• Raag Parameshwari •


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.

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Aroha: SrgmDnS
Avroh: SnDmgrS

Chalan: uncodified, e.g. SrgmDnS; DngrS; SDnD; Dm; mgrS (implied by Shankar recordings)


–Ravi Shankar (1971)–

“No matter how beautiful the raga: if you are the only one who can perform it, it is not considered to be of any consequence…” (Ravi Shankar)



Origins, myths, quirks, & more

Parameshwari is an idiosyncratic creation of sitar icon Ravi Shankar, which has rapidly gained prominence over the latter half of the 20th century. His widow Sukanya recounts its origin tale in the liner notes to a stellar 1971 rendition, recorded in a friend’s Hollywood living room:


“The inspiration for this raga goes back to Chengali, a little village near Kolkata. During the filming of his autobiographical film, Raga, Ravi-ji travelled to Chengali in the morning sometime in March 1968. While riding in the car, he conceived the nucleus of a melodic form that he later developed and called Kameshwari. By using the old murchana and swara bheda system, he discovered three more ragas at the heart of Kameshwari – and Parameshwari was one of them [the other two are Gangeshwari and Rangeshwari]. Parameshwari has flashes of known ragas Bageshri, Bhairavi, and Bilaskhani Todi, but is pure Ravi-ji”.


Thus, unlike the vast majority of ragas, Parameshwari’s murchana set ‘appeared’ via a specific set of theoretical abstractions, rather than being derived over time from an evolving compositional repertoire. In a sense, it existed in Shankar’s mind before he had even played it. Such a specific origin story sits in clear contrast to the vague, mythological histories of most ragas. As with Ali Akbar Khan’s Chandranandan (improvised to fill up spare studio tape, hastily named during a cigarette break, and soon forgotten by its creator), the ease with which we can relate to the human aspects of the situation is almost jarring. 


While it’s difficult for us to imagine the atmosphere of Emperor Akbar’s 16th-century durbar, we’ve all run melodies through our head to idle away long hours stuck in transit. This makes it easier to pose further questions – what was Shankar staring at through the window at the moment of the scale’s conception? What were his first impressions of its rotation? Would it even exist if he’d taken the train instead?


Unfortunately, I can’t ask Tansen what was on his mind when, as is fabled, he gathered together Darbari’s tones at Emperor Akbar’s royal court, and neither has Lord Shiva been forthcoming about his placement of swaras in Bhairav. But the exacting birth tale of Shankar’s raga means we can come up with all manner of speculative guesses as to what he may have been mulling over in those moments. Did the original Kameshwari melody draw from Bengali folk tunes he had absorbed during filming? Perhaps the idea to rotate it came from filmic musings on murchana in preparation for a shoot interview? Or maybe the main motivation was simply to calm the swirling inner restlessness familiar to all obsessive musicians?


In the end, this is all pure speculation. But exact answers aren’t really the point here – what’s interesting is the ease with which we can picture the questions, and the uncanny relatability of the overall situation. Knowledge of the story can certainly change how we listen to the raga itself – it’s pleasing to imagine its expansion outwards from a single ‘point’ in space and time, and also to get a little further into Shankar’s mindset, feeling his wide-eyed enjoyment at the chance to fill out a near-blank melodic canvas.


–Ravi Shankar (1970)–

• How did Shankar explore the new scale? •

The Pandit’s approach to adding colour naturally reflected his predominant musical inclinations. He found fruitful harvest in forceful fretted motions and dense, looping taans, exploring rare rhythms with longtime dance partner Alla Rakha’s tabla – notably the ancient dhamar taal (14 beats). Listen to their captivating 1970 recording above, just a couple of years on from the raga’s roadborne inception.


Shankar’s penchant for pairing Parameshwari with dhamar – described by some as a ‘warlike’ cycle – indicates what sentiments he may have come to associate with the raga. Vocalist Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande told me in a 2018 interview that she sees dhamar as like “a warrior going onto the battlefield…displaying joy in leading his followers and finding strength in doing so”, a description echoed by Benares tabla maestro Sanju Sahai in his interview (“a warrior moving slowly forward…he proceeds like this as he is riding an elephant!”). Can you hear it in Shankar’s take (e.g. here)?


