Indian Raga : back to the basics

Melody and Raga : Terminology

Melody is the fountainhead of Indian music and ragas are the fundamental organizing principle of Indian classical melody.

Ragas are fixed sequences of a minimum of five notes arranged in ascending and descending order (respectively the aroha and avaroha). Unlike contemporary Western scales, but like the modes of early European music, the ascending and descending notes are not identical. Adjust the sequence or introduce an extraneous note and the result will be a different raga. Since ragas have been systematically studied for centuries their permutations have been calculated mathematically and defined scientifically. New ragas do come into being, however, through the blending of elements of two ragas to produce a so-called mishra or mixed raga with the names of the parent ragas. At times, too, apparently new ragas have turned out to be unknowing rediscoveries of ragas that have dropped out of the repertory. A double-barrelled name tends to indicate a mishra rage, but not always: “Todi” in a raga’s name — examples being “Shuddha Todi” and “Gurjari Todi” — is an adjectival construction denoting that it originated in a particular location. Hindustani musicians, to generalize, use a more limited palette of ragas than their Carnatic cousins.

Ragas unfold in a set order. The opening movement, called alap in Hindustani music, is a leisurely, precise, impassioned unfolding of the raga’s essence. It teases out the mood with melody, seeking and setting out that mood without any rhythmic accompaniment or rhythmic pulse. One of its foremost exponents is the sarodist Ali Akbar Khan. His recording, Ali Akbar Khan Plays Alap, is a perfect introduction to this art. “Alap,” he wrote in that album’s sleeve notes, “has fifteen parts. Training in alap is not for beginners or even advanced students, just as you don’t offer a drink or reveal all your property to a small child.” The second movement is called the jor. In an instrumental context this part will take on a rhythmic form but still without the assistance of percussion such as tabla or pakhawaj. The next major development is the jhala which has percussion accompaniment. This is the final fast movement. There are a number of intermediate steps in the process and etiquette varies about their inclusion or exclusion.

Carnatic music has its equivalent terms. Alapana is its equivalent of alap. The classic sequence and most elaborate item in a Carnatic concert is known as ragam-thanam-pallavi (the hyphens are optional). Opening with the melodic, unmetered ragam improvisation in the particular raga, it moves into the thanam and concludes in rhythmically metered improvisations on the pallavi (song text).
Ragas have been scientifically dissected for generation upon generation. They have even been placed in families. Ragas are attended by consorts or wives called raginis, ragaputras and ragaputris, respectively their sons and daughters. They have been analyzed to identify which `environment’ they belong to — whether they belong to a particular season or hour. “Raga Megh” or “Megh Malhar” is associated with the monsoon season, megh means cloud. “Vasanta” — literally, spring — is a raga for springtime (and by extension has characteristics similar to sunrise ragas). The psychological characteristics of notes give them a personality — a feminine aspect, a dark color, an uplifting sensation — and hence all the major ragas have their appropriate time of day. Great store is placed in getting this right, even to the extent of listening to recordings at the proper hour.

Rhythm and Tala :

In Indian music tala, tal or taal is the rhythmic cycle of a specific number of beats. A specific tala are expressed as compound nouns, sometimes split into two words. Throughout this text the convention is to give them as one word. Jhaptala consists of ten beats. Chautala is one consisting of 12 beats. Ektala is also 12 beats but the term is the one used for tabla rather than chautala which is associated with pakhawaj.

Classical Song Forms :

There are many, many singing styles and it is only possible to explain a little about the most frequently encountered. Classical song forms tend to be separated into classical and light classical (sometimes called semiclassical) forms. Light classical forms include ghazal, bhajan and qawwali. Classical forms include thumri and dhrupad. Folk styles are even more numerous. Many folk styles relate exclusively to particular regions, religions or musician castes

Bhajans :

Bhajans are the most popular form of Hindu devotional composition. They are found especially in the repertoires of Northern Indian musicians. In the South the commonest Hindu vocal style is the kriti. However, Carnatic musicians — the violinist V.V. Subrahmanyam, for example — also include bhajans in their repertoires. Thus instrumentalists will also include them in their repertoire and therefore part of the art is to capture the sonorities, mood and meaning of the words in their playing or to bring these elements out if accompanying a vocalist. The increased exposure of Hindustani music in the South has led to Northern Indian bhajans by composers such as Mira, Kabir and Tulsidas being performed. These tend to be set to the appropriate Hindustani raga but sung to Carnatic talas which are often rhythmically more sophisticated.

Dadra :

Dadra is a light classical song form similar to a thumri sung in a tala of six beats.

