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Understanding song-text: A study of khayal compositions in Hindustani music

Understanding song-text: A study of khayal compositions in Hindustani music

(This research was funded by the Kolkata Centre for Creativity Arts Fellowship – Music. The research fellow is grateful to her mentor Aneesh Pradhan and her guru Shubha Mudgal for their invaluable guidance and direction).

*This paper does not use any honorific titles as prefixes to names.

Among the vocal forms that constitute a part of the Northern Indian art/classical music or Hindustani system, the identity and importance of the khayal has gained prominence since the 18th century.[1] Although the word khayal refers to a specific musical genre as well as the composition sung within the form, the composition may also be referred to as bandish, cheez/chiz or rachna. For the purpose of this paper, the term bandish has been used.

Bandish – structure and interpretation

The bandish is composed in a specific raag and taal, and consists primarily of the sthayi and the antara, which contain melodic contours and characteristic phrases of the raag. The first part or sthayi is established immediately after the aalaap or the free-flowing introductory melodic movement to the raag, and its mukhada or first line, is used as a refrain for musical elaboration. The antara is then sungand its last line connects back to the sthayi melodically and metrically.[2] Often, the antara also contains the pseudonym of the composer.

The words of the sthayi and antara are collectively known as the bol.[3] Bandish compositions are  usually written in dialects of Hindi like Brajbhasha and others spoken in the suburbs of Lucknow, Awadh and Varanasi.[4] They may also be in a mix of dialects/languages like Bhojpuri, Marwari and Dingal, while others may contain Khadi Boli, Punjabi and Urdu vocabulary.[5]

Predominantly, khayal sahitya or song-text reveal narrative themes associated with romance, devotion, myths, natural phenomena and interpersonal relationships. A brief review of the themes associated with romantic relationships suggests that a literal translation of many such compositions portrays perspectives that could be considered sexist and patriarchal, in terms of characters, attitudes and situations that may perpetuate gender stereotypes.[6] These compositions portray women as subordinate to men, and contain suggestions of men being involved in infidelity. The female protagonist experiences emotions of grief and sorrow, which may be expressed to a friend, stated as a monologue or to the vaggeyakara or creator of the composition.

Though, in some cases, she may confront him and question such behaviour, she is often portrayed as a woman pining for her lover, bereft of any reparation or closure. An example in raag Multani set to vilambit or slow-paced Teentaal, a taal having sixteen time-units or matras, is provided below:

का जानोरे अरे को लोगवा जो कुछ बीती हमरे मनपर पीरे

पियु परदेसवा संदेसवा ना पठाई अदारंग उनके गुन गावत धीरे[7]

Free translation:

Is there anyone who has any inkling of the pain my heart suffers? My beloved has been away and has sent no message for me. All I can do is to bide my time singing his praise.

One may presume that the word piyu suggests that the gender of the protagonist and the beloved in this bandish is female and male, respectively. This would imply that the image of a woman abandoned by and perpetually pining for her beloved could be reflective of the deep-rooted patriarchy in Indian society. Arguably, though, the presence of the word piyu may not necessarily mean that the protagonist is female. In other words, piyu could well be used between partners in same-sex love, lending an alternative interpretation to the bandish. The absence of any explanation with regard to the overt mention of specific gender in many compositions may lend a part of khayal repertoire to multiple interpretations. 

This paper acknowledges the fact that the khayal bandish is a composite structure that is based on an interplay between the raag, taal, and sahitya, and that the song-text is not necessarily restricted to its literal meaning. However, the fact that the grammar and structure of the raag is embedded in a seedform in these compositions and the latter have been passed down through generations, establishes adequately that they are a significant component in this tradition. Literary analyses of song-texts could throw light on various aspects that may have influenced vaggeyakaras who specialized in writing the sahitya along with composing the melody and not just the latter. This paper, therefore, seeks to study some examples of these compositions to understand the narrative themes that have been explored in the repertoire and to examine in particular if sexist or patriarchal perspectives have in fact shaped the sahitya.

