Raga Alapana - A glimpse into its structure

Posted on 19 August, 20208 min read

Raga Alapana is the primary format for introducing and developing a Raga in Indian Classical music.


In an earlier post, we posed the question: “What is Classical about Indian Classical music?” We discussed how the intertwined evolution of Lakshya (presentation) and Lakshana (grammar) have lent Indian Classical Music its distinctive identity.

We also delved into Lakshanas which define the grammar of Indian Classical music. We looked at the impact of Adhara Shadaj (singing to a fixed fundamental tonic) and how it turned Jatis from the pre-Adhara Shadaj era into Ragas of the present era. We also looked at several aspects of Lakshanas including types of Swaras, timing and usage of Swaras and formation of musical phrases and scales. Now, let us look at Raga Alapana.

A typical performance of Indian Classical music has two parts:

  • Anibaddha Sangeet - Raga music which is not bound by lyrics, meter or tala.
  • Nibaddha Sangeet - Raga music which is bound by lyrics, meter and tala. Although parts of Nibaddha Sangeet are composed, it is still very much open to improvisation within the constraints of the lyrics, meter and tala.

Raga Alapana is the primary format of Anibaddha Sangeet.


The term Raga Alapana contains two words - Raga and Alapana. This begets the question - what is a Raga? This is a vast subject in itself, but I will address it briefly here.

A Raga can be defined as a musical scale, together with a set of Lakshanas and Lakshya, resulting in a consistent, recognisable musical framework. To formalise the “feeling” of a Raga, and to bring in consistency in performances, Lakshanagranthas have set out the grammar for the presentation of Ragas. This includes the set of notes to be used in the Raga, the consonant relationship of each note with other notes, and rules regarding how a valid musical phrase can be constructed. These rules also mould the microtonal shades of notes that can be used and therefore the overall tuning of the scale of the Raga.

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. Within this framework, a performer can attempt to improvise and develop the Raga through a musical performance. Artists must 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.

According to our scriptures, the presentation of a Raga can be through multiple forms - Raga Alapti, Rupak Alapti, Prabandha, Kriti, etc. We can consider Raga Alapti as the earliest mention of the concept of Raga Alapana. Raga Alapana is a systematic extempore exploration and presentation of a Raga, within the governing principles of Raga Lakshana. It does not have any rhythmic cycle and therefore is commonly performed without any rhythmic accompaniment. Raga Alapana uses certain syllables and vocal solfas as a means to sing which I covered in this post for explanation. Note that the terms Alapana, Alapti and Alap are all synonymous.

Structure of Raga Alapana

Raga Alapana can be classified into the following stages. We will use short snippets from a Raga Alapana in Raga Brindavani Sarang as examples for the different stages.

Akshiptika or the Introduction

Akshiptika is a condensed alapana, wherein the whole identity and structure of the Raga is established quickly in a few phrases. Typically, this part of the Alapana would be in the Madhya Sthayi (middle octave). This enables fellow musicians on the stage, and listeners alike to immediately relate to the Raga being presented. The familiarity helps in following and enjoying the presentation of the Raga.

Sample 1. An Akshiptika for Raga Brindavani Sarang

Note how Raga Brindavani Sarang is introduced.

Raga Vardhani or the main body of the Alapana

Raga Vardhani is the biggest part of Alapana. This in turn consists of 4 stages.

  • Stage 1 of the alapana starts with Madhya Sthayi Shadaj (the fundamental of the middle octave), and explores the Raga in Mandra Sthayi (lower octave) and Madhya Sthayi (middle octave). Here, the identity of the Raga is further established through the usage of appropriate phrases, intonations and note emphasis points.

Sample 2. A snippet from Stage 1 of Raga Vardhani for Raga Brindavani Sarang

Notice how the structure of the Raga is used to move the phrases down to the Mandra Sthayi (lower octave), and back up to the Madhya Sthayi (middle octave). This process continues further on the Chandraveena to ati-Mandra Sthayi (bass octave) taking full advantage of the instrument’s tonal range (see Sample 3).

