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April 2007 Article:

Presentation Styles of the Hindustani Music System

- Dr. Suresh C. Mathur

As described earlier, the Hindustani and the Karnatik music systems have evolved from common roots. Each system is based on similar concepts of RAGA, with minor differences of details and presentation forms. The concept of RAGA in the Hindustani System may be summarized as follows:

1)   A RAGA is formed from the basic 12 semitones of the octave. However a RAGA is not merely defined in terms of modes or scales, rather the scale is simply the starting framework for a particular RAGA.
2)   All RAGAS have characteristic ascending (AROHANAM) and descending (AVAROHANAM) note patterns.
3)   A RAGA must use 5 notes of the octave, with rare exceptions.
4)   The Hindustani Music does not allow chromatic note sequences, with only a few exceptions. As such, most of the Hindustani RAGAS are based on those 32 MELAS out of the 72 MELAS of the Karnatik Music System, which do not have chromatic sequences of notes. However, a RAGA may use both alternatives of a note in ascending patterns using oblique (VAKRA) movements. When both alternatives of the same note are used, they are still counted as one in describing the species (JATI) of the RAGA. The mathematical number of possibilities for creating RAGAS out of a 12-semitone octave is very large. This number would be greatly multiplied by the unlimited possibilities of characteristic note patterns (PAKAD) of each RAGA, which go into the distinguishing of one RAGA from the other. However, the RAGA concept is not merely mathematics. A RAGA must also possess aesthetic and spiritual appeal to be accepted as a RAGA. As such, there are only about 500 RAGAS in use today in Hindustani System out of virtually limitless mathematical possibilities.
5)   In the Hindustani System, each RAGA is considered to be characterized by two important notes of the scales used, which are called VADI (sonant) and the SAMVADI (consonant) SWARAS (notes). Thus, there may be two or more distinct RAGAS, which have identical scales, but different pair of VADI and SAMVADI notes.
6)   The scholars of the Hindustani Music System have subjectively recognized a “time theory” for RAGAS, whereby the notes used in the RAGA point to the time of the 24-hour cycle most suitable for the performance of that RAGA. There are also a number of RAGAS, which are recognized as suitable for specific seasons, such as, spring, monsoon etc.

The Background Drone

The concept of RAGA is based upon a fixed ground note (Tonic) Sa, which forms the reference for all other intervals of the scale. A constant background drone produced on the ubiquitous TANPURA, a stringed instrument with 4 or 5 strings, provides this ground note reference. The usual background drone tunings are: Pa (G1) Sa (C) Sa ( C) Sa ( C1) or Ma (F1) Sa ( C) Sa ( C) Sa ( C1). It is quite obvious from the preceding that the two systems of Indian Classical Music, the Hindustani System of North and Karnatik System of South, both based on the concept of RAGAS, are melodic in nature.

Presentation forms of RAGAS

A RAGA (melodic line) is developed in a performance by a vocalist or an instrumentalist in much the same way that a painter starting with a blank canvas would stroke by stroke, in a painstaking and deliberate manner, produce a painting. The end result is determined by the training, skill, and the inspiration brought into the performance. The development of the RAGA (melodic line) is accompanied by TALA (percussive line). The Indian Classical Music by its nature is introspective and the RAGA tradition has evolved into a solo performance of the melodic line. Unlike the Western Music tradition, there is no score as such, but only the predefined conceptual framework of the RAGA and the TALA, and the various presentation styles, which have evolved over the centuries. The following brief description would indicate some of the commonly used styles of development and presentation in Hindustani Music:


– The word KHAYAL is derived from the Persian language and connoted an environment of “meditation”, “imaginative improvisation”, “flights of fancy”. The KHAYAL style of RAGA presentation was developed in the 17th century and has become the principal mode of RAGA presentation in Hindustani Music.

A KHAYAL presentation consists of two parts: (1) A very slow and deliberate development of the RAGA, note by note and phrase by phrase, bringing out the underlying moods and emotions associated with the RAGA. This part is usually composed in one of the rhythmic cycles (TALAS) in a very slow and meditative tempo, (2) Compositions set to one of the many TALAS and played successively in medium and fast tempo. This part is characterized by complex and fast moving note patterns (TAAN) exploiting all the possibilities of complex and exciting cross rhythms provided by the TALA used.

The part of composition set to TALA is called CHEEZ for vocal music and GAT for instrumental compositions. The first part of the composition (STHAYI) predominantly utilizes the notes in the lower tetra chord, and the second part (ANTARA) the notes in the upper tetra chord. Based on the framework, the rest of the presentation is improvised.


The older style of RAGA presentation set to one of the specially designed TALAS. The compositions follow rather rigid bounds of rhythm with less room for ornamentation. There are only a few exponents of this style remaining.


These are the lighter styles, which are based upon the RAGA and TALA frame work, but enjoy virtually unlimited freedom to improvise and use phrases from any number of RAGAS, as the fancy strikes. The compositions in these styles are usually based on romantic themes.


Devotional compositions within the framework of the RAGA and TALA


Light rhythmic compositions for instrumental music and orchestrations, with great deal of freedom for improvisation. This freedom also demands a high level of musical imagination and inspiration on the part of the composer and the performer.