I gave a short speech recently about the concept of Raaga - the basic element of Indian Classical Music. How would you explain a color, say, red to a blind person? The concept of raaga is as abstract as colors. Explaining the concept in a 10 minute speech was a daunting task. Nevertheless, I believe my audience got some idea about raaga, especially those who had basic knowledge about western music.
I started my speech with a demonstration - a swara prasthaara in Raaga Valachi (I come from the school of Karnataka Sangeetha or Carnatic Music, therefore my examples were from this genre of Indian Classical Music). The audience was delighted. Some even clapped to my rhythm. The mood was happy and gay. Right at the point when Valachi had reached its peak, I switched to Shubhapantuvarali, the most sombre raaga (in my opinion, of course). Everybody noticed the change in the mood - from joy to melancholy. It took only about 40 seconds to convey the basic idea of raaga. From there, I walked through my presentation.
A raaga induces a particular mood. As per the tradition, a composition is set to a raaga. A performing artist will not only sing the composition, but also express his or her imagination by improvising various patterns of the raaga. A high level definition for a raaga is: “It is a melodic pattern that evokes mood and emotions.”
Three things contribute to a raaga - 1. Scale, 2. Order of notes, 3. How you render particular notes. Many experts believe that the last point is the most important one.
There are seven notes in the Indian Classical Music. In the 12 scale system, S and P are constants. R, G, D, and N have 3 variants, and M has 2. A scale that has all seven notes is called a Sampoorna or a Melakarta Raaga. Typically a scale has an ascent and a descent. You will see later that the notes and their order in the ascent and the descent could differ. In Melakarta Raagas the notes in the ascent and the descent are the same.
There are 72 Melakarta Raagas totally. The scale of Shankarabharana and Kalyani differ by just one note - the M. The former has M1 and the latter M2. Pantuvarali is yet another main raaga - Melakarta Raaga with R1, G3, M2, D1, N3.
Some raagas don’t have all the 7 notes. They are the derived or the Janya Raagas (the correct technical term is Varjya Raaga, but Janya Raaga is a more commonly used term). For example, Mohana has only 5 notes - S, R2, G3, P, D2. A composition that’s set to Mohana will have only those five notes, and the improvisation will involve the same set. Even though the derived raagas are a subset of the main raagas, the absence of certain notes gives a totally new emotion to the raaga.
The order, or the pattern of notes (sanchaaras) matter a lot. For example, in Andolika the ascent has P, but descent has D2 instead of P. There are many raagas where the ascent and descent are different.
In Vakra Raagas, or the crooked raagas, the notes don't go in an order. For example, the Nalinakanti can never have SRGM pattern. If you have to reach M from S, you must first go to G, then go down to R, and then jump to M. However, this rule doesn’t apply for the descent for this particular raaga. There other raagas where the pattern is crooked in the descent too.
How you render notes is extremely important in Indian Classical Music. For example, even though Shankarabharana and Kalyani differ from only one note - M1 and M2, the way every note is rendered is very different in those two raagas. It’s because of this reason many hard core followers of Carnatic Music refuse to accept piano. Note about Aarabhi, an example shown above: Even though G appears in the descent, it’s position on the scale is same as M’s. If you are singing Aarabhi, you cannot stay at G for more than a beat.
Bhairavi is a versatile raaga. One can spend hours explaining the details of every note.
Many who appreciated this speech seemed to like the Vakra Raagas - the crooked ragas the most.
Lastly, I have referenced these raagas in my presentation: Valachi, Shubhapantuvarali, Shankarabharana, Kalyani, Pantuvarali, Mohana, Andolika, Nalinakanti, Aarabhi, and Bhairavi. Google those raagas, and you will find many examples on YouTube.