The Raga is the soul and the sole purpose of Hindustani Art Music. So much so, that we also call this music Raga Sangeet. When an artist performs, he presents a Raga, and that is his topic of presentation.
A raga is not a singular melody composed by any one artist, but rather a melodic theme. A multitude of such themes, the ragas, took a few centuries to evolve, and have been around for a further many centuries. The aesthetic principles underlying the concept of the Raga are so strong in themselves, that they have remained virtually unchanged throughout. The forms of presentation, however,have gone through a process of evolution on the other hand, from the Prabandha to Dhrupad and then on to the present day khayal. The permanence of the very robust aesthetic fundamentals and yet a scope for evolution in the presentation, is, I think what makes the Raga concept unique.
We will of course get down to understanding how a Raga comes into being, and all the rules, which seemingly make it rigid in its structure. For an artist, however, a raga is almost like a person, and his relationship with a raga goes through increasing levels of familiarity, just like acquaintance, friendship, love and marriage. And this person behaves differently on different days. This is why the same Raga sung or played by a great artist gives us glimpses of something new year after year.
There are about 200-250 Ragas in all, about 50-60 of them most commonly presented, most of which have been around for about a thousand years. Minor changes in the structure do take place, and new Ragas do get added, but these have to survive the ultimate test of Ranjan ( Ranjayate iti ragah). Ranjan here is not the same as commonplace entertainment, but rather refers to the intellectual and emotional appeal of the melodic theme.
Physically, a melodic theme is a set of musical notes, sung in a particular way. Instead of using all the seven musical notes available, sets of 5, or 6 or then all 7 are used for the purpose.
The combination becomes that dynamic entity, raga, which has a tremendous potential for expansion and development, through exploring the samvaad or the harmonies between the notes used. How an artist exploits this potential, and keeps you engaged in his development, without boring you with repetitive phrases, depends upon his own training, riyaz, and of course the samskar he receives from his Guru.
We will go on to understand the formation of a raga and the underlying aesthetic principles…….
A word of caution at this point :
In explaining anything as evolved as Indian Art Music to the uninitiated, there is always the danger of oversimplification (to borrow from what Carl Sagan said about explaining science to laymen).. But I think the risk is worth it, and the intricacies and complexities will sort themselves out in due course……