Sample 3. Another snippet from Stage 1 of Raga Vardhani for Raga Brindavani Sarang

  • Stage 2 of the alapana consists of exploring the Raga in all its nuances, a note by note exploration, giving full freedom to the creative process. Ocassionally, the phrases may touch Tara Sthayi (higher octave), but predomoinantly restricted to lower and middle octave.

Sample 4. A snippet from Stage 2 of Raga Vardhani for Raga Brindavani Sarang

Observe the upward progress towards the Tara Sthayi (higher octave). Over a period of many phrases, the Raga is gradually progressed note by note towards Tara Sthayi.

Sample 5. Another snippet from Stage 2 of Raga Vardhani for Raga Brindavani Sarang

Listen to how the Tara Sthayi Sa (Higher Octave Sa) is slightly touched, and phrases return back to middle octave. Its like a preparation to a climax of revealing Tara Sthayi Sa.

  • In Stage 3, most of the exploration happens in the higher octave, ocassionally coming down to the middle octave.

Sample 6. A snippet from Stage 3 of Raga Vardhani for Raga Brindavani Sarang

Note the approach to Tara Sa, and the power of that note.

  • Stage 4 is the concluding part where sancharis (phrases) across all 3 octaves are presented. This part maybe in a slightly faster tempo compared to the earlier stages.

Sample 7. A snippet from Stage 4 of Raga Vardhani for Raga Brindavani Sarang

At that moment of playing this Raga, the descent suggested moving towards Madhymakala (Jod). This decision to use the descent to move to Madhyamakala is based on Lakshya (aesthetics).

Vartani or Madhyamakala (also popularly known as Tanam or Jod/Jhala)

In this section, there is a perceptible pulse in the singing or playing. On an instrument like Veena, the Chikari/Talam strings provide a sense of rhythm to the melodic phrases. This section is usually in medium tempo - and hence the name Madhyamakala (middle tempo).

Sample 8. A snippet from Madhyamakala Vartani for Raga Brindavani Sarang

Observe how the feeling of rhythm is created, even without a percussion instrument. This feeling is created by the combination of beat-based phrases and the Chandraveena’s own drone strings (called chikari or talam strings). Like in Raga Vardhani, I take full advantage of the instrument’s tonal range to explore Jod in all octaves.

Sample 9. A snippet from Drutakala Vartani for Raga Brindavani Sarang

This section is also performed in Drutakala or fast tempo, and referred to as Ghanam or Jhala. Generally the phrases are 4-beats based. Note how the phrases are created by a combination of finger plucks and talam strings.

Nyasa or the conclusion, also known as Muktayi

This is the concluding part, where sancharis or melodic phrases across the octaves are presented, in a continuous movement providing a climax to the whole Raga Alapana. This ends the Raga Alapana.

Sample 10. Nyasa in Raga Brindavani Sarang


Indian Classical Music is known for improvisation and an extempore presentation of a Raga. However, without any structured format, you can imagine how extempore presentations can lead to an indeterministic development of the Raga. Raga Alapana is a prescribed method for presenting a Raga which provides a basis for systematically developing and showcasing a Raga.

From a philosophical perspective, Raga Alapana is classified as Manodharma Sangeet (Mano - of the mind and Dharma - code of conduct). In other words, Raga Alapana can be regarded as a musical improvisation which is the product of the artist’s imagination, within the code of the Raga.

While adhering to these aspects of presentation, a musician should aspire to please the listeners’ minds and evoke an emotional response from them.

This post is by no means exhaustive, but I hope it provides a glimpse into the process of Raga Alapana. I also hope that this would enable you to follow and enjoy Chandraveena music and Indian Classical music in general. Do check out the full recording of the Raga Alapana in Raga Brindavani Sarang.

Next, I explore Pallavi which is also known as a composition, Kriti or Bandish.

Notes to Readers

Please check my and channels for recordings of Raga Alapana on Chandraveena.

Based on this article, you can try and identify the different sections of the Raga Alapana in various performances.