Lakshanas - Grammar of Indian Classical Music

Indian Classical Music has had a long history over a period of 2000 - 3000 years. It underwent a key milestone - the adoption of Adhara Shadaj about 800 years ago. In an earlier article, we talked about how the intertwined evolution of Lakshya (presentation) and Lakshana (grammar) have lent Indian Classical Music its distinctive identity. Now let us take a closer look at Lakshanas.

Reference Pitch, Basic Intervals and Ratios

First let us start with the concept of the fundamental note Sa. In Indian Classical music, all musical notes are defined based on their relationship with Sa. You can use the settings below to set the Sa to any pitch you prefer. All the demos on this page would play according to this setting.

Common Parameters


Lakshanas in Indian Classical Music

Like with any language, even for music, a grammatical framework is essential for effective communication and consistent understanding. In Indian Classical music, treatises on musical grammar and rules are called Lakshanagranthas (books of grammar), which have evolved and developed over many centuries. Lakshanagranthas deal primarily with Lakshanas, although they do talk about Lakshya as well.

In the article on Adhara Shadaj, we talked about the concept of Gram (tuning system), Murcchana (mode or permutation of a Gram), and Jati a scale along with a set of Lakshanas and Lakshyas to define how it should be musically performed. Most of the Lakshanas are common to Jatis and modern day Ragas. In fact, they have been carried over (and in some cases, reinterpreted) from the legacy to Jatis to the currently performed Ragas.

Let us consider some examples of Lakshanas, and see what they mean and how they evolved across this period. For ease of understanding, let us group the Lakshanas into those pertaining to: (a) the importance of Swaras or individual notes; (b) the timing and usage of Swaras; and (c) musical phrases and scales.

One important category of Lakshanas pertains to the classification of Gamakas. A Gamaka is a musical ornamentation carried out by modulating the pitch of a single note or by moving continuously from one note to another. This is a topic in itself which is covered separately in the linked article.

Types of Swaras

  • Graha: In the pre-Adhara Shadaj days, the Graha (home) swar was a very important concept and reference for a musical performance. This was because it was the Graha swar which was the starting note defining the Murchhana. Like in the example above, the Graha swar determined whether the scale being performed was Shankarabharanam or Kalyani (refer to Demos 3, 4 and 5). But today, however, the Sa is the Graha swar for all Ragas.
  • Vadi, Samvadi: In today's understanding of music, Vadi denotes the most important note of the Raga, and Samvadi as the second most important note of the Raga. However, Vadi means a speaking note, or any note of the Raga. Samvadi is a consonant note of the Vadi note which is generally its fourth (Madhyam bhav) or its fifth (Pancham bhav).
  • Anuvadi: Anuvadi is a note descibed as being in harmony, typically the third (Tivra Gandhar or Komal Gandhar) of a note.
  • Vivadi: Vivadi literally means a contesting or argumentative. Musically, it means a note so close to the original that one can see the tension between the notes. To illustrate Vivadi notes, we take an example of a scale which is used for Sama Gana (recitation of Sama Veda), and can be considered equivalent to today's Raga Kharaharapriya. The scale is: Sa Re ga ma Pa Dha ni SA which you can hear in Demo 1.
Demo 1. Sama Gana Scale with Vivadi intervals Re-ga and Dha-ni
Sa Re ga ma Pa Dha ni SA 2 
SA ni Dha Pa ma ga Re Sa 2

Lakshanagranthas describe two successive notes which are less than two Shrutis apart as Vivadi notes, specifically Re and ga as well as Dha and ni in the above scale.

  • Amsa: The most often used note is called Amsa. Amsa literally a man's shoulder or a bull's hump. Musically, it means the note that shoulders the weight of the Raga.
  • Nyasa: Nyasa is a halting note of a musical phrase. It could be a Samvadi or Anuvadi of the starting note of the musical phrase, or the Amsa note of the Raga. The concepts of Amsa and Nyasa are best illustrated in Raga Alapana.

