An open-ended project seeking to bring North Indian raga closer to all who approach with open ears. Combines direct input from dozens of leading Hindustani artists with in-depth insights from music history, global theory, performance practice, cognitive science, and much more besides!
[out 2023: preview below]
• Search: Find your new favourite •
• Tags: Classifying the ragascape •
• Glossary: Raga jargon demystified •
• Ragatable: Analytical connections •
• Thaat: Bhakhande’s base scales •
• Murchanas: Swara-set rotations •
• Quotes: Musings from raga artists •
• Tanpuras: Divine overtonal drones •
• Talas: Hindustani rhythm cycles •
—Tags & Classifiers—
• About the Raga Index •
Hindustani raga is music’s ultimate ‘interconnected form’: combining everything from melodic and geometric vocabulary to deep cultural, historical, and spiritual associations, while remaining irreducible to any single one of these dimensions. This project is an open-ended attempt to illuminate the fullness of raga, aimed at sharing these unique joys with any who seek to learn more – and also an effort to connect uniquely Subcontinental ideas to a wide range of global sonic traditions.
This is an avowedly non-commercial project: high-quality raga knowledge should be open to all, regardless of financial fortune – and must also remain free from the visual and spiritual pollution of advertising and hidden corporate motive. All resources here will stay 100% open-access & ad-free: who am I to charge others for this ancient knowledge? (Naturally, this attitude doesn’t pay the bills! I put as much into this as time allows, so to expand the project: support the site or try some lessons…).
—Search the Index—
—RAGAS IN DEPTH—
Detailed analysis of 40 ragas: history, phraseology, mythology, etc…
Ahir Bhairav’s unique swara set is inextricably linked to visions of the Indian sunrise. While the raga’s poorvang matches that of the ‘main’ Bhairav (SrGm) its uttarang presents its own geometries, taking a shuddha Dha and komal ni (PDnS) in a manner closer the Kafi–ang (although many artists tune their Dha sruti closer to that of Bageshri than Kafi). Mythologically linked to North India’s Ahir cattle-herding caste, the raga is fabled to mimic the ringing of cowbells at dawn – with patient ascent motions eventually settling into extended oscillations on the komal re (said by some to symbolise the sun’s morning emergence: also see ‘non-zero Sa‘). Shuddha ma tends to outweigh Pa (visible in a ‘tonagram‘ by Rao/Meer) – although interpretations continue to vary, with Deepak Raja‘s survey of recordings stating that “the vadi seems elusive, and the samvadi does not even appear faintly on the horizon…Texts on raga grammar do suggest a standardised melodic identity…”). Compare to Ahiri (the same scale with komal ga, seemingly of shared lineage) – as well as the related Prabhateshwari, Niranjani Todi, and Rati Bhairav (Kumar Gandharva’s ‘Bhairav + Ahir Bhairav’ blend, covering the swaras of both).
• Raag Antardhwani •
Among the youngest ragas to have found global acclaim, Antardhwani (‘sound of the inner self’) was unveiled by Shivkumar Sharma in the 1990s, who discovered its unique hexatonic shape by chance while retuning his santoor from one raga to another (although it is unknown which ones…). Adapting the geometries of Bhairavi, the raga is adored for its calming, meditative flavours, partly inspired by the late Pandit’s lifelong love of yoga. Prakriti with the seldom-heard Viyogavarali (independently adapted from a Carnatic raga by S.N. Ratanjankar) – while also lying proximate to Gujiri Todi (the same scale with tivra Ma) and Chandrakauns (minus re).
• Raag Asavari •
An antique late morning raga, listed in lakshanagranthas as a ragini of Malkauns, Asavari’s modern incarnation comprises two disinct variants: an older, Dhrupad-rooted ‘komal re’ form, and a more recent set of ‘shuddha Re’ interpretations. Both forms of the raga call for complex connective motions and expressive alankar around dha, which some artists tune to an ati-komal sruti. Many classical ragmala paintings depict Asavari, with imagery ranging from a female snake-charmer sitting atop a mountain to hooded cobras observing the world from perfumed sandalwood trees. Depending on re/Re position, can be prakriti with ragas including Bhairavi and Bilaskhani Todi (if re), or Adana, Darbari, Jaunpuri, and Kaunsi Kanada (if Re). Also see Gandhari, a double-Re raga which shares historical overlap with Asavari.
• Raag Bageshri •
An ancient raga of the late night, Bageshri is associated with ‘vipralambha’ – the profound shades of longing felt by a separated lover. These sentiments are reflected in its multipolar phraseology: artists may resolve towards Sa for a clustered, inward-turning feel (mgRS), or towards shuddha ma for a more open, expansive sound (DnSgm) – often seen as symbolising two lovers, or perhaps competing waves of emotion within a single soul. Prakriti with Bhimpalasi, Shahana, and many other Kafi-shaped forms – although Bageshri is usually classed as a Kanada raga, and should be tuned to its own distinct set of sruti (e.g. shuddha Dha may be set closer to a ‘pure‘ major 3rd above the ma vadi: ~886 cents from Sa vs. 900 in ‘equal temperament‘). Also see nearby ragas including Rageshri, Durgawati, and Prabhateshwari.
