Exploring the Musical Connection Between Raga Bhairavi and Indian Folk Songs

Sumita Dutta

UGC-NET & JRF, Dept. of Vocal Music

Rabindra Bharati University

Kolkata, West Bengal

Email: sumitadutta277@gmail.com


Indian music is an evolved melody. Through the millennia, Indian music has evolved to acquire an intricate, strong, and dynamic musical character. Despite its musical history, which speaks of its strong classical nature of evolution, it is evident that Indian music has been inspired by the common man’s music, or folk music, across the country. The many musical forms that have arisen and evolved may differ from one another in terms of their rendering style, melody structure, and pattern, but at a certain point, they have an undeniable interrelationship that binds them together. Indian classical music, encompassing the Indian Ragas, and Indian folk music are two broad spectrums that share certain similarities that are rarely discussed. Concerning this theme, this paper shall draw a striking resemblance and establish the unspoken tie between some Indian folk songs and one of the most popular ragas of Hindustani classical music- Bhairavi.

Keywords: Raga Bhairavi, Indian Folk music, musical connection, resemblance.

How to cite this paper:

Dutta, Sumita. 2024. “Exploring the Musical Connection Between Raga Bhairavi and Indian Folk Songs.” Sangeet Galaxy 13(1): 127-139. www.sangeetgalaxy.co.in


India is home to a diverse spectrum of ethnicities and musical traditions; the people have a monolithic cultural mode of expression. Indian Folk music is the people’s music, through the ages it underwent several influences and gradually developed its unique character that best represents the people’s region, language, culture, belief, style and tradition. Unlike Classical music which adheres to “Shastra” or customs and is strict in projection, Folk music by its very nature is crude, natural and simple in its rendering. Therefore, though we cannot draw very high similarities between the two, surely, we can trace the musical connection or resemblances between them and link the folk roots to Indian Ragas.

Raga Bhairavi is a beautiful morning raga of Indian Classical music, also known as “sada suhagi”[1] (that is constantly liked). It is an embodiment of karun rasa, with a tranquil, captivating, spiritual and occasionally mournful appeal. Though this Raga is present in both Hindustani and Carnatic form, it is not the same in both cases. Bhairavi in Hindustani correlates to Todi in Carnatic music in terms of aroha and avaroha alone. In Hindustani music Bhairavi is considered as the Ashray Raga of the Bhairavi that,that is sampurna jati raag in which Re Ga, Dha, Ni is used as Flat/Komol swaras. Madhyam being the Vadi and Sadaj as the Samvadi swara, Rishav and Dhaivat are used as Andolit or oscillating swaras. In Carnatic music, Bhairavi is categorized as a Janya raga, which, in addition to being a sampoorna raga, uses two separate Dhaivatams, making it a Bhasanga raga and hence not a Melkarta ragam.It is also thought that Bhairavi’s notes match to one of the classic European Church Modes – the Phyrygian mode. In Afghani music there exists a mode named “Bairami” also called “Bairawi” by some, which resembles the notes of Hindustani Raga Bhairavi[2].

Though Bhairavi is a well-known raga in Hindustani Classical Music, bada khayal are rarely heard in this raga. This raga has well affinity towards light classical music such as Thumri, Dadra, and Bhajan, as well as Dhun, gat, instrumental music, and folk music. Interestingly this raga shows resemblances of high prominences in the Folk melodies of Baul of Birbhum district of West Bengal, Heer – Folk music of Punjab, Garwa of Gujrat and some similar instances in the Kashmiri Folk songs.

Primitive Folk Musical Roots to Indian Ragas:

Indian Musical evolution can be examined in terms of “inter-related musical phenomenon.” Prof. Arnold Blake in his book ‘The Music of India’ in Egon Wellesz (ed.), holds this view that in the same way that Sanskrit is the most popular of the vast number of Indo-European languages, Indian music is the easternmost representative of a large collection of inter-related musical phenomenon. Indian Ragas form the backbone of Indian Classical Music. The first instances of the relationship between Indian Raga music with primitive folk tunes can be traced in the text Brihaddesi of Matanga Muni, written between 5th-7th Centuries. It was in Brihaddesi that Matanga first provided us with the definition of “raga”.He made an effort to categorize all music -whether refined or unrefined, whether classical or belonging to common folk or cowboys under one single section called “desi”. The majority of these ragas which he classified under desi, were named after the countries, people, or tribes from which the tunes were gathered.

