Indian classical music is always improvised. A soloist begins a performance by choosing an appropriate raga for the time and season, which determines the framework for the melody: which notes which will be used, which are most significant, and how they can be combined. A performance usually takes over an hour (sometimes much longer) to explore a raga’s notes and phrases, gradually increasing in speed and complexity. The exact structure is slightly different depending on whether it is an instrumental or vocal set.
Every performance begins with an alap, a slow, rhythmless exposition and exploration of the raga’s elements, generally with no accompaniment except tanpura.
Jor, Jhala, and Khyal
In instrumental performances, the second section (jor) begins to develop a slow rhythmic pulse, but not an actual beat. The tabla enters in the third section, a slow or medium (jhala), joining the soloist in a regular rhythmic cycle called a tala. A short composed melody called a gat or bandish alternates with improvisations of increasing speed and complexity, until the soloist switches, sometimes abruptly, to a different bandish, often with a different tala. In the second (fast) jhala, the set concludes with an exciting display of technical and improvisational virtuosity.
While the older vocal style of dhrupad has a jor-like section, there is no equivalent in khyal – a tala begins immediately after the alap. The second and third (slow khyal and fast khyal) sections each consist of two parts, sthai and antara. The most recognizable part of the sthai is the mukhra, a short catchy phrase leading to the sum, the first beat of the tala cycle. After singing the composition, the singer improvises, moving gradually up the raga’s scale and building in rhythmic density.