10 Things to Know about Raga
1. Raga is not just a scale. Each raga is comprised of a melodic framework in which we improvise. Like a scale, many ragas can be broken down into sets of ascending and descending movements, but they also have other subtle rules that dictate how different notes are approached, ornamented, and given relative importance. To understand the breadth of the art form, there are hundreds of ragas and within each raga there are hundreds of compositions.
2. Raga is primarily improvised, but also composition based. This may seem contradictory, but what it means is that the improvisation happens within a specific form and structure. There are thousands of composed songs in each raga. Within each short song there are designated spaces where artists can open up and improvise according to the rules set out by the raga.
4. If raga were a person…the notes and scale would be the bones, the skin, the blood, the organs—the physical structure of a human being. The personality or character is in the ornaments, the grammar, the mood, the rasa. Just like there’s much more to us than the way we look, there’s depth and drama behind the scales.
5. There are two different raga traditions but they share the same root. The Hindustani tradition comes from North India and the Carnatic tradition developed in South India. Differences in composition style and performance practice have developed over the centuries, including variations in instrumentation, ornamentation, inflection, lyrical content, and concert structure. But both traditions share basic musical principles, including note names, improvisation, and a drone. There are also many ragas common to both.
6. The drone is the foundation of the raga. In both Hindustani and Carnatic music, a drone underpins every performance. The drone is usually produced by a pair of four-stringed instruments called tanpura. Three of the four strings are tuned to the tonic—which will be preserved for the entire performance—with the first string tuned to a different note, often the fifth, but sometimes the fourth or the seventh. How the first string is tuned changes the entire underlying feeling of what is being played. Because tanpura are delicate and difficult to transport, some musicians have begun using a smartphone app to produce the drone.
7. Raga is an oral tradition. Writing out the ornaments is almost impossible, so it’s all learned by ear and passed from teachers to students. Students will first learn the gestures, ornaments, and slides that go between the notes without a real functioning knowledge of why. Internalizing it, finding rasa, and making it your own grows with your own practice and understanding of it.
8. Raga music, like Western music, is made out of 12 pitches. Attempts to notate ragas led many people to think that Indian classical music was microtonal in the same way that Arabic or Persian music is. In fact, microtones are used in the ornamentation and when sliding between notes, but the scale is still defined by 12 anchor points. When music is passed from teacher to student we don’t think about microtones. It’s about mastering the subtleties.
9. In the Hindustani tradition, raga can be associated with time of day or seasons. Back when these ragas were created, people were more in tune with the ebbs and flows of nature. So there are ragas that are meant to be played in the morning or at dusk. Rain must have been pretty important because there are a lot of monsoon ragas! The idea is that if you experience the raga at the right time, you will have a richer experience. You’ll feel it more. For each person, there are also ragas that we associate with a certain stage of our life or moment in our day that is very subjective.
10. The audience plays a role in creating an air of reverence for the music. For example, at traditional concerts, people often take their shoes off and you shouldn’t point the soles of your feet at the musicians out of respect. Many artists cover their feet during a performance for the same reason. Vocalizing appreciation is encouraged. After certain subtly touching phrases, you may hear people say “wah” or “vah.” After a virtuosic passage, people will applaud. And when we shake our heads and make clicking sounds, that’s a sign we’re really feeling it—not that we disapprove!
About the Authors
Called "leaders of the Raga Renaissance" by The New Yorker, Brooklyn Raga Massive (picture at top) is an artist-run collective dedicated to bringing all Indian music lovers together, both listeners and practitioners, by presenting Indian Classical Music in all its diversity.
Jay Gandhi is a New York City-based bansuri player and a founding member of the Brooklyn Raga Massive. A disciple of the world renowned bansuri maestro, Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, he has performed across the globe in India, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and North America.