Effectively blending the poorvang of Bhairav with the uttarang of Bhairavi (SrGm; PdnS), Basant Mukhari’s complex history bears the imprints of multiple musical cultures. While its main modern inception is traceable to S.N. Ratanjankar’s eclectic Carnatic borrowings of the 1950s (also see Charukeshi: the same scale with komal re instead), many also explicitly link it to a now-extinct form known as ‘Hijaz’, itself derived from a Persian maqam of the same name. Closely related forms thus turn up across the Islamic world and beyond (e.g. in jazz, the same collection of tones is referred to as the ‘Phrygian Dominant‘, while Jewish musicians may know it as the ‘Hava Nagila scale’ after a famous Bar Mitzvah tune – and others call it ‘Escala Andaluza’ for its popularity in Andalucian flamenco). Also see Gangeshwari (the same swara set minus re), as well as a variety of ragas which may appear as chayas in Basant Mukhari renditions: e.g. Malkauns (mdnS), Jogiya (SrmPd), Ahir Bhairav (nSrGmP), and Jaunpuri (mPdnS). Seemingly unconnected to the ancient Basant lineage (the term ‘basant’ means ‘springtime’).
• Raag Bhairav •
Revered as the foremost raga of Lord Shiva, the morning Bhairav takes its name from Kala Bhairava (‘awe-inspiring form’) – an apocalyptic manifestation of the deity fabled in Hindu lore to have cut off one of Brahma’s five heads to silence his arrogance. Renditions reflect the gravity of these ancient tales, depicting Shiva’s resulting tandav (‘dance of destruction’) with wide-roving motions and dense andolan on re and dha, with patient melodic explorations often concluding in an idiosyncratic G\rS phrase. Dhrupad vocalist Wasifuddin Dagar recounts that “in the Dagar family, the initiation to music starts with Bhairav” – and, as per Parrikar, “Bhairav is so fundamental that its impact on India’s musical soul can never be overstated…verily, it falls to the lot of the noblest of ragas, deserving of renewal and reflection every single day”. Prakriti with the core forms of Kalingada and Gauri – and also see other ragas of the wide-branching Bhairav family, including Ahir Bhairav, Nat Bhairav, Rati Bhairav, and Saurashtra Bhairav.
• Raag Bhairavi •
Probably the most prominent raga in the entire Hindustani canon, the dawn Bhairavi (‘awe, terror’: named after the Fifth Avatar of Mahadevi, the Mother Goddess) is a concert-closing staple. Unique in its chromatic flexibilities, the raga’s ‘Mishra Bhairavi’ form can span the full swara spectrum, allowing for a multitude of moods in the hands of a master – although shuddha ma tends to assume particular prominence as the vadi. Classified in several ancient lakshanagranthas as a ragini of Bhairav (although the Bhairavi of Tansen’s 16th-century era was more akin to today’s Kafi thaat: still evident in today’s ‘Carnatic Bhairavi‘) – with the raga’s modern incarnation enjoying widespread fame across thumri, bhajan, ghazal, filmi and many other light-classical forms. Its ‘all-komal‘ scale is prakriti with Bilaskhani Todi and Asavari (komal re), as well as approximating the ‘Phrygian Mode‘ of Western music. Also see proximate shapes such as Ahiri (‘Bhairavi shuddha Dha‘), Basant Mukhari (‘Bhairavi shuddha Ga‘), and Meladalan (‘Bhairavi komal Pa‘: also interpreted as ‘Madhyam se Bhairavi‘ by Nikhil Banerjee).
• Raag Bhimpalasi •
Associated with the invigorating warmth of the late afternoon sun, Bhimpalasi evokes multiple shades of shringara (‘romantic love, erotic desire’). Thought to have arisen from an archaic union between Bheem and the now-extinct Palas, the raga calls for direct, passionate melodic outpourings, balancing a deft pentatonic ascent (nSgmPnS: prakriti with Dhani) against the symmetry-inducing addition of Dha and Re on the way down, with these swaras typically ornamented from above as (n)D; (g)R. Shares its core form with Bageshri, Shahana, Desi, and other Kafi-shaped ragas, although Bhimpalasi often takes its own distinct set of sruti (e.g. Shivkumar Sharma tunes his Re and ni slightly ‘closer to Sa‘, subtly reshading the symmetry of the DnS; SRg relationship). Also compare to Patdeep (a phraseological ally which takes a shuddha Ni instead) and Abheri (the closest Carnatic equivalent).
• Raag Bhupali •
Hailed for its structural simplicity, Bhupali is often the first raga taught to Hindustani students (it is said that “when Kishori Amonkar started learning khayal, her mother instructed her to sing only Bhupali for fifteen months”). While its basic ‘Major Pentatonic‘ scale form is shared by countless global cultures, the North Indian incarnation (named for Madhya Pradesh’s Bhopal region) presents its own quirks – invoking tranquillity and home-bound reassurance with interlinked sliding motions and emphatic resolutions (e.g. SRS; S\DS). Shares its five swaras (if not its phraseologies) with Deshkar, Jait Kalyan, and the underlying ‘non-mishra‘ shape of Pahadi, as well as forming the aroha of Shuddha Kalyan – with Mohanam being the closest Carnatic equivalent, and sarodiya Debasmita Bhattacharya noting that “in Chinese music, some scales match our ragas: I collaborated with a pipa [four-stringed lute] player, and it can sound like Bhupali is there”.
