Fantastic or frivolous? What makes a raga?

“Artificial” ragas in Carnatic music

Vishnu Vasudev
11 min readAug 8, 2017

Adbhut Kalyan and Niroshta

The dhrupad maestro Ustad Sayeeduddin Dagar, passed away in Pune last week, aged 78. In an article in the Indian Express reporting his passing, Pune-based classical musician Saniya Patankar is quoted: “I have seen audience in tears when Ustadji would sing ragas like Adbhut Kalyan, Miyan Malhar, Todi etc.”

I was lucky enough to have been forwarded the link to Ustad singing Adbhut Kalyan, and decided to listen in:

While I was not moved to tears, what I did find moving was the tenderness, care and feeling with which the Ustad had rendered the raga. This is apparent both from his rendition as well as the commentary he provides throughout — showing off a family jewel. He imbibed the raga with a distinct character, nuance and heft. The very fact that it was mentioned along with heavyweights such as Miyan Malhar and Todi in his obituary indicates that it is a raga of significance, at least in the Dagar tradition. Do have a listen, it is well worth the time.

I was not moved to tears, but I was blown away. In the Carnatic tradition, we have a raga with the same notes — Sa, Ri, Ga, Dha, Ni, on the ascent and descent. Except that the raga in the Carnatic tradition is a bit of a joke. Literally. The name of the raga is “Niroshta”, which means “without lips”. With no Ma or Pa notes in the raga, and your lips do not meet when you sing the other notes, hence Niroshta. Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagvatar, an eminent composer, guru and singer of the early 20th century is thought to have created this raga. The most famous composition in this raga (also Bhagvatar’s) is notable for — you guessed it — not requiring the lips to meet when singing it (Raja Raja Radhite). It all sounds like he was having a bit of fun on a particularly quiet day.

Here is a rendition of the song by Prasanna on the guitar, complete with kalpanaswara improvisation. Take a listen:

This is the most palatable version I could find on Youtube. While it may entertain for a few minutes, it’s clear that it would be difficult to sustain the engagement of a listener in this raga for very long. My own reaction to the raga is that it is close to being an abomination.

So to see the same scale transformed from something of a lark in the Carnatic tradition to something deserving meditative reverence in the the Dhrupad tradition was a revelation.

Carnatic music is replete with ragas such as Niroshta — relatively “new”, created in the 19th or early 20th centuries. This lack of history behind them also means that they have not had the opportunity to evolve organically — to age with grace, to be polished, to stew in its own juices to emerge as anything more than a combination of notes in the form of a scale. What do we make of such ragas?

To try and answer that, a quick detour to understand what makes a raga.

A scale does not a raga make

A raga is not merely a scale. There are at least three different characteristics that make a raga. First of course is the specific set of notes that make the raga. Mohanam and Hamsadhwani, for instance have four notes in common — Sa, Ri, Ga and Pa, but this is followed by a Dha in Mohanam and Ni in Hamsadhwani. Technnically, these five notes are not the “notes” that make up the raga, but note-positions or swara-sthanas, or the relatively precise location of the note in relation to the base note (Sa).

This is the second potentially defining characteristic of a raga — the treatment of each note in the raga within its swara-sthana. A Ga note with the same swara-sthana in two different ragas may be treated entirely differently. Broadly, this treatment is of two types — the actual pitch of the note within the swara-sthana, and the “oscillation”(gamaka) around that pitch. A famous example is the Ga in “Todi”, which occupies the swara-sthana for Ga, but is not sung as a straight Ga — the frequency of the note is actually a wide oscillation between the next higher and lower notes (Ma and Ri), never really resting at “home” at Ga in the characteristic phrases of the raga.

Third is the way in which the notes interact with each other within the raga. This includes whether you hop, skip, jump, push, pull or slide between notes, and the characteristic combination and patterns of notes that define the essence of the ragas (prayogas), and to get a little meta, the interactions between the phrases. This also includes whether some notes are more important than others in evoking the essence of the raga.

It is difficult to explain what makes a raga in words, so it is best that you listen to this beautifully produced three-part demonstration by T.M.Krishna on improvisation in Carnatic Music, in which he gets into the essentials of raga music in a succinct and accessible manner.

He also addresses “raga identity” head on in a lecture / demonstration, that would also be well worth your time.

Can Niroshta hope to grow up? No says Krishna

The main shortfall of “new” ragas such as Niroshta is that they were originally conceived as a clever combination of notes — in another words, a new scale. Given their relative youth, other nuances (such as distinctive gamakas or prayogas) haven’t developed, either artificially or through evolution. They may be pleasing to the ear, but have not achieved the authenticity of a raga.

