The mēḷakartā scheme
Carnatic 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, or the grammar of the rāga. 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 janakarāgas, and all other janyarāgas classified “under” them. Ramamatya (circa 1550 CE), in his svaramēḷakalānidhi, proposed a mēḷa‐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 it works
Twelve 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.
The mēḷakartās, then, are all the possible rāgas that include the
Sa & the
Pa, and have one each
Ni, with the natural restriction that the
Ri chosen should be lower than the
Ga, and likewise the
Da and the
Ni. There are 6 possible
Ga combinations (
Ga3), likewise 6 combinations of
Ni, and 2 options for
Ma. There are thus 72 mēḷakartās, also termed sampūrnarāgas as each such rāga has all 7 notes.
Every other rāga, which does not adhere to the above lakṣaṇa, is then notated as a pair of scales of the above 12 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 the set 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 include all possible valid descending note sequences. The janyarāga is then classified as a derivative the mēḷakartā rāga.
- Arabhi is considered to be the scale
Sa‐Ri2‐Ma1‐Pa‐Da2‐Sa; Sa‐Ni3‐Da2‐Pa‐Ma1‐Ga3‐Ri2‐Sa, and is thus classified under mēḷakartā
Sa‐Ri2‐Ga3‐Ma1‐Pa‐Da2‐Ni3‐Sa; Sa‐Ni3‐Da2‐Pa‐Ma1‐Ga3‐Ri2‐Sa, which happens to be Sankarabharanam.
- Purvikalyani, which is assigned the scale
Sa‐Ri1‐Ga3‐Ma2‐Pa‐Da2‐Pa‐Sa; Sa‐Ni3‐Da2‐Pa‐Ma2‐Ga3‐Ri1‐Sa, is considered a derivative of mēḷakartā
Sa‐Ri1‐Ga3‐Ma2Pa‐Da2‐Ni3‐Sa; Sa‐Ni3‐Da2‐Pa‐Ma2‐Ga3‐Ri1‐Saor Gamanasramam.
- Bhairavi, nominally the scale
Sa‐Ga2‐Ri2‐Ga2‐Ma1‐Pa‐Da2‐Ni3‐Sa; Sa‐Ni3‐Da1‐Pa‐Ma1‐Ga2‐Ri2‐Sa(note the 2 different
Gas), is classified under
Sa‐Ri2‐Ga2‐Ma1‐Pa‐Da1‐Ni3‐Sa; Sa‐Ni3‐Da1‐Pa‐Ma1‐Ga2‐Ri2‐Sa, Natabhairavi, with the
Da2considered an anyasvara.
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 songʼs 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, this entire exercise is pointless.
Disconnect between definition and notation
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 an oscillation between
Ma1. Likewise in Darbar, where the
Ga a different oscillation, also between
Pa‐Da2‐Sa phrase from Suddhasaveri and one from Yadukulakambhoji are identical to a
Pa‐Ni2‐Sa phrase from Madhyamavati and one from Dhanyasi. And a classic phrase from Anandabhairavi can be annotated as both
The result is a disconnect between rāgalakṣaṇa and their notation, leading to a huge disconnect between many classic janyarāgas and their nominal parents. None of Sahana, Khamas, Kambhoji, Natakurinji, Suratti and Mohanam have anything to do with any other, but 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 (the song) Gajavadana, set in Todi, has so many different kinds of
Gas; thatʼs not the case. How remarkable that various different phrases are all termed
Ga! We use a single symbol
Gato 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 has been redefined. Svara is no longer associated with a pitch – svara is a phrase. We say that Sankarabharanam has 4 kinds of
Mas; Begada has 3 kinds of
Mas. No, we term all those phrases
Any system that emphasises notational conveniences at the expense of the lakṣaṇa of the rāga is missing the point.
Inapplicability to many rāgas
Rāgas inherently are not a taxonomy, and trying to fit them into a hierarchical structure is futile. There are undoubtedly relationships among some rāgas: Mukhari, Bhairavi, Huseni and Manji have some common phrases. But while as above Bhairavi is classified under Natabhairavi, people think Huseni sounds somewhat like Anandabhairavi, which is classified under Kharaharapriya. Our taxon is a very unwieldy.
The janyarāga 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 janyarāga does not contain say,
Ri, then pick the mēḷakartā with
Ri3. This arbitrary choice only helps derail the already tenuous janaka‐janya relationship.
- Pick the mēḷakartā that sounds “closest”. This choice is also arbitrary, as many janyarāgas donʼt 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 as they are fit into an ārōhaṇa/avarōhaṇa scheme. Atana, Suratti, Sindhubhairavi, Purvikalyani, Bhairavi, Kambhoji all include phrases that cannot be fit into a linear scale. Atana and Suratti are especially problematic: no ārōhaṇa/avarōhaṇa written for them cover even a portion of the phrases possible. Finding a mēḷakartā parent is 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.
Generations of students has grown up focussing on learning the wrong bases of rāgas, the foundation of Carnatic music. Generations of rasikas has been cheated out of appreciating the grain of rāgabhāva, by concentrating on the chaff of mēḷakartās. A chance of a deeper understanding of Carnatic classical music has been lost on account of trying to marry Indian music ideas to European music concepts of pitches, notes and scales.
The path forward
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.
|anyasvara||Exceptional svara, absent in the parent mēḷakartā|
|apasvara||Grave svara error|
|bhāṣāṅgarāga||Rāgas with one ore more anyasvaras|
|rāgabhāva||The emotionss associated with a rāga|
|rāgalakṣaṇa||The lakṣaṇa associated with a rāga|
|saṅgati||A musical phrase associated with a song|
|saptasvara||The 7 svaras in an octave|
|ṣadja||The base svara of an octave|