The mēḷakartā scheme considered harmful

What is the mēḷakartā scheme?

Classical music is defined by its usage of rāgas. Each rāga can invoke specific emotions in rasikas, and each rasika will have their set of favourite (and disliked) rāgas. While music comprises kalpitasaṅgīta and manōdharmasaṅgīta, both aspects adhere to the underlying rāgalakṣaṇa. With few exceptions, each piece is composed in one prescribed rāga, and that rāga constrains both kalpitasaṅgīta and manōdharmasaṅgīta in that piece. Transgressing the boundaries of a rāga by mistake is an egregious error, and such an apasvara would be spotted immediately by many rasikas.

Much music theory is devoted to classifying these rāgas. The predominant scheme used to today is the mēḷakartā scheme, involving 72 mēḷakartā, or janaka rāgas, and all other janya rāgas classified under them. Ramamatya (c.1550 CE), in his svaramēḷakalānidhi, proposed a mēḷam-based scheme, which Venkatamakhin (17th c. CE) extended into a mēḷakartā scheme in his chaturdaṇḍiprakāśikā. The scheme followed today is a standardised variant proposed by Govindacharya (17th-18th c. CE), in his saṅgrahacūḍāmaṇi.

How does it work?

12 svarasthānas are enumerated, from the base ṣadja to the ṣadja of the next octave (left-inclusive), and are given the following names, picked from an earlier nomenclature.
  1. Sa
  2. Ri1
  3. Ri2/Ga1
  4. Ri3/Ga2
  5. Ga3
  6. Ma1
  7. Ma2
  8. Pa
  9. Da1
  10. Da2/Ni1
  11. Da3/Ni2
  12. Ni3
The mēḷakartās, then, are all the possible rāgas that include the Sa & Pa, and have one each Ri, Ga, Ma, Da & Ni, with the obvious restriction that the Ga chosen should be higher than the Ri, and likewise the Da and the Ni. There are 6 possible Ri-Ga combinations (Ri1Ga1, Ri1Ga2, Ri1Ga3, Ri2Ga2, Ri2Ga3 & Ri3Ga3), likewise 6 combinations of Da-Ni, and 2 options for Ma. There are thus 72 mēḷakartās, also termed sampūrna as each has all 7 notes.

Every other rāga, which may not adhere to the above lakṣaṇa, is then notated as a pair of scales of the above notes – an ārōhaṇa and an avarōhaṇa – that define them. The ārōhaṇa is a scale that starts at a lower Sa and ends at the next Sa and is meant to be a union of all possible ascending sequences of notes valid in the rāga. Likewise, the avarōhaṇa, starting at a higher Sa and ending at the previous Sa is meant to combine all possible valid descending note sequences. The janya rāga is then classified "under" the mēḷakartā rāga.

e.g. Arabhi is considered to be the scale SaRi2Ma1PaDa2Sa/SaNi3Da2PaMa1Ga3Ri2Sa, and is thus classified under mēḷakartā SaRi2Ga3Ma1PaDa2Ni3Sa/SaNi3Da2PaMa1Ga3Ri2Sa, which happens to be Sankarabharanam. Purvikalyani, which is assigned the scale SaRi1Ga3Ma2PaDa2PaSa/SaNi3Da2PaMa2Ga3Ri1Sa, is considered a derivative of mēḷakartā SaRi1Ga3Ma2PaDa2Ni3Sa/SaNi3Da2PaMa2Ga3Ri1Sa or Gamanasramam. Bhairavi, nominally the scale SaGa2Ri2Ga2Ma1PaDa2Ni3Sa/SaNi3Da1PaMa1Ga2Ri2Sa (note the 2 different Gas), is classified under SaRi2Ga2Ma1PaDa1Ni3Sa/SaNi3Da1PaMa1Ga2Ri2Sa, Natabhairavi, with the Da2 considered an anyasvara.

How is it used?

In pedagogy and in musicology, a rāga is introduced as a child of a mēḷakartā and then in terms of its ārōhaṇa and avarōhaṇa. An excerpt from a song-lyric page follows:
raagam: bEgaDa
29 dheera shankaraabharaNam janya
Aa: S G3 R2 G3 M1 P D2 N2 D2 P S
Av: S N3 D2 P M1 G3 R2 S
Rasikas "in the know" seek to learn which mēḷakartā a rāga belongs to, and attempt to understand the rāga based on this scheme. Unfortunately, the entire exercise is pointless.

So why do you say it is useless?

Inherently, what defines a rāga is not the set of notes but the phrases. The notes used to describe the phrases, let alone the ārōhaṇa/avarōhaṇa, are but notational conveniences. Notice for instance, that Atana is notated with a Ga, but the Ga sung in Atana is but an oscillation between Ri2 and Ma1. Likewise in Darbar, where it's a different oscillation, also between Ri2 and Ma1. The PaDa2Sa phrases from Suddhasaveri or Yadukulakambhoji are identical to the PaNi2Sa phrases from Madhyamavati or Dhanyasi. A classic phrase from Anandabhairavi can be annotated as both PaDa2PaSa or PaNi2PaSa.

