By Anthony Peter Westbrook

If there is one aspect of the classical music of India that sets it apart from other traditions, it is the theory that establishes a specific period of day for performing each melody form, or raga. “Orthodox musicians in India never play a raga at any other than its proper time,” according to the late French musicologist Alain Daniélou, “for at the wrong hour it could never be developed so perfectly nor could it so greatly move an audience.” As Walter Kauffman tells us, this is much more than just an aesthetic consideration; it is considered to have an effect on the environment. He writes, “The older generation of Indian musicians in particular still believes that disaster will be invoked if, for instance, an evening raga is performed in the morning or vice versa.”

Today this attitude prevails mainly in north Indian, or Hindustani, music. The South Indian, or Carnatic, tradition contains a highly developed theory of ragas and their performance times. “However, in Carnatic music today,” writes P. Sambamoorthy, “there is no questioning the fact that the ragas sung during their allotted times sound best, but the time theory of ragas may be said to be only advisory and not mandatory.” While this more liberal approach is quite alien to Hindustani music, it points to a lack of any theoretical basis for the time theory, as no ancient or medieval writer on the subject has left us any rational explanation for it. It was left to the late Pandit V.N. Bhatkhande (1860-1936) to systematize the rules generally observed by Indian musicians.

To determine the performance times of each raga, Bhatkhande divided the day into eight praharas or watches, then assigned each raga to a specific prahara according to its underlying tonal characteristics. Each note in a raga has a certain level of importance vis-a-vis the other notes, and these relationships change subtly during the different times of the day.

Each musician learns the various aspects of each raga, including its correct performance time and its rasa, or mood, from his guru. Thus there are literally thousands of subtleties which are learned but not formulated into a single body of theory. And in spite of some differences of opinion, there is a high degree of agreement regarding the correct performance time for most ragas. This is remarkable considering the number of ragas currently in use in north India, as well as the existence of different schools of music, or gharanas. It suggests that at some time in the past some common theoretical framework may have existed as the basis for the time theory. Today, however, there is little clear indication as to the origin of these practices. Scholars, such as Kaufmann, Bonnie Wade, Harold Powers and Emmie Nijenhuis, have suggested origins in the musical aspect of the classic Sanskrit drama, or the ritual chant of the Vedas.

Mukhund Lath of the University of Rajasthan points out that while Bhatkhande’s generalizations found great acceptance, no one has ever tried to display and work out the psychophysiological basis for the ragatime connection. Lacking such an empirical or theoretical basis, this unique aspect of Hindustani music is in danger of being compromised. Although the older generation of performers still regard the time theory as a critical aspect of their tradition, others, under the pressure of contemporary concert and recording schedules, are relaxing performance strictures. But if the traditional musicological literature provides no basis for the theory, where else should we look?

Of all the aspects of Vedic literature which deal with cycles of time, ayurveda, the Vedic system of medicine, is one of the most significant, and there appears to be considerable evidence linking it with musical performance in ancient times. Daniélou wrote to me in 1992, “There exists a relation between various scales and the humours of the body. Any one expert in the music therapy of Ayurveda should be able to find out.” He quotes Sangeetamakaranda I.2324: “One who sings knowing the proper time remains happy. By singing ragas at the wrong time one ill treats them. Listening to them, one becomes impoverished and sees the length of one’s life reduced.” The reference to the length of one’s life provides another link to ayurveda, which can be rendered as “the science of longevity”. Indeed, it does appear possible to correlate the diurnal cycle of the three ayurvedic doshas, vata, pitta and kapha, with the performance times of the ragas. This and other evidence would suggest the existence of an ancient view in which, in the area of health, music has a definite role to play


Musicologist and writer, Peter Westbrook is co-author of Divine Harmony: The Life and Teachings of Pythagoras