A garland of ragas

As my coverage of north Indian ragas grows, this may be a good moment for an overview. [1]

To guard against any timeless image, divorced from social change, it’s good to start with Daniel Neuman’s fine book:

In my post on Noor Inayat Khan I referred to her father Inayat Khan’s 1921 classic The mysticism and sound of music, along with his 1909 recordings.

I illustrate most of these posts with 17th-century ragamala (“garland of ragas”) paintings reproduced in The raga guide.

* * *

In my Beatles roundup I wrote:

As with all musics, you can zone out or zoom in—or both; anyway, focusing on compositional artistry can enhance our appreciation just as much for the Beatles as for Mahler, the Uyghur muqam, or Chinese shawm suites.

See also Analysing world music.

To immerse ourselves in the melodic soundscape, note The raga guide (Nimbus, 1999, with 4 CDs), and (among a wealth of online material) this site by Patrick Moutal, including audio and video archives for both vocal and instrumental renditions (cf. his 2012 book Hindustani Raga Sangita). Also worth consulting is my post Unpacking “improvisation”.

To help us focus on the infinite riches of raga, it’s illuminating to anchor ourselves in the sargam solfeggio that expresses the pitch relationships. [2] Here are the basic pitches of the heptatonic scale:


In this series I use upper-case initials to denote higher degrees (e.g. Ma, sharp fa), lower-case for their lower degrees (ma, natural fa); Sa and Pa (do and so) are invariable.

Always relishing long alap preludes, I marvel at the constant variations of the master musicians, as they explore new connections between pitches and motifs—stages on their lifelong devotion to riaz practice (“scars, scorpions, and sleepless nights”, as characterised by Neuman).

It’s worth trying to sing along, anchoring ourselves with the Sa-Pa tonic-dominant drone, and registering stressed and cadential pitches. As middle, low, and high registers are covered in turn, short motifs develop into longer ascending and descending phrases.

What’s great about the whole progression of an extended alap is that we are gradually coaxed into learning the melodic building blocks, so that by the time the faster, more ornate patterns begin unfolding we’re just about familiar with the scalar language. Recalling the Growing into music films, wouldn’t it be great if our kids could grow up learning to sing and create with this fluency in pitch relationships?! (Cf. flamenco palmas).

Armed with the introduction of The raga guide (pp.1–13), we can consult the basic ascending and descending patterns of particular ragas. In these posts I content myself with offering a few signposts, with very rough outlines based on prominent cadences, leaving you to zoom in on all the detail in between. For dhrupad, my star exhibit, the signposts include the mukhṛā “refrains” of rhythmic repeated notes in a firm pulse. But the microstructure and ornamental detail is always to be savoured, with gamak embellishments and mīnd glides—as well as techniques (explained by Richard Widdess) [3] such as āghāt, “the onset of a pitch, whether by direct attack, or by indirect approach”, and anuraṇana, “resonance”, its prolongation and/or inflection up or down:

The raga guide introduces 74 ragas—like the repertoire of Chinese qin players (see my comments on Chapter 6 of Neuman’s book), few individual musicians perform more than a couple of dozen ragas, and some concentrate intensively on a handful. So here’s my series so far:

Besides vocal renditions, these are illustrated with instrumental versions on the plucked lutes rudra vina, [4] sitar, and sarod, as well as the bowed sarangi; so in a further post,

  • Raga for winds, I feature further instances on bansuri flute and shehnai shawm, featuring some of the above ragas as well as rāgs Desh, Lalit, and Puriya.

Even this modest selection displays great scalar variety: some ragas are largely “diatonic” (Yaman, Maru Bihag, Kedar), some “minor” (Kafi Zila, Bhairavi, and the anhemitonic pentatonic Malkauns, with Chandrakauns a revision of Malkauns with a semitone from Ni to Sa); others showcase augmented intervals (Bhairav, Shri); and Marwa is a challenging yet beguiling “A major over a C drone”.

As a non-specialist, I can only scratch the surface of all this, and that’s kinda the point: if I can begin picking up these clues, then so can you. Anyway, these performances, all very different, make a great introduction to the infinite art of raga.

To draw you into the individual posts, in the playlist below I choose one rendition of each of the ragas I’ve discussed so far, highlighting alap, dhrupad (the Dagar lineage, and Uday Bhawalkar), and Nikhil Banerjee.

  • Kafi Zila:

  • Yaman:

  • Maru Bihag:

  • Bhairav:

  • Bhairavi:

  • Malkauns:

  • Shri:

  • Chandrakauns:

  • Kedar:

And on a meretricious yet entertaining note, a spoof (with a serious bonus of rāg Madhuvanti on rudra vina):

I’ll add to this list as I explore further… In other fields, see A playlist of songs, and the Chinese selections in the playlist as you scroll down in the sidebar, with commentary here.

In the words of a Classic FM presenter,

It doesn’t get much better than that. Or does it? Give us a call.

With thanks to Richard Widdess, Morgan Davies, and Daniel Neuman.

[1] Among myriad sources (from early monographs by Alain Daniélou and Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy to the New Grove and Garland encyclopedias, The Rough Guide to world music, and so on), useful references include Jairazbhoy’s chapters in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (1993) and Richard Widdess’s lucid introduction in Michael Church (ed.), The other classical musics (2015).

[2] Indeed, focusing on the pitch relationships of sargam is a good way of listening to traditional Chinese melody—albeit a very different process of composition, with a far more limited tonal palette. Neither of these systems, nor that of WAM, is “superior”: they are all valid means of organising sound (cf. What is serious music?!).

Some might date the “decline” of “Western music” from later Miles, or from the Second Viennese School; one might playfully suggest (pace Bach and Mahler!!!) that it began a millenium or so earlier, with the spread of harmony, or even the invention of graphic notation

[3] As a taster for the definitive study Dhrupad: tradition and performance in Indian music (2004) by Ritwik Sanyal and Richard Widdess, the latter’s “Involving the performers in transcription and analysis: a collaborative approach to dhrupad” (Ethnomusicology 38.1, 1994) takes rāg Multani to illustrate the rich fruits of analysing alap, with detailed attention to the performer’s vocabulary (e.g. the instructive transcription on p.63).

[4] The timbre of the rudra vina rather reminds me of the Chinese qin zither, almost making me wonder if the lost art of improvisation therein might have sounded like this—all the more in view of the scalar variety of Chinese music before the Song dynasty… “But that’s not important right now“.

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