With the Sounds of India focus within the White Light Festival, a free performance by the pioneering Brooklyn Raga Massive at the David Rubenstein Atrium, and a free LC Kids concert featuring Indian classical vocalist Falu, raga is in the spotlight at Lincoln Center this fall. Jay Gandhi, Sameer Gupta, and Arun Ramamurthy, musicians and founding members of the Brooklyn Raga Massive, share what you need to know about this ancient art form and dispel some of the myths that have arisen around it.

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. 

 

3. Rasa is critical to giving a raga its essential mood and sentiment. Rasa translates to “essence” or “juice.” You’re literally squeezing the juice out of an emotion or mood. Many ragas, especially those that come from ancient theatrical traditions, draw on Navarasa (The Nine Moods): love, valor, pity, fear, disgust, wonder, humor, anger, and peace. Expressing rasa depends on the tiniest details of how you assemble phrases, use accents, or ornament your voice. You can have ragas that have the same exact notes but differ in the order in which they ascend and descend, the way you approach the note, or how you slide to it. This completely transforms the sound and feel of the music.
Vocalist Bombay Jayashri performs at Lincoln Center on October 27, 2016.

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.

 

 

10 Things to Know about Raga
Prakash Bala
Vocalist T.M. Krishna (pictured here with tanpura) performs at Lincoln Center on November 6, 2016.

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 YorkerBrooklyn 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.

Sameer Gupta is a New York City-based jazz percussionist, tabla player, and composer. A co-founder of the Brooklyn Raga Massive, Gupta is a disciple of Pandit Anindo Chatterjee, and actively tours the world performing with artists Marc Carey, Wallace Roney and countless others.

Arun Ramamurthy is a violinist trained in Carnatic music by the distinguished violinist, Anantha Krishnan and the celebrated violin maestro brothers, Dr. Mysore Manjunath and Sri Mysore Nagaraj. Arun is a sought-after performer and co-founder of the Brooklyn Raga Massive.