• Raag Bihag •
Created via the artful grafting of tivra Ma onto a Bilawal-oriented base, Bihag contains a wealth of melodic possibilities. Long linked to late evening festivities, its meend-laden tendencies are explored with symmetrical articulations and fluid resolution phrases, guided by nuanced swara hierarchies which may display significant gharana-to-gharana variance. The tivra Ma, while tending to be much weaker than the shuddha, turns up in characteristic motions such as PMGmG – set amidst a strong Ni and prominent Ga–Dha sangati. Prakriti with multiple ragas (e.g. Chayanat, Hameer, Nand, Gaud Sarang, and Khem Kalyan) – and also compare to various derived forms such as Bihagda, Bihagara, Nat Bihag, Pat Bihag, Maru Bihag, and Chandni Bihag. Although the raga’s long-term history remains uncertain, some scholars link it to the lineages of Kedar and Gauri (and the name is thought to derive from ‘Vihang‘, Sanskrit for ‘bird’).
A hallowed form, Bilaskhani Todi is fabled to have been created by Bilas Khan: son of Tansen, the legendary composer of Emperor Akbar’s 16th-century durbar. On trying to sing Todi at his father’s funeral wake, Bilas found himself so grief-stricken that he mixed up the swaras – however, his panic was allayed on witnessing the corpse slowly raise up one hand in solemn approval of the new tune. Many variants of the myth abound, which, despite scant historical evidence, each reveal a different facet of the raga’s cultural personality (e.g. some say Tansen had previously issued a direct challenge to his sons to ‘blend the movements of Todi with the swaras of Bhairavi‘, with others adding that Bilas had long been disfavoured by his father for his lack of musical accomplishments). Prakriti with Bhairavi, although its melodic motions are highly distinctive (e.g. the Todi-ang rgrS, with ga usually tuned to Todi’s ati-komal shade, as well as Bhupali Todi‘s audav SrgPdS aroha).
Chandranandan (‘moonstruck’) is a modern classic, created by Ali Akbar Khan in a spare studio moment via spontaneously blending concepts from the Kaunsi family (“Three minutes and it was finished…They asked me for the name, but I never thought of the name, I never thought about the notes. I just thought of my father and played…”). The recording sold wildly – but, when concert audiences called out for the raga, he found he had forgotten how to play it (“I told them I’d forgotten which notes I used, and needed time…I had to buy the record and listen for six months”). The Ustad‘s paradox-laden path of rediscovery is a truly curious tale, shining light onto his nuanced, multifaceted view of raga itself – encompassing everything from mythological visions and ancient rasa theory to metaphors of chess (in full below: including new information from the Khan family archives, kindly shared by his son Alam). Also see the four ragas which Khan drew from (Malkauns, Chandrakauns, Nandkauns, & Kaunsi Kanada) – as well as the prakriti Chandrakaushiki (created by Khan’s Maihar stablemate Nikhil Banerjee around the same time), and Enayetkhani Kanada (another recent Kanada innovation).
• Raag Charukeshi •
Adopted from Carnatic music, Charukeshi (‘one with beautiful hair’) calls for wide-open melodic exploration, favouring long melodies which wind around themselves while visiting the furthest reaches of all three octaves. Like many Southern scales, it may be used as a canvas for reshaping and recolouring ideas from adjacent ragas (see avirbhav), while itself presenting an odd marriage of major and minor – with an ‘all-shuddha‘ poorvang (SRGm) and ‘all-komal‘ uttarang (PdnS) allowing for contrasting emotional shades. Assumed to be a recent addition to the Northern ragascape, based on its lack of inclusion in Subbha Rao’s 1956 Raga Nidhi Vol. 1 (which states that “there is no raga called Charukeshi in Hindustani sangeet“) – although artists including S.N. Ratanjankar and Ravi Shankar were performing it soon after this date. Perennially popular for North-South jugalbandis (e.g. Purbayan Chatterjee & Shashank Subramanyam for Darbar VR360) – also compare to its murchana-set partners Patdeep, Ahiri, and Vachaspati.
• Raag Darbari •
Darbari has been described as “the Emperor of ragas, and the raga of Emperors”. Its majestic tones famously echoed across the marble floors of Mughal palaces in centuries past, bringing solemn relief to kings, warlords, and diplomats alike. Consequently, modern renditions tend to retain a grave, reverential patience, pairing pakad of dnP & gmR amidst heavy, vocalistic ornaments and turns. Swara-congruent (if the raga’s significant sruti subtleties are ignored) with Adana, Jaunpuri, and Kaunsi Kanada.
• Raag Desh •
Intimately connected to Indian national identity, Desh gives melodic direction to the famous patriotic anthem Vande Mataram, as well as soundtracking dozens of Rabindrasangeet. Associated with the second quarter of night, renditions tend towards the sweet and amorous, with Deepak Raja noting clear divergence between ‘classicist’ and ‘romanticist’ treatments (the former is confined to stricter rules and bounds, while the latter borrows more liberally from thumri and other light-classical styles). The Re–Pa sangati is strong, and Ga and Dha are both omitted in ascent – with Raja giving a pakad of RRmP; nDP; RmGR. Prakriti with many ragas, notably including Alhaiya Bilawal, Bihagara, Des Malhar, Gaud Malhar, Nat Kamod, and Sorath (in fact, the ‘SRGmPDnNS‘ swara set – akin to the Western ‘Bebop Dominant‘ scale – matches more unique ragas in the Index than any other…).
