Styles and Form of Indian Classical Music

Styles and Form of Indian Classical Music: There are various styles of rendering a Raga and their popularity has waxed and waned with time. Styles are distinctive and evoke different emotions. There are forms of pure classical and semi-classical.


The most ancient form is the massive and sublime Dhrupad, with its long sustained notes and limitation of ornamentations. Literally it is formed from two words: Dhruva meaning ‘fixed’ and Pada meaning ‘text’.

Styles and Form of Indian Classical Music - The Gundecha brothers, Umakant, Ramakant and Akhilesh perform dhrupad vocal music (Hindustani) at the Menaka Thakkar Dance Studio in North Toronto on June 25, 2010. [ Photo Credit : Eric Parker, ]
The Gundecha brothers, Umakant, Ramakant and Akhilesh perform dhrupad vocal music (Hindustani) at the Menaka Thakkar Dance Studio in North Toronto on June 25, 2010. [ Photo Credit : Eric Parker, ]
It is the origin and the foundation of Hindustani music, from which the other forms are derived. Dhrupad evolved from liturgic singing of Sanskrit texts. Slowly the vernaculars Brajbhasha and Hindustani have replaced the Sanskrit.

In Dhrupad there are no decorative touches or the usual graces. Only the Meends-that is glides from one note to another, and the Gamakas-heavy oscillations between notes, are allowed. There are no ‘Taans’ in Dhrupad, only Layakaris like Dogoon, Teengoon, Adi etc.

It is severe and noble, almost coldly austere, employing great economy of flourishes and decorations and yet is capable of great ten derness. The lyrics are based on prayer, worship, meditation etc. The Pakhawaj is the percussion instrument for Dhrupad. Today this austere and epic style seems to be passing out of fashion.

Dhrupad is the oldest surviving classical style of Hindustani (or North Indian) vocal music. Its name is derived from dhruva-pada, simply meaning “refrain,” and today denotes both a form of poetry and a style of music in which the poetry is sung. Dhrupad music traditionally has three major parts – alap, jor-jhala, and composition. A dhrupad is introduced by a slow tempo-ed, rather somber and controlled, recurrent set of syllables (non-words) known as an alap.

The singer attempts to emphasize the purity and clarity of each note, with perfect pitch. It can last up to an hour before the melody begins. An example of an alap set pattern is: a re ne na, té te re ne na, ri re re ne na, te ne toom ne (this last group is used in cadences to reach the tonic or the end of a long phrase). It is the elaborate alap, without drum accompaniment and gradually developing into an accelerating rhythmic pulse, that sets this genre apart from other Indian styles.

The alap is followed by the jor, a raga the develops a steady beat which is non-cyclical, and then continues into a faster paced jhala. The song concludes with the Dhrupad composition, usually is set in chau taal (12 beat cycles), sul tall (10 beat cycles) triva taal (7 beat cycles) or dhamar (14 beat cycles).

Listen to : Dagar Brothers – Vocal – Dhrupad in Raga Adana



This is a style close to Dhrupad but is less austere. It is sung in Dhamar Tal, and the themes are Krishna’s Lila and the stories of Radha and Krishna.

This form is predominantly associated with Springtime and Holi festivals. Just as Khayal is followed these days by Thumri in a lighter vein, so was Dhamar sung after a heavy Dhrupad in earlier times. However, although the themes of Dhamar may be less austere and be even romantic, the singing of Dhamar is not very easy and requires great command over Laya, particularly in its sections of Layakaris.Indian Classical Music, Hindustani & Carnatic [ ভারতীয় শাস্ত্রীয় সঙ্গীত, হিন্দুস্থানি ও কার্নাটিক ]

Dhamar is one of the talas used in Hindustani classical music from the Indian subcontinent. It is associated with the dhrupad style and typically played on the pakhawaj and also tabla. Dhamar taal has 14 beats (matras) grouped asymmetrically into a 5-2-3-4 pattern.

