From Khayal gayaki's glorious past to its changing future, tracing the trajectory of this ancient form of classical music

The story of Khayal's origin meanders just like the interpretative practice it calls for. The art form is ailed by growing commercialisation and a decrease in innovation, but practitioners are hopeful that a new generation of musicians will expand its scope

Suryasarathi Bhattacharya August 30, 2020 11:09:55 IST
From Khayal gayaki's glorious past to its changing future, tracing the trajectory of this ancient form of classical music

Art forms are usually structured around two building blocks: the content, and the craft. Music is no exception to this — while the seven notes define the 'what' of it, the 'how' and 'why' are open to interpretation. Indian classical music, too, follows this principle. The seven elementary surs or notes (Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni) and their composite phrases can be presented in several permutations and combinations, which when governed by a set of constraints, form a raga.

It is through the interpretations of these seven notes that one understands the enormity and limitless, expansive nature of the art form. One definitive manifestation of this is the Khayal. Derived from the Arabic-Persian word 'khayal' (کهيال | ख्याल | khyāl, or खैआल | khaiʼāl), the name literally translates to 'imagination' or 'lyric'. It is rather poetic how the story of its origin meanders, just like the interpretative practice it calls for.



From Khayal gayakis glorious past to its changing future tracing the trajectory of this ancient form of classical music

The Origin of Music: Page from a Tutinama Manuscript by Basawan. The Iranian legend of the mythical bird the Mausiqar, which provides the seven notes that are said to comprise the origin of music, is the inspiration for this composition. Wikimedia Commons/The Cleveland Museum of Art

Khayal, in its present form, owes a lot to the older vocal genre Dhrupad, which was the prominent style sung in the courts of the Mughal emperors who were known to be connoisseurs of Hindustani classical music. It is for this reason that the origin of khayal music is often associated with the noted 13th-century Sufi poet and musician Amir Khusrau. There are also legends about the Sharqui sultans of Jaunpur, who apparently developed Khayal as we know it today, in the 15th century. However, many research scholars have deduced that much like the Indian system of classical music itself, Khayal too, developed as a form over the years, almost as a natural development from preexisting styles.

In Kumar Prasad Mukherji's book The Lost World of Hindustani Music (Penguin India, 2006), the eminent Indian musicologist and philosopher Thakur Jaidev Singh has been quoted saying: "the so-called khayal style of musical composition is only a natural development of sadharan geeti which used the exquisite features of all the styles. It is this sadharan geeti with the predominant use of Bhinna in it that became the khayal. There is definite proof that such styles of musical compositions have been in existence in Indian music at least from the seventh or eighth century AD. The sadharani style of composition with its generous and plentiful use of gamaks became our khayal composition. Khayal exploited all the famous features without bothering about their names — khatka, murki, meend, kamp, aandolan — everything was beautifully woven into its structure. When Amir Khusrau in the thirteenth century heard the ornate style, or rupak alapti, full of so many embellishments, he could not think of designating this music of creative imagination better than by the word khayal."

Of the relationship between the two styles — Khayal and Dhrupad — noted poet-critic and Sahitya Akademi-awardee Ashok Vajpeyi says that Khayal emerged in spite of the "very dominant and almost oppressive presence" of Dhrupad. He is of the opinion that this transition was very crucial to the development of Hindustani classical music. "If you were to ascribe classical and romantic as two terms, in a more generic way rather than descriptive, then Dhrupad was the classical and Khayal became the romantic," says Vajpeyi. Khayal tried to imbibe certain characteristics of Dhrupad, he adds. While the ragas, the bandishes etc remained the same, their renditions were different. Khayal thus emerged as a kind of romantic departure from the classical Dhrupad.

"Khayal became a genre of greater freedom as opposed to the more restrictive, grammarian structure of Dhrupad. It was not that Dhrupad did not have inventiveness, but comparatively, Khayal provided more scope for innovation, departure and deviations than Dhrupad," Vajpeyi explains.