Significance of the sahitya

There are diverse opinions about the role that sahitya plays in khayal compositions and in performance practice. Vocalist Sharadchandra Arolkar speaks of the importance of the composition in khayal gayaki, and its significance in musical elaboration, particularly in Gwalior gharana. He adds that the elaboration for each composition should be determined by the nature of the latter and not merely by following the rules of the raag. Thus, for Arolkar, the composition and its sahitya was significant, as it shapes the musical trajectory of the performance.[8] Vocalist, composer and author Neela Bhagwat endorses this statement, stating that lyrics were important in the khayal compositions of musicians Sadarang and Adarang.[9]

However, other scholars present alternative perspectives. Writing on the aesthetics of different vocal styles in Hindustani music, musicologist Vamanrao Deshpande states, “The word as is used in a musical composition (cheej) renounces its literary function and follows the laws of music. It submerges its identity in music… In this process, it defies the rules of pronunciation and adapts itself to what the music in question wants to get out of it.”[10] Similarly, ethnomusicologist Bonnie Wade writes, “The text of the khayal composition is treated more as a vehicle for the music rather than a meaningful entity to make definite effort towards understanding.” These opinions relegate the sahitya to a secondary position in performance practice. 

While endorsing the view that the grammar of the raag is of prime importance, vocalist Shubha Mudgal believes that the lyrics create sonic imagery that combines with melody and rhythm. She states, “Lyrics become a vehicle for exploring the raag, both phonetically and in the selection of specific words/phrases of the song-text for elaboration.”[11] Similarly, sharing his thoughts on the qualities of bandish poetry, scholar Matthew Rahaim believes that they are “infused with meter, assonance, and even rhyme”, and that they, therefore, “afford numerous vocal and poetic possibilities rather than a single straightforward ‘meaning’.”[12]

But, irrespective of these differing perspectives, it is clear that the song-text plays an integral part in khayal performance as is evident from the devices of musical elaboration that highlight the bol. Briefly, some of these devices are:

  • Bol-aalaap – a combination of the aalaap and the enunciation of the words of the sahitya
  • Bol-baant – a combination of the words and the rhythm
  • Bol-taan – a combination of words with melodic progressions in a fast tempo

This is not an exhaustive list and the above-mentioned devices may overlap with each other and differ in proportion, placement and impact.[13] More importantly, since these devices demonstrate adequately that the sahitya plays an integral role in performance practice, this paper also examines this aspect with the help of some recorded tracks.


A comprehensive study of the wide repertoire of raags and compositions accessible in multiple formats was not possible. Instead, this paper focuses on compositions in the raags Yaman, Yaman Kalyan and Bhairav, as these raags are conventionally employed to introduce various aspects of composition and elaboration in early stages of training. The repertoire in these raags is extensive and available in print sources that date back to the nineteenth century. Equally, performance practice in the context of these raags can be studied through recordings.

The major textual source that has been used as reference material for traditional compositions is the Kramik Pustak Malika, compiled by musicologist and music educationist V.N. Bhatkhande (1860-1936).[14] The repertoire contained in it was collected from professional musicians practising various vocal styles and reflects the body of knowledge that was existing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many of these compositions continue to be taught and performed today.

The works of recent composers have also been examined to understand continuity and change in the narrative themes presented in khayal bandish in contemporary times.

Furthermore, a selection of audio/video recordings of traditional bandish compositions (in Yaman and Bhairav) by artistes of different gharanas has been studied to understand the role of the sahitya in performance. Observations have been made with regard to the presentation of the song-text in performance, the use of words in elaboration, and any notable deviation from the source.

Evolution of khayal song-text

Khayal repertoire available today suggests that the narrative themes explored in compositions reflect patronage structures, existing social norms, family relations, gender perspectives, religious customs, and established aesthetic concepts pertaining to Indian arts. Kramik Pustak Malika does not contain compositions in the raags Yaman, Yaman Kalyan or Bhairav, which necessarily address all these themes. However, there are several instances of these in other raags contained in the same source.

Evidently, khayal as a genre accords immense importance to the listener. According to scholar-musician Ashok Da Ranade, “The audience is patron, participant, critic, inspirer, all rolled into one.”[15] The listener, therefore, may have had a significant influence on the text composed for khayal compositions. Most patrons were elite males, which may have been one of the reasons for prevalent patriarchal structures to have found place in traditional compositions.[16]  The inclusion of such perspectives is demonstrated in the following bandish composed in the raag Malkauns and set to madhyalaya or medium tempo Teentaal:

रंग रलियां करत सौतन के संग ना लीनि हमारी नेक खबर

हमसे आवत बद अनत बिलम रहे नित बालम केयही ढोंग[17]

Free translation:

My beloved has been away, enjoying the company of another woman, showing no concern for me. He is consistently uncaring towards me and delays his return indefinitely.