These martial associations match the strident aggression of Shankar’s recordings, and even mirror its rapid emergence into the world. Parameshwari’s path almost reads like a Bengali folk tale of old, tracking some great soldier who marches across India’s vast rural landscapes before suddenly, hastily, being put into action on the global stage, eyes darting as he seeks courage and calm amidst the unfolding chaos.


Sukanya recounts that Shiva-like themes of conflict, death, and destruction were playing heavily on Shankar’s mind during his 1971 Hollywood concert: “It was during this gathering that he spoke about his distress over the plight of the people of East Pakistan [soon to become Bangladesh] in the aftermath of Cyclone Bhola. Being Bengali himself, he talked about wanting to do something to alleviate the suffering”.


The vast tropical storm had killed over half a million inhabitants of the Ganges Delta the previous year (as if everyone living in Edinburgh, Lisbon, or Abu Dhabi had been wiped from the map). It devastated many of the very communities he had passed through while filming, including the region around Chengali, the site of the raga’s seemingly prophetic inception. See the footage below, shot in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), for some of what Shankar was taking about (warning: graphic scenes).


–Cyclone Bhola aftermath (1970)–


Shankar took to discussing the human impacts of the crisis at length, seeking to raise awareness – and hard cash – from his star-studded living-room audiences. Sukanya explains how he would “invite friends over, and then all the four Beatles and people like Marlon Brando, Zubin Mehta, and Peter Sellers would drop by…”. 


The occasion of Parameshwari’s 1971 Hollywood performance seems to have provided the spark. In Sukanya’s telling, “George Harrison, in attendance that day, listened, and from those conversations the seed was sown for what would later become the Concert for Bangladesh” – a pioneering humanitarian effort co-organised by Harrison and Shankar, that paved the way for future efforts including Live Aid and Live Earth (…so does Bob Geldof have Parameshwari to thank for his latter-day fame?).




Non-Shankar recordings of the raga remained rare in his own lifetime, but other artists have explored it over the years, often to great effect. Though fairly well-documented through his many performances, the raga is relatively rare on the modern concert platform, partly as the master took on few long-term disciples. Bansuri maestro Ronu Majumdar, one of a select number to have learned Parameshwari directly from its creator, played it at Darbar 2015 (see ‘Recording in focus’ below). He explained on stage that Shankar had shown it to him in London while they were there to record, with none other than…George Harrison.


In Majumdar’s words, Parameshwari comes with “a unique, strange emotion – very rare”. His rendition superbly captures Shankar’s ethos of relentless experimentalism while also remaining true to the raga’s phraseological and associative roots, brilliantly aided by dhamar-specialist Sukhvinder Singh’s deep-toned tabla drums. I hope performances like Majumdar’s will inspire future generations to take it up in greater numbers – five decades is barely an infancy in ‘raga years’, meaning it still offers up vast unexplored melodic territory. Parameshwari’s ripples will surely spread much further from here – perhaps its (car) journey has only just begun.




Its six-note swara set of SrgmDnS appears to have few real melodic ‘competitors’ (aside from the near-extinct Deen Todi). It can be related to known ragas in various ways (‘Ahiri no Pa’, ‘Bageshri aroha komal re’, etc)  – but sits apart, challenging artists to engage directly. Being a new and rarely-performed raga, with no living creator to guide its abstractions, Parameshwari’s characteristic movements are unclear. Or rather, they are not yet well-established – Shankar’s own explorations veer through most interval combinations at some point.


Nevertheless, some patterns emerge. As mentioned, he often brought out the raga’s warlike associations with talas such as dhamar, favouring strong yet unpredictable, ‘wandering’ melodic movements. Dha comes through as the vadi, and he sometimes uses the absence of Pa to draw focus away from the root Sa, with long phrases coming to temporary rest elsewhere. The re is often played weakly in ascent, and approached with a bend from above in descent.


