Hindustani Classical Music

By now you have probably noticed the profusion of ornaments used in Hindustani classical music. Since Indian music has traditionally been about single-line melodic development, artists are trained to do amazing things with that one line of melody. Simple melodies are miraculously brought to life through ornamentation. There are many different ornamentation techniques. Some add finer nuances to the melody, others give it an entirely new dimension in the form of texture. Together, the various ornaments play a very important role in giving body to a simple melody and making it full and complete in and of itself without the need for accompaniment.

Of course, except in the case of really gifted singers, it can take years and years of rigorous training and practice before the voice becomes capable of doing all those ornaments effortlessly. The good news is that one can still sing simplified versions, and the ornaments will happen in good time. That's what everyone does.

There are two parts to learning ornamentation techniques. The first part is mastering the techniques themselves. This comes under voice training. The other part is to learn to apply them correctly and naturally. This falls in the department of musical education. In practice, voice training and musical education take place side by side, but I think it is useful to recognize that there are these two distinct aspects to learning music.

There are different categories of ornaments (alankaar). We have shabda-alankaar, which are techniques of sound production, and varna-alankaar, which are formulae for patterning notes in order to achieve certain musical effects.

We use varna-alankaar patterns as voice training exercises, but they also provide inspiration for taans (cadenzas executed at double-speed within the rhythmic framework of the composition), which are improvised during raga performance. Although taans are based on varna-alankaar patterns, they are not as straightforward or symmetrical, because that would just make them predictable and boring. A beautiful taan has an element of surprise and asymmetry to it while also fitting very aptly into its musical context. Shabda-alankaar, meanwhile, refer to various techniques of sound production. About 33 such techniques have been isolated. This section describes some of the main ones.

Meend (glissando)
A meend is essentially like a glissando in the sense that it is a smooth glide from one note to another, including all the relevant intervening (and sometimes relevant non-intervening) pitches. Within the basic style of a meend there are many variations - different ways in which the meend must be applied depending on the what is being sung.

For instance, listen to the difference between the two examples below. They are both the same set of notes sung in legato, but the first one is sung simply, while the second one applies meends typical of Raag Bageshree.

Ordinary: m P D g

Raag Bageshree: m P D g

Here's a demonstration of a meend between S and S' (spanning a whole octave) which touches all the intervening pitches in the octave:

But then, a meend between the same two notes can sound quite different depending on what pitches you touch en route (i.e., which raga is being sung). For instance, check out how different the note combination "m P" sounds in the following two examples:

Talking of Raag Kedar, it is characterized by its use of what are called "undulating" meends. What this means is that instead of going straight up or straight down, Raag Kedar almost always combines its notes in a gently swaying back and forth motion.

In practice, a meend can be sung to a vowel sound, to a syllable of lyric, or to the sol-fa syllables of the start and end notes (even though technically other notes are also included). It can also be sung at different speeds. The point of a meend is that even though it only mentions the start and end notes, it is a continuum that includes all the relevant pitches in a smooth transition. Skilled artists are so good at singing meends that they not just include every relevant note, they also know exactly how much to emphasize each of these notes. Because, depending on the raga, some notes are very prominent, while others are barely present.

Kan-Swar (grace notes)
Notes can be sung straight, but often in Hindustani classical music, we sing them with grace notes. This adds mellifluousness to the music. Technically, there can be four types grace notes - grace notes preceding or following the main note, and grace notes that are of a higher or a lower pitch than the main note. Listen to the following example for five different ways in with the note S could be sung. The grace note used is given in brackets before or after the main note.

The above example shows five basic variations of how the note S can be sung. Note that the main note is held for the longest time, while the grace note (whether preceding or following the main note) is simply touched. In practice, which pitches are used as grace notes depends on the raga. Listen to the following example for a few simple phrases, first sung straight and then sung with grace notes suggesting Raag Bhupali. The notes in bold are sung with grace notes, and the grace note used is given in brackets either before or after the main note.

In the case of kan-swar (grace notes), the main challenge is learning what kan-swars are applied in which raga, because the wrong kan-swar can change the feel of the raga.

Andolan (swing)
An andolan is a slow swing applied to a note. It is a very special feature of certain ragas and is only applied to specific notes in those ragas. In other words, you may not indiscriminately swing any note you please. In an andolan, this slow gentle oscillation from the note in question touches microtones on one or both sides of that note, never quite reaching the adjacent note(s). For instance, we sometimes use andolans on d and g in Raag Darbari. Pay attention to the notes highlighted in bold in the phrases below.

An andolan is also sometimes applied to the g in Raag Jog, which is quite distinct from the Raag Darbari andolan on the same note.

Gamak (a percussive voice-production technique)
A gamak is a technique of singing notes in a way that creates a percussive effect. If overused or used inappropriately, it can make the music sound harsh and unmelodic, but a skilled artist can use gamak to give a whole new dimension of expressiveness and excitement to the music. There are several types of gamak, ranging from really heavy ones that involve using the jaw muscles to produce the required intensity (called jabde-ki-taan), to wavy gamaks (called lahak) as well as very light ones (called halak). In the audios below, the portion of the lyric highlighted in bold include gamaks.

A khatka is a technique for embellishing a note by singing it in a small cluster including neighboring notes. The main note is the most prominent. Here are two examples from Raag Yaman, which often features khatkas on the notes S and P. In the first example, the khatka is on the bold-highlighted P, and is actually a rapid combination of the notes (P D P P). And below that, the khatka on S' is a combination of the notes (S' R' S' S').

Murki (a subtle khatka)
A murki is an embellishment technique that involves singing a cluster of notes so quickly and lightly that it is barely more than a flutter in the throat. Murkis are very typical of dhun or folk tunes. In classical and semi-classical music, they are found mostly in ragas that retain a lot of their folk flavor.

Zamzama (notes sung nimbly in quick succession)
A zamzama is like a khatka except that the notes used in a zamzama are usually in orderly sequences. Zamzamas are very characteristic of a style of semi-classical singing called tappa, which traces its origins back to folk songs sung by camel riders in Punjab.

Vidushi Malini Rajurkar
Tappa in Raag Bhairavi