Within the last couple hundred years, the ancient musical style of the Hindu temples and the Moghul courts has given birth to an even more creative, dynamic form of expression called khayal, which literally means ‘imagination’ in Urdu. If, like me, you go to India and find a teacher to learn harmonium and vocal, it is likely to be khayal that you begin to learn.
Khayal indeed can be a fantastic experience. The vocalist sings her heart out, expressing a particular sentiment (often love or devotion) by rendering a short poem (called the ‘bandish’) within the musical structure of a raga. The wide expanse of possibility to render this poem within the notes of the raga, and within the developing and changing rhythmic patterns, gives the artist plenty of space to play out his Hindustani Fantasy called khayal.
Like tantric yogis, khayal musicians weave together strands of technique, such as phrases of notes, syllables of the verse, and beats in the rhythm to create a unique and inevitably soulful composition. They move through sequences (the introductory alaap, the lower pitch and higher pitch phrases, etc.), giving just the right emphasis on each moment and carefully linking each vibration and feeling with the next. The result is like a ‘vinyasa flow’ of sound and feeling.
To the casual listener, khayal may sound like pure improvisation, as in Jazz. But to the experienced listener, the foundation of the rendering of the raga and rhythms are like the mass of iceberg underneath the surface of the water. The process of learning khayal, typically begins with extremely thorough training in the basics- establishing the voice, perfecting the notes, etc.
The student of khayal invests many, many, many hours of practice on perfecting the notes and microtones, feeling their vibration, understanding their nuance. Meanwhile, we learn to feel appreciate the masters more and more, to witness the weight of their mastery as if seeing the part of the iceberg beneath the water.
Here are a few samples of Kishori Amonkar, master of khayal. The first is a short clip of a live performance of a morning raga in middle tempo:
The second is a lovely daytime raga (also in ‘middle tempo’) with the bandish spelled out for us, and nice pictures:
The third is a live performance of a very famous evening raga (this one is in slow tempo) which is often taught to beginners, and when sung by a master makes my heart drink like a flower.