The concept of raga is a fathomless one because raga is always in a state of becoming.
It is not something which is fixed. Of course there are rules and a sophisticated grammar which underlies its performance but essentially it is a tonal framework which gives scope for a myriad subtle forms of expression and dimensions of experience.
The ancestors of ragas were the jatis and gramaragas of early Indian music derived from the seven tones or principles of sound of the gramas. These fundamentals of sound were cosmic entities embodying an energy of sound within each tone, for this early system of music was based on universal principles connecting humankind to higher dimensions of existence.
Jatis were not yet ragas but contained the early stages of the raga system. Although the word raga, as it is used today, came into existence between the 2nd century BC and the 2nd century AD a clear definition did not emerge in written form until later, in the 7th century AD. In its broadest sense raga is modal but it is not the same as scale.
The essence of raga is entirely dependent upon tone (svara). A single tone may have different shades of intonation and a properly produced tone has a sense of dimension. Svara starts in the realm of language. It is that sound which has the capacity to ‘glow’ on its own having the sense of illumination and of delighting the listener as well as the performer.
A fully expressed raga consists of sentences or phrases, accumulating to form paragraphs which are punctuated, musically, much as in language. A single tone may constitute a phrase. Ragas may be expounded with unmetered free flowing phrases or within the context of rhythmical pulses or meters. Phrase is so important that the same scale of tones (svaras) may give rise to a number of different ragas simply because of the difference in their treatment as regards emphasis, groupings of tones and small tonal nuances and inflections. More important than the ascending and descending scale patterns are the identifying phrases, and in addition to these there are the internal melodic and harmonic relationships, tone to tone, interval to interval, and even motif to motif, which characterise raga. The dynamics of sound which influences raga also include those of the three Vedic accents found in the recitation of mantras as well as a variety of other conditions including the sonant-consonant axis within a raga. Moreover there may be tones which are ‘covered’, ‘concealed’ or avoided altogether for the proper exposition of raga is a complete yoga of sound.
It can be understood that the true nature of a raga is brought out when the speed is slow for the essence of raga is not so much a sequence of tones but more a state of being. Solveig McIntosh
For further reading please see:
‘Hidden Faces of Ancient Indian Song’ by Solveig McIntosh, Ashgate Publishing, 2005.
‘Music and Musical Thought in Early India’ by Lewis Rowell, The University of Chicago Press, 1992