Melodic Aspects
Raganubhava - III

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Musical Scales

Musical scales in Carnatic music are generally assumed to be the skeleton structure for the melodic entity viz., Raga. A musical scale is created by the permutation and combination of notes rendered in a particular sequence in ascent (Arohana) and descent (Avarohana). In Carnatic music, over 7.2 million scales are theoretically possible (reference Sangeeta Chandrikai of Manikka Mudaliar). Generally, the terms scale and raga are considered interchangeable. In fact a raga has a scale to give it a structural form. But a scale alone does not become a raga.

Parent Scales - Melakartas

In Carnatic music there are seventy-two parent scales (Melakarta). This concept was conceived by Venkatamakhi in the 17th century, thus paving way for a scientific and logical melodic set-up. Before we learn about the 72-melakartas, we must figure out the various combinations of swaras that are possible.

The first tetrachord, called the Poorvanga, comprises the first four notes, Sa, Ri, Ga and Ma. And the second tetrachord, namely the Uttaranga comprises the remaining notes - Pa, Dha, Ni and Sa (of the next octave).

Possible combinations of swaras

Combinations of Ri and Ga

Combinations of Dha and Ni

Ri 1 with Ga 1

Dha 1 with Ni 1

Ri 1 with Ga 2

Dha 1 with Ni 2

Ri 1 with Ga 3

Dha 1 with Ni 3

Ri 2 with Ga 2

Dha 2 with Ni 2

Ri 2 with Ga 3

Dha 2 with Ni 3

Ri 3 with Ga 3

Dha 3 with Ni 3

It should be noted that Ri 2 cannot combine with Ga 1 since their frequencies are the same. Similarly, Ri 3 cannot combine with Ga 1 or Ga 2 since its frequency is higher than and equal to those notes respectively. The same goes for Dha 2 - Ni 1 and Dha 3 - Ni 1 / Ni 2.

Key to the seventy-two Melakarta scheme

  • Since we have two varieties of Madhyama, the first and logical division is based on it. Thus, the first 36 melas of the melakarta have the perfect fourth, Suddha Madhyama, i.e. (Ma 1). In the next 36, the fourth perfect is augmented or raised a bit to give us the second variety of Ma, i.e., Prati Madhyama (Ma 2).

  • Now, each half is further sub-divided into six groups or cycles called Chakra-s. Each of these Chakra-s consists of six melas. Thus the seventy-two melakartas are divided into twelve Chakra-s of six ragas each. These Chakra-s are given specific names for easy remembrance. (See Chakra Chart)

  • Each of the six melas in any given Chakra has the same set of notes in the first tetrachord, the Poorvanga. Since Sa is a constant and Ma is predetermined, the remaining notes Ri and Ga change in the order that we saw earlier (refer Possible combination of swaras). So all the melas in the first Chakra have the first combination of Ri and Ga, i.e. Ri 1 and Ga 1, the second Chakra Ri 1 and Ga 2, the third, Ri 1 and Ga 3 and so on.

  • The notes of the second tetrachord, the Uttaranga, change for every mela of the particular Chakra. Now again, Pa and Sa are the constants. The variables, Dha and Ni change in the same order as given in the table, 'Possible combination of swaras'. Thus the first melas of all the Chakras have Dha 1 and Ni 1, the second, Dha 1 and Ni 2, the third, Dha 1 and Ni 3 and so on.

  • The same procedure is repeated for the second set of 36 melas. Thus the swaras of each of the melas in the first Chakra correspond to that of the seventh Chakra with the exception of Ma, which becomes Ma 2. Similarly, the melas of the second Chakra correspond to the eighth, the third to the ninth and so forth.

The above concept can easily be illustrated with an example. The 29th mela (i.e., the fifth mela of the fifth Chakra), Dheerasankarabharanam uses Sa, Ri 2, Ga 3 (the fifth combination of Ri and Ga), Mi 1 (being the Ma for the first 36 melas), Pa, Dha 2, Ni 3 (again the fifth combination of Dha and Ni) and Sa in a straight sequence in ascent. The exact reverse is rendered in the descent. In Western music, if the tonic note Sa were to be taken as C, the rest of the notes would be D, E, F, G, A, B and C in both directions. This is the Major scale in C-pitch. (Refer Melakarta Chart)

Each of the seventy-two melakartas has been given specific names for identification. This nomenclature is credited to Govinda, the author of Sangraha Choodamani in 18th century AD. A special formula devised by Venkatamakhi helps one remember the names of the 72-melakatas. This formula in Sanskrit is known as Katapayadi sankhya. All the other ragas are derivatives of the melakarta (which is why they are known as the Parent scales), thus paving the way for a scientific construction of the Carnatic music Raga system. It should be however noted that, most of the seventy-two parent scales have emerged as ragas today, though some existed even before this system was developed.


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