The most popular form of Hindustani music in its vocal variety, the ghazal, shares both its literary and musical features, and presents a rather complex picture as far as its evolution is concerned. For many reasons, its musical evolution has not been properly traced. There are no recorded versions, for instance, of ghazal singing that go beyond 75 years – this means that the ghazal gives us evidence of how it was actually sung quite late in its career. What we know is that it developed in the background of dhrupad-dhamar and khayal, and parallel with thumri. Obviously, it has accumulated a rich musical tradition since the 14th century, but no direct evidence of the process is available.

What the books say

Musical literature, too, is silent in this respect. To begin with, the form was associated with singing girls who were not considered respectable at the time. Secondly, the form is usually considered light music and so, our musicologists and theoreticians can be blamed for not being very accommodative. Thirdly, since it was discussed in detail as a literary form, an impression perhaps that the ghazal had received exhaustive treatment.

Musically speaking, the ghazal seems to have evolved in three stages – metre orientation, thumri orientation and song orientation. In spite of some overlap, the stages are clearly discernible in the recorded versions. When it was not advanced musically, the sung version of the ghazal stuck to its metre in a rather rigid fashion. It was sung in a fast tempo and lacked musical elaboration and rhythmic variation. Quite often, similar tunes were used, even though the content was considerably different. All metre is cyclical and thus, its beats can be organised into a taal. Even so, to follow the beats too regularly amounts to not being musically creative. (Despite this, Katil To Mera Dil by Malka Jaan and Parda Nahi Hai by Pyare Saheb are impressive examples of adherence to prosody.) There was no improvisation. Music was so regularly and exactly channelised that it ceased to flow. The experience became more of a recital than of a song that should be remembered.

The earliest signs of any conscious attempt to win freedom from these shackles are discernible in the songs of Gauhar Jaan, Shamshad Bai, Pyare Saheb, Bai Sundara Bai and others. In Zabaan Khuli Bhi, Gauhar Jaan reminds one of Bal Gandharva-type taana patterns. They are fast, straight and vigorous and executed with admirable clarity. The patterns seem quite simple, but a close analysis shows traces of the intricate design of tappa.

Gauhar Jaan. Courtesy: SIRC, Mumbai.

Shamshad Bai and Bai Sundara Bai are undisputed predecessors of Begum Akhtar insofar as they had a masculine and sensuous touch in their voices. Shamshad Bai sings Bamulke Dilbari in a voice that is full of strength and Sundarabai does the same in Gam Nahi. Pyare Saheb made a distinct mark as a singer and experimenter. He amazes with his unnaturally high-pitched voice and wide repertoire. His Parda Nahin Hain is typically metre-oriented. But in his Yaar Ki Koi Khabar, he sings in an astonishingly slow tempo, though the rhythm, in keeping with the usual tradition, is fast enough. All these are attempts at a thumri-oriented style of ghazal, which is truly realised in the music of Barkat Ali and Begum Akhtar.

Yin and yang

A sub-classification seems to be unavoidable in the sphere of the thumri-oriented ghazal. Barkat Ali’s efforts are replete with tappa, Begum Akhtar’s are not. Ali bursts upon the scene like a fresh force. His Patiala style is a combination of intricate and fast tonal patterns and thus, emotive use of words become possible. The tempo slackens, and instruments such as harmonium and swaramandala do not accompany the vocalist with mechanical regularity, but with a sense of mood and creation. He dazzles and moves at the same time. His Ek Sitam is a true representation of the tappa-accented, thumri-oriented ghazal.

Ek Sitam, by Barkat Ali Khan

In Akhtar, there is a clearer awareness of the existence of untapped musical sources. A greater variety of ragas is used, and with amazing flexibility. One finds bhoop, mand, gara, tilak kamod, mishra bahar and scores of others exploited with a probing sensibility. There is a lot of improvisation. In the thumri-oriented elaboration, one notices the unmistakable stamp of the individual artiste. There is no dichotomy splitting the artiste-composer and the artiste-performer. Akhtar, similarly, is fused into one self. Gam Ki Daulat, Wafa Nahin, Dil Ki Baat or Na Socha Na Samjha are examples of the thumri-oriented ghazal in the real sense of the word.

The song of nightingales

KL Saigal and Malika Pukhraj illustrate the movement towards the song-oriented ghazal. There is no improvisation, but deliberate and planned tonal movements and pauses along with a slow tempo, which allow the music to sink into one’s consciousness. The instrumentation is slight, but the tendency towards orchestration is marked. The trend culminates in the post-Saigal era with Lata Mangeshkar, Suman Kalyanpur, Mohammad Rafi, Farida Khanum, Mehdi Hasan and others.

In this phase, the composer’s presence is felt in the compositions throughout. It is intricate and imaginative. For example, Koi Ummeed Bar Nahin Aati by Lata Mangeshkar and Koi Din Gar Zindagani Aur Hain by Suman Kalyanpur are impressively complex compositions. One cannot hum these after a single listening. The tunes do not appear to have sprung from any particular raga. The raga is, in fact, only a fleeting shadow.


Often, ragas are only an excuse for deviation or serve as the original stimuli for the composition. But the composition, as a whole, prefers not to get bogged down in a raga. The performance seems to be fastidiously planned and executed and any feeling on the part of the singer makes definite entries and exits. Nothing is left to chance, or to the mood of the moment. The stakes are too high to permit such a procedure. Interestingly enough, it is only at the song-oriented stage that we find ghazals of high poetic merit being sung. This was because only in a song do words assume equal importance as tones. The song is a balancing act between meaning and music. It is not as though Ghalib is sung more often now because of nostalgia. He is sung because the ghazal has now developed into a song-oriented, musical expression.

High versus low

Mehdi Hasan and Farida Khanum deserve special analysis. Their singing is relaxed and assured and the listener experiences a soothing sensation. Na Ganwao Navak-e-Neem-Kash by Mehdi Hasan and Na Rawa Kahiye by Farida Khanum prove the efficacy of the low pitch. Our music directors continue to be fascinated by the high pitch, but lose out on the greater range and fullness of voice in the low pitch. There is less flash, but more resonance in it. It also lends itself to an easier acceptance of the song because it seems to be within the reach of all the voices. Anyone who has attended a gathering with a non-singer who somehow plucked up the courage to sing Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo can attest to that.


This article first appeared in ON Stage, the official monthly magazine of the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai.