Asian Music and Dance

Khayāl and Thūmri – Part 5

In the last issue, we discussed the Dhrūpad tradition, which, among the forms of Hindustani music practised today, is seen to be more ancient.  Indian music is very rich in song forms and within its classical genres, Khayāl and Thūmri have been the leading styles for about a century and a half.

Khayāl and Thūmri both predominantly convey the message and feelings of love, be it in the worldly sense or its mystical connotation of the yearning of the soul for the divine.


Khayāl has its origins in its precursor, Dhrūpad, however it represents a move towards a more improvised form. The word Khayāl literally means ‘imagination’ and has its roots in the Persian language. It is the imagination of the composer encapsulated within the Bandish (song) that the vocalist tries to elaborate and bring out.  Compared to its precursor, Dhrūpad, Khayāl does not indulge in the introductory Alāp as much but interweaves the elaboration of the Rāga using the Bandish as its springboard and its main idea. 

The prominence of the Bandish in Khayāl cannot be ignored. A Bandish is a concrete manifestation or realisation of the Rāga and a stepping-stone towards its unfolding. The initial plot guides the elaboration of the Rāga in Khayāl singing where the composed and the improvised both constantly interact with each other.

Though the language used in Khayāl songs can be from any region of North India, it is Braj, a dialect of Hindi spoken in and around Agra and Mathura, which is the most prominent.  This language seems to be ideally suited for emotive expression due to its liquid nature and use of longer vowel sounds.

The Bandish in Khayāl is normally split into the Sthāyee, or first part, and the Antrā, or second part. The musician, through the use of devices like Bānt and BolBānt (rhythmic manipulation of lyrics), Bhailāvā (improvisations making use of meend, the smooth transition between notes) and a variety of different kinds of elaborations called Tāns, expands the Bandish.  This creates the unique sound of the Khayāl vocal form. To an outsider, the first impression of listening to Khayāl suggests a more Persian/Middle Eastern overtone due to the prominent use of Aakār or very long and virtuosic improvisations using the ā vowel.  

A typical stage setting for the Khayāl form has the main vocalist at the centre with tānpura drone, melodic accompaniment provided by the sarangi (a bowed instrument) and/or harmonium and percussive accompaniment by tabla.  It is noteworthy that Dhrūpad will be performed with the accompaniment of the low, mellow tones of the single-barrelled pakhāwaj drum.The typical Tālas used in Khayāl are slow Ektāl (12 beats), Teentāl (16), Jhoomrā (14), Tilwādā (16) and faster Teentāl (16), Ektāl (12) and Jhaptāl (10).

A unique feature of the Khayāl style of singing is its many Gharānās or styles.  The Gharānā denotes a lineage of hereditary musicians, their disciples and the particular musical style they represent.  The Gharānās take their names from the city of their patronage and the most prominent are Gwalior, Agra-Atrauli, Jaipur, Rampur-Sahaswan, Kirana, Delhi, Benaras and Patiala.  These Gharānās vary significantly due to the differences in voice production, choice of Rāgas and Tālas and emphasis on ornamentation.

Instrumentalists also play in the style of Khayāl by elaborating upon the Rāga in the same way with a stronger emphasis on gradual expansion and the use of faster Tāns (improvisations). This kind of performance would be termed as Khayālang.  

Legendary Khayāl artists include Ustad Fayaz Khan of the Agra Gharānā, Ustad Abdul Kareem Khan of the Kirana Gharānā, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan of the Patiala Gharānā, Kesarbhai Kerkar of the Jaipur Gharānā and Pandit D.V. Paluskar of the Gwalior Gharānā.

Leading exponents of Khayāl today include Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Pandit Jasraj, Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar, Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty, Ustad Rashid Khan, Srimati Kishori Amonkar, Begum Parween Sultana and many others.


Thūmri, though similar to Khayāl, is classified as a semi-classical form. It places greater emphasis on text and is more expressive and romantic. The word Thūmri comes from the word Thūmuk, which means graceful gait, suggesting a lilt, which gives Thūmri its special appeal.  It seems that the roots of this song form are in Baithki, a sitting down dance form involving singing, facial expression and hand gestures.  Generally, Thūmri songs evoke the shringāra (romantic) rasa and karūnā (longing) rasa (see Listener’s Guide part 3 – The Aesthetics).

The ornamentations in Thūmri are similar to Khayāl with more emphasis on shorter fragments and emotional content.  There is a preference for Rāgas that have chromatic notes allowing for more contrast. Thūmri is sung in Rāgas like Desh, Piloo, Kāfi, Khamāj, Tilang, Jogiā and Bhairavi.  The Tālas used are Deepchandi, Chānchar (14), Jat (16), Punjabi (8) and Keherwā and Dādrā (8 and 6).  

Though this form existed before, it is believed that it was given prominence and propagated the most by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Lucknow during the later British Raj.Thūmri is recognised to have developed in two strands – Lucknow, which is more composed and similar to a Khayāl Bandish, and Benaras, with more emphasis on slower elaboration, ending with laggi, a faster ‘folk feel’ beat in Keherwā played on the Tabla.

The prominent musicians who made a big contribution to this song form include Sadiq Ali Khan and the superb Mozzuddin Khan, Bhaiya Saheb Ganpat Rao, Ustad Barkat Ali Khan, Gauhar Jan, Begum Akhtar, Rasoolan Bai, Badi Moti Bai and Shobha Gurtu.

Although Thūmri singing demands a particular kind of sensitivity, some Khayāl singers have also been able to sing Thūmri well.  The noteworthy include Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty and Ustad Rashid Khan among others.  It is also important to give due acknowledgement to the traditional Lucknow dance lineage including Lucchu Maharaj, Shambu Maharaj, Achchan Maharaj and at present, Birju Maharaj who have contributed to a very rich Thūmri repertoire.

The style of Thūmri is also a favourite for most instrumentalists.  It helps both the vocalist and instrumentalist bring a lighter and more expressive element to their performance.



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