As I get older I find I am more able to spot the subtle differences between the various Ragas that I like listening to. It has not always been a happy relationship, this thing between me and the Ragas of Indian classical music. As a child the compulsory practice that one must commit to, in order to be tone perfect while singing classical music was never the best part of my day. When I had to sit for practical examinations where I was asked to sing notes from specific Ragas, I felt my throat closing in and my lack of love for the lessons prevented me from remembering what I had practiced ad nauseum. I am so glad to say that I no longer think of classical Ragas as the unpleasant aunt at family gatherings who must be respected despite her boring utterances, but as a well loved grandparent who is incomprehensible at times but whose words are perfectly clear once close attention is paid.
For the innocent, a Raga is like a set of tones that are selected from the twelve notes of the octave. You may use only a select few of these notes to create a theme, much as you might use only a few colours from a paint box with twelve fixed colours to paint a sunset and another set of colours to paint the sea. The sunset and the sea then become separate themes.
Ragas use the selected notes and mix and match them to create music that is recognizable as belonging to that particular Raga. But where a painting is used to depict specific scenes, Ragas are matched to specific times of the day or night. This is better illustrated by the diagram below.
Thus there are dawn Ragas like ‘Lalit’ which are associated with the meeting of darkness and light. All major morning Ragas such as ‘Bhairav’ and ‘Todi’ are meditative, as the morning is considered suitable for prayer. As the light gets stronger the Ragas grow more luminous and ‘Jaunpuri’ and ‘Bilawal’ make their appearance. The ‘Sarang’ family of Ragas is full of notes that dance like sunlight on leaves. The late afternoon and dusk Ragas like ‘Multani’ and ‘Patdeep’ are busy and filled with movement. As the sun sets, the tranquil evening ‘Ragas’ take over. Most members of the ‘Kalyan’ family of Ragas radiate a deep serenity. Between sunset and late night there are lyrical and romantic Ragas such as ‘Des’, ‘Tilang’ and ‘Khamaj’. Ragas that are performed deep into the night for e.g. ‘Darbari Kanada’ and ‘Malkauns’ are full of magical depth. Additionally there are Ragas for the rainy season, for the spring time and for the harvest festival of Holi.
Ragas can also be personified. The Ragamala paintings depict the Ragas in human form.
Fig. 2: Ragini Todi, consort to Raga Malkauns
Each Raga makes use of a specific scale which contains the correct notes in ascent and descent.
Click on the links to hear the themes: Bilawal and Charukeshi
For me, the easiest way to learn the specifics of a Raga has been by listening to songs which are based on that Raga. A large number of popular Hindi film songs are very closely linked to Ragas and can train the ear to recognise the tune. A few examples are given
Raga Adana by the golden voiced Malini Rajurkar:
Aap ki nazron ne samjha, film: Rupkali, 1962, Lata Mangeshkar:
A Khamaj bhajan, Vaishnav Jan to tene:
O Sajna barakha bahar aayi, film: Parakh, Lata Mangeshkar: