Raga Marwa

Raga Marwa : Song of the Sunset

Important Note:
I have described Indian classical music and ragas from the point of view of their emotion and my journey and experiences with them. Far too many descriptions focus on technical details, which are meaningless for anyone other than those actively learning the art form. If you are interested in technicals, please go to the section marked “Technical Information”. Please note that I describe technical information in terms of useful tips to the practising musician and don’t dwell much on musicology

Raga Marwa: Visualisation

Imagine yourself sitting at the edge of a very still lake…..there is no one around… maybe a few birds flying home to their nests….. the setting sun casts a golden hue over the sky… there is absolute silence, other than the odd bird call…..

There is a sense of acceptance at the day gone… but a tiny part of you still longs for it…an unresolved contradiction..

However, you are calm…. as calm as the still waters of the lake in front of you…

This is the essential visualisation of Raga Marwa (Marva)

My Journey with Marwa

My journey with Marwa began as it does with most students of music – I learnt the music, learnt the rules and played it in text book fashion. However, looking back, I realise that I only “got” the raga a few years ago when I started on it afresh with my teachers Ustad Shahid Parvez and Pt. Sugato Nag. Prior to that, I was missing the essential ingredient: the feeling of “resolution” in the raga. Mentally, I think it took me about 10-12 years of sporadic “visits to Marwaland” before I was finally able to internalise it. This is a journey which takes time. Marwa is not a raga with obvious appeal -(hence Bollywood has largely left it alone – the only recent use of Marwa was in 2 lines of a song from a film called Sathiya – music by AR Rahman) you have to really spend a great deal of time with it to absorb the point of this raga. Once you have done that, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do this sooner. However, age and life experiences are crucial for this journey – so I think I started on Marwa at the right time….

Marwa is an unbelievably hypnotic raga. As is the case for me, I usually stay with a raga for months, sometimes a year or so. However, with Marwa, you’re either in it or completely out of it. You have to mentally commit to this raga. This grand raga is not like say Bihag (a major raga by itself) where you can sometime briefly “flirt” with related variants (e.g Maru Bihag) while studying the raga. Marwa, once you’re in, is a deep emotional and spiritual dive. It leaves no room for any other shade of musical colour. Once you’re in, you’ll be consumed by it. It will take over your mind.  Once you’re out of it, I’ve found that  hearing it can actually sound discordant and disturbing. I then pause, and get back into it – it gradually comes back to me in its full glory.

My experience is that Marwa requires your mind to be at rest. If you are very busy with other things, Marwa can be hard to play/sing. It requires you to be absolutely mentally still. Too many thoughts, tasks, pressures of life disturb its fragile mood. And when that happens, you will feel it. I recently was practising late at night after a hectic trip, and simply could feel that lack of “connection” with the raga. I stopped playing right then and took it up the next day, and felt a lot more better…

I marvel at the genius of those who created/discovered this raga – this is human art at its highest form. I share this opinion for most of Hindustani music – especially the major ragas. These are breathtaking creations/discoveries – the very essence of the human soul.

(I am reminded of Paul Keating – former Prime Minister of Australia – who claims to have hit upon his greatest ideas when high on Classical Music- almost as if under the influence of a mood altering substance. I can vouch for the mood altering properties of Marwa and raagas in general. They lift you from the mundane and take you into a different world. Hence the name itself – Raaga- that which colours the mind. I’d add soul to that.)

Marwa is usually appreciated in its full glory with some life experience. You need to travel and see undisturbed sunsets to understand what this raga means.

Marwa, as with Darbari, is a raga unique to the Hindustani system. While counterparts exist in Carnatic music, it is mandatory to have a provision for a  slow development of the raga and plenty of silence.  The essence of these ragas is lost at higher speeds. These are meditative ragas – you dwell upon each note in its full glory – and in that moment, time stands still. You cannot rush to execute gamakas, murkis and other embellishments – nor rush ahead with technical wizardry. You must be comfortable with silences and pauses when handling these ragas.

Raga Marwa Technical Information

Marwa is an “advanced” raga,  one which takes much time and effort to understand. It is an evening melody, grave in its approach. However, once understood, it’s very hypnotic in its appeal, partly because it is a raga of unresolved contradictions.

The main reason for this is that in the Indian musical system, the Sa (Tonic), Ma or Pa provide a feeling of rest and a sense of closure of the melodic progression. While the Sa is present in Marwa, the resting point is the Dha, which is unsettling to the conventional ear. It takes months, if not years to understand and absorb this unusual placement of the resting point, through continuous listening of Marwa and reflection…

While a lot of texts refer to the absence of Sa in Marwa, that is actually not correct in practice. Sa is very much used as a resting point coming down from Re.

The second reason why Sa is constantly running through Marwa is because of the Sa in the taanpura (drone) and in the case of instrumentalists, their chikari and jod strings which are tuned to Sa. So every time the musician touches these strings, Sa is inserted into the melody.

Other musicians have felt emotions of anxiety and depression when listening to this raga. Others feel it has a heroic flavour to it, and recommend that it be played slowly. As with all Indian ragas, the essence of the raga is usually exposed at slow speeds, and Marwa particularly cannot be appreciated at higher speeds.

