Raga in Indian Music

Written by: Ram S. Sriram

The terminology and descriptions provide a brief and basic introduction to the concept of Raga in Indian music system.

It is fascinating that, over 2,000 years ago, Indian musical scholars created innumerable ragas with just seven Swaras.  This has not happened in any other music system of the world.  In the following section, we will explore the raga system and its importance to the Indian music system.

World Music Systems

We can classify the world music systems as either harmonic or melodic.  Indian music (both Carnatic and Hindustani systems) belong to the melodic system.  In a melodic system, each individual note follows another with a regular sequence of pitch, rhythm, and tempo (In the harmonic system, music progresses by group of notes, called chords.  The permutations and combinations of notes are of uniform pattern.  In Indian music, each swara or note is linked to another note.  Rarely does a note is sung as a single isolated note (e.g. staccato in Western music).

A few important terminology

Swaras and notes mean the same. Every music system in the world has only seven basic notes or Swaras.  In  Carnatic music, the seven basic Swaras or notes are:

·                     Shadjam (Sa),

·                     Rishabam (Ri),

·                     Gandharam (Ga),

·                     Madhyamam (Ma),

·                     Panchamam (Pa),

·                     Dhaivatham (Da) and

·                     Nishadam (Ni).

Swaras are pitches separated by certain frequency intervals.  Unlike in Western music, in Indian music, Swaras do not have fixed intervals.  Instead, each note is separated from an adjoining Swara by relative frequency intervals (in Western music, they are separated by fixed frequency intervals).

Arohanam: Among the seven Swaras, Sa is the basic note and the rest of the notes are successively higher to the basic Sa. This gives an ascending scale of seven notes (e.g. Sa Ri Ga Ma Pa Da Ni). The group of ascending notes are called Arohanam.

Avarohanam: The descending scale of seven notes (staring from the higher Sa) is called Avarohanam  (e.g. Sa, Ni, Da, Pa, Ma, Ga, Ri).

Sruthi refers to the state of a sound. In Indian music, the performer selects a sruthi as the base or foundation.  Generally, surthi denotes Madhyama (middle) level Sa or Shadja. The sruthi that is chosen varies by gender (male or female or instruments).  Sruthi chosen by male performers usually range between 1, 1.5, or 2 sruthi (C or C sharp, or D in piano key) while, sruthi chosen by females would range between 4.5, 5 or 6 (F sharp, G, or A in a piano key).


A very basic definition of the term raga is: a combination of Swaras that are sung in a certain sequence during the ascending order and sung in a certain sequence during the descending order.

The order of the ascending and descending Swaras creates melody and leads to listening experience.

No two ragas are alike; that is, they do not have the same set of Swaras in the ascending and descending scales in the same position. A change in just one Swaram would create a new raga.  Simply repeating the scales of a raga does not produce a raga.  It only shows the boundaries but not the Jeeva or life within it.

A brief history of the origin of the Raga

According to musical scholars, raga is supposed to have originated from Jathi.

Bharatha, the author of Natyasastra (500 A.D. to 300 B.C.), is the first musical scholar to define Jathi.  Jathi is a composition divided into Pallavi, Anupallavi and Charanam but without a sahitya or lyrics.  Jathi is more common in bharathanatyam.

Saint Matanga, authorof Brihaddesi (5th Century A.D.) is the first musical scholar to define raga as a separate component.  He defined Raga as a combination of musical notes that is pleasing to the ear.

Later, in the 13th century, Sarangadeva, in Sangita Ratnakara, defined ragas as combination of swaras that give rise to pleasure in the minds of the listener.  Sarangadeva was the first author to define over 200 ragas.

Raga and Emotions

As musical scholars have defined, a basic requirement of a raga is its ability to evoke certain emotions or mood within the mind of a listener.  Each raga, through its combination of notes, is capable of invoking a certain emotion – love, dislike, happiness, sadness, bravery, fear, anger, peace, and surprise.  Some ragas are capable of expressing more than one emotion.  See the following examples:

Love                  Kamas, Bhairavi, Kanada

Dislike               Atana

Happiness          Mohanam, Hamsadwani, Kedaram

Sadness              Sahana, Mukhari, Neelambari

Fear                   Punnagavarali

Anger                Arabhi, Atana

Peace                 Sama, Vasantha

Surprise             Saranga

Raga and Time of the Day

There are appropriate time to sing certain ragas.  See the following examples.  See the following examples.

Early morning                   Bhoopalam, Malayamarudham

Morning                            Bilahari, Kedaram, Hamsadwani

Pre-Noon                           Asaveri, Dhanyasi

Noon                                 Madhyamavathi, Surati, Sri Ragam

Post-Noon                         Dharbar, Begada

Evening                             Nattakuranji, Shanmugapriya, Poorvi Kalyani, Vasantha,          


          Night                                 Yadukula Kamboji, Behag, Ananda Bhairavi, Neelambari

          Anytime                            Sankarabharanam, Arabhi, Karaharapriya, Kamboji

Source: Splendor of South Indian Music by Dr. Chelladurai

Classification of Ragas

  • There are two types of ragas – parent ragas or Janaka ragas (also known as Melakarta raga, Karta raga, or Sampoorna raga), and child or children ragas, also known as Janya ragas.
  • There are 72 Janaka or Melakarta ragas.

Janaka or Parent Raga

Janaka raga must conform to certain basic rules.

