Intro to Raga
by on February 5, 2015 in Music

Indian classical music, be it Hindustani (North Indian) or Carnatic (South Indian), is principally based on melody and rhythm. Raga or Rag or Ragaam is the most essential unit of Indian Music. The Vedic hymns of the Hindu temple are the fundamental source of all Indian music. Thus, the roots of Indian classical music are also religious like western music. Indian music is based on the thought that sound is God- Nada Brahma. Ragas carry us into the spiritual journey.

The ancient vedic scriptures teach us about two types of sound. Anahat Nad or unstruck sound and Ahat Nad or struck sound. The Anahat Nad cannot be heard and it is said that only the enlightened yogis could hear it. The Ahat Nad, on the other hand is the vibration of air in the lower atmosphere closer to earth. It is any sound that we hear in nature or is man- made. Indian music uses sounds that sound good to the ear. The very definition of Raga is “Ranjayathi iti Ragah” which literally translates into “That which colors the mind is raga.” A raga presents a specific mood or emotion. Indian classical music expresses every human emotion and subtle feeling in man and nature.

Ragas are not Modes nor are they simply scales. Though Indian music is modal in character, ragas should not be mistaken as modes that one hears in the music of the Middle and Far Eastern countries, nor be understood to be a scale, melody per se, a composition, or a key. A raga is a scientific, precise, subtle and aesthetic melodic form with its own peculiar ascending and descending movement consisting of either a full seven note octave, or a series of six or five notes (or a combination of any of these) in a rising or falling structure called the Aaroh and Avaroh. It is the subtle difference in the order of notes, an omission of a dissonant note, an emphasis on a particular note, the slide from one note to another, and the use of microtones together with other subtleties, that demarcate one raga from the other.

A raga is the projection of the artist’s inner spirit, a manifestation of his most profound sentiments and sensibilities brought forth through tones and melodies. The musician must breath life into each raga as he unfolds and expands it. As much as 90 percent of Indian music may be improvised and because so very much depends on understanding the spirit and nuances of the art, the relationship between the artist and his guru is the keystone of this ancient tradition. From the beginning, the aspiring musician requires special and individual attention to bring him to the moment of artistic mastery. The unique aura of a raga (one might say its “soul”) is its spiritual quality and manner of expression, and this cannot be learned from any book.

It is only after many long and extensive years of “sadhana” (dedicated practice and discipline) under the guidance of one’s guru and guru’s blessings, that the artist is empowered to put “prana” (the breath of life) into a raga. This is accomplished by employing the secrets imparted by one’s teacher such as the use of “shrutis” (microtones other than the 12 semitones in an octave, Indian music using smaller intervals than Western music: 22 within an octave): “gamakas” (special varieties of glissando which connect one note to the other), and “andolan” (a sway – but not a vibrato). The result is that each note pulsates with life and the raga becomes vibrant and incandescent.

I will be writing more about Ragas and Indian Classical Music , Stay Tuned !

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