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Type of Singing Features of the style



The bhajan has a special place in India. Most bhajans were written between the 14th through 17th centuries. They are simple songs sung in the praise of God. Complex spiritual truths are portrayed in the simple language of the farmers, merchants and other common people of the time.

Bhajan is an important part of a Hindu revivalist movement which swept through India during the Mogul period; this movement was known as the Bhakti movement. The crux of this movement was simple; spiritual salvation was attainable to anyone who had a pure and selfless love of God. This salvation was not predicated upon formalised yagnas, pujas, knowledge of Sanskrit, or any of the characteristics of the older forms of Hinduism. This was a spiritual empowerment of the masses.

Bhajan is difficult to describe musically because it is not defined by any musical characteristics; it is defined by a sense of devotion (bhakti). Bhajans cover a broad spectrum of musical styles from the simple musical chant (dhun) to highly developed versions comparable to thumri.

The poetic content of the bhajan also covers a broad spectrum. The more traditional ones by great saint musicians such as Mira, Surdas, or Kabir are considered to be of the highest literary quality. Many modern ones, although more easily understood by the masses, usually have a literary value no greater than a typical film song (a popular form of music generated for the masses). The lowest poetic form is the dhun, which is actually nothing more than a musical version of a chant.

The structure of bhajan is very conventional. It contains a single sthai and numerous antara. The last antara has special significance because it contains the nom de plume of the author.



Dadra is a light classical style which is very similar to thumri. Although it resembles thumri it is much looser and allows more freedom for the artist. The tals used are dadra of 6 beats, kaherava of 8 beats, or any other light tal. It is commonly performed in light rags such as mand, pilu or pahadi.


Dholak is a very popular folk drum of northern India. It is barrel shaped with a simple membrane on the right hand side. The left hand is also a single membrane with a special application on the inner surface.

Dhammar is a very old style of singing. The name is also applied to instrumental renditions of the same. It has many similarities to dhrupad. The major difference is that it is slightly more romantic. Themes of dhammar typically revolve around Krishna and the Holi festival. In fact the dhammar is often called "hori" (holi). It is typically performed in dhammar tal of 14 beats. Dhammar, like its cousin the dhrupad, is rarely heard today.



Dhrupad is perhaps the oldest style of classical singing in north Indian music today. The heyday of this style was in the time of Tansen. It is a very heavy, masculine style performed to the accompaniment of the pakhawaj (an ancient mridang). It is known for its austere quality and strict adherence to the tal. The moods of dhrupad may vary but themes revolving around the victories of great kings and mythological stories are common. Devotional themes are also very common.

The dhrupad usually adheres to a four-part structure of sthai, antara, abhog, and sanchari. It is usually set to chautal of 12 beats, tivra of 7 beats, or sulfak of 10 beats. Occasionally one hears matt of 9 beats, or farodast of 14 beats. Its formal structure makes it a very difficult style to master. Unfortunately, this rigidity has also made it very difficult for the average person to appreciate. Today this style is almost extinct.


The ghazal is a common form in Indian and Pakistan. Strictly speaking it is not a musical form at all but a poetic recitation. However today it is commonly conceived of as an Urdu song whose prime importance is given to the lyrics.

History of the Ghazal
It is said that we must turn to Arabia to find the origins of the ghazal. The word ghazal is an Arabic word that literally means a "discourse" or more correctly a "talk to women". There was an Arabic form of poetry called qasida which came to Iran in about the 10th century. It dealt with the themes of the greatness of kings.

The qasida was at times unmanageably long. It was often 100 couplets or more. Therefore, a portion of the qasida, known as the tashib was detached and this became the ghazal. The ghazal soon became the most popular form of poetry in Iran.

Ghazal's introduction into India from the 12th century, was part of an ongoing revolution in North Indian society. India considered herself to be culturally inferior to greater Persia. Thus Persian culture became a great inspiration for India. The ghazal, along with many other cultural desiderata, were imported into India from the 12th to the 18th centuries. These forms were given a local colour by many Indian artists such as Amir Khusru, and continued to enjoy widespread popularity among Indian Muslims for many centuries.

Although the ghazal was introduced first in the north, the south is responsible for its Urdu character. The North Indian principalities were very much oriented toward Persian but it was in the south that Urdu was beginning to be used for literary purposes. It was in the courts of Golkonda, and Bijapur that this revolution occurred. Such leaders as, Nusrati, Wajhi, Hashmi, Mohammad Quli Qutab Shah, and Wali are notable in their patronage and contributions. Northern India began to embrace Urdu as a poetic language only in about the 19th century.

The process of converting this poetic form into a musical form was a slow one. In the 18th and 19th centuries the ghazal became associated the courtesan. The courtesans, known as tawaif, were considered the mavens of art, literature, dance, music, etiquette, and in short, all of the high culture. They were widely acclaimed for their musical abilities and did not hesitate to demonstrate these abilities when they performed the ghazal.

