In India, Alankar or Alankara means ornaments or adornments. In the context of Indian classical music, the application of an alankar is essentially to embellish or enhance the inherent beauty of the genre. The earliest reference to the term Alankar has been found in Bharata’s Natyashastra written sometime between 200 BC and 200 AD. This treatise on dramaturgy mentions 33 types of Alankars. Subsequent musical treatises like Sharangdev’s Sangeet Ratnakar in the thirteenth century and Ahobal’s Sangeet Parijat in the seventeenth century mention 63 and 68 types of Alankars respectively.
The Shastras or ancient texts have categorized alankars into two broad groups – Varnalankar and Shabdalankar. The former comprised the varna based alankars of earlier times. The four Varnas, sthayi, arohi, avarohi, and sanchari were arrangements of notes in a particular sequence or four kinds of movements among notes. Sthayi refers to halting at a single note, arohi to an upward movement, avarohi to a downward movement and sanchari is a mixed (upward and downward) movement. This classification of alankars related to the structural aspect of a raga. The latter classification, Shabdalankar, comprised the aesthetic aspect. It referred to the sound production technique utilised by either the human voice or on an instrument. Shabdalankar had a wide connotation and would actually include everything that a performer wove both melodically and rhythmically outside the periphery of the fixed composition. In other words, all the extempore variations that a performer created during a performance within the raga and tala limits could be termed as alankar, because these variations embellished and enhanced the beauty of the raga, the tala and the composition.
But going by current performance practices, printed and audio material and the personal opinions of musicians and musicologists over the last 100 to 150 years, the definition and gamut of shabdalankars seems to have changed. Besides the raga, the tala and the bandish which are the fixed portions in a performance, the process of elaboration has been divided into several angas or stages. These stages comprise the alaap-vistaar , behelawa, bol-bant, sargams, taans, in vilambit laya and drut laya in case of khayal and Alaap, jod and gats in case of instrumental music. These may further vary from one gharana to another. Therefore, when we talk about alankars today, we specifically refer to embellishments to a swar or a note.
In Indian music and especially in raga sangeet, staccato or straight isolated notes are almost unheard of. In instrumental music too, with the exception of some instruments, the notes are never static either. Each note has some link with its preceding or succeeding note. It is this extra note or grace note that lays the foundation of all alankars. The shrutis or microtones that are so important in raga sangeet demand this ‘mobile’ nature of the swaras in Indian music.
In the Shastras, a grace note has been referred to as alankarik swar. When a group or cluster of notes embellishes another swar, they form the alankarik pad. The alankars in practice today and those that have been earmarked for this page include both types.
The alankars in common use today comprise Meend (varieties of glides linking two or more notes), Kan (grace note), Sparsh and Krintan (both dealing with grace notes - especially as applied in plucked stringed instruments), Andolan (a slow oscillation between adjacent notes and shrutis), Gamak (heavy forceful oscillations between adjacent and distant notes), Kampit (an oscillation or a vibrato on a single note), Gitkari or Khatka (cluster of notes embellishing a single note), Zamzama (addition of notes, with sharp gamaks) and Murki (a swift and subtle taan-like movement).
A word of caution from our gurus, however : the definitions provided are widely accepted but not sacrosanct. Interpretations other than the ones given may also exist and like so much else in Raga Sangeet, definitions and illustrations may also vary from gharana to gharana. Alankars other than the ones featured may exist - we have selected those that are unique and comprehensible and commonly used by practicing musicians. And finally, our gurus advise that many of these alankars are raga and form-specific (to a khayal, thumri, instrumental music etc.) and their wrong or excessive application may mar an entire rendition or performance.