• Raag Durga •
Beguiling in its pentatonic simplicity, Durga (Sanskrit: ‘invincible, impassable, inaccessible’) is inextricably tied to visions of the Hindu Mother Goddess: depicted in lore as a destroyer of demons and protector of the faithful (Maa Durga: who, according to legend, “was created to slay the buffalo demon Mahishasura by Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, and the lesser gods, who were otherwise powerless to overcome him…She is usually depicted riding a lion, with 8 or 10 arms each holding the special weapon of one of the gods…”). Despite these ancient associations, the raga is of relatively recent Carnatic import (seemingly evolving from Suddha Saveri), only gaining broad acceptance among Northern rasikas around the mid-20th century. Prakriti with Jaldhar Kedar and Shuddha Malhar, Durga is principally differentiated via a greater emphasis on shuddha Dha (the only ‘imperfect‘ swara). Also see proximate forms including Durgawati, Jhinjhoti, and Mangal Bhairav.
A spacious, folksy raga of the late evening, Gorakh Kalyan (named for the Gorakhpur region of Uttar Pradesh) has fabled associations with Saint Gorakhnath, an 11th-century yogi mystic-musician who is said to have travelled throughout the Subcontinent in search of spiritual wisdom and sonic enrichment. Despite its name, the raga’s modern form has no discernible links to the Kalyan-ang, instead focusing on Ga-skipping motions such as SRm; RmRSn. Some performers include only four swaras in aroha (SRmD), with scholars linking this facet to its possible origins in a now-extinct audav raga known as ‘Gorakhi’ – itself an offshoot of the ‘chatuswari‘ Bhavani (SRmD). This upward sparsity leaves room for winding lines in the descent, which may often resolve to the komal ni of mandra saptak (e.g. Praveen Sheolikar’s outstanding violin rendition below). Prakriti with Narayani and Durgawati – and compare to proximate scales such as Saraswati (the same scale with tivra Ma instead) and Miyan ki Sarang (which allows both Ni).
• Raag Jhinjhoti •
A staple of thumri, tappa, and other light-classical styles, Jhinjhoti is a hearty raga of the late evening and early night hours. Particularly beloved by instrumentalists, its Khamaj-congruent swaras are a firm favourite at Indian weddings and other celebratory gatherings, offering a reassuring familiarity via balancing Durga-like ascending phrases with a special treatment of komal ni and shuddha Ga in descent (e.g. PmGRS; nDP). Sitarist Shujaat Khan describes Jhinjhoti as “incredibly sweet and versatile…different combinations result in myriad moods, from shringar to bhakti“, and the raga is said to have changed the life of an 11-year-old Bhimsen Joshi, who, after overhearing Abdul Karim Khan’s 1926 recording by chance, decided to run away from home and seek out a guru who could teach him khayal singing (eventually entering the tutelage of Sawai Gandharva, Khan’s foremost disciple). Its sampurna swara set – akin to the Western Mixolydian Mode – is prakriti with many ragas, including Khamaj, Khambavati, Gaoti, and Kambhoji (which some describe as a ‘Dhrupad Jhinjhoti’).
• Raag Jog •
A lively late-evening raga, Jog translates as ‘state of union’ (derived from the Sanskrit concept of yogi). Its oddly bluesy harmony presents an enchanting almost-familiarity to uninitiated listeners, mixing major and minor flavours via a characteristic ‘Gmg zigzag’ phrase in descent (which, via the wonders of convergent evolution, suggests the structure of a 7#9 ‘Hendrix chord: as well as being an exact murchana of Gujiri Todi and Brindabani Sarang). The shuddha Ga vadi serves as the main launchpoint for melodic exploration, with the stable triad of Sa–Ga–Pa used as nyas (although Amir Khan’s renditions also showcase a notable focus on shuddha ma). As per Deepak Raja (Jog: A Versatile Raga), “Jog acquired its significance in the latter half of the last century…and bears a close resemblance to Nattai of the Carnatic tradition”. Also see other ragas which incorporate Jog’s unmistakeable Gmg signature, including Jogkauns, Jogeshwari, Nandkauns, and Amrut Ranjani (which also mirrors it in uttarang as ‘Dnd’) – as well as the Tilang and Dhani, which both share historical overlap with Jog’s early incarnations.
• Raag Jogkauns •
Created by Jagannathbuwa Purohit ‘Gunidas’ in the 1940s, Jogkauns is usually summarised as ‘Jog plus Chandrakauns’ – although the Agra vocal master’s original inception drew more from the melodies of a ‘raised Ni‘ Malkauns offshoot than from Chandrakauns, which was then still in its infancy (Parrikar: “Gunidas originally referred to his inspiration as simply ‘Kaunshi’, but a subsequent discussion with B.R. Deodhar lead him to re-baptize it ‘Jogkauns’ given its harmonious blend of Jog with the Kaunsi-ang“). Gharana-blending singer Kumar Gandharva soon picked up on the new form, garnering acclaim across North India from the early 1950s for his spellbinding renditions – with many other artists following in his wake to cement the raga’s status as one of the most popular modern creations. Compare with other Jog derivatives including Nandkauns (which takes komal ni instead) and Jogeshwari Pancham (which ‘flips’ both uttarang swaras to shuddha Dha and komal ni) – as well as Devata Bhairav (the same scale plus komal re).