This at least, is the view of T.M. Krishna. He has written about these ragas in books and articles, and spoken about them extensively. He variously refers to as “artificial”, “fabricated”, “undesirably fancy”, “nouveau scale-structure”, “simulated” and so on. He is always careful to note that his questioning of these ragas is not about whether these ragas are pleasing to the ear (many of them indisputably are), but a question of aesthetics, and whether they should count as ragas. He includes in this set of ragas of which he is critical on aesthetic grounds, many of the 72 sampurna (containing seven notes) Melakartha ragas, including ragas as well established as Keeravani. He places a huge premium on ragas being “older”, “natural” ragas, and his instinctive benchmark seems to be 500 years. From his tome “Southern Music — The Karnatic Story”

“If we were to study the older natural ragas, we would find that their melodic form is not linear. This works in the raga’s interest. It is the divagating, curved movement of melody that gives to raga its character and in a sense, colour. ‘Raga’ in Sanskrit, of course, carries the connotation of colour, as also of feeling and emotion. It is this quality of a raga to take a wander, so to say, and to digress that also provides the possibility for a further expansion in its melody. When a raga is straitjacketed with a linear sequence of svaras, it becomes almost impossible for it to develop the curvatures and meandering phraseology that define its character.”


“A raga is not jugglery, manipulation, a clever arrangement or an egoistic display of prowess. Raga is a reflection of life’s moments and emotions in melodic images. These moments have not been fashioned to make us feel sorry or happy about the many swings in our personal lives, but to touch us with the magic of a single encounter as when we stand with humility beholding a 500-year-old banyan tree. Can an artificial svara construction, which we have labelled as a raga, give us this abstraction? This is the question

Some of the examples he gives of “artificial” ragas include sequential ragas with seven notes such as Simhendramadhyamam, Dharmavati, Vachaspati, Keeravani and Lathangi. Examples of such ragas with seven non-sequentially arranged notes include Karnaranjini, Nalinakanti, Amrita Behag, Kokilavarali and Malavi. Of ragas with fewer than seven notes — Jayantasena, Mandari and Jayamanohari. [Niroshta belongs to this last group].

To round off on TM Krishna’s views on the topic. He holds Muthuswami Dikshitar, and Thyagaraja — more so Thyagaraja, responsible for the phenomenon of artificial ragas. First, by giving all the ragas in their own schools of “Melakartha” sanctity by composing in all of them, even if they were not old or organic. And in the case of Thyagaraja, by creating several artificial ragas himself. Thyagaraja, being Thyagaraja, was followed by others in his footsteps and inadvertently gave sanctity to the interpretation of at least some ragas as not much more than scales.

He also has more hope for artificial ragas with non-sequential notes (e.g. Nalinakanti) to have a chance of attaining raga-authenticity, rather than ragas with a linear sequencing of notes (e.g. Lathangi). The reasoning is that it is easier to be creative in developing distinctive phraseology for the former. With linear ragas (especially sampurna ragas with seven notes), the focus is on distinguishing it from proximate ragas (which just have one differing note), which constrains creativity.

Are we at the end of raga history?

Instinctively, I agree with almost all of T.M. Krishna’s views on these “artificial” ragas. Many of them are simply unfortunate. As a class of ragas when compared to the older ragas, they do not compare — there is a stratospheric difference between the collective ability of the two sets of ragas to simply move you. If you removed these ragas from the Carnatic pantheon, Carnatic music would exist and be recognizable as such. If you removed even one or two of the “older” ragas, Carnatic music would be immeasurably depleted.

Where I differ with Krishna is on two distinct but inter-related questions — who is responsible for these ragas, and whether some of them could indeed be “salvaged”? Of course he is a practitioner, and I a listener.

It is unfair to hold the creators of these ragas solely, or even largely responsible for their continued existence of these scale-ragas. This is musical equivalent to being against freedom of speech. What stops a Niroshta from being nurtured from a scale-like raga to a raga with the authenticity of an Adbhut Kalyan as nurtured by the Dagar family is either a lack of inclination or application, or both, on the part of those who came after Muthiah Bhagvatar to do so. Plus a Carnatic tendency toward unnecessary reverence for the hoary past that makes it virtually disrespectful to take artistic ownership and license over something created by a stalwart — whether Thyagaraja or Bhagvatar. Thyagaraja did not force us to follow in his footsteps or to sing Chenchu-Kamboji raga in every other concert.