Eminent musicologist O.C Ganguly, was the first to interpret such links. In his writing “Non-Aryan Contribution to Indian Music” eminent Musicologist O.C. Ganguly states that,

“Matang mentions and describes several melodies of Non-Aryan Origin by their proper names and assigns their position in Indian Raga System.” Under his classification of Raag-geetis, we trace the instances of the following raga nomenclatures,

“Taku ragasca Souvirastatha Malava-pancamah |

Khadavo Votta-ragasca tatha Hindolakah parah || 314

Taka- Kaisika ityuktastatha Malava-Kaisikah |

Ete ragah samakhyata namato muni- pumgavaih”[3] || 315

                                                                                             Brhad-desi, p.85

Thus we get the names of ragas such as Takka or Tanka which had its roots in the folk tunes of ancient Takka tribe of Taxila,Malva-Pancham or Malav Kaishik that got its traces in the folk tunes of Malav/Malaya/Malla tribe,Bhotta from Bhottades or Tibet. Saka (Saka/Sakatilaka) from the Kushanas,Abhiri from the Abhira clan,Pulindi from Pulinda,Kamboji from Kambojas,Gurjri from Gurjars,Saveri from Savaras etc.

It should be noted that while these folk tunes featured 3 to 4 notes, a raga required a minimum of 5 notes.As a result, these folk tunes were gradually assimilated, refined, and modified to give them a classical raga structure before being granted a place in Indian Raga music.

Thus, the inter-relationship between Indian Raga and Folk melodies is not a new occurrence, but has its origins in old musicological treatise of Matanga and others. However, due to the arrival of Muslim, Persian, and other invasions in North India, the Indian musical system has been fragmented into Hindustani and Carnatic musical forms, and the current Hindustani Ragas, are not what they used to be.As a result, we can claim that the Hindustani Ragas of today do not sound like the ragas that were originally devised. It has evolved, been modified, and changed.The same has been in case of Bhairavi.

Origin of Raga Bhairavi:

According to Ustad Bade Gulam Ali Khan Saheb, the present-day Hindustani raga Bhairavi has originated from the Iranian Folk tunes and some also from Punjabi Folk tunes. However, if we trace the musicological studies, we may find that the raga named Bhairavi first appears in the text “Samgit Ratnamala” of Mammat, where it was assigned as the Ragini or derivative melody of Raga Vasant. Many scholars assign Bhairavi to be a derivative ragini of Bhairav, but Bhairav is a much later derived raga than Bhairavi. Concerning the origin of the raga called Bhairavi, O.C ganguly again derives it roots to the tunes of ancient Bhirba tribes, who happened to be a resident of Himalayan Mountain range. In “Non-Aryan Contribution to Indian Music” he writes,

“I have ventured to suggest that it (Bhairavi) was a melody originally belonging to an aboriginal tribe called Bhiravas.” The mention of Bhiravas is found in Bhava-Prakasana of Saradatanaya[4]. Along with the mention of sakaras, abhiras candles pulinda, savaras, and Bhiravas are also collectively mentioned in Bhava Prakasan.

However, the roots of raga Bhairavi that had been traced in this way is not similar sounding to the modern-day Bhairavi of Hindustani Classical Music. The Bhairavi of Hindustani music connotes the notes of Todi or HanumatTodi in Carnatic music. Thus, Carnatic music has adhered to the traditional melodies as was documented in Indian Musicological treatises, but the melodic notes of Hindustani Raga Bhairavi currently bear no connection to its original melodic foundations.

Therefore, to trace the history of the melody of Bhairavi, we must first know the origin of the tune of Todi. Swami Prajnananda writes in his book “Raag O Rup” asserted, that many people regard Todi as a foreign imported raga. Sri Bhupendranath Dutta in his book “Indian Art in Relation to Culture”[5] said

 “In the time of Khilji Emperors (1296-1315 A.D.), the celebrated poet Amir Khusrau introduced Persian tunes (Mokam) in the Indian System. Perhaps long before it, a melody called ‘Tarkish Todi’ had been introduced in Indo-Aryan musical system.”

