A raaga or rag is an idyllic melodic framework for improvised improvisation similar to a free form melodic style in Indian folk music. Like its European cousin the cello, the raga is unique and unidirectional, and this alone makes it a great achievement in musical innovation. The raga is the main ingredient of almost every traditional Indian musical composition. In fact, the words “rag” and “raaga” are used interchangeably even in some academic circles. The raga is not only used as the basic foundation for all other Indian styles of music (both spoken and written), but it’s influence has spread to the world and is now known as one of the major forms of popular music in India.
Like other ragas, the raaga begins with a basic pattern of four to seven notes which are played in quick succession. These notes, which are loosely followed by octave notes, are known as the “swarish” and the “rhyme” parts. While the first few octaves are played as single notes, the rakas often start with two octaves which are further divided into two more octaves. The swarish part consists of two octaves played as pure notes, while the rhyme is where the octave notes are mixed with octave notes. These two parts combine together and become the basic foundation of every raaga that follows.
Raga in the Telugu State Urdu Music has three key elements. These elements, which are again similar to those in the kali genre of music, feature repeated beats within each line and a strong emphasis on melodious syncopation. In Urdu and Komal songs the raga is often referred to as the “ta”. The songs that follow often have a fast tempo, and songs which have a slower tempo have a strong emphasis on smooth arpeggios.
Interestingly enough the raaga tradition can be found in many South Asian countries, notably Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. This is perhaps because the influence of western music is very keen in the Indian subcontinent. Interestingly the most famous example of this is Saira Sarai waiting for the bus in Jaipur, Rajasthan.
Most people believe that Raga is simply a series of notes, but this is not the case. Like everything in India, it is made up from complex rhythmic patterns. This means that each note must be played in a different rhythmical pattern. In order to understand this complexity, it helps to understand how western music is composed. In the case of Raga, we have a series of notes which start off in the basic octave, but then the melody starts off in the next octave (known as the “e” note), then go up three notes, the “g” note is a double tone which goes up another octave, and the “t” note is a single tone which goes one octave higher.
There are two main types of ragas in India, namely the Arogya Raga, also known as the Bengali Raga, and the Bala Raga, which is spoken in West Bengal, and Assam, respectively. Interestingly the Bengalis are the only ones who use the alphabet to write the raga name! However, this should not make much difference to you as the same rules apply to all traditional Indian music, including classical music or modern Indian music which has been influenced by western music styles. The next time you take a walk around any area of India, whether it is the subcontinent or your local town or city, do not be surprised if you come across a bopra or a raaga being played, it is truly an amazing tradition that is steeped in tradition and music from India’s rich musical heritage.