Music of India – a brief outline – Part Twelve

21 May

Continued from Part Eleven –Prabandha

Part Twelve (of 22 ) – Desi Samgita  

Marga – Desi

1.1. The term Desi, very often, is used along with or in contrast to another term Marga. Both these terms -Marga and Desi- refer to traditional systems of Music of India.

Marga or Margi or Gandharva is the ancient class of Music that precedes the time of Natyashastra (say, before second century BCE). Marga (the path or the tradition) signifies something that which is chaste and classical. And, Shiva himself is said to have taught this Marga Music, on his Veena, in his Sri Dakshinamurthy form, to the sages sitting around him.

The early Marga songs were in praise of Shiva (Shiva-stuti). And, during the times of Natyashastra, Marga songs were traditionally sung for offering worship to gods, in the preliminaries (purvanga), that is, before the commencement of the play proper. Bharatha explains Marga or Gandharva as the Music dear to gods (atyartham iṣṭa devānā), giving great pleasure to Gandharvas; and, therefore it is called Gandharva.

(atyartham iṣṭa devānā tathā prīti-kara puna | gandharvāā ca yasmād dhi tasmād gāndharvam ucyate || (NS Ch. 28, 9).

Marga Music was both sacred and well regulated (Niyata).And, by its very nature; Marga was rather somber and not quite flexible.

1.2. While Marga was the sacred Music devoted to please the gods by submitting gentle appeals, Desi was the art-Music that set out to hold a charming appeal to human beings. It was said; Desi is that which delights the hearts of humans (hrudaya-ranjaka), enchants common folks, cowherds, women, children and nobility alike; and, reflects the range of emotions and tunes springing from different regions. In other words, it was meant for ‘pleasing the hearts of the people’; its nature varied from Desha to Desha – region to region. It was basically the Music of the regions (Desha = region).

Deshe-Deshe jananam yadruchya hrudaya-ranjakam I Gitam ca vadanam nruttam tad Desi  ethyabiyate  II

Abala-bala-gopalaihi kshitipali nirjecchaya I Giyate sanuragena svadeshe Desir ucchate  II

[Sangita-ratnakara of Sarangadeva ;  Chapter One  about Svara  ; Verses 23 and 24 ;  pages 14/ 15 – edited by Pandit Subrahmanya Sastri]

[ The verse Abala bala – appears at: Brihaddeshi – First Chapter) (Desha-utpatti prakaranam) – Verse 13]

Desi the music of the land was rooted in the music of the regions, capturing the unique flavors of the regions and sub-regions; and, giving expression to the moods, joys and sorrows of common people. The term Desi encompassed all forms of created songs (Gita); and even the art forms of instruments (vadya) and dance (Nŗtta).

As compared to Margi, Desi was relatively free, less rigid and improvised music of the countryside.

1.3. But, it would not be correct to equate Desi with folk (jaana-pada) and tribal songs.

Desi music was in strict conformity with the lakshana-s (theoretical principles) and the lakshya (practices in vogue) of the then established classical or well regulated (Niyata) Music of its times.  Desi Music was perhaps more relaxed in its approach; and its form opted for a lesser regimen of the Grammar.

Chatura Kallinatha (15th century) in his Kalanidhi, a commentary on Sangita-ratnakara, states that of the ten older types of Grama-Ragas, the Raganga, Bhashanga, Kriyanga and Upanga were regarded as Desi Ragas. He remarks that in these Desi Ragas though some liberty was taken, the rules of the Marga-Ragas were not totally disregarded.

1.4. Matanga also says that Desi is modeled after the Marga; and both allow scope for structured (Nibaddha) and un-structured (Anibaddha – like Aalapi) Music. He says, no Desi Raga can be composed of four Svaras (notes) or less. He remarks: those with less than five Svaras are used by tribes such as Savara, Pulinda, Kambhoja, Vanga, Kirata, Valheeka, Andhra, Dravida and forest dwellers.

[Thus, Raga is technically penta-tonic. And, usually there is an upper limit of seven notes. But in Hindustani Music, Ragas with nine Svaras are common; and a few mixed Ragas have even twelve Svaras (say, Basant Bahar).]

Obviously, Desi was conceived as a chaste classical music, well regulated but not too rigidly. It was the art-music of the land. It was different from the tribal or folk music of the rural mass. Sarangadeva did not also equate Desi with folk music or Loka or Jaanapada sangeet.

Similarities and differences

2.1. Just as there are similarities between Marga and Desi, there are also differences. To put these in a summary form:

2.2. Marga was the classical phase of the ancient Indian music. It was basically a sacred class of music; and in theatre it was sung to offer prayers to gods during the purvanga the preliminaries before the commencement of the play per se. It was somber and also not flexible. Marga was the icon of the Higher tradition. Its songs were composed in chaste Sanskrit following the rules of Chhandas (metre) Vyakarana (Grammar).  Its music was based in the Jaati-s (melodies) and in Shadja and Madhyama Grama-s (groups of melodies).

2.3. Desi was the art-music of the regions. It represented the flowering of the Prakrit (other than Sanskrit) phase that began to flourish by around 4th century. Songs of Desi Sangita were in Sanskrit as also in Prakrit and other vernacular languages.  They were modeled upon incidental music of the early theatre. Desi music was free flowing, vigorous and attractive; appealing to ones heart (hrdaya-ranjaka); as also providing scope for improvisation.  Its melodic portfolio could be expanded to include all other types of melodies and Ragas.

