General, New to Indian Music

What is Prahar? Time theory in Indian Classical Music

  • Author: Jameela Siddiqi

Apart from musical content and the esoteric concept of rasa ('juice, essence, flavour') Indian classical raags (melodic structures) are also assigned to particular times of day or night to maximise their emotional impact on the listener. In ages past, no self-respecting musician could have been persuaded to perform a raag at the wrong time but in this age of recorded music, music-on-the-move and music-on-demand, listening to a raag at its prescribed time is no longer adhered to as strictly as before.

To break the time rule, however, used to be considered such a mark of uncivilised behaviour that, in the Urdu language for example, if someone made an irrelevant or inappropriate comment in conversation, they were admonished for instigating a bewaqt ki ragini (an untimely melody) – which just goes to show how a purely musical concept had become deeply ingrained into daily life.

When we speak of raags and times, it must be understood that this is not time as shown on the clock but time in relation to the position of the sun as viewed from earth. Indian classical culture divides the day into eight segments of three hours, with each given a name either according to the level of light or a specific activity that is associated with that time of day. Given that ancient India was largely an agrarian society, many activities are related to the land or to the tending of cattle. This categorisation is known as prahar.

Nearly all raags in North Indian music (but not so much in its Southern counterpart) are categorised by the time of day they may be played or heard. There are exceptions but these are mostly for those raags that have also been assigned an additional geographical or seasonal component, for instance, Bahar and Basant (Spring), Malhar (Rain), Pahadi (Mountains), and Mand (strong associations with the folk music of the Rajasthani desert).

There have been some attempts to find rational explanations for why particular raags sound better at certain times and some researchers have concluded that it might be connected to the pattern of half or flat notes, and that raags which have these as dominant or sub-dominant notes are more likely to be assigned to sections where day meets night, where the fading light creates a mood of ambivalence and uncertainty.

Of course, this assertion does not fit every instance but the time-theory of Indian music is largely accepted by its practitioners and listeners without requiring much analysis. It is intended merely to enhance the experience of listening to music and maximising the benefits to be had from rasa. It is no longer considered a major crime against decency to listen to a raag at the wrong time but it can cause some discomfort – in pretty much the same way as if one were in full evening dress taking an early morning stroll in the park!

Listen to the music | Dhrupad vocal master Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar sings Raag Ahir Bhairav, intimately connected with the early morning hours - the Ahir are a caste of cowherds, milkers, and cattle breeders, and the raag is traditionally said to summon the feelings of walking to the fields to tend to the cattle. Live from a morning concert at Darbar Festival 2018. 


Jameela Siddiqi is an author, linguist, and BBC cultural commentator, specialising in postcolonial fiction and the devotional music of South Asia.

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