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Senior Member
Posts: 727
Reply with quote  #1 
This is sort of academic and scholarly but it is one of the best things I have seen written on what a Raga is.

Some excerpts:

Raga as a Melodic Representation of an Emotional Idea

Interestingly, the word “राग ”, in itself, has no melodic meaning at all. It is derived from the Sanskrit verb “रंजन ” = to color or to tinge. The word is rarely encountered in isolated usage. It is generally encountered as a part of emotionally potent words like अनुराग / वैराग्य .

Matanga in Bruhaddeshi (800 AD):
A Raga is born from the act of colouring or delighting: this has been said to be its etymology. That which colours or delights the minds of the good (emphasis mine) through a specific swara (interval) and varna (intervallic transitions) or through a type of dhwani (sound) is known by the wise (emphasis mine) as Raga.

These observations have two implications: Firstly, that a Raga is a melodic representation of an emotional idea. Secondly, that the melody delivers its emotional charge through the artistic prowess of the musician, and is accessible only to the “Good” and the “Wise”. In this context, Prof. Saxena observes that the “goodness or excellence that is needed for being delighted is aesthetic sensitiveness and not moral purity”.

The Raga’s communicative efficacy is thus attributed to the receptivity of the listener, as much as the competence of the performer. So, a Raga is a rule-based system of sounds, used by its adepts for communicating emotional ideas to those who are cultivated in the interpretation of the sounds as emotional stimuli. When a medium of communication restricts its usefulness to a well-defined community, it qualifies as a language.

The Raga as a transcendental entity

A reconciliation of these divergent views was made possible, predictably, by resorting to the essential transcendentalism of Indian thought. The insight emerged during my conversations with Ustad Vilayat Khan.

I once prodded Khan Saheb into sharing his vision of Raga-ness.

“A Raga is much bigger than the collective imagination of all the musicians who have ever lived and will ever be born. We struggle all our lives to catch a glimpse of a Raga. May be, once in a lifetime, on a day when God is smiling upon us, we may get a fleeting glimpse of it. And, on that day, we can feel that we have validated our lives as musicians”

If a Raga is so vast, where are the boundaries of each Raga?

“The limits of a Raga’s personality are drawn only where the boundaries of another Raga are breached”.

In these observations, Khan Saheb makes the connection between the consensual melodic personality of a Raga and its Formless Form. The Formless Form has an autonomous, and virtually divine, existence which a musician constantly aspires to access by penetrating/ transcending the consensual personality of a Raga. A Raga performance is thus a contemplative act, and the relationship of the musician with the Raga is essentially reverential.

The influential German composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen probably refers to this feature in his book “Towards a Cosmic Music”, when he says:

“When a musician walks on stage, he should give that fabulous impression of a person who is doing a sacred service. In India…, when a group of musicians are performing, you don’t feel they do it to entertain you. They do it as holy service. They feel a need to make sounds, and these sounds are waves on which you ride to the eternal.”

Being a “formless form”, and the object of contemplation, the Raga is viewed as a Divinity to whom the musician prays, entreating it to descend into its melodic form. This idea is entirely consistent with Hindu thought – that humans can access the निराकार/ निर्गुण (Formless/ free from attributes/ the Divine) through an intense engagement with the साकार/सगुण (the manifest form/ the one possessing attributes). Raga music can thus be viewed as a form of melodic polytheism.

The notion of a Raga as a transcendental entity, possessing an autonomous existence in the cultural memory, encourages us to consider the notion of archetypes in modern psycho-analytical thought.

In my view, Raga-s are culture-specific Archetypes. What is accessible to musicians and listeners outside our culture is, at best, the consensual melodic entity and its aesthetics. We may concede that the Raga-s possibly have a component that is universally appealing. But, their archetypal associations have a cultural meaning, which is not accessible in its entirety to musicians or listeners nurtured in a different culture.

The evolutionary history of Raga-s suggests an organic evolution. Without going into the history, and quite independently of it, it seems fair to assume that Raga-s evolved from Songs.

I define a song as a stable construct incorporating poetry, melody, and rhythm, which is a self-sufficient piece of music, requiring no validation beyond its direct appeal to a listener’s heart. Songs are not composed. They are spontaneous emanations, which “compose themselves”.

The primordial sources of Raga-s, the Songs, acquired this appeal by achieving a perfect congruence between the emotional suggestions of the melody, the cadences of the rhythm, and verbalized thematic content of the poetry. And perhaps by accident, more than by design, this congruence connected the music with cultural Archetypes, and activated the cultural memory of pleasant emotional experiences

Los Angeles, CA

Junior Member
Posts: 16
Reply with quote  #2 
Thanks for posting something from Deepak Raja's site - this (and his books) are always good fodder for brain gym.

Some questions, if allowed:

"Raga music can thus be viewed as a form of melodic polytheism." Nice metaphor, but what about the "monotheistic" influence on Northern Classical? Is the maqam system monotheistic? Gregorian Chant mono or poly? Or the Common Period Western Classical harmonic polytheism? Hip-hop monorythmicism?[smile] 

"We may concede that the Raga-s possibly have a component that is universally appealing. But, their archetypal associations have a cultural meaning, which is not accessible in its entirety to musicians or listeners nurtured in a different culture." Does this leave a chance for "foreigners"/non-natives (like e.g.most of the people on this forum) to learn, access, practise this music at all? Or are these people doomed to admire and polish lovely Sitars etc. from the outside, but will never understand what is really the core of the pumpkin? 

Besides such questions, the idea that Ragas are a bunch of songs that met and liked each other enough to stay together is a good one. 
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