An Excellent Sort Of Memory: Creativity in Khyal Singing

This essay was written for the recent Learnquest Conference and printed in their program guide.


“The past does not influence me. I influence it.”
— John Cage —

“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.”
—The White Queen, to Alice —

Hindustani music is rich in paradoxes of aesthetics, pedagogy, personality, imagination and execution — paradoxes which, ceaselessly spinning, provide a source of creative power within this complex and interdependent universe.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the endless push and pull between imagination and tradition. A khyal performer is expected to show the imprint of her or his teachers, and therefore the imprint of their teachers as well. A performance is unsatisfying to the educated listener if it is entirely of the moment; rather, the imprimatur of multiple artistic and pedagogical generations is what lends depth and resonance to a singer’s music. To the educated ear, a singer’s influences lend themselves to as many interesting combinatorial possibilities as the notes of a complex raga.

For example, Vamanrao Deshpande (in “Indian Musical Traditions”) recounts the khyaliya Miya Alibaksha’s response to the singing of Bhaskarbuwa Bakhle:

“…in response to a request from Alibaksha Saheb, Buwa took up the vilambit khayal ‘Tu aiso hai Karim’ from raga Darbari which was followed by the fast khayal ‘Nain so nain.’ The recital was punctuated with appreciative comments from Miya Alibaksha: ‘This is the gamaktan of Haddu Khan Saheb; this is reminiscent of Faiz Mahammad Khan’s elaborative skill; this is Rahimat Khan’s phirat (rapid ‘wandering’ passages); this intricate tana reminds me of Mubarak Ali….Bhaskarbuwa’s music is excellently developed in all respects.”


And Mohan Nadkarni describes Bhimsen Joshi’s interweaving of source material in his biography of the great vocalist:

“It is in his drut singing that Bhimsen presents a rare amalgam of gayakis as diverse as those of Gwalior, Atrauli-Jaipur, and Patiala. For example, right in the midst of a Patiala-style sapat taan, he can startle his listeners with a lightning array of intricate, odd-shaped patterns from the Atrauli-Jaipur gharana. A sarangi-like, seemingly slippery flourish from the Kirana style would then be deftly grafted to the laya-oriented taankari of the Gwalior tradition. Who else, but a maestro of his talent and genius, can achieve such marvelous homogeneity in content, treatment and approach?”

While this would suggest that a singer is collagistically assembling a performance from a collection of vocal mannerisms, techniques, and methods, the model of khyaliya-as-bricoleur is incomplete. Singers who’ve received training from multiple teachers do not automatically become creative aggregators; they are in fact more likely to display a kind of musical multiple-personality syndrome in which different pieces are rendered in the styles of their originators. I vividly remember a Pune concert in the mid-1980s in which a young vocalist (who has since gone on to recognition and acclaim) rendered successive pieces in the styles of three separate major vocalists. The first piece was a Marwa uncannily sung in the style of Amir Khan, the second a Darbari Kanada presented a la Bade Ghulam Ali, followed by an equally derivative thumri. While the tonal material of the ragas was skillfully handled, the artist’s music was hardly “excellently developed in all respects.”

Musicians sometimes choose security over danger, exalting their own preceptors and lineage at the expense of their own individuality. There are two ways this manifests. The first is an over-reliance on traditionally sanctified methodology; those who play it safe in this way are criticized with words like “dry” and “grammatical.” The second is epigonisation, in which the Master is imitated so thoroughly and completely that all vestige of the human artist is submerged under the borrowed mannerisms and repertoire of a single more charismatic and culturally dominant figure. A prominent disciple of a very popular khyal singer was known within the musicians’ community as “HMV” — His Master’s Voice — for his slavish duplication of his guru’s mode of singing.

The road to genuinely innovative musicianship in the khyal idiom, then, is as cluttered and obstructed as any Indian street. A singer can be too timid, too dominated by a single guru or charismatic figure, too susceptible to the influences of the moment or those of the century.

While the central paradox (a constantly changing improvisational genre operating freely within the constraints of centuries of tradition) is unresolvable, a study of the ingredients of musical expression offers some insight.

In any khyal performance we witness the superimposition of multiple sets of constraints and stipulations within which the singer is charged with finding himself or herself.

Most obvious to the listener is the raga itself. Ragas provide the tonal material for extensive improvisations and elaborations; taught orally, they can be described structurally using widely understood formulae (N notes in ascent, N+x notes in descent, this note emphasized, that note de-emphasized, this melodic phrase heard cadentially, that melodic phrase heard rarely, this part to be treated strictly, that part to be treated freely, the whole adding up to a recipe for sustained variation). A singer must present this material accurately, avoiding not just errors of intonation or omission but also unintended passages from other ragas with similar structures. Certain ragas are common property; others are so inextricably associated with particular artists or lineages that performing them is fraught with pitfalls for anyone outside the proprietary circle. The challenge for the khyaliya is to render the raga with structural fidelity while finding something new — a melodic road less traveled by. A singer who offers only the standard formulae may find praise for his or her fidelity to the tradition — but is equally likely to be dismissed for lack of useful insight.

