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Khyal is the modern genre of classical singing in North India; its name comes from an Arabic word meaning "imagination". Like all Indian classical music, khyal is modal, with a single melodic line and no harmonic parts. The modes are called raga, and each raga is a complicated framework of melodic rules.

Khyal bases itself on a repertoire of short songs (two to sixteen lines). The singer uses these as raw material for improvisation, accompanied by a set of two hand drums, the tabla, and usually a harmonium or bowed string instrument such as the sarangi, violin or dilruba playing off the singer's melody line. A typical khyal performance uses two songs, one slow (vilambit) and one fast (drut). The slow song, the bada khyal or great khyal, comprises most of the performance; the fast song (chote khyal, small khyal) is a used as a finale. The songs may or may not be preceded by improvised alap without drum accompaniment; alap is given much less room in khyal than in other forms of classical music in north India.

As the songs are short, and performances long (half an hour or more), the lyrics lose much of their importance. Improvisation is added to the songs in a number of ways: for example improvising new melodies to the words, using the syllables of the songs to improvise material (bolbant, boltaans), singins the names of the scale degrees - sa, re, ga, ma, pa, da and ni (sargam) - or simply intersperse phrases sung on the vowel A, akar taans. Now and then, the singer returns to the song, especially its first line, as a point of reference.


The history of khyal is closely tied to a system of Muslim family styles, or gharanas. About a dozen khyal gharanas are well-known, and were traditionally quite different. Each may have originated in a particular city or at a particular court, and each developed their own techniques and their own style based on what techniques they came to emphasise and their own take on raga.

With India united and royal courts abolished, and with modern communications and recording technology, stylistic borders have become blurred and many singers today have studied with teachers from more than one gharana. This used to be uncommon, and a few decades ago teachers used to forbid students to even hear other gharana singers perform, not allowing them to buy records or listen to the radio. Today, as always, a singer is expected to develop an individual style, albeit one that is demonstrably linked to tradition.

In recent years, the trend has been towards more extreme tempos in khyal. Instead of slow and fast (vilambit and drut), a performance may include ati-vilambit, vilambit, madhya, drut and ati-drut - that is, ultra-slow, medium speed and super-fast songs as well. Other song forms, often with nonsense syllables, such as taranas or tappas, can also be used to round off a khyal performance.

Another trend, lamented by many, is the demise of the bowed-string sarangi as an accompanying instrument. Today one more often hears the harmonium organ, which is relatively inflexible in that it cannot follow the singer's glissandi. The sarangi is on the remove because it is extremely difficult to play and because it has become associated with a lower-class prostitution milieu; in the absence of a violin tradition in North india, the harmonium was there to fill the gap. Experiments with simplified, fretted sarangi clones such as the dilruba have not become very popular.

Harmonium was for many years banned (!) on All-India Radio but is accepted today. Almost universally, though, bowed-string accompaniment is appreciated as more genuine.