Hindustani Khayal Music: A Sociocultural History

in Article
Published on: 15 June 2020

Aditi Deo

Aditi Deo is Assistant Professor in the Division of Humanities and Languages, School of Arts and Sciences, Ahmedabad University. She is an ethnomusicologist with research interests in the music of the Indian subcontinent, especially Hindustani Khayal music, Hindi film music and vernacular folk traditions.

Khayal is a preeminent music genre included in the broader category of Hindustani or North Indian classical music. Historically associated with royal courts and aristocratic patronage, over the past two centuries, it has emerged as a well-recognised concert form performed across the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent as well as on the international stage. In parallel, the genre—previously the domain of hereditary musician communities—has gradually been established as a field of study and profession open to aspirants from all social backgrounds and varied levels of training. These shifts in the contexts of khayal cannot be separated from the larger history of the Indian subcontinent. This essay traces the evolution of khayal as it intertwines with the history of India as a nation.

1. If popular narratives trace khayal’s origins to Vedic chants and folk music of antiquity, historians locate the development of khayal within the royal courts of Mughal emperors in medieval North India. Renowned as hotbeds for a wide range of Indo-Persian cultural forms, the courts offered patronage to diverse musicians and music genres. Interactions among these over the course of several centuries led to the genre’s crystallisation. Prominent among those that influenced this crystallisation through musical contributions and synthesis as well as patronage were musician-poet Amir Khusrow (thirteenth century AD), the Sharqui sultans of Jaunpur in the fifteenth century, and several Muslim and Indo-Persian musicians/qawwals, including Niyamat Khan Sadarang (seventeenth century AD). While scholars differ in their accounts of its early development, there is consensus that, by the seventeenth century, khayal was established as a form of court entertainment that drew upon both the religious qawwali and the secular cutkula. The first written reference to khayal is found in a text from this period. The form, however, continued to evolve over the eighteenth century with musicians incorporating features of the dhrupad style within it. It is in this period that khayal performance assumed a structure that bears resemblance to its presentation style today.

During this period, terminology in khayal was rooted in concepts that had a long history and a public presence. These concepts—such as swar, rag and tal—had been part of several influential Sanskrit and Persian musicological texts written since the eighth century. The concepts were (and are still) common to music genres across North and South India, e.g. dhrupad and carnatic music. In the Mughal courts, rag had been the subject of poetry and of commissioned artworks such as the ragamala series of miniature paintings. At the same time, the theoretical articulation of these concepts had only a nominal relationship to their interpretations in khayal practice of the eighteenth century. The genre had been primarily a practitioner's craft for at least the previous century, taught within hereditary Muslim musician communities and performed by master musicians—ustads—from such families.

2. The overarching political shift in India over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—the gradual consolidation of the British rule—had deep implications for khayal. Firstly, hereditary musician communities began to be restructured as the power dynamics shifted between the colonial government and various Indian rulers who were the key patrons for khayal (as well as other genres). Patronage to arts declined in several erstwhile royal courts and a few emerged as cultural centers, offering benefaction to musicians from across North India. Many master musicians travelled to these centers, striving to define their uniqueness in this new context.

A musical outcome of these changes was the rise, in the mid-nineteenth century, of khayal gharanas—distinctive styles of khayal performance. Gharanas—literally, family lineages—were a socio-musical feature that arose as Muslim hereditary professionals (in vocal as well as instrumental genres) responded to dwindling patronage and a competitive market. Historically, music was one of several crafts that was taught by master-practitioners and acquired through long-term apprenticeship. This pedagogic mode—referred to as the ustad-shagird relationship (in an Islamic context) or the guru-shishya parampara (in a Hindu context)—ensured the transmission of specialised performance knowledge from the master to the apprentice/disciple, including that of distinctive stylistic approaches, techniques and repertoires. As courtly patronage declined, Muslim musician families ensured their uniqueness for patrons by restricting this specialised knowledge within close-knit communities through the training of disciples and arranging of marriages within familial networks. Over a few generations, pedagogic practices, musical ideologies and compositional repertoires of particular musician families solidified into recognisable styles that were referred to as gharanas. These assumed acute significance as khayal gradually transformed into a concert genre, and practitioners travelled from one court to another and further to urban cultural centers. Even as the stylistic templates of gharana strengthened, by the late nineteenth century, gharana musicians had begun to teach students from outside the family, either from aristocratic or from professional musician families. In Maharashtra, many of these non-hereditary students were closely involved in sangeet natak or dance drama productions that were popular at the time.

