General, New to Indian Music

Ragatherapy: Indian music's healing powers

  • Author: Jahnavi Harrison

There is hardly a culture in the world that does not recognise the healing power of music. In biblical times, it is said that David played the harp to rid King Saul of a bad spirit. As early as 400 B.C., Hippocrates, the ancient Greek father of medicine, played music for his patients. In the 13th century, hospitals in the Arab world contained music rooms for the benefit of the patients.

The first structured use of music therapy in the Western world was considered to be in the aftermath of World Wars I and II, when musicians would travel to hospitals, particularly in Britain, and play music for soldiers suffering from war-related emotional and physical trauma.

The ancient medical science of India, known as Ayurveda, has a branch that details how music can heal a variety of ailments of the body and mind. This process of specific application is called raga chikitsa or raga vidya. Though not used extensively in modern times, there have been a number of Indian classical musicians and scholars who have dedicated themselves to researching and practising this form of music therapy.

Evoking specific feelings and moods within the mind, body and soul of the listener is what Indian music is about, so it is hardly a surprise that the genre lends itself particularly well to therapeutic application. Raags are classified according to the most appropriate time of day to be played and to the predominant rasa or emotion that they evoke.

Each mode and musical note is deeply connected to corresponding subtle and gross frequencies in nature. The great medieval composer Tansen was said to have been able to light lamps by playing the fire Raag Deepak and invoke rainfall by playing Raag Miyan Ki Malhar and it is said that he created Raag Darbari Kanada to soothe Emperor Akbar’s stress in the evening.

Modern day practitioners of raga chikitsa come from both the Hindustani and Carnatic traditions, and test the efficacy of playing different ragas for people suffering from physical or mental illnesses. The late Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan headed the Raga Research Centre in Chennai, where he trained and conducted research for many years. Speaking to The Hindu newspaper about the therapeutic power of raga music, he gave the example of Raga Sankarabharanam, stating:

"(It) is incredible. It cures mental illness, soothes the turbulent mind and restores peace and harmony. Sankarabaranam, if rendered with total devotion for a stipulated period, can cure mental disorders said to be beyond the scope of medical treatment".

The effect of a raga on the physical body is said by some to be due to the link between certain sounds and frequencies with the chakras, the seven energy centres of the body. Just as with ragas, each chakra has a specific associated colour and various attributes. For instance, the Nabhi chakra which governs the solar plexus and stomach area is said to be aided by Abhogi, Malkauns/Hindolam, and Bhimpalasi. It is said the chakra is cleansed by these ragas, aiding the physical body, for example, with digestion as well as bringing about a change of attitudes and inner transformation and helping to give up vices and compulsive habits.

Scientific research into the effects of certain instruments on the environment has produced some unusual findings. Jagadish Chandra Bose investigated the effect of the shankha (conch shell) blown during religious ceremonies. He claimed that it rendered disease causing bacteria dead or ineffective as far as the sound penetrated. Other researchers have concluded that blowing the shankha could potentially be recommended as a cheap and effective way of treating physical health complaints, as well as helpful for sufferers of hysteria, epilepsy and leprosy.

So - want to give it a try? There are many different ragas purported to aid various conditions. Below are a selection of both Carnatic and Hindustani ragas for some common ailments. Why not test them out at home and let us know what you experience?

Indigestion - Marwa, Nat Bhairav, Deepak, Abhogi

Stomach pain - (Ananda) Bhairavi

Cough - Gujiri Todi, Shyam Kalyan, Kedar

Headaches - Darbari Kanada, Jaijaiwanti, Sohini, Mohanam

Ragas can also be utilised as mental and physical boosters - take these for a spin - much more enjoyable than wheatgrass smoothies.

Energy booster - Shanmukhapriya, Brindavana Saranga

Peace and tranquillity - Sindhu Bhairavi, Kafi, Shankarabharanam

Confidence - Asavari, Shanmukhapriya

These days allopathic medicine has gained broader acceptance; most natural and complementary therapies have been sidelined in favour of treatments that produce immediate and easily measurable effects. However, the power of music is something that cannot be ignored. As Plato said, "music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul".

Jahnavi Harrison is a multi-disciplinary artist, specialising in vocal music, Kirtan meditation, and Indian devotional dance.

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