The Time Theory of Ragas

Sitar, sarod, tabla, sarangi, raga…: today, they are common words ever in the Western Society. All that concerns with Indian classical music.

Indian classical music has developed through complex interactions between different groups of people, different in race and culture, throughout the history of India.

It is a tradition in which improvisation is what sets you apart from the rest. The written word is not the order of the day, therefore, it is believed that much classical music has been lost throughout the ages. 

Indian classical music, till today, is passed on by the guru (teacher) to the shishya (student).

However, all is not lost. There are many references to musical traditions in historic texts, often with description and detailed, written discussions of classical music.

Classical instruments, such as the sitar, sarod, tabla, sarangi, etc. are generally believed to have fallen into much use during the Early Vedic Age in India. Something of that time that still survives is the raga. 

In music, a set of eight notes make an octave. More technically speaking, if note Z is an octave higher than note Y, it means that the frequency of Z is exactly double that of Y.

raga is like a protocol for music. It lays down a set of rules to be followed while moving up or down the scale, the notes to be played, the notes to be ignored, and so on. 

Within the apparently strict-looking framework of a raga lies scope for tremendous improvisation. After all, as I said before, improvisation is what sets you apart from the rest in classical music. Let me give you an example to help understand. 

Suppose, a raga says that the only notes that can be played are: C#, D#, E, F, A and B. I can now arrange these notes in whatever sequence I want, by changing their order, repeating them, excluding some, and so on. Here are some examples:

  • C# A B F
  • A C# D# C# C# F A B
  • A B C# D# E A F F B
  • and so on.

There is one more thing about ragas that is unique. Before moving on further, please make yourself aware that there are countless ragas in Indian classical music, each with its unique style. And something else.

Each raga has an associated mood. 

The sole purpose of following a raga while playing an instrument, or singing vocals, is to impart a certain mood in the listener. Only if the listener is engrossed in the mood of the raga, only then can he/she feel the strange, calm feeling that one gets while listening to a raga. I have experienced it myself, and it’s a feeling that’s beyond the power of words to be described.

However, there’s a catch. For that, maybe you should ask the psychologist in the university. He’ll say this.

It is easier to impart a certain mood in a person’s mind at a particular time of the day. 

Well, whoever devised the ragas of Indian classical music seemed to be aware of that! Therefore, each raga is meant to be played at a certain time of the day. 

An infographic depicting the time of the day a particular raga is meant to be played. If you’re having difficulty in comprehending this, click on the image to lead to an interactive infographic. Image Credit: ITC Sangeet Research Academy

On a personal note, I play the sitar. It’s an instrument whose existence is gravely at stake, something I’m not at all pleased about. Having said that, I currently know to play three ragas: Bhairav, Yaman, and Khamaj. 

  • Raga Bhairav is meant to be played in the early morning (6 – 8 am).
  • Raga Yaman is supposed to be played in the evening (6 – 8 pm).

I have attended quite many concerts of classical music, and the maestros do follow these timings. I have played these two ragas both during the correct time, and also during the incorrect time. The difference is striking. 

Also, there are seasons associated with each raga! But that’s a story for another time.

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