Khayal literally means imagination, thought or fancy. Khayal is that vocal genre of all North Indian vocal styles which gives its performers the greatest opportunity and also the greatest challenge to display the depth and breadth of their musical knowledge and skills. Khayal has dominated the performing art for past 150 years. Khayal is the genre of improvisational music, and hence it is the study of artist’s creative individuality and ability to render a unique khayal at each performance. Despite the presumed freedom in khayal singing, it is structured upon three main characteristics: (i) the raga (melodic mode), the taal (meter) and the cheez (composition), (ii) the types of improvisation which are acceptable for khayal such as alap, taan, boltaan, sargam and nom-tom, and (iii) the placement of these material for creation of aesthetically and technically balanced performance. Khayal is not only a distinguished, richly evolved improvisational music genre, but also a study of cultural history of India since thirteenth century onwards.
Legend, scattered commentary, and speculations suggest that khayal originated with Amir Khusrau (1251-1326). Born in North India, Amir Khusrau was a poet as well as a composer and a great musician of his time. He enjoyed importance at the courts of the Khilji rulers in Delhi. Khayal’s origin may have been attributed to Khusrau because of the rapid fusion of Perso-Arabic and Indic musical systems during his lifetime. After Khusrau, the next prominent figures in the history of khayal are the sultans of Jaunpur – Muhammad Sharqui (1401-40) and Hussain Sharqui (ruled 1458-99), who were contemporaries of Babur, the first Mughal ruler in India. The precise role of the Sharqui sultans with respect to khayal is unclear; some scholars suggest a patronage role for them. Most historians are of the opinion that neither Amir Khusrau nor any of the Sharqui sultans was the innovator of khayal, but that khayal was an outcome of the gradual process of evolution that was at work during an era of Indo-Persian amalgamation.
For khayal, the first musical evidence of court support is noted at the Delhi darbar (court) of the eighteenth century Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah Rangile (ruled 1720-48), where the musicians Nyamat Khan (Sadarang) and Firoz Khan (Adarang) composed songs that have been transmitted to the present time. It is believed that Sadarang and Adarang also formalized the structure of modern day khayal. As khayal continued to evolve in the courts throughout North India, distinct performing styles emerged into different gharanas. Three major khayal gharanas carrying the names of the princely states in which they were originally fostered, are Gwalior, Rampur (Sahaswan) and Patiala. Later Agra, Kirana and Jaipur gharanas also became prominent centers of khayal singing. Today this style of classical vocal music is even adopted by some of the instrumental gharanas such as Ithawa. Throughout most of its existence khayal has always been the music of elite patrons. Only in the twentieth century has any other group attained significant involvement in khayal.
The rendition of a khayal recital is typically divided into two parts: Bara (great) khayal and Chhota (small) khayal. During bara khayal, the artist is expected to cover a range of subjects, ideally giving importance to all musical elements such as melody, rhythm and technique, with a slow and contemplative beginning to invoke the very mood of the raga. The lyrical as well as melodic content of bara khayal compositions are devotional or romantic, and they are set in vilambit laya (slow tempo). Bara khayal is followed by a madhya or drut laya (fast tempo) in chhota khayal. Here the artist carries the mood created during the earlier part of the recital to its crescendo. The acceleration is maintained during the performance with increasing complexity of taans and interplay with rhythm. The compositions written for chhota khayal have syllabic text settings appropriate for the faster tempo. The performing ensemble for khayal consists of a lead soloist, an accompanist on a melody producing instrument such as harmonium or sarangi (bowed lute), a tabla (drum) player and one or two tanpura players to provide continuous drone. A possible addition to the basic ensemble would be a supporting singer. The role of the accompanists is to complement the lead vocals by repeating ends of phrases during short breaks.
The other forms of Indian classical vocal music include dhrupad, dhamar, tappa, tarana, thumri, hori and bhajan. Of all, dhrupad is considered to be the oldest classical vocal form. It is generally accompanied by tanpura and pakhawaj. Dhrupad compositions are set in a 12 beat rhythmic cycle. Dhamar compositions are akin to dhrupad and enjoy an identical status. They are set in a 14 beat rhythmic cycle. Because of their structured style of singing, both dhrupad and dhamar do not allow as many elaborate and extempore improvisations as khayal. Tarana is a style consisting of particular syllables woven into rhythmic patterns as a song and it is usually sung in the faster tempo. The creation of this style of singing is believed to have originated to bring out the tantrakari, or the discreteness of instrumental music, in vocal music. Tappa has its origin in Punjab. Its beauty lies in quick and intricate display of permutations of notes. Thumri is believed to have originated in Uttar Pradesh. It is the lighter form of Indian classical music. Its most distinct feature is the amorous subject matter that picturesquely portrays the play of Lord Krishna with Radha. It can be viewed as an unconstrained form of khayal singing. Hori compositions are mainly sung in the style of thumri and are associated with the festival of hori (the festival of colors). The mood is joyous and playful, illustrating the divine leela of Lord Krishna. Bhajan literally means pray (bhaj) the lord (narayan). Bhajans are devotional songs based on light classical music. It is a popular form of singing today.