Many people regard Todi’s melody to be the music of India’s primitive people.The effect of Turkish melody on tune of ancient Todi is obvious in Sangeet Samaysar, as Parshyadev names and talks about “TurushkoTodi,” in which the assimilation of foreign tune was detected.

According to Swami Prajnananda, Musicologists have given the Swaroop (melodic structure) of ancient Todi raag as same as the scale of Bhairavi of Hindustani Classical music.[6]

S r g m P d n S

Thus, if the ancient Todi had Turkish influences in its tune, then Bhairavi (which is equivalent to the ancient Todi) might have been impacted by Turks and other foreign tunes.

Traces of Bhairavi in the “Baul” songs of West Bengal:

The Folk music of West Bengal may be best represented as one of the most diversified forms of melodies. The Baul cult of West Bengal represents a type of music that elates the theme that divinity is present in the human body. They were influenced by the Bhakti and Sufi movements. They negate all kinds of ritualism and believe in the magic force that creates the mystic personality called “moner manus” (soulmate). The music of Bauls of Birbhum district is a refined tune sung in folk style. We may say that Baul represents a single persona whose musical gesture completely connotes the definition of sangeet “Geetam,vadyam and nrityam”- A Birbhum Baul is seen in such a manner- he stands slantingly with a gourded fork-shaped instrument gopi yantra(tat)  in one hand and a bayiifi(avanadh)tied to the waist in the other. He combines his natural vocal singing with a few moves representing the culmination of his inspiration while dancing. Khamak is frequently used in place of the fork-shaped gourded gopi yantra.[7]

The most interesting aspect of the music of these Baul of Birbhum district of West Bengalis is that their melodies strongly resemble Raga Bhairavi of Hindustani Classical Music. Though Bhairavi occurs in some of the folk melodies of some other Indian States its prominence is vividly depicted in the Lok dhun of Birbhum Baul. However, it must be said that the adherence to the tune of Raag Bhairavi in the Folk tunes of Birbhum Baul was not popular until 19th Century. In the 19th Century, Kirtan, Shyamasangeet and Kavigaan which were usually recited in popular ragas, knowingly or unknowingly influenced the Bauls of Birbhum to adopt a specific raga melody in their Folk tunes.

The general structure of the melody of Bauls lies in the higher notes since Bauls are known for their free and full-throated open-voice singing. In the scale of Bhairavi frequent long-standing voice projection in the Sa, Ga and Pa of Taar saptak marks special attention in their singing. The most common phrases of bhairavi as depicted in their tunes are:

S g m P d P, g m r S        

g m d n , n d p m g r S

P d n ṙ  ġ  ṙ  ġ  Ṡ  Ṡ  ṙ 

Here is a depiction of one of the Baul songs with notation, to illustrate its resemblance with the notes and melody of Raga Bhairavi. In this analysis, I have used the version of the song sung by Parvati Baul and her team.

Song:   Ami Kon Kule Jai Bol Go Sokhi

Ami Kon Kule Jai Bol Go Sokhi                                     
Ey kule thakile pore toder kuler porbe ba ki                Ey kule thakile pore sobe bolbe e manali,              Sompode pran sopile hote hoy kolonkini…           
 Ami Kon Kule Jai Bol Go Sokhi                                    
 Tell me where I should go Sakhi                    
it won’t matter to anyone on which bank of the river I go But if I stay in this world, life will stick to wealth and pleasures and I shall become scandalous. Tell me where I should go Sakhi.  

Rhythm : 3/4 (Chhanda of Dadra taal)

Notation of the first stanza is provided below. The tunes to the rest of the stanzas are similar.