When I first heard Marwa, I went by the text book definition of this raga which is:

Ascending: N r G m D N S
Descending: S n D m G R S

To make matters worse, the same progression is shared by two other ragas derived from Marwa, Ragas Pooriya (Puriya) and Sohni (Sohini)

Raga Progression (Chalan)

Here are some progressions in Marwa, with notations below

n D N r n D

m D S –  S N r

G m D m G R

n D


(I’ll insert some sound samples here)

If you are bewildered into what to do in Marwa, remember the golden rules:

1. Dwell on Dha

2. About the only time you should use conscioulsy Sa is when coming down from Re – so use Sa as a temporary resting point

Nuances  and Accents

This section deals with very subtle techniques of handling a raga which make a big difference in its expression.

Some typical nuances and accents for Marwa are as below:

The quaver on Ni

The dwell on the move back from Re to Sa

The  Ma and Ni in Marwa use a bit of “tremolo”  especially in string instruments. The Dha is very stable, rock solid

Marwa on Instruments

Interestingly, while I’m of the opinion that vocal music trumps instrumental music any day, in case of Marwa, stringed instruments (sarod/sitar/surbarhar/sarangi) allow a unique expression of this raga, which sounds sometimes better than pure vocal music.

The key is in the ability of these instruments to produce three sounds at the same time: the tanpura/chikari tuned to Dha and Sa, the Sa Jod/Chikari strings and the main melody being played. Together, they create a hypnotic effect and sounds very impressive when done right.

Marwa is often played on the Surbahar (bass sitar). The sarod naturally lends itself well to this raga, so it’s curious that the number of published recordings on the sarod are very few, testimony to the difficulty of the raga.

Some of the nuances that I’ve described above have been taken from the sitar/surbahar form.

Marwa on the Sarod

We start off with a standard slow (Vilambit) 16 beat cycle:2 videos that I posted on my Youtube channel:

Slow Tempo, 16 beats (Vilambit Teentaal)

Another composition which also illustrates snippets of improvisation pathways: vistaar, bols, peshkar etc. Done with full content, this could extend the playing time in the slow cycle to 15-20 minutes.

Middle Tempo 10 beats (Madhyalaya Jhaptaal)

I’ll insert a video containing 2 compositions here

Fast Tempo 12 Beats (Drut Ektaal)

This composition is inspired by two similar compositions: one by Late Ud Sultan Khan on sarangi and Pt Jasraj. I’ve also heard other vocal variations, but can’t recollect who from…

Fast 16 beat cycle (Drut Teentaal)

I’ve chosen 5 of my favourite compositions and one of my own in this clip

The first one, while sung by Kirana school style exponents e.g Venkatesh Kumar, could be easily ascribed to other schools. The composition is by Adarang – pen name of Firoz Khan (18th century) and it contains some beautiful movements  which underscore Marwa very well.

The next one is again from a vocal background – I studied this with Sugatoda – it’s taken from Rampur Sahaswan and sung by Rashid Khan. The composition has obviously been modified for the sarod, but the key feature of this composition is that it starts from the lower octave and jumps out on higher part of the middle octave in the first line – hence its uniqueness.

The third one is arguably the most famous Marwa composition: sung by the legendary Ud Amir Khan: Guru Bina Gyan.

It’s worth understanding the lyrics of this masterpiece:

Guru bina gyaan na pawe (Knowledge/Enlightenment can’t be gained without a Guru)
Mana murakh soch soch kaahey pachhtawe (O ignorant mind, why are you constantly regretful, for:)
Sadguru ki sangat karley re gyani (The enlightened seek the company of a true Guru)
Tab gunijana mey guni kahawe (and only then are they considered enlightened among the wise)

The essence of this is that only a true Guru can show the way. This is very true of Indian classical music. We need to have our gurus – direct or indirect to guide our way…

You can find Ud Amir Khan’s monumental piece on Youtube. The ease, speed, and effortless flow of the composition is incredible !!.

I’ve of course played it at a faster speed and not played the antara (2nd part) as per the great Ustad’s original rendition. The antara is quite complex and needs to be simplified for the sarod.

The next piece is more of a technical piece by Ud Shahid Parvez with a different point of emphasis – it usually confuses tabla accompanists and takes some getting used to.

The next one is taken from Ustads Nazakat and Salamat Ali Khan of the Sham Chaurasi Gharana. Similar compositions have been sung by others. The key point of this composition is that it highlights Re very prominently in the second line, anchoring the composition in classic Marwa.

The last one is my attempt at a composition. I’ve had two influences on this: one is Ud Vilayat Khan’s composition and the other one is a duet between Ud. Vilayat Khan on sitar and Ud Munir Khan on sarangi. My composition takes bits from each and is designed to be executed easily on the sarod. Very much a work in progress.



9 thoughts on “Raga Marwa : Song of the Sunset

  1. I am currently listening to the recording of Marwa done by Ali Akbar Khan on the 40 Minute Raga record from 1968. Your comments are so helpful in contemplating the ideas that lead to the pace of the performance. In the liner notes, the writer explains that the Ma and Pa strings must be de-tuned, which restricts the use of two of the fingers to some degree. I wonder if this contributes to the overall complex and introspective character

    1. Detuning is not necessary for other sarod variants…eg the one I play. Yes the Maihar sarod allows jod strings to be tuned to the Dha which helps with the ambience. Finger restrictions are eased if you leave the strings intact

      The appeal of Marwa is inherent and not dependent on the instrument configuration

      Its the skill and raag knowledge of the artist which determines how much can be conveyed to the listener

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