Instruments & Vocal Styles

Vocal Music and Instruments

Vocal Music

Khyal, which literally means “imagination” or “thought,” is the predominant classical vocal genre of North India. A relatively modern style, some say it developed in the small, private rooms in the womens’ quarters of palaces, where delicate ornamentation and fast tempos could be appreciated – subtleties that would have been lost in the large, reverberant halls where the older, more austere dhrupad was performed. With the collapse of the Mughul Empire in the 18th century, men began to sing khyal as well as women, and many different gharanas – lineages of teachers and disciples with a distinctive musical style and philosophy – developed, while dhrupad performances became far less common.

You’ll hear several styles of khyal at the festival. Arati Ankalikar began her studies with teachers in the Gwalior and Agra gharanas, two very old khyal lineages that still retain many practices associated with dhrupad, and continued in the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana, a newer one known for technically-demanding displays of ornamental virtuosity and its eclectic, experimental approach. Kaivalyakumar Gurav and Sanhita Nandi both are part of the Kirana Gharana, known for sweetness, emotionality, and intricate improvised ornament, which originated in Uttar Pradesh about 100 years ago and was heavily influenced by Carnatic (South Indian) music.

Instruments you will hear at the Raga Samay Festival

A sitar is a plucked lute with movable frets and 3-4 melody, 2-3 drone, and up to 13 sympathetic strings. A wide, angled bridge produces a characteristic buzzing sound called jawari, while meend (slides) on individual notes are accomplished by pulling a melody string across the curved frets. Listen to Nayan Ghosh or Allyn Miner play sitar
A sarod is another type of lute with 4-5 melody, 2 rhythm, 1-2 drone, and up to 11 sympathetic strings. Its sound is deeper and more resonant than the sitar’s, with less jawari, and its fretless steel fingerboard enables continuous meend between notes. Listen to Alam Khan play sarod.
A santoor is a hammer dulcimer with 100 strings and two bridges, yielding a range of several octaves. A percussive instrument, it has a chime-like sound. Until relatively recently, it was used mainly for folk and light classical music due to the difficulty in producing meend, especially on the lower notes. Listen to Tarun Bhattacharya play santoor
Bansuri are transverse (side-blown) flutes made of bamboo with 6-7 finger holes. Sizes range from soprano instruments less than 12 inches to deeper-pitched ones over 3 feet long. Originally a folk instrument, the bansuri was introduced to classical music in the early 20th century. Listen to Steve Gorn play bansuri.
A tabla is a pair of tuned hand drums of contrasting pitch and tone. A smaller wooden treble drum is tuned to one of the main notes of the raga and complements the melody, while the deeper pitch of a larger metal one can be controlled with pressure from the heel of the hand. In addition to its use as an accompanying instrument, the tabla can also be a solo or ensemble instrument. Listen to a tabla solo from Nayan Ghosh
The violin, a fretless stringed instrument capable of playing microtones and glides, is one of several European instruments well adapted to playing Indian music. It is especially prominent in Carnatic (South Indian) music, but is sometimes found in Hindustani music as well. Indian violins are physically similar to European ones but are tuned differently and held in a different position. Listen to Kala Ramnath play violin.
Like the violin, the mandolin is another European instrument. While it has been used in Indian film music since the 1940s, it is quite a new instrument to classical music. Listen to Snehasish Mozumder play mandolin.
The harmonium is a small pump organ used primarily to accompany vocal performances, echoing the soloist. Early harmoniums were piano-like instruments imported by 19th century missionaries. Local makers and musicians adapted them for playing monophonic music while seated on the floor – the left hand pumps the bellows instead of the feet.

Other instruments

Pakhavaj: A drum used in dhrupad instead of tabla.
Sarangi: A bowed stringed instrument used to accompany vocalists. Now usually replaced by a harmonium.
Swarmandal: a small zither occasionally used to accompany vocal music
Surbahar: Bass sitar
Surshringar: Bass sarod
Tanpura: A simple plucked or bowed lute used for drones. Now usually replaced by an electronic instrument.
Veena: Originally meant any stringed instrument. The word is still used in Hindustani music for two plucked instruments – rudra veena, now largely displaced by surbahar, and vichitra veena like the sarod, a slide instrument – and for the mohan veena or Indian slide guitar.

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