Ornamentation in Indian Classical Music (alankar)
If you have a simple melody that can stand on its own, ornamentation is what is added to this to make it more appealing. There are many different kinds of ornaments (alankar) in Indian classical music. Some add finer nuances to the melody, others give it texture. Together, the various ornaments play a very important role in giving body and expressiveness to a simple melody, making it complete in and of itself without the need for accompaniment.
This page introduces some of the main ornaments used in Indian classical and semi-classical music. For convenience, I focus on vocal music, but all of the ornaments below apply to instrumental music too.
The ornaments are demonstrated using solfa syllables and explained using Indian musical notation, so please refer to the "Solfa Syllable" and "Notation ID" columns in this chart. I have also provided basic staff notation to illustrate each ornament for the benefit of non-Indian viewers, but please note that the symbols used are only approximations and cannot be interpreted exactly the way they would be in Western music.
Notes can be sung straight, but they are often sung with kan-swar (grace notes; literally "a small quantity of a note") borrowed from an adjacent note in a musical phrase. This lends mellifluousness and expressiveness to the melody. A kan-swar can be sung before or after the note it ornaments, and it can be borrowed from a note below or above it, but whatever the case, the main note is held for the longer duration while the kan-swar is more subtle. What kan-swar is used and when largely depends on the raga as well as the musical phrase in question, and it takes experience to know what sounds appropriate in which context.
If I had to pick a single ornament that defines Indian classical music, it would be the kan-swar. Without the appropriate kan-swars, the melody no longer sounds Indian. All the other ornaments listed on this page are optional to some extent. You can sing simple compositions without gamaks or meends or khatkas, but take away the kan-swars, and the music is stripped of its essential identity.
In its simplest form, a meend is a smooth glide from one note to another. During slower parts of a melody, kan-swars also become meends. However, meends can span much longer intervals too. Although a meend spanning a distance of several notes technically includes all the intermediate frequencies, only selected frequencies are given enough prominence as to be identified clearly. Sometimes only the starting and end notes of a meend can be clearly identified, but at other times, other specific notes are also given prominence. Not all meends travel directly from the starting to ending notes – some meends take circuitous paths, touching notes that do not fall between the notes in question.
Gamak is a word used to describe the sound of a drum; the vibration that happens when you strike the drumhead. As a musical ornament, it is a technique of singing a note with force in a way that creates a vibration, which adds a new dimension or texture to the music. In practice, the percussive effect of a gamak can be heard most effectively when several notes in succession are sung with force using a vowel sound at a brisk, even pace. Different kinds of gamak are possible in terms of the intensity and wavelength of the vibration and the quality of voice used.
A khatka is an ornament that involves performing a single note as a cluster of notes. The main note is featured most prominently, but a neighboring note or two are included as well. The main note is the note that can be sung straight in place of the khatka without affecting the underlying structure of the melody. Khatkas are very common, but their application is far from random. Different notes in different ragas lend themselves to the use of khatka, but not all the time. Experience teaches you when and on which notes a khatka sounds appropriate.
An andolan is a slow oscillation applied to a note. It usually features in ragas that use microtones and is applied to the notes in those ragas that involve the use of microtones. Microtones are unstable pitches that fall between two notes and are difficult to sustain. Artists can use this natural instability to their advantage by mastering the andolan and oscillating the note in a controlled fashion, rather like a graceful tight-rope walker.
Ornaments Used Mainly in Semi-Classical Music
Some ornaments like murki and zamzama are very characteristic of Indian folk music and semi-classical forms of music that are influenced by or recently evolved from folk music, such as dadra, thumri, tappa and so on. They do also feature in mainstream classical music, but only very rarely.
A murki is very much like a trill in that it usually involves two or three neighboring notes being alternated very swiftly and lightly. In fast-paced folk-derived compositions, murkis are rendered to sound light and sharp. In slower, more sensuous compositions, such as the thumri, they are smoothed over a bit, to sound more languid than sharp.
A zamzama is an unevenly accented sequence of notes sung using sharp gamaks. The length of the notes in the sequence also varies, giving it a choppy effect. This ornament is very characteristic of folk music in the western parts of India, and also of a genre of semi-classical music called tappa which evolved from folk songs sung by camel riders in Punjab.
Malini Rajurkar (vocal)
Tappa in Raag Bhairavi