The above song-text suggests that bigamy or the prevalence of relationships between one man and more than one woman and the element of infidelity, were very much an accepted part of the extant social reality. 

Though khayal song-texts pertaining to romantic themes are often written about a woman expressing her emotions, traditional compositions have been predominantly written by men in the voice of a woman. Therefore, the composers’ perspectives about the manner in which they believed women would or should react, or how they may have wanted to portray women, made their way into the compositions. Speaking of thumri and khayal compositions, scholar Lalita du Perron says, “These are all courtesan genres, so lyrics (are) written by men, for men, to be sung by women, to portray women as they are seen by men.”[18]

Notably, though, despite the prevalence of overt patriarchal references in many compositions such as the one stated above, it may be noted that there are compositions in which women may not appear to conform with existing social mores and ideas of ‘correct’ or ‘respectable’ behaviour imposed on them. Although such examples may be observed infrequently, these compositions depict women as having agency, expressing their opinions and sexuality freely.

In this context, vocalist Rutuja Lad points to this composition in the raag Kafi Kanada and set to Teentaal:

सुख कर आयी पिया के संग

दौराई दौराई सब उन अंग

छूटे बाल मुख ऊपर आए 

धलती यह अखियाँ बिछुरि है माँग[19]

Free translation:

I have experienced pleasure with my beloved. My hair, tousled and in disarray lies across my face, my eyes droop with exhaustion and the parting in my hair is askew.

The obvious reference here is to the female protagonist’s experience of sexual intercourse with her partner.  

Apart from patriarchal references, patronage from feudal aristocracy has also impacted khayal sahitya. Thus, eulogies to kings or descriptions of events in their lives have been represented in compositions.[20] 

Specific paradigms and aesthetic ideas associated with Indian art have also found resonances in khayal. For instance, khayal has been influenced by the nayak-nayika bhed expounded in the Natyashastra, the oldest Indian treatise on dramaturgy, categorising the nayak and nayika, or male and female protagonists, respectively, according to their emotional state.[21] Author Pradeep Kumar Dixit shares a few examples of various nayikas commonly featured in khayal compositions as:

  • Dakshina (one who makes requests)
  • Virahotkanthita (one suffering in separation)
  • Abhisarika (one who goes to meet her beloved)
  • Vasakasajja (one who adorns herself for her beloved)
  • Khandita (one who is angry with her partner for being unfaithful)[22]

Scholar Katherine Schofield elaborates, “The human lovers of the nayak-nayika tradition were also frequently interpreted in devotional terms, and superimposed particularly on the love of Radha and Krishna.”[23]

Thus, a common narrative theme in khayal composition borrows from panghat leela in Krishna mythology. Panghat refers to the bank of the river, frequented by women, to fill water. In this theme, there may be descriptions of Krishna bullying and teasing women, and preventing them from completing their daily activities. Their reactions to such actions may be conveyed as complaints to Krishna’s mother, or pleas to Krishna himself.[24]

The literal translation of such compositions can be said to strongly indicate harassment or coercion of a kind. However, as stated by vocalist Shubha Mudgal, a metaphorical interpretation may indicate spiritual connotations of Krishna’s closeness with each of his devotees, a spiritual quest sought through the process of total surrender and the challenges one might face on this journey.[25] Additionally, the concept of Madhura Bhakti assigns a masculine identity to the supreme power, and considers all living beings as female.[26]

Apart from the Vaishnava tradition, the khayal genre was also impacted greatly by Sufism and its practices, thus demonstrating its syncretic basis.[27]

Classification of narrative themes

Broadly, narrative themes explored in the khayal compositions in Yaman, Yaman Kalyan and Bhairav contained in Bhatkhande’s compilation, can be categorised as follows:

  • Devotion/worship of a deity
  • Reverence for the guru
  • Introduction/description of the raag and music
  • Romance/love and interpersonal relationships
  • Advice on good behaviour or morality
  • Stories from mythology/religion

Compositions pertaining to the first and last themes may pertain to either Hindu or Islamic religious beliefs and practices.[28]

Compositions also refer to the guru-shishya or mentor-disciple relationship, highlighting the importance of the guru, for the knowledge and guidance that is imparted to the shishya.[29]

The  sahitya also finds mention of elements that form an integral part of the music-making process.[30]

Interpersonal relationships are described in khayal, the most common being romantic relationships. Apart from the key characters in the narrative, other individuals in this theme may be the mother, friend, mother-in-law, or sister-in-law, based on the situation described in the composition.[31]

Somecompositions also provide advice regarding individual etiquette and moral behaviour.[32]

The themes and examples mentioned here are pertaining to traditional repertoire. Many of these themes continue to be explored even in recent times.