A song in dhrupad style set to dhamar tala is also called a dhamar. The text of a dhamar concerns the antics of Krishna teasing the milkmaids during the Holi (hori) Spring Festival of colours. It is considered a relatively light, gentle, and romantic musical form.

Listen to : Faiyaz Khan – Vocal – Dhamar in Raga Desi



Khayal is an Urdu word meaning ‘imagination’ or ‘creative thought’. Less imperious than the Dhrupad, more delicate and romantic, its structure allows for greater decorative effects and a freedom from the impersonal austerity of the Dhrupad.Indian Classical Music, Hindustani & Carnatic [ ভারতীয় শাস্ত্রীয় সঙ্গীত, হিন্দুস্থানি ও কার্নাটিক ]

This freedom arises out of the sentiment of the Khayal which, at its most permissive, has a personal appeal, something intimate, inward and tender whereas Dhrupad is exhortatory and ritualistic in tone and spirit. Along with the freedom, the Khascrupulously follows the rules and the grammar of the Raga and the Tala. Khayal is the form most commonly associated with Hindustani classical music today.

Khayal, also spelled khyal or kayal, in Hindustani music, a musical form based on a Hindi song in two parts that recur between expanding cycles of melodic and rhythmic improvisation. In a standard performance a slow (vilambit) khayal is followed by a shorter, fast (drut) khayal in the same raga (melodic framework).

The khayal is related to the longer melodic form known as the dhrupad but has fewer restrictions. It is usually accompanied by a tabla (pair of drums) and a tambura (lute) in a variety of talas (metric cycles). Khayal is ordinarily performed by a vocalist. The rhythm of the melodic performance is nonmetric, but the percussion accompaniment is cast in a tala, and the time cycle is shaped by the repeated pattern (theka) performed by the accompanist.

Listen to : Bade Ghulam Ali Khan – Vocal – Khayal in Raga Kedar



During the later part of the Moghul Empire another style developed known as the Thumri. Inflexibility and freedom the Thumri is to the Khayal what the Khayal is to the Dhrupad. The personal, the tender, the romantic qualities of the Khayal are enhanced even more in the Thumri. In this form it is possible to mix Ragas in several complex ways.Indian Classical Music, Hindustani & Carnatic [ ভারতীয় শাস্ত্রীয় সঙ্গীত, হিন্দুস্থানি ও কার্নাটিক ]

While in the Khayal the emotions are controlled by the structure and demands of the Raga, in the Thumri the personally expressive musical phrase is allowed full play. Lyric voices, romantic themes and feelings, emotional colouring, varying textures, are important ingredients of the Thumri style which may be called light classical music.

As in khayal, thumri has two parts, the sthayi and the antara. It favours tala-s such as Deepchandi, Roopak, Addha, and Punjabi. These tala-s are characterized by a special lilt, nearly absent in the tala-s used in khayal. Thumri compositions are mostly in raga-s such as Kafi, Khamaj, Jogiya, Bhairavi, Pilu and Pahadi.

A common feature of these and other such raga-s is the free movement they allow the artist, since they do not depend for their identity on rigidly formulated tonal sequences, irrespective of the compositions involved. In fact, one may say that they have a built-in provision for mixing raga-s or for moving out of the raga actually presented in order to add colour to the proceedings.

The exact origins of thumri are not very clear, given that there are no historical references to such a form until the 15th century. The first mention of Thumri goes back to the 19th century, with a link to the classical dance form Kathak.

This was the bandish ki thumri or bol-baant and it evolved mostly in Lucknow in the court of nawab Wajid Ali Shah. At that time, it was a song sung by tawaifs or courtesans. According to historical records, a new version of thumri arose in the late 19th century, which was independent of dance, and much more slow-paced. This form was called bol-banav and it evolved in Varanasi.

