Gamaka, a guilty pleasure

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Carnatic music has much more to offer than just aesthetic and intellectual pleasure. It gives you a reason to be humble.

Let's say you're new to the Margazhi Arts season and you were to stumble into a concert auditorium in Chennai during December. You might encounter sights and sounds that you don't know what to make of. You may think that the central figure on the dais is trembling because the air-conditioning is too cold, or that he is experiencing sudden fits of rage, or that perhaps he has swallowed a siren.

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Rest your heart; he is just performing Carnatic music, in all its poruttam . And he is not trembling, raging or announcing a state of emergency. He is articulating gamaka s with his voice.

Gamaka s are basically oscillations that a musician adds to a musical note to make it more interesting, kind of like a caffè latte is just another cup of coffee until you top it off with a scoop of swirling cream. Gamaka s give the melody a tensile quality, a weighty gravitas.

Why this oscillation? Imagine it like this: all by itself in its house, a musical note (or svara , as you should call it if you want to earn the respect of octogenarian Chennaiites) gets lonely. Carnatic Svara s are sociable creatures that like to intermingle with their neighbours. So, a note will often drop in at the house of her adjacent note, pull her friend in to her place, and skip over back into the next house, back and forth. This amicability is what we Hortons hear as the oscillations of a note. The gamaka epitomises the sound of Carnatic music.

But for me, the gamaka is a violation. And therefore, the embodiment of a paradox. The paradox of being in love with something that is wrong. The paradox of a violation becoming the norm. The paradox of a beauty so beguiling that you will quaff its bittersweet nectar even if it's toxic. The paradox of the Dionysian and Apollonian in the same entity. The paradox of a guilty pleasure.

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Just FYI, a quick look at acoustic physics just so we're on the same page. The auditory continuum, being a continuum, contains infinite pitches (or srutis). For the sake of intelligibility, this infinite-sruti continuum is calibrated into discrete notes (or swaras). These notes, which are separated by specific intervals of specific acoustic wavelengths, generate pleasing sounds as opposed to the undifferentiated chaos of the continuum.

In Carnatic Music, there are seven basic notes, christened Shadja (Sa), Rishabha (Ri), Gaandhaara (Ga), Madhyama (Ma), Panchama (Pa), Dhaivata (Da), Nishaada (Ni) and the recurring Shadja. The Shadja and Panchama excepted, these notes have at least two varieties. The shadja is basically the patriarch of the octave, and all notes function under its immaculate aegis.

To make the continuum even further digestible, we deal in musical octaves. As you rise along the pitch continuum, you encounter pitches increasing in their hertz values, sure. But these pitches seem to be replicas of frequencies that preceded it. These replicas recur every 12 notes. Hence the 12-tone octave.

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A shake of a shade

The Sangīta Sampradāya Pradarśini, an early 20th-Century musical treatise penned by one Subbarama Dikshitulu, specifies up to 15 different fundamental types of tonal oscillation. The text, as translated into English in 2010, quotes a 17th-Century treatise to explain what a gamaka is: “When a svara occurs in one şruti, the gamaka makes it take the shade of another şruti.”

Now, if you think about it, there is an element of mischief bordering on falsehood in the very idea of the gamaka . And this in-your-face hypocrisy is enacted in broad daylight, the listener fully complicit in the deceit. You will hear a Carnatic musician intend a certain svara , which represents a specific auditory pitch position, and even pronounce it by name. But the actual tones intoned by the singer in the oscillation might contain not the faintest whiff of that specific auditory pitch position. If this not an example of a bald-faced lie, then I don't know what an egg pretending to be a brinjal looks like.

Sample this: the vocalist utters the svara syllable “Ga...” in the raaga called Todi. He intends to intone the 'saadhaarana' version of the svara , the 'minor third' in the occidental music system...

'By Tyagaraja! The 'Ga' here is intoned as 'Ri-Ma-Ri-Ma-Ri-Ma'. The oscillation gives the gaandhaara the shade of two completely different notes, the rishabha and the madhyama , and the original note is totally omitted. Show me the auditory frequency of the gaandhaara in that oscillation of 'Ga' and I will show you my Dark Mark.