• Raag Kafi •
Perhaps more like a compendium of interlinked folk tunes than a ‘formally codified’ raga framework, Kafi offers expansive freedoms. Typically appearing in mishra (‘mixed’) form, its free-roaming melodies may borrow from affiliated ragas as well as drawing on a wide range of light-classical styles such as thumri, bhajan, dadra, and ghazal. Lyrical material has long tended towards the romantic, with Faqirullah’s 1666 Rag Darpan noting that “Kafi’s dominant theme is love, together with the passions aroused”. Chosen by Bhatkhande as the titular raga of Kafi thaat (akin to the Western Dorian Mode: a ‘palindromic‘ scale beloved in jazz, blues, rock, pop, funk, and beyond) – and prakriti with many ragas, notably including Bageshri, Bhimpalasi, Jhinjhoti, Shahana, and the predominant modern forms of Desi and Dhanashree. Also see the overlapping Sindhura, Barwa, and Zila Kafi.
• Raag Kalavati •
A playful pentatonic form, neatly structured as a stack of ‘regularly narrowing’ intervals (4>3>2>1 semitones). The wide, sparse poorvang (SG) and clustered uttarang (PDnS) combine to bring a reassuring momentum, with increasing melodic urgency as you go higher (a ‘triple jump followed by a sprint’). Most Kalavati performances tend towards energy and rhythmic charge (Rahul Sharma‘s take is backed by a powerhouse tabla-pakhawaj duo). Given the lack of prakritis, there is little risk of over-trespass on the territory of other ragas, leaving artists free to roam throughout all three saptak at will (consequently, it is often considered as among the most ‘straightforward’ ragas to learn). Despite the primality of its audav scale, the raga only rose to Hindustani prominence in the last century. Also see Kalashri (a blend with Rageshri) and Lilavati (which, in some forms, resembles a ‘komal ga Kalavati’).
Kaunsi Kanada is often oversimplified as a blend of two ragas: ‘Malkauns (or Pancham Malkauns) on the way up, and Darbari on the way down’. But, as ever, the whole is far more than the sum of these parts, with multiple facets of both ragas interacting to offer labyrinthine moods – described by Senia-Shahjahanpur sarodiya Debasmita Bhattacharya as a sentiment of “heavy introspection, like a man who weeps inside but can never show his tears” (hear her rendition below). Melodic interpretations display considerable variance within the respective bounds of the parent ragas – for example many artists omit Pa in ascent (e.g. Niladri Kumar), while others give it prominence in both directions (e.g. Shivkumar Sharma), amidst a general freedom to ’tilt’ its form towards either of its parents (e.g. whether to conclude with Darbari’s gmRS or Malkauns’ gmgS). It is said that a 14-year old Pandit Jasraj, then a tabla player, vowed not to cut his hair until he had learned to sing – finally doing so after performing Kaunsi Kanada on All India Radio two years later. Also see the interlinked Sampurna Malkauns, as well as Bageshri Kanada, which has largely subsumed an older ‘Bageshri-ang‘ form of Kaunsi Kanada.
• Raag Lalit •
Lalit (meaning ‘lyrical’) is an oddly-shaped sunrise raga, resembling ‘Bhairav with Pa lowered a semitone’. Among the most influential forms in Hindustani history, its distinctive ‘double Ma, no Pa’ structure has a malleable ambiguity, capable of conjuring flavours ranging from ‘sadness and anguish’ to ‘the serene and devotional‘ (Deepak Raja discusses “two facets…SrGm; MdNS….Lalit’s distinctive fragrance is released by treating these divisions as discontinuous, and then fusing them together”). Komal dha often takes a notably higher sruti than usual – and the evenly-weighted treatment of the twin ma swaras (e.g. GmMmG) leads some scholars to see the tivra as functioning more like a ‘komal Pa’ (while controversial, adherents point to precedent in the ancient ‘Dhaivati jati‘ base scale described in the Natyashastra, a landmark lakshanagrantha published around 2000 years ago. Also see other ‘double-Ma, varjit Pa’ ragas, most of which explicitly draw from Lalit, including Ahir Lalit, Lalita Sohini, and Meghranjani – as well as Pa-inclusive derivatives such as Lalit Pancham and Lalita Gauri.