In the nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, the notion of music gharanas came to represent the aesthetic approaches of iconic master-musicians. In khayal, gharanas are named after places—either the regions to which the originary musicians belonged or the courts where they flourished. For instance, the contemporary form of Agra gharana is understood to draw its stylistic features from the performance style of nineteenth-century vocalist Ghagge Khuda Baqsh, who was from a musician family from Agra. Other prominent khayal gharanas today are Gwalior, Kirana, Patiala and Jaipur-Atrauli.

3. Alongside these shifts in the culture and practice of khayal, the genre was also garnering the interest of researchers and cultural activists in India. Since the late 1700s, Indologist researchers studying the region's cultural past had begun to write about Indian music, primarily, its court and temple traditions. The first scholarly work on Indian music by the influential British scholar Sir William Jones relied largely on Sanskrit music theory texts and examined the concept of rag.[1] Over the next century, several works by British writers followed. Together, these works presented the traditions as subjects worthy of study, and an Indian counterpart to European classical music.

The attention from British scholars to these music genres was central to shaping cultural activism by Indian nationalists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Growing Indian nationalist sentiments in the political contexts of British colonial rule were influenced also by Indologist and modernist ideas. Activism in this period was inspired by an imagination of India as a modern nation-state with an ancient Hindu Brahminical past. Classical performance arts were pivotal to this project. Khayal, in particular, was growing in popularity, and musicians and patrons believed that it had the potential to be shaped into a classical performance art befitting the nascent nation. Historically, royalty, aristocracy and the wealthy had patronised it; now British writers had endorsed it. The music itself was canonical, structured around complex theoretical principles and linked to ancient texts. Several urban Hindu Brahmins assumed the role of cultural activists to frame khayal as a national music. Influencing their work was religious politics that was concerned with claiming the custodianship of khayal for educated Hindus, away from Muslim practitioners, thus elevating its social location, and the reinforcement of the music’s theoretical basis and historical origins.

4. Khayal activism in early twentieth century was ambitious in its scale, and succeeded in fundamentally transforming the social character of the music. Developments in khayal—retroactively identified as a period of its ‘reform’[2]—were fragmented, and initiated by individuals with varied goals. The activities were concentrated in urban centers and provincial capitals such as Mumbai, Pune, Calcutta, Lucknow and Baroda. They were personified most prominently in historical figures such as musicologists Sourindro Mohun Tagore (1840–1914) and Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande (1860–1936), and vocalist Vishnu Digambar Paluskar (1872–1931).

Reformist work was carried out in different parts of North India. Music schools and institutions were established as alternatives to the traditional master-disciple frameworks. New textual-theoretical works and compilations were published, resulting in the reorganisation of musical knowledge.[3] Several new compositions were created to substitute the previously erotic (shringar) emphasis in the lyrics with that of devotion (bhakti). With theoretical and spiritual associations, the music could be legitimised as a cultural form appropriate to be patronised and performed by members of socially respectable classes. Newer patronage structures and modes of performance—public concerts and music festivals, music circles, recording contracts, institutional teaching and radio broadcast—emerged. Patron and performer demographics shifted to include the urban middle and upper classes.

The institutionalisation of khayal pedagogy proved to be a catalyst for the shift in practitioner demographic as well as a locus of tension between Muslim ustads and Hindu cultural activists. Hereditary musicians, according to the activists, were illiterate, secretive and followed non-standardised—almost arbitrary—pedagogic practices. Such methods, they said, had led to disparities in musicological principles assumed by khayal singers and the unavailability of its training for students outside hereditary communities. Activists made efforts towards establishing music schools as alternatives to individualised methods, such as Paluskar’s Gandharva Sangeet Mahavidyalaya established in Lahore in 1901, and Bhatkhande’s music colleges in Baroda, Lucknow and Gwalior. A significant implication of relocating music pedagogy to these modern institutions was the opening up of khayal training for non-hereditary students from diverse backgrounds, also including girls and women from bourgeois families. The restructured khayal pedagogy in these institutions incorporated practices such as standardised curricula, notations, theoretical texts and specialised programmes to train music practitioners and teachers. In the early twentieth century, a generation of literate Hindus, trained as scholar-musicians in these newly established institutions, entered as a new category of music professionals alongside the Muslim ustads.

Even as music institutions grew in their reach, khayal ustads innovatively utilised the increased focus on the genre. Charismatic and authoritative, musicians such as Abdul Karim Khan (1872–1937), Faiyaz Khan (1880–1950) and Alladiya Khan (1855–1946) gained urban audiences through concerts and newly available sound recording technologies. Several gharana musicians, especially in Maharashtra, apprenticed Hindu non-hereditary musicians—both males and females—alongside disciples within families. Over the decades, many of these non-hereditary students—such as Sawai Gandharva (18861952), Kesarbai Kerkar (1892–1977), Mogubai Kurdikar (1904–2001)—came to be acclaimed as gharana representatives. Over the next century, knowledge transmitted through gharana pedagogy among both hereditary and non- hereditary musicians has come to be recognised as the authentic form of knowledge in khayal.