The decline in the feudal society at the end of the 19th and early 20th century brought with it a decline in the tawaif tradition. This change in culture also saw a change in the performance of ghazal. It continued to build upon its musical component, and began to be heard more and more in the concert hall.

The job of converting ghazal to a musical form was finished in the 20th century. The development of the recording and film industries created a mass media that was well suited to the musical ghazal. They also created an environment where it was convenient to treat the ghazal as though it were a mere git. All of this had tremendous economic advantages for performers and producers alike. Unfortunately it also created economic pressures to lower the standards for the lyrical content.

Structure of the Ghazal
The poetic structure of the ghazal is precise. It is based upon a series of couplets which are woven together by a precise rhyming structure. The overall form uses an introductory couplet, the body of couplets, and then an concluding couplet. We will look at these in greater detail.

The first couplet is always the most important, this is known as the matla. The matla is important because it establishes the overall form and mood of the entire ghazal. Occasionally there are two matlas, in which case the second one is referred to as the matla-e-sani.

Each subsequent couplet is linked to the matla in a well defined fashion. The second verse of each couplet must rhyme with this. Therefore if the rhyming structure of the matla is AA, then the subsequent couplets have the form BA, CA, DA, etc.

There is a convention in the ghazal known as the radif. This is a characteristic way that a portion of the first line (usually just two or three words) is maintained throughout the ghazal. However it is not always executed consistently. For instance if there is no radif, the form is said to be ghair-muraddaf, this form is very rare. If the exact same words are used in the radif, then it is said to be ham-radif.

The last couplet of the ghazal is very important, this is called the maqta. It usually contains the pen name (takhallus) of the poet. The maqta is usually a personal statement which may be very different in tone from the rest of the ghazal. Today it is becoming more common to leave off the maqta.

There are a few common themes in the ghazal. Typically they revolve around unrequited love, madness, mystical ruminations and even social commentaries ridiculing religious orthodoxy. Certainly the most common is unrequited love. However, within each ghazal the theme of each couplet need not be consistent. Each couplet may be thought of as a thematic vignette that need not relate to it adjacent couplets.

Although the themes of each couplet in a ghazal are usually distinct, there are some occasions where there is consistency. The Nazm is an example of a style that exhibits remarkable consistency in its thematic approach. A more common type of thematic connection is known as qita. Still, the norm is for each couplet to stand alone thematically.

Musical Form
The musical form of the ghazal is variable. The older more traditional ghazals were very similar to other Hindustani light classical forms such as the dadra or, thumri. One often finds forms that are similar to qawwali. They are typically in a variety of light classical rags. However today, the ghazal usually has a form which is not too dissimilar to many film songs. Such forms are usually decried by the purists because they usually display a bastardisation of the lyrics and a careless disregard of the forms.

The rhythmic forms (tal) of the modern ghazal are invariably of the lighter forms. One typically finds rupak (7 beats), dadra (6 beats) and kaherava 8 beats being used to the near exclusion of everything else.



A geet may, or may not be considered a distinct style of song. The word "geet" actually means "song". However, there is a tendency to use the term for many of the lighter styles which do not fit the rigid classification of the more classical forms. The geet need not be based upon a raga. It is usually set to the lighter taals.


Khayal has a special place in Indian music. The near extinction of the dhrupad and dhammar styles has made it the de facto standard for classical music. It is probably the most improvised of the Indian styles. There are two major movements of kheyal. There is an extremely slow section which is called vilambit, or bada kheyal: and a fast section called drut or chotta kheyal. The vilambit section is extremely slow and usually played in ektal of 12 beats. Occasionally, other tals such as jhumra of 14 beats are heard but this is most rare. The fast section is usually played in drut tintal or drut ektal.



The Kirtan or Dhun is related to the bhajan. The major difference is that bhajan is usually performed by a soloist, while kirtan and dhun usually involve the audience. The musical quality is consequently much simpler to accommodate the uncertain musical abilities of the participants. The term Kirtan is used by Hindus and Sikhs, while the term Dhun seems to be used only by Hindus, especially Gujaratis.


Qawwali is the traditional form of Islamic song found in India and Pakistan. The word qawwali is derived from the Arabic word Qaol which means "axiom" or "dictum". A Qawwal is one who sings qawwali, or the dictums of the prophets and praises of God. The Qawwali is closely linked to the spiritual and artistic life of northern India and Pakistan.

