Raga Desh – classicist as well as romanticist

Raga Desh – classicist as well as romanticist

Peter Manuel, an authority on the thumree and allied genres, has listed Desh amongst “thumree ragas” – ragas of the Khamaj parent scale, frequently encountered in the semi-classical genres. (Manuel, Peter. Thumri: in historical and stylistic perspectives. 1st edition. 1989, Motilal Banarasidass, New Delhi). As Manuel acknowledges, Desh is also performed in classical music. In classicist treatment, it adheres strictly to raga grammar, while in semi-classical (romanticist) treatment, the raga’s melodic boundaries are allowed to overlap with those of allied ragas. Desh bears a close resemblance to raga Kedaragaula of the Carnatic (South Indian) tradition. However, in recent years, the Hindustani Desh itself has gained acceptance in Carnatic music. 

An important melodic feature of the raga is its use of two Ni (7th) swaras, the shuddha (natural) in the ascent, and the komal (flat) in the descent. The raga omits Ga (3rd) and Dh (6th) in the ascent, and takes a loop in the descent towards the bottom of the scale. Some authorities permit the use of komal [flat] Ni in the ascent too, though only through a descending phrase embedded in the ascent. 

Ascent: S R M P N S’ or S R M P/ n D P/ M P N S’

Descent: S’ n D P/ M G R/ G S

 The dominant swaras of the raga are Re (2nd) and Pa (5th). Authorities are willing to accept either of the two as the vadi swara (primary dominant), with the other being the samvadi (the secondary dominant). Manikbuwa Thakurdas, a Gwalior gharana scholar-musician, considers the raga to be descent-dominant, and having its centre of melodic gravity in the uttaranga (upper tetrachord). However, poorvanga (lower tetrachord) dominant and even Madhyanga (mid-octave region) dominant treatments are prevalent, thus reflecting the divergence of opinion relating to the relative importance of the two dominant swaras, and the consequent anchoring of the raga on the melodic canvas.

Chalan: (Skeletal phraseology)

N. S R M G R


R M P n D P

M P N N S’

N S’ R’

R’ G’ N S’ or R’ g’ R’ S’

R’ n D P



R G N. S

Pakad (identifying phrases): R R M P/ n D P/ R M G R

Although grammar permits the use of only shuddha (natural) Ga in this raga, the chalan permits a judicious touch of the illicit komal Ga in the Taar Saptak (higher octave). Bhatkhande describes this as an acceptable breach of grammar and attributes it to the raga’s probable search for tonal (1st/ 4th) correspondence with komal Ni. He also observes that this feature is found and accepted in several raga-s of the Khamaj parent scale.

Bhatkhande has described Desh as a raga of the Sorath Anga (facet /group) under the Khamaj parent scale. In this group, he includes three other ragas – Sorath, Jaijaiwanti, and Tilak Kamod. Amongst the cousins, Jaijaiwanti and Tilak Kamod most frequently expose the musician to the danger of confused raga-identities.


Ascent: D n D P R/ R g R S/ R G M P/ M P N S’

Descent: S’ n D P/ D M G R/ R g R S

Vadi: Re, Samvadi: Pa

Tilak Kamod:

Ascent: P. N. S. R G S/ R M P N S’

Descent: S’ N/ P D M G/ R G S or S’ P/ D M G/ R G S

Vadi-Samvadi: Sa and Pa or Re and Pa 

Documentation of Desh, Jaijaiwanti and Tilak Kamod scales as per Raga Nidhi (Subbarao V. Raga Nidhi, 4th edition, 1996, Music Academy, Madras).

The available documentation of Tilak Kamod with respect to dominant tones does not conform to predominant practice over the last half a century. Probably with the intention of differentiating categorically between Desh and Tilak Kamod, recent practice of Tilak Kamod has come to accord pivotal roles to Ga and Ni. Bhatkhande recognises this, without according to them the roles of vadi-samvadi (dominants). He points out that phrases culminating at the lower octave Ni strongly suggest Tilak Kamod as distinct from Desh. His identification of the melodic signature of Tilak Kamod also recognises the roles of Ga and Ni (GRG/ SNPNSRG/ S/ RPMG/SRG/SN). This outline is fully supported by the structure of the most popular bandish-es in the raga. An empirical-analytical view would therefore support the identification of Ni-Ga as the vadi-samvadi pair, thus also differentiating Tilak Kamod from Desh more sharply. By this criterion, a prominent use of Ga or Ni as terminal points of phrasing would tend to push Desh into Tilak Kamod.

From the point of view of raga differentiation, Manikbuwa Thakurdas provides important insights. He points out that Tilak Kamod is a compound of two ragas – Tilak and Kamod. The Kamod facet of Tilak Kamod is represented by the phrases: RRP/ MRP/ DP/ and RPMGRGS. These phrases emphasise the Re-Pa transition, especially in the form of RPM or RPMG, which may be acceptable in Tilak Kamod, and contra-indicated in Desh. Incidentally, the Re-Pa transition, especially in certain kinds of treatment, also pushes Desh towards Malhar, and therefore, into the shadow of Desh-Malhar, a compound of Desh and Malhar. 

While the Re-Pa transition is treacherous from the Tilak Kamod end, the ascending Pa-Re transition is dangerous at the Jaijaiwanti end. The risk is even greater in the Taar Saptak, if it is invited in conjunction with the touch of komal Ga as tolerated, though not encouraged, in Desh. Phrases like “nDPR” and “RGMGRgNS” identify Jaijaiwanti too categorically to escape the discerning listener’s disapproval. 

Another confusion can surface in the deployment of the two Ni swara-s – the shuddha and the komal. The rule for twin-swara deployment mandates that one of them shall be used in the ascent and the other in the descent. If this rule is breached in the rendition of Desh, the rendition slips into the “Malhar effect”, and acquires shades of raga Desh-Malhar. Though the twin-Ni usage rule also applies to Malhar, its occasional breach has come to be accepted by the music community. The extension of this liberty into Desh is, however, contra-indicated.

The tricky aspects of raga integrity in Desh do not necessarily make it difficult to render. They merely demand that the musician choose between a classicist (Dhrupad/ Khayal) and a romanticist (Thumree) stance in his rendition.