India’s cultural heritage is so deep and vast that each facet is an ocean unto itself. Our musical heritage is one such ocean, wherein music like the waves on a shore is endless but always new, based on an ancient system but supple enough to please modern music lovers.
Indian classical music has its roots in the Vedas and Bharata Muni’s Natyashastra, the classic Sanskrit text on performance arts which is thousands of years old. The foundation of our music comprises of raga and tala. The raga is the framework of a melodic structure while the tala measures the time cycle. The raga provides musicians the elements to create the melody from sounds, while the tala provides them with a creative framework for rhythmic improvisation using time.
But what are ragas? The literal meaning of raga is colouring or dyeing thus telling us that each raga has the ability to colour the mind and affect the emotions of the audience with its own unique melodic personality. We can sense the atmosphere of devotion evoked by Raga Bhairavi and feel the joy listening to Raga Darbari Kanhada. Structurally, it’s a scale, and so there are quite a lot of possibilities, from a purely permutative perspective. Beyond this there are various other aspects such as melodic progression, structure, phrasing, ornamentation, intonation, tempo, etc. that increase this number, as one can have two identical scales with different melodic motifs (Bhoopali/Deshkar, Bhairav/Kalingda).
So how many ragas are there in Indian classical music? A raga is formed by a combination of selected notes (5-7) out of 12 possible notes. These notes are sequenced in certain ways to give uniqueness. Mathematically, the number of possible ragas are limited. The reality is that there is no exact count of ragas which are there in Indian classical music. The legendary Ustad Vilayat Khan stated that there are approximately about 4 lakh ragas in Hindustani classical music.
There are ragas that are mentioned in very old scriptures like Malkauns and Bhairav; those that have been created by influential musicians in the past like Mian ki Malhar by Tansen and Jaijaiwanti, supposedly created by Guru Tegh Bahadur. And there are ragas which have been created recently such as Raga Parameshwari by Ravi Shankar; Raga Chandranandan by Ali Akbar Khan; Raga Pranavranjini by Omkarnath Thakur, etc. There are the ragas originating from places like raga Pahadi, Sindhu, etc., and then there are ragas formed by merging two existing ones like raga Basant-Bahar, Nat-Bihag, Ahir-Bhairav and many more.
It's like wondering how many colours are there – from the primary elements, you could get an extensive spectrum of colours and shades and the same is of Indian classical music. We hope that the theme will inspire you to at least dip a toe, if not a deep dive into the vast ocean of our musical heritage.
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