A Word on Raga and Tala

By Kirit Dave’


India has two streams of classical music: that of the north, known as “Hindustani” and that of the south, known as “Carnatic”. Hindustani music has three major classical vocal traditions: Dhrupad (originally Dhruvapad – i.e. containing centrally repeating pattern), khayal (literally means “Concept”) and thumari.


Dhrupad (original word Dhruvpad) is a style dedicated to an austere rendition. This tradition is the oldest of the three, generally dating pre-Mugal, and during the time of emperor Akbar and it is a bit rigid style. This style is essentially going extinct today, and only a few singers such as Daagar brothers (Daagar-bani form) and Gundecha brothers sing dhrupad. There is yet another style, which is very similar to dhrupad that does exist and that is called Dhamar. It is sung in the Dhamar tala of 14 bits.

What we hear primarily today is the Khayal style. The actual time and origin of this style is controvertial. Some credit Amir Khushru, and others to Niamat Khan (pen name “Sadaranga”) associated with Mugal king Mohammad Shah (pen name “Rangile” 1719-1748). But, khayal compositions of Sadarang are present and being sung today and thereby presence and prominence of khayal in his time.

The khayal has a greater degree of freedom compared to dhrupad and is still adhered to, practiced, performed and taught to students both on instruments and in voice. Generally what you hear today in voice or on instruments as “Indian Classical Music” is in khayal style.

Thumari is the lighter style, and has a greater degree of freedom of expression through choice of notes. Although a lighter and least rigid among the three classical styles, it is probably the most difficult one requiring greater talents. The apparent “freedom” of selection of notes, not afforded in khayal and dhrupad style, requires great skills. The selection of notes must be judicious in the amount of usage and at correct places, so as to intensify the emotions and beauty. Thumari is sung in certain ragas like, bhairavi, desh, tilak kamod, pahadi, kalavati, sohani, kaunsi dhwani, kafi, piloo, jhinjhoti, khamaj. It is not suited for all ragas. There are two accepted forms of thumari, namely Purab anga and Punjab anga. Thumari rendition allows for a lot of creativity improvisation. Along with emotional appeal through notes, the display of the same words in the composition is made in many different musical ways. The primary language used in thumaris is Braj Bhasha. Unlike in khayal style, where variations are sparingly embedded around the central theme, in thumari, the variations from central musical structure are quite pronounced and key to the development of the composition. Bade Ghulam Ali khan (1902 – 1968) rightly, came to be recognized as the greatest thumari singer and left his influence on generations of singers, and music directors in both classical world and the popular and film music.

Yet another form is called Tarana. This is vocal music is generally of faster tempo and instead of language of words, it uses the bols (syllables) of the tabla, sitar, pakhawaj, saragams, and special sounds such as odani, tanom, yalali, yalalom etc. It requires special talents of manipulations of tongue to produce these sounds very quickly. More than the melodic patterns, it is the laykari (flow of the tempo and rhythms) that emerges from the manner of delivery of the patterns of sound, which is really exciting. Ustad Nissar Hussain khan and late Ustad Amir Khan are the acclaimed singers of this art form.

Other forms of lighter classical or classically based forms include tappa, bhajans, dadra, kafi, hori, etc. These compositions are based in one or more ragas as the foundation but are not rigid in following all rules of the raga structure. Prabhat Samgiit follows this form of the music.

Besides these, there are many lighter semi-classical and folk forms such as bhajans, dadra, tappas, ghazals and quawwali. Bhajans are generally spiritual songs of Hindu traditions. Dadras are in 6 bit tala (called dadra too) and often part of the folk traditions. Tappas are usually composed in kafi-class of ragas. Ghazals (love songs) and quawwalis (religious songs) are generally compositions of Islamic origin.


Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni are the seven swars or the seven notes that make up the scale. The scale is similar to a western scale; however there are many microtonal structures (called shrutis) in-between each swar. In Indian classical music, the artist tries to invoke one of nine major emotions (called rasas), which are associated with the musical composition, called a raga.


A raga is a musical composition based on specially designed ascending (called aroha) and descending (called avaroha) scales for that raga. For example, raga “desh” only allows five notes in ascend (Sa, Re, Ma, Pa, Ni; all natural notes), but allows all seven notes in descend (Sa, Ni-flat, Dha, Pa, Ma, Ga, Re, Ga, Sa), such that the seventh note Ni must be flat and only allowed in descend. By proper rendering of the notes, in their traditional patterns and styles, a performer can create a unique artistic exposition of that raga in every performance. Performing a note out side the scale of the raga is strictly forbidden in dhrupad or khayal styles. In thumari style, variations outside the raga scale are allowed, but require great skill and training to accomplish it successfully. That is why thumaris are not ragas but are based on one or more ragas. The lyrics of a raga or a thumari (in the classical music) are usually spiritual in nature, because music in general was for spiritual purposes. There are thousands of ragas, but only a couple hundred at the most are regularly performed.


Many of the Prabhat Samgiit songs are based on the classical backgrounds of these ragas such as Bhairavi, Darbari Kanada, Malkauns, Chandrakauns, Kafi, Todi, Miya ki Malhar, Desh, Kedar, Bhimpalasi, Chhayanat, Pahadi, Shiva Ranjani, Yaman Kalyan, Bageshri, Jayjayvanti, Asavari, Jaunpuri, Khamaj, Deshi, Piloo, etc.

Some of the Prabhat Samgiit songs are in folk styles of dadra, ghazals and quawwalis. A few songs are also based on themes from western tunes from Scandinavia etc.

Prabhat Samgiit collection also includes Padya (poetry) Kirtans. Traditionally these Kirtans are sung in Dhrupad style. The lyrics are about spirituality and often about the life of Krishna. Couplets of the lyrics are sung in slow dhrupad-type measures by the lead singer, and their significance is elaborated in recitation. The group of singers responds to the lead singer in quicker and quicker tempo, until the chorus finishes in a crescendo. Then the leader recites the next couplet again. The process goes on until a particular episode is completed. Tanpura and khol (special type of drum) are used for the accompaniment. In recent times the harmonium, violin, esraj, and sarangi are also used. The Kirtan style is distinguished by its elements of group singing and its use of time-measures. Various Kirtan styles (also called Gharanas) have developed. These are Manoharshahi, Garanhati, Mandarini, Manbhum and Reneti schools, each with its distinctive manner of presentation and incorporating some features of the different classical styles.

Prabhat Samgiit introduces a new gharana of Kirtans called “Prabhat Gharana” kirtans. Musically distinguishing features of Prabhat Gharana are the rules concerning the repeated patterns, the talas involved and the composition-ending pattern. Also, unlike other Gharana kirtans, the bhava (sentiment) of the lyrics contain direct address to God without a third person’s presence.


Another important component of music is tala or a cycle of rhythm consisting of a fixed number of beats (called matras). A particular rendering of a raga may be in a particular discipline of a tala, suitable to the musical makeup of that particular composition. The synchronization of raga and tala is an absolute discipline imposed on the artist throughout the rendering of the composition. This synchronization is usually evident at the sum or bit #1 of the cycle of rhythm.


A drone instrument (tanpura) provides the pitch and accompanies performances of classical music. The tanpura provides a subtle, almost hypnotic background effect, of which the audience is often unaware.

Indian classical music uses a wide range of musical instruments, which may be used to accompany vocal or instrumental performances. Commonly heard instruments are the sitar, santoor, sarod, sarangi (string instruments), tabla, pakhavaj (drums), harmonium, shehnai and flute. Percussion instruments are used in solo performances as well.



[1] The division of the article in sections and their naming are an editorial addition and are not part of the original article.