As mentioned in Sukanya’s notes, “Parameshwari has flashes of known ragas Bageshri, Bhairavi, and Bilaskhani Todi“. Bageshri comes out like gmDnS in ascent (especially if re is skipped), whereas the latter pair also feature the nSrgm run. Bilaskhani Todi ascends sparsely with Srg, similarly taking a dha vadi (albeit the komal variant), and Bhairavi’s general sense of phrasal flexibility can also provide overlap.


Tanarang’s brief summary gives illustrative swara combinations of Srgm, gmDm, mDnS, DnrS, SnDm, mgr, nrS. Sources are generally sparse, but ‘student notes’ occasionally turn up on the internet, ascribed to various gurus around Shankar. While I can’t directly vouch for their provenance, the suggestions in a 2007 thread on David Courtney’s Chandrakantha site provide some good ideas:


“The re is not so prominent as in Ahir Lalit [or, I would add, Ahir Bhairav, or Bilaskhani Todi]…where Ahir Lalit goes nrS or DnrS, Parameshwari would go DnS or nDnS. The way the phrase mgrgm turns in on itself suggests resignation to the inevitability of spiritual isolation…which is at the heart of this raag. There is a certain pathos and hopeful longing in the important phrase m/nD, played with a very soft touch. There is an important reaching movement via [D-n-S-r] to a soft komal ga. The ga is not held, only touched.”

–Ronu Majumdar (2015)–

Ronu Majumdar’s invigorating Parameshwari rendition, performed at London’s Southbank Centre for Darbar 2015, was dedicated to the raga’s creator – one of the bansuri master’s many gurus. Sukhvinder ‘Pinky’ Singh, the world’s leading jori master, accompanies on unusually deep-toned tabla.


—In this excerpt, approximately an hour into the concert, Majumdar enters with uttarang-based flurries (e.g. DnSrSn), painting the open canvas with quick ascending lines and long, looping descents (at 0:11 it’s almost like the Dn pair is juggling with the notes above it, throwing them higher each time – DnD:Sn, DnD:gr, DnD:mg…).


Dha plays a special role in the performance. Apart from being the main melodic launchpoint, it is also the note to which Singh’s bayan (bass tabla) is tuned, bringing an inescapable gravity throughout. In fact, the raga’s overall sense of root is somewhat unstable – Dha seems to exert the most ‘pull’, often winning the tug-of-war with Sa (e.g. gmDnD and DnSnD).


—This ‘ambiguous root’ effect is accentuated by the comparatively quiet tanpura, and by the bansuri’s lack of a ‘drone tone’ (unlike a sitar, it has no root-tuned chikari to strum). The raga’s general unfamiliarity is also disorientating – none of our existing ‘maps’ quite fit the melodic terrain. Such feelings of displacement only seem natural. After all, the raga’s oddly-scattered tones were derived through murchana (modal rotation, or ‘displacing the Sa’). But in the end it is far from truly ‘rootless’ – partly because building from the Dha results in an ‘impermissible’ scale (SrgGMdS, which has both ‘M with no P’ and ‘gG with no m’). So naturally, our ears also remain drawn to the ‘true’ Sa.


Later passages, in keeping with Shankar’s original inceptions, give percussion a co-starring role. They overflow with bold explorations, including dense layakari (rhythmic-melodic interplay) and emphatic tihai (three-part resolutions), including phrases of gmDnS, mDnrS, and DmDmgmDnD. Singh’s ominous tabla solo (1:20-2:20) is supported by lehras (looped melodies) of ‘SDm gRS, gmDnD’ and ‘D, mrgrS, gmDn’. Majumdar’s angular note combinations run through the full range of his flute, lengthening over time and concluding with aggressive cyclings around DDmgm. As per YouTube commenters, their performance is “mesmerising…a morning kickstart with force”. See their full 70-minute performance on the Darbar Player.