With the passage of time, Khayal became a popular form of classical music, and its expansion continued. Apart from embodying different facets of expression from Dhrupad, it also borrowed elements from India's folk culture. Several folk forms, such as thumri, tappa, choola and khaiti, among others, were incorporated within the khayal repertoire. Many ragas such as Des, Jhinjhoti, Gara and Pilu have origins in India's folk music, and have been gradually moulded in the classical format. "This happened in the early 20th century. As the years passed, this 'taking from the folk' reduced until Kumar Gandharva came onto the scene, which is in the mid-1950s," Vajpeyi notes. He speaks of how Kumar Gandharva, after having recovered from a bout of tuberculosis, listened to folk musicians of the Malwa region and realised that a lot of ragas did indeed have folk roots. "He tried to rejuvenate those roots. Thus, a different kind of relationship began between Khayal and folk traditions."

From Khayal gayakis glorious past to its changing future tracing the trajectory of this ancient form of classical music

Raagmala miniature featuring Tansen, Adarang and Sadarang. Naimat Khan aka Sadarang and his nephew Adarang played a key role in popularising Hindustani classical music in the Mughal courts. Wikimedia Commons/Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania, Lawrence J Schoenberg Collection



Usually, a khayal performance or recital comprises the rendition of a particular raga in two styles — the bada khayal, followed by the chhota khayal. While the bada khayal is sung in a slow tempo or vilambit taal, the chhota khayal is presented in a fast tempo or drut taal. Sometimes, a rendition may also feature another component in the middle, performed at an intermediate tempo or madhya taal. In doing so, the performer uses a variety of embellishments, namely the taan (fast melodic figures), laykaari (rhythmic interplay), sargam (elaborations using the mnemonic pitch syllables sa-re-ga-ma), nom tom (rhythmic pulse created through the use of syllables like 'nom', 'tom' and 'ta-ra-na') etc. Even so, it is imperative the artiste maintains the basic essence of the raga.

Goa-based Hindustani vocalist Shashank Maktedar is a disciple of khayal gayaki maestro Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar, who is an exponent of three gharanas — Gwalior, Agra and Jaipur. Maktedar says it is essential for an artiste to understand the nuances of a raga when sung in the style of a certain music gharana. "Each gharana adds a certain flavour of its own in that rendition, making it even richer. For example, the Kamod, Chayanad and Hamir ragas are more colourful when sung in the Gwalior style. Bihag, Lalita Gouri and Chaitashree have a better feel when sung in the Jaipur style. The ragas of the Agra gharana such as Dhanasree, Jaunpuri, Ramkali, and Nat Bihag sound more pleasant in the Agra style as compared to the others," he points out. Having said that, Maktedar stresses that one must be instinctive, not calculative, while singing.

The outline of a khayal recital may be pre-decided, but what happens on stage — where the surs are, how the taans are going to be dealt with, which angs will be presented — is all determined in the moment. "If you feel a certain way sounds better, go for it; it has to come from within. On stage, never keep your mind shut. While singing a raga in the Gwalior style, you may use some bits from Agra, or while singing Agra you might use some taan patterns from Gwalior. After all, it is about the art of presenting a raga," Maktedar adds.

Though so much importance is placed on Khayal's spontaneity, the dedication and diligent practice needed to master it cannot be undermined or underestimated. Purnima Dhumale, a vocalist trained in the Agra gharana style and who is based out of Pune, compares Khayal to a tree. "Just as a tree doesn't grow in a day, Khayal can't happen in a moment. It takes time," she says, referring to both the imaginative skill of the artiste during a performance, as well as the ability of the audience to be receptive and appreciate it. "Khayal takes time to sink in, unlike other forms. Hence the audience also needs to be trained that way. Just like the artiste needs to do sadhana for the art, in the same way, the shrota or the listener also needs to have certain traits, such as concentration, patience etc. That’s why the audience of khayal gayaki is considered mature. Anyway, Khayal has always catered to a certain kind of audience; it has never been meant for the masses. That's why it is classical art," she says.



Over the years, there have been many khayal stalwarts who have left their mark on the Indian classical music scene because of their extraordinary command over the craft. Legends like Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Amir Khan, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Kishori Amonkar, Gangubai Hangal, Kumar Gandharva, Mallikarjuna Mansur are among a wide array of khayal vocalists who created a strong base of an intelligent and sophisticated audience, not just in India, but overseas as well. Reva Sethi, of Kala Sangam Bombay, talks about the days when auditoriums would be filled with attendees, eager to listen to these artists. "My foray into classical music happened only after I met my husband [Bobby Sethi, who founded Kala Sangam along with Ustad Amir Khan in 1973]. He would tell me, and later I have seen it myself: there would be concerts that began at around 9 PM, and would continue all night, ending only at the crack of dawn the next morning. The audience would just not move, and would keep demanding one raga after the other, and the artiste would joyfully oblige these requests... But today, so much has changed," Sethi says, reminiscing and lamenting in the same breath. "Where are such artistes anymore? Where are such audiences anymore?" she asks.