• Raag Malkauns •
Among the most revered ragas in the Hindustani pantheon, Malkauns (‘he who wears serpents as garlands’) combines structural simplicity with a nuanced mythological ethos. Said to have been composed by the goddess Parvati to soothe Shiva’s murderous rage, in turn inspired by his wife Sati’s fiery death, its ‘all-komal‘ swara set is associated with states of ‘severe tranquility’, calling on artists to approach with solemnity and trepidation. Given this austere reputation, no other raga shares the same scale – although the raga has given rise to countless new forms over the ages (e.g. Jogkauns, Nandkauns, & Kaunsi Kanada). Also see other ‘generic Sa-Ga-Ma-Dha-Ni‘ ragas including Chandrakauns (SgmdNS), Tivrakauns (SgMdnS), Harikauns (SgMDnS), and Hindol (SGMDNS: n.b. given that Malkauns’ Carnatic congruent is known as ‘Hindolam‘, Hindol is thought to have arisen via ‘raising the Sa of Malkauns’: i.e. SGMDNS = ‘SgmdnS with Sa one semitone higher’).
• Raag Marwa •
Notable for omitting its own Sa for long stretches, the hexatonic Marwa conjures moods of ‘austere, spiritual renunciation’ – summoning these sentiments with low, slow lines which patiently outline the raga’s highly irregular geometry (three adjacent plus three wide-set swaras: NSr; GMD). Its descent-dominant melodies, which must avoid Pa throughout, often tease at resolutions which never fully arrive, with Sa being the only ‘detached‘ swara, and special prominence afforded to shuddha Dha (if you omit Sa, and see Dha as the new ‘home tone’ in murchana fashion, the scale resembles the far more stable Bhupali: DNrGMD > SRGPDS) – in Nikhil Banerjee‘s words, “Marwa is considered devotional and heroic… [Pa] is not used, as it expresses joy, and the [Dha] may express disgust“. Chosen by Bhatkhande as the eponymous raga of Marwa thaat (albeit with Pa added) – and prakriti with Puriya and Sohini, although the trio’s movements differ markedly.
• Raag Megh •
Among the oldest surviving members of the Malhar family, Megh (‘cloud’) is said to have saved the life of the Miyan Tansen himself. Legend holds that the great composer’s powerful rendition of the fire-bringing Deepak caused the oil lamps in Emperor Akbar’s 16th-century royal palace to ignite and burn uncontrollably – and, soon, all the rivers and streams around the durbar began to boil and spill over their banks. Tansen’s efforts to quench the unending firestorm came to nothing, until, eventually, he came across two sisters – Tana and Riri – who sung Megh with enough force to summon a great storm, finally extinguishing the blaze (n.b. some tellings instead describe ‘an unbearable, unrelenting burning sensation on Tansen’s skin’ as the cause of his post-Deepak quest, and other versions recount that it was his daugher who sung Megh to save him). The raga’s modern incarnation, which shares its five swaras with Madhumad Sarang, often displays a stronger Dhrupad influence than many other members of its raganga, with countless compositions referencing the awe-inspiring power of the monsoon. Compare and contrast with other ancient Malhars including Shuddha Malhar, Arun Malhar, and Gaud Malhar – and also see overlapping forms such as Suha and Devshri.
Derived from the Sanskrit for ‘banishing uncleanliness’, the Malhar family is inextricably linked to the rejuvenating effects of rain. The main raga of this lineage is named ‘Miyan ki Malhar’ for its fabled connections to Miyan Tansen, the great composer of Emperor Akbar’s 16th-century royal court, who is said to have sung it to summon the monsoon to their drought-stricken kingdom. A special vakra treatment of the twin ni swaras is considered essential to generating the charged energies of bursting clouds, focused on a signature uttarang phrase of nDNS. Lyrical compositions, dominated by imagery of clouds, thunder, lightning, and the unrelenting rain, can blend invocation and trepidation in equal measure (Bhat: “while some Malhars are a call from humanity to the air, some [ask] that the world protect the human from the rage of the skies…”). Shares its swaras with Barwa, Bahar, Sindhura, Sughrai, and several other ragas – and also compare to compounds including Jayant Malhar, Miyan ki Sarang, and Tanseni Madhuvanti.
• Raag Multani •
Multani is an afternoon raga of angular shape and ancient heritage, which, while matching the seven swaras of Todi thaat, takes unique phrase patterns – with re and dha omitted in ascent and generally rendered durbal throughout. Bhatkhande is said to have considered it the ‘daytime’ counterpart of Basant – while, in Deepak Raja’s personal reflection, its melodic motions are reminiscent of “the oppressive afternoon heat…the virtual wilting of the body and mind under the remorseless tyranny of the North Indian summer”. The name points to presumed origins in the Multan region of Punjab, heralded as a holy site by Hindus, Sufis, and Sikhs alike for many centuries – with the raga itself seemingly having derived from the similarly Sikh-infused Dhanashree (Bor: “Faqirullah, in 1666, mentions two varieties: ‘Multani Todi’ and ‘Multani Dhanashree: the latter is…supposedly a creation of [13th-century Sufi scholar-saint] Bahauddin Zakariya”). Compare to offshoots including Madhuvanti (a phraseological ally which takes shuddha Re and Dha instead) and Madhu Multani (the same sequence with shuddha Dha, blending both ragas: a.k.a. ‘missing thaat scale #6‘).
