Homepage > Indian Classical Music > Fundamentals of Rag > This Page


by David Courtney working tools

The scale forms the basis of all music.  This article will look at the differing concepts of scale in both the North and South Indian systems of music.

It is well known that Indian music is based upon the concept of seven notes (sapta swar).  Theses notes are: Shadj, Rishabh, Gandhar, Madhyam, Dhaivat, and Nishad; yet they are commonly abbreviated to Sa, Re (Ri), Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, and Ni.  The positions of these notes may vary considerably, therefore there should be a way to describe these scales.  This is called "mode" in English, "that" in Hindi and "mela" in the south Indian languages.

The concept of that or mela extends back to Bharat's time, where it was referred to as "jati".  There were 18 jatis, 11 of which were said to be mixed, while seven were called "shuddha".  The term Shuddha in Sanskrit means "pure".  The term shuddha was applied because they were all related by a simple process of modulation known as "murchana".

Murchana is easily understood by the following illustration.  We see that if we start with a scale, in this case Bilawal-Dhirashankarabaranam (natural scale), we may produce a number of other scales by simply shifting the tonic.  This fundamental relationship is why the ancients called them "Shuddha".

Bilawal-Dhirashankarabaranam Sa    Re    Ga Ma    Pa    Dha    Ni Sa    *    *    *    *    *    *
Kafi-Kharaharapriya *    Sa    Re Ga    Ma    Pa    Dha Ni    Sa    *    *    *    *    *
Bhairavi-Hanumantodi *    *    Sa Re    Ga    Ma    Pa Dha    Ni    Sa    *    *    *    *
Kalyan-Mechakalyani *    *    * Sa    Re    Ga    Ma' Pa    Dha    Ni    Sa    *    *    *
Khammaj-Harikamboji *    *    * *    Sa    Re    Ga Ma    Pa    Dha    Ni    Sa    *    *
Asavari-Natabhairavi *    *    * *    *    Sa    Re Ga    Ma    Pa    Dha    Ni    Sa    *
(nonexistent) *    *    * *    *    *    Sa Re    Ga    Ma    Pa    Dha    Ni    Sa

An important conceptual shift occurred somewhere between 1000ad and 1500ad.  The process of relating scales by murchana (e.g., shuddha jati) was downgraded and the process of relating scales by an alteration of the internal intervals (e.g., mixed jatis) was adopted. This shift was probably precipitated by two events.  First was the fixing of the interval for the 5th.  We see from the previous illustration that it was possible to have a "Komal Pa" (i.e., diminished 5th).  When it was no longer acceptable to have this komal pancham, the system was forced to change.  Another disadvantage of this system was that after modulation, the scale would have to be slightly retuned because the intervals on each position were not exactly the same.  For whatever reasons, the process of looking at scales as a function of internal intervals became the new paradigm for Indian musicologists.

The master of this new paradigm was Venkatmukhi Swami who is very important to the South Indian musicians.  In 1660 he published his Chaturdandiprakashika in which he outlined his system of 72 mela.  This process is demonstrated quite simply in the following illustration.  We see in the chart that there are 6 permutations of both the lower and upper tetrachords.  When we multiply them together we get 36 different combinations.  These 36 are then doubled by the use of tivra ma (augmented 4th) to yield 72 different combinations.  This is the origin of the 72 mela.


Lower Tetrachord   Upper Tetrachord
Sa Re - - Ga Ma       Pa Dha - - Ni Sa
Sa - Re - Ga Ma       Pa - Dha - Ni Sa
Sa - Re Ga - Ma       Pa - Dha Ni - Sa
Sa Re - Ga - Ma       Pa Dha - Ni - Sa
Sa Re Ga - - Ma       Pa Dha Ni - - Sa
Sa - - Re Ga Ma       Pa - - Dha Ni Sa

This process is very effective in providing a theoretical base for south Indian music.  It is clear, scientific and unambiguous.  However the situation is a bit different in the North.

Hindustani sangeet has been slow to develop a scientific approach to scales.  It would seem easy to simply adopt the 72 melkarta system; unfortunately this is not so easy.  We see in the previous illustration that the last two permutations of each group of tetrachords contain chromaticisms which are not possible in the Northern system.  Therefore, when the disallowed permutations are removed, we get 32 possible scales instead of 72.  This 32 that system seems to be the clearest approach to north Indian scales.  Unfortunately it is seldom used.

Most musicians follow the system laid down by V.N. Bhatkhande.  To his credit we must say that prior to his work, the theoretical system was even worse.  It was dominated by archaic concepts of rag, ragini, putra rags etc.  This may have been quaint and colourful, but it was worthless as a scientific system.  Bhatkhande was brave enough to abandon the raga-ragini approach and introduce a scientific system of that (i.e., mela).  Unfortunately his numbers were off.  He seems to have been well aware of the 32 possible modes produced by the previous process, however, he took an unfortunate decision in his treatment of unutilized thats.  Whereas Venkatmukhi Swami took the position that he had "discovered" new melas, Bhatkhande took the view that these thats were irrelevant and cast them out.  This would have been excusable if he had stopped there, but unfortunately he continued to cast out thats, even some in common usage.  Of more than a dozen modes in use during his time, Bhatkhande arbitrarily decided that he would use only ten.

The consequence of this arbitrary decision was unfortunate.  Today about 20 modes are in common use, but music teachers go through the futile attempt to cast the rags into 10 scales.  Such attempts are arbitrary, unscientific and weaken the theoretical background of the average music student.  There is a movement in many places to rectify the situation.  It does no great violation to the system to increase the number of thats, and this is exactly what many musicologists are doing.  But it may be a long time before this is the norm.

This article has shown how important scales are in Indian music.  They may be called scale, that, or mela but conceptually they are all the same.  They describe the character of the seven notes.  Over the last few millenniua, India has seen numerous approaches to scales, but today India has two.  There is the north Indian system based upon 10 thats and the South Indian system based upon 72 melas.



This page last updated

© 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 David and Chandrakantha Courtney

For comments, corrections, and suggestions, kindly contact David Courtney at david@chandrakantha.com