–    –     –         –   aa  mi       ko   n   ku       le   ja   ii       bo   l   go        so  khi  –       

                              S    S      S   S    g         r   S    S       S    S   d          n   S   –

 –    –    e         ku  le  tha     ki   le  –         po   re   –       to   de   r         ku  le  –

 –   –   P          P     P   P      m  P  –           m   P   –          P   P    n          d    P   –

Po   r  be       ba   ki   –        –   –   –           –    aa  mi      ko  n  ku          le ja  ii

g  g   g           r    g   –

The sudden off-beat flights to the higher notes resemble the vistars in khayal singing and adds more to the raga essence, especially use of the phrase in the words:

Oh                 —-             sokhi,  sokhi  re

ṙ  ġ        ——             ġ    —  ġ   —

 Phrases that the song revolves around have touch and flavours of Bhairavi:

Phrases explored in lower and middle octave:  S r  g  r  S ; S    ṇ  S

Middle and upper octave:  P  P n d P  g  m  P;     n  Ṡ  ṙ  ġ, ġ  ṙ  ġ    Ṡ ;     Ṡ  ṙ  ġ  ṙ  Ṡ  d n Ṡ

Bhairavi in the tune of Lalon Shah fakir:

Another instance of Raga Bhairavi could be traced to the Lalongeeti of Bengal. Lalon Geeti is a devotional music genre that emerged in South Asia’s Bengal region and was called after Lalon Fakir, who was a Fakir who was influenced by the Sufi movement.

Song: Pare Loye Jao Amay, A rhythmic interpretation of this song by Birbhum Baul;

Rhythm: 4/4

Pare loye Jao Amay                     
Ami opar hoye bose achi ohe doya moy ||           
Ami eka roilam ghaate bhanu se bosilo Toma bine ghor sonkote naa dekhi upay ||
Nai amar bhajan sadhan chirodin kupothe gomon     Nam sunechi patit pabon  taite dei dohai ||              
Agotir na dile goti  ei name robe akkhati                 
Lalon koy akuler poti ke bolbe tomay ||                             
Take me to the bank of the river
I am sitting with awe, O merciful
I am sitting alone, O merciful
I see no way out without you
My Bhajan Sadhana has moved astray
I heard your name as patit-pavan,
I praise you You accelerate my life, 
your name will be forever cherished so says Lalan Fakir.    

Notation of the First paragraph :

Pare  –  –     –          –    –     –     –            loye  –   jao  aa        ma  ay  –  –

PP    –    –    –          –    n     D   P           Sg    –     rm  g         r-  S-    –  –

–   ami opa  –          –    –     r   hoye        bo   se   aa   chi       –     –    –   –

–   Pd    n  –          –     –    –              n    n    d-   nd        P  –   –   –   –

Ohe  –  –   –             –    –   –    doya       moy  –   –   –               –    –   –   –

gP   –  –  –                –   –   –      d          nd   –    –   –                 –   –  PdP 

  Common phrases of notes used:  P Pdn  d  P , S g  r  m  g  r  S.

                                                        P d n R  n   d  P    ;   P d n R ġ  

These phrases connote to the taste of raga Bhairavi and the permutation combination of these notes brings in more of the essence of the raga especially when the song projects the higher notes.

Punjabi Heer based on the melodic structure of Bhairavi:

The majority of Punjabi folk songs are impromptu tunes sung by peasants while going about their everyday duties and work. There is also a vast variety of folk tunes that represent the themes of valour, devotion, and romance. Along with the folklore romances of Mirza Sahiban and Sohni Mahiwal another most prominent tragic romance narrative is that of Heer and Ranjha. Heer became one of the most popular folk music of Punjab, which is primarily based on raga Bhairavi, often resemblances of Sindhu Bhairavi are also found in them. After the Baul songs of West Bemgal, Heer becomes the next popular folk genre which showcases such high resemblances to Raga Bhairavi.

Depiction with a notation of one of the most popular Heer is done below to point out its similarities with the notes and phrases of Bhairavi.

Song: Heer aakdi Jogiya jhooth bole


Heer aakhdi jogiya ve jhoot bolle

ve kaun ruthade yaar manavanda eee

aisa koi na milya ve main dhoond thaki haaa

jehda gayan nu mohd layavanda eee

sade cham diyaan jutiyaan kare koi eee

jehda jeu da rog gavavanda eee

bhala das kha chiree vichania nu

kado rabb sacha ghar leyavanda eee[8]


Heer says, jogi you are telling a lie 

The friends who part never unites

 I looked everywhere, but I couldn’t find someone

who could reunite those who had been separated

He might make shoes out of my flesh.

Tell me, the one who may cause the loss of the disease of this existence,

when does God restore people who have been estranged for so long back to their rightful home.