A gamaka can completely alter, in the name of ornamentation, the innate flavour of a note. In many cases, a gamaka obliterates the uniqueness of two different svara s. Look at how in the contexts of two different raaga s, Aarabhi and Todi, the dhaivata and the nishaada become undifferentiated:

And I'll tell you why I feel this deserves to be decried by any rational person. A musical note is meant to have its own intrinsic flavour, an emotional identity derived from its relation to the anchoring tonic, the shadja . When a melody is constructed in such a way as to harness the inherent emotive potency of each svara , where does a musician get off polluting svara A with shades of svara s B, C or D and, what's more, pretending he only meant to deploy svara A in that context?

Melodic markers in the raaga story

Now, in fact, this is not such a monumental problem for most well-bred listeners (and I can just see all the rasika s in the kutcheri hall shaking their heads at me and glowering at my lonesome tirade all this while). Why? Because despite all the sanctity accorded to melodic notes (they have names. Names!) these melodic notes are not foremost factors in constituting the identity of a Carnatic raaga . In fact, raaga s that are considered quintessentially Carnatic – such as Atana, Todi, Bhairavi — happen to be based primarily on the gamaka s used in them as opposed to the permuted notes that constitute their genome (in a way, that is basically like saying a language is defined by a prescribed dialect and not its vocabulary; or even that the dialect is a more important part of the language's grammar than its vocabulary).

You will hear many a stalwart pooh-poohing ' Melakarta ' raagas, which are raaga s constructed from linear permutations of melodic notes. “I could be singing the Lathangi Melakarta one moment,” a friend of mine, who is also a professional Carnatic vocalist, was saying to me one evening at the Narada Gana Sabha canteen, “using a certain phraseology, and then move on to another Melakarta raaga — say, Simhendra Madhyamam — and end up using the exact same phraseology.” He said this during an argument to prove that linear Melakarta raaga s do not possess as much depth as a phraseological 'heavy' raaga such as Atana, Varali, Todi or Bhairavi.

He's right in a way. The specific gamaka s, melodic patterns and phrases which define Bhairavi cannot be used interchangeably with Atana. And this inimitability makes such raaga s unique in their own right.

The gamaka s applied to a certain note can reveal its affiliation to a certain raaga and serve as an indication of the melodic motifs to come. Here is an example of how the gamaka s applied to the first three notes (Sa, Ri, Ga) of Shankarabharanam and Kalyani affirm the raaga without the crucial differentiating note (Ma) even having to come into play:

In Carnatic Music, the gamaka plays a crucial role in the identity and identifiability of a raaga . Why, it is considered to be the life-blood of the svara . In Carnatic music, the musical note doesn't merely exist. It is put to work. That is, it's not enough for a svara to just 'be itself' in all its inherent beauty. No, its value is gauged by how much it contributes to the form of the raaga . Without the unique oscillation the svara gets in accordance with its scalar and vector position in the melodic phrase, the svara can be said to have absconded on performing its musical function and, thereby, lost its very purpose as a marker in the melodic story of the raaga .

Carnatic music is the epitome of a cultivated or acquired taste. Its development in culture has been almost hegemonic. Its sanctity is embalmed in a forbiddingly complex grammar, preserved in the esoteric deference to heritage and tradition, and perpetuated through a controlled didactic method designed to ensure conformity. This process has been so formidable that it has enmeshed the abstract art form inextricably in its own rules. It has fused the art form with its 'flaws'. Which means you won't be able to enjoy it if you keep questioning it. Because stripping it of its 'flaws' would be to strip it of its essence.

And that is why we must take these 'illegal' oscillations along with Carnatic Music. If you give me lemonade, I can't swallow just the sugar and leave the lime-water behind. Gamaka s are dissolved in the very sound of Carnatic Music. To condemn the art form for its technical misnomers would be to throw away a million dollars just because the nose on Benjamin Franklin's watermark is skewed a little to the right.

And this is why sticking with Carnatic Music teaches you a thing or two about humility and acceptance. Ride roughshod with your rational mind, and your nagging conscience will prevent you from enjoying what is an honest-to-god enriching musical art form. But humble yourself before the innumerable mahaanubhaavulu (greats) who have innovated Carnatic Music to its present-day form, and you may have an empty stomach at the end of an entrancingly long kutcheri that makes you forget about food, and yet go back with with a sumptuous feeling of satiation.

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