The Raaga Gestalt – Hold’em Swaras!

Beyond the often churned ‘swara means note in sanskrit’, how can we understand the concept of Swara and the many functions it serves in Carnatic music?

Note, Pitch, Position: At its most elemental definition, a Swara refers to a note in a scale. Does swara refer to an absolute pitch? Say 440 Hz for Ni3? The middle C in an equal tempered scale is supposed to be 261.6 Hz. There are no such absolutes in the world of Swara, and that is absolutely fabulous! I think it is pertinent to explain the concept of swara within the idea of how Raagas are engineered. Raagas at some point during the switch from the Grama-method to the Melakartha scheme became a movable-Do solfege concept – where the note syllables are always tied to specific pitch positions.  Ri is always after Sa. There cannot be Ni immediately after Ga and so on. So when I say, antara gandhara it refers to a note name, position and a pitch ballpark relative to Sa. In this way, swaras are a sight-reading and solfege tool.

Solfege Device:  Swara is a solfege device. If one knows the swaras of a Raaga as Shadja, antara gandhara, chatusruti dhaivata etc – you have a good chance of learning the scale of the Raaga. Only the scale.

Shorthand for specific Raaga rules: Raagas have grammar and rules about how to treat certain swaras, either independently or using specific gamakas, that displace the ascribed relative ‘pitch’ of the swara. So, the sadharana gandhara in Todi can hit a variety of frequencies and perceived pitches around its ascribed frequency of xHz. Thus in certain raagas,  a swara such as gandhara of Todi, is a short hand for the distinct treatment and many pitch placements it receives.

Swara as the placeholder for intonation: Between two raagas that use, lets say antara gandhara, sung on the same tonic, minus marked gamakas, the same swara might now glow with a different intonation. Melodic context and phrasing can change everything at this level. Ever observed a Carnatic singer sing ‘Ri’ and a Hindustani singer say ‘Re’, the fact that the vowel sounds are different, the same swaras now have slightly different intonations because of different vowel rise-times. Now I wonder if two identical swaras, nuanced with the same gamakas to produce the same pitch placements, have different intonations? My guess is yes, because voice timbre, accent and gender can change how a swara sounds between a female and male singer theoretically doing exact same moves. Also between performances by a single artist, the intonation of the gandhara of Todi, in the same phrase might be different on different days. Because the swara concept is so multi-rung and layered, the Raaga becomes somewhat portable. Two people singing the same Kalyani swaras with good fidelity can still ‘sound’ very different, because of the many ways in which their swaras are sounded and rounded off.

So, how would you like your Kakali Nishada today?! I would say Sa-Ni side up! A-Ni day!


3 thoughts on “The Raaga Gestalt – Hold’em Swaras!

  1. Fixed-do solfege refers to a system in which each syllable of the western solfege set indicates a specific pitch or its octaves; “do” always refers to C, “re” always refers to “D”, and so on. Thus you’ll find compositions of Western classical music described as “concerto in La Minor” – in other words, in “A Minor,” in “Mi Major” – E major; Si-flat minor, etc. In a movable-do system, the “do” is always the home note of the tonality.

    Because the Sa of Indian musical performance varies from artist to artist, ICM sargam is analogous to movable-do, not fixed-do.

  2. Re & Ri , definitely sounds different when sung. But if a violin tuned to same “Sa” Plays a Carnatic Ri and Hindustani Re ..would the still sound different ( devoid of gamakas ?) My guess is that they would sound identical.

    I came across another concept: Swato rajate iti swara: so any one of the 7 swaras sound should be able to experienced to be different without a reference. And for Shruti.. there should be a reference note to be able to be experienced/heard differently. Do you concur? SI this correct?

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