Timing and Usage of Swaras

Swaras are also classified based upon their timing and frequency of usage.

  • Alpatva: An Alpatva note is one which is rarely and fleetingly used note.
  • Bahutva: A Bahutva note is one which is often used. Graha and Amsa notes are generally Bahutva notes. Check this Pallavi in Raga Jaunpuri. Here, ga (Komal Gandhar) is Alpatva and Sa (Shadaj) is Bahutva.
  • Hrasva: A Hrasva note is one on which a musical phrase does not linger for a length of time.
  • Deergha: A Deergha note is one where a musical phrase can halt for a considerable time. Check this Pallavi in Raga Bhairavi. Here, re is Hrasva and Pa is Deergha.
  • Hrasva and Deergha are also applicable in lyrical compositions where they mean short vowels and long vowels. This is best illustrated in a Pallavi. Refer to this post by S Balachander for more information.

Musical Phrases and Scales

Lakshanas also govern the formation of musical phrases and scales.

  • Aarohi: An Aarohi phrase is an ascending set of notes. For example, Sa Re Ga ma Pa.
  • Avarohi: An Avarohi phrase is a descending set of notes. For example, Dha Pa ma Ga Re.
  • Sthayi: Sthayi literally means constant. Musically, it refers to a fixed note around which musical phrases revolve. A Sthayi is used in the context of a musical phrase or to define an octave. A few examples of Sthayi phrases (taking Sa as the Sthayi note) in Raga Shankarabharnam are: Sa Re Ga ma Pa Dha Ni SA, Sa Re Sa and Sa Re SA which you can hear in Demo 2.
Demo 2. Sthayi phrases in the scale of Raga Shankarabharanam
Sa Re Ga ma Pa Dha Ni SA 2 
Sa Re Sa 2 
Sa Re SA 2
  • Melakarta and Janaka Raga: A Melakarta Raga or a Janaka Raga is a parent Raga from which other Ragas are derived. Melakarta Ragas are always heptatonic. Janaka Raga could be heptatonic or have fewer notes. For example, Raga Shankarabharanam is an example of a Melakarta or Janaka Raga.
  • Janya Raga: A Janya Raga is a derived Raga from a Melakarta or a Janaka Raga. The derived scale could be Sampoorna (heptatonic), Shadava (hexatonic) or Oudava (pentatonic). Also, note that Janya Ragas can be asymmetric. For example, it could be Audava while ascending and Shadava while descending. Other combinations of Aarohi and Avarohi patterns are also possible. For example, by dropping ma and Dha from Raga Shankarabharnam, Raga Hamsadhwani can be created as a Janya Raga with the scale: Sa Re Ga Pa Ni SA which you can hear in Demo 3.
Demo 3. Hamsadhwani scale as a Janya of Shankarabharanam.
Sa Re Ga Pa Ni SA 2 
SA Ni Pa Ga Re Sa 2

Note that it may be possible to derive the same Janya scale from another Melakarta. This is an aesthetic choice (Lakshya) based on how an artist wishes to present the Janya Raga.


To summarize, a Raga is a concept originating from Jati and can be defined as a musical scale, together with a set of Lakshanas and Lakshya which results in a consistent, recognisable musical framework. Within the reference of a Raga, an artist can attempt to improvise and develop the Raga through a musical performance.

Now for a given Raga, each of these Lakshanas mentioned above are clearly defined. Through a cycle of listening, learning, practicing and performing, a student can learn the Lakshana aspect of a given Raga as well. However, these only define the framework and by themselves do not make music. An artist has to apply Lakshya to their rendition and create a Raga presentation which can be described as Ranjayati (that which illuminates, gratifies and colours the mind). This is the most important characteristic in the presentation of a Raga.

(Originally published by S Balachander over at Chandraveena.)

Category and Tags

History of Indian MusicHistory of Indian MusicLakshyaLakshyaLakshanaLakshana