Asian Music and Dance

Semi-Classical and Devotional Rāga – Part 7

Music in the south Asian subcontinent can be viewed as of two types; ‘Rāga dominant’ and ‘lyric dominant’. 

In Rāga dominant music, featuring genres like Dhrupad and Khyāl, the text in the songs helps the musician to bring out the features of the Rāga and acts as a springboard with which to explore it. In these styles, the musician aspires to create a soundscape special to the chosen Rāga and maintain it for a longer time taking the audience on a journey guided by the traditions of the Rāga. 

In lyric dominant music, including styles like the romantic Ghazal, Geet and devotional Bhajan, Shabad and Qawwali among others, the Rāga helps to provide the melodic basis to convey the meaning of the text in a more ‘enjoyable’ way. In these styles the choice of Rāga for particular lyrics is important to ensure that the inherent mood of the Rāga matches with that of the text. 

The choice of the Tālas (rhythmic cycles) for these genres predominantly have shorter durations, thus providing a more accessible and ‘catchy’ feel to the music. 

Romantic styles 

Ghazal is actually a poetic form which originated in Arabic verse and spread into South Asia under the influence of the Islamic courts and Sufi mystics. Some notable Urdu poets include Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869) and Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938). Strictly speaking, a Ghazal is simply a poem. ‘Ghazal Gayaki’ is the musical performance of these poems. It was with the likes of Begum Akhtar and K.L. Sehgal that Ghazal became popular as a song form and has since been developed, particularly in Pakistan, into a highly developed musical form. Mehdi Hassan is seen as the father of the modern Ghazal and the likes of Jagjit Singh and Ghulam Ali have continued to enhance its popularity. The Ghazal has also been used effectively in Bollywood movies and enjoys a status as an art form which can be enjoyed both recorded and live. 

Regional Styles 

Styles like Dādrā, Kajari, Chaiti, Hori and Tappā borrow from regional folk music and bring forth colourful and varied song forms. The modern day Indian state Uttar Pradesh, especially the region around the holy city of Benaras, is a major source for Dādrā, Kajri, Chaiti and Hori. 

Dādrā is a style similar to Tumri discussed in previous issues, but is more loose and allows more freedom. Kajari, Chaiti and Hori are seasonal styles depicting various romantic moods. Kajaris belong to the rainy season (July-August), Chaiti the harvest (March-April) and Hori around the festival of Holi in March. Tappā is seen to be a native song form of Punjab, made popular by Miya Shori. It echoes the love songs sung by the camel riders in the desert. 


Geet literally translates as ‘song’ or ‘songs’, and these include various popular songs in different languages from different parts of the Indian subcontinent, including those songs found in Bollywood films. Themes vary from children’s songs to romance. 

Devotional Music 

This is one of the most heard musics in the Indian subcntinent, a land of faith in multifacetted religions including Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism and Christianity. 


The roots of Bhajans lie in the Bhakti movement (from South India). Bhajans feature the praise of Deities from both Vaishnav and Shaivyat traditions. As a musical form, it draws upon many popular tenets of music often sung in Bhajani Kaharwa rhythm cycle with accompaniment on cymbals and percussion. Call and response is a common feature of Bhajan singing, which has an enormous diversity due to the languages used from all over South Asia. 

Another popular form in the North is the songs sung in praise of the goddesses – known as Bheta, drawing on popular Bollywood songs. 


The rich mystical poetry from the Sikh holy scriptures, the Adi Granth, is sung in a variety of styles including the classical Dhrupad, Dhamar, Khayal and the archaic Partal (ancient style rooted in the praband singing style). Shabads are also sung in popular tunes of Ghazal and Bollywood and also in the distinct folk style of Dhad Sarangi. 


A popular devotional music form originating from medieval Sufi mystics. Hazrat Aamir Khusrao is regarded as the father of Qawwali and there have been numerous popular exponents since. Key features include group singing and clapping, with the lyrics often using the metaphor of romantic love to echo the longing of th



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