Raga-s are complex creatures and it is difficult to pin them down. The most famous definition of a raga is also the vaguest one:

Yo’yam dhvani viseshastu swaravarnavibhooshitah Ranjako janachittaanaam raagah kathito budhaih

One translation of this is: In the opinion of the wise, that particularity of notes and melodic movements, or that distinction of melodic sound by which one is delighted, is raga. (Matanga in Brihaddesi) Scholars love the phrase ranjako janachittanam and expand on it. There is no raga in a mere combination of notes; it has to please the mind. But the definition obviously suffers from ativyapti – a fatal fallacy that our sanskritists abhor – that is, it covers or applies to more than what it is intended. There is an important insight in this – a mere combination of notes does not make a raga. The arohana and avarohana – or krama – are the mere skeleton. The raga is fleshed out by innumerable other elements. Gamaka-s come to mind immediately; prayoga-s and pidi-s are well known raga makers, but there are other features of raga which revolve around the difference in the importance given to various notes. In Hindustani music, the roles of vadi, samvadi and nyasa swara are all important. In Carnatic music, the jeeva swara is usually acknowledged as important; this is the life swara or life giving swara of a raga.

Another important aspect of raga-s, an element that contributes to the unique character of a raga, is the nyasa swara. The nyasa swara is a swara that can be a resting point in a raga during sanchara-s – in compositions and manodharma segments. Often, in maintaining raga character, it is important to know what can and cannot be a nyasa swara.

What is the source of our knowledge of these features of raga-s? The obvious answer is the corpus of compositions that have stood the test of time. Compositions of the Trinity and co! Not for nothing is it emphasised that we need to master many compositions (varnam-s and kriti-s) in a raga to gain a knowledge of its subtleties. If raga-s are not scales, as most of us would like to believe, then it is these aspects of raga-s that need to be kept in mind. But we do see them overlooked in practice, making for the process of simplification of Carnatic music.

Take for instance Pantuvarali or Kamavardhini. It is a common practice among musicians to dwell on the gandhara during sanchara-s. There are many musicians however who would see this as wrong, or at least, undesirable. They would point out that the gandhara as a nyasa swara or visranti swara is more a feature of Poorvikalyani than Pantuvarali. Most compositions bear this out. Pantuvarali compositions mostly display panchama or shadja as resting points. Pa ma Ga ma ri, Ga ma Pa or Pa ma Ga ri Sa are phrases employing the Ga. Pa ma Ga ri Ga – is not found in any Pantuvarali composition. But it is common to find musicians employing this very phrase while delineating Pantuvarali. T.M. Krishna says: “We can treat Kamavardhini (Pantuvarali) either in terms of its chhaya or in terms of its notes (as a scale). Surely, keeping in mind subtle aspects of the chhaya such as this makes the whole effort more interesting. Musicians have a responsibility to maintain the complexity of raga-s and these aspects can be found by a simple study of major compositions.” Again, taking a minor but interesting raga like Nalinakanti, the one and only traditional composition that has come down to us is Tyagaraja’s Manavyalakincha in which there is a clear and sustained highlight of the gandhara; the rishabha never occurs as a nyasa swara. But some prominent musicians of today highlight the rishabha and give it an almost Desh like feel.

The fact is that many musicians in practice dwell on the Ga in Pantuvarali and Ri in Nalinakanti and many others believe this to be wrong and would not do the same. There are two ways of explaining this divergence in treatment of raga-s. One is that some musicians do not know some fundamentals. The other explanation is that they do know them, but are not convinced. Most musicians have probably heard some old timer say that Pantuvarali does not have a nyasa on the gandhara. But it is possible that they don’t see why not! After all it is very tempting to stop on the Ga as a visranti swara. A raga is not a scale but oh, it sure is convenient to treat it as one! There are other aspects of raga-s too such as their range. Some raga-s are not to be explored in some sthayi-s. Pantuvarali again, is not ideally explored in the tara sthayi. Its range is the madhya sthayi. But don’t we find musicians dwelling on the tara sthayi gandhara and doing sanchara-s? It makes for dramatic effect and the audience is easily impressed with the vocal range of the singer and everyone is happy – except perhaps poor Pantuvarali.

As Krishna points out, the culprit in all this is the stronghold of the 72-mela scheme on the Carnatic musician’s imagination, far exceeding its actual legitimate role as a mere system of classification of ragas. This system has brought scales to the forefront of the musical psyche in Carnatic music. He says: “Kalyani and Dharmavati are not equal in their stature. While Dharmavati can be predominantly treated as a scale, Kalyani is an ancient raga with well defined features and pidi-s which we can grasp from compositions learnt through the oral tradition and by referring to texts for raga lakshana-s. Though there may be divergences among texts on some issues, a study of these will give us an understanding of the changes and the evolution of the raga. Stopping (nyasa again!) on the kakali nishada is not really part of Kalyani’s core character. The nishada is always to be taken in conjunction with the shadja and very rarely plain – as we find all too often these days; again, the gandhara without gamaka during nyasa is avoidable. It is true that some greats of yesteryears started some of these trends but that does not make it unquestionable!” Carnatic music must change – and it will change. As in all traditional arts, there will be those who will go ahead with changes – knowingly or unknowingly – and others who will resist such change. A performer has the responsibility of satisfying the audiences of course, but the deeper responsibility is to tradition. It is also true there may be divergences of opinion on what that tradition is.

The question then is: How do the subtle aspects of raga-s in Carnatic music percolate down to students of music? Through the guru-s and, after a stage, through self study, may be the obvious answer, but then, what is the sanctity of these rules? And, how do we explain divergence of the kind we find in practice?