A Saxophonist’s Guide To The North Indian Raga



ベーナ・サハスラ バーデイ

Master Veena Sahasrabuddhe (1948 – 2016)

Though there have been numerous introductory articles written about North Indian classical music for beginners or musicians from outside the tradition, a good many of them focus on each note set (raga) like they are simply scales to be ascended and descended like jazz rudiments; like reading Hamlet out loud somehow makes one a skilled Shakespearean actor! Unfortunately this approach, though usually well meaning, has led to a great many misunderstandings about Indian music, and a lot of poorly wrought jazz and world beat music. The most profound and successful hybrids of North Indian music and other systems, though, have occurred when cultural context and terminology has been explored, and both student and performer are connecting on a mutually understood conceptual level. This conceptual understanding is not only absolutely essential, it is also very interesting and deeply inspiring, giving you the ability to start bringing the modal structures of North Indian music to life.

For example, the word used to describe a “flat” note is komal, meaning “soft”. So to play a flatted/flattened note you are softening a natural note, rather than “making it flat”, which has a kind of destructive feeling or connotation. To make something “sharp” in music too has a feeling of cutting or extremity, rather than “crisp” (as the term occurs in North Indian music). Even these two definitions alone gives us a better sense of how one’s mental conception of musical terms can change one’s artistic and creative approach completely. Another great example is the word raga itself, which comes from the root ranj, which means “to be dyed or coloured”, or “something to take delight in”. Knowing this then, one ceases to view ragas as merely notes or scales and begins to sense/feel them as they are: a set of tones in a greater system of painting, poetry, sound, and time. To accomplish this, we will explore three key areas that will help you get started: mood, ornamentation, and pitch.

Like so many other types of traditional music from Asia and the Middle East, the creation of an evocative mood or “flavor” (rasa) is paramount. It is why many saxophonists fail to make ragas sound like anything other than scale exercises, as they are not aware of the significant and unique relationship every raga has with emotional evocation. This not only includes the various techniques for each instrument, but even what time of the day it is, whether it is diurnal or nocturnal music. For example, the ragas named Manj khamaj and Jog are most profoundly felt between midnight and 3 am, while Jogiya is performed at daybreak, alluding to the meditation and contemplation of monks and ascetics occurring at this time. Miyan ki malhar on the other hand can be performed at any time during the rainy season, or else at midnight during the other seasons.



Another key aspect of mood is understanding the emotional implications of a raga through the study of its related ragamala: a painted image (pictured above) that visually captures the spirit and mood of a raga. Each ragamala also includes an accompanying contemplative poem know as a dhyana, which captures the character of a raga by describing it in terms of noble masculine and feminine traits. So to study a raga was to study and meditate upon relationships between poems, images, sounds, time, and season; a process much deeper than just playing the notes up and down. This will then properly prepare you to study each raga’s pakad: a unique musical phrase that defines its flavor and proper expression. 

This meant that in order to create a mood, one needed certain techniques to make their instrument or voice have an emotional effect. This is where the knowledge of essential types of North Indian ornamentation is vital: the key without which a raga sounds no different than any other generic set of notes. There are five techniques one must study: the kan, miind (pronounced mee-nd), andolan, murki, and gamak.

Each note can be given a slow and delicate oscillation (andolan). Not a vibrato like in Western styles of music, but rather what one might describe as a beautiful waver. The note can also be augmented by a kan, a subtle grace note played from below or above to highlight a tone, is usually the first ornament one studies, as it helps one get used to more elaborate murkis: two or more grace notes played before landing on a pitch. A good example is the three-note murki: rapidly playing the notes E, D and C as a descending triplet before landing on D again.

The one technique that really brings a raga alive though is the miind, a continuous “slide” from one note to another. In fact, the miind could be called the most significant part of traditional North Indian music, as its proper execution is the source of much beauty and emotion. Indeed, the miinds of sitarist Ravi Shankar, bansuri flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia, and especially khayal singer Veena Sahasrabuddhe are of such high artistic quality that each have attained an almost god-like status amongst musicians and fans alike. Also, Creating a fast, “shaking” miind between a kan and a note is known as a gamak, which can give the ornament a beautiful “vrooming” sound.

North Indian classical music also contains micro-tones (shruti): notes smaller than the Western “half-step”, thus there is even further possibility for artistic expression. Each micro-tone can vary from five to twenty acoustic ‘cents’ from standard tunings, and most Indian musicians have their own personal preferences as to how many cents above or below a note they like to perform. This means that – apart from the natural forth, fifth, and octave of a raga – all other notes can be micro-tones that are ati komal (“very soft”), or tivratar (“very crisp/sharp”) in the case of an augmented fourth. All these ideas techniques occur in both vocal and instrumental music, but studying and imitating the great akars (vocal improvisations using the long vowel “ahh…”) by masters such as Sahasrabuddhe or the Dagar Brothers is an extremely efficient way to hear the ideal moods and ornaments that will begin to fill your ragas with their true rasa.

Having studied these ideas and techniques one can then finally approach the raga with the respect and mindset necessary to truly make beauty from such amazing cultural phenomena.



10 thoughts on “A Saxophonist’s Guide To The North Indian Raga

  1. Daniel a brilliant post. your knowledge is precise, borderline encyclopedic. there are some good documentaries on Indian music on Youtube, perhaps you know them already, here is one link, i watched it, it is wonderful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pzIRNtrtpi0/.
    i am a great admirer of North Indian & Carnatic music. you mention Chaurasia, who made me float once, i am sure of it. his work with Shiv Kumar Sharma is astonishing. i have a huge collection of Indian music, which i have scavenged from the internet.
    as for playing myself, well i have developed a lot (perhaps i have mentioned this before) through using Robbie Basho’s tuning variations of C & D & developing improvised pieces after experimenting with the dynamics the tuning affords. i have a pretty decent fingerstyle, which allows me to oscillate emotion, to create tension, drama, softness & perhaps some other emotions i am not even aware of myself. it is the only way i can utilize music, the only way i can make use / sense of it. so i have always felt the Raga to be something i can feel my way through, which is how i have always understood it to work, at least partly. you’ve given me some study to be getting on with though. i appreciate that. any online help you could point me toward, or should i keep feeling my way?

        1. If one wishes to learn the actual tradition, then a teacher and proper training is necessary. But for self study purposes, knowing the conceptual framework will take one a lot further than just “noodling” around with the notes, as we all have when we first encountered what we were led to believe was a “raga”. Most people don’t know about the akar, let alone what a miind is, so I thought I would help out in that regard.

          The end goal is beautiful, original music, no matter what path you took to get there…

            1. Explore to your heart’s content. All the great North and South Indian masters share this information with all kinds of musicians in order to draw attention to their own traditions while encouraging new hybrids that will enrich the future. The only things that matter are showing respect for the older tradition while conscientiously creating a high quality innovation within your own. Remember, it goes both ways.

              The famous sitarist Shujaat Khan once told me that the most beautiful thing he has ever heard was the sound of a lonely saxophone playing on a distant street corner in New York while he sat on the steps of his hotel having a smoke. The sound echoing off the buildings was magical to him.

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