Spiritual Aspect
The qawwali is inextricably linked to the Sufi tradition; Sufism is a mystical school of Islamic thought which strives to attain truth and divine love by direct personal experience. In Arabic, this mysticism is known as tasawwuf. The difference between Sufism and mainstream Islam is simple. All Muslims believe that man is on a path to God (tariqah). However where the mainstream Muslim believes that it is only possible to reach God after death at the final judgement, the Sufi believes that it is possible to reach God during ones life. To this end there are a number of different techniques and methods.

The Koran instructs man to remember God. This remembrance, known as dhikr, may be either silent of vocal. The qawwali may be viewed as an extension of the vocal form of this remembrance. The use of music as a spiritual force was discussed in great length by al-Gazali(1085-1111).

By the end of the 11th century there arose the tradition of the sama. The sama was often a spiritual concert, which included a vocalist, and instrumentalists. These samas took place under the direction of a spiritually respected man (shaikh).

There is a very specific psychological process which a qawwali follows. One starts with the singing of the song. In this psychological state the song is received in a manner that is not unlike standard forms of musical expression. The words are sung, quite repeatedly with variations intended to bring out deeper means of the lyrics. After awhile there is a repetition to the extent that the words cease to have a meaning; It is the goal here to lead the listener and performer alike into a trance (hal). In the ideal situation the participant is moved to a state of spiritual enlightenment (fana).

The origins of qawwali probably predate the birth of Muhammad. The earliest Islamic scholars discussed the spiritual effects of music, but it was only in the time of al-Gazali(1085-1111) that these principles were refined and codified.

These principles were then expanded by the Chisti school of Sufism. It is this order that has been responsible for the propagation of the qawwali in India and Pakistan for then last few centuries.

The Chisti school was established by Khwaj Moinuddin Hasan Chisti (1143-1234). It is said that he was born in Sijistan. At a young age he was influenced by several saintly men, including Ibrahim Qahandazi, and Shaikh Abdul Qadir Jilli. He immigrated to Delhi and became a very respected saint. He later grew tired of the life in Delhi and withdrew to the peace and quite of Ajmer (Rajasthan) where he lived the remainder of his days.

One of the followers of the Chisti school was a man by the name of Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya (1236-1325). He was born in Budaun, but at the age of 20 he moved to Ajodhan and became a disciple of Fariduddin Ganj-i-Shakkar. It is said that it was here that he received the key to inner illumination. He was then sent to Delhi to instruct the populous. Here he acquired a reputation for using music in his devotional gatherings. This created a great amount of friction with the more orthodox Islamic elements in Delhi.

Nizamuddin Auliya was, and still is, a source of inspiration for countless people. Even today there is an annual gathering at his tomb.

One man who was inspired by the Hazrat Nizamuddin was Amir Khusru (1254-1324). He was born in Mominpur (Patiala). His father was originally from Turkey, this gave the young boy a broader exposure to the rest of the Islamic world. His father died when he was eight years old, whereupon the job of raising him fell to his maternal grandfather. Amir Khusru was a legendary musician, statesman and philosopher. It is said that he was the advisor to 11 rulers of Delhi, particularly the rulers of the Khilji Dynasty (Deva 1973-76).

Amir Khusru is so important to the development of qawwali that he is often (erroneously) said to be the inventor of it. It is said that he mixed the various musical elements from Turkey, greater Persia and India together. Even today, we find the curious mixture of Persian moqquams with Indian ragas.

The development of the qawwali up to the latter part of the Mogul empire closely parallels the development of the Hindu religious song known as bhajan. We find parallels in musical form and social settings. The degree of cross influence is so great that some musician / saints such as Kabir (circa 1440-1518) are to this day revered by Hindus and Muslims alike.

The tradition of qawwali has had numerous ups and downs. One particularly hard time was during the reign of Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb is known for his Islamic fundamentalism. The liberal traditions of the Sufis were not well received by this emperor. He took the fundamentalist injunction against music very seriously.

Aurangzeb's dislike of music is well illustrated in a common story. It appears that during his administration a group of musicians, disheartened with their lack of patronage, took some musical instruments and wrapped them in the manner of a corpse and held a funeral procession in protest. Aurangzeb enquires about the procession and is told it is a burial to signify the death of music. Whereupon it is said that the emperor declares, "Good! bury it so deep that never a sound should be heard again."

The collapse of the Mogul empire and political fragmentation under the British was both good and bad for the qawwals. On one hand the political disarray meant that a major suppression of their artform was impossible, yet it also meant that their patronage was also uneven.

The rising film industry in the middle of the 20th century was a major vehicle for the rise in popularity of the qawwali. There was a period when a qawwali was a mandatory part of the formula Hindi films.

The film industry influenced the development of the qawwali in several ways. It is interesting to note that since the environment of the cinema house precluded the artist /audience interaction, it set the precedent for the more detached quality that characterises modern performances. The filmi qawwali also set the precedent for the "showy" quality that one finds in modern performances. Another effect of the filmi qawwali was the downgrading of the religious / devotional aspect. A typical example of a filmi qawwali is "Sharam ke kyun Sab" from "Chaudvin ka Chand".

