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Khyal bases itself on a repertoire of short songs (two to eight lines); a khyal song is called a bandish. Every singer generally renders the same bandish differently, with only the text and the raga remaining the same. Khyal bandishes are typically composed in a variant of Urdu/Hindi or occasionally the Dari variant of Farsi, Bhojpuri, Punjabi, Rajasthani, or Marathi. These compositions cover diverse topics, such as romantic or divine love, praise of kings or gods, the seasons, dawn and dusk, and the pranks of Krishna, and they can have symbolism and imagery. The bandish is divided into two parts — the sthayi (or asthayi) and the antara, with the former considered more important as it shows the melodic contours of the raga. The sthayi often uses notes from the lower octave and the lower half of the middle octave, while the antara ascends to the tonic of the upper octave and beyond before descending and linking back to the sthayi. The singer uses the composition as raw material for improvisation, accompanied by a harmonium or bowed string instrument such as the sarangi or violin playing off the singer's melody line, a set of two hand drums (the tabla), and a drone in the background. The role of the accompanist playing the melody-producing instrument is to provide continuity when the singer pauses for breath, using small variations of the singer's phrases or parts thereof. While there is a wide variety of rhythmic patterns that could be used by the percussionist, khyal performances typically use Ektaal, Jhoomra, Jhaptaal, Tilwada, Tintal, Rupak, and Adachautaal.
A typical khyal performance uses two songs — the bada khyal or great khyal, in slow tempo (vilambit laya), comprises most of the performance, while the chhota khyal (small khyal), in fast tempo (drut laya), is used as a finale and is usually in the same raga but a different taal. The speed gradually increases over the time of the performance. The songs are sometimes preceded by improvised alap to sketch the basic raga structure without drum accompaniment; unmetered alap is given much less room in khyal than in dhrupad.
As the songs are short, and performances long (half an hour or more), the lyrics lose some of their importance and abstract musical values are emphasized. 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 (bol-baant, bol-taans), solfege singing (sargam), or simply interspersing phrases sung on vowels, usually the vowel A, aakaar taans. Taans are one of the major distinguishing features of the khyal. Now and then, the singer returns to the song, especially its first line, as a point of reference. This repetition of the first line of the composition gives khyal an advantage over dhrupad in that the singer can temporarily hide the raga structure and then return and bring it forth again. Besides the vilambit (slow) and drut (fast) tempos, a performance may include ati-vilambit (ultra-slow), madhya (medium speed) and ati-drut (super-fast) tempos. Song forms such as taranas, thumris or tappas are sometimes used to round off a khyal performance.
Khyal was popularized by Niyamat Khan (known by his pen name, Sadarang) and his nephew Firoz Khan (pen name Adarang), both musicians in the court of Muhammad Shah Rangile (1719–1748). It seems likely that khyal already existed at the time, although perhaps not in the present form.
The compositions of Sadarang and Adarang employ the theme of Urdu love-poetry. The khyal of this period also acquired the dignity of Dhrupad and the manner of the veena in its glide or meend, plus a number of musical alankars that were introduced into the body of the composition. The gharana system arose out of stylistic rendering of the khyal by various subsequent generations of musicians. The gharanas have distinct styles of presenting the khyal — how much to emphasize and how to enunciate the words of the composition, when to sing the sthayi and antara, whether to sing an unmetered alap in the beginning, whether to do bol-alap or aakar-alap, what kinds of improvisations to use, how much importance to give to the rhythmic aspect, and so on.
With India united into a country from various scattered princely states, with royal courts and the zamindari system 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.
Well known 20th-century khyaliyas (khyal vocalists) include Mushtaq Husain Khan, Amir Khan, Bhimsen Joshi, Gangubai Hangal, Hirabai Barodekar, Roshan Ara Begum, Rajan Sajan Mishra, Kumar Gandharva, Mallikarjun Mansur, D. V. Paluskar, Faiyaz Khan, Sharafat Hussain Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Kesarbai Kerkar, Ghulam Mustafa Khan, Mogubai Kurdikar, Kishori Amonkar, Naseeruddin Saami, Ghulam Sadiq Khan, Malini Rajurkar, Ajoy Chakrabarty, Gajananrao Joshi, Nazakat-Salamat Ali Khan, Rashid Khan, Rajan and Sajan Mishra Ulhas Kashalkar and Ghulam Abbas Khan. Many of these, while remaining firmly rooted in tradition, came up with their own individual styles, often borrowing elements from other gharanas.
- Bagchee, Sandeep (1998). Nād: Understanding Rāga Music. BPI (India) PVT Ltd. pp. 121–125. ISBN 81-86982-07-8.
- Wade, Bonnie (September 1973). "Chĩz in Khyāl: The Traditional Composition in the Improvised Performance". Ethnomusicology. Society for Ethnomusicology. 17 (3): 446. doi:10.2307/849960. JSTOR 849960.
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