2.4. One could say that the distinction of the two – Marga and Desi- is largely historical. The transmission from Marga to Desi was a progression from a regimented few towards a spectrum of wide choices. With the growth in art and art forms many styles of music sprang up in diverse regional traditions. The ways of musical expressions also diversified and grew in abundance. For instance; eighteen Jaati-s, two Grama-s and seven Grama Ragas expanded into more than 250 Ragas by the medieval times. Alongside, the varieties of rhythmic patterns, time-units and the entire system of Taala also grew very appreciably. Thus, the advent of Desi and its rapid development greatly enlarged the boundaries of ancient musical structure; opened up new horizons; and, altered and brightened the future course of Indian Music.

2.5. The classification of the Music of India into two strata – Marga Samgita and Desi Sangita – dates back to at least to the eighth or to the ninth century, mainly through the treatise Brhad-Desi by Matanga.

[I wonder whether Marga and Desi are shifting or dynamic concepts. They are not fixed. What was Desi of ancient times could as well be called Margi of the present day. Let me explain. The Karnataka Sangita as it is practiced and performed today honors the theoretical principles, rules, disciplines and the hoary traditions. It is contemplative and devotional in its nature. The chaste and pure classical music of today has taken the place of Marga. The other popular form of music – sugam-sangget, loka-sangeet and film-sangeet etc – that quickly attracts with its catchy tunes and beats is the Desi of today. This is just a muse. ]


[Classical and folk music

3.1. Before we get back to Matanga, let’s digress for a short while, and talk about classical and folk music.

(i). In all literal art forms, two conventions (dharmi) or two streams of expressions are recognized; one is the Loka-dharmi and the other is the Kavya-dharmi.  Similar conventions or forms exist in, music, dance or art. Loka-dharmi in poetry stands for a localized or an individual’s expressions of her/his experience or emotions. Kavya–dharmi is when an individual’s emotions are turned into a song or into a poem; and it is enjoyed by all as a beautiful piece of poetry. Here, an individual’s intimate emotions are shared by all as a work of art, independent of the poet’s localized circumstances that caused the poem. The poem that is enjoyed by its listeners/readers is far removed from its original Desha (location), Kaala (circumstances) and Karana (the cause that triggered the emotion). The emotional content (let’s say, love)  in the poem is no longer limited to poet’s or to one particular person’s experience , but is  generalized and shared by all as the idiom of expression of the entire gamut of  that emotion (love).

In the present context, perhaps, one could (roughly) equate the folk music with Loka-dharmi and the Classical music with Kavya–dharmi.

(ii). The folk music is essentially the outpouring of the elementary, subjective human emotions. It generally is about purely personal emotions limited to an individual. It is spontaneous; and its purpose is to fulfill an immediate need to give forth to an emotional experience that is tied to a specific incident in one’s life or to an occasion, time, and place. In other words, folk music is immediately relevant for the emotions of only a small group, a community with a shared background and emotional state.

Folk music is spontaneous and does not require training in a developed musical system.

Folk music is certainly significant and pleasing; and is a powerful emotive language of a people. It is the medium through which shared feelings are communicated and experienced by the community.  But, it is the innocent expression of basic, natural feelings, limited to the context of a particular time and situation. And, it is rather undeveloped or underdeveloped; is without structure, grammar or classifications; and does not require training in creating a song-form.

In comparison; Classical music is not the simple expression and an instant gratification of a basic human emotion. It is a highly developed and complex art form ; and its creation is involved not merely with musical genius of the composer , but also with the intellectual processes and sensitivities that determine the quality of the creation in terms of musical contents of melody , rhythm;  the structure and the Grammar  of the composition;  and its appeal.

Here, the personal impressions or feeling of the composer are sublimated into a classical form that goes beyond subjective self. The composer’s or the performer’s individual identity is left behind. The created music is universal and is for all, instead of being limited to a specific individual’s personal feelings or to an occasion.

Thus, both the folk and the classical are genuinely powerful and qualitatively rich in aesthetic value. They both aim to interact with human minds and hearts, each in its own way. One is elementary, subjective and localized; and, the other is developed, objective with its own sensitivities and is almost universal. The difference appears to be in the purpose of their creation, which defines their context and relation with the rest of mankind.

For a detailed discussion, please check:  ]





4.1. Matanga or Matanga Muni or Matanga-Bharatha (as he is regarded one among the five-Pancha Bharathas: Nandikesvara, Kohla, Dattila, Bharatha and Matanga) takes a very important position between Bharatha (Ca.2nd century BCE) and Sarangadeva (Ca.13th century). It is surmised that he perhaps lived during sixth or the seventh century.

4.2. Matanga’s fame rests mainly on his outstanding treatise Brhaddeshi. It carries forward the tradition of Natyashastra and Dattilam; and at the same time it establishes the Desi Sangita on a firm pedestal. Brhaddeshi bridges the Marga and the Desi class of Music; and also provides the basis for the emergence of the Mela system of classifying the Ragas.   One could say, Brhaddeshi gave a new birth to Indian Music; and, revitalized its creative genius by bringing the concept of Raga into the very heart of the Music traditions and their sensibilities.

Brhaddeshi also serves as a reference to many earlier authors whose works are now lost, such as: Kashyapa, Kohala, Durgasakti, Maheshwara, Yastika, Vallabha, Vishvavasu   and Shardula.

4.3. The edition of Brhaddeshi, as it has come down to us, is an incomplete text. Only about five hundred of its verses are available. Those available verses and chapters deal only with Music; and conclude with the remark that the next Chapter will deal with Musical instruments (Vadya).  Sadly, that and subsequent Chapters, if any, are not available. However, some commentators of the later periods cite from Brhaddeshi the references pertaining to instruments, taala and dance.

