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Music 101: Famous Six Ragas From Ancient India

Ancient India Music History Ragas Raginis

India has a rich musical heritage that dates back thousands of years and one of the most significant aspects of Indian classical music is the concept of ragas. Ragas are melodic frameworks that evoke specific moods and emotions. Image source: Varun Verma / Unsplash

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The History Six Ragas

Six Ragas are a set of musical modes that are associated with different seasons, emotions and moods, and each raga has six raginis or female consorts that complement its character. The concept of the Six Ragas and their raginis dates back to ancient times, and has been mentioned in various texts such as the Natyashastra, the Brihaddeshi, the Sangita-ratnakara and the Sangita-darpana.

However, there is no consensus among the scholars and musicians on the exact names, features and classifications of these ragas and raginis, and different traditions have adopted different systems and variations.

One of the most influential and unique contributions to the study of the Six Ragas and their raginis was made by Sourindro Mohun Tagore, a 19th-century musicologist and composer from Bengal, who curated and collated a coherent and complete sequence of these ragas and raginis, along with their pictorial representations in the form of a Ragamala. He also composed refrains on the ragas in Western notation and provided their raga-dhyanas or meditations in Sanskrit couplets.

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This is a reaction by Lidia Kotlova, a classical pianist who has reacted to many Indian compositions against the classical compositions to one of the famous events involving Maestro Ilayaraaja composing a tune on the spot for the background score of a scene where a son is going to kill his father. You can see the genius of the Maestro in working on the thought process – he changed the tune in the form of a lullaby (no one can think of this other than the Maestro himself) and created notes for the various musical instruments. 

Differences With Western Music

The difference between Indian six ragas and Western classical music is a complex and fascinating topic. Indian classical music is based on a system of ragas, which are melodic frameworks for improvisation and composition. Each raga has a specific set of notes, a dominant note (vadi), a secondary note (samvadi), and rules for how the notes should be used. The ragas are also associated with different emotions, times of the day, seasons, and moods.

Western classical music, on the other hand, is based on harmony, melody, and rhythm. Harmony is the combination of different notes that sound pleasing together. Melody is the main tune that catches the ear. Rhythm is the pattern of beats that gives the music a pulse. Western classical music follows a composed structure, where musicians play according to a written score. Western classical music also has various genres, such as symphony, opera, jazz, rock, and pop.

Difference No. 1 – the number of notes in use.

Indian classical music uses six types of ragas based on the number of notes: pentatonic (five notes), hexatonic (six notes), heptatonic (seven notes), six-seven note raga, mixed raga, and composite raga. Western classical music uses seven modes or scales based on the order of whole and half steps: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian.

Difference No. 2 – use improvisation and creativity.

Indian classical music relies heavily on improvisation, where musicians explore and create unique compositions within the boundaries of the ragas. Western classical music relies more on composition, where musicians follow a predetermined structure and notation. However, both traditions also have elements of creativity and variation, such as ornamentation, modulation, and expression.

Difference No. 3 – the way they relate to nature and spirituality.

Indian classical music has a strong connection to nature and spirituality, as the ragas are meant to evoke specific feelings and moods in the listeners and performers. The ragas are also linked to certain times of the day or seasons, creating a harmony between music and nature. Western classical music has a more diverse range of influences and inspirations, such as history, literature, art, science, and philosophy.

These are some of the differences between Indian six ragas and Western classical music. Both musical traditions have their own beauty and complexity, and they can also learn from each other and enrich each other’s musical culture.

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An example of the Raga Sri by Sri Allam Durgaprasad.

The Six Ragas in Detail

According to Tagore, the Six Ragas and their raginis are as follows:

Raga Sri

  • Season: Dewy
  • Raginis: Malavasri, Trivani, Gauri, Kedari, Madhumadhavi and Pahari

Raga Sri is a name that can refer to different musical scales in different traditions of Indian classical music.

In Carnatic music, Raga Sri is an ancient and auspicious raga that does not have all the seven notes in the ascending scale. It is the asampurna melakartha equivalent of Kharaharapriya, the 22nd Melakarta raga. It is also one of the five Ghana ragas of Carnatic music.

In Hindustani music, Raga Sri is a very old raga of the Purvi thaat, and has traditionally been associated with Laxmi, the goddess of wealth. It is also a part of the Sikh tradition and the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy text of the Sikhs.

In Odissi music, Raga Sri is a raga that belongs to the same melakarta as Carnatic Sri, but uses a komala nishada note and is associated with the melancholic karuna rasa. Raga Sri has different structures, characteristics and compositions in each tradition, but it is generally considered to be a raga of reverence, devotion and solemnity.

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Raga Vasanta

  • Season: Spring
  • Raginis: Desi, Devakiri, Varati, Tori, Lalita and Hindoli

Raga Vasanta is a musical scale of South Indian classical music, also known as Carnatic music. It is a derived scale (janya raga) of Suryakantam, the 17th parent scale (melakarta raga) in the 72-raga system. Some sources suggest that it is also derived from Mayamalavagowla, the 15th melakarta raga. Raga Vasanta does not have the fifth note (panchamam) and has a zigzag (vakra) pattern in both ascending and descending scales.

The notes used in this raga are shadjam, shuddha rishabham, antara gandharam, shuddha madhyamam, chathusruthi dhaivatham and kakali nishadam. The ascending scale is S G₃ M₁ D₂ N₃ Ṡ and the descending scale is Ṡ N₃ D₂ M₁ G₃ R₁ S. Raga Vasanta is suitable for evening concerts and is considered an auspicious raga. It has been used by many composers for classical and film songs.

