Melakartha Ragas an Introduction

Contemporary Carnatic music is based on a system of 72 melakarta ragas. These ‘creator’ ragas are also called janaka ragas and thai (mother) ragas. The current system can be traced to the works of Venkatamakhi who appears to be the first to use 72 melakartas. Earlier works generally contain fewer melakartas and most have flaws in organization. At that time, (16th century) many of Venkatamakhi’s melakartas were unknown and were not assigned names. Later, all 72 were given names and this system is sometimes referred to as the Kanakaambari – Phenadhyuthi system after the names of the first two melakartas in it. Muthuswamy Dikshithar’s compositions are generally based on the raga names and lakshanams (definitions) in this system while Thyagaraja used a later scheme devised by Govindacharya in the late 18th century. Venkatamakhi did not believe that melakartas must be of simple sampoorna arohanam – avarohanam but favored the idea of calling a raga as a melakarta if all the seven swaras occurred in either the arohanam or the avarohanam. Thus a raga which went Sa-Ri-Ma-Pa-Ni-Sa, Sa-Da-Pa-Ga-Ri-Sa could be a melakarta under this scheme.

Govindacharya’s insistence on sampoorna arohanam -avarohanam leads to a system which is more elegant from a mathematical viewpoint. In this scheme, the melakartas arise out of systematic permutation of the seven swaras into the twelve swara sthanas. Seen this way, the melakarta scheme is a product of mathematical abstraction and the naming of swaras (and the introduction of vivadi swaras) is of no consequence as far as the organization of the melakartas is concerned.No wonder, Venkatamakhi is reputed to have said that even Lord Maheswara could not create more melakartas!

As we noted before, all melakartas employ a complete (sampoornam) arohanam -avarohanam structure. The purvangam of a melakarta refers to the lower half of the Arohanam – Avarohanam, namely Sa-Ri-Ga-Ma and uttarangam refers to the upper half or Pa-Da-Ni-Sa. First let us examine the possible variations in the uttarangam. Pa is fixed. Da can occupy three sthanas and so can the Ni. But, the Ni has to be always above the Da and that leaves us with the following six possible uttarangams.

(1) Pa-Suddha Dhaivatham-Suddha Nishadam-Sa

(2) Pa-Suddha Dhaivatham-Kaisika Nishadam-Sa

(3) Pa-Suddha Dhaivatham-Kakali Nishadam-Sa

(4) Pa-Chatusruthi Dhaivatham-Kaisika Nishadam-Sa

(Suddha Nishadam occupies the same swara sthana as Chatusruthi Dhaivatham and hence

the two cannot occur together)

(5) Pa-Chatusruthi Dhaivatham-Kakali Nishadam-Sa

(6) Pa-Shatsruthi Dhaivatham-Kakali Nishadam-Sa

These six uttarangam combinations are denoted by the names Pa, Sri, Go, Bhu, Ma and Sha respectively. The following series of figures illustrate the keyboard locations of the swaras in these six uttarangam combinations as also the corresponding numbered swara sthanams (the number 13 refers to the Sa of the next octave) for one kattai sruthi.