Understanding Raga- The Aesthetics

In concert by Aljado

Dharamvir Singh and Surmeet Singh take the reader through the elements that define raga: the linking of the mood and melody to the times of the day and to the nine human emotions or navarasa.


Indian music gives great prominence to melody and offers musicians an immense scope to pour out their emotions. The separation of a lover from the beloved (both in the worldly and godly sense), the exploration of the natural world, sensual beauty or praises of the kings and patrons can all be explored through its rich vocal inflections and instrumental textures.

 The association of sentiments and bhāva (emotional effect) with the inherent qualities of musical notes have been explored, written and commented on since two millennia.

 It is important for the listener to understand the classification of the Indian notes and their subtle variations to enjoy music more fully. The duality of the world is reflected in its music. The notes are associated with the active principle (activity and desire symbolised by the sun) and the passive principle (tranquillity and serenity symbolised by the moon). The active notes are tuned a little sharper in contrast to their passive counterparts. Alain Daniélou, the well- known French musicologist offers this summary, after studying the various Indian musical treatises on the expressions of the musical intervals, in his book, “The Ragas of Northern Indian Music”:

 “The expression conveyed by these different classes of intervals is in no way arbitrary. It is related to psycho-physiological facts upon which all music depends. These intervals are used in all music more or less instinctively, by good singers and players of stringed instruments”.      

 When the various musical notes with their inherent active, extreme active, passive or extreme passive qualities are combined in musical phrases, this gives rise to various emotions, colours, statements and pictures. It is this concept, which is the backbone of the Rāga, the basis of Indian classical music. The word Rāga itself means colour or “that which colours the mind”. The moods and emotional tones within the Ragas have led them to be associated with different times of the day.

 Rāgas and Times of the day

 Rāgas are ascribed to the eight Prahars, which also form the basis of Indian astrology. The day is split into eight three-hour periods with the first half starting from sunrise and the second half starting with the evening sunset. The two segments, day and night, show some similarities in the musical notes used but have a different emphasis on some notes. The position of the middle note (Madhayama) is very important as the Shūdh or perfect fourth conveys tenderness and signifies morning and day. The Tivra, or sharpened fourth, conveys the active principle and signifies evening and night. Midday and midnight both show more use of the Shūdh Madhyama (perfect fourth).

 Sunrise (4am to 7am) and Sunset (4pm to 7pm)

 The Rāgas of the sunrise use the passive notes, tender in character with appropriate musical attack mostly brought about by the use of the Komal Rishab (flat second) with the combination of Shūdh Gandhār (the natural third) and a prominent perfect fourth (Madhyama). The Rāgas well known in this category are Bhairav and its varieties including the popular Rāgas Ahīr Bhairav, Lalit and Nat Bhairav.  (Recording morning Rāga Bhairav family and Shānta rasa)

 The Rāgas of the sunset show more prominence of the active minor second (Kōmal Rishab), Shūdh Gandhār (major third) and the Tivra Madhayama (augmented fourth). The prominent Rāgas are Pūrvi, Pūriyā, Pūriyā Dhanāshrī, Pūriyā Kalyān and Mārvā.

 Morning (7am to 10am) and Evening (7pm to 10pm)

 The Rāgas of the morning also use the passive note combinations, still tender but with more prominence of the Shūdh Rishab (natural second), Shūdh Gandhār (natural third) and the Madhyama (perfect fourth). The Rāgas well known in this category are the various types of Bilāval, the most popular being Alhaiyā Bilāval and the pentatonic Deshkār.

 The evening Rāgas show a prominence of Tivra Madhayama (augmented fourth) including the popular Rāga Yaman Kalyān followed by more use of the perfect fourth in Rāgas Behāg, Jhinjhōtī and Khamāj.

 Late morning, midday (10am to 1pm) and Late evening, midnight (10pm to 1pm)

 The Rāgas of the late morning tend to have a prominence of the minor third (Kōmal Gandhār) of the passive character in combination with the minor second (Kōmal Rishab), major second (Shūdh Rishab) and perfect fourth (Shūdh Madhyama) or augmented fourth (Tivra Madhyama). The Rāgas in this category are the different varieties of Tōdi including Gujarī, Miya Ki, Dēsī and Bilāskhāni Tōdī.

 The midday Rāgas form a category of their own and show a marked prominence of the Shūdh Rishab (major second) and perfect fourth (Shūdh Madhyama). All varieties of Sārang, including the popular Vrindābanī Sārang and Shūdh Sārang, are attributed to this time of day. (Recording afternoon Vrindābanī Sārang and vīra rasa)

 The evening variety include Darbārī Kānhrā, varieties of Malhār and Kāfī. (Recording of Darbārī Kānhrā)

 Afternoon (1pm to 4pm) and late night (1am to 4am)

 The Rāgas in this time of the day maintain the prominence of the minor third (Kōmal Gandhār) but of the active type with its interplay with the other notes of the octave. The popular Rāgas of this time are Bhīmplāsī, Patdīp and Mūltānī.

 The late night Rāgas include Mālkauns, Paraj, Sōhīnī and Kalingdā. (Recording of Mālkauns)

 Navrasa and Rāgas

 The Rāgas are normally assigned to one of the moods of the classical Navrasa (nine sentiments) of Shringār (love), Hāsya (comic), Karūnā (sadness), Raudra (furious), Vīra (Heroic), Bhayānak (terrible), Vībhatsa (disgusting), Adhbuta (wonderment) and Shānta (peace). Musicians like Pandit Ravi Shankar have asserted that Indian music predominately expresses the rasas (moods) of love, sadness, heroism, wonderment and peace.

 Shringār rasa Rāgas are very popular as they can throw in shades of all the rasas and musicians and listeners enjoy different blends of emotions all within the sentiment of love. Rāgas like Khamāj, Bhairavi, Pīlū. Tīlang and Dēsh are all beloved Rāgas. (Recording evening Rāga and Shringār rasa)

 Seasonal Rāgās

 The Rāgas are also associated to the main seasons of India. The Malhār Rāgas depict the rainy season, Basant and Hindol Rāgas the spring season and the Hemant Rāga the winter season.                      (Recording Seasonal Rāga)

 Musical notes and the derived Rāgas have been expressed in different moods, ascribed to different times of the day, seasons, gods, goddesses, Rasa and Rāgamāla paintings. The one aesthetic which overrides all is the feeling of Shānta (peace) and godly love. So the prime goal of its music is eventually to prepare the ground for the performer and listener to become one with its source, the primordial sound – Nāda – Aum.