A scale – mēla in Carnatic or thāt in Hindustani music – isn’t a raga yet: it is no more than an imaginary arrangement of notes for the formation of “parental scales”. From 72 Carnatic mēla scales – or their 10 Hindustani thāt-counterparts – a wide range of major and minor ragas have been “derived” in the course of several centuries. (In most instances, however, ragas weren’t “derived” from an existing scale but came to be associated with a particular scale much later on, as seen in ongoing debates among music scholars and performers.)
Thinking of a particular scale helps musicians and learners to distinguish one raga from another, and this amidst hundreds of other ragas that are being performed today (for a useful definition by Joep Bor, see below).*
For this purpose 7 notes occupy certain positions within an octave as seen in the above illustrations. These notes are framed by an 8th note (“octave”) which corresponds to the basic note, now placed in the higher range. Listening carefully to the middle strings of tambura will reveal this higher note (tāra sa).
To understand their relative positions watch the above slideshow repeatedly. Nevertheless the basic idea underlying all of India’s “classical” Indian music traditions – the proverbial “seven notes” (saptasvara) as basis for melody – remains untouched.
Note: The above series of images illustrates 16 out of a total of 72 melas with the names of their corresponding melakarta ragas, including the first six melas (01. – 06.) and the last one (72.); and several others that have long played a prominent role concerts either as melakarta ragas (i.e. featuring all the seven notes) or derivatives known as janya raga (08., 15., 28., 29., 34., 36., 56. 57. and 65). The latter may feature less than seven notes, be characterized by “zigzag” patterns or notes not found in their parental scales.
So a total of 12 positions are available in the South Indian mela system whereby the basic note “sa” and its fifth “pa” are the starting points of two series of 4 notes:
sa-ri-ga-ma & pa dha ni (upper) sa
reversed and sung for the sake of memorization as follows:
(upper) sa-ni-dha-pa & ma-ga-ri-sa
Please note that – unlike in western “classical” music – the actual pitches are never given but chosen to suit one’s own vocal range or a particular instrument (e.g. flute and vina which come in different sizes and tonal ranges). This means: sa may correspond to “C” on your keyboard or for a male voice (just like “D”); but for a female voice, sa is more likely to correspond to “F” or “G” instead.
Last but not least, singing or playing a raga entails attention to subtle tonal shades just as embellishments (gamaka) as heard in a proper concert performance. So what you hear isn’t merely “a clever combination of notes” derived from some scale or other: raga based music is all about musical – even lyrical – expression, carefully regulated by certain rules and practiced in accordance with well established patterns.
In the meantime, an ever growing diversity accelerated the search for effective teaching methods suited to raga based music. In South Indian music this was achieved with the help of the melakarta scheme (72 scale abstract patterns).
Even today “tune smiths” continue to fill in the blanks left by their revered predecessors, including novelties inspired by Beethoven’s most beloved piano piece worldwide (you guessed it …)!
Interestingly the 72 mela system came to serve a dual purpose, one not found in other music traditions as regards scope: in addition to the intention proclaimed by its “inventor” Venkatamakhin in the late 17th century, namely to widen the scope for musical expression, it became a mnemonic system (aid to memory) for musicians and teachers alike.
A glance at any music textbook and most song collections of Carnatic music will show how this was achieved since music publishing began to flourish in the early 19th century.
For a more detailed application, listen to the 72-Melaragamalika rendition by Smt Kiranavali’s students at Cleveland Aradhana 2014_Part 1; click/bookmark part 1 of this recording here; and click here for Part 2 >>
More about the 72-Melaragamalika sung by Smt Kiranavali’s students
The entire ragamalika [by Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer (1844 – 1892 AD)] is set to Adi tala. The Pallavi is sung in Sriragam, followed by some beautiful jati phrases in Tillana style. There is no Anupallavi and the Charanam has 72 lines, one for each melakarta, with the raga mudra skillfully inscribed in each line. At the end of each mela raga, there is a Chittaswara, and further, to enhance the beauty of the composition, his brother Ramaswami Sivan added additional Chittaswaras at the end of each line, whose poorvanga (first half) is in the same raga, but the uttaranga (second half) is in the next raga. At the end of each Chakra (6 raga cycle), the Pallavi is repeated. At the commencement of the Prati madhyama series, the jati phrases are also sung. This is not a piece we hear often in concert platforms. Occasionally in the past, one or two Chakras of this lengthy composition has been rendered by Musiri Subramanya Iyer and M S Subbulakshmi. Recently (June 1989), the Gramaphone Co. of India (HMV) released an album (LP No. ECSD 40552), and simultaneously a 60-minute casette (No. HTCS 03B 3346) under the title ‘Mela Ragamalika Chakra’, where M S Subbulakshmi has melodiously rendered this divine ragamalika, with all the above-mentioned features and Chittaswaras.