Listen to : Bade Ghulam Ali Khan – Vocal – Thumri in Raga Pahadi



From the songs of the camel drivers of Punjab and Sind emerged the Tappa, which was given its present shape and form by Ghulam Nabi alias Shouri Mia of Oudh. According to a different opinion, Shouri was the name of Ghulam Nabi’s wife.Indian Classical Music, Hindustani & Carnatic [ ভারতীয় শাস্ত্রীয় সঙ্গীত, হিন্দুস্থানি ও কার্নাটিক ]

Tappa is richly ornamental, with quick turns of phrases, and incessant volleys of Taans emerging from practically every syllable of each word, in a swinging rhythm.

Tappa originated from the folk songs of the camel riders in Punjab. The tappa style of music was refined and introduced to the imperial court of the Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah, and later by Mian Ghulam Nabi Shori or Shori Mian, a court singer of Asaf-Ud-Dowlah, Nawab of Awadh.

In Bengal, Ramnidhi Gupta & Kalidas Chattopadhay composed Bengali tappa and they are called Nidhu Babu’s Tappa. Tappa gayaki took new shape and over decades became puratani, a semi-classical form of Bengali songs.

Tappa, as a significant genre in Bengali musical styles, reached levels of excellence in lyrics and rendition (gayaki), arguably unmatched in other parts of India. Hugely popular in the latter half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, tappa was the genre of choice of the wealthy elite as well as the classes with more modest means.

An evolved format of the tappa was the baithaki style, which evolved under the direct patronage of the landed elites of the zamindari classes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in their baithak-khanas (literally, baithak – assembly, khana – halls or salons) and jalsaghar (literally, halls for entertainment, mujra or nautch halls)

Listen to : Malini Rajurkar – Vocal – Tappa in Raga Khamaj



Dhun is a light air, free from the formal discipline of the Raga, improvised generally from folk melodies. A dhun (धुन; literally “tune”) is a light instrumental piece in Hindustani classical music. Although it may be played in a raga, or mode (often light ragas such as Khamaj), it is more freely interpreted and may incorporate foreign notes (vivadi). A dhun may be based on a folk tune or a religious, bhajan-type song, or even a filmi song.Indian Classical Music Drawing 39

The dhun is a com­mon instrumental form. It is ba­si­cally nothing more than an instrumental version of a song. Quite often it is a folk song, but on occasion it may be film song.

One tends to find only the lighter tals used to accompany the dhun. This is most com­monly kaherava of 8 beats or dadra of 6 beats. How­ever, on occasion one may find dipchandi, or si­mi­lar semiclassical rhythms.

The dhun tends to be played in the lighter rags; Mand, Khammaj, and Pahadi are ext­remely com­mon. Heavy rags such as Darbari Kanda are al­most never heard. Fur­ther­more the treat­ment of the rags is given ext­reme latitude. It is very com­mon to play every­thing misra, or mixed.

The term dhun must not be confused with the devotional chant, which is also called dhun.

Listen to : Bismillah Khan – Shehnai – Dhun



This is a lyric, frequently in Persian or Urdu, set to a lilting melody in lighter and sweeter Ragas. The lyrics have high lit erary value, with themes which are mostly romantic but have underlying shades of deep philosophy as well. This aspect of Ghazal is no less important than its melodic content. In between rhythm-bound stanzas there are some portions which are recited in non-metric prose form, from which the singer returns to rhythm and beats again.Indian Classical Music, Hindustani & Carnatic [ ভারতীয় শাস্ত্রীয় সঙ্গীত, হিন্দুস্থানি ও কার্নাটিক ]

A ghazal may be understood as a poetic expression of both the pain of loss or separation and the beauty of love in spite of that pain.

The ghazal form is ancient, tracing its origins to 7th-century Arabic poetry. The ghazal spread into South Asia in the 12th century due to the influence of Sufi mystics and the courts of the new Islamic Sultanate, and is now most prominently a form of poetry of many languages of the Indian subcontinent and Turkey.