From Khayal gayakis glorious past to its changing future tracing the trajectory of this ancient form of classical music

Ustad Amir Khan at a concert. Image via Facebook

This brings us to the crisis ailing Hindustani classical music in India, and more specifically, the field of khayal gayaki. Not only have the number of khayal concerts in India greatly reduced over the years, but the duration of recitals has come down to a mere 30 or 45 minutes, as opposed to the elaborate performances of the past, which went on for at least three or four hours. Artiste-audience interaction is near absent, and the influence of corporates and event sponsors has gone from being financiers to having a say in the creative aspects of performances. Of note is the fact that renditions of ragas have become formulaic and lack the raw inventiveness that khayal gayaki was once known for.

Devina Dutt, writer, curator and one of the founding members of the Mumbai-based performing arts company, First Edition Arts (FEA), maintains that Khayal and its subtle beauty and aesthetic is better appreciated when it is presented in "elegant, minimal ways in intimate spaces". "There is market pressure to turn Indian classical music into something that is more of an entertainment product competing with everything else produced by big media. Naturally, sponsors will want events that guarantee them eyeballs with little regard for the quality, diversity and beauty of the music in keeping with its distinctive history and character," Dutt says. This is perhaps one of the reasons why the Indian classical music presented by artistes with integrity is "under threat today", as Dutt puts it.

"Big-ticket impresarios reduce playing time and presentation aesthetics because they are looking for mainstream cheers, which will then please their sponsors. Sensitive listeners are put off by concerts played to elicit loud claps, and many have started staying away from live concerts," Dutt points out. This has resulted in a monopolised system where organisers with a somewhat rudimentary understanding of the art, who are backed by big sponsors and corporate funding, get the bigger slice of the cake, while those who have a more traditional and artistic leaning have only crumbs to themselves.

A senior music connoisseur and performing arts organiser, who spoke to this writer on the condition of anonymity, revealed the new rules of the game when it comes to organising classical music concerts — notably, the more traditional khayal concerts. "Some of these commercial organisers book the calendars of most of the senior artistes for the entire year, spread across concerts in various parts of the country. The fee per concert is considerably low as compared to what those artistes usually charge. Now, when these organisers meet sponsors, they quickly get funding owing to the large names associated with the event, and the artists' repeated performances," the source says, adding that these "package deals" (for lack of a better term) are thus considered more commercially viable. At the same time, striking deals with the artistes and sponsors has become a gargantuan task for the traditional, single-concert music organisers.

"With so much commercialisation, the very integrity of the art form has now been compromised. What Khayal and khayal artistes used to be before, is not the same today. There are only very few artistes of real calibre performing currently. Somehow, the respect for both the art form and the artiste has diminished over the years," the organiser said.



Is Khayal then on the verge of being declared 'endangered'? Mumbai-based Hindustani classical vocalist and author Priya Purshothaman says in a world that is so fast-paced, for a Hindustani classical artiste it is somewhat of a challenge to perform something as expansive and demanding of listeners as Khayal. Bringing forth the artiste's point of view, she adds, "The overall challenges of being a musician today are also shaped by the dynamics of the Hindustani music ecosystem, which is very hierarchical. There is a dearth of support from people in different stages of their career. In that regard, musicians have to take their own path and find their ways through this."

Ashok Vajpeyi says that in a democracy or popular market economy, there has been a constant charge against the classical and more serious forms of literature, that they do not enjoy great popularity. "I believe, in the worst case, popularity cannot be the criteria on which you judge the quality or achievement of a work of art. Secondly, to say they are not popular is also saying like Bhimsen Joshi is not as popular as Lata Mangeshkar. But Joshi has his own huge audience," he says, adding that the same democracy which created this culture also provided opportunities to the arts to create "a more democratic and a more economically equitable audience". "If one looks at the people who are listening to Indian classical music today, I think it is the largest in the history of classical music," Vajpeyi observes, taking into consideration the number of hits and views classical music videos get on audio and video streaming platforms like YouTube, Gaana and Spotify etc. And this is over and above those who go for live concerts.

