Some words about Khyal

Perhaps the most popular of contemporary Hindustani vocal styles is the idiom known as "khyal." The word literally means "imagination," and the khyal form demands improvisational flexibility as well as careful attention to nuances of intonation, phrasing and rhythm. Paradoxically, it is less known to audiences in the West, who have learned to enjoy Indian instrumental music unhesitatingly -- and have even begun to absorb the intricacies of Dhrupad vocals. Music stores in India offer a wide selection of Khyal recordings, and performances are well attended.

Khyal is several hundred years old. Originating in the courts of the Moghul emperors as a less rigid alternative to the Dhrupad style, it has evolved into a remarkably flexible form that allows an artist's individuality considerable rein -- while remaining within the steady, inexorable flow of Indian tradition. Even within the past five decades the form has undergone metamorphoses, and the tradition of innovation continues. An artist is expected to develop an individual style (albeit one that is demonstrably connected to the tradition), and those performers who restrict themselves to mere imitation of their preceptors or of other famous musical personalities are firmly criticized for a lack of imagination.

Khyal texts draw freely from Hindu and Muslim poetic traditions, and are usually romantic or devotional -- or a combination of the two. Generally composed in the archaic Hindi dialect known as Brij Bhasha, khyal songs are also found in languages like Bhojpuri, Punjabi, Urdu, Rajasthani, Marathi and (occasionally) Sanskrit. Many songs have unclear wordings, and in some cases the texts have become completely garbled through multiple generations of oral transmission. However, the primary focus in a khyal performance is less on the textual or lyrical content of a song than on abstract musical values. Audiences respond with delight to nuances of ornamentation, to complex rhythmic improvisation, to intricate melodic patterns or to a vocalist's superb intonation.

Performances of khyal often start with a song in a very slow rhythmic cycle, perhaps of 10, 12, 14 or 16 beats; often the pulse is so slow that each beat is further subdivided -- for instance, a 12-beat cycle becoming one of 48. Each beat of the rhythm is marked by a specific stroke or combination of strokes on the tabla drums; by listening to their sound a singer can keep his or her place in improvisation. The tonal material of the raga gradually moves from a restricted melodic range to an extensive gamut; from a slow and relaxed pace to a quicker one. Improvisation is punctuated by the first few words of the song, which become a familiar melody leading up to the first beat of the rhythmic cycle. All extemporized melodic or rhythmic variations aim for this beat, and the gradual building of tension as it approaches is one of Hindustani music's great delights. Eventually the singer switches to a faster song in the same raga, displaying his or her virtuosity and command over the material. Some of the time a "tarana" is used to conclude -- these pieces are rhythmic in focus, and make use of nonsense syllables; they are thus in a sense analogous to scat singing in Jazz.

Fortunately, the music of great khyal singers (the proper generic noun is "khyaliya") is widely available on cassette, CD and lp. The following are some of the most highly regarded singers of this century; most are dead, but their music is easily obtainable, and their voices ring out with extraordinary conviction and passion. Other artists, like Bhimsen Joshi and Kishori Amonkar, are still performing and recording actively.

Contemporary performers include many musicians of great skill; some are regarded as "up-and-coming," while others are relatively senior performers who have only recently begun to attract critical attention. These include:

Warren Senders <WARVIJ@AOL.COM>

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