Majumdar’s rendition broadly reflects Shankar’s original tendencies. Dha is prominent throughout, as both the main melodic launchpoint and the tuned tone of the bayan bass tabla, coming in on both instruments as the sam (one-beat) of the main composition: ‘D, mrgrS, gmDn’. He even references the raga’s capacity for experimentation out loud, telling the crowd “I will try something new…” before launching into daring crossrhythms with Sukhvinder Singh’s tabla, stretching 10 beats into 16 and more besides.


Parameshwari’s unique structure is, through murchana, shared with the three other ragas created along with it – Kameshwari, Gangeshwari, and Rangeshwari (see ‘Swara Geometry’ below). To better understand its intervallic possibilities, we should internalise these ragas too.


–T ()–


Rotation Process: As explained in Sukanya’s liner notes, Shankar created (or ‘discovered’) Parameshwari through murchana (modal rotation) of Kameshwari, a raga he had just devised, also coming up with Gangeshwari and Rangeshwari in the process. Essentially, the thinking steps behind the ‘car ki seat’ murchana set would have gone something as follows: First, take an initial shape – in this case, Kameshwari’s SRMPDnS, and ’rotate’ it through all of its six possible positions (i.e. moving the Sa to Re, then Ga, and so on, going round the whole circle) – then run some melodies through each of the rotations (‘modes’), and decide which of them are worth exploring in further detail. In this case, Shankar found he could turn all four of them into new ragas, releasing all except Parameshwari on a 1972 CD. Seen from the original Kameshwari base, they come out as follows:

  • 1 (on Sa) SRMPDnS Kameshwari (‘goddess of love’)
  • 2 (on Re) SGmPdnS Gangeshwari (‘lord of the Ganga river’)
  • 3 (on Ma) SrgGMdS [unused]
  • 4 (on Pa) SRgmPNS Rangeshwari (‘lord of colours’)
  • 5 (on Dha) SrgmDnS Parameshwari (‘supreme lord/lordess’)
  • 6 (on ni) SRGdDNS [unused]

From Parameshwari’s perspective, you can produce Kameshwari by starting on ga, Gangeshwari from ma, and Rangeshwari from ni. The shared interval pattern of these ragas is packed with half-resolving sangatis – three of the six notes (SrD) are ‘imperfect’ (with no swara a perfect 5h above), and two of these (rD) are also ‘detached’, with no fifths above or below. This summons a distinctive, perpetually tense set of moods, always tempting further elaboration and rarely seeming to settle even when static on the Sa. For a raga derived from geometric abstraction, it contains few clear regularities within itself.


While some ragas fit into several different seven-note ‘parent scales’, Parameshwari’s absent Pa means that adding it is the only permissible possibility, making SrgmPDnS. The process of Pa’s removal illuminates phraseological parallels – e.g. Gujiri Todi is to Todi as Parameshwari is to Ahiri (the former ragas being ‘no-Pa’ variants of the latter).


–Around the World–

Composer William Zeitler listed Parameshwari’s tone set (1-b2-b3-4-6-b7) as the ‘Sagimic’ in Ian Ring’s All The Scales compendium, having, like Shankar, derived its shape through abstraction rather than observation. But I don’t think he’s used it yet (a real shame: Zeitler is one of the world’s leading masters of the ‘glass armonica‘, a ghostly instrument built from rotating wine glasses, fabled as an invention of Benjamin Franklin). As far as I can tell, Parameshwari’s specific shape is barely documented as being in use elsewhere in the world. But its six-note simplicity tempts me to think this seeming absence may be down to the sketchy English-language searchability of global scales, rather than a literal lack of use – few scales are truly unique. I’d love to hear what artists of other cultures might have made of it (please get in touch if you hear it turn up anywhere!). 


