Asian Music and Dance

Rāga in Popular and Contemporary Music – Part 8

In previous editions of this Guide, we have discussed the fundamentals of raga including the building blocks, mechanics and aesthetics.  We were then taken on a journey through various genres of rāga music including dhrupad, khyāl and thumri ang and semi-classical and devotional styles as well as looking at the instruments used to render rāga performances. In the final part of the Listeners’ Guide to Rāga, we explore rāga in the contemporary context.

The rhythmic make-up of music and the texture of the instrumentation are the key elements of modern music. In the contemporary world, where traditions are meeting, there is a confluence of ideas. This new opportunity has given rise to very interesting and diverse music. 

On the rhythmic front, the cyclic structures of the Middle Eastern world and Indian tāla have opened up new frontiers in giving us rhythms with varied accents and odd time cycles. African beats, coupled with the Western liking for grooves have made musicians perceive melodies in a variety of ways.

The melodic basis of music is either harmony-based with accompanying chords and multiple melodies played together giving a huge and complex template to work on; or modal where a variety of scales and tunings have given a different kind of template. Within the genres associated with different cultural groups, one element dominates: if the music is perceived in India there is a predominance of either rāga or folk-based melodic lines; Middle Eastern music will have the dominance of the Maqāms; and in Western music chords and harmonies are favoured.


The main music in India where these elements started to be mixed together is Bollywood (or the music of Indian cinema). The composers of this genre have positively experimented and created songs reflecting the changes in society. The main melodic basis of the earlier Bollywood songs was the folk music of different regions of India or the classical rāgas of North and South Indian music. In the current Bollywood music the trend is more towards choral and harmonic basis for music.


Rāgas have also been the basis of some Indo-jazz music where the rhythms are jazzier with the melodies constructed from the rāgas. The Western devices of multi-layering and playing simultaneously are also explored to make the music different from the traditional. 

Orchestral music

Rāgas have also been used as the basis within the Western orchestral idiom. Pioneering works of Pandit Ravi Shankar, L. Subramanium, Ilaiyaraja and others have exploited this sound to the template of the rāga.



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