A ghazal commonly consists of five to fifteen couplets, which are independent, but are linked – abstractly, in their theme; and more strictly in their poetic form. The structural requirements of the ghazal are similar in stringency to those of the Petrarchan sonnet. In style and content, due to its highly allusive nature, the ghazal has proved capable of an extraordinary variety of expression around its central themes of love and separation.

But the present day Ghazal singing has evolved and transformed a lot. It has become more easy to understand and comprehend, and thus much easier to be enjoyed by the masses, who take keen interest in the Ghazals. Especially, the language has become easier to understand, and thus it can be enjoyable too.

Listen to: – Begum Akhtar – Vocal Ghazal



This is a popular religious and devotional song with a straight simple melody, without ornamentations of the notes.Indian Classical Music, Hindustani & Carnatic [ ভারতীয় শাস্ত্রীয় সঙ্গীত, হিন্দুস্থানি ও কার্নাটিক ]

Bhajan refers to any devotional song with a religious theme or spiritual ideas, specifically among Indian religions, in any of the languages from the Indian subcontinent. The term Bhajanam (Sanskrit: भजनम्) means reverence and originates from the root word bhaj (Sanskrit: भज्), which means to revere, as in ‘Bhaja Govindam’ (Revere Govinda). The term bhajana also means sharing.

As a bhajan has no prescribed form or set rules, it is in free form, normally lyrical and based on melodic ragas. It belongs to a genre of music and arts that developed with the Bhakti movement. It is found in the various traditions of Hinduism as well as Jainism. Within Hinduism, it is particularly prevalent in Vaishnavism.

The term ‘bhajan’ is also commonly used to refer to a group event, with one or more lead singers, accompanied by music, and sometimes dancing. Minimally there is a percussion accompaniment such as tabla, dholak, or a tambourine. Handheld small cymbals (kartals) are commonly used to maintain the beat, rhythm. A bhajan may be sung in a temple, in a home, under a tree in the open, near a river bank or a place of historic significance.

Listen to: D.V. Paluskar-Vocal – Bhajan



When the devotional songs are sung congregationally they are known as Kirtan. They have a simple melody and many repet itive phrases. They seem to have come into prominence with the coming of Shri Chaitanya and the Bhakti movement.Indian Classical Music, Hindustani & Carnatic [ ভারতীয় শাস্ত্রীয় সঙ্গীত, হিন্দুস্থানি ও কার্নাটিক ]

Kirtan (कीर्तन; Kīrtana) is a Sanskrit word that means “narrating, reciting, telling, describing” of an idea or story, specifically in Indian religions. It also refers to a genre of religious performance arts, connoting a musical form of narration or shared recitation, particularly of spiritual or religious ideas, native to the Indian subcontinent.

A person performing kirtan is known as a kirtankara (or kirtankar). A Kirtan performance includes an accompaniment of regionally popular musical instruments, such as the harmonium, the veena or ektara (forms of string instruments), the tabla (one-sided drums), the mrdanga or pakhawaj (two-sided drum), flute (forms of woodwind instruments), and karatalas or talas (cymbals).

Listen to: Jagjit Singh – Vocal – Kirtan


Jugal Bandi-jugalbandi:

In recent times another mode of musical expression has evolved, especially in instrumental music. Instead of a single instrument, two instruments play the same Raga together. As one instrument comes into the foreground, advancing the melodic structure, the other instrument remains in the background providing occasional sound support to the main melodic movement. As the melodic improvisation reaches its culmination, both instruments join together in the Mukh. Then the second instrument takes over and advances the melody further as the first recedes into the background. They thus weave a rich and delicate tapestry with their melodies.

A good rendering of Jugalbandi demands a perfect understanding between the two musicians and great harmony in their Bhavas or feelings since their free expression has to create a single piece bound by its intrinsic unity.

Of late Jugalbandi has become very popular and a great variety of instruments are being brought into its scope.

Listen to:

  • Ravi Shankar – Sitar
  • Ali Akbar Khan – Sarod
  • Jugal Bandi in Raga Shree


Read More:

Listeners guide to Indian Classical Music

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