5.1. In the available chapters, the first portion starts with the definition of Desi.  The term Desi, here, refers to all forms created of songs; and, it comprehends the three arts of Gita (song), Vadya (instruments) and Nŗtta (dance). One of Matanga’s major contributions is his scholarly focus on the regional element in music. Brhaddeshi (Brihat + Desi) is thus a masterly compilation of the music traditions of the various regions (Desha).

5.2. Next, the concept of Nada is described as the most subtle vibration which is the basis for speech, music, dance and all other forms of activities. Then, the text goes on to discuss two Grama-s: Shadja-grama and Madhyama-grama. From these, Grama-s the music elements Sruti, Svara, Murchana, Tana, Jaati and Raga are derived.

5.3. Matanga deals with Grama, Murchana and Jaati, rather briefly. According to Matanga, twenty-one Murchana-s evolved from the three main Grama-s: Shadja, Madhyma and Gandharva. Murchana were of two kinds: one, having seven Svaras and the other having twelve Svaras (sa-Murcchana dvi-vidha; sapta-svara-Murchanat dvadasha-svara-Murchana cheti).

The Murchana with Seven Svaras  was divided into four parts: Purna, Shadava, Audava, and Sadharana, The Purna contained  seven Svaras (hexatone ) ; Shadava , six Svaras (heptatone ) ; Audava , five  Svaras (pentatonic ) ; and the Sadharana , two displaced (vikrita} Svaras :  antara-gandhara and kakali-nishada.

And, the Murchana with Twelve Svaras manifest in three registers (Sthana): low, medium and high (Mandra, Madhya and Tara).

5.4. The text then discusses Sruti (silent intervals between Svaras), Svara intervals in the two Grama-s and other terms and concepts such as, Tana, Varna, Alamkara, Jaati, Gita and Raga. Various other aspects including the popular melodies of his time are given in the other chapters.  As the name suggests, it is a huge work and is highly informative.

5.5.  He says that the Aroha (ascending) and the Avaroha (descending) pattern of Svaras form the Murcchana of a Raga. Murcchana, in effect, describes the string of notes that, with further embellishments (Alamkaras) of thirty-three varieties, constitutes the core of a Raga. These Alamkaras are indeed the musical excellences that adorn the songs.

5.6. After allotting a chapter to the Jaati-s, Matanga devotes a special chapter to the Ragas.  Here, he deals with Grama-raga; and the Desi-ragas: Bhasa, Vibhasa and Antarabhasa. These Desi-ragas are again classified into four categories, Raganga, Bhashanga, Kriyanga and Upanga.

5.7. Indeed, it is in this chapter of the Brhaddeshi we first come across the definition of Raga as given by Matanga, and as understood by all later literature on Classical Music. In the history of the Ragas, Brhaddeshi is, therefore, a landmark text.



8.1. The term Raga conveys many shades of meanings ranging from color, hue, tint, dye, love, desire, passion, emotional attachment  ( as opposed to it is Viraga– detachment)  , beauty, melody and so on .

But, in the context of music it had a special connotation; and, it had been in use many centuries, even prior to Matanga. Bharatha in his Natyashastra used the term Raga in compound terms in association with Jaati raga, Grama raga. And, he perhaps meant ‘Raga’ in the general sense to suggest color or aesthetic appeal or enjoyment or pleasure. He employed the term Jaati to indicate melodies, but also used the term Grama Raga. But, somehow, he did not explain the terms Jaati and Grama-raga and their mutual relationship.

8.2. There was also the Murchana which was described in Natyashastra as the string of seven Svaras used in an order (krama) in their fixed positions. Later, in the Gandharva, Murchana came to be understood as an arrangement having a gradual Aroha (ascent) and Avaroha (descent) of the seven Svaras (notes). Different musical expressions were derived from the Murchanas by permuting the seven Svaras in any number of ways.

8.3. Further, the term and the concept of Grama-raga was in common use, as evidenced by the seventh century rock inscription at kudumiyamalai in South India. The inscription which basically was meant as lessons for the pupils mentions seven verities of melodies or Grama-ragas : (1) Madahyama-grama (2) Shadja-grama (3) Sadava (4) Sadharita (5) Paricama (6) Kaisikamadhyama-grama (7) Kaisika. These seven seem to correspond to the Grama-ragas in the Naradiya-shiksa the text said to belong first or second century BCE.

8.4. The term Raga seemed to have been in use even prior to 7th century. For instance; Poet Kalidasa (5th century) had suggested Raga Saranga (Madhyamadi) for rendering the introductory song to the first Act of his play Abhijnana Shakuntalam. And, in a fable appearing in the fifth volume of Panchatantra (5th century or earlier), a donkey poses as a musician and explains Gramas, Ragas etc.

8.5. Following the steps of Bharatha, Matanga also recognized Shadja-grama and Madhyama-grama as two basic Grama-s (groups or clusters). From these Grama-s he derived Sruti, Svara, Murchana, Tana, Jaati and Raga. The Aroha (ascending) and Avaroha (descending) pattern of Svaras, according to Matanga, formed Murchana of a Raga.

[It needs to be mentioned here that Bharatha’s concepts of Jaati, Murchana and Giti continued to be in use even during the time of Matanga. He uses these terms and offers his explanations with illustrations from Natyashastra.