Dhrupad :

Dhrupad is an ancient form of the classical singing. One of the most commonly encountered forms, it places great emphasis on the lyrical content, rhythmic accuracy and clear enunciation. Lyrically dhrupad is set in a medieval form of Hindi called Brijbhasha or Braja Bhasha but it is also sung in modern-day Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali and Rajasthani. Many commentators decry the sacrificing of dhrupad’s high literary and poetic standards by today’s more popular forms. Usually set nowadays in a uniform tala or rhythmic cycle of 12 beats (chautala), historic accounts report a far greater rhythmic sophistication with each line being set in a differing tala from the preceding one. This would involve singing one line in chautala and the next in jhapatala of ten beats. Dhrupad compositions may eulogize gods or royalty. They are especially known for mining religious and heroic seams but there are worthy traditions of subject matter as varied as philosophy, metaphysics and eroticism as themes. A dhrupad is composed of four elements. These are melody (raga), tempo (laya), rhythm (tala) and its melodic components (dhatus).

Dhamar :

Dhamar is a related form which employs more gamaks or grace notes than dhrupad, usually set in a tala of 14 beats. To no little extent both forms have been displaced by the principal contemporary classical form, khyal, in particular but also by thumri and tappa. Among dhrupad’s most noted singers are Candanji Caube (1869-1944), Siyaram Tiwari, Ritwik Sanyal, Ram Chatur Mallick and various combinations known as the Dagar Brothers.

Dhun :

A dhun is a melody lighter in tone than a raga and often derived from a folk tradition. In such cases it will be labeled with the region of origin such as “A Rajasthani Dhun.” Being free from the strict discipline of the raga system, it allows liberties with the notes which the musician may include.

Ghazal :

Although an Indo-Muslim light classical form, ghazal enjoys widespread popularity. A development of one of the main poetic and literary traditions of Persia, its name derives from the Arabic for `talking to women’. It is therefore often viewed as a conversation or a dialogue between a lover and his beloved. This can be sacred, profane or allegorical. It is closely associated with the major Indo-Muslim language, Urdu. At its heart is love of either the romantic or devotional kind. Since the mid-‘30s secular and political themes have increasingly crept in, most famously through the work of the poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz (1911-1984). Ghazals have formed the core repertoire of a number of performers ranging from Jagjit & Chitra Singh to Begum Akhtar and Najma Akhtar.

Khyal :

Sometimes rendered as khyel or khayal, is generally translated as imagination or fancy — indications of its lightness and reliance on the performer’s powers of improvisation. It is also translated as whim or idea but the etymology of khyal is, as one commentator put it, abstruse, and no records of any authority exist about the beginnings of khyal. By the 18th century A.D. the form had taken shape in the court of the Mughal emperor Mohammed Shah in Delhi. Since then khyal has loosened the hold that dhrupad traditionally had to become the staple style of Hindustani classical music. Paradoxically, some musicological soothsayers have warned that popular taste looks set on loosening khyal’s hold in favor of thumri, dadra, chaiti and kajri (a folk song form originally from Uttar Pradesh).

Kriti :

The Carnatic kriti (or krithi) is a song of praise or adoration for a particular Hindu deity. Kritis are especially associated with Tyagaraja (or Thyagaraja) (1767-1847), Muttuswamy Dikshitar (1776-1835) and Syama (or Shyama) Sastri (1762-1827), a famed trinity of musician-saints or saint-composers. In order, appreciating the trinity’s work has been likened to the grape, the coconut and the banana. The first can be consumed and enjoyed immediately. The second involves cracking open a shell to get to the kernel. The third involves the removal of a soft outer layer to get to the fruit. Their era is known as the Golden Period of Carnatic Music and during their time they composed a collection of timeless compositions. Tyagaraja alone is credited with some 600 kriti compositions. Kritis are usually composed in Telugu, Tamil or Sanskrit are habitually seeded in specific ragas.

Qawwali :

An Indo-Muslim devotional music of light classical complexion sung in Urdu, Persian, Punjabi and other northern Indian languages.

Tappa :

Tappa is a song genre popularly and romantically supposed to have arisen from the songs sung by the camel drivers of the arid northwestern regions of the subcontinent. The language it is most frequently sung in is Punjabi. It is typified by passages in fast tempos.

Tarana :

A song genre in which meaningless rhythmic syllables substitute for a lyric similar to syllables replacing words in, say, Ella Fitzgerald’s scat singing or jazz vocalizing. While the concept is easy to grasp, maintaining artistic integrity and musical interest over the length of a tarana is not. A tarana section will frequently conclude a khyal performance and will be substituted for the fast tempo or drut khyal. Unlike its Southern counterpart known as the tillana, taranas are opportunities to extemporize.

