Overview of Literature on Gamaka

he standard translations of gamaka as "ornament" (used in this paper) and "embellishment" are both inadequate, to the extent that they suggest something incidental added on to what is fundamental. For gamaka is itself a fundamental element of raga .

Gamaka performs an integral, rather than decorative function in Indian music. Theoretically, one can define a svara simply as a scale degree . . . , but in practise a svara is properly defined only when taking into consideration the gamaka (s) traditionally associated with it. Gamaka is what gives a raga its unique character. (Viswanathan 1974:1/150)

So svara and gamaka are intimately linked. Svara is not a discrete note in Western terms, but a scale degree and all its associated melodic movement, or gamaka .

As an organic manifestation of raga , gamaka has affective power, and can directly influence the listener's state of mind.

The gamakas , or grace notes--the many different ways of sounding, embellishing, and resolving notes--are the subtle shadings of a tone, delicate nuances and inflections around a note that please and inspire the listener. . . . The ornaments are not arbitrarily attached to a melody; rather, they seem to grow out of it.
(Shankar 1968:23)

Gamaka animates a svara , imparting motion and life to the scale degree. This dynamic quality leads the contours of a particular gamaka to vary from one context to another, depending on the preceding and succeeding svara s.

The moment a gamaka clothes the Swarasthana [note position in the octave], the latter is quickened into life. For the gamaka builds up a relationship with neighbouring members of the family [of svaras ] to the right and to the left. (Ayyangar 1972:148)

Its subtle and variable nature makes gamaka highly problematic, at best, in any notation of Indian music. At times, the effort to convey such intricate, fluid melodic movement by means of fixed-pitch signs may seem quite futile. And this is especially true of the densely ornamented Carnatic style. When a South Indian musician does use notation, it serves only as an aid in remembering a piece already learned by hearing and imitating another musician. A detailed notation of gamaka isn't needed. Letters represent the svaras which form the main structure of the melody, and these summon up the appropriate gamakas in the musician's memory.

On the other hand, theorists have long labored to notate this music as accurately as possible. Over the past four centuries they have proposed various solutions to the notation of gamakas , often using symbols attached to svara -letters. But the symbolized gamakas must first have been defined and distinguished from each other.

Writing in the early thirteenth century, Sarangadeva lists fifteen gamakas in his Sangita-ratnakara , the most important musical treatise of India's medieval period. Sarangadeva describes many of his gamakas in terms of their execution on the vina --the fretted plucked lute which has been an emblematic Indian instrument from ancient times. But so little is known now about the actual sound of this period's music that modern writers can only make free interpretations of Sarangadeva's definitions, discussing the ornaments in terms of modern music and the technique of the modern vina (Powers 1959:1/127-128).

A major advance in the written description of gamakas came in Somanatha's Raga-vibodha (1609). The famous fifth chapter of this work lists 23 symbols for use in vina notation. Somanatha describes the execution ( vadana-bheda ) of the corresponding ornaments, and he gives musical examples of 51 ragas in svara -letter notation. According to Harold Powers, "this section is the only example before modern times of any Indian music in notation sufficiently detailed to be interpreted at all" (ibid.:1/40).

In her study (1976) of this chapter of the Raga-vibodha , E. te Nijenhuis reproduces Somanatha's ornaments and musical examples in Western staff notation, and translates his detailed ornament descriptions (1976:2/64-67). Nijenhuis correlates some of Somanatha's gamakas with Sarangadeva's and with modern ornaments. (In a related effort, V. Ranganayaki has conducted an exhaustive comparison (1981) of the gamakas of the Raga-vibodha with earlier and later compilations of ornaments.)

Somanatha's 23 ornaments include a striking variety of sounds and musical events. Like Sarangadeva, he describes them in terms of vina technique; but this doesn't mean that the ornaments applied only to that instrument. "It would appear . . . that by Somanatha's time the vina had acquired a style of performance similar and comparable to that of the voice" (Ranganayaki 1981:232).

Subbarama Diksitar's Sangita-sampradaya-pradarsini (1904) is a treasury of compositions in the family tradition of its author's great-uncle, the saint-singer Muttusvamy Diksitar (1775-1835). In this work the younger Diksitar introduced a new threefold classification of ornaments. His grouping was taken up by later writers, and it will be the central feature in the discussion of violin technique here. The three classes are: slides ( jaru or ullasita ), deflections ( gamaka ), and fingered stresses ( janta ). (Note that the more specific meaning of gamaka here should not be confused with its use as a general term for all ornamentation.)

According to Ranganayaki, Diksitar's work attempted to reconcile the 15 gamakas of the written theoretical tradition with ten from the oral tradition. That is, he lists 15 but assigns symbols to only ten (Ranganayaki 1981:345).

Mrs. S. Vidya further describes this set of ten ornaments in an article on gamaka symbols in notation (Vidya 1943). Seven of the ornaments appear yet again, with symbols, in a collection by C. S. Ayyar (1955) of compositions by Tyagaraja (the most famous Carnatic saint-singer, 1767-1847). The preface of this work discusses violin technique in some detail and will be referenced below.

In his dissertation on the South Indian tradition (1959) Harold Powers analyzes the melodic functions of a similar set of ten ornaments, using the threefold grouping first described by Subbarama Diksitar.

Powers divides the slides ( jaru ) into functional and stylistic types. The functional slide connects two significant pitch areas in a phrase, while the stylistic slide involves a single significant pitch--as in the attack of an initial note, or the release of a final note. He divides the deflections ( gamaka ) into three types: those which serve to prolong a note, those which contribute to melodic movement, and those which are specific to the technique of a particular instrument. The fingered ornaments ( janta ) he describes as stresses which emphasize relatively stable, stationary tones (Powers 1959:1/chap.7).

In her dissertation, V. Ranganayaki discusses ten ornaments known in the oral as opposed to the literary tradition (1981:343). She identifies three types as most important: jaru (slides), gamaka (shakes), and ravai or brika (turns and mordents). Her third type exemplifies Diksitar's fingered stresses, so these represent the same three classes described above.

Finally, in his ground-breaking work Raga Alapana in South Indian Music (1974), T. Viswanathan presents a similar list of ten ornaments with examples of each in svara -letter form. His list is a distillation of the earlier writers' gamaka s together with Viswanathan's own knowledge as a preeminent performer and scholar, and these ten are treated here as the established modern ornaments (Viswanathan 1974:1/152-153). Table 1 presents them, grouped for analysis by the author into the three broad classes.

As Nijenhuis points out, many of these modern gamakas can be correlated with ornaments in the Raga-vibodha (Nijenhuis 1976:1/2-3). And three of them (one from each of the three main groups: ullasita , a slide; kampita , a deflection; and sphurita , a stress) are found even in the thirteenth-century Sangita-ratnakara . So there emerges a line of continuity through 700 years of theoretical writings--not just for these three specific gamakas , but also for the types which they represent.





Irakka-jaru - descending slide

Etra-jaru - ascending slide


Nokku - stress from above on successive (non-repeated) tones

Odukkal - stress from below on successive (non-repeated) tones

Kampita - oscillation

Orikai - momentary flick, at the end of the main tone, to a higher tone

(Fingered Stresses)

Ravai - turn from above

Sphurita - stress from below on repeated tones

Pratyahata - stress from above on repeated tones

Khandippu - sharp dynamic accent

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