Langar kankariya jina maro/Mora angawa lagi jaye/
Sun paave mori saas nanadiya/ Daure daure ghar aave

Don’t pelt me with pebbles, they hurt /My mother-in-law and sister-in-law may hear us/ Come running

— Raga Todi

There is a fascinating dichotomy about the grand universe of the khayal – a music so cerebral it is called a thought and yet is built on what seems like the poetics of the banal. This is an archaic world inhabited mostly by the cantankerous saas, prying nanad, frisky piya (who would never make the cut in the #MeToo world), or the small joys of shringar.

Consider, for instance, the verse ‘Langar kankariya’ in Todi, a haunting morning raga of spectacular proportions. A composition of infectious energy, it has been immortalised by legends such as Amir Khan and Hirabai Barodekar. For greats like them, the loutish lover and domestic strife in the bandish are only pegs to pin the sweep of the raga’s vast canvas.

If you ask the essential khayaliya, there is no irony here. What is pedestrian for everyone else, is rich musical material for her. “Saas-nanad-devarani is the holy trinity of Hindustani music,” quipped vocalist and researcher Satayasheel Deshpande whose wit equals his erudition. “Complex poetry has no place here because this is a swar pradhan (notes-centric) form, not shabd (word) pradhan form like, say, the ghazal. The quality of the text is meant to not disturb or distract the listener from the vocalism. The more ordinary it is, the better. Sainyan and piya gaye pardes works just fine.”

The bandish, which works as a scaffolding for the khayal, is usually a four-line verse, split into the mukhda or the refrain that spans the lower to mid-octave and the antara that allows the voice to soar further. Within this, Braj bhasha, Awadhi and Bhojpuri, with their lilting sounds, are favoured, though Punjabi and occasionally Persian have enriched the repertoire.


For all its simplicity, the bandish is a work of complex art because the four lines hold within them the entire expanse of a raga’s landscape.

This is beautifully described by South Asia scholar Lalita du Perron in Sadarang, Adarang, Sabrang: Multicoloured poetry in Hindustani Music, her essay on khayal’s earliest composers:

“A text describing a girl’s fine attire sits alongside a composition dedicated to Allah. A yogi, with his magical power acquired through meditation and abstinence, can be described in one text with deference and devotion, and in another composition with fear and intrigue: what might happen should he decide to unleash his hidden vigours? Advice may be given to young lovers, sitting on a swing, enjoying love’s early flusters. The seasons are described, birds and other animals, awaiting the arrival of the monsoon.”  

In a sign of normalised Hindu elitism in the classical fraternity, these simplistic themes of bandishes are often laid at the door of the “illiterate ustads” and courtesans of the yore. “They lived closed lives, with little or no education. How do you expect them to go beyond the themes of domesticity and garden-variety romance?” is a common explanation. But the fact that these compositions continue to be perennially popular shows that crafting a great bandish is a complex task of great artistry.

Take, for example, Jhanjhan jhanjhan payal baje set to raga Nat Behag with its hackneyed leitmotif of the noisy anklet alerting the formidable quartet of saas-nanadiya-duraniya-jethaniya to furtive goings-on in the household. Listen to how the repetitive jhanjhan gives the great Faiyaz Khan the perfect landing to showcase his artistry. Or how Sadarang’s plaintive lover’s plea, Kahe ho hum so preetam, becomes a sublime take on Gaud Malhar by DV Paluskar.


Shifting Forms

The khayal evolved sometime between the 14th and 18th century from pre-existing forms, such as the dhrupad with its rich poetic repertoire and the qawwali. With facts and legends intertwining in the history of Hindustani music, the earliest of khayal composers could be any of these: the 14th century Sufi poet Amir Khusro, 15th century sultan of Jaunpur, Hussain Shah Sharqi, or the two 18th century musicians in the Mughal court of Mohammed Shah, Sadarang and Adarang.

About 200 years ago, the khayal came into its own, displacing all other genres as the dominant form of Hindustani classical music. Its legacy repertoire that is still in circulation is dominated by Sadarang, the pen name of Niamat Khan.

Far from being fossilised in time, the khayal has shifted form and shape in the hands of its practitioners. Many of them went on to compose their own bandishes, especially in the last century. The most prolific of composers came from the Agra gharana – Vilayat Hussain Khan ‘Pran Piya’, SN Ratanjankar ‘Sujan’, Ramashray Jha ‘Ramrang’ and Jagannath Bua Purohit ‘Gunidas’, to name a few.