For instance; Matanga divides his scales (Giti, melodies) into seven groups. And, he recommends the Raga-giti for singing in dramatic sequences. He quotes Bharatha and says: Madhyama-grama (Ma Grama) melodies be used in the Mukha (opening of the drama); the Shadja-grama (Sa Grama) melodies in Prati-Mukha (progression of the play); the Sadharana (mixed scales) in the Grabha (development stages); and, Panchama-Jaati melodies for the Vimarsha (pauses)- (NS: 28.41-45)

Further, even among the music-related terms of the older (Marga) Sangita that he explained, the term Raga was used. ]

[In the meantime:

There is a remarkable text which the scholars have neither been able to date nor understand it fully. It is titled Gitalamkara; and, is said to have been written by an author who, for some reason, called himself Bharatha. The book aimed at controlling or disseminating the arguments of the rivals (Vadi-mattagaja-ankusha) . In its Chapter 14, the book cites thirty-six ‘Ragas’ (which are named here as Varna or colors).They are classified into three groups: Purusha (male); Stri (female) and Apatya (descendents). This, by a long stretch of time, foreshadows the Raga-Ragini-Purta concept that came about in later times. The scholars suggest that Varna might have been the older name of Raga (which also suggests color).

The Gitalamkara treats the three ancient Gramas (Nandyavarta, Jimuta and Subhadra) in an un-usual manner. Instead of treating them as basic scales, as others did, it merely lists characteristic series of four Svaras (tetrachord) for each of them. This perhaps goes back to the period before the three Gramas: Shadja, Madhyama and Gandhara Gramas came to be recognized.

It is bit confusing to say the least. For more, please see:  Le Gitalamkara by Alan Danielou; and, Musical Literature by Emmie te Nijenhuis.]

9.1. Yes; it seems the word Raga with its multiple meanings was in use even from early times. But, it was not used in Music or in Music-theories in the way we know it and use it now.  It is, therefore, difficult to say Raga as it is understood today, had fully evolved and was recognized as such at the time of Natyashastra.

9.2. Which is to say; the notion of melodies that are created by artistic and ingenious arrangement of ascending and descending Svaras had been there for a very long time. It was a rather amorphous concept; its structure had not been determined; and, was waiting to be defined in a clear language.

That is, precisely, what Matanga did.



10.1. The chapter titled Raga-lakshanam (characteristics of Raga) in the Brhaddeshi commences with two questions and a request: ‘What is meant by the word Raga? And, what are the lakshana-s of a Raga? You must please explain the origin and nature   of Raga clearly ’.

Kim ucchyate raga-shabdena ? kim va ragasya lakshanama  ? I  Utpatthi lakshanam-tasya yathavad vaktum arhasi     II (278)

Matanga replies:

The nature of the Raga system (Raga-margasya- lit. path) has not been explained by Bharatha and others (Bharathadi); and, it is going to be explained (Nirupayate) by us, according to theory (lakshana) and also practice (lakshya) – (279).

Raga-margasya vad rupam yannoktam Bharathadibhih I Nirupayate tasmad abhir lakshya –lakshana –samyuktam II

10.2. Then he goes on to explain: It is that particular quality or distinction of melodic-sound (dhwani-bhedaya) which is created by the combination or the arrangement of Svaras and Varnas (Svara-varna visheshena); and that which delights (Ranjyate) is recognized by the wise as Raga.

Svara-varna visheshena dhwani-bhedaya va punah I  Ranjyate yena yan kashichit sa ragah samsthatham   II 280

10.3. Or (Athava), it is that particular sound (dhwani vishesa) which is adorned by Svara and Varna (svara varna vibhushitaham); and that which delights the minds of the people (Ranjako jana-chittanam) is called Raga by the wise.

Athava – Yo asya dhwani vishesathu svara varna vibhushitaham I Ranjako jana-chittanam sah ragah kathitho vidhuv II 281

[Following Matanga, Sarangadeva in his Sangeeta-ratnakara described Raga as: ranjayati itihi rāga- that which delights the mind is Raga.]

10.4. After defining Raga, in two way:  as that particular  arrangement or ornamentation   of Svara and movement of Varna (Svara-Varna vishesha ; vibhushitam ); and as the distinction of melodic sounds (Dhwani-bhedana)  which delight the minds of people (Ranjako jana-chittanam) , Matanga takes up  the etymological  explanation  of the term Raga and its origin (Utpatthi).

Matanga says: this is how the word Raga is derived (Ithevam raga-shabdasya utpatthir abhidiyate). He explains that the word Asvakarna when it is derived from its root might literally mean the ears of a horse. But, in practice (rudi), Asvakarna is generally understood as the tree whose leaves resemble in shape the ears of a horse. Similarly, the word Pankaja literally means one that is born (ja) out of mud (panka). But, Pankaja in convention and common usage refers only to the lotus-flower.

In a like manner, he says, the word Raga has etymological as well as special conventional meaning like the word Pankaja. He explains: whatever might be its other meanings, the word Raga (derived from the root ranj = to please), effectively suggests, here, as that which generates delight: Ranjana-jjayate ragau.

Ithevam raga-shabdasya utpatthir abhidiyate I  Ranjana-jjayate  ragau utpatthih samudahrutah II 283

Ashva-karnadi vidha rude yaugikau vaapi vachakah I  Yogarudosthva raage jneyam pankaja-shabdavat II 284

[ Among the many  tools (Nyaya) employed in the olden days to extract and to explain the meaning of the words and terms ,the  Samabhirudha Nyaya derived the meaning of a word from its root;  and , Vyavaharika Nyaya  interpreted the word through conventions (rudi)  and its common usage (paddathi)  in day-to-day life (Vyavahara).

The words Asvakarna and Pankaja are common illustrations of these Nyayas. And, Matanga’s argument is based on similar lines.

There are many other similar words, such as:  Mantapa which normally is understood as an open-hall; but, its etymological meaning could be ‘one who drinks scum of boiled rice (Ganji)’. And, the term Kushala is generally used to denote an expert or a highly skilled person (pravina); but, its etymology analysis would lead to one who is ‘good at cutting grass (kush). And, similarly, Ashva-gandha is literally ‘smell of the horse; but in common usage it refers to a medicinal herb.