The more interesting question is whether scale-ragas could over time (say a century or two or three) evolve into more wholesome ragas? In the same demonstration on improvisation by T.M. Krishna referenced above, he makes an important connection between composition and improvisation. Raga evolution happens in the cyclical interaction between the two. There is a composition in a particular raga, say Kamboji. That forms a reference point for the characteristics of the raga and these are fully explored in improvisations and new discoveries / phraseology may be found. Over time, these new characteristics of the raga are incorporated into new compositions, or even the original composition that provided the original template as new “sangathis” (composed variations of a given line). This is why when T.M. Krishna and Vijay Siva sang a concert in Chennai over a decade ago, there were a few songs in which they sang alternate stanzas rather than together — they simply would not have been able to sing these songs together because the two schools of music they belonged to had different interpretations of the same composition. In his demonstration he notes that some of the more well known sangathis in Thyagaraja’s “O Rangasayee”, itself a benchmark for Kamboji were in fact added on by vocalist Semmangudi Sreenivasa Iyer in the 20th century.

So we know that the specific idea of a raga, even old and established ones is fluid. Highly viscous perhaps, but still fluid. Not only is this not a problem, this is how the music evolves — fluidity is at the core of Carnatic music. When the mutations pile up over time,or suddenly, to form something that the original conception cannot authentically mate with, a new raga species is formed. Organically, mind you. Not because someone sat one fine day to create a new raga.

Is it really so hard to conceive one, a few, or many of the current set of “artificial” ragas going through a similar “organic” process of evolution to become fully formed? I think many of these ragas are already there. Until I read T.M. Krishna on the subject, I had no idea that Simhendramadhyamam was a relatively “new” raga. I have been moved to the core by this raga, multiple times. I could say the same could be said of Hemavati, Keeravani or Gamanashrama. And we have time on our hands for the rest. There is no reason to think that the same process will not continue over the next decades and centuries. The evolutionary process of Carnatic will outlast Carnatic music. After all, none of the older ragas arrived on earth or into Carnatic music fully formed. Yes, the starting point for many of the older ragas may have been older organic non-art music traditions and the starting point for the newer ragas is a bored genius sitting in a room, but that should have no bearing on the process that follows.

Of the two categories of “artificial ragas” — sequential vs. non-sequential, T.M. Krishna is slightly more hopeful of the latter blooming into authentic ragas. I have more hope for the sequential ragas, especially ragas with all seven notes (melakartha), simply because they are by definition less constrained by the sequences. If you are to start raga-evolution process with artificial ragas, the ones with more degrees of freedom provide the greater depth to sink into and find a way back. Krishna argues that the sequential ragas provide fewer degrees of freedom because the artist focuses his or her attention on the parts of the scale where there are well known/oft-rendered proximate ragas in existence. The solution to me is simple — the artist inclined to explore this raga should either do so in a closed room or assume his audience knows nothing about Carnatic music or proximate ragas. If the point of this journey is to find the aesthetic essence of a raga, to discover its “raganess”, its ability to affect with authenticity, surely the process of discovery must not be constrained by the high IQ or low EQ of the Carnatic cognoscenti of the age? Could Shanmukhapriya be so much more without the proximate Simhendramadhyamam sitting on its shoulder? Whose fault is it that S’madhyamam is perched there?

In short, I have hope for the future of these ragas — they may be underweight now, but they may not grow up to be stunted. Whether they do or not depends in part on the inherent structure of these ragas, but largely on whether we allow them to do so with something of an open mind and whether we trust in the process that brought us their more organic predecessors.

Post scripts

Whether or not you agree with all of TM Krishna’s views on different aspects of Carnatic music, the amount of time he has taken to research the subject and to share what he knows and what he thinks with wider audiences, whether through books, articles and demonstrations, and of course his music, is truly incredible and generous. It is not any easy read, and I have not read it in full, but as a “dip-in-dip-out” experience, I highly recommend his book “A Southern Music — the Karnatic Story”

Balamurali Krishna created many ragas in his lifetime, some with as few as four notes. In Bangalore, in 1982, over two sessions, he created a new raga. In the first session, he was given a scale by a member of the audience — Veena Doraiswamy Iyengar. Two days later, he presented a composition in a raga based on that scale (which he named “Dorai”). You can listen to that presentation below. After the alapana, at about 17:50, he himself points out the difference between a scale and a raga — and in two days, he seems to have done a pretty good job of converting one to the other. Think what a few decades with this raga could do, if someone was inclined to lose themselves in it!



Vishnu Vasudev

I write mainly about my experience as a listener of Carnatic music.