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Rāga (Sanskrit, lit. "colour" or "mood"; or rāgam in Carnatic music) refers to melodic modes used in Indian classical music. It is a series of five or more musical notes upon which a melody is founded. In the Indian musical tradition, ragas are associated with different times of the day, or with seasons. Indian classical music is always set in a raga. Non-classical music such as popular Indian film songs or ghazals sometimes use ragas in their compositions.

Rāgini is an archaic term for the 'feminine' counterpart to a raga.

Nature of raga

योऽसौ ध्वनिविशेषस्तु स्वरवर्णविभूषितः ।
रञ्जको जनचित्तानां स च राग उदाहृतः ।।

"That which is a special dhvani, is bedecked with swara and varna and is colorful or delightful to the minds of the people, is said to be raga" - Matanga in the Brihaddeshi.

Raga describes a generalised form of melodic practice. It also prescribes a set of rules for building the melody. It specifies the rules for movements up (aahroh [आरोह]) and down (aavroh [अवरोह]) the scale, which Swara (notes) should figure more and which notes should be used more sparingly, which notes may be sung with gamaka, phrases to be used, phrases to be avoided, and so on. The result is a framework that can be used to compose or improvise melodies, allowing for endless variation within the set of notes.

The basic mode of reference in modern Hindustani practice (known commonly as the shuddha - basic - form) is a set which is equivalent to the Western Ionian mode -- this is called Bilawal thaat in Hindustani music (the Carnatic analog would be Sankarabharanam). In both systems, the ground (or tonic), Shadja, Sa, and a pure fifth above, Pancham, Pa, are fixed and essentially sacrosanct tones. In the Hindustani system, in a given seven-tone mode, the second, third, sixth, and seventh notes can be natural (shuddha, lit. 'pure') or flat (komal, 'soft') but never sharp, and the fourth note can be natural or sharp (tivra) but never flat, making up the twelve notes in the Western equal tempered chromatic scale (Western pitch equivalences like, for example, A# and Bb do not apply; EG: Ri 3 may, to a Western musician appear enharmonic to Sadharana Ga in that system, but in practice is not.) A Western-style C scale could therefore theoretically have the notes C, Db, D, Eb, E, F, F#, G, Ab, A, Bb, B. The Carnatic system has three versions -- a lower, medium, and higher form -- of all the notes except Sa and Pa. Ragas can also specify microtonal changes to this scale: a flatter second, a sharper seventh, and so forth. Tradition has it that the octave consists of (a division into) 22 microtones. ("śrutis"). Furthermore, individual performers treat pitches quite differently, and the precise intonation of a given note depends on melodic context. There is no absolute pitch (such as the modern western standard A = 440 Hz); instead, each performance simply picks a ground note, which also serves as the drone, and the other scale degrees follow relative to the ground note. The Carnatic system embarks from a much different shuddha (fundamental) scalar formation, that is, shuddha here is the lowest-pitched swara.

By comparison, using the common tonic "C" for a western musician:

Carnatic Hindustani Western E.T.
Sa Sa "C"
Shuddha Ri "Ri 1" Komal Re "Db"
Chatusruti Ri "Ri 2" Shuddha Re "D"
Shatsruti Ri "Ri 3" (Komal Ga) "D#"
Shuddha Ga "Ga 1" (Shuddha Re) "D"
Sadharana Ga "Ga 2" Komal Ga "Eb"
Antara Ga "Ga 3" Shuddha Ga "E"
Shuddha Ma "Ma 1" Shuddha Ma "F"
Prati Ma "Ma 2" Teevra Ma "F#"
Pa Pa "G"
Shuddha Dha "Dha 1" Komal Dha "Ab"
Chatusruti Dha "Dha 2" Shuddha Dha "A"
Shatsruti Dha "Dha 3" (Komal Ni) "A#"
Shuddha Ni "Ni 1" (Shuddha Dha) "A"
Kaisika Ni "Ni 2" Komal Ni "Bb"
Kakali Ni "Ni 3" Shuddha Ni "B"

Ragas and their seasons

Some Hindustani (North Indian) ragas are prescribed a time of day or a season. When performed at the suggested time, the raga has its maximum effect. During the monsoon, for example, many of the Malhar group of ragas, which are associated with the monsoon and ascribed the magical power to bring rain, are performed. However these prescriptions are not strictly followed, especially since modern concerts are generally held in the evening. There has also been a growing tendency over the last century for North Indian musicians to adopt South Indian ragas, which do not come with any particular time associated with them. The result of these various influences is that there is increasing flexibility as to when ragas may be performed.