 Bhartrhari, in his Vakyapadiya emphasizes the importance of contextual factors in the determination of the meaning of expressions. Etymology is without doubt important in its own context; but, in the day-to-day conversations the conventional meaning (Vyvaharica artha) takes precedence over the etymologically derived sense. Panini the Grammarian also recognized the fact the people who spoke the language and used it in their daily  lives were better judges in deriving, meaning of  the words

Therefore, the generally accepted rule in the Indian poetics is that the conventional meaning overrides the etymological derivation.  It is said; the conventional (rudi) meaning is grasped immediately and directly while its etymological sense has to derived indirectly through analysis. And, the essential nature of the word lies in its power (Skakthi) to signify directly. ]

10.5. Thus, the term Raga, in its etymological and technical sense, means a particular combination or sequence of Svaras and Varnas which delights, charms or colors  (in broader sense ) the mind. Therefore, every Raga, while it delights also creates an emotional mood which colors or influences the mind in its own unique manner. It colors different minds in different ways. That is why a single Raga can yield divergent expressions, associations and experiences.

General and Special characteristics

11.1. Along with defining Raga and explaining its concept, Matanga takes up the question of its identity. He says that the identity of Raga is conceived in two ways (dvivida matham):  through its general (Samanya) classification and through its special characteristics (vishesha lakshana). He mentions the general categories as four (Chatur vidha tu samanya); and, that the Raga’s special identity lies in Amsa and other features (vishesha cha Amshakadhikam).

Samanya cha visheshacha lakshana dvivida matham I  Chatur vidha tu samanya vishesha cha Amshakadhikam II 282

11.2. General (Samanya) classification

As regards the four broad categories (Chatur vidha tu samanya) that Matanga mentioned, some say, he, perhaps, was referring to Desi ragas that are classified into four categories, Raganga, Bhashanga, Kriyanga and Upanga. These ragas are the basis for all musical forms presented in the later Samgita traditions and forms. [But, during the later times the connotation and interpretation of these terms underwent thorough revision. The Ragas came to be classified into Janaka and Janya. And, Janya ragas were further classified into: Sampurna — Varja; Krama- Vakra; Upanga — Bhashanga: Nishadantya, Dhaiva- tantya and Panchamantya. ]

[There is another interpretation which says that the four general categories mentioned by Matanga might refer to : Purna, Shadava, Audava, and Sadharana, The Purna contained  Svaras (hexatone ) ; Shadava , six Svaras(heptatone ) ;  Audava , five  Svaras (pentatonic ) ; and the Sadharana , two displaced (vikrita} Svaras :  antara-gandhara and kakali-nishada.]

Amsa and other characteristics

11.3. Amsa was said, during the time of Matanga, to be the prominent or predominant Svara through which the Raga manifested (raga-janakatvad vyapakatvaccha Amsasya pradhanyam).  During his time, the term Amsa and Vadi were used alternatively. Kallinatha in his commentary has said that both Amsa and Vadi used to convey the idea of creating the pleasing sensations of the Ragas (Sa vadi tyogyatavashdt amsha syat rakti-vyanjakatvat).

Along with Amsa, nine other characteristics (Dasha-lakshanam) of Jaati (melodies) were listed in Natyashastra (28.74) as also in Dattilam (55) as Graha, Amsa, Tara, Mandra, Sadava, Audavita, Aplatva, Bahutva, Apa-Nyasa and Nyasa.

These are briefly:

: – Graha – It is the initial note –Adi-Svara– used at the beginning of a song;

: – Amsa – It is the prominent note (key note) in the song. The melodic expression of the song depends on it;

: – Tara – It is the high register; the upper limit of the notes to be used. It is the fourth note from Amsa which belongs to middle sthana;

: – Mandra –It is the low register; the lower limit of the note to be used;

: – Sadavita –Six notes are used omitting one;

: – Audavita -Five note are used dropping two.

: – Alpatva – It is the use of a note or notes in small measure. It is twofold: by skipping over the particular note or notes; and by non-repetition;

:- Bahutva – It is of two kinds: by using the notes fully or by repeating it often

: – Apa-nyasa– It is before the final note (penultimate) . It is note with which a section of the song ends –Vidari;

: – and, Nyasa – It is the note with which the song ends.

Svara, Varna and Alamkara

12.1. In the explanations offered by Matanga, he mentions Svara, Varna and Alamkara etc.


12.2. The Svara, here, indicates the arrangement of five or more ascending and descending notes. According to Matanga, Svara is the sound which has musical quality that creates melody. When the interval between the notes (Sruti) is raised or lowered, the musical quality gets altered.

Depending on their level of importance in a Raga, Svaras are classified under the four categories Vadi, Anuvadi, Samvadi and Vivadi (sonant, assonant , consonant  and dissonant). Bharatha defines these in his Natyashastra. here , the Vadi is the most important Svara to a Raga. It is repeated often and used as a fundamental note  upon which the raga sculpture is erected. Sa, shuddha ri, antara ga or pa are examples of Vadi Svaras. When sung with the Vadi Svaras, only certain Svaras have a pleasant or concordant effect. These are Samvadi Svaras, and they generally have nine or thirteen shruti intervals between them and their corresponding Vadi Svara . The Anuvadi Svaras help in adding substance to a Raga, and they are not emphasized. Vivadi Svaras are those which are discordant and create a displeasing effect when rendered with the Vadi Svara. The space between these two is usually one Svara, though it is often more than two Sruthi differences.


