Rãga that can colour the mind with emotions!

Raga is one of the melodic modes used in Indian classical music. Raga is a Sanskrit word, which literally means “colour” or “passion.” Ragas are meant to colour the mind with emotion. The raga is not a scale or a tune or a mode. It is more like a framework that binds all these things together. In the broad sense a rãga is a set of rules or constraints that binds the performance of a singer or a musician in such a way that it induces a certain emotion or mood in the minds of the listeners. Although the raga is governed by certain rules, not every set of notes that follows those rules becomes a rãga. This is because the rãga has to ‘induce an emotion’ and that is what makes this concept abstract and intriguing.

Think of the twelve basic notes in an octave as twelve basic colors. Now, what if you limited yourself to a select few out of these twelve colors for a painting? That would be like giving yourself a theme. A palette comprising blue, green, violet, gray, white, black and yellow colors, for instance, would produce a very cool picture. The possibilities of mixing and matching are endless. And even though you could create any number of paintings using a given color scheme, they would all share an easily-recognizable underlying quality that is distinct from paintings based on other color schemes. That is how it works with raga.

The idea of a raga is actually quite fundamental to all music. The music of ancient Greece, for instance, was based on modes, which are essentially like raga scales. Major scales, minor scales, pentatonic scales, jazz or blues scales, any other scale you might be able to think of are all raga scales in a manner of speaking. The difference between a scale and a raga is that a raga has a stronger personality because it is defined in somewhat greater detail. Scales do evoke distinct moods – the major scale, for instance, is associated with a bright, cheerful mood while minor scales are associated with darker moods. Human emotions, however, are more nuanced, and it is at this level that a raga works.

A raga uses a series of five or more musical notes upon which a melody is constructed. However, the way the notes are approached and rendered in musical phrases and the mood they convey are more important in defining a raga than the notes themselves. In the Indian musical tradition, rāgas are associated with different times of the day, or with seasons. Indian classical music is always set in a rāga. Non-classical music such as popular Indian film songs and ghazals sometimes use rāgas in their compositions. A raga has rules specifying which notes are used in ascent and which in descent, down to the level of microtones. There are also norms as to how the notes in the raga are combined and how they relate to each other. For instance, ragas have prescribed dominant (vaadi), subdominant (samvaadi) and dissonant (vivaadi) notes, landing/resting notes (nyaasa) and so on.

For a raga there exist several compositions or songs which obey the rules of the raga. The words generally relate to the mood being conveyed by that raga. A singer or musician sings or plays the notes in various combinations playing the static compositions and embellishing them and adding improvised parts in between. A typical performance could go on for an hour or even two. The success of the performance depends on how effectively the musician builds up the desired mood. To continue with the color-scheme analogy, imagine how we can fine-tune the blue-green-gray-white-yellow color scheme. An emphasis on blue and green with sparing use of yellow, for instance, will produce an effect that is dramatically different from a liberal use of yellow and white with only a touch of blue and green.

“In this world, I am powerless. The melodies engulf my person and dispel all feeling of earthly existence. It is here that I discover a new being in me. With rhythm to my feet, I walk in a trance in the gardens of this heaven.”


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