Influenced by the Vedic and Tantric traditions, there has been a practice of attaching extra-musical associations to various musical entities. Since ancient times music treatises refer to associations such as a specific deity, colour, gender, visual contemplation (dhyan), time of the day, season and aesthetic sentiment (ras). It has been suggested that such extramusical associations were linked to music so as to fill the void that was caused when music came to be an independent art separated from the context of drama (Sharma [Sangeet natak] 1970:61).
Of all such associations, today we still find in practice at least two: ras and time /season.
In India, the perception of arts and literature seems to mainly rely on the concept of ras. which has been, from a very early times, the most important philosophy underlining the formal theory of aesthetics. No wonder therefore that use of the term ‘ras’ is widespread and integral to the Indian performing arts vocabulary. The term is derived from the root ‘ras’, meaning ‘to taste’, and has different connotations at three levels – physical, psychological and metaphysical. In the physical sense it is used to denote the juice or the essence, In the psychological sense it signifies the flavour or the taste, whereas on the metaphysical level it describes the experience one has when subjected to an artistic creation. Most significantly, according to Taittiriya Upanishad, ras denotes the ‘ultimate reality’, which forms basis for the supra-mundane experience of anand or the highest spiritual bliss (Taittiriya Upanishad II.7).
Explaining this aspect further, Prem Lata Sharma observes that in Indian tradition the central point of aesthetics is ras rather than beauty; ras being the direct source or essence of anand, is the ultimate goal of all artistic creations (Sharma [Sangeet natak] 1970:58). As noted by several scholars, the metaphysical aspect of the concept cannot be positively defined because it is supposed to be intuitively felt rather than sensibly experienced.
Bharat (200BC-200AD), the propounder of ras theory, classified the experience in to eight categories (Natyashastra, VI),suggesting various colourings of one experience. Thus the word ras may be employed relatively in plural with respect to various conditions which constitute the burden of a given work. These are shringar (amorous), hasy ( humourous), karun (pathetic), raudr (furious), vir (valorous), bhayanak (horrific), bibhats (repugnant) and adbhut (wondrous). Later, Abhinavgupt, one of Bharat’s major critics, added the ninth ras as shant (peaceful).
It is to be noted that the concept of ras originated and developed in the context of dramaturgy (naty), which incidentally also incorporated both dance and music. Bharat’s exhaustive deliberations on ras suggest that all elements of naty, like music, dance, gestures, costumes, make-up etc. should be directed towards bringing out the desired aesthetic sentiment or the ras. Bharat has devoted nearly eight chapters (28 to 34) in his magnum opus Natyashastra to discuss association of various musical elements such as specific musical notes (svar), modal patterns (jati) and songs (dhruva) with a particular ras.
Rag and Ras
From the nucleus of jati that emerged from gram (the parent scale) in Bharat’s time, a revolutionary musical concept of rag was introduced by Matang (500-800AD). As defined in his landmark treatise Brihaddeshi, the rag is:
“That which colours the mind of the good through a specific svar (interval) and varn(melodic movement) or through a type of dhvani (sound), is known by the wise as rag (Matang [Brihaddeshi] 1994: 77).
In other words, a rag reveals a particular musical idea and through a number of tonal characteristics a highly individual atmosphere is created. Thus, the very definition of rag embodies in its purview the element of “delight” or “pleasure”.
Bharat’s postulations as mentioned above correlating various musical entities with particular ras, subsequently culminated in rag-ras relation, in which a particular rag is associated with one of the nine aesthetic sentiments (ras). Such associations survive even today in the music literature despite continuously changing socio-cultural milieu and aesthetic norms through the past two millennia. Nonetheless, musicologists like Prem Lata Sharma ([Sangeet natak] 1970: 63); ([Report of twelfth congress] 1981:528), Thakur Jaidev Singh ([Aspects of Indian music] 1957: 61) and Achary Brihaspati ([Bharat ka sangit siddhant] 1959) have pointed out serious limitations in applying Bharat’s dictum to rag-music as performed today.
An empirical study on the subject of rag and ras correlates the tonal configuration of a rag with its unique identity, and consequently validates the idea that a rag has a characteristic atmosphere of its own (Rao [Acoustical perspective on rag-ras theory] 2000). However, no specificity can be attached to this experience in terms of a specific ras in the conventional sense.
The earliest reference to rag-time/season association dates back to 700-900 AD in Sangit Makarand of Narad (1978:15). Incidentally, the author of this treatise attempts rag-classification on the basis of the ras evoked by the melody. Subsequently such associations are also discussed in treatises like Bharatbhashya (also referred as Saraswatihridayalankar) ascribed to Nanyabhupal (alias Nanyadev, 1097-1133 AD), Sangit Ratnakar of Sharangdev (1247AD) and later works, albeit often without consistency.
In the modern times the relationship of rag with diurnal as well as seasonal time-cycle remains as one of the defining characteristics of rag. In Hindustani music especially, each rag is attributed to one of the eight watches (prahar) or divisions of the day and night, and/or to one of the six seasons (ritu). According to Powers, this association might have been derived from temple music, where rag-s are sung to accompany the cycle of daily rituals and seasonal festivals (Powers & Widdess [Oxford Music Online] 46). V. N. Bhatkhande (1860-1936), one of the most influential figures of 20th century, highlighted the importance of the fourth note (Madhyam). According to him, rag-s with emphasis on the lower tetrachord (purvang) are performed between noon and midnight whereas those with a dominant upper tetrachord (uttarang) are performed between midnight and noon (Bhatkhande [KPM] various vols.)
Starting the day at 4 pm, he refers to the period around sunrise and sunset as sandhiprakash (twilight), during which rag-s with flat Re and Dha are to be performed. After the sunrise (between 7-10) rag-s with shuddh Re, Ga and Dha are performed and thereafter up to the sunset rag-s with flat Ga and Ni are advocated. From 4 pm onwards the same cycle repeats but including rag-s with /dominance of sharp Ma.
Although the above theory of Bhatkhande has some limitations, by and large it can explain the contemporary practice.
For more on time theory, refer to N. A. Jairazbhoy [The rag-s of north Indian music] 1995: 64)
Due to the constraints of modern times, music recitals are mainly held in the evening, extending only up to the early part of the night. As a result, many rag-s appropriate to the morning, afternoon and late night have fallen out of use. Of course, the All India Radio (AIR), which is the National Radio network with the widest reach, continues to have broadcasts during morning, afternoon and night hours. Despite such efforts, generally there is a sharp decline in the number of rag-s that are performed as well as taught and learnt.