12.3. And, Varna refers to special note sequences that indicate different kinds of movement. The function of Varna in a Raga is to manifest a song; and, it is, therefore, known as gana-kriya. The Varna-s are said to be of four kinds, depending on the movement of Svara. They indicate the general direction of the melodic line.   When a note remains more or less at the same level it is called Sthayi-varna (stable); when the notes are ascending or descending these are known as Arohi and Avarohi. And, a mixture of the three is sanchari-varna, wandering, back-and-forth.


12.4. Alamkara (adornment or ornamentation) refers to graces and flourishes in the music. Alamkara contributes to enhancing the artistic beauty in the presentation of Music.  It has been a vital aspect of the creative process even from very early times. Bharatha, in a famous verse, remarks that “A song without Alamkara will be like a night without moon; a river without water; a creeper without a flower; and, a woman without any ornament.”

Shashina rahiteva nisha, Vijaleva nadee lata, Vipushpeva avibhooshitheva cha kantha, geethir-alamkara-viheena syath.

The Alamkaras are associated with Varna (appearance, color, word, and syllable). It is said; if Varna is the architecture or the structure, then the Alamkara is its decoration bringing out and enhancing its natural beauty. In Music,the term Alamkara represents the combinations of progressions and ornamentation. The harmonious blending of structure and decoration is basic to all forms of Indian art.  And, in early Music, probably, no precise distinction was  made between Varna and Alamkara.

Alamkaras, as recurring patterns of variations formed out of Svaras, were associated with each of the four Varnas. They were classified according to the Varna underlying them. Accordingly, there were four broad categories of Alamkaras:

Sthayi -Varna –Alamkara; Arohi-Varna-Alamkara; Avarohi-Varna-Alamkara; and, Sanchari-Varna –Alamkara.

 12.5. Under these categories, Natyashastra had earlier listed thirty-three types of Alamkaras. But, Dattila later abridged the list to thirteen. Matanga who followed Natyashastra reckoned thirty-three Alamkaras.  However, in later times the list grew up to eighty-eight types of Alamkaras.

Dattila’s list of thirteen Alamkaras , which is  regarded as the basic contained : 1. Prasanna-adi, begins with low note; 2. Prasanna-anta, ends with low note; 3. Prasanna-madhya, low note in the middle; 4. Prasanna-adyanta, begins and ends with low note; 5. Bindu, higher note touched like lightning; 6. Nivrtta-pravrtta, lower note touched quickly; 7. Prenkholita, even swing between two notes;  8. Tara-mandra-prasanna, gradual rise followed by sudden drop; 9. Mandra-tara-prasanna, sudden rise followed by gradual descent; 10. Sama, even ascent and/or descent; 11. Kampita, quiver in low register; 12. Harita, quiver in middle register; and, 13. Recita, quiver in high register

[Source: As listed in Early Indian musical speculation and the theory of melody by Lewis Rowel]


13.1. Karnataka Samgita has developed an intricate system of Alamkara with subtle variations.  It is celebrated as Gamaka. And, Gamaka, as such, was not mentioned in Natyashastra. But, the text does talk about different types of Alamkaras as that which add beauty and aesthetic value to Music.

13.2. Matanga, in his Brhaddeshi, however, does mention Gamaka. For in instance; while discussing about Raga-giti , one of the seven charming song-forms, he mentions that Raga-giti should be rendered with varied delicate Gamakas (lalithau–Gamakau-vichitrau); and should be adorned with Svara pronunciations, lucid, powerful and even (300); and the Vibhasha–giti should be sung blending in the Gamakas that are pleasant on the ears (Gamakau–srotra-sukhadai-lalithairasthu) and are also delicate , according to the will of the singer (yadrucchaya samyojya)   to the delight of the people (lokan-ranjathe)- (308).

13.3. Sarangadeva in Chapter three: Prakīrņaka-adhyāya of his Sangita-ratnakara treats Gamaka in greater detail. He lists fifteen types of Gamakas (Panchadasha Gamaka): the kinds of shake or oscillations that Svaras can be endowed with.

Tripa; Spurita; Kampita; Lina; Andolita; Vali; Tribhinna; Kurula; Ahata; Ullasita; Plavita;  Gumpita; Mudrita; Namita; and, Misrita.

स्वरस्य कम्पो गमकः श्रोतृचित्तसुखावहः | तस्य भेदास्तु तिरिपः स्फ़ुरितः कम्पितस्तथः ||लीन आन्दोलित वलि त्रिभिन्न कुरुलाहताः | उल्लासितः प्लावितस्च गुम्फ़ितो मुद्रितस्तथा || नामितो मिश्रितः पञ्चदशेति परिकीर्तिताः |

Sarangadeva’s descriptions are closer to our understanding of Gamaka.

Tripa: Playing one of the notes of a phrase with some stress.

Spurita: wherein the lower note is faintly heard and the second note is stressed.

Kampita: A slight tremble oscillating between two Svaras.

Lina: Merging of a note softly into another note.

Andolita: A free swinging. Holding on a note for some time and then pulling the string or gliding on it so as to reveal a higher note.

Vali: deflecting the string in a circling manner for producing the chhaya of two or three notes from the same Svara-sthāna.

Tribhinna: Produced by placing the left-hand fingers on a Svara-sthāna so that the fingers are in contact with three strings, and then by plucking the three strings with the right hand fingers either simultaneously or successively (only in fretted instruments).

Kurula: production of a note of another sthāna with force

Ahata: Sounding a note and then producing another note without a separate stroke (only in Veena).

Ullasita: Glide. Starting on a note and reaching a different (higher or lower) note by gliding over the intermediate notes.

Plavita: This is a variety of Kampita.