Continuity and change

Modern composers have reiterated existing traditional themes as well as explored new themes.  The reasons for the continuity of traditional narrative themes have been articulated by some composers. Commenting on the choice of narrative themes for khayal sahitya, vocalist Prabha Atre, one of the senior-most representatives of Kirana gharana, believes that mythological figures like Krishna and Radha “provide a large base for human emotions – love, separation, union, etc. with which listeners can relate.”[33]

Harmonium player and composer Keshavchaitanya Kunte defines the narrative categories of his compositions as a way to inform the reader of the content of the sahitya. Examples include sangeet chintan, raas varnan, gopi ki yashoda se krishna ke baare mein shikayat, which resonate with traditional narrative themes.[34]

With regard to introducing new themes and perspectives to khayal compositions, Atre believes that the sahitya must adhere to specific themes and should not include what she terms as ‘modern subjects’.  According to her, “It is debatable how appropriate modern subjects like HIV or women’s liberation would be, for the song-text of a bandish. Similarly, it would also be difficult to take a patriotic theme for a bandish . . . To include modern subjects, in song-texts of classical music, there are limitations which need to be understood.”[35]  

Atre also believes that most khayal compositions are written in the female voice which may be unsuitable for male performers. An attempt to amend this is evident in her own compositions where she has shared alternate pronouns to indicate male and female protagonists.[36]

Earlier in this paper, mention had been made of possible alternative interpretations to texts associated with traditional narrative themes. Notably, this also applies to recent compositions.  To elucidate this, here is a composition by Ramashreya Jha ‘Ramrang’ in raag Yaman set to vilambit Ektaal:   

कजरा कैसे डारूँ एरी माई मेरे तो नैना झरे पिहरवा बिना

जानू ना केवन ऐगुन पिया रामरंग रूसे आये ना मंदरवा[37]

Free translation:

How shall I adorn myself with kohl, mother? I am in tears, saddened without my beloved. I do not know what there is about me that displeases him so that he does not come ever to my home.

The gender of the protagonist and the beloved in this bandish may be apparent, due to the words piharwa/piya and kajra being associated with men and women, respectively. Arguably, though, the association of the word kajra indicated above, may stem from a stereotypical image of women. In other words, kajra could well be used by men, and this could then lend an alternative interpretation to the bandish, one of same-sex love.

Significantly, despite the obvious continuity in narrative themes, there are other themes that may also be considered. For instance, the pathbreaking vocalist and composer Kumar Gandharva’s composition in raag Madhusurja set to Teentaal is in the voice of a mother goat on her way to get slaughtered, praying to the goddess to spare her life as her child is alone at home.[38]

A distinctly different theme in khayal sahitya was also explored by vocalist and composer Dinkar Kaikini in a composition in raag Bhairav, said to be inspired by Neil Armstrong’s moon landing.[39]

A final example, written on the topic of women uniting for a cause, is a composition by Neela Bhagwat, in raag Deshkar, set to Teentaal. This has been stated below with a translation as it contradicts the patriarchal perspective that is often seen in traditional compositions.

जागन की बेर भयी सहेलरियाँ

तपन लागे चित ना सहावे हम सब आवे एक बेर मिलने की बेर भयी[40]

Free translation:

It’s time to wake up my friends, the heart is burning and it can’t bear it anymore. Let us all meet and get together once. It’s time to be together.

Notably, despite the introduction of new themes as mentioned above, their circulation has been limited in the performance setting to the composers and their disciples.