A mellifluous modern form created by Ravi Shankar in 1968 (…via a murchana rotation of Kameshwari: itself the product of backseat travel boredom in Bengal). While somewhat resembling a ‘komal re Bageshri’, Parameshwari’s hexagonal structure is ripe for open-ended experiments, summoning its own colours and tensions – and, despite its young history, has already garnered significant popularity across younger-generation artists of multiple gharanas. Shankar’s early North American performances, fuelled by visions of Cyclone Bhola’s ongoing devestation in Bengal, are known to have exerted significance influence on cultural icons including his sitar student George Harrison (even helping to catalyse his famous ‘Concert for Bangladesh’: read the full tale below). Also see the prakriti yet near-extinct Deen Todi, as well as Ahiri (the same scale plus Pa) and Prabhateshwari (which often presents chayas of the same scale) – and the rest of its murchana set.
• Raag Patdeep •
Derived from the Dhanashree family, Patdeep somewhat resembles a ‘shuddha Ni Bhimpalasi’ (akin to the Western Melodic Minor), with both ragas ascending pentatonically before revealing Re and Dha in descent. Its unique scale structure, which features a distinctive run of four adjacent whole-tone jumps (g>m>P>D>N), brings natural prominence to komal ga and shuddha Ni as the only ‘detached‘ swaras (the strength of the g-N axis hints at historical overlap with Pilu: past forms of Patdeep are said to have used both Ga and Ni). Pa must resonate with greater strength than shuddha ma, and mandra ni is often used as a launchpoint for wide-jumping upward motions. Also see proximate ragas including Patdeepaki, Hanskinkini, Madhuvanti, and Rangeshwari – as well as its murchana-set companions Charukeshi, Vachaspati, Ahiri, and the ultra-rare Faridi Todi.
• Raag Pilu •
Perhaps the most emblematic thumri raga, Pilu’s highly permissive melodic framework functions more like an alliance of amorous folk tunes than a ‘rigorously codified’ form (Bhatkhande recounts that some artists of his early 20th-century era resisted Pilu’s classification as a raga altogether). While relatively rare on the khayal stage, it enjoys wild popularity across a swathe of semi-classical styles, invoking both variants of Ga, Dha, & Ni to animate love songs and Krishna bhajans with a heart-on-sleeve romanticism (Chandrakantha: “The list of film songs in Pilu has become unmanageably long, therefore we have divided it into multiple pages…”). Despite the raga’s broad melodic flexiblilties, komal ga and shuddha Ni tend to be prominent as nyas – set amidst expressive meend and expansive phrase patterns such as PNSg, gRSN, NS which hint at Pilu’s Kirwani-proximate past form. Compare to overlapping forms such as Gara, Jungala, Hanskinkini, and Pancham se Pilu (‘Pilu from Pa‘, i.e. a murchana rotation) – as well as the Carnatic Kapi.
• Raag Poorvi •
Poorvi is a long-lived sunset raga from East India, which some describe as evoking a ‘serious mood of mystical contemplation’. Mixing narrow and wide intervals (all swaras have at least one immediate neighbour), its complex twists and turns belie the base scale’s neat, palindromic nature – with Sa and Pa sometimes being omitted or rendered durbal in ascent in order to ‘obscure’ these geometric balances, set amidst Ma-mixing phrase patterns such as rmG, GMPd, PMGmrG. Generally considered to have evolved from an archaic form of Bhairav (the same scale minus tivra Ma) , the raga’s modern incarnation is proximate to Puriya Dhanashree (which omits shuddha ma) – and prakriti with Paraj, Prabhat Bhairav, and Lalit Pancham‘s komal dha incarnation. Also see overlapping ragas including Reva, Purba, and Baradi.
• Raag Puriya •
A prominent sunset raga, Puriya takes the same six swaras as Marwa and Sohini, reworking them to bring a distinct set of melodic forces. Renditions tend to focus on mandra and madhya saptak, seeking a relatively even balance between ascending and descending phrases – with its character often considered more ‘melodic’ than Marwa (which is comparatively ‘geometric’). Some describe its mood as one of ‘sombre piety’, while others find more playful essences in its strange vibrations, built around a strong Ga–Ni sangati and MMG pakad. Particularly beloved by Kirana vocal master Bhimsen Joshi, the raga is also said to have captivated a young Bhatkhande (“Many years ago, I heard Puriya from a famous Muslim gayak, and for a few moments I was lost to the world. You will not be able to imagine the magnitude of the effect that his music wrought on my person…”).
Like the scale-congruent Shree, Puriya Dhanashree’s versatile hemitonic clusters outline a major triad (SGP) with the first and last steps ‘enclosed’ by their neighbours to present two sets of three adjacent swaras (NSr, MPd). Pa, while often omitted in aroha, exerts its gravity on descending melodies, easing the tension of the tivra Ma by providing temporary anchor for weaving lines which may span all seven swaras. Ni is used as a launchpoint for Sa-skipping motions (e.g. NrGMP; NrNdP), elaborated with vakra meend and other expressive ornaments. Associated with the sunset hours, the raga’s origins lie in an archaic blending of Puriya and Dhanashree, with this form finding mention in lakshanagranthas including Faqirullah’s Rag Darpan, written for Emperor Aurangzeb in 1666. Proximate to Poorvi (which adds shuddha ma), and prakriti with Basant, Jaitashree, and Tankeshree.