Gumpita: The tone is slender at the start and goes on increasing in both volume and pitch- in vocal music.

Mudrita: Produced by closing the mouth and singing – in vocal Music.

Namita: Singing in a slender tone –vocal Music.

Misrita: Mixture of two or three of the other varieties.

[For more: please check ]

[Various commentators on Indian music have mentioned different numbers of Gamakas. For example, Narada in Sangeeta Makaranda describes nineteen Gamakas; and, Haripala in Sangeeta Sudhakar describes seven Gamakas. There is also a mention of Dasha-vida Gamaka, which is slightly different from that of Sarangadeva. Please check: ]

14.1. In today’s Karnataka Samgita, Gamakas are essential aspects of Manodharma Sangita. Gamaka is much more than an ornament to Karnataka Sangita. It is a very essential constituent of its musical element and its elaboration.

4.2. Gamaka is any graceful turn, curve or cornering touch given to a single note or a group of notes, which adds emphasis to each Raga’s unique character.  Gamaka, in short, is the movement of Svaras which bounce, slide, glide, shivers, rapidly oscillates or skips. It provides movement and animates Svaras to bring out the melodic character and expression (bhava) of a Raga. Each Raga has specific rules on the types of Gamakas that might be applied to specific notes, and the types that may not. Every Raga has, therefore, to be necessarily rendered with the appropriate Gamakas. They depend on the manner of quivering, oscillations or shaking that the Svaras can be endowed with.

14.3. Gamaka-rendering is a highly individualistic and a specialized skill. Not merely that the Gamakas are designed specifically for vocal music and for instrumental music, but also that each performer would, in due course, develop her/his own Gamaka-improvisations. And therefore, two ragas with identical ascending (Aroha) and descending (Avaroha) Svaras and born out of the same parent (Janaka) Raga might sound totally different in character and expression , mainly because of the Gamakas that are employed. One could say that Karnataka Sangita is Gamaka oriented. And, it is, perhaps, because of such extensive use of Gamakas, it has not been easy to commit Karnataka Sangita to notation system.  Gamakas can be taught and practiced only by oral method, through Guru-Shishya interactions.

[In Hindustani Music, Meend and Andolan are similar to Gamakas.]

15.1. Other Angas of Karnataka Sangita

Apart for the above mentioned,  there are certain other Angas (limbs) that are essential to the song formats in Karnataka Sangita. These are:  Pallavi, Anu-pallavi, Chjttaswaram, Mukthayiswaram and Charanam .

The Pallavi is a sort of introduction to the piece; and, it must establish the RagaTaala and bhava of the entire song. The Pallavi is rendered usually, in the middle octave (madhyama sthayi), though Sangathis take it to the higher and lower octaves at times. Pallavi is the counterpart of Udgraha of the Prabandha compositions.

The Anu-pallavi links the Pallavi to the Charanam.  It is analogous to Melapaka of the Prabandha. The Anu-pallavi is usually sung in the higher octave. The Charanam provides the climax of the Sahitya aspect of the song. Neraval and Kalpanaswara often resolve in the Charanam, though this is not a rule. The Charanam has a range from the lower to the middle to the higher octaves, thus having the widest range of the angas of a song.


16.1. For Indian Music, Sruthi and Laya are said to be the parents of music: ‘Shruthi Matha Laya Pitha ’ . The term  Laya  (‘to be one with ) denotes Taala (rhythm).  Sarangadeva remaked that music, vocal , instrumental, and dance  are based on units of time-measure, or Taala: ‘gitam vaadyam thathaa nrtyam yatasthale pratishthitham.’ Bharatha said that without a sense of Taala, one could neither be called a singer or a drummer. Earler to that , Bharatha  had further elaborated on Taala in the 29th chapter of the Natyashastra, saying that it is a definite measure of time upon which Gana, or song, rests: ‘ganam talena dharyathe’.

16.2. While Raga dictates the appearance and characteristics of a melody, it is the Taala that sets the rhythm and beat of any piece in Indian music. All Taalas of Karnataka Sangita are cyclical in nature, i.e. a single unit is taken and repeated to form the Taala pattern or rhythm. There are different units of Taala. An important unit, one of the smallest, is the akshara (lit. Alphabet) . The akshara is not defined in terms of absolute duration ; but it is conceived as  a variable that changes according to the mood of the composer, the piece and the performer involved.

The akshara is further divided into Svaras. And, the Svaras are of five different measures – Tisra (3), Chatusra (4), Misra (7),Khanda (5) and Sankeerna (9). The smallest measure of Svaras is Tisra. Strangely enough, two is not taken as the smallest number, perhaps because two is too small a number to stand on its own as a beat. The number divisible by 2 that is used instead is four, in Chatusra.

These Svara divisions are made easier to remember with the help of the meaningless syllables used primarily in dance or percussion training. For Tisra, the syllables ‘Tha Kita’ are used. Chatusra is denoted by the syllables ‘Thakadhimi’; Khanda – ‘Thaka Thakita’; Misra -‘Thakita Thakadhimi’;and , Sankeerna – ‘Thakadhimi Thaka Thakita’.

16.3. The means and materials of Taala according to Bharatha in his Natyashastra are ‘laya, yati and pani’. The Laya, or tempo, is divided into fast, medium and slow speeds, i.e. Druta, Madhya and Vilambita.  And, Yati is a kind of method of application of laya. It is of many kinds; the three of which are sama, srotogata and gopuccha. The sama-yati possesses three units of tempo: one in the beginning, one in the middle and one in the end. The srotogata contains three units of tempo, as well: the first is slow (vilambita), the second is medium (Madhya) and the third is fast (druta). The gopuccha-yati consists of three units of tempo, where in the beginning of the song the tempo is fast, then it becomes medium and in the end it becomes slow.

