A typical vocal performance

Although concerts in the Hindustani tradition all share certain commonalties, there are definite differences between vocal and instrumental concerts, so the two are described separately.

A Typical Vocal Performance

All Indian music ultimately aspires to the condition of vocal music. So it makes sense to talk about vocal performance first.

When the singer takes the stage, she (or he) will usually be joined by an accompanist (playing either harmonium or sarangi), a tabla player, and one or two tanpura players. Sometimes there will be a second singer as well. After tuning the instruments, the tanpuras will start to provide the drone, and the singer will begin the first raga.

In the khayal style, the most common type of classical vocal performance these days, the singer begins with a short alaap in which the characteristics of the raga are developed. She sings without words, concentrating on the notes of the raga, improvising within its structures. Each phrase that she sings is repeated by the accompanist.

When the raga has been properly introduced, the first composition will begin, with a text appropriate to the mood of the raga. The tabla enters in a very slow tempo - one cycle of the tala may take a minute or more. Although the singer is presenting a "composition", most of the music is still improvised, with the composition acting as a refrain for the improvised material.

Once the possibilities of the slow tala have been explored, the singer will start a second composition, still within the same raga, but faster and usually in a different tala. The focus of the performance will now shift somewhat to technical flourishes - taans (runs) and complex gamaks (ornaments). Depending on the raga and the mood of the singer, a third composition may follow.

Once the first raga is finished, the singer may present another raga in khayal style, or may present some lighter classical material. Light classical music includes bhajans (hymns), dhuns (folk tunes), ghazals (romantic poetry) and other types of music. These are usually rendered in a medium or fast tempo, and will not have a lengthy alaap. In light classical the emphasis is on presentation of the text, rather than presentation of the raga.

Dhrupad — Another Style of Vocal Performance

There is another style of Indian vocal music, known as Dhrupad, which is rarely heard. Dhrupad is an ancient style, predating Khayal by a number of centuries. In Dhrupad performance, the singer is accompanied by tanpura and pakhawaj (instead of tabla).

The performance begins with a long, complex alaap (often as long as instrumental alaaps) and the treatment of the compositions is different from khayal, focusing more on the nuances of the raga and the text, less on technical feats.

Qawwali — The Song of Sufism

Another vocal style related to Hindustani music is Qawwali. Considered another type of light classical music, Qawwali texts are typically related to Sufism (a mystical school of Islam), and sung in Urdu or Persian. A performance of Qawwali will involve one or two main singers, a chorus of up to ten other singers who join the main singers on refrains, a harmonium player, and a tabla or dholak player. These days, most Qawwalis come from Pakistan.