Sahitya in performance

In the light of the fact that sahitya plays an integral role in performance practice, this paper proceeds to analyse two compositions in raag Yaman and one in Bhairav. The compositions have been examined to understand the manner in which the song-texts have been negotiated and the ways in which the compositions have been interpreted. As observed, the same song-text has been interpreted by each artist in different ways. But a conclusive statement regarding the choice of interpretation and presentation cannot be made due to lack of context and information regarding the time allotted for performance, the choice of raag and composition, the order of performance and the artist’s own thoughts and viewpoints.

The first example in raag Yaman, is set to madhyalaya Teentaal:

अरी येरी आली पिया बिन सखि कलना परत मोहे घरी पल जिन दिन

जब तें पिया परदेस गवन कीनो रतियां कटत मोहे तारे गिन गिन[41]

Free Translation:

Friend, I am saddened and without peace in the absence of my beloved. I feel restless with every passing minute. Since my beloved has left for another land, I have been spending each night counting stars, awaiting his return.  

Bhimsen Joshi – Kirana gharana (starts at 49:44)

The mukhada was established with slight variations and ‘ari’ was omitted in each repetition, leaving a gap in the seventh and eighth matras. After six iterations, the word ‘sakhi’ was introduced, anchoring the mukhada on the khaali. This addition added context for the listener, and established the sakhi as the person being addressed in the narrative. Melodic variations of ‘sakhi’ and ‘eri’ were extended and may be interpreted as different ways of the protagonist communicating with the sakhi – gently hinting, pondering or strongly expressing their emotions. ‘Eri’ was elaborated through bol taans, and ‘ek’ was added before ‘ghari pal chin’, a different interpretation from source. ‘Piya bin’ was rendered through behlava (ascending/descending through the scale), and ‘kal na parat mohe’ was extended as bol aalaap, exemplifying the meaning of being without peace. The mukhada was repeated with emphasis on ‘piya’, ‘sakhi’, ‘eri’. The phrase ‘piya pardes gavan keeno’ was extended through bol aalaap. ‘Ratiyaan katat mohe’ was repeated with bol taans highlighting the predicament of spending each night, followed by the remainder of the antara. The performance ended with a resounding tihai – a phrase that is sung or played thrice in order to approach the bandish or the sam.

Rajan and Sajan Mishra – Banaras gharana

The mukhada was established through multiple repetitions, sung individually and in unison. This section also featured the tabla solo. The word ‘ari’ was replaced by the word ‘sakhi’, which in some iterations was omitted, leaving a gap in the seventh and eighth matras of the taal. The mukhada was repeated with bol aalaap on the phrase ‘piya bin’, highlighting the lyrical meaning of being without the beloved. The mukhada was then delivered as a behlava anchored by the word ‘sakhi’. A melodic pattern closely tied to the taal followed, adding intensity to the emotion being conveyed. The phrase ‘kal na parat mohe’ was extended and became the anchor point for slow and fast paced taans. Based on the length of the taan, the lyrical phrase was compressed to accommodate the taal cycle. The antara was then delivered, with an extension of the eekar in ‘piya’ without completing the word. The aakaar of ‘piya’ was utilized to create different taans and bol taans at different speeds. The second line of the sthayi was sung to finish the bandish before starting the next composition.

Kishori Amonkar – Jaipur Atrauli gharana (starts at 22:22)

The rendition began at a slower pace in comparison to the other two performances. The text was interpreted differently from the source as the word ‘sakhi’ replaced the word ‘ari’ in the mukhada. The bandish was set to Addha taal – a 16 matra cycle to begin with, but later, the taal was changed to Teentaal. Variations included distinct melodic glides that were placed on the phrase ‘piya bin’, demonstrating different interpretations of the same lyrical phrase. Bol aalaap were executed on the phrases ‘eri’ and ‘piya bin’ leading to the mukhada. Taan patterns were delivered and broken periodically through glides. The phrase ‘sakhi kal na parat’ was placed as a link to the mukhada at ‘aali piya bin’ and the pace was increased. The performance ended with a simple tihai.

The second example is in raag Yaman, set to vilambit Jhumra, a taal having fourteen matras:

बनरे बलैंयां  लूंगी आज सुहाग की रात नवेला बरपाया

चंद्र बदन पर निपट की लोचन चमकत लरीयां

बना बनीके मुख तंबोल बीरी बनाय अनगिन दूंगी[42]

Free Translation:

May the evil eye be warded off on this wedding night with my young groom. The bride radiant like the moon wears glittering ornaments, as the young couple exchange folded betel leaves/paan with each other.

