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There is a short answer to the question “What is a raga?” but, like most short answers, it is incomplete. A raga is a scale which is usually played one way going up (arohi) and one way going down (avarohi). There are also two heavily emphasized notes, usually a fourth apart, called the vadi and the samvadi (usually translated as “king” and “prime minister” notes). This is true, as far as it goes, and knowing this skeletal information is a great start in the appreciation of any raga.That is why I strongly recommend the Ragopedia, compiled by Santa Cruz sitarist Ashwin Batish and his father, the late Shiv Dayal Batish.

Whenever I buy a new Indian classical album, I look up the ragas alphabetically in the Ragopedia and then spend a few minutes playing the scales listed there. This enables me to more effectively hear what’s going on when I listen to the record for the first time. But as the Batishes point out in their introduction, no musician should ever attempt to perform a raga they have never heard, using only the information available in the Ragopedia. The thing that shows a musician how to translate these rules into genuine interpretations of the raga is hearing chalans—musical phrases that truly reflect the raga’s character and flavor. The Ragopediaincludes written chalans for five of its hundreds of ragas and an optional tape of the elder Batish singing some chalans.

Their original intention of providing chalans for all the ragas in the book was never realized, and perhaps that is just as well. To explain a raga by playing chalans is to abide by a principle expressed by both Brer Rabbit and Ludwig Wittgenstein: In the words of the former, “I can’t tell you; I gotta show you.” A guru can’t possibly tell you all the essential properties of the raga.

Instead, the guru shows examples of how to play the raga (both chalans and longer compositions) and expects the student to eventually develop an intuitive sense of how the raga should be performed. However, a guru will use countless chalans for every raga, often changing them from lesson to lesson, and supplement them with personalized corrections to each student.

Perhaps adding chalans for every single raga would have been a step in the right direction for the Ragopedia, but only a step. It would be faster, of course, if one could explain the principles exemplified by the chalans with rules or formulas. But any attempt to do so yields rules that have exceptions, and exceptions that seem to have exceptions ad infinitum. Ali Akbar Khan once said that even naming the “King” and “Prime Minister” notes can be misleading because, “[In one country] it is the King who rules … In another, the King sleeps all day and the prime minister collects the taxes and takes all the money.”

However, if the brief formulas in the Ragopedia leave you hungry for more explanations and definitions, I would recommend Rajan Parrikar’s idiosyncratically perceptive series of essays.

Parrikar’s writing style is floridly oratorical, sometimes almost comically so, but nevertheless deeply evocative: “In a well-developed raga, the mutual interactions between swaras and clusters of swaras evolve into a perceptible and stable gestalt. The overall form of the raga so developed in turn feeds back and influences the behavior and properties of the swaras themselves … The more evolved a raga is, the stronger is this coupling.”

Parrikar’s also not afraid to be opinionated, even abusive, when he disagrees with someone: “The influential Indian classical musician is often known to talk through his hat on matters he is not equipped to address; he can be excused only on the grounds that (to paraphrase Sir Peter Medawar) ‘before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself.’” But his survey of these disagreements often uncovers something essential. When I read his comments on my favorite ragas, new patterns emerge in my memories, together with the realization that those patterns were always there, conditioning my experiences.

For example, the usual defining characteristic of ragas in the Kalyan thaat is the presence of tivra Ma (the raised fourth). Nevertheless, Parrikar argues that the great musicologist Bhatkhande correctly assigns the raga Bihag to the Bilaval thaat, because Bihag traditionally uses tivra Ma only as part of a meend (bent note) traveling from Pa to Ga. Only in relatively recent years has it become popular to use a particular phrase that now marks both tivra and shudda (natural) Ma somewhat more explicitly. From my experience, this description of Bihag is exactly right, as is Parrikar’s careful commentary on the tentative and ambivalent use of Pa in the Raga Gorakh. These kinds of nuances cannot be identified by simply listing “up-notes” and “down-notes.”

After his introductory commentary on a raga, Parrikar presents audio samples of that raga by a variety of different performers. He usually starts with old filmi tune performances by popular stars like Lata Mangeshkar and K.L. Saigal. He points out both when the tune varies from the raga or has an especially obnoxious arrangement, as well as the good points that compelled him include the tune anyway. He then features some folk or semi-classical artists performing the same raga, and finishes up with richly profound khayal or dhrupad performances.

This journey through the raga’s space of possibility often includes rare performances that can be found nowhere else, including the only recordings I have ever heard of the legendary Annapurna Devi.

The website describes Parrikar as “a recognized expert on Indian classical music,” without saying who recognizes him as such. Well, I will, for one, regardless of any credentials, and my many disagreements with him. He has encyclopedic knowledge, a deep sensitivity to musical nuance, and the generosity to share his insights with anyone who visits his website.

Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.