Rhythm: 4/4

  •   –    hi  re       an  –     k   ri        –    –    jo  –      gi   ya   –    – 
  •  –     ṇ    ṇ        ṇ   –        S  –          –   –      S   S      r    S     ṇ   –  
  • –      –    ve       jhu  -th  bo  le       –     –   –   –          –    –   –   –
  • –     –      S       ṇ    S      r    S –       S   g  r   ṇ          r   S  ṇ  –
  • –     –    ve      ko   on   ru  th         re   –  ya  r-         –  –  –  –
  • –   –     S       g    S    ḍ    ṇ          S  –   –    –            –   –   –  –

The second and the rest of the stanzas of the song show frequent glides to the notes of higher octave notes, especially corresponding to the phrase “P d n ġ ġ”… “ ġ Ṡ”

Phrases used along the structure of the song :

Phrases in lower and middle octave: S r S

                                                    S r S n S d S…

                                                  S grgr S r S ṇ, d n ṇ, S …

                                                 S r g rmg r S… S d S

Phrases in middle and upper octave :  P d n ġ ġ

                                                                     n  d n ..

Most used phrase: S – r g  rmg  r S

Traces of Bhairavi in the Garwa Folk Song of Gujrat:

Gujarati Garwa songs are an essential part of their traditional folk dance Garwa, which is performed during the Navratri festival in Gujarat. The lyric portrays Mata Ambe’s adoration. Though majority of these songs do not completely conform to the tune of Bhairavi, traces of Bhairavi can be discovered in some of them.

Here is an example of a Garba song based on Raga Bhairavi.

LYRIC:  devlok ni ek devi padhari pavan gaya hamara aangna prite

Theme:  The Devi (Mata Ambe) has arrived from Devlok, filling our home with elegance and joy

Rhythm: 3/4

De  –  v         l   o   k         ni  –   –       e   –  k 

ḍ    S   S        S    S   r       g    g   m     –   –   –

de  –   –          vi  –     pa    dha  a  a      ri  –   –

S    m  m        –   –   –         g   g  p       m   –   –

Pa  –   v          n   ga    –     ya  –   ha     ma  a  ra

g    r    g          mg   r  –       S   –   ḍ       S   –   r

aa  –    ng        na  –   –        pri  –   –       te  –   –

g    rmg  r       S  –  –         P   P   m      n   d  P

The rest of the stanzas cover permutation and a combination of this same phrase of notes.

The phrases that the song is structured on, have an affinity for Bhairavi.

Phrases used in lower to middle octave:       ḍ  S r g r m g r S

                                                                        m P d n d P g m r S

                                                                         g r g m g r S

                                                                       ḍ S r grmg r  S

Middle and upper octave:                           P d n Ṡ  , n Ṡ  n d n d P

Flavours Of Bhairavi in the Folk Songs of Kashmir:

Jammu and Kashmir stand not only enriched for the rich form of local handicrafts but also for its rich musical and dance culture that displays its very regional characteristics. Unlike the folk melodies of the Baul of Bengal, which mainly explore higher notes of the song, Kashmiri Folk tunes keep pace to the lower and middle octaves, often repeating the same notes and phrases in successive paragraphs of the song. There is no gliding of notes, nor are there numerous flights to higher notes; the song retains its charm in its own distinct and simple way. Here’s a rendition of a traditional Kashmiri folk melody that bears a striking resemblance to the sounds of Hindustani Classical Raga Bhairavi. Even though the notes are repetitious and cover the lower to mid-range, the swar combination makes it sound comparable to Raga Bhairavi.

Song: Roshe walla myaene dilbara


Roshe walla Myaene Dilbaro                    

Poshan Bahaaraav Yoor Wallo                

Tang Phuliyaan Kyaache Jaan

Harud Waalan Dard Saan,

Czoonth Phuliyaan Kyaache Jaan

Harud Waalan Dard Saan.

Boz-e-Baagwaan Maariey Paan

Poshan Bahaaraav Yoor Wallo


Here, a female lover summons her male and invites him to appreciate the beautiful garland, flowers, and natural beauty by addressing him as Dilbaro and telling him to hurry up since Posham-bahar (Spring season) is approaching. She Also, discussed the possibility of serving him wine. Telling him about our Kashmiri beauty, asking him about the sweet ache in his heart caused by his presence, and asking him not to leave her alone.

