Its exact origins, to a certain extent, are shrouded in mystery and apocrypha, a fact further made difficult by the present poor record-keeping skills. The arrival of Islam from the 12th and 13th centuries onwards, and shifts in the nature of patronage, undoubtedly, brought about noteworthy alterations in the musical culture of North India. Fascinated as some of the Muslim rulers and musicians were by the structure and solidity of the North Indian musical tradition, they nonetheless decided to intersperse it with new and 'exotic' airs. The Indian musicians of the time compiled with the cultural and aesthetic demands made by their new patrons. In the process of cultural co-mingling that took place from the 13th to the mid-18th centuries, many raagas and styles of musical renderings took on Persian, Arabic and Turkish hues. The outcome of this lovely aesthetic synthesis and gradual transformation that took place over long periods of time was the khayal.
Indeed, khayal is the offspring of dhrupad. Some of the first khayals, composed and rendered by singer-composers of older gharanas, resemble dhrupad bandishes in that they are melodically well-structured and rhythmically coordinated along dhrupadic lines. Older khayal gharanas, like Agra and Jaipur, are, in essence, dhrupadic. In fact, most khayal gharanas claim to have originated from some pre-existing dhrupadic tradition or the other. While some of these claims are genuine, others have been fabricated by those hailing from non-dhrupadic roots to enhance their musical pedigree and prestige. A certain school of thought would have one believe that the celebrated Persian musician-poet Amir Khusro (1254-1325) was the progenitor of khayal. It is assumed that Khusro, who was a disciple of the Sufi saint Hazrat Nizammudin Aulia, absorbed the qwaali style of singing from the Sufis and interchanged it onto the existing musical structure. This story remains unproven by convincing historical evidence. Later, khayal is said to have developed in the court of the musician-patron Sultan Mohammed Sharqui of Jaunpur (1457-1476). But the form as such existed until the 18th century in a somewhat crude and indefinite form. It was not until the time of the Mughal ruler, Mohammed Shah 'Rangile' (1719-1748) that the khayal, as one knows it, shot into prominence. It is believed that one of the court instrumentalists, Niyamat Khan, took offence when he was seated behind the singers in the darbar and gave up his position. Determined to make his mark in the field of music, he went about improvising the embryonic khayal form and brought it to perceptible perfection. He then trained two young boys exhaustively in the new form. After completing their formal training, the two boys began singing the newly sprung khayal before awe-struck audiences who had heard nothing like it previously. Their vocal prowess and charming approach, soon enough, came to Mohammed Shah's notice. He invited them to be court musicians after he heard their extraordinary performance. When asked about their teacher, the boys divulged the long-withheld identity of Niyamat Khan to the astounded ruler. The chastised ruler, certain of Niyamat Khan's intellect, invited him to occupy a coveted seat in the darbar alongside the court singers. Niyamat Khan is reputed to have penned umpteen exquisite khayal compositions under the pen name, 'Sadarang' (standing for 'ever-colourful') which are sung even today by khayal singers. Sadarang trained many disciples in the new form. His nephew, Firoz Khan also made momentous contributions to the form. He wrote compositions under the pen name 'Adarang'. Though they trained countless to sing khayal, it is rumored that they themselves never took to it.
What both Sadarang and Adarang did, for the most part, was to build new melodic structures on the foundations of dhrupad. There were some substantial departures from the parent form. The long alaap which preceded the composition was smoothly incorporated into its structure. Different elements and facets of the raaga, expressed separately in the unmetered and metered sections in slow and fast tempi were now expressed within the canopy of a single unit. In terms of compositions, khayal offered a wider variety of themes for exploration and the means to express them through creative means. The myriad shades and colours of hallowed and romantic love, the feats of Krishna as an infant, lover and saviour, descriptions of the diverse seasons and articulations of intense veneration formed, for the most part, the subjects of khayal compositions.
Unsurprisingly, the new form caught fancy of several contemporary singers. It offered them, on the one hand, the solid classical base of dhrupad, and, on the other, a new scope for exploring a variety of moods and emotions within a classical framework. By the end of the 18th century, the potent 'upstart' khayal had thrust the stolid elder statesman, dhrupad, out of the field to become the most popular of classical forms in North Indian classical music. Soon enough, fresh additions, like the use of sargams, tans and bol-taans and adoptions of idioms from lighter forms like tappa and thumri added to its technical finesse and emotional articulateness. Creative variations of words in the song-text were possible in a less rigid manner. Put simply, the khayal became more fluid and flexible, yet without compromising on its classical ethos or structure. It lost not a speck of its classical roots even as its enormous trunk shot skywards, sprouting new leaves and broad branches. Today, the khayal is one of the most vivacious and variegated of classical forms which has both imbibed and integrated the distinctive features of most major classical, light classical and folk forms into its voluminous bosom. Once a tiny drop, with the passage of time, it added to its width and depth from plentiful diverse streams to become what it is today - an unending and mighty river of melody.
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