Kumar Gandharva

The mukhada was established with the repetition of the word ‘balaiyyan’. The word ‘banre’ was pronounced as ‘banoonre’. The phrase ‘banoo re balaiyyan’ was elaborated. The words ‘balaiyyan’ and ‘navela’ delivered through bol aalaap, added variation to the emotion being expressed. The words ‘banoon’ and ‘balaiyyan’ were sung with an emphasis on different syllables, highlighting phonetic qualities of the word. The antara was established, with bol aalaap on ‘nipat ki’, and the phrase ‘angin doongi’ was omitted. Variations on specific words ‘balaiyyan’, ‘loongi’ were delivered. The ookar of the word ‘banoon’ was extended for elaboration. Different melodic and rhythmic patterns were explored through bol baant, while retaining the lyrical meaning of the sthayi. Taan phrases were introduced, including faster paced bol taans on the word ‘balaiyyan’. The bandish ended with a tihai, leading to the next composition.

Sharadchandra Arolkar – Gwalior gharana

The recording was not accessible from the beginning of the performance, and was set to Tilwada, a taal having sixteen matras. The sthayi was established, and different melodic ideas were elaborated on with aalaaps. The word ‘balaiyyan’ was elaborated on in the bol aalaap which also featured words from the rest of the sthayi. Melodic jumps through aalaaps were executed. The phrase ‘suhaag ki raat’ was explored through bol aalaap. Slow-paced taan with gamaks or glides were delivered, with snippets of bol baant, and tihai patterns. The antara was established with minimal elaboration and the phrase ‘bana baneeke’ rendered as ‘banaye baneeko’ with the phrase ‘angin doongi’ omitted.

As is evident from the observations mentioned above, the same composition has been sung in different taals. This is an established practice, which depends on the training the artistes may have received.

The third example is in raag Bhairav, set to madhyalaya Teentaal:

जागो मोहन प्यारे साँवरी सूरत मोरे मन भावे सुंदर लाल हमारे

प्रात समै उठि भानूदय भयो ग्वाल बाल सब भूपत ठाड़े

दरसन के सब भूखे प्यासे उठियो नंद किशोरे[43]

Free translation:

The composition depicts Krishna being woken up in the morning. He is being cajoled and praised, as handsome and charming. He is being told that it is dawn and the sun has risen. Everybody from the cowherds to the kings are standing, eagerly waiting to see him.

See Also

Narayanrao Vyas – Gwalior gharana

The mukhada was established, with the addition of the word ‘tum’. The word ‘laal’ in the sthayi was replaced by the word ‘shyaam’. In the antara, the word ‘thade’ was replaced by ‘aave’, and the phrase ‘darshan ke sab bhooke pyaase’ was replaced by ‘tumre daras ke dware thade’. After repeating the sthayi and antara the word ‘pyaare’ was used for bol aalaaps, followed by bol baant of the sthayi. Elaborations were done through taan phrases. Bol aalaaps featured the words ‘jaago’, ‘mohan’ and ‘pyaare’ followed by taan phrases spanning the entire scale, and ending with bol baant. This was followed by taans and quick bol taan phrases on the aakaar of ‘pyaare’. The ending was crisp and did not have further elaboration.

Venkatesh Kumar – Gwalior and Kirana gharana

The word ‘tum’ was added at the end of the first iteration of the mukhada, a deviation from the text in the source. The phrase ‘tum jaago’ was elaborated through bol aalaap. The phrase ‘mohan pyaare’, along with the words of the mukhada were explored using bol baant. The second line of the sthayi had the addition of the word ‘hi’ after ‘mann’, and the word ‘laal’ was replaced by the word ‘shyaam’. The order of the words were changed, with repetitions of ‘jaago’, and ‘mohan pyaare’ to add variation, while retaining the lyrical meaning. Bol aalaaps with glides were used in the mukhada, bringing in a different mood to the narrative. This was followed by taan and sargam phrases. The antara was established and extended through aalaap. In the antara, the word ‘thade’ was replaced by ‘aave’, and the phrase ‘darshan ke sab bhooke pyaase’ was replaced by ‘tumre daras ko dware thade’. Sapat taans were delivered, followed by bol aalaap on ‘mohan pyaare’. The antara was revisited, with bol aalaaps, bol baant and taan. A tihai then ended the performance.