What is the future of Khayal in India? "You cannot preserve Indian classical music without performing it, you cannot preserve it by recording it, musicalising it etc. The liveliness, the energy can only be conserved when you continue performing it. Classical arts, by their nature, are very fragile; they perish the moment they are performed," Vajpeyi says. He further explains his stand by describing how during a dance performance, when a gesture or stance is shown, it disappears immediately; there is a sense of the ephemeral. For that moment, life and death are together. While forms like writing and painting survive the test of time, theatre, music and dance don't — they die the moment they are created.

"I think this anxiety of survival is only related to the question of whether there are enough individuals coming up who will be initiated into the form, who are willing to wait and train themselves well. But honestly, I for one, having watched and seen the scene for nearly 60 years now, do not feel there is any cause for despair," he says with confidence.

Dr Ranjani Ramachandran, Hindustani classical vocalist and assistant professor at the Sangit Bhavana, Visva Bharati, Santiniketan, says khayal singing is hugely dependent on a healthy and interactive dialogue with the audience, which is why it is important to create and develop serious platforms which are accessible. "At an age when access to music has become easy, the importance of live experience in a khayal performance which creates multiple points of conversation between the artiste, co-artistes and the audience, needs to be emphasised."

She says exposure to classical music and a greater intervention of Hindustani classical musicians in public institutions like music departments of universities and colleges across the country would help build up a sizable young audience and practitioners of the art form. "What is also equally important is the fact that institutions also need to create a space where artistes can come, pursue and disseminate their art in a conducive environment," she says.



Classical art forms, by virtue of their nature, tend to exist in niches. This, when coupled with society's inherent prejudices and biases, gives rise to elitism and an institutional hegemony, in terms of who can dictate the art form's future. It is important to address this aspect with respect to Khayal as well. Looking at the history of Hindustani music, it cannot be denied that its practitioners have come from a wide cross-section of society, including Muslim singers and composers, and women musicians from the courtesan communities, some of whom went on to be hailed as the torchbearers of khayal music in India. There have been numerous artistes, including greats like Bhimsen Joshi or Mallikarjun Mansoor, who came from economically underprivileged and non-musical families and made it on their own merit. Yet, there has been an apparent disparity, owing to caste politics. While Khayal and other forms of classical music largely remained the occupation of the upper castes, Dalits and adivasis emerged as flagbearers of folk music and musical arts which stemmed from their communities. Seldom has there been any interaction between the two.

From Khayal gayakis glorious past to its changing future tracing the trajectory of this ancient form of classical music

Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur. Images via Facebook

Could Khayal's future reckon with questions of what is considered classical and what is not, who sings the classical and who doesn't? A name long associated with revamping and re-imagining the scope and meaning of Carnatic music is TM Krishna, who "has been able to tie this narrative that goes beyond just presenting the traditional art form but also having a larger reason behind the role of music in society," says Purshothaman.

Krishna says a lot of his "unlearning" involved looking at music to understand its history, musicology, practice habits, which consequently led to political and sociological questions. "Once these avenues of inquiry began, it led to challenging Carnatic music's social, religious and political mooring. But soon enough I realised that this was not just about Carnatic music, it was about culture, habituations, social hierarchy, but most crucially aesthetic discrimination," he adds. "I began delving into art forms that belonged to diverse communities and tried immersing myself in their sound, movement and experience of beauty. This lead to collaborations and conversations between diverse art forms."

Purshothaman hopes Khayal too will find voices like Krishna's. "I think it’s very possible to be inclusive of more talks and more styles. I think this generation is bolder in trying out new things. Perhaps the previous generation was busier in preserving it and passing it down, the new generation definitely respects it and at the same time, is open to seeing how this music can go farther. Hopefully, it becomes a movement and more people participate."

Voicing similar hopes, Ranjani Ramachandran says, "Hindustani music, for me, is a dynamic and contemporary form because it does give space for individual expression. As a practitioner pedagogue of Hindustani classical music at Visva Bharati, I am engaging with a heterogeneous body of young practitioners from varied backgrounds of multiple religions and tribal communities, and looking beyond collaboration towards a system of co-learning. I am hopeful that this process of academic engagement will evolve new ownership for Hindustani music, beyond institutional and individual hegemony."

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