Although raagas are said to be infinite (ananta), the fact is that at any point in history of music, only a few scores of raagas are popular. Although composers like Tyagaraja and Muttuswami Dikshita composed in well known and less known raagas of their times, it is a fact that all compositions are not created equal, and all raagas are not inherently equal in their scope of treatment.
If you have visited some of the internet fora on Karnataka sangeetha, you might be familiar with the term “Big Five”. I don’t know the origin of this terminology but looks like it is in vogue at least for the last couple of decades when folks on Internet discussion boards starred discussing south Indian music.
“Big Five” refers to five important raagas of Karnataka Sangeeta: tODi, bhairavi, kAmbhOji, Shankarabharana and Kalyani. Although not a rule, almost every good concert has at least one (if not more) of these five raagasa treated in detail. The first of the “Big Five” is tODi – when we go along the order of their position in the 72 mELakartha scheme that is in vogue today.
Todi of Karnataka sangeetha is a very specialized melody which has no parallels either in hindustani music or in other melodic music systems of the world. The elongated oscillations (kampita) on gAndhara, and nishAda in this rAga are the key signatures of this raaga. Now it is considered a sampoorna raaga, taking all seven notes both in ascent and descent – but several special phrases skip shadja and/or panchama.
Interestingly enough, a century or two before, panchama was almost always skipped, and gandhara and nishada were rendered somewhat plain compared to their treatment today. Sometimes, this version of the raaga now goes by the name “shuddha tOdi”.
Now, here is a wonderful example of Todi – a geete that tells the story of Ramayana – sung by Sri Neyveli Santana Gopalan (Courtesy Sangeethapriya.org). Images and artwork – various Internet sources.
A geete is generally a beginner lesson, that is taught to students when they are being introduced to different raagas. Todi, being what it is, the geete is also sufficiently involved :), but a very good introduction to “the first of the Big Five” I’d say!