Iconic Instruments

Quick intros to some of India’s most famous classical instruments and vocal styles – histories, heroes, myths, listening links, & more

What is Khayal vocal music? What happens at a Khayal concert?

Khayal translates from old Persian as ‘imagination’. A khayal concert is about finding freedom through the voice, showcasing dramatic, elastic improvisations that push at the outer edges of what you previously thought was possible. North India’s classical singers have an unparallelled command of high-register acrobatics, with an approach influenced by Vedic temple chanting, Islamic devotionalContinue reading “What is Khayal vocal music? What happens at a Khayal concert?”

The Sarangi: North India’s hundred-coloured strings

The smooth scratch of the sarangi, unique in its rich resonance, is among Indian classical’s most melodious sounds. Even the word ‘sarangi‘ has a syllabic roll to it – the term translates as ‘hundred-coloured instrument’, reflecting its vast emotional range. Carved from a hardwood block, it has three vibration chambers, each of which symbolises aContinue reading “The Sarangi: North India’s hundred-coloured strings”

How does the sitar work? What happens at a sitar concert?

The sitar’s many-stringed sparkle is world-famous. Most of the earth’s population have heard its sound at some point, long used to conjure an instant ‘essence of India’ for films, adverts, restaurants, and so forth. But on closer listen, the music is far more mysterious, full of overlapping drones and sweeping bends. The instrument’s mechanics areContinue reading “How does the sitar work? What happens at a sitar concert?”

The Carnatic violin: sliding strings of South India

Though the South Indian violin looks pretty much identical to its Western counterpart, their playing philosophies are worlds apart. For one thing, Carnatic classical violinists improvise most of their music on the spot, with no score or sheet music in sight. For another, they take a different approach to elaborating the notes themselves, focusing onContinue reading “The Carnatic violin: sliding strings of South India”

What should I expect from seeing a Carnatic singer?

Melody is king in Carnatic music – in South India, the singers reign supreme. Their fluid, instantly recognisable approach is now finding millions of new listeners through YouTube and Bollywood, but the home of the music remains the traditional kutcheri (concert). So if you go along to a vocal performance then what might you find there? CarnaticContinue reading “What should I expect from seeing a Carnatic singer?”


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