Almost absent from this narrative are hereditary female music specialists who performed genres that shared stylistic features as well as repertoire with khayal. Many of these were tawaifs—courtesans specialising in music, dance, poetry and theatre. The social contexts for performances by male and female musicians had overlapped considerably before the reform. Tawaifs interacted professionally with khayal ustads and other musicians, exchanging musical knowledge and also their repertoire of genres such as thumri, dadra, kajri, etc. This repertoire was adopted by several khayal ustads as part of their concerts. However, given the courtesans’ perceived associations with hedonistic lifestyles and promiscuity, they were regarded unacceptable as part of khayal’s story and were gradually written out of it.

The introduction at the beginning of the twentieth century of recording and broadcast technologies influenced khayal performance as well as its consumption by audiences. Khayal musicians were among the first Indian musicians to be recorded.[4] Recording formats—chiefly wax cylinders and phonograph discs—placed limitations on the length of the recordings, and as a corollary on the very form of the music. Musicians quickly learned to adapt, even innovate, their recorded performances to the demands of technology. While the practice of listening to recordings grew popular in the first two decades, it was not until the expansion of the radio broadcast industry in the 1930s that recorded music entered the urban middle-class household. For listeners, mass-mediated dissemination of khayal afforded an experience of recorded music that was comparable to extended live performances, shaping both listening practices and audience expectations.           

5. By 1947, the social dimensions of khayal music included traditional and institutional pedagogies, hereditary and non-hereditary musicianship, and live and recorded performance modes. As part of the post-independence project of nation building, the cultural domain was developed by the establishment of bodies such as Sangeet Natak Akademi (inaugurated in 1953), the state-owned All India Radio and, later, the national television broadcaster, Doordarshan. Such agencies have continued to support khayal music prominently, making it accessible to the public of the nation through concerts, recordings, music education, grants and fellowships, etc.

The second half of the twentieth century was also a period when khayal entered the global stage on several levels. On the one hand, beginning in the 1960s, instrumental artists such as Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan introduced Hindustani classical music genres to mainstream audiences in Europe and North America through concerts, collaborations with popular musicians and training of non-Indian disciples. On the other hand, the growing Indian diaspora implied transnational audiences, patrons and students for the classical form. By the end of the twentieth century, the possibilities of short- and long-term assignments outside India had opened even for lesser-known khayal musicians.

Simultaneously, technological shifts transformed khayal further during the post-independence period. The availability of cassettes since the 1970s and, later, of numerous digital formats/platforms presented musicians with opportunities to reach their audiences through small-scale productions, and to create longer recordings that were less restricted by the limitations of the medium. Listeners could utilise the ease of these new mediums by duplicating existing recordings and recording live concerts. In the last few decades, Internet technologies have facilitated not only the circulation of khayal recordings but also allowed musicians to interact and train students online.

6. Khayal’s status as a national classical tradition has only strengthened more than a century after the reform began. Established as a concert genre, an academic discipline and a mainstream vocation, khayal provides livelihood to music professionals of both genders—performers, teachers and scholars. The presence of khayal musicians, pedagogic institutions and cultural organisations has grown in most parts of the nation. Local music circles and appreciation societies of the early twentieth century have evolved into cultural organisations, such as the pan-Indian SPICMACAY. In the national arena, institutional support for khayal has widened beyond state patronage to include several multinational and national corporate firms as well as non-government organisations. Gharanas continue to enjoy a certain legitimacy, however, the orthodoxy has reduced considerably. Musicians have the freedom to experiment with different gharana styles and craft their individual approaches. Khayal vocalists trained through mentor-disciple lineages have achieved success as performers. Simultaneously, music schools and colleges that teach khayal have proliferated throughout northern India and beyond, training students and amateurs of varied competence.

Today, khayal is one of the foremost classical music performance forms in the nation. Dhrupad—the other vocal genre included in North Indian classical music—has a smaller and niche audience both nationally and internationally. Qawwali, historically an influence on khayal, maintains a primarily religious connotation. At the same time, these genres are only a small segment in the wider soundscape of India that is dominated largely by commercial film and popular music.


[1] Jones, William. On the Musical Modes of the Hindus: Written in 1784, and Since Much Enlarged... 1799.

[2] Kobayashi, Eriko. Hindustani cClassical mMusic rReform mMovement and the writing of history, 1900s to 1940s. Diss. 2003.

[3] Bhatkhande,Hindustani Sangeet Paddhati.

[4] Kinnear, Michael S. The Gramophone Company's First Indian Recordings, 1899-1908. Popular Prakashan, 1994.


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