Rag Desh is an Indian piece of music. Indian music has a long history going back more than 2000 years. It is closely linked to Hinduism and religious philosophy. They many Hindu gods are often worshipped through performances of raga, both vocal and instrumental. In particular, the god Shiva is associated with the music and dance in Hindu philosophy and there are many pieces in praise and honour of this particular deity.
The music of India can be divided into two great musical traditions:
- The music of Northern India (the Hinduism tradition)
- The music of the South (the Carnatic tradition)
Rag Desh is Indian classical music and a tradition of Northern India.
The Oral Tradition
Unlike Western classical music, Indian music is not written down as conventional musical notation. Instead, it is taught through listening and playing by ear – called the oral tradition.
Indian families have a system of master-pupil teaching known as a gharana. A father might teach his son how to play through an intensive course involving listening and memorising. The son would then pass on his skills to the next generation and son on. However, playing styles will inevitably change as new techniques are added by subsequent generations and so the process is a duel one of consolidation and evolution of playing skills.
Elements of a Raga (improvised music in several contrasting sections, based on a series of notes from a particular rag)
The three most common elements or strands in Indian classical raga music are:
- The Melody – made up (improvised) from notes of a particular rag. Sung by a voice or playing by an instrument such as the sitar or sarod.
- The Drone – a supporting ‘drone’ of usually one or two notes provided by the tambura.
- The Rhythm – a repetitive, cyclic rhythm pattern played by the tabla drums.
Melody – the rag
The rag is the set melody on which the music is improvised. This is a cross between a collection of pitches and a scale. Like a scale, a rag ascends and descends, but the pitches often differ in each direction. Unlike the pattern of scales in Western Classical music with the same number of notes, the number of notes in a rag will vary considerably. Some rags have just five note rather like a pentatonic scale.
There are over 200 different rags in existence in Indian classical music and each has a particular mood (called a rasa) associated with it. The chosen rag will be used as the musical material in a full raga performance, and the music is then made up by the performers.This technique of making up music without notation is called improvisation.
Drone Accompaniment – the tambura
From the very first notes of a piece, you will hear a supportive drone played by the tambura. This usually sounds the tonic and dominant notes of the chosen rag. Its function is to keep a sense of tuning or intonation as a reference point for the melodic part, such as the sitar. It ever-present sound adds texture to the music as a whole.
Rhythm – the tala
The rhythm provided by the small tabla drums is organised into repeating rhythmic cycles called tala. The complex rhythms sound exciting when played against this steady beat by both the tabla player as well as the instrumentalist (or singer). These rhythm patterns, called bols, are independent of the beat and can be inventive, displacing accents off the beat to create syncopation.
Structure of a raga performance
A raga performance usually has a structure based on defined sections called the alap, jhor, jhalla and gat. However,
- Some sections can be omitted, for example a raga might just have an alap and a gat or Bhajan.
- Raga performances can vary vastly in time up to 5 or more hours in some cases!
Alap – opening unmetred and improvised section of a raga
- Tempo is slow and meditative.
- There is no metre (e.g. 4/4, 3/4/ , 6/8 etc..) so is in free time.
- The soloist explores the notes of a rag setting the mood and is accompanied by the drone produced by the tambura.
- The music is improvised.
Jhor – second section of a tempo
- Tempo has increased to steady/medium.
- There is now a regular sense of a pulse therefore there is the introduction of a metre.
- The improvised music becomes more rhythmic.
- Music becomes more elaborate.
Jhalla – third section of a raga and climax of whole piece
- Tempo increases again to fast and lively.
- Rhythm is now exciting with complex rhythms.
- It is the high point in a piece.
- There is a display of virtuoso (musician who excels in musical technique or execution) using advanced playing techniques.
Gat/Bhajan – final section of an instrumental raga
- Tempo is moderate-fast.
- The tabla drums introduce the rhythmic cycle ‘tala’.
- The ‘fixed’ composition is introduced.
- Musical dialogue takes place between the instrumentalist and drummer, as well as improvised flourishes on the prepared melodic line.
Indian Instruments used in raga performances
There are many different Indian instruments but the most highly regarded is the human voice, as in Indian philosophy, it is thought that by singing it is possible to talk directly to the gods.
This is the most well known plucked sting instrument. It has seven principal metal strings of which two are used as drone notes. Below these are usually up to a dozen loose-fretted strings called ‘sympathetic’, as they vibrate when the top strings are plucked. This gives the traditional ‘twangy’ sound that makes the instrument instantly recognisable. Two common playing techniques are:
- Sliding between notes (called meend or mind) in intervals of quarter tones or less.
- Playing rapid scale-like flourishes called tan. These virtuoso passages of improvisation feature in latter sections of a typical raga performance, i.e. the jhalla and gat.
This is smaller than the sitar and differs in that it is fretless and uses a bow rather than plucking the strings. A bit like a violin, the instrument has a gentle tone and is ideally used to accompany singers.
The sarod is also smaller than the sitar but like a sitar it has two sets of strings to create a distorted effect common to the sitar. It is fretless and has a metal fingerboard so that the player can slide up and down the strings to obtain different notes. The instrument has a lower range and heavier tone than the sitar.
A simple instrument with only four strings and a resonator. It is used to provide the drone notes to accompany the singer of instrumentalist.
This is a small set of two drums of different sizes – the smaller one made from wood is called the tabla and the larger one made of metal is the baya. Both drum heads are of skin and the black centre circle is made of a paste of iron filings and flour. The drums play the chosen rhythm cycle, known as the tabla, as well as improvisatory rhythms.
The rag is traditionally played at night. Rag Desh (which translates as ‘country’) is also known as a rainy season or monsoon raga. The primary moods (rasa) expressed are devotion, romance and longing with origins in courtly love songs called thumri. The notes used in Rag Desh are based on the INdian system known as sargam in which the notes are named Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni, Sa. The tonic note is C (Sa) and this forms the principal drone note.
There are three versions of the Rag Desh: Version 1: Anoushka Shankar (sitar), Version 2: ‘Mhara janam maran’ (voice) and Version 3: Benjy Wertheimer (esraj, tabla and bansuri).