Home Entertainment For a better understanding of the Melakarta raga system

For a better understanding of the Melakarta raga system


The 72 melakarta system is a unique feature of Carnatic music and has existed for several centuries. The present standardised system that is popularly used is said to have been formulated by Govindacharya in the 18th Century. The 72 ragas in this system form the fundamental parent scales and are hence known as janaka ragas. Other ragas are derivatives of these parent ragas and are addressed as janya ragas. While this system theoretically brackets all ragas into these two broad categories, one is aware that several of the so-called janya ragas are much older and well-defined than their parent ragas, Kambhoji being the best example. Classifying this important raga as a janya of Harikambhoji has been a point of contention between musicologists who insist on systematisation, and musicians who believe that this is clearly a case of a parent gaining glory because of their renowned child. Tyagaraja, who followed the Govinda Mela system composed a good number of compositions in Harikambhoji, breathing life into this raga that existed only on paper, giving it a workable form.

Recently, Kartik Fine Arts organised a lecture demonstration on ‘A new method for understanding Melakarta ragas’ by Dr. Sridhar Jagannathan, a start-up founder and a student of music presently based out of the United States. This lecture is part of a series that plans to feature personalities from other professions to share their thoughts on Carnatic music. Sridhar explained his idea in a simple, interactive manner through a PowerPoint presentation, taking care to ensure that even a first-generation learner or a music enthusiast could grasp the concepts effectively. He took the help of Muthuswamy, a harmonium player, who demonstrated the musical structures of various scales for greater clarity.

Assigning numbers to ragas

Sridhar, who has authored several books was intrigued by the poetic metre system in Sanskrit known as chandas, which led him to come up with poetic translations of Kalidasa’s Meghadhoota and the Bhagavad Gita. His belief in the inherent wisdom in Indian knowledge systems made him explore various other subjects such as Yoga and Carnatic music. Before explaining his approach, Sridhar touched upon the Katapayadi Sankhya system, an ingenious alphanumeric system. It maps Sanskrit alphabets with numbers that were used in the naming of Melakarta ragas, to give each raga a unique number. When talking about the immense contributions of the Sanskrit language to the Carnatic music tradition, one must credit the great composer Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan whose 72-mela ragamalika composition ‘Pranatharthihara Prabho Purare’ is a true labour of love. To utilise the beauty of the Sanskrit language and the Advaita philosophy in his lengthy composition, Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan creatively infused the name of each raga in the sahityam, linking the names to various attributes of Shiva to whom the composition is dedicated.

 Sridhar Jagannathan during the lec dem

Sridhar Jagannathan during the lec dem
| Photo Credit:
M. Srinath

The Katapayadi Sankhya naming system proves to be useful to find out the position assigned to each raga in a sub-system known as the Chakra system. It is quite well known that there are 12 chakras and that each chakra contains six ragas that have common poorvangas, with the ragas inside the chakras divided based on the Daivata-Nishada combinations. The overall scheme goes on to split the ragas into two broad sets based on their madhyamas. This classification considers the presence of three rishabhams and three daivatams, with the third Ri and Da (the ‘shatsruthi’ swaras) corresponding to the sadharana gandharam and kaishiki nishadam.

Ri-Ga and Da-Ni combinations

However, Sridhar chose to use the allied system where it is assumed that there are three gandharams and three nishadams, where the first Ga and Ni corresponds to the chatushruti rishabham and the chatushruti daivatam. He went on to explain in simple terms that six combinations can be created each for Ri-Ga and Da-Ni where a lower swara and a higher swara can be combined – for example the R1-R2 combo is called ‘low Ri, high Ri’, R1-G2 is ‘low Ri, low Ga’, R1-G3 is ‘low Ri, high Ga’ and so on. Each combination is assigned a number — for example, the first combination ‘Low Ri High Ri’ is No 1, and the last combination ‘Low Ga High Ga’ is No 6 and so on.

He further went on to draw a 6×6 matrix, comparing the table to six buildings that contained six residential dwellings for easier understanding. This helped the audience visualize the position of each number in the matrix. Each building represents a combination of Ri-Ga while each floor represents Da-Ni, thereby making them the equivalent of the Y-axis and X-axis respectively, if plotted on a graph. Senavati, with the Melakarta number 7, thus becomes M1 (2,1) in Sridhar’s classification. ‘M1’ denotes the madhyama and the numbers inside the bracket denote the number assigned to the combination.

Explaining through graphs

Using this system thus helps one to trace the Ri-Ga and Da-Ni swara combinations in any raga. Interestingly, Sridhar went on to tracing the symmetries across the purvangam and uttarangam across ragas based on his classification. When plotted on a graph, the points (1,1),(2,2) and so on which form a diagonal line correspond to some of the most important Melakarta ragas that are commonly sung. For instance, the combos (2,2), (3,3), (4,4), (5,5) and (6,6) in the shuddha madhyama section correspond to Todi, Mayamalavagowla, Karaharapriya, Harikambhoji and Sankarabharanam respectively. Sridhar coincidentally realised that renowned nuclear physicist Raja Ramanna, who was also a gifted musician calls these ragas ‘diagonal ragas’ in a book written by him. Once he realised that the diagonal ragas are the spine of the Melakarta system, Sridhar found that there are several clusters of adjoining mela ragas on the graph whose swaras could easily be found if one has a grasp over the diagonal ragas.

Thus, with this system, one can trace the swaras of a raga by using its Melakarta number. If one needs to find out what swaras are contained in Melakarta no 38, the classification is M2 (1,2). The number combination can be remembered simply if one visualizes the residential building setup which is a depiction of the graph. Thus, if one assumes each raga is a residential unit, the emphasis is on finding the address of a certain raga and thereby tracing its swaras swiftly.

Sridhar’s conclusion is that practitioners will find that using this numerical mnemonic for a Melakarta raga will provide the corresponding swaras instantaneously. This numerical method also provides context to related Melakarta ragas. While his method and the way he delivered his presentation is certainly commendable, one cannot help but wonder if this approach is more convenient than the existing Chakra system, which seeks to serve the same purpose. Since a lot of learners today may not essentially be well-versed in the Sanskrit language, the Katapayadi-Chakra system may seem impractical. However, even in Sridhar’s method, one is required to be aware as to which Melakarta corresponds to which number. The graphical depiction of diagonal ragas seems to be an interesting phenomenon. However, at the end of the day, this method can only be seen as an alternative.

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