slow VILAMBIT i.e. usually played before Drut.


The Raga story enfolds depending upon the qualities, time, atmosphere, skill level of thinking, coupled with level of technique learnt in application.


The melody usually ends with a finale of TEHAI (one sequence played three times) The concept of the 3, or trikon (triangle) comes from the  Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva concept of the eternal triangular cycle of life i.e. birth,  sustain/maturity and end followed by Birth ...


Listen to the phases above as you listen along, and you will see a story enfold!

Some examples of emotions and their context are -


BHAIRAVI - morning shows the day.

DARBARI - music from the depths late night hours

MALHAR - music of the rainy season.

MALKAUNS - music of introspection.

HAMSADHWANI - the swan song.


Raga and its Therapeutic Properties

Due to the nature of the raga as described above, it is popularly used in sound therapy. Some examples are – 


Raga with 7 notes in a scale confer - long life, merit, fame, reputation, success, health, wealth and long lineage.

Raga with 6 notes - praise of heroism, beauty of form and qualities,

Raga with 5 notes - expulsion of disease, doing away with fear, anxiety, grief, and astrological bodies. (Source Sangeeta Ratnakara by Sarangadeva, 13th century author who wrote the medical (Ayurvedic) principles.



As there is no exact equivalent to RAGA in Western Music, it is a daunting task to try and explain.


However, some music come close to it for e.g. the dastgah of Iranian music, the maqam of Arab/Turkish music, the Jewish prayer modules with the Shofar, or the pathet of Javanese gamelan.


Thus, the Raga is a wonderful entity between the scale and the tune. These are some examples of the Asian modal systems of music. It resides within the scale, tune, and various other emotions exemplified above.


Perhaps RAGA could best be described as a cognitive schema, a memory structure (vocabulary) with an ordered structure giving temporal and spatial experiences through SOUNDS, generating expectations and improvised behaviours.

Indian Raga music has, by exploring its rich contents of improvisation, brought a different dimension to the world of music. The popularity of the Indian Raga Music today and the growing trend clearly indicates its acceptance in making our world a more beautiful place. 


The next time when you are listening to a Raga, keep your ears and mind open for the above simple questions.


Also read

1. Monsoon Ragas

2. Four Basic Elements of Carnatic Music that includes Raga. Reema Krishnan wrote, “Raga is the system of the song which generates its melody. There are 72 Sampoorna ragas. A  Raga is consists of gamkas. Gamkas are the ornamentation of Carnatic music. They are various activities that make the raga flow up and down in a song. They make a song engaging.”

3. Evolution of Hindustani Classical Music Dr Priya Mathur wrote, “A gharana is more a school of thought rather than an institution. Each gharana developed distinct facets and styles of presentation and performance.”

4. Fundamentals of a Rag

5. Six Primary Ragas

6. A door to Classical Music

7. Know your Raga – ITC Sangeet Research Academy


To read all articles by author


Author Deep ji is a Toronto based BANSURI musician,teacher,speaker, maker of flutes of various worlds, a published author. His writings rely on his experiences of learning music, as he continues on that beautiful never ending journey. His thoughts emanate from the discipline and study of music spans over decades. He is deeply influenced by the Indian Music Traditional guru-shishya parampara; his guruji Late Pandit Malhar Rao Kulkarni bansuri musician, Swami Parmananda of Kangra Valley Ashram where he spent learning ancient Vidhis of India, principally Chanakya Neeti. The priceless subject that strengthens thought processing abilities.A  subject forgotten as Chanakya did not write any of his teachings down as a matter of his principle. The views and ideas expressed are his own, the objective being to invoke the person to think differently, on simple issues that surround all of us in day to day life. Site is www.mybansuri.com

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