The result is a huge disconnect between many classic janya rāgas and their nominal parents. None of Sahana, Khamas, Kambhoji, Natakurinji, Suratti and Mohanam have anything to do with any other, save for the fact that they are classified under Harikambhoji. Likewise, Reetigaula, Bhairavi, Darbarikanada, Hindolam, Suddhadhanyasi are all classified under Natabhairavi, albeit none of them sound like any other. So what use is such a system that emphasises the names of the notes?

To quote musicologist Dr. N Ramanathan, "People exclaim Gajavadana, set in Todi, has so many different kinds of Ga's; that's not the case. How remarkable that various different phrases are all termed Ga! We use a single symbol Ga to identify many of the phrases. … That, I feel, is a very sophisticated (scheme) which in the 1800s or 1700s we (Carnatic music practitioners) have developed. … The word svara itself is redefined. Svara is no longer associated with a pitch – svara is a phrase. We say that Sankarabharanam has 4 kinds of Ma's; Begada has 3 kinds of Ma's. No, we term all those phrases Ma."

Any system that emphasises notational conveniences at the expense of the lakṣaṇa of the rāga is missing the point.

But is there anything inherently wrong with the scheme?

rāgas inherently are not a taxonomy, and trying to fit them into a tree-structure is futile. There are undoubtedly relationships among rāgas: Mukhari, Bhairavi, Huseni and Manji have many common prayōgas. Mukhari though, is related to Suddhamukhari historically, and through it to Kanakambari and Kanakangi. People think Huseni sounds somewhat like Anandabhairavi, which is classified under Kharaharapriya in the mēḷakartā-scheme. Already our taxon is a little unwieldy.

The janya rāga examples above – Arabhi, Purvikalyani, Bhairavi – happen to contain all the saptasvaras. What if the rāga does not? There would be multiple mēḷakartā super-sets of this rāga, so which one do you pick as parent? There are 2 systems in usage:
  • Pick the earlier one: if the janya rāga does not contain Ri, then pick the mēḷakartā with Ri1 rather than Ri2 or Ri3. This arbitrary choice only helps to derail the already tenuous janaka-janya relationship.
  • Pick the mēḷakartā that sounds closest. This choice is also arbitrary, as many janya-rāgas don't sound like any of the candidate parent mēḷakartā rāgas. Madhyamavati can be assigned to Natabhairavi, Kharaharapriya, Charukesi or Harikambhoji on this basis, but sounds like none of them.
Many rāgas, not amenable to being described as a linear progession of notes, are strait-jacketed when fit into an ārōhaṇa/avarōhaṇa scheme. Atana, Suratti, Sindhubhairavi, Purvikalyani, Bhairavi, Kambhoji all include phrases that cannot be fit into a linear scale. Atana & Suratti are especially problematic: no ārōhaṇa/avarōhaṇa written for them cover even a portion of the phrases possible. Finding a mēḷakartā parent is thus futile.

Lastly, bhāṣāṅgarāgas exhibit different problems of classification, as its sometimes unclear which svaras belong in the scale and which are anyasvaras. Kapi, Sindhubhairavi and Brindavani exemplify this problem.

And why is it harmful?

Generations of students has grown up focussing on learning the wrong bases of rāgas, the foundation of music. Generations of rasikas has been cheated out of appreciating the grain of rāgabhāva, by concentrating on the chaff of mēḷakartās. Years of cross-cultural understanding of South Indian classical music by world audiences have been lost on account of trying to marry Indian music ideas to European music concepts of pitches, notes and scales.

OK. What instead?

Pedagogy must focus on learning rāgabhāva through saṅgatis and lakṣaṇa without focussing on ārōhaṇa/avarōhaṇa. And rasikas should be steered clear of trying to enjoy a rāga through learning scales.


Term Meaning
anyasvara Exceptional svara, absent in the parent mēḷakartā
apasvara Grave svara error
ārōhaṇa Ascending scale
avarōhaṇa Descending scale
bhāṣāṅgarāga Rāgas with one ore more anyasvaras
bhāva Emotion
janaka Parent
janya Child
kalpitasaṅgīta Precomposed music
lakṣaṇa Grammar
manōdharmasaṅgīta Improvised music
mēḷam Musical scale
mēḷakartā Mēḷam-creator
prayōga Musical phrase, comprising multiple svaras, and sung without pause
rāga Melodic mode
rāgabhāva The bhāvas associated with a rāga
rāgalakṣaṇa The lakṣaṇa associated with a rāga
rasika Connoisseur
sampūrna Complete
saṅgati Prayōga, associated with a song
saptasvara The 7 svaras in an octave
ṣadja The base svara of an octave
svara Ornamented note
svarasthāna Note


  1. Episode 11 of the Sanjay Subrahmanyan show, with Sriram V and Dr. N Ramanathan
  2. Carnatica Archival Centre's Music Appreciation newsletters
  3. karnatik.com

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