The Structure of a Raga

There are hundreds of different ragas, and they can be classified in various ways — by structure, by parent scale, by family, by time or season, by mood, and so on. The seasons and moods ascribed to ragas are more subjective, but classifying by structure, scale, or family helps to get a better understanding of ragas from different perspectives.

On this page, let’s take a look at how ragas can be classified based on their structure into symmetric, asymmetric, mixed (mishra), circuitous (vakra), and compound (jod) ragas. To illustrate, I’ll use a few light ragas — Kafi, Durga, Dhani, Des, Pahadi, Bhairavi and Bahar. Lively, nimble, and more suited to delicate rather than heavy ornamentation, these ragas are a great introduction to Hindustani (North Indian) classical music for those who are new to it.

Symmetric Ragas

Symmetric ragas have the same number of notes in both the ascending and descending scales: five-five (audav-audav), six-six (shadav-shadav), or seven-seven (sampoorna). Additionally, they use the same notes in both the ascending and descending scales. Kafi and Durga are examples of symmetric ragas.

Raag Kafi uses all seven notes in both its ascending and descending scales, so it is a sampoorna raga (sampoorna means “complete”). Additionally, the same variants of those notes, Sa Re ga ma Pa Dha ni (1 2 ♭3 4 5 6 ♭7), are used in both the ascending and descending scales, making it a symmetric raga.

Raag Kafi is pretty with wistful undertones and retains the rustic flavor of its folk roots. In a classical setting, it is typically performed in the evening hours.

Click to hear the scale of Raag Kafi
Nikhil Banerjee (sitar)
Raag Kafi

Raag Durga uses five notes in both its ascending and descending scales, which makes it an audav-audav (i.e., pentatonic-pentatonic) raga. Again, the same notes and the same variants of those notes, Sa Re ma Pa Dha (1 2 4 5 6), are used in both the ascending and descending scales, making it a symmetric raga.

To me, Raag Durga is filled with innocence and purity, but the traditional emotion associated with it is valor. Being a relatively recent import from Carnatic (South Indian) classical music, it is not yet counted among the big Hindustani ragas, but perhaps that’s just a question of time. Durga is performed from late evening to midnight.

Click to hear the scale of Raag Durga
Venkatesh Kumar (vocal)
Raag Durga

Asymmetric Ragas

Most ragas are not symmetric. One reason for asymmetry is a different number of notes in the ascending and descending scales. In such cases, the ascending scale usually has fewer notes, because notes are skipped on the way up more often than on the way down, as in the case of Raag Dhani, which skips the note Re (2) on the way up but uses it on the way down.

Named after its parent raga, Dhanashree, Raag Dhani is soulful and romantic in a dreamy, wholesome sort of way. It is usually performed at medium to lively tempos.

Click to hear the scale of Raag Dhani
Shruti Sadolikar (vocal)
Raag Dhani

Another cause of asymmetry can be the use of different variants of the same note in the ascending and descending scales. Here, the higher-pitched variant is typically used on the way up while the lower pitched variant is used on the way down. In Raag Des, for instance, natural Ni (7) is used on the way up, but it is replaced by flat ni (♭7) on the way down.

True to its name (“des” means countryside), Raag Des lends itself beautifully to light classical genres that are closely associated with folk music traditions. It is, however, a very important raga in classical music too. Raag Des is associated with the rains.

Click to hear the scale of Raag Des
Nikhil Banerjee (sitar)
Raag Des

When the scale of a raga is asymmetric, what this means in terms of application in music is that ascending sequences in musical phrases must reflect the ascending scale while descending sequences must reflect the descending scale. So in Raag Dhani, for instance, you would never use the note Re (2) in an ascending sequence, but you can use it in descending sequences. In Raag Des, on the other hand, the note Ni (7) can only be used in ascending sequences, while the notes Ga (3) and Dha (6) and flat ni (♭7) can only be used in descending sequences. Such constraints make a raga more challenging but also give it a stronger identity.

Mixed Ragas (mishra raag)

In mainstream classical music, artists adhere to the framework of the raga quite strictly. But in light & semi-classical settings, they can afford to be more playful, such as by mixing in additional notes. In such cases, the adjective mishra (mixed) is added to the name of the raga. So you can have performances in Mishra Kafi or Mishra Des and so on. You don’t often hear of mixed versions of the more serious ragas, because such ragas are not usually performed in lighter settings.