In more recent times, women vocalists have composed their own bandishes and among these are the indefatigable Prabha Atre, Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande, Veena Sahasrabudhe and Arati Ankalikar-Tikekar. But even in their compositions, the thematic landscape is still peopled mostly by the same characters and themes.


Vocalists argue that they can engage with complex poetics but only at the cost of melodic elaboration. “There are too many focal points in the khayal – the design and structure are big and changing – for us to pay too much attention to the sahitya,” said Ankalikar-Tikekar. “Imagine the raga as the sky, and the bandish as windows that offer different flight paths into this sky. You can’t linger too long on it. To maintain the geyata (musical core) of khayal gayaki, words must dissolve into swaras.”

How bandishes, their words and moods are treated by vocalists is also determined by the vocal styles of various gharanas. Musicians point to a whole spectrum – total neglect (Kirana), some concern (Jaipur), and a great deal of attention (Agra).

The Kirana gharana, with its intense stress on slow tempo and swara elaboration, is fairly infamous for its apathy towards literature. There is a famously apocryphal story about how Bhimsen Joshi, in superb mid-concert form, mixed up the antara of a bandish with another. Asked about it later, he is said to have quipped: “I could have sung my phone number and it wouldn’t have made a difference.”

The anecdote is only half in jest. The master and his strong molten voice could indeed hold you in thrall even as he shredded the composition into a bewildering jumble of syllables to lay open the raga landscape. And if the verse is in, say, Punjabi, like his legendary Gaud Sarang, good luck with any comprehension.


“The composition is about ratikrida (lovemaking) but neither the listener nor the singer knows or cares because their attention is rivetted on the endless avartans (creative variations). The words are just a passport into raga pradesh (territory). Here words go beyond the language, working more as a plectrum to strike a soft note or a strong one or create a wave,” said Deshpande, who has a fund of stories about bandishes gone awry. Such as when Pag lagan de (let me touch your feet) disintegrated into the repeated chant of pagla, pagla, pagla (lunatic) in full musical frenzy. Or when the otherwise melancholic raga Ahir Bhairav sings of a lover staggering home at dawn addled by afeem, Rasiya Mhara Amalara Ratamata Ajo Jee.

Ideal Khayal

If not the literary merit, what makes for an ideal khayal? In her essay, du Perron says it must be one with “enough space for elaboration but also plenty of scope for mystique”. Short phrases and familiar words make for good creative material, says the academic who, with musician-scholar Nicolas Magriel, authored the most exhaustive work on khayal and bandishes (492 of them): the two-volume The Songs of Khayal.

“It speaks of the strength of a bandish that it is hard to write one: you need open vowels and modern Hindi spoken on the streets of Delhi won’t work,” says du Perron. “The bandish has a language of its own, its simplicity is its strength and its nuances and broad strokes allow performers to show off their virtuosity.”

All this makes composing a bandish hard work. Anaklikar-Tikekar recalls the struggle to compose a bandish based on the works of Kalidas for a festival in Nagpur. She eventually came up with Aai milan ki bela/Bina mudrika Dushyant na simrat Shankuntala (It was time for their union/But without the ring Dushyant could not remember Shakuntala). “To make words musical you have to let them dissolve in swaras,” she said.


It is not that there have been no initiatives to inject contemporaneity or variety into khayal themes. Kumar Gandharva, who went by his own rulebook, adapted the lyricism of Malwa’s folk music and its earthy themes of nature, seasons and quotidian concerns of farm life into his music. Deshpande, who was his disciple, recalls that in his last 10 years, the maverick musician scouted traditional repertoire for compositions that would satisfy him but found few.

Another vocalist who has made a marked departure from traditional bandishes is feminist composer Neela Bhagwat. A singer of the Gwalior gharana, which is considered the oldest, she has a profound understanding of its bandishes but is uneasy about the disconnect between her world and that of the songs.

“I believe that bandishes should reflect our life experiences,” said Bhagwat. “The ones we inherited reflected the reality of their times – the courts, the kings, the courtesans and their concerns. But I live in a different world, I have been socialised differently and I need to express myself as an independent person and woman too. My young girl students find the whole saas-nanad theme boring or even the constant pining for a lover and chhed chhaad.”

Her search for change has led her to using off-beat compositions for khayal, such as the old Mubarak Begum film song Kabhi Tanhaiyon Mein Yoon set to Malkauns, Tagore poems, and the ode to Gandhi, Dayaghana, Jagajivana, in Alahaiya Bilawal.

“I believe that the next generation will have to think through new bandishes, ones that don’t belong to a feudal world but talk of kinship between people, man and woman,” said Bhagwat.

Malini Nair is a writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2021.