Raga Classification Systems in Indian Classical Music

Indian Classical Music has evolved continuously over a period of 2000 - 3000 years. While it has retained much of its fundamental identity and principles, it was not always like we know and understand it today. 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. We also looked at Lakshanas in more detail, in a subsequent article.

In this article, we look at another topic which is often a subject of opinionated discussions, namely, the classification of Ragas. With such a long history, it is inevitable that there would be many different perspectives on the Indian Raga system and the classification of Ragas.

We present a number of Raga Classification Systems which have been used and taught in Indian Classical music over the years and by different musical groups and communities. Here we do not intend to argue the merit of one system over another, but rather talk about a common thread which runs through all of these systems.

Gram, Murchhana and Jati

This is the oldest system of Raga classification dating back to an era before the adoption of Adhara Shadaj. We first talked about the concept of a Gram in the series of articles on Indian Tuning Systems (part 2 and part 3). There are two major Grams described by ancient Indian musicologists, Shadaj Gram and Madhyam Gram. Please refer to the linked articles to learn more about how they are derived.

Essentially, a Gram is a tuning system. It is a specific division of an octave into 7 (or 22) notes. A Murchhana is a specific selection of 7 successive notes starting from a designated Graha Swara or root note. A Jati is a subset of notes from a Murchhana, together with a set of Lakshanas (grammar) specifying how the notes and note intervals are to be used. Many modern Ragas trace their origins to specific Jatis from the pre-Adhara Shadaj era.

Ragas which belong to the same Murchhana are considered as related. Clearly, they share the same tuning system. They also share Lakshanas which is again a consequence of having common note intervals.

Raga, Ragini, Ragaputra and Ragaputri

The Raga-Ragini system is another old system of Raga classification and is likely the oldest system in the post Adhara Shadaj era. It considers 5 or 6 Ragas as the most fundamental parent Ragas. Each parent Raga is associated with 6 Raginis (or partner Ragas) giving rise to 30 to 36 Ragini scales. From these Raga-Ragini scales, a wide variety of Ragas can be derived. They are usually labelled as Ragaputras or Ragaputris (son or daughter Ragas).

The parent Ragas also double up as a Tuning System and impose constraints on note relationships and symmetries in the scale. The derivatives of the parent Ragas are generated based on a combination of rules and aesthetic considerations. The derivatives (Ragini, Ragaputra and Ragaputri) must adhere to the Tuning System of the parent Ragas. They also have common Lakshanas.

Mela, Raga, Melakarta

The Mela-Raga system is a newer system of Raga classification compared to the Murchhana-Jati system and the Raga-Ragini system. A Mela or Melam is a tuning system - a specific division of an octave into a specific scale (usually with 7 notes). Some experts believe that a Mela must have 7 notes and derivative Ragas would be subsets of a Mela. An alternative view is that a Mela can have as few as 5 notes and derivative Ragas could be subsets or extensions. In the case of extensions, the Raga scale can only be extended while respecting the symmetries in the Tuning system imposed by the Mela. A Raga or Ragam is a subset or an extension of a Mela with added Lakshanas on how notes should be used.

The Melakarta system is an even newer system which likely came into existence around the same time that Veena tunings with 12 pitches to an octave were being standardized. Music scholars Ramamatya and Venkatamakhin can be credited with defining the 12 note tuning system which is also used for setting the frets on a Veena. Please look at part 4 of Indian Tuning Systems for more information. This tuning system is equivalent to the Pythagorean Tuning system.

The Melakarta system presumes the Venkatamakhin-Ramamatya tuning system as the reference (although some commentators mention 14 or 16 note tuning systems which include a few extra notes). A Melakarta is a 7 note scale derived from this tuning system according to certain rules. These rules allow for the generation of 72 Melakartas. This system is widely followed in South India in Carnatic music.

The transition from Mela-Raga system to the Melakarta system has meant that all Ragas are described with respect to a single 12 note tuning system. But there was already a large legacy of Ragas and artistic tradition and compositions which did not fit into a single tuning system. In order to accommodate this, the Venkatamakhin-Ramamatya tuning system is considered to provide nominal note positions, and the burden of specifying microtonal shades of notes for specific Ragas is shifted to artistic tradition and understanding.


The Thaat system is an even newer system of Raga classification. The Thaat system is credited to the work of Bhatkhande. During Bhatkhande's time (late 1800s), the progressive divergence between Hindustani and Carnatic music was already complete. In South India, the Mela-Raga system was in use and the transition to the Melakarta system was also underway. In North India, many musical groups and communities were still using the Raga-Ragini system, with many differences in nomenclature and interpretations of Raga classification. For the sake of uniformity and also to convert oral documentation into written form, Bhatkhande devised the Thaat system.

The Thaat system is a classification of Ragas into 10 distinctive 7 note scales, each of which is called a Thaat. Each Thaat has derivative Ragas which use notes from that scale. Interestingly, the term Thaat has the same original meaning as the term Melam which refers to the process of setting the frets on a fretted veena. Unfortunately, although the Thaat system presumes an underlying 12 note tuning system, its details are not documented or specified. Some commentators believe that Bhatkhande might have had 12 Tone Equal Temperament in mind, as it had already seen wide adoption in Europe by the 1800s. This is consistent with the adoption of the harmonium in Indian Classical music, which widely uses equal temperament.

Again, the transition to the Thaat system created a problem for the legacy of Ragas which did not fit into a single tuning system. This again has lead to shifting the burden of specifying microtonal shades of notes for specific Ragas to artistic tradition and understanding.


The Janaka-Janya system is a system of Raga classification which has existed in parallel to the Mela-Raga and Thaat systems. It is also has similar concepts of a parent Raga (Janaka) and a child Raga (Janya).

A Janaka Raga is usually a 7 note Raga which also doubles up as a tuning system which the Janya Raga has to adhere to. Like in the case of Mela-Raga system, one view is that a Janaka Raga must be Sampoorna (complete) which means it should have 7 notes. An alternative view is that a Janaka Raga may have as few as 5 notes and it can be logically extended to 7 notes while respecting the symmetries of the tuning system of the Janaka Raga.

A Janya Raga is a subset or extension of a Janaka Raga, uses the same tuning system and shares some Lakshanas with the Janaka Raga.

Common Thread

As we mentioned before, we do not intend to argue the merit of one system over another. Rather we would like to focus on a common thread which runs through all of these systems.

The common thread is that in all these systems there is a notion of a relationship between a parent Raga and a derivative Raga. Generally, this relationship preserves the tuning system and inter-note relationships and also results in the parent and derivative Raga sharing a set of common Lakshanas.

Using this attribute of shared tuning system and Lakshanas, we will investigate a series of Ragas through subsequent articles. We aim to shed light on what kinds of tuning systems are at play in Indian Ragas and how they can be seen through parent Raga - derivative Raga relationships. This is an important aspect of Indian Classical music because it lends support to the musical purpose of a Tanpura which we talked about in an earlier article.

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