The fact is that even in the most tightly constrained raga structure, there are always new combinations, phrases and gestures awaiting discovery. A singer who abdicates this responsibility fails the central task of khyal.

The raga repertoire subsumes the bandish repertoire; certain songs are likewise known and performed by, almost all professional singers, while others are a single singer’s “personal private thing.” Ragas are sometimes announced by their affiliations. It is common to speak of an “Agra bandish,” or a “typical Jaipuri chiz,” and educated listeners will recognize these pieces like old friends, acknowledging their association with particular styles and the expectations this raises for the specific content of a performance.

There are some compositions (e.g., “Sakhi mori rum jhum” in Durga, “Jabse tumhi sanga” in Bhoopali) which were fixtures in the professional repertoire of the early twentieth century, but have now become propadeutic vehicles on which aspiring singers can cut their teeth. The American baseball great Yogi Berra once commented of a particular restaurant that, “Nobody goes there anymore because it’s too crowded.” It could be said of these songs that, “Nobody sings them anymore because they’re too popular.”

Conversely, a “rare” bandish may be announced with considerable fanfare. Some of these items are in fact newly composed — but Hindustani musical culture devalues the new and exalts the old. More prestige accrues to an ancient or unusual song than to a new item, so it’s not uncommon for performers to give their own compositions a provenance far back in the tradition, sometimes including the pen-name of a noted historical composer in the song text, lending the piece further credibility. While it’s tempting to regard this reverse plagiarism as an ethical transgression, it can also be seen as an organic manifestation of the tradition’s fluidity and creativity: four hundred years after his death, Sadarang (the pen-name of Niyamat Khan, a great khyal composer) continues to create new material!

The particular structure of the bandish may have a huge influence on the performance as a whole. This is especially true of medium and fast tempo songs, whose rhythmic structures and melodic contours direct improvisation in particular ways. For example, a song with high syllabic density nicely supports text-based rhythmic variations (known as “bol-bant”), while one with fewer syllables and more prominent melismata is a felicitous vehicle for virtuoso melodic passagework.

Intersecting with these fields of constraint is the responsibility a singer bears to her or his musical extended family. The guru, the guru’s guru, the guru’s guru’s guru, the guru’s brother’s guru, the guru’s brother’s guru’s brother’s disciple, etc., etc. — all contribute to an environment in which some musical behaviors are privileged above others, leading eventually to culturally accepted formulations in which particular lineages (known as “gharanas”) are recognized for expertise in particular aspects of khyal.

Musically adept listeners can recognize a singer’s gharana very easily — and conversely, if a singer’s gharana is known and announced, a trained listener will already have a good idea of what the performance will be like. In performance, khyaliyas are expected to develop a coherent portrait of their lineage — while they’re also developing the raga material and exploring the contours of the song. Singers may be criticized for violating the aesthetic guidelines of their gharanas, or for being overly conservative in their expression of those same guidelines — a dilemma which parallels the critique on raga-interpretation grounds. From one perspective, the gharana provides the conceptual framework for a raga’s expression; from another, the raga is the medium through which a gharana’s characteristics are expressed.

The guru himself or herself is the principle source of a khyaliya’s repertoire of songs and conceptual resources, and respect for the guru is foundational in Hindustani pedagogical tradition. Singers frequently attribute their own successes in performance to their gurus’ virtue and genius. In much the same way that the bandish is a single crystallized expression of a raga’s characteristics, the guru can be understood as a single human expression of a gharana’s salient features — and in the same way that singers strive to express the raga’s essential qualities, they wish to express some of their guru’s musical conceptions as well. The guru’s experience, values, aesthetics, vocal production, kinesics, and a host of other elements are, for better or worse, transmitted to the disciple.

And, finally, there is the individual singer herself or himself. Singers strive to integrate the influences of repertoire, gharana, and guru in the moment of performance and in the process of teaching their own disciples; while the precise relationship is always fluid and varies from artist to artist — and indeed from moment to moment — the general tendency is an avoidance of extremes — what can be described as a “conservation of innovation.” An unusual repertoire item (a rarely heard or newly composed raga or bandish) will usually receive a palpably traditional mode of presentation, while a predictable repertoire choice may need to be counterweighted by a more novel treatment if it is to engage listeners. The most notable exception to this principle would be Kumar Gandharva, who presented newly composed ragas in a highly original style, triggering tradition-versus-innovation controversies that continue to this day.

To describe a khyaliya as “creative,” then, is to recognize the success of a balancing act in which freshly imagined melodies and rhythms are endlessly re-contextualized in a historically-grounded milieu. The listeners’ understanding of a singer’s musical heritage undergoes continual revision in the light of each new passage, each new improvisation.

In the world of the khyaliya, remembering is a deeply creative act, and it’s an excellent sort of memory, working perfectly well in both directions.

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