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 devotional music, the sounds of birds and wildlife, and much more besides.
Singing is Indian music in its ‘purest’ form. Human music must surely have originated with the voice, and all Indian instruments look to it for inspiration – something that you can witness directly at a khayal concert. A main singer, who leads the group, will receive support from a sarangi, harmonium, or other vocalists (commonly their own senior students).
The supporting cast follow the melodic lead of the principal artist, imitating and reshaping their turns in real time. This gives group khayal melodies a characteristic thickness, as if arriving in ‘waves’. Rhythm comes from the tabla, and droning harmonic colour is provided by a tanpura.
Though the melody is the main focus, it will only make proper sense in the context of the other sounds. Lyrics are sparse, and it doesn’t matter too much if you don’t know what they mean – it’s just as interesting to guess at what mood they might be describing (you can even ask a fellow concertgoer for a real translation afterwards).
Many wish to see Indian classical music as a route past the individual ego in pursuit of the divine. But while khayal can certainly invoke these contemplative states, it involves decidedly worldly impulses too, with a longstanding penchant for showmanship, competition, and flamboyance.
This goes back a long way in the historical record – the rival Maharajas of the Mughal Empire liked to boast that their court had the most skilful, virtuosic musicians (read one such ‘tale of the tabla’ here: The Red Fort Kayda). And the musicians themselves have for generations sought to better each other’s accomplishments and technical tricks. So expect fireworks and rapid feats of melodic ingenuity, as well as perfectly-intoned sequences of long, slow tones.
The precise styles in play will depend on the musician’s gharana (regional stylistic lineage). Some, like the Patiala gharana, favour fast, intricate feats of melodic invention, and others, such as the Gwalior gharana, focus on how to draw the most from the main tune. And you may be more familiar with some of the shapes than you think – khayal exponents have long frequented Bollywood soundtracks and other filmi music, collectively reaching the ears of billions.
In a concert setting, khayal singers will work their way through a long raga, moving from a quick free time alap to rhythmic sections known as bada and chota (essentially, ‘slow’ and ‘fast’). They introduce a main melody that exemplifies the mood and shape of the raga, and then explore it in long-form, deftly interacting with the other musicians on stage along the way. The patient emotional unfolding give space to reflect on the music, or on life in general – any style named ‘imagination’ must at its core encourage subjective, deeply personal reactions.