Gamaka has been defined by Sarngadeva and others as the ornamentation of a note by shaking it. But evidence from their works can be cited to show that the idea of gamaka is more extensive than the connotation of this definition; it has been used to convey the idea of beautifying a note not only by the shake but by any other means which seem to be efficient or adequate. For instance by the adjustment and control of the volume of a single note it can be made to assume different shades of colour, and these effects can be, and have been legitimately classed under the category of gamakas. […]
This complexity in the nature of gamakas, as used in vocal and instrumental music, has been noticed and exhaustively treated in Sanskrit treatises on music. They offer an abundance of material on this subject as well as on others. […]
Though the employment of gamaka in music is plain enough it is a long time before we come across the term gamaka in Sangita literature. Bharata does not use the word gamaka in his Natya Sastra. […]
Among authors who came after Bharata, Narada in his Sangita Makaranda and Matanga in his Brhaddesi mention gamakas though they do not enumerate any list of them or seek to define them. Along with the idea of gamaka, the expression ‘gamaka’ was perhaps being slowly evolved. Narada in dealing with alankaras says that he will describe 19 gamakas but their definitions are missing in the existing recension of his treatise. Matanga freely uses the term gamakas in the definition of ragas and gitis. As in so many other respects, he is the writer who gives the most important information on this subject between the time of Bharata and Sarngadeva. […]
The gamaka has come to occupy a vital place in our system of music. It is not simply a device to make melodic music tolerable, and it is not its function merely to beautify music. It determines the character of each raga1, and it is essential to note that the same variety of gamaka appears with different intensity in different ragas. The function of the same gamaka in different ragas varies subtly and establishes all the fine distinctions between kindred melodies by an insistence, which is delicate but withal emphatic, on the individuality of their constituent notes. The gamaka makes possible the employment of all the niceties in variation of the pitch of the notes used and is therefore of fundamental importance to our music. If the personality of any raga is to be understood it cannot be without appraising the values of the gamakas which constitute it.
Source: Ragas of Carnatic music by N S Ramachandran, University of Madras, 1938, CHAPTER V. Gamakas and the Embellishment of Song, pp. 112-158
Date Visited: 18 March 2022
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- The most concise definition of a raga may be that by Joep Bor: a tonal framework for composition and improvisation.