Some of the popular compositions in this raga are Ninne kori by Tecchur Singarachari, Sitamma Mayamma by Tyagaraja, Brihadambikayai by Muthuswami Dikshitar, Paramapurusha Jagadeesha by Swathi Thirunal, Malmaruga Shanmukha by Papanasam Sivan, Natanam Adinar by Gopalakrishna Bharathi and Rajeswarim Sambhavaye by Ganapathi Sachchidananda Swamiji.

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Raga Bhairava

  • Season: Autumn
  • Raginis: Bhairavi, Gujjari, Ramakiri, Gunakiri, Bangali and Saindhavi

Raga Bhairava is a Hindustani classical raga that belongs to the Bhairav thaat. It is a sampurna raga, meaning it uses all seven notes in both ascending and descending scales. It is traditionally performed in the morning and also as the beginning piece in concerts. It is the defining raga of its own thaat, which means it shares its name and scale with the parent scale. The notes used in Raga Bhairava are Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa’, with Rishabh and Dhaivat being komal (flat). The vadi (most important) note is Dhaivat and the samvadi (second most important) note is Rishabh.

Raga Bhairava is considered to be an ancient raga that originated from the mouth of Lord Shiva or Lord Surya according to some musicians. It is associated with the fierce and destructive aspect of Lord Shiva, who is also known as Bhairava or Bhairon. The mood of Raga Bhairava is grave, serious, introverted and devotional. It produces a rich atmosphere of meditation, philosophical depth and emotional richness. It can be expanded in all three octaves and allows a lot of freedom for improvisation.

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Raga Panchama

  • Season: Summer/Autumn
  • Raginis: Vibhasha, Bhupali, Karnati, Barahansika, Malavi and Pathamanjari

Raga Panchama is a rare and ancient raga of Odissi music that combines the features of two other ragas, Panchama and Baradi. It is a heptatonic raga that uses all twelve swaras in a nonlinear manner. It belongs to the Panchama Baradi mela, which is associated with the karuna rasa, or the sentiment of compassion.

The raga has a solemn and serene mood, and it emphasizes the gandhara swara, which is the fifth note of the Indian musical scale. Raga Panchama has been used by many poet-composers over the centuries for creating devotional and classical songs.

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Raga Megha

  • Season: Rainy
  • Raginis: Mallari, Saurati, Saveri, Kaushiki, Gandhari and Harasringara

Raga Megha is a Hindustani classical raga that evokes the mood of the monsoon season. The name Megha means “cloud” in Sanskrit, and the raga is associated with the sound of thunder, rain and lightning. Raga Megha belongs to the Kafi thaat, and has a pentatonic scale with the notes Sa, Ma, Re, Pa and Ni. The vadi (most important note) is Sa and the samavadi (second most important note) is Pa. The raga uses a lot of slides and glides between the notes, especially from Ma to Re and from Pa to Ni. The pakad (characteristic phrase) of the raga is Re Re Sa Ni Sa Ma Re Pa Ma Re Ni Sa.

Raga Megha is usually sung or played in late night during the rainy season. It has a solemn and majestic character, expressing the awe and wonder of nature’s power. It is also related to the legend of Lord Krishna lifting the Govardhan mountain on his finger to protect his devotees from the wrath of Indra, the god of rain. Another legend says that Tansen, the great musician in Akbar’s court, was cured of his burns caused by singing Raga Deepak (the raga of fire) by listening to Raga Megh Malhar, a combination of Raga Megh and Raga Malhar, sung by two sisters Tana and Riri.

Raga Megha has been used in many film songs, both in Hindi and Tamil. Some examples are Khaike Pan Banaraswala from Don, Chaiyya Chaiyya from Dil Se, Muthukkalo Kangal from Nenjirukkum Varai, and Shankara Re Shankara from Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior. The Carnatic music equivalent of Raga Megh is Raga Madhyamavati, which has a similar scale and mood.

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Raga Natta Narayana

  • Season: Winter
  • Raginis: Kamodi, Kalyani, Abhiri, Natika, Sarangi and Hamviri

Raga Natta Narayana is one of the six principal ragas of the Hindu musical tradition, associated with the winter season. It is a janya raga of the 36th melakarta raga Chalanata, and has the same ascending scale as Chalanata, but a different descending scale. It is an auspicious raga that evokes joy and devotion.

Each of these raginis has its own characteristics and mood, and they are often depicted in paintings as female figures with various attributes. Some of the famous compositions in Raga Natta Narayana are Sri Gajanana by Pallavi Sesha Iyer, Tanthi Ma Mukha by Koteeswara Iyer and Suryakodi Mamaprabhamakudei by Kutti Kunju Thankachi.

The Six Ragas and their raginis are not only musical modes but also artistic expressions that evoke various sentiments and scenarios in the listeners’ minds. They are considered to have the ability to “colour the mind” and affect the emotions of the audience. They also reflect the cultural and aesthetic values of Indian society and its connection with nature.

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Video narration: Composer Reena Esmail breaks down the difference between raga and tala in Indian classical music, and how their function compares to scales and rhythms in Western classical music. Host Scott Yoo then gets treated to a performance to illustrate how this works.

Final Say

Ragas are the melodic frameworks that form the basis of Indian classical music. They are composed of a set of notes that create a specific mood or emotion and have rules that define how they are performed. Each raga is also associated with a particular time of the day, season, or occasion, and is meant to evoke a certain feeling in the listener. Ragas have a long history and tradition in India and are considered to be sacred and spiritual.

Ragas have also influenced and been influenced by modern music, both within and outside India. Many genres of music, such as film songs, ghazals, qawwalis, bhajans, and fusion music, have used ragas in their composition and improvisation. Ragas are thus an integral part of Indian classical music and culture and have a universal appeal and relevance. They are a source of creativity and expression for musicians and listeners alike and have the power to touch human emotions and spirit.

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