* Joep Bor aptly defines a raga “as a tonal framework for composition and improvisation; a dynamic musical entity with a unique form, embodying a unique musical idea. As well as the fixed scale, there are features particular to each raga such as the order and hierarchy of its tones, their manner of intonation and ornamentation, their relative strength and duration, and specific approach. Where ragas have identical scales, they are differentiated by virtue of these musical characteristics. […]
Most importantly, a raga must evoke a particular emotion or create a certain ‘mood’, which is hard to define, however. As the term raga itself implies, it should ‘colour’ the mind, bring delight, move the listeners and stimulate an emotional response. In other words, the concept of raga, which has evolved over a period of two millennia, eludes an adequate brief definition.” – The Raga Guide: A Survey of 74 Hindustani Ragas (Nimbus Records with Rotterdam Conservatory of Music first published in 1999) Quoted from p. 1, ‘What is a raga?
For up-to-date information from several leading periodicals and other websites, simply type one or several keywords such as a personal name or institution you want to learn more about, e.g. “carnatic”, “karnatak composer”, “hindustani musician”, “ragamalika”); optionally add a city or state (e.g. “Madurai singer”, “Karnataka violinist”, “Trivandrum music festival”, “Chennai music season”):
To confine results to one website, include its name in the search field (e.g. “MS Subbulakshmi sruti.com” or “MS Subbulakshmi musicresearch.org”).
Periodicals and other recommended sites included in the above Google custom search:
Whatever one’s personal background and aspirations may be, Carnatic music remains a quest for undiluted aesthetic experience (rasa). Three basic concepts are essential. Read the brief introduction for more!
Documentary maker Beeban Kidron (4:49): “They [the devadasis themselves] know what an education means. And what an education means is a possible way out. Not necessarily a way out but a possibility that you could earn your money some other way. […] This is about economics. This is about poverty. This is about not having alternatives.” […]
Girl taken out of school at a young age by her mother (5:30 onwards): “It’s been two years. […] No money in our hands, so I don’t go [to school].”
Beeban Kidron (7:27): “One of the things that is fascinating but complicates the whole issue is that there is more than one form of being a devadasi. I think what is important is to know and to understand that the elite devadasi are actually the grandmothers of Indian national dance bharata natyam in the elite world of temple and court. These women were the lovers of princes and priests and other high caste men. And it was a huge privilege and a sign of social mobility to be a devadasi. But there has obviously been a break in the tradition and it was made illegal in 1947 as the British left India. […] We have to be careful how we view things. And that was the journey for me. […] That system of dedicating young girls is abusive, is sex slavery, and so on. It’s paradoxical, you have to raise the age of consent, you have to work with the women, you have to help them educate their daughters, you have to help with the alternative.”
Read a recent interview with Beeban Kidron in The New York Times, on protecting children online
The Baroness Fighting to Protect Children Online By Natasha Singer, August 27, 2019
Beeban Kidron has successfully pushed stricter limits on how tech companies can target children online in Britain. […]
A member of the House of Lords, she had just flown in from London to attend an international meeting hosted by the social network. And now, in a hotel thronging with tech executives, she was recounting her plan to overhaul how their companies treat children. […] Read the full interview here >>
More (documentary) films by Director, Producer and writer Beeban Kidron on imdb.com >>
Learn more about the devadasis throughout (known) history in Music, Dance and the Art of Seduction
Chapters by Joep Bor (pp. 233), “On the dancers or Devadasis: Jacob Haafner’s Account of the Eighteenth-Century Indian Temple Dancers” and Tiziana Leucci (pp. 261), “Between Seduction and Redemption – The European Perception of India’s Temple Dancers in Travel Accounts and Stage Productions from the Thirteenth to the Nineteenth Century”