Meanwhile, some ragas are performed almost exclusively as mixed ragas. Two such ragas are Pahadi and Bhairavi, both of which can get away with using just about any note in the octave while still retaining their separate identities.

Pahadi (literally “of the hills”) is an evening raga from the foothills of the Himalayas that combines both playful and pensive aspects. The notes Sa Re Ga Pa Dha (1 2 3 5 6) form the backbone of Raag Pahadi. The other notes have to be incorporated into this framework with great care in order to to retain the raga’s identity.

Click to hear a simple solfa song in Raag Pahadi
Debasmita Bhattacharya (sarod)
Raag Pahadi

Raag Bhairavi is a very important raga in both classical and semi-classical music. As in the case of Raag Pahadi, just about any note in the octave can be used in Raag Bhairavi, but its main structure comprises the notes Sa re ga ma Pa dha ni (1 ♭2 ♭3 4 5 ♭6 ♭7) — notice that all the variable notes are flat. This gives the raga a very gentle quality. A small composition in Raag Bhairavi is often sung at the end of a long performance as a way of winding down.

Click to hear the scale of Raag Bhairavi
Venkatesh Kumar (vocal)
Raag Bhairavi

Circuitous Ragas (vakra raag)

Circuitous ragas can be identified at a glance by their undulating ascending and descending scales. This happens because some of their notes are typically accessed through other notes or in specific note patterns. Ragas can be circuitous to different extents. Some ragas may have just one note that tends to be accessed indirectly, others may have several. The more circuitous a raga, the more challenging it is to improvise in it, because you’re limited by the specific patterns and rules.

Bahar is an example of a very circuitous raga. The note ga (♭3) in this raga, for instance, is typically accessed through Pa (5) and followed by ma (4) in circular constructions like “ma Pa ga ma” (4 5 ♭3 4). You would not typically find ga being used in straight constructions like “Re ga ma” (2 ♭3 4), “ga ma Pa” (♭3 4 5), or “ma ga Re” (4 ♭3 2) in this raga. Another example is the note Dha (6), which is typically accessed through flat ni (♭7) and followed by natural Ni (7) in the circular phrase “ni Dha Ni Sa’ “ (♭7 6 7 8). It is never used in this raga in constructions like “Pa Dha Ni” (5, 6, 7) or “ni Dha Pa” (♭7 6 5).

Bahar means spring, and Raag Bahar is filled with the lightness and joyous celebration of springtime. It is sung throughout the spring season during the early afternoon hours and lends itself best to a lively tempo.

Click to hear the scale of Raag Bahar
Veena Sahasrabudhe (vocal)
Raag Bahar

Compound Ragas (jod raag)

Compound ragas are a fascinating group of ragas created by combining two ragas. There are two ways in which this can be done. One way involves intertwining the melodies of two ragas so that they weave in and out playfully while retaining their separate identities. Another way is to use the notes of one raga but the melody profile or chalan (video: “what is chalan?”) of a different raga.

Kaunsi Kanada, for instance, is a combination of ragas Sampoorna Malkauns and Darbari Kanada, and is an example of the kind of compound raga in which the constituent ragas weave in and out. Meanwhile, Raag Megh uses the notes of Madmad Sarang with the note patterning and ornamentation of the Malhar family of rain ragas.

To appreciate a compound raga, you have to understand its background — its parent ragas and the families to which they belong. So head on to my page on raga families & compound ragas for the full tour. To explore other important ragas in Hindustani classical music, check out raga classification by scale (thaat) and difficult ragas.

This essay is a part of a series of essays on Indian classical music. Below are the other essays in this series.

Chapter 1. An overview of Indian classical music

Chapter 2. Notes in an octave in Indian classical music

Chapter 3. What is a raga?

Chapter 4. Rhythm (taal) in Indian classical music

Chapter 5. Ornamentation in Indian classical music

Chapter 6. Notating Indian classical music

Chapter 7. Indian classical music compositions

Chapter 8. Improvisation in Indian classical music

Chapter 9. Understanding a raga performance

Chapter 10. Tips & resources for students of Indian classical music

You can also visit the following links to enjoy real performances by renowned artists in some of the other beautiful ragas in Indian classical music while learning about raga scales, raga families, as well as the time and moods associated with different ragas.

Ragas classified by scale (thaat)

Raga families (raagang)

A few difficult ragas

Originally published at https://raag-hindustani.com.

Peepal (sacred fig) leaf (Image by Joanna Arevalo from Pixabay)

I study, write about, and make audiovisual content to explain Indian classical music. My website: https://raag-hindustani.com