Lakshanas - Grammar of Indian Classical Music

Posted on 14 August, 202011 min read


Indian Classical Music was not always like we know and understand today, having evolved continuously over a period of 1500 - 2000 years. Despite the long evolution, it has retained its fundamental identity and principles. In an earlier post, 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.

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.

Figure 1. A Timeline of Indian Classical Music

If one were to divide the evolution of Indian classical music into different eras, I would say that the introduction of the concept of Adhara Shadaj (fixed fundamental tonic) is a major dividing phase. As part of this major change, Indian music evolved and certain aspects of Lakshya and Lakshana were modified. Some new forms came into place while other forms became obsolete. But many concepts and terminologies were carried over with a different interpretation.

Gram, Murchhana, Jati

To better understand the difference Adhara Shadaj brought in Indian Classical Music, first, let us look at the concepts of Gram, Murcchana and Jati.

Early on in the evolution of Indian Classical Music (maybe, even as early as 3rd-4th century CE), musicians and scholars studying and experimenting in music recognised three very important ratios: Pancham Bhav or the perfect fifth, Madhyam Bhav or the perfect fourth and Gandhar Bhav or the major third which is also known as Antara Gandhar.

Sample 1. An Illustration of Shadaj-Pancham Bhav

Sample 2. An Illustration of Shadaj-Madhyam Bhav

Sample 3. An Illustration of Shadaj-Gandhar Bhav

These ratios formed the basis for division of an octave into notes. With all three ratios recognised, an octave was divided into 22 intervals or subdivisions called Srutis. The method of dividing an octave into 22 Srutis is described by Bharat in his Lakshanagrantha on performing arts, Natya Shastra, and also by Sarang Dev who described it in his Lakshanagrantha on music, Sangeet Ratnakar.

Now, the term Gram literally means a village - formed by a collection of people from the same community or ethnicity. Applying the same principles, three musical Grams were created and recognised: Shadaj Gram, Madhyam Gram and Gandhar Gram which respectively emphasized the Pancham Bhav, Madhyam Bhav and Gandhar Bhav. Just like a real life Gram had people similar to one another, the notes of a musical Gram were supposed to be related and to be in consonance with one other.

The term Murchhana comes from the word Murchh which literally means “to increase”. So an increasing or ascending collection of seven successive notes is defined as a Murchhana. Note that the consonance of notes in a Murchhana is assumed, and it is always derived from a Gram. You could start with any note in a Gram and pick seven successive ascending notes and form a Murchhana. These Murchhanas formed the basis for Jatis and modern day Ragas.

Jatis, Ragas and Adhara Shadaj

Let us understand this with an example using present day notation for ease of explanation. Let us denote the 12 musical notes in an octave as follows:

Sa re Re ga Ga ma Ma Pa dha Dha ni Ni Sa’

where notes beginning with a lower case denote Komal or flat notes, notes beginning with an upper case denote Tivra or sharp notes and Sa’ denotes the octave of Sa. You can listen to a sample of these 12 notes as per the tuning system of Ramamatya and Venkatamakhin (equivalent to Pythagorean Tuning). We will cover Indian tuning systems of 12 and 22 notes per octave in a future post.

Sample 4. Twelve Note Scale in the tuning system of Ramamatya and Venkatamakhin

Let us take a well known scale today, which is known as Raga Shanakarabharanam or Bilawal or the major scale. Its notes are:

Sa Re Ga ma Pa Dha Ni Sa’

Sample 5. Shankarabharanam scale

Now, let us perform a scale change by starting from ma and go up to its octave.

ma Pa Dha Ni Sa’ Re’ Ga’ ma’

Sample 6. Shankarabharanam scale from ma to ma'

Now let us rewrite this scale by transposing ma to Sa while maintaining the intervals between the notes. The transposed scale would be:

Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa’

which is nothing but Raga Kalyani or Yaman.

Sample 7. Yaman scale

Hear Sample 6 and Sample 7 a few times, and try to match the scales. This shifting of scale to derive another scale is also known as Graha Bheda.

So what do we learn about Jatis and Ragas from this example?

Well, in the era prior to Adhara Shadaj when the concept of a fixed fundamental Sa did not exist, new scales were formed by performing scale changes and defining new Murchhanas. From a Murchhana, a Jati was defined as a melodic framework formed by selecting 5 to 7 notes, and defining Lakshanas and Lakshyas governing the rendition of the Jati. Jatis could be Sampoorna (using all 7 notes of the Murchhana), Shadav (hexatonic) or Audava (pentatonic).

With the acceptance of Adhara Shadaj, the Jatis were denoted by transposing their starting note back to Sa and they became what we today call as Ragas.

Taking the above example, in today’s music, both Shankarabharanam and Kalyani would be performed to the same fundamental tonic or Adhara Shadaj, whereas earlier they would have been perfomed with a scale shift (Shankarabharanam from Sa and Kalyani from ma).

Now let us take a few examples of Lakshanas, and see what they mean and how they evolved across these 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.

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 Samples 5, 6 and 7). 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) (refer to Samples 1 and 2).
  • Anuvadi: Anuvadi is a note descibed as being in harmony, typically the third (Tivra Gandhar or Komal Gandhar) of a note (refer to Sample 3).
  • 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 is roughly equivalent to today’s Raga Kharaharapriya. whose scale is: Sa Re ga ma Pa Dha ni Sa’

Sample 8. Kharaharapriya scale in which Re and ga are vivadi as well as Dha and ni

Lakshanagranthas describe two successive notes which are less than two Srutis apart as Vivadi notes, specifically Re and ga as well as Dha and ni in the above scale. We will address various Sruti intervals in a separate post on Srutis and Tuning systems. In practice, in Raga Kharaharapriya, the vivad (conflict) is resolved by reducing Re and Dha by one Sruti (as a Lakshya), so that a larger interval is perceived between the Re-ga and Dha-ni pairs.

  • 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. Stay tuned for a post on the subject.

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 Bahutava 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. Stay tuned for a post on the topic.

Musical Phrases and Scales

Lakshanas also govern the formation of musical phrases and scales.

  • Aarohi: An Aarohi is an ascending set of notes. For example, Sa Re Ga ma Pa.
  • Avarohi: An Avarohi is a descending set of notes. For example, Dha Pa ma Ga Re. Refer to Sample 5, 6 and 7 which play Aarohi and Avarohi phrases one after the other.
  • 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’.

Sample 9. Sthayi phrases in Raga Shankarabharanam

  • 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 from Sample 5 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’

Sample 10. Hamsadhwani scale which is a Janya of Shankarabharanam (refer to Sample 5)

Compare Sample 5 and Sample 10, and note your observations. Please 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.

In subsequent posts, I explore how these can be incorporated into a musical performance in the form of a Raga Alapana or Pallavi.