Although notes are an important part of raga practice, they alone do not make the raga. A raga is more than a scale. Many ragas share the same scale. The underlying scale may have five, six or seven tones made up of swaras. Ragas that have five swaras are called audava (औडव) ragas; those with six, shaadava (षाडव); and with seven, sampoorna (संपूर्ण) (Sanskrit for 'complete'). Those ragas that do not follow the strict ascending or descending order of swaras are called vakra (वक्र) ('crooked') ragas.
It is the mood of the raga that is more important than the notes it comprises. For example, Raga Darbari Kanada and Raga Jaunpuri share the same notes but are entirely different in their renderings.

Northern and southern differences

The two streams of Indian classical music, Carnatic music and Hindustani music, have independent sets of ragas. There is some overlap, but more "false friendship" (where raga names overlap, but raga form does not). In north India, the ragas have been categorised into ten thaats or parent scales (by Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande, 1860-1936); South India uses a somewhat older, more systematic classification scheme called the melakarta classification, with 72 parent (melakarta) ragas. Overall there is a greater identification of raga with scale in the south than in the north, where such an identification is impossible.

As ragas were transmitted orally from teacher to student, some ragas can vary greatly across regions, traditions and styles. There have been efforts to codify and standardize raga performance in theory from their first mention in Matanga's Brhaddesi (c. tenth century).

Carnatic raga

In Carnatic music, ragas are classified as Janaka ragas and Janya ragas. Janaka ragas are the ragas from which the Janya ragas are created. Janaka ragas are grouped together using a scheme called Katapayadi sutra and are organised as Melakarta ragas. A Melakarta raga is one which has all seven notes in both the ārōhanam (ascending scale) and avarōhanam (descending scale). Some Melakarta ragas are Harikambhoji, Kalyani, Kharaharapriya, Mayamalavagowla, Sankarabharanam and Todi.

Janya ragas are derived from the Janaka ragas using a combination of the swarams (usually a subset of swarams) from the parent raga. Some janya ragas are Abheri, Abhogi, Bhairavi, Hindolam and Kambhoji. See the full List of Janya Ragas for more.

Each raga has a definite collection and orders of swaras (the basic notes). In Carnatic music, there are 7 basic notes of which there are 12 varieties. The seven basic swarams of Carnatic music are: Sa, Ri, Ga, Ma, Pa, Da, Ni.

Related ragas

Even though Janya ragas are subsets of Janaka ragas in scientific notation and representation, the differences are clear due to the differences like

  • some notes that figure more in a particular raga compared to another, while other notes used sparingly
  • some notes may be sung with gamaka, stress, elongation, etc., in one raga compared to other
  • specific phrases used and other phrases to be avoided in a raga (so as to avoid deviation into another raga's domain)

The effect of the ragas are different from each other, even if they notationally use same swarams (or subset of swarams between each other) due to above subjective differences related to bhava and rasa (mood caused in the listener). The artists have to ensure the same when elaborating on a raga, as has been followed and expected on each raga, without digressing into the phrases of another related raga. As we all know, science and notations cannot fully represent emotions and feelings.

Aprachalit ragas

Various schools known in the past as Gharanas have exhibited a penchant for some special ragas. They worked on these ragas so that a particular raga attained a height hitherto unachieved. These special ragas would be taught to a capable pupil alone, often the maestro's son or nephew.


Raga-ragini scheme is an old classification scheme used from the 14th century till the 19th century. It usually consists of 6 'male' ragas each with 6 'wives'(raginis) and a number of sons (putras) and even 'daughters-in-law'. As it did not agree with various other schemes, and the 'related' ragas had very little or no similarity, the raga-ragini scheme is no longer very popular.

Ragas and raginis were often pictured as Hindu gods, Rajput princes and aristocratic women in an eternal cycle of love, longing and fulfillment, (e.g. raga Gujari, raga Basant, raga Shri and an example of this can be seen in a Mughal style album painted c. 1610, which is now in possession of the British Museum, London .



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