• Raag Shree •
According to Gwalior vocal master Omkarnath Thakur, Shree’s seven swaras are associated with those sunset hours when “disembodied spirits…become active, and aid in the black magic of Tantriks”. Tied to mythologies of Lord Shiva, the raga takes its name from ‘sri’, a sacred Sanskrit syllable which, in Vedic tradition, represents the material nature of humanity’s place in the universe (with ‘om’ signifying the spiritual dimension). As one of the oldest forms in the Hindustani pantheon, Shree is frequently depicted in classical ragmala paintings, also turning up in various scholarly texts throughout the centuries (from the Sangeetopanishad treatise, published in 1305: “Sri, with fair complexion, has eight hands and four faces. He carries a snare, a lotus, a book, a gourd, and the fruit of a citron tree. In two of his hands is a veena, and he is known for having a swan as his vehicle…”). Sitarist Vilayat Khan described it as “a raga of the warrior”, and vocalist Arun Bhaduri considers the mood to be “king-like…very strong”, explicitly associating its sound with visions of Shiva’s ‘trishul‘ (trident-wielding) incarnation. Also see Shree-infused derivations such as Puriya Dhanashree, Shree Kalyan, Tankeshree, and the ‘evening form’ of Malavi – as well as the nearby Basant.
• Raag Tilak Kamod •
Mirroring the tones of the Western Major Scale, Tilak Kamod’s seven swaras offer robust melodic flexibility across a range of sentiments (“heroic courage, philosophic poise, devotional contentment, suggestive eroticism…”). Some trace the raga’s origin to Pyar Khan, a rabab-playing descendent of Tansen via his son Bilas Khan, who is said to have picked it up from a melody sung by an Uttar Pradesh village woman as she was grinding corn. Prakriti with numerous ragas, including Bilawal, Bihari, Swanandi, & many more – although its phraseologies are distinct (as per Ashok da Ranade, “Tilak Kamod has a structure of intricate upward-downward phrases [e.g. PNSRGS; SPDmG; SRGSN], asking to be explored across all three saptak, which certainly makes intellectual and expressive demands on an artist…”).
• Raag Todi •
Pivotal to Hindustani history, Todi verflows with musical ideas found nowhere else on the planet. Some link its ambiguous geometries with ‘existential anguish and unsettlement’, while others hear ‘the playfulness of a newborn, content and smiling’. Rajan Parrikar hails it as “the most profound, finespun idea in melodic music…from ecstasy, to frolic, to pathos, to melancholy, every conceivable human emotion is refracted through the Todi prism…”. Some title the raga ‘Darbari Todi’ or ‘Miyan ki Todi’, in reference to Miyan Tansen, the legendary composer of Emperor Akbar’s 16th-century durbar – although its actual historical path is complex and mysterious (for one thing, the ‘Todi’ of Tansen’s era may well have taken the swaras of today’s Bhairavi: hence the Carnatic ‘Hanumatodi’). Prakriti with Multani, although the phraseologies of the ragas are distinct, and Todi’s komal ga is typically tuned to an idiosyncratic ati-komal shade, highlighted in characteristic concluding phrases such as NdMg; rgrS. Also compare to a multitude of other Todi-infused forms, including Gujiri Todi (the same scale minus Pa), Bhupali Todi (minus Ma and Ni), and Khat Todi (double Ma and Ni).
• Raag Vachaspati •
Vachaspati (‘lord of speech’) is a recent import from the South, adapted from Carnatic music’s 64th melakarta scale around the mid-20th century by artists including Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan. Consequently, its Northern form is still in a state of flux, with few firm melodic conventions aside from staying within the scale’s bounds – which, despite containing a stable major triad (SGP), are sharply coloured by the curious dissonance of the rare ‘tivra Ma + komal Ni‘ sangati. Most closely resembles either ‘Yaman komal ni‘ or ‘Khamaj tivra Ma‘, although its phraseologies have no explicit ties to either of these ragas – with the swara set also approximating overtones 8-14 of the harmonic series: the foundational constituents of all resonant sound. Also see Saraswati (the same scale minus Ga, linked to the Carnatic original) and Hemavati (a ‘komal ga Vachaspati’, of similar Southern import).
• Raag Yaman •
Among the first-learned and most-performed ragas, Yaman’s influence on modern Hindustani music is impossible to overstate. Linked to the early night hours (‘when lanterns are lit’), the disbalancing effects of tivra Ma – the only non-shuddha swara on offer – allow for a kaleidoscopic emotional range, with Sa and Pa often being skipped in aroha to accentuate these yearning tensions (e.g. DNR; GMD). Variously described by listeners in terms such as ‘serene and haunting’, ‘graceful and full of bhakti‘, and ‘an expression of the deep, complex mood of dusk‘ – with Debasmita Bhattacharya considering it to represent “Devi, the divine feminine: I must nurture her”, and Parrikar noting that the raga has become “a touchstone among musicians in calibrating a peer’s quality and depth”. Shares its seven swaras with the related Shuddha Kalyan (‘Bhupali up, Yaman down’) – and also see a swathe of other ‘Kalyanic’ ragas including Puriya Kalyan, Kesari Kalyan, and Sanjh Saravali.
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George Howlett is a London-based musician, writer, and teacher (guitars, sitar, tabla, & santoor). Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the voices, cultures, and passions behind them. See Homepage for more, and hit me up for Lessons!
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