  • In a  Janaka raga, the seven basic Swaras (s r g m p d n) must be used in the ascending order and also, the same seven Swaras (s r g m p d n) must be used in the descending order.
  • Also, the notes ascend and descend in the same order.
  • Each swaram must occur only once in the Arohanam and only once in the Avarhonam                                                                                                                                                                                      

·         Both the arohanam and the avarohanam must contain the Tara Sthayi Shadjam (upper Sa) as one of the seven notes.

  • Note:  Although there are seven basic Swaras, there are varieties within them (e.g. Antara Gandharam and Sadharana Gandharam, Sudha Dhaivatam, Chatussruthi Dhaviatam and so on; using one of these notes in combination with the other six Swaras creates different parent ragas).

Janya (child) raga

  • A janya raga (child raga) originates from a Janaka or parent raga.  Each Janaka raga can have several Janya ragas originating from them.
  • Therefore, a child raga must use the same scale as the parent. 
  • However, unlike a Janaka or parent raga, a Janya raga need not use the same seven swaras in the ascending and descending orders.  For example, a Janya raga can use a certain micro variety of a certain basic Swara (e.g. Suddha Rishabam) in the arohanam while, using a different micro variety of the Swara (e.g. Chatussruti Rishabam) in the avarohanam.   For example, Bhairavi’s araohanam and avarahonam is as follows:

                                    .    .

                     s r g m p d n s


                     s n d p m g r s

  • Similarly, a Janya raga need not use all the seven notes from the parent.  It could use multiple combinations.  For example, it could use all the seven notes from the parent in the ascending order while, using only six of the seven notes in the descending order.  It could also use other combinations.  For example, the raga Saramathi has the following Swara sequence:


                     s r g m p d n  s


                     s n d m g s

  • Unlike its parent, a Janya raga can repeat a Swara.  For example, the raga Sahana has the following sequence:


                     S r g m p m D n  s


                     s n d p m G m R g r s


  • Sometimes, a janya raga can take one or two Swaras not present in the parent raga.

Varja Ragam

  • Is a characteristic of Janya ragas.
  • A Janya raga, either in the arohanam or in the avarohanam, can omit one or two Swaras that appear in its parent raga.  These omitted Swaras are called Vvarja Swarams. 
  • For example, Sriranjani (a Shadava raga) has the following Swaras:

             s r g m d n  s

             s n d m g r s

  • When a raga takes only five of the seven notes of its parent, it is called audava.  For example, Mohanam has the following Swaras:

                 s r g p d s


           s d p g r s

·        Other combinations include: seven swaras in arohanam and six on the avarohanam (Sampoornashadava); six in the arohanam and five in the avarohanam (Shadavaaudava) etc. The following tables shows the eight varja raga possibilities.




Sampoorna  (7)

Shadava  (6)


Shadava      (6)

Sampoorna  (7)


Sampoorna  (7)

Audava     (5)


Audava    (5)

Sampoorna  (7)


Shadava  (6)

Shadava  (6)


Shadava (6)

Audava (5)


Audava (5)

Shadava (6)


Audava (5)

Audava (5)



Note; During the count for seven, six, or five notes, the tara sthayi shadja (the s with a dot on its had) is omitted from the count.

Vakra Ragam

  • If, in a Janya raga - either in the arohanam or the avarohanam - one or two Swaras occur out of the order (in contrast to the order in which the Swaras appear in its parent), it is then  called a Vakra ragam.  See the example of Sri Ragam given below.


                                  s r m p n s


                                  s n p d n p m r g  r s

  • In vakra raga, a prior note could also repeat itself (e.g. n and r in the above example).  However, this is not true in all cases.
  • There are three kinds of vakra ragams.

1.            Ragas in which only the arohanam has vakra swarams (irregular order).  Example:  Anandhabhairavi.

2.            Ragas in which only avarohanam has vakra swarams (irregular order).  Example:  Sriragam

3.            Ragas in which vakra swaras (irregular order) occur both in the arohanam and the avarohanam (e.g. Sahana).

Upanga and Bhashanga Ragas

  • A Upanga raga is a Janya raga that uses only Swaras belonging to its parent (e.g. Mohanam (child of Harikamboji with Swaras Sa, Ri (chatusruthi), Ga (Antara), Ma (Suddha), Pa, Da (Chatusruthi), and Ni (Kaisiki) – s n d p m g r s)


                 s r g p d s


           s d p g r s

  • A bhashanga raga is a Janya raga that uses both Swaras belonging to its parent and also borrows one or Swaras from foreign sources - e.g. Kambhoj.  (also a child of Harikamboji which has the swaras Sa, Ri (chatusruthi), Ga (Antara), Ma (Suddha), Pa, Da (Chatusruthi), and Ni (Kaisiki) – s n d p m g r s)).


                 s r g m p d s


           s n d p m g r s

Gana Ragas

  • Gana raga can be identified by the singing of thana (Ghanam) during the rendering of the raga.  The thana is usually sung in the Madhyama Kala or Middle speed.
  • Examples of Ghana raga include: Nattai, Gowlai, Arabhi, Varali, and Sri in which Sri Thyagaraja has composed the famous Gana Raga Pancharathnas. 
  • Gana ragas also include other ragas, such as Kedaram, Narayanagowlai, Saranganata, Bauli, and Ritigowla.