16.4. The present day Karnataka Sangita has a Taala System based on the scheme of Sapta Taala (seven Taala). In order to facilitate easy and accurate methods of reckoning these Taalas, the shadangas (six parts) are used. There are symbols to denote these angas. Except for the anga known as ‘laghu,’ the others have fixed time measures.

[For more, please check A Brief Overview of the Evolution of Indian Music]




17.1. It is very essential to understand that Raga is not merely a scale or a mode. To limit a Raga to the confines of a scale might not be quite correct. A Raga has dimensions that go beyond its scales, such as swaroopalakshana and bhava. One might ordinarily,   even, say, a Raga is not a tune, nor is it a ’modal’ scale, but rather a continuum with scale and tune as its extremes. But, Ragas are actually more complex than this limited definition. How the musical sounds are conjured up and configured in such a way as to produce that tender or powerful but indescribable feeling in the listener is truly a very complex process.  The artistic transformation of a scale into Raga is a phenomenon that is unique to the Music of India,

17.2. Indeed, Raga is basically a feeling, an emotional experience shared by the performer and the listener. The expression of the Raga is essentially  through the combination of certain notes and twists of melody. But, Raga is more than its structure. Raga is an icon. It is  indeed a living, fluid, organic entity.

The raga bhava is visualization of the Raga in a seemingly tangible form that draws the listener into the music.

17..3. Ragas keep changing shape; their rendering vary from time to time ; and, new ones are born while others are forgotten. They gain full status when they are  repeatedly played and heard. Their main features have to be established and tested by experienced performers whose knowledge and interpretation contributes to the very  understanding  of the raga-bhava. In this context, Indian musicians often speak of a ‘raga grammar’, sets of rules and patterns that determine the selection of intervals and characteristic melodic movements. This practical knowledge is orally transmitted ; it  guides the melodic development of every performance; and,  it also forms the  essential framework for the manifestation of each raga’s personality as developed by the performer.

While Raga lakshana is the Grammar of a Raga, the theoretical that define the characteristics of a Raga, Raga Prayoga is movement of the Raga through Aroha (upward sequence of Svaras) and Avaroha (downward sequence of Svaras) that give its identity along with the application of Gamakas

17.4. Each raga has its own definite personality; and can easily be recognized.  A musician may compose in the same Raga many number of times; and, yet it is possible that new tunes can be composed using that Raga. That is to say, though a given Raga has certain melodic phrases, their forms and expressions are truly unlimited. And yet, a Raga can be recognized in the first few notes, because the feelings produced by the musician’s execution of these notes are intensely strong. The effect of Indian music is cumulative rather than dramatic. As the musician develops his discourse in his Raga, it eventually colors the thoughts, elevates and delights the listeners.

18.1. Raga is the central and predominant melodic concept in Indian music. Raison d’être of a classical music performance is projecting the entity of a Raga in its fullest splendor, so as to offer to the listeners an aesthetic experience which only that Raga can generate ( that is, Raga–specific) .

18.2. Raga-bhava-rasa is a continuum. The Raga ambience creates a mood that binds together the performer and the listener. The elaboration of the idyllic tender passages manifests or becomes (Bhava) the emotive world; and, it creates is an experience shared by the creator and the enjoyer (rasika). In that we, somehow, touch the very core of our being. And, that out-of –the world (alaukika) subjective ultimate aesthetic experience (ananda) is not a logical construct. As Abhinavagupta says, it is a wondrous flower; and, its mystery cannot really be unraveled.


19.1. The advent of Raga changed the whole phase of Indian Music.  With its coming, the ancient music-terms and concepts such as Jaati, Grama, and Murchana etc no longer are relevant in the Music that is practiced since say, fourteenth century. Since then Raga has taken the centre stage; and, it is the most important concept in music composition, music performances and even in music-listening.

19.2. The proliferation of Ragas led, in the South, to systematic ways of classifying or grouping (Mela) them based on the technical traits of their scales (Svaras). In North India, Ragas are classified according to such characteristics as mood, season, and time of the day or night. Classification of Ragas plays a major role in Indian Music theories.

Though the present-day system is evolved from the structure suggested by Venkatamakhin, it has many differences. For example, Venkatamakhin did not believe parent melakarthas must contain sampoorna (complete) Aroha and Avaroha as long as they contained the seven notes in some form or the other. The idea that they should have these seven notes in their complete form in the ascending and descending sequences of Svaras is attributed to Govindacharya, who, in the late 18th century, re-organized the melakartas making them all sampoorna so that a certain mathematical elegance could be maintained

[We shall talk about Mela-system later in the series]

In the next segment of this series let’s take a look at the various forms of Karnataka Sangita.



Forms of Karnataka Sangita


Sources and References

  1. Third Quarterly Report – SIPA Textbook Committee

  1. Rāga-s in Bṛhaddēśī: English translation of the verses and the prose passages describing the Rāga-s, in the Bṛhaddēśī of Mataṅga by Dr. Hema Ramanathan
  2. Brhaddasehi of Matanga by Dr. N . Ramanathan
  3. History of Indian Music by Swami Prajnananda
  4. Music and Musical Thought in Early India by Lewis Eugene Rowell
  5. Comparative Musicology and Anthropology of Music: Essays on the History of … By Bruno Nettl, Philip V. Bohlman
  6. Essays on Indian Music by Raj Kumar
  7. Emergence of the Desi tradition by T.M. Krishna
  8. Raga:
  11. A Brief Overview of the Evolution of Indian Music
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Posted by on May 21, 2015 in Music, Sangita


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