Each raga, it is commonly held, in order to be truly efficacious has to be sung or played at a particular hour of the day or night. A more informed listener will even assert that belonging to a specific part of the day or night is as essential a property as its tonal structure. He might then proceed to enumerate the morning ragas, noon ragas, evening ragas, dusk ragas, late-at-night ragas and just-before-morning ragas.

If you ask, “How does one know which raga belongs to what hour?” The answer will be unanimous: the scheme has been fixed by a tradition reaching back to time immemorial. But, if the matter is one of direct musical experience, then the tonal or other more palpable features of a raga can surely be identified and distinguished. This seems an obvious question and one would expect to find an answer in the older musical texts, but, curiously enough, the first person to have asked it was Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande. In a now historic speech made at the first All-India Music Conference in Baroda in 1916, he enumerated 20 significant features which, in his view, distinguished the Hindustani system, making it, in his words, “A system perfectly independent of the Southern or Carnatic.” He set these features out in 20 separate and numbered clauses of which as many as six are concerned with the time aspect of ragas.

Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande.
Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande.

North and South

Bhatkhande did so with a specific purpose in mind: namely, to distinguish the Hindustani system from the Carnatic system of music. Raga patterns, both in the South and the North, are based on formal principles that stem from an identical source and follow parallel streams of inspiration and development, interacting with each other to a no mean degree. Many ragas of North India have such close counterparts in the South that even non-specialist listeners can recognise them as almost identical forms. This obvious feeling of consanguinity was, indeed, the inspiration behind a popular Vividh Bharati programme, in which North Indian ragas were presented along with their South Indian siblings to reveal close kinship. Yet Carnatic music knows of no morning, evening or noon ragas.

The fact that there is, in North India, a definite design or scheme within which different ragas have been assigned to different hours of the day suggests, according to Bhatkhande, a psycho-physiological basis. Any sensitive listener, in other words, should be able to feel the morning or evening quality of a raga. But no one except a person duly initiated into the esoteric lore and conventions of Hindustani music really responds to this quality in ragas. It is thus evidently a response that has to be learned. If it seems natural and spontaneous to the Hindustani listener, it is because it has been so deeply ingrained through centuries of persuasive suggestion and habitual observance as to have become a reflex.

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The seasonal quality

Ragas, traditionally, belong not only to certain times of the day but also to particular seasons. The seasonal aspect of ragas is no longer taken seriously even in the North except in the case of the various Malharas, Basant and Bahara, and these, too, are no longer tied down to their ascribed seasons. Yet, we still believe in confining them to boundaries of the hours within which they have been restricted by convention. There is plainly an inconsistency here: if a raga is just as sweet out of its assigned season, why should it not be equally sweet out of its ascribed hour?

Musicians, in any case, cannot strictly observe the time rule, at least on the AIR, on which morning, noon and evening ragas are often sung in a single sitting. There are even signs of unrest concerning this limitation among concertgoers. People have begun to miss morning ragas in concerts for most concerts are evening affairs. The South Indians, too, once connected the ragas to specific hours, as we know from the testimony of Ramamatya, who wrote Svaramelakalanidhi in the 16th century and is one of the oldest and most honoured authorities in the South. They have given up the notion without any sense of loss.

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The old texts guide us

Looking up the old texts we find that the raga-time theory is certainly not as old as the ragas themselves. The oldest ragas are older than Bharata (2nd century BC to AD 2nd century), who left behind instructions concerning the use of the grama-ragas in dramas. He makes no connection between them and the hours of the day. The first major available text written mainly about ragas is the Brihaddeshi of Matanga, belonging to the Gupta period or later and usually placed in the 7th or 8th century. The ragas, in Matanga’s days, comprised a rich body of forms including bhasha, vibhasha, antarabhasha, besides grama-ragas and ragas proper. This was already an old, well-entrenched corpus of music. Matanga speaks of various gitis or styles of raga singing and of regional ragas, but of a time theory, as we know it today, there is no trace.

Abhinavagupta, writing towards the end of the 10th and beginning of the 11th century, quotes an earlier authority called Kashyapa, an ancient theorist (date unknown) who speaks of the seasonal aspect of ragas: “(Raga) Prenkholita should be sung in spring, so should Malavapanchama. Takka raga, Gaudakakubha, Bhinnashadaja, Kaushiki and Bhinnapanchama are favoured in summer and the subsequent seasons.” Later sangita texts bracket Kashyapa along with Matanga and others as hoary teachers.

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Nanyabhupala, a king of Mithila, writing a century after Abhinavagupta, is the first person, I find, who speaks of a connection between musical forms and an assigned hour of rendering them. In the chapter on ragas (chapter seven) in his Bharatabhashya, he connects different gitis to different hours (yamas) of the day. The two gitis, shuddha and bhinna, are assigned to the first yama or prahara (a three-hour period) of the day. The giti, gaudi, is placed at mid-day; vesara is in the first part of the day; and sadharana is said to be common to all hours of the day. These gitis were not ragas or similar forms, but various styles of rendering ragas, akin to the banis of dhrupada and the different gayakis of present-day music. He does not give details regarding the time of the day in which specific ragas were to be rendered. He speaks only of the gitis and their time. What is more remarkable in this context is that Nanya assigns gitis or ragas to specific hours not because of aesthetic, but religious reasons. Unlike the listeners of today, he does not seem to have felt an affinity of mood or ethos; he said it was more auspicious to sing a particular raga at a particular hour.

For two or three centuries after Nanya we have texts which, for our purposes, may be divided into two categories: those that speak of a connection between ragas and their hour of singing and those that do not. The two important texts after Nanya are the Sangita-samayasara, of Parshvadeva (date not certain), and the Sangitaratnakara of Sharngadeva (early 13th century). Parshvadeva does not speak of any connection between ragas and a prescribed time of singing, though he speaks of ragas in detail. Sharngadeva, however, diligently notes the hour of the day against every raga that he describes, using phrases like geyo’hnah prathameyame (to be sung during the first yama or prahara of the day), madhyama’hnogeyo (to be sung during mid-day) and the like. Sharngadeva connects ragas to seasons, too.

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Sharngadeva had avowedly based his description of ragas on earlier authorities, which he copiously names. We do not know, however, his source for the ascription of hours to ragas. Earlier works available to us, as we have seen, do not make such ascriptions. Nanya makes a connection between gitis and hours of the day, but very half-heartedly. Perhaps the ascriptions noted by Sharngadeva were also made in the same spirit. In any case, neither he nor the preceding tradition provides any basis for supposing that an intimate connection of ethos or character was felt by musicians or listeners between a raga and its hour. That was to come later.

A rule believed to lead to greater auspiciousness, hence religious merit, tends to become a ritual and turns easily into established convention or customary practice. It thus becomes an ingrained habit, to be followed even after religious connections are forgotten. This is what seems to have happened in the case of the ragas and their connection with specific hours of the day.

This article first appeared in ON Stage, the official monthly magazine of the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai.