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What is a Raag?

In essence, a raag is a melodic scheme governed by certain traditional rules, but providing a great freedom for improvisation. These rules define and determine the notes of a scale that should be used, their order prominent and necessary melodic idioms which give a particular "Colour" & "Shape" to the scheme. Based on these more or less strict limitations the musician is free to create & herein lies his genius. The raag of course, has to be pleasing.

We believe apart from the standard definition of the Raag, it is a melodic scheme, which should have survived minimum 3-5 generations.

The unit of time is very important, it is not years or decades; it is generations. A Raag should have been performed by artists and accepted by audiences for 5 generations before it becomes a Raag.

Key Points
Raag is a concept and in practice seems to have matured by fifth century A.D.
Raag is basically incipient melodic idea.
Raag has to be elaborated in bringing out its aesthetic potentialities which procedure is often called the improvisation. This necessitates various formal constructions rhythmically bound or free. However, these forms themselves get slightly different colourings, due to musical dialects which in India are known as gharana-s or bani-s.
Every raag can be compared to a language. It has its alphabets, syntax, phrasings and so on. Formal structures in the language like the epic, novel the lyric have musical counterparts in dhrupad, the pallavi the thumri the jawali and so on.
Today, raag is defined by certain empirical rules of practice. A minimum number of notes are necessary. No melodic structure with less than five notes has the structure of a raag. Technically, it has to be at least penta-tonic. Usually, there is a upper limit of seven notes.
The nature of a note in a raag has to be definite: natural, flat or sharp; that is a raag should be assignable to a determined scale (mela or thaat) Our music recognizes , for purposes of notations only, twelve notes : seven natural (shuddha) & five variants (vikrita) . The scale to which a raag is allotted is called the parent (janaka) and the actual scale of the raag is then the derived (janya)
There are definite rules governing the melodic ascent and descent. The process of ascent is called Aroha and that of descent avaroha. For example, there is the raag Yaman of Hindustani music (kalyani in Karnataki) which has the following scale. Sa Ri Ga ma Pa Dha Ni
C D E F# G A B

But ascending phrases are always as :

Ni Ri Ga ma Dha Ni
B D E F# A B

Note that Sa(C) and Pa(G) do not occur in the ascent.

Certain characteristic phrases have to be used to give the raag its character. These are like like the features of a person.These characteristic phrases are called variously as prayoga(use), pakad(to hold or grasp), chalan or sanchara(movement). E.g. Ga Pa Dha ni Dha Pa (E G A Bb A G) is typical of Raag Alaiya Bilaval. While developing this raag the pakad must be rendered again and again.
It had to have accepted stages or pauses. (nyasa, apnyasa & sanyasa) "nyasa" meaning "to stay". Its phrases could commence only on a specific note. (graha). The multiplicity and paucity (bahutva and alpatva), the upper (Tara) and lower (mandra) ranges , the number (5,6 or 7) of notes - all these governed the formation of a jati. The scale to which a jati could be ascribed was called the moorcchana.
It had to have prominent or dominant note ,melodic center or the nucleus (amsa), or Vadi. The entire raag is so oriented that all movements tend to gravitate towards this note. Vadi means "that which sounds", in other words it means that which dominates. Hence it is also known as the 'king' of the raag. A subsidiary center of gravity is the Samvadi, next in importance to the Vadi and known as the 'minister'. There are 'anuvadi-s' or 'courtiers' . And, 'vivadi' the enemy.
Finally, there is the tonal accent. For, it is not enough to define a raag by the notes it uses, their arrangement and their dominance. The musician and the listener must be well aware of the minute articulatory differences. For example, the dha (AB) in Bhairavi, Todi, Bhairav raag-s, are all different in their pitches, even after having the same name and symbol.

Sruti means to hear or 'that which is heard' Musically , it points to the interval between notes, which can be perceived auditorily. It is usually translated as the quartertone or microtone.
A Hindustani raag has also associated with it the time of the day.

Each one of the several traditional raags is based on, or is a variation of, ten basic thaats, or musical scales or frameworks. The ten thaats are Bilawal, Kalyan, Khamaj, Bhairav, Poorvi, Marwa, Kafi, Asavari, Bhairavi and Todi

Timing of Hindustani Raags

It is usual to attribute a particular season & time to Raag-s. E.g. Raag Vasant & Malhar. The first is of the spring & second of rains.

For the placement of the Raag in a particular time schedule, the day is divided into 8 watches or prahar-s, each of 3 hours. The counting of the prahar is done by the break of the day; by the clock it is generally taken as six in the morning. Some very traditional Gharanas start counting the prahars after sunrise, be it 5.30 am in the morning or 7 am in the morning. The first prahar of the night commences after sunset - from six o'clock in the evening. Sandhi means a junction: the passing of night into day and day into night. There seems to be a psychological significance in this. For, it is the time of mental twilight between the conscious and the non-conscious: a time when one sits for prayer and meditation.

There are certain traditional empirical rules of the thumb, to determine the daylight relations:

  • , G, D, N (dB, E, Ab, B) grouping indicating that the raag is to be performed during twilight, dawn and dusk. Such a raga is known as a sandhi prakash raag


·         R, G, D, N (D, E, A B) put the Raag in the first two watches of the day or night;


·         G & N (Eb and Bb) occurring in a Raag, place it between the first two groups.


·         Raag-s with an emphatic lower tetrachord or poorvang (S to P; C to G) are assigned to the time after the sandhi (twilight) and those with a strong uttarang (M to S0; F to C2) to the later part of the day or night; and


·         The note teevra Madhyam (F#) has a very particular significance in this time distribution and plays a very important part in this psychological dynamics. It replaces shuddh madhyam (F) in the evening raags. Often the twilight raags have both the notes: as for example Lalit (early morning) and Poorvi (dusk). 


·         And over and above all of these, the Guru’s decide the timing of the Raag which may be slightly different due to the starting time of the prahar either being 6 am in the morning or with the actual sunrise. Some evening sandhi prakaash raags are also defined by gurus as Aarti Time Raags. (Hindu evening prayer)