Khayal, a prominent genre of Hindustani vocal music, accords primary importance to the raag. There are differing opinions about the importance of the sahitya in the context of khayal, but it is evident that the song-texts of khayal compositions contain sonic value and expressive potential based on the lyrical content, both of which are explored as part of performance practice according to the performers’ predilections. 

Khayal compositions have been influenced by cultural, religious and political factors. Their lyrics can therefore offer perspectives on a wide spectrum of themes including mythology, societal practices and interpersonal relationships. Traditionally, khayal composers were predominantly men, who often composed the bandish in the voice of women, ostensibly expressing the latter’s thoughts and feelings, particularly in texts associated with romantic themes. Though the literal translation of some khayal song-texts demonstrate sexist or patriarchal perspectives, they are also open to multiple metaphorical interpretations. Such interpretations, along with the absence of an explanation by the composers themselves, suggest therefore, that it would be difficult to conclude that khayal song-texts in fact predominantly contain sexist or patriarchal perspectives. 

Most modern composers of khayal seem to have continued to address traditional themes, although there have been significant departures too. However, the circulation of compositions related to alternative themes seems restricted for the moment.

The performance analysis of khayal reveals the different ways in which the song-text was utilised and negotiated by different artistes. In some compositions, words of the mukhada were used for elaboration, and the rest of the song-text remained fairly unused after being established. Though sexist or patriarchal perspectives were observed in some song-texts, no significant changes were observed in the performance to suggest a different musical approach to specifically portray such perspectives. In performance, the technique and musical devices changed, along with alterations made to the text, but it did not change the context of the narrative.

It is evident from this study that khayal compositions even today are predominantly influenced by traditional themes, and the perspectives they contain have also remained largely unchanged.  Indeed, there have been few exceptions, but it remains to be seen whether khayal compositions in future will be written to largely showcase alternative narratives and new perspectives.  Additionally, only time will tell if these perspectives will remain restricted to new lyrical content or whether they will also be portrayed differently as part of performance practice through newer improvisatory devices.

[1] Katherine Butler Brown, “The Origins and Early Development of Khayal – a revisionist history.” in Hindustani Music Thirteenth to Twentieth Centuries, eds. Joep Bor, Nalini Delvoye, Jane Harvey (Manohar, 2010), p.159, [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 12 May 2021].

[2] Ashok Da Ranade, Music Context: A Concise Dictionary of Hindustani Music, first edition, (Promila and Co. Publishers, 2006), p.106-107.

[3] Ranade, Music Context, p.107

[4] Vamanrao Deshpande, Indian Musical Traditions: An aesthetic study of the Gharanas in Hindustani Music, second edition, (Popular Prakashan Bombay, 1987), p.114

[5] Sobhana Nayar, Bhatkhande’s contribution to music, (Popular Prakashan, 1989), p. 198

[6] Masequesmay, G.. “Sexism.” Encyclopedia Britannica.

[7] Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande, Hindustani Sangeet Paddhati Kramik Pustak Malika, Hindi edition, vol. 4, (Sangeet Sadan Prakashan, 2009), p.776. * There seems to be a printing mistake in the source for the words पीरे and धीरे in the sthayi and antara respectively. The words should read पीर and धीर 


[9] Interview with Neela Bhagwat held on 27 April 2021

[10] Deshpande, Indian Musical Traditions, p.26

[11] Interview with Shubha Mudgal held on 22nd August 2020

[12] Interview with Matthew Rahaim held on 4th February 2021

[13] Ranade, Music Context, p.108-109

[14] Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande, Hindustani Sangeet Paddhati Kramik Pustak Malika, part 2, hindi edition, (Sangeet Sadan Prakashan, 2009). For details about Bhatkhande’s endeavours in the propagation of Hindustani music, see Sobhana Nayar’s book Bhatkhande’s contribution to music.

[15] Ashok Da Ranade, On Music and Musicians of Hindoostan, first edition, (Promilla and Co., 1984), p.28

[16] Katherine Butler Schofield, in “15. Learning to Taste the Emotions: The Mughal Rasika”, eds. Orsini, Francesca, and Katherine Butler Schofield. Tellings and Texts: Music, Literature and Performance in North India. (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2015) p. 408 Web. <>.

