The word Raag/Raagam literally means ‘coloring, dyeing’ and conceptually translates as that which colors the mind in Indian classical music. Raags/Raagams (used interchangeably for the purpose of the article but are specific to Hindustani and Carnatic music respectively) have a very rich cultural, and in some cases, religious significance.
The entire structure of Indian classical music is built upon 7 fundamental swaras known as Sa (Shadjam – Tonic swara), Ri (Rishabh), Ga (Gandhara), Ma (Madhyam), Pa (Panchama – Perfect Fifth), Da (Dhaivata), Ni (Nishad). Sa and Pa are known to be the ‘prakriti swaras’ for they remain constant upon establishing the tonic (first note). The other swaras can manifest as different variants of the base swara and so are known as Vikruthi swaras. In totality, there are 12 musical notes in one string (S, r, R, g, G, m, M, P, d, D, n, N).
Ragas, Melakartha and Thaat in Classical Music
Now in carnatic, each note (excluding S, P and M which has 2 variants) has 3 variations given certain constraints (i.e. R2 and G1, D2 and N1 are mutually exclusive). As a result the total number of combinations you can make using the 7 notes becomes 72 of which 36 have M1 and 36 have M2. These 72 combinations define the umbrella ‘Melakartha Raagams’ term. Similarly yet slightly on the contrary, in hindustani, each note of the 7 swaras has 2 variations (excluding S and P). Thus the total number of combinations you can make becomes 32. Of these 32 raagms, there are 10 raagams otherwise known as Thaats in Hindustani. These 10 thaats are essentially derived by changing the variation of just one note from the prior sequences (i.e. S R G M P D N S → S R G M P D n S where smaller cases indicate the ‘Komal’ variation and upper cases indicate the “Theevra” variation.
Raags are essentially built upon a minimum of 5 notes (of the underlying 7 (sapta) swaras) organized into an ascending (Arovanam) and a descending sequence (Avarohanam). The majority of the raags/raagams stem from the parent “Thaat” or “Melakartha” raags/raagams. There are some exceptions to the overall rule. For example Raga Hameer Kalyani has both M1 and M2. The structure and nuances of the ascending and descending sequences are quite often unique to each Raag.
Each raag has its own unique essence known as ‘pakar’ as well as a structured frequency of certain notes in which ‘vadi’ is the most prominent note followed by the ‘samvadi’, the second most prominent note. Additionally, various improvisations such as the timing between notes, stress and sustain on certain notes etc. can further be used to tamper a Raag albeit within the confines of the aforementioned note sequences. This, coupled with the tonal interval differences (ratio of each interval’s frequency with the ‘root’ note (e.g. Sa) ,) explain why raags with the same notes can sound different.