In Hindustani (North Indian) classical music, students begin their study of ragas by learning to sing fixed raga compositions called bandish. There are many well-known bandish in each raga. A good bandish paints a brief yet effective outline of a raga’s melody. So, it can be used not just as a learning exercise by students, but also as part of a raga performance. Artists improvise on and flesh out these compositions to create something unique and original.
Bandish (“a composition bound by the rules of raga, rhythm, and verse”) is a generic name for raga compositions, but different kinds of raga compositions also go by more specific names. Compositions in different genres within Hindustani classical music are quite different in terms of style of presentation, subject matter, and treatment of raga and rhythm (taal), but even within the same genre, there are several types of compositions. This page introduces a few types of compositions used in some of the main genres of Hindustani classical and semi-classical music.
The most prevalent genre of Hindustani classical music today is Khayal. The genre derives its name from the type of composition it uses, which are called khayal (“imagination”). Khayal compositions can have two or more stanzas, although they typically have two. The first stanza is called sthayi (refrain) and the subsequent stanzas are called antara (variation). Compositions are classified by tempo into vilambit (slow), madhyalaya (medium-paced), and drut (fast).
Vilambit khayal start out at extremely slow tempos, averaging around 30 beats per minute, but gradually gather pace during the course of the performance. They are typically set to the 12-beat rhythm cycle Ektaal, although other rhythm cycles are also seen.
Vilambit khayal are performed during the first part of a Khayal performance and form the bulk of it. For instance, in a hour-long performance, up to 40 minutes may be devoted to performing and improvising on a vilambit khayal. For this reason, these compositions are also called bada khayal (big khayal).
Madhyalaya bandish can be performed at tempos ranging from 60 to 120 bpm on average and are frequently set to the 10-beat rhythm cycle Jhaptaal. Sometimes artists substitute a madhyalaya bandish for a vilambit khayal or a drut khayal in a performance.
Drut khayal are performed at tempos of 150 bpm and higher and are often set to the 16-beat rhythm cycle Teentaal. Again, other rhythm cycles are also quite common.
One or two drut khayal are presented during the second part of the performance, typically for shorter durations. For this reason, they are also called chota khayal (small khayal).
Below is an example of a Khayal performance featuring a madhyalaya bandish and a drut khayal in Raag Durga.
In addition to the khayal compositions, a playful composition called tarana may also be presented at the end of a Khayal performance. A tarana is a fast-paced composition that uses wordless syllable clusters like dhim, tana, nom, tadare, tadani, tom, tanom, and so on for lyrics. These syllables are loosely based on the sounds of a mridangam or pakhavaj (precursors of the tabla). They are strung together in pleasing ways and set to melody following the rules of raga and rhythm.
Dhrupad was the predominant genre of Hindustani classical music until the mid-18th century or so. After this time, it increasingly morphed into Khayal, but the original Dhrupad style has been enjoying somewhat of a revival in recent years.
Dhrupad takes its name from the main type of composition it uses — dhrupad (“fixed verse” or “pillar”). Classical music in India originated with the Vedas, and Dhrupad is very much an extension of this tradition. Dhrupad compositions, therefore, are often religious in nature.
The style of presentation of a Dhrupad performance is solemn and serious. There is a great deal of emphasis on maintaining purity of raga, rhythm, and literature (lyrics). The ornaments used are very heavy and rendered with precision and deliberation. The instruments that accompany Dhrupad performances (like the pakhavaj and rudra veena) are deeply resonant and bass-heavy. Singers trained in the Dhrupad tradition develop sonorous voices that can match up to these instruments.
Early dhrupads typically had four stanzas — asthayi (constant, i.e., a refrain), antara (variation), sanchari (progression), and abhog (satiety, i.e., culmination) — but with time, it became more common to have only the first two. Dhrupad compositions are also classified by tempo into vilambit (slow), madhyalaya (medium-paced), and drut (fast).
Most dhrupad are set to Chautaal (a 12-beat rhythm cycle), but some medium-paced and fast dhrupad are set to Sultaal (a 10-beat rhythm cycle) or Tivrataal (a 7-beat rhythm cycle).
Another type of composition in the Dhrupad genre is dhamar (which may come from the word for “frolic” or “merriment”). In contrast to dhrupad, which are very serious, dhamar are romantic folk compositions on the theme of Krishna and Radha playing Holi that were adapted to the style of Dhrupad. They are set to the 14-beat Dhamar-taal rhythm cycle and have a lighter presentation style than dhrupad compositions. A dhamar is usually presented at the end of a Dhrupad performance.
Indian classical music has always been open to inspiration from other forms of music, and classically trained musicians through the ages have embraced folk music forms and put them through the rigors of classical music. In the process, they have simultaneously elevated the folk traditions and enriched the classical repertoire.
Thumri and Tappa are examples of folk music forms that have been absorbed into the classical tradition. Though treated with just as much finesse and creativity as classical compositions, they are classified as “semi-classical” for a few different reasons. For one thing, they are not generally performed as part of a Dhrupad or Khayal performance. For another, they mainly feature light ragas and are allowed to creatively stretch the rules of the raga and rhythm to some extent. They also use folk music ornaments that are not generally used in serious classical music.