[17] Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande, Hindustani Sangeet Paddhati Kramik Pustak Malika, part 3, hindi edition, (Sangeet Sadan Prakashan, 2009), p.715

[18] Interview with Lalita du Perron held on 5th July 2019

[19] Interview with Rutuja Lad held on 12 July 2020

[20] See Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande, Hindustani Sangeet Paddhati Kramik Pustak Malika part 4, p.229 for an illustration of this narrative theme.

[21] Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Natyashastra”. Encyclopedia Britannica, Accessed 21 February 2021

[22] Pradeep Kumar Dixit, Nayak-Nayika-Bhed aur Raag-Ragini-Vargikaran, (Bhartiya Vidya Prakashan, 2007), p. 130

[23] Schofield, “Learning to Taste the Emotions: The Mughal Rasika”, p. 421

[24] See Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande, Hindustani Sangeet Paddhati Kramik Pustak Malika part 2, p.28, for an illustration of this narrative theme.   

[25] Interview with Shubha Mudgal held on 22nd August 2020

[26] Johanna Bennett, “Bhakti Yoga: Understanding Bhakti Through Rasa Sentiment“, (LMU/LLS Theses and Dissertations, 2016) 780. 

[27] Allyn Miner, 14. “Raga in the Early Sixteenth Century In: Tellings and Texts: Music, Literature and Performance in North India” [online]. (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2015). Available on the Internet: <>. ISBN: 9782821876163. See also, Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande, Hindustani Sangeet Paddhati Kramik Pustak Malika part 2, p.201, for an illustration of this narrative theme.

[28] An example of this has been provided in the performance analysis. See footnote 43.

[29] See Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande, Hindustani Sangeet Paddhati Kramik Pustak Malika part 1, p.27, for an illustration of this narrative theme.

[30] See Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande, Hindustani Sangeet Paddhati Kramik Pustak Malika part 2, p.31, for an illustration of this narrative theme.

[31] An example of this has been provided in the performance analysis. See footnote 41

[32] See Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande, Hindustani Sangeet Paddhati Kramik Pustak Malika part 2, p.23, for an illustration of this narrative theme.

[33] Prabha Atre, Swaraanginee, Compilation of morning, afternoon and evening ragas; with letter notations, third edition, (B.R Rhythms, 2016), p.12. See p.195, for an illustration of this narrative theme.

[34] Keshavchaitanya Kunte, Raga Chaitanya: Part 1, first edition, (Amaltash books, 2020)

[35] Prabha Atre, Swaraanginee, Compositions in North Indian Semi-Classical and Light Music Thumri, Daadraa, Ghazal, Bhaktigeet and Marathi Ghazal, Bhaktigeet with Notation, Song-Text meaning and Audio CD, third edition, (B.R Rhythms, 2016), p.12. Contrary to Atre’s assertion that patriotic themes may not be suitable for khayal themes, a composition by scholar-musician and music educationist Shrikrishna Ratanjankar has been writtenon the theme of patriotism. See Shrikrishna Narayan Ratanjankar, Abhinav Geetmanjari, third edition, (Sanskar Prakashan, 1990), p.6 for this composition.  

[36] See Prabha Atre, Swaraanginee, Compilation of morning, afternoon and evening ragas; with letter notations, p.70, for an illustration of this composition.

[37] Ramashrey Ramrang Jha, Abhinav Geetanjali, part 4, fourth edition, (Sangeet Sadan Prakashan, 2011), p. 177

[38] See Kumar Gandharva, Anupragvilas, first edition, (Mauj Prakashan House, 1965), p.162, for this composition.


[40] Interview with Neela Bhagwat held on 27 April 2021

[41] Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande, Hindustani Sangeet Paddhati Kramik Pustak Malika part 2, hindi edition, (Sangeet Sadan Prakashan, 2009), p.35 – * There seems to be a printing mistake in the source for the words जिन दिन in the sthayi. The words should read छिन दिन।

[42] Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande, Hindustani Sangeet Paddhati Kramik Pustak Malika part 2, hindi edition, (Sangeet Sadan Prakashan, 2009), p.41.

[43] Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande, Hindustani Sangeet Paddhati Kramik Pustak Malika part 1, hindi edition, (Sangeet Karyalaya Hathras, 2013), p.38

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