Rag is the central and predominant melodic concept in Indian music. Raison detre of a classical music performance is, projecting the entity of a rag in its fullest splendour, so as to offer to the listeners an aesthetic experience that is specific the rag. The etymology of the Sanskrit term rag (from the root ranj) refers in broader sense to “colour”, and more specifically to the emotion or mood produced by a particular combination or sequence of pitches (Ruckert & Widdess [Garland Encyclopedia] 1999: 64). The very first definition of rag was thus given by Matang (500-800 A.D.), “In the opinion of the wise, that particularity of notes and melodic movements, or that distinction of melodic sound by which one is delighted, is rag” (Widdess [The Ragas of Early Indian Music] 1995: 41).
The nucleus of rag, as defined by Matang and his followers can be found in jati and jati lakshan-s described by Bharat (200 B. C.- 200 A.D.). However, Powers presents somewhat different view partially rejecting this commonly accepted notion about the evolution of rag-s (Powers [Grove’s Dictionary] 1980: 78). Some scholars have suggested that the characteristic tunes of various rag-s have emerged from folk songs as well as from the local and provincial melodies (Gangoly [Ragas & Raginis] 1947: vii).
Rag as understood in the contemporary musical parlance eludes a simple and concise definition. Broadly it can be considered as a melodic mode or matrix that serves as a basic framework for composition and improvisation in Indian music. Technically, rag is a musical entity in which the choice of notes; their order and hierarchy, the manner of intonation, relative duration and their specific melodic approach, are clearly defined.
The order in which the notes can occur in a given rag is defined by ascent (aroh) and descent (avroh) while their hierarchy is given in terms of tonal centers as well as strong and weak notes (vadi-samvadi and alpatv – bahutv relationships). The other defining characteristics include the possible tonal range, the initial note and the resting note/notes etc. Although there may be rag-s with similar scales-similar melodic configuration, similar melodic configuration- different scales, similar scales-different melodic configuration and those exhibiting partial similarity; by virtue of the above mentioned musical characteristics a given rag embodies a specific musical idea which can be uniquely identified with it.
As a result of influence of Vedic and Tantric philosophy, many extra musical references and associations such as specific deity, colour, gender, visual contemplation (dhyan), time/season for performance and aesthetic emotion (ras), came to be attached to rag. Such association with extra-generic references attempted to personify the melodic entity of rag, which otherwise remains as an abstract sonal body. Today the only association that is maintained, though somewhat loosely, is the time /season for performing a rag.
Over the centuries, many changes have occurred with respect to rag such as disappearance of certain rag-s, emergence of new ones, transformation of rag-s and different interpretations of rag-s.
The contemporary rag formation is based on foundation of 12 notes, 7 pure or natural(shuddh) and 5 altered- flat and sharp (vikrit). Important rules concerning rag-formation are enumerated by V. N. Bhatkhande:
1. No rag can be made of less than five notes.
2. A rag can never omit Sa, the first note of the scale. Also it can not omit both Ma and Pa (the fourth and fifth note of the scale).
3. A rag should not include two forms (flat and sharp) of the same note consecutively.
4. A rag should have a definite ascent and descent.
Although theoretically it is possible to arrive at an infinite number of rag-s, their number is limited because of the above mentioned rules that govern rag formation and also due to the aesthetic considerations. In the contemporary performance practice 150-200 rag-s seem to be in vogue. However, only 40-50 rag-s are commonly practiced and form the basic repertory of almost every performing artist.
The word gamak, used in a generic sense, implies ‘ornamentation’. but as argued by Powers, the implication that something merely decorative has been added to something basic is in part misleading (Powers [Grove’s Dictionary] 1990: 105). The musicological treatises from the medieval period onwards describe fifteen types of vocal and nineteen types of instrumental gamak-s, mainly in relation to string instruments (ibid).
However, most of these ornamentation are no longer extant. Although the contemporary Hindustani music often uses long drawn steady notes with a great sense of accuracy of intonation, the space between the notes and the manner in which the notes are linked, are also as important. Ornamentation assumes significance in connection with such intonations. In some cases the particular ornament becomes mandatory in order to define the flavour of a rag, whereas, many a times these embellishments have purely aesthetic function.
Following ornamentations are prevalent in the contemporary Hindustani music.
Kan (written in notation as superscript) is a single grace note before, after or within a main note. It is widely used as an ornament showing the way in which notes are approached in a particular rag. In fact, kan is so common that the attack of a note without a preceding grace is extremely rare.
Mind (commonly denoted as /or \) is a continuous gliding movement between two notes. It brings about a slow transition within the notes without touching upon the in-between notes.
Andol (or andolan denoted as ~) is a slow and repeated intonation of a given note with a kan of an adjacent (upper or lower) note. The contemporary musicians often use the term shruti in conjunction with andol in the context of rag-s such as Darbari, where the flat Ga has a characteristic andol. The pitch position often clearly dips below the flat (komal) position and is therefore called extra-flat (ati-komal).
Murki is a fast and complex ornament involving two or more notes. Except in rare cases it is a pure ornament; it does not characterise the rag. Rather the complexity and frequency of murki depends on genre and style. Amongst the gharana-s of khayal, Mewati, Kirana and Patiala show a tendency to use this ornament more generously in their expression. Also, in semi-classical genres such as thumri, dadra etc. the frequency and complexity of murki is much more as compared to khayal.
Gamak in Hindustani music refers to a heavy shake on a single note. In faster movements gamak refers to a note-treatment involving intonation of several notes, each with a touch of either lower or higher note, laying stress on the main note.
Sunth is yet another type of ornament which is a mind with a nasal pronunciation using the sound ‘u’.
While mind, andol, sunth and gamak are the principal ornaments in dhrupad; khayal additionally includes ornaments like kan and murki.
Alankar (lit. ‘that which makes sufficient’) is another term indicative of ornamentation. In music it has a specific meaning of a decorative motif that can be repeated sequentially up and down the scale (Powers & Widdess [Oxford Music Online] 57). Such motifs are often used in the tan-formation in khayal.