Ragas are more than the notes in them

Melodic development of Ragas is what truly characterizes the style of Indian music. 

We come across a difficulty immediately upon thinking of notating Indian music: Most of it is improvised, and hence, it is possible to conceptualize notating or transcribing a performance by someone, but comparatively harder to notate a raga or a bandish itself, since how it sounds and how it is formed is completely dependent upon who performs it. It’s an entity with some rules, that are entirely open to interpretation. Like a color-scheme for an artist, maybe.

Raga performance is much more than notes, and it is easy to understand that based on the following examples:

  1. There are paintings to describe the mood of every raaga. There are paintings in the Madhubani style of painting from the Mughal period, dated early 17th century, which describe the feeling of each raga. There is also a couplet to describe what the mood that the raga should create.
  2. Raga and rasa are closely related to each other. Prof B Chaitanya Deva has tried to explore this relationship by quantifying the moods of ragas based on 22 attributes (Pairs of opposites, like light- heavy, weary-refreshed and so on). He has revealed commonalities and differences between the perception of ragas across two generations of musicians and performers. 
  3. Ustad Z. M. Dagar and Ustad Z.F. Dagar, who are singers of the Drupad tradition have said that it is impossible to notate Indian classical music. In fact, their claim is that the notation has in fact destroyed the premise of Indian music, which is based on the flexibility of pitch. Notating Ragas reduces them to just a few ‘catchphrases’ and destroys the potential abilities of expression that are inherent in them. 
    1. Many Indian musicians and scholars believe that it is not only difficult but impossible to notate Indian pitches and Ragas properly, especially using the musical notation commonly used today. 
    2. On the other hand many musicians feel that we have to notate our music, even we lack a suitable system of notation. So we notate our music somehow. However it is time we asked ourselves if notating our ragas is contrary to the nature of this ancient music.

Not only does this raise questions of whether this will modification of style by changing some inherent  features of the form of music, but also makes us wonder what kind of change is, in fact desirable and what isn’t. As much as Indian music has changed due to influences – Mughals, Light classical forms, the introduction of records, the North-south split, Indian music flows into time periods. Even things that survive from previous eras have changed shape and only now can have we come to a point of consciously thinking whether we want the precursors to change or not. 


One thought on “Ragas are more than the notes in them

  1. Thank yo for posting about Indian music. As trained in Western Classical Music, this is all unfamiliar (yet slightly familiar!) A couple of questions about the blog: You said: “Melodic development of Ragas is what truly characterizes the style of Indian music” – doesn’t melodic development/improvisation characterize almost all Indian music? I am REALLY curious about the ‘rules’ of Indian improvisation. Does it vary entirely with every Raga or are there schools that have specific rule patterns? How are the rules structured outside of the specific allowed notes? I would love to see the paintings that describe the raga. Can you find a link? Who did the paintings? Is this subjective or are the paintings used as authoritative knowledge? Do teachers in India use these paintings as an interpretive tool when teaching vocalists? This is very interesting, I’ve never heard of Western students using a specific visual reference for such things. Awesome. What is Madhubani? What is the importance of the Mughal influence? What are Rasa? I’d also be curious to compare the pairs as described by Prof Deva. What is the Drupad tradition? Your reference to the musical time periods in India. I would love to hear 1 raga interpreted through different Indian forms. Is there a way to find this?

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