Indian classical music, which was largely popularized in the West by the efforts of sitar maestro Ravi Shankar and his tabla accompanist Alla Rakha, is a rich and complex musical tradition. And raga, which translates to “that which colors the mind,” can be termed as the fundamental structure within Indian classical music.
What is a raga?
One of the simplest ways to understand a raga would be to look at it as a distinct melodic form that has specific key movements, which, in turn, have a distinct personality of their own. The primary aspects of a raga, which are swara (note) and laya (rhythm), come together in harmony, to create unique musical possibilities. Tala, which refers to cyclical beats, and sahitya, which means the lyrics, are further added for a complete composition.
Types of ragas
In the tradition of Indian classical music, ragas are primarily associated with different times of the day, more specifically with eight 3-hour periods throughout a 24-hour cycle. There are various time zones dedicated to each raga, which are Morning, Afternoon, Evening, Night and Anytime. A raga has maximum time when it is sung at the right time. There are some ragas that are sung according to seasons, such as Gaud Malhar, which is sung during monsoon. There are around 500 ragas that are sung today, out of which 150 are most common. However, according to Pandit Jasraj, there are six primary ragas, which are as follows:
- Raag bhairav — This is a morning raga and its mood is characterized by solemn peacefulness.
- Raag Malkauns — This soothing and almost intoxicating raga, which is believed to have been created by Goddess Parvati to calm Shiva down, is sung in the small hours of the morning.
- Raag Deepak — This raga is believed to be able to create fire. It is sung in the evening.
- Raag Shri — This graceful and majestic sounding raga is sung during sunset. It is able to create a devotional mood.
- Raag Megh — This raga is sung as an invitation to monsoon.
- Raag Hindol — This raga, which is associated with spring, is ancient. It is sung during the first half of the day.
Composition of a raga
In Indian classical music, a composition is known as bandish, which translates to “binding”, and each bandish is made up of the five primary elements, namely notes, time, rhythm, structure and lyrics. In a bandish, there are only two parts, each part composed of two or three lines. Within an extended performance, a bandish lasts for not more than two minutes. Most parts of the performance are improvised. A raga composition is able to evoke emotions in its listeners, wherein lies its power. When you listen to a classical singer or musician, by the end of the performance, you will notice a connect between the artist and the raga. That connection is what blurs the line that separates the artist from his or her musical creation, and brings that together in an “oneness of energy”.
Ragas play an important part not just in the classical traditions but also in the modern renditions. You will be able to witness their influence even in something as contemporary as Indian classical fusion music.