—Alankarapriya (South India)—
(Vijeesh Venu, 2020)



• Classifiers •

Explore hidden inter-raga connections: swara geometries, melodic features, murchana sets, ragangas, & more (also see the Full Tag List):

Swaras: -4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10+

Sapta: Audav | Shadav | Sampurna

Poorvang: SRGM | SRG | SRM | SGM

Uttarang: PDNS | PDS | PNS | DNS

Varjit: Re | Ga | Ma | Pa | Dha | Ni

Double: rR | gG | mM | dD | nN

Thaat: 10 | 32 | Enclosed | Inexact

Chal: All-shuddha | All-komal | Ma-tivra

Gaps: Anh. | Hemi. | 3-row | 4-row | 5-row

Symmetries: Mirror | Rotation | Palindr.

Aroha: Audav | Shadav | Sampurna

Avroh: Audav | Shadav | Sampurna

Jati: Equal | Balanced | Av.+1 | Av.+2

Samay: Morning | Aftern. | Eve. | Night

Murchana: Bhup. | Bihag | Bilaw. | Charu.

Raganga: Bhairav | Malhar | Kan. | Todi

Construction: Jod | Mishra | Oddball

Origin: Ancient | Carnatic | Modern

Dominance: Poorvang | Uttarang

Prevalence: A-list | Prachalit | Aprach.


• Prakriti: Deen Todi


–Proximate Forms–
Ahiri = ‘Parameshwari add Pa
Sundarkauns = ‘Parameshwari no re
Salagavarali = ‘Parameshwari Pa-for-ma
(n.b. these are just ‘scalar similarities’, with nothing particular implied about phraseological overlap)


–Swara Geometries–

Core form: SrgmDnS
Reverse: SRgPDNS
Negative: 3-2-2-1-1-3
Imperfect: 3 (Sa, re, Dha)
Detached: 2 (re, Dha)
Symmetries: none
Murchanas: Kameshwari set


–Global Translations–

Carnatic: (~Alankarapriya)
Jazz: Dorian b2 (no 5th)
Pitch classes (‘fret-jumps’):

o o • o • o • • • o o • o


• Tanpura: Sa–ma (+Dha)
• Names: Parameshwari, Parameshvari, Paramesvari, (~Deen Todi), (~Kanwal Todi)



A brief selection of superb renditions

–Ravi Shankar (1971)–

  • Maihar sitar (m): Naturally, Ravi Shankar’s original takes are essential immersions. He conceived the raga “sometime in March 1968”, recording it several times over the following years. Highlights include his 1970 Parameshwari album, and his 1971 Hollywood rendition, recorded in a friend’s living room on Highland Avenue (“a slow gat in tintal…and a fast gat in ektal”).



  • Senia-Bangash sarod (6m): :



–Further Recordings–
  • Ronu Majumdar (m):
  • Tarun Bhattacharya (m):
  • Kushal Das (m):
  • Neeraj Mishra (m):
  • Artist (m):
  • Artist (m):
  • Artist (m):
  • Artist (m):
  • Artist (m):
  • Artist (m):


Aside from his Darbar concert, Ronu Majumdar has set it to dhamar on national TV, and other Shankar students have also laid it down, including Gaurav Majumdar, Kartik Sheshadri, and Tarun Bhattacharya.


Brij Bhushan Kabra recorded it on slide guitar, and Abhijit Pohankar even did so on electric keyboard (Scintillating Synthesiser), while in recent times Kushal Das seems to have been teaching it to his son Kalyanjit. And like Shankar himself, Neeraj Mishra is a Benares-born sitarist who has chosen to record Parameshwari in a living room – this time that of the Sahai household in Kabir Chaura, the historical home of the Benares tabla gharana (just up the road from my own guru Pandit Shivnath Mishra)


Naturally, Ravi Shankar’s original takes are essential immersions. He conceived the raga “sometime in March 1968”, recording it several times over the following years. Highlights include his 1970 Parameshwari album, and his 1971 Hollywood rendition, recorded in a friend’s living room on Highland Avenue (“a slow gat in tintal of 16 beats…and a fast gat in ektal of 12 beats”).







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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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