Thumri :

Thumri is another well-known classical song form.

Courtesy : Ken Hunt


  1. Giridhar said,

    October 1, 2007 at 3:21 pm

    One slight correction:
    Thyagaraja has composed 24000 kruthis (as opposed to 600) mentioned in this article. This is equal to 24000 slokas in the Ramayana as written by Valmiki.

    There is also a slight variation from Kruthi called as keertana.

    Apart from the Carnatic trinity that you mentioned, other notable people are Annamayya (in Telugu), Ramadas (in Telugu) and Sri Purandara das (in Kannada). They shaped the music as well as set the proper grammar for the ragas and literary styles. All of them are known to realize their favorite God with their music!

    Just thought that I’d share this with you.



    March 15, 2008 at 3:02 pm

    The ‘Dhrupad legend’ Ram Chatur Mallick’s grand son is also a classical vocal artist (president award gainer) and is with me, would your co like to have his performance?

  3. indianraga said,

    March 15, 2008 at 7:33 pm

    Although we would like to attend a concert by Shri Mallick, but we are not a company yet and are not organizing live performances. In fact this site is an individual effort to promote hindustani classical music.

    Nevertheless we would like to have a pass to his concert if he is performing in Bangalore and post a review of the performance on this site.

  4. ale said,

    March 29, 2008 at 6:46 pm

    hello thinks for the job for indian classical music

    does some body know how to donlaowd(crak) a full tabla tampoura sofwar like riyaz studio

  5. Anonymous said,

    April 21, 2008 at 7:18 am

    Awesome, thanks for posting!

  6. sudipta said,

    August 26, 2008 at 10:27 pm

    You r great

  7. Vijaynarain said,

    May 27, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    Aren’t Taranas the equivalent of Thanam in carnatic music?? Seems to make more sense that way… random syllabyles within a raaga and extemporizing on them…

  8. indianraga said,

    May 27, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    As far as I know Taranas are the equivalent of Thillana in Carnatic music. But since I am a self-admitting non-expert, please check with other sources too as I am not sure.

  9. Georgiee said,

    February 4, 2010 at 1:15 am

    omg! help! how can you cut all this fantastic infomation down to as little as possible!

    thankyou so much for the help!

  10. arun thorat said,

    February 25, 2010 at 12:31 am

    hello this is arun. i dosen’t understand the indian or carnatic classical music but i very fond of the classical music and whenever i find apportunity i always there to see the clasical music programme. Apart from this i need very little assistanc from your side. i’m looking for the text ( little detail information ) on raga’s. Particularly about every raga, that this raga create this emotion, it makes you happy, calm or by listning the particularly you feel relaxed or it brings romance/pathos/ and so on.

    So if you have any information or any websites you know, pleast let me know on my email id.

    thank you.

  11. Narendra Thakur, Karsog, Mandi, Himachal said,

    June 17, 2010 at 9:26 am

    Very good information I got from you. But If you could told about each Ragaas with example, it would help me a lot.
    But very good.
    Keep it up!!!!!!!

  12. indianraga said,

    June 17, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    There are so many examples of various Ragas in my other posts. I hope you will enjoy your visits on this blog.

  13. bhargavavijay said,

    October 14, 2010 at 8:25 pm

    Could you please tell me what is bol baant preferably with some audio examples.

  14. indianraga said,

    October 15, 2010 at 9:00 am

    Please go through this article :

    Hope this helps you.

  15. vj said,

    October 15, 2010 at 10:24 am

    yaa that was helpful but unless i get to hear bol baant in some composition i think i wont be able to appreciate it and differentiate it from bol-taans. could you point me to any of collection songs where it has been used.
    Much Thanks,

  16. S.Chandra Naraine said,

    February 14, 2011 at 7:38 pm

    I´m of Indian origin but am second generation indian born outside of India. Of course, the history of my culture continues to fascinate, intrigue and interest me and all these sources of information are making a wonderful contibution to my education and knowledge. As a musician, I am especially interested in the Indian musical system, which I consider to be the most complete and comprehensive, and I hope to one day be able to go to India to study its music in greater detail. Until that time, I have to rely on websites such as this to provide me with the background information I need to establish a solid knowledge base about Indian music and culture.

    Thanks for providing this rich information resource.

  17. ram0ram said,

    January 5, 2013 at 3:44 pm

    Reblogged this on Music = harmony with God.

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