The secularisation of the qawwali is an interesting phenomenon. One can see that the seeds of its secularisation are inherent in the qawwali itself. Themes of qawwali have traditionally revolved around very mundane or even coarse occurrences. However the coarseness of the situations have always been interpreted as the coarse spiritual existence of our daily lives. The modern secular qawwali tends to strip the themes of their metaphorical and allegorical character thus producing a shallow yet commercially marketable entity.

Performance Characteristics
The performance of a qawwali is typically a group situation. This is different from a classical performance which revolves around one person. Within this group situation there is one main vocalist or qawwal, and a group of supporting vocalist. The audience too is considered a participant in this event.

The musical accompaniment is varied; harmonium, tabla, dholak, sarangi, saringda, and rabab, are common instruments. Furthermore, a simple clapping of the hands is a ubiquitous rhythmic support.

There are several tals in common use in the qawwali. The most common is the fast dadra tal of 6 beats or the fast kaherava of four or eight beats. Unlike the more cerebral, classical forms these tals are played in such a way that they produce a driving hypnotic beat.

Although the qawwali is not a classical form of singing, it does have some common elements. One finds fast taans, meend gamaks and the other forms of ornamentation which are typical of Hindustani performances.

The structure of the qawwali is also similar to the classical forms. It typically starts with the alap. This portion has no rhythm and is intended to create the right environment. One then moves into the main portion of the performance; this is usually in a medium tempo. The pace slowly increases until a state of extreme excitement is produced.

It is very common for audience members, moved by their state of ecstasy to give money to the performers. This is known as vel. The performance continues without stopping.

The most common rags used in qawwalis today are bilawal, khammaj, kafi, and kalyan. However one often finds rags which are more in common with the modal forms of Persia or Afghanistan.




Shabad is a style similar to bhajan. However, these songs are popular among the Sikhs, while the bhajan is found among the Hindus.

The word "shabad" literally means "word". As such it represents the verbal description of the nature of God. This is generally from the Guru Granth Sahib which is the holy book of the Sikhs. The shabad is also referred to as "Gurbani" which literally means "Message of the Teacher".

The philosophy of the shabad and its relationship to spiritual growth is extremely sophisticated. It is said that it takes a tremendous amount of study, devotion, and meditation to truly understand the significance of the Gurbani. This is because, by its very nature, it embraces the infinite qualities of God.

The shabad has historically been performed in very traditional styles. The Guru Granth Sahib, is very specific in the rags that the various shabads are to be sung in. These are very typical of the more classical rags of north Indian music (Hindustani Sangeet). The traditional shabads are also in the more classical tals, such as teentaal and ektaal.

There is a modern tendency to perform the shabad in lighter forms. The latitude that is sometimes taken is very great. Some merely perform the shabad in rags different from those specified in the Guru Granth Sahib. However other performers, either due to ignorance or commercial considerations, perform the shabad in very light styles. Sometimes these forms resemble more the film song, or the folk song, rather than the austere and meditative rags specified in the Guru Granth Sahib.

There is a special class of performers whose duties are to sing the shabads; these are known as raagis. It is a very difficicult task to be a good raagi because it requires a rare combination of musical training, raw talent, years of study of the scriptures, and a high level of spiritual development. It is obvious that such a combination is a rare.


Tappa is a light classical style which is declining in popularity. It is basically a classical style of music from the Punjab.



Tarana is based upon the use of meaningless syllables in a very fast rendition. There is an interesting legend concerning its origin:

The story refers to a music competition during the time of Allaudin Khilji. It had come down to two finalists; a Hindu by the name of Gopal Nayak, and a Muslim named Amir Khusru. Gopal Nayak was well aware that he was up against a formidable opponent. He therefore sang a very fast song in Sanskrit, knowing quite well that Amir Khusru did not know the language. Amir Khusru then sang the same song, note for note, but substituting Persian words for the Sanskrit. The resulting performance was thrilling even though it was unintelligible. In this way, Amir Khusru won the competition and invented tarana.

This legend is entertaining but highly unlikely. It is likely that the transformation from intelligible Persian lyrics to the present unintelligible syllables took a long time.

Tarana is found all over India. In south Indian music it is called tillana or thillana and is commonly used in dance performances.



Thumri is a common style of light classical music. The text is romantic and devotional in nature, and usually revolves around a girl's love for Krishna. The language is a dialect of Hindi called Brij bhasha.

This style is characterized by a greater flexibility with the rag. The compositions are usually set to kaherava of 8 beats, addha tal of 16 beats, or dipchandi of 14 beats. It arose in popularity during the 19th century.


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