Rhythm: 4/4

Ro      she       wa      la             mya  ene  dil  ba           ra  a  a  po            shan  –  ba  ha  

g            r        g     m                g      r     S                 S   r  S  S             S     S     r    g

–            yo     or  wal                 llo   –       –       –         o  r   yo  or            wal  lo  –    –

m           g      –       r                   S    –      –      –             g  m  rm  g            r   S     –     –

Tang  phuli  yan  kache           Ja  anhar  dw  aa          la  aa  an  dar        –      d    sa    –

Sm       m      m     Mm            g   –  rgr    r     S          g    g     m    g       rmg   r    S      –

The most common combination of notes that resembles Bhairavi in this song are :

g r g m g r S,    S r g m g r S ,   S S r S

The phrase  “g r g m g r S” is a common phrase that could be traced both in case of Garwa and this Kashmiri folk song.

The same phrases are used in the rest of the paragraph of the song. However, in the second stanza, an interesting combination of teevra madhyam and sudhha madhyam is used adjacently in the word yan kanche. This does not adhere to Bhairavi but the blend is an interesting combination which is also noticed in some of the renditions of Bhairavi especially when used in thumri and bhajan singing.


The melodies are defined in Indian music. Though progressive evolution and development have resulted in the split of musical forms, the melodies remain firmly rooted in Indian soil. Musical styles and genres may have altered, but the melodies remain aligned and unmistakably reflect the Indian essence. Therefore, such an obvious musical connection between Folk music across India and the tune of one of the most popular Raga of Hindustani music could have been established. Social class distinctions may have divided musical representational patterns, but they could not take away the melody that belongs to the people. Bhairavi, as a key raga in Hindustani music, has such prominent resemblances in the common man’s music. Apart from Bhairavi, several other ragas bear striking similarities to the folk tunes of the country. Tilak Kamod, Jhinjhoti, Durga, Mand, Pahadi, Kafi, Pilu are some of them. Musicians like Pt. Kumar Gandharva created new ragas by adopting and modifying the folk tunes of the Malwa region. Ustad Bade Gulam Ali Khan Sahib also tried to demonstrate the Folk roots of Indian Raga music.

The relationship so established not only carries forward mere musical connectivity but also foresees musical democracy on the Indian subcontinent. Music is holistic, one and unique; no single person, institution, or province can claim ownership of it; it is the music of the people, by the people, and for the people.


Here is the reference to the different Folk songs of India that have been mentioned in this respective article:

  1. Baul song of Birbhum : Ami kon kule jai bol go sokhi :
  • Folk song of Lalon Fakir : Pare Loye Jao Amay
  • Heer of Punjab : Heer Aakhdi Jogiya Jhoot Bole
  • Garwa song of Gujrat : Dev Lok Ni ek Devi Padhari
  • Kashmiri Folk song : Roshe walla Myaene Dilbaro

Index of Notation:

S – Sa   

R- Sudhha Re;                      r- Komal Re ; g – Komal Ga ; M – Teevra Ma 

G- Sudhha Ga                            d- Komal Dha ;   n- komal Ni

m-Suddha Ma                                              

P- Pancham

D- Suddha Dha

N- Suddha Ni

ḍ- mandra (dot below swar) ; ṙ – taar (dot above swar)

[1] https://www.thedailystar.net/news/the-bliss-of-bhairavi

[2] John Baily,Music of Afghanisthan: Professional Musicians in the city of Heart,Vol 1,p 46

[3] Gangoly, O. C. “NON-ARYAN CONTRIBUTION TO INDIAN MUSIC.” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute 19, no. 3 (1938): 263–72. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41694156, p 266

[4]  O. C. Ganguly “NON-ARYAN CONTRIBUTION TO INDIAN MUSIC.” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute 19, no. 3 (1938): 263–72. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41694156,p 271

[5] Bhupendranath Dutta ,Indian Art in Relation to Culture 1956,p.89

[6] Swami Prajnanananda ,Raag o Rup,Sri Ramkrishna Vedanta Asram Darjeeling,p 248

[7] Sukumar Roy, Folk Music of Eastern India, Indian Institute of Advanced Study 1988, p. 81

[8] http://heerranjhatranslation.blogspot.com/2010/06/