Like Khayal, Thumri evolved in the Mughal courts as part of the secularization of Indian classical music. Where previously, classical music and dance in India were deeply rooted in religion, religious compositions and settings were increasingly replaced by secular compositions and settings.
Thumri, for instance, gained popularity in the 19th century as a genre of music performed by courtesans to entertain their clients. Words played an important role as vehicles for conveying meaning in thumri compositions, and melodic variations on those words with subtle inflections of the voice were used masterfully to express a myriad flirtatious or seductive nuances.
Though often looked down on because of their profession, Thumri singers were skilled artists who infused a great deal of expressiveness into classical music. This expressiveness is what makes Thumri so popular even today, though the era of courtesans is long gone. These days, thumri compositions include both romantic and devotional themes.
Light ragas such as Khamaj, Kafi, Bhairavi, Pilu, and Pahadi, and asymmetric rhythm cycles including Deepchandi, Addha, and Rupak are preferred for thumri, and artists are allowed to take some liberties with the rules of the raga to add charm to the performance.
Tappa is a semi-classical genre inspired by the folk music of Punjab, especially songs sung by camel riders in that region. It was first introduced to classical music in the 18th century and has since enjoyed varying degrees of popularity in different regions and at different times.
Tappa compositions are generally based on themes of love and separation and are popularly composed in light ragas that express these moods (Kafi, Khamaj, Jhinjhoti, Des, Bhairavi, and so on).
One of the distinct features of a Tappa presentation is the use of vigorously executed choppy taans. Taans are mathematical sequences of notes performed at rapid speeds. In a traditional taan, all the notes are of equal length, but in Tappa, the taans comprise notes of varying lengths, which gives them their trademark choppy effect.
Some Other Types of Compositions
The above sections presented some of the main types of compositions performed as part of the classical repertoire today. There are many others that are not regular features of classical performances but do make an appearance on special occasions or in special settings. Here is a small random selection.
Trivat and Chaturang
Trivat and chaturang are compositions that combine multiple styles of vocalization. A trivat is a combination of three styles, while a chaturang is a combination of four styles. The styles to choose from include meaningful lyrics, wordless syllables as in a tarana, sol-fa syllables (called sargam), and vocal recitation of pakhavaj compositions (padhant). All or several of these are combined together and set to melody following the rules of raga and rhythm.
A raagmala (“garland of ragas”) is a composition featuring multiple ragas. Every stanza, every line, or sometimes every phrase, may be set to a different raga. It is a playful type of composition and is performed once in a while as something a little different from the ordinary. Here is a performance of a raagmala by Malini Rajurkar.
Bamayna bandish (“ bandish with two meanings”) are compositions that appear to have regular lyrics with meaningful words, but the lyrics hide the notation of the composition. Each syllable of every word in the composition will begin with the sounds s, r, g, m, p, d, or n, to stand for the notes sa re ga ma pa dha ni. Here is a bamayna bandish by Pritam Bhattacharjee.
Hori are folk songs sung during the festival of Holi in Braj (the region surrounding Mathura, where Krishna is said to have grown up). Krishna playing Holi with Radha and the other young women of Braj is a widely celebrated theme in many forms of Indian art and literature. Hori songs adapted to the Dhrupad style are called dhamar, but in the Khayal style, they are simply called hori.
Other seasonal folk-inspired light classical compositions include saawan and jhoola, which are performed during the rainy season, and chaiti, which is performed during the month of chait (March) to celebrate the birth of Lord Rama.
Bhajan (“reverential song”) are songs sung as part of worship and often performed in a group. Bhajans often have simple melodies that can be easily sung by people without musical training. In more classical settings, a raga-based bhajan may be performed by a classically trained singer with melodic variations as in a classical performance, but it may also include a simple refrain that can be chanted in chorus by all the participants.
Ghazal (probably meaning “sweet talk” or “flirtation” in Arabic) are a genre of love poems originating in the Arab world. They mainly celebrate the pain and suffering of separation or rejection in love. This style of poetry was introduced to the Indian subcontinent by Sufi mystics in the 12th century. Ghazals in India and Pakistan are composed in Urdu and set to music frequently (but not always) based on ragas. When they are raga based, ghazals fall under the category of light or semi-classical music.
This essay is a part of a series of essays on Indian classical music. Below are the other essays in this series.
Chapter 1. An overview of Indian classical music
Chapter 2. Notes in an octave in Indian classical music
Chapter 3. What is a raga?
Chapter 4. Rhythm (taal) in Indian classical music
Chapter 5. Ornamentation in Indian classical music
Chapter 6. Notating Indian classical music
Chapter 7. Indian classical music compositions
Chapter 8. Improvisation in Indian classical music
Chapter 9. Understanding a raga performance
You can also visit the following links to enjoy real performances by renowned artists in some of the other beautiful ragas in Indian classical music while learning about raga structure, raga scales, raga families, as well as the time and moods associated with different ragas.
Originally published at https://raag-hindustani.com.