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Beginner Raags - by Pritam Bhattacharjee


Introduction

Every student of Hindustani Classical Music usually begins his formal training with ragas like Yaman and Bhoop. He is then introduced to other ragas like Durga, Bhimpalas, Kafi, Bihag and Malkauns. In case you ever wondered, what is special about these ragas that make them ideal candidates for being taught to newbies, this article helps explain it. It is important to note that the ragas mentioned above are by no means "simple" as one can easily tell listening to masterful renditions of these ragas by vocal or instrumental maestros. Extremely complex and intricate note patterns can be woven in these presumably simple ragas. Every raga is an ocean in itself and the complexity level that it can be taken to is limited only by the capacity of the artist rendering it. As such, this discussion is not about determining why certain ragas are simple and certain others are complex because in reality, there is no such thing as a "simple" raga.

That said, it is still a widely acclaimed fact that certain ragas make ideal candidates for beginner students while yet others are usually abstained from being taught until the student has had a few years of rigorous training. This article attempts to discuss the factors that are instrumental in classifying a raga as "beginner" or "advanced."


Misconceptions

It is common belief that "shuddha swar" ragas are easier on beginners than "komal swar" ragas. This is however, not a universal rule. An excellent example illustrating this fact is raga Malkauns, a pentatonic raga. Out of the 5 swars that go to make this raga, 3 are of the "komal" nature. Nevertheless, Malkauns is absorbed and reproduced with ease by beginners! Other ragas such Kafi and Bhimpalas which also employ 2 komal swars each, are common "beginner" ragas. Conversely, if a raga contains all shuddha swars, it does not necessarily become a default choice for beginners. For example, while Bhoop and Durga are favorite choices for novices, other ragas like Bhinna Shadaj and Hansadhwani are not taught until much later. We can therefore argue that it is not the shuddha or komal nature of notes that ultimately decides whether a particular raga can qualify as a "beginner" raga.

Note Separation

In order to understand what makes a raga easy or hard to reproduce for beginners, we must first understand how the 12 notes (7 shuddha, 1 teevra and 4 komal notes) in an octave are situated in relation to each other. The following illustration depicts their placement albeit in an overly simplistic manner. The reason we say that is because although we consider each octave to consist of 12 notes, each note is further comprised of multiple microtones or shrutis. Thus, there are altogether 22 microtones in any given octave. Each microtone is essentially at a particular frequency. Since each of the 7 basic notes (Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha and Ni) have different number of microtones, the difference in frequencies of two adjacent notes is not uniform throughout the octave, adding to the complexity in understanding the situation. To keep matters simple though, we will discuss only in terms of the 12 notes as depicted below. (Throughout this discussion, all shuddha swars are denoted using uppercase letters whereas all komal swars and the teevra maddhyam are denoted by lowercase letters.)

S

r

R

g

G

M

m

P

d

D

n

N

S

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

It is important to note that the terms easy and difficult as mentioned in the following paragraphs refer to the ability of a student (or lack thereof) to accurately reproduce the notes of any given raga. A raga belonging to the "easy" spectrum comprises of notes that are separated by a distance of 1 or 2 notes. As the distance between 2 consecutive notes in a raga increases beyond 2, the raga slowly moves away from an "easy" (beginner) to more of a "difficult" (advanced) spectrum. As the distance increases even further to 4 or 5 notes, the huge gap between 2 consecutive notes of the raga in question makes it very hard to reproduce and certainly does not remain a beginner's cup-of-tea.

Let us consider the example of ragas Bhoop and Hansadhwani to help explain this concept. Both these ragas are pentatonic in nature and consist of all shuddha swars. The notes comprising raga Bhoop are S R G P D S while those comprising raga Hansadhwani are S R G P N S. In effect, the D in Bhoop is replaced by N in Hansadhwani. How does a single note shift change a hard-core beginner raga (Bhoop) to one that is not easy for a beginner student to sing (Hansadhwani)? This can easily be explained using the table given above. While P and D are separated by 1 note (d) in Bhoop, P and N are separated by 3 notes (d, D, n) in the case of Hansadhwani. This gap makes it difficult for a beginner to reproduce these notes with the correct tonal accuracy. The chasm is further widened in case for raga "Shree" (ascent: S r m P N S) where we have 4 notes separating r from m, thereby making it an outcast from the beginner raga collection.

Conversely, if a raga has 3 or more notes situated right beside each other, the complexity of the raga increases manifold. An example is that of raga Lalit flaunting the G-M-m cluster. As can be seen from the table given above, these three notes are in close proximity to each other making it hard for a newbie to reproduce the exact tonal frequencies. Another example is raga Ramkali with its m-P-d(-n-d-P-m-P) cluster.

Chalan

The other important aspect that disqualifies ragas from being taught to beginners is the "chalan" of a raga. The word "chalan" literally means "movement" of the raga and defines how raga progression can occur. In certain ragas with complex chalan, notes need to be sung in a certain order. In other words, there are restrictions on which notes can follow or precede certain other notes. A simple example is raga Bilaskhani Todi with aroha - S r g P d S and avaroha - r n d M g r S. The shuddha maddhyam is completely skipped in the ascent while the descent cold shoulders the pancham. Other examples of ragas with complex chalan are ragas Bhatiyar and Ramkali that are meant only for fairly advanced students.

Microtones

Furthermore, there are ragas that employ specific microtones that are difficult to reproduce for the untrained voice. A striking example is raga Marwa. Although Marwa has its constituent notes spaced out fairly evenly and has a straightforward ascending and descending order (n r G m D N S / r N D m G r S), one of the aspects that makes it a complex raga to sing is the presence of the flatter-than-normal komal rishabh. This microtone is of a frequency situated between the regular komal rishabh and the shadja and lies very close to the shadja. Accurate placement of this shruti is not possible without prolonged and intensive training in classical music. Other examples of ragas that employ swar shrutis that are flatter or sharper than normal are ragas Miyan ki Malhar (employing a sharper-than-normal komal gandhar) and Darbari Kanada (employing a flatter-than-normal komal gandhar).

Last but not the least, ragas that employ peculiar note treatments like oscillation or "andolan" on one or more of its constituent notes also fall outside of the beginner's spectrum of ragas. "Andolan" begins at an adjacent note and repeatedly lands on the note that is being oscillated upon (called the "andolit" swar). In this process it touches all the intermittent microtones giving a resounding effect. Examples are ragas Bhairav (andolit swar - komal rishabh and komal dhaivat) and Darbari Kanada (andolit swar - komal gandhar).

Conclusion

It is apparent from the foregoing discussion that the simplest ragas to reproduce for beginners are the ones in which all constituent notes are spread out fairly evenly, have a straightforward ascent and descent and are devoid of the presence of unusual microtones or special note treatments like "andolan". Once we cross this realm, ragas exhibit varying levels of complexity and tend to become harder to master. Such ragas are best attempted slowly and steadily after a student has put in several long hours of rigorous training and riyaaz under the watchful eyes of a qualified Guru.