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Appreciating Indian Classical Music

Laya in Indian Classical Music

In the context of Khayal Vocal Music

Sur/Swar (notes and their accuracy) and Laya (meter/tempo) are the two foundational pillars of any form of music across the world. While one may believe in laying greater importance to intonations and their accuracy, it is the meter that determines the relation between two successive Swars. In Indian Classical Music (ICM), sometimes even an apparently free flowing, unbound improvisation has an intrinsic meter, without which the phraseology loses its aesthetic and emotional character. This relationship can be equated to human speech, where a definite flow is established for any word or sentence to make sense.   

Laya, as the meter is known in ICM, is primarily classified into three major divisions, namely Vilambit Laya (slow tempo), Madhya Laya (medium tempo) and Drut Laya (fast tempo), based on the intervallic distances between two beats. Different forms/genres (Dhrupad, Khayal, Tarana, etc.) in Hindustani Classical Music use all the three divisions of laya based on the requirement of the form.

It must be noted that the definition of what range of speeds constitutes the ‘Madhyalaya’ is very vague and subjective. A tempo that a certain school finds fast might be considered medium tempo by another tradition.

Khayal, the most popular form in present times and as heard today, is believed to have evolved around the 18th Century CE, borrowing elements from Sadharan Geeti, Dhrupad and Qawwali. Taalas like Teentaal, Ekaal, Tilwada, Jhoomra, Ada Chautaal, Jhaptaal and Roopak are commonly used in this form. Based on the tempo, Khayal is divided into Vilambit and Madhya/Drut Khayal. Performances usually open with a brief introductory Alap in the chosen Raga, followed by a Vilambit (or Madhya-Vilambit) Khayal and then a Drut Khayal or Tarana composition. 

Different Gharanas or Schools of Khayal singing have different preferences with regards to the Taals and their Laya. The relation established between melody and rhythm also varies from Gharana to Gharana. One can quote the concept of the Swar-to-Laya continuum by Pandit Vamanrao Deshpande, to understand the association of melody and rhythm across different traditions.

Graphical representation of Pt. Vamanrao Deshpande’s continuum for melodic and rhythmic orientations among major Gharana traditions.

From the graphic above, one can observe that Agra, Gwalior and Jaipur lay greater importance to rhythm in comparison to other traditions. This does not imply that other traditions neglect rhythm altogether. It only suggests that the dynamics of melody and rhythm in these traditions are more direct and macroscopic. 

As mentioned earlier, a steady flow is essential for any expression to become meaningful, whether linguistically or musically. Extrapolating this, one can assume that an expression manifests itself optimally at a tempo that is neither too fast nor too slow, i.e. Madhyalaya. 

Most Khayal Gharanas preferred a slow-medium tempo for their improvisatory elaboration; with an abundant use of Behlava (a flowy sequence of notes connected using heavy glides).

While the slow-medium pace did not permit the scope of minute filigree work, it enabled the establishment of an absolute relation of melody and rhythm, thereby making the music sound more flamboyant.

Owing to the similarities in pacing of their Vilambit and Drut renditions, the more elaborative piece came to be known as ‘Bada’ Khayal and the concise one as ‘Chhota’ Khayal. Kirana Gharana, known for its penchant for melody, reduced the pace of their renditions to accommodate a prolonged resonance (‘Aas’) of Swars and filigree ornamentations like Murkee and Khatka. (Orthodox traditions consider finer embellishments a taboo in Khayal, owing to its origin from Dhrupad.

However, ‘Murak/Murkee’ and ‘Khatka’, in judicious proportions, have been accepted by all traditions). 

Another important benefit that the Madhyalaya offers is the accuracy of the meter. In slower tempos particularly, Indian musicians divide the interval between two beats into four parts for convenience. It must be noted that this is a mental calculation, usually indicated by subtle fillers by percussionists. However, if the intervallic gaps become too large, chances of the accuracy of the meter getting disturbed increase. One has come across an anecdote of Ustad Natthan Khan, one of the most reputed musicians of the Agra Gharana, who was amongst the earliest musicians to drastically reduce the Laya of his renditions. Once, while being accompanied by Ustad Muzaffar Khan on Tabla, Ustad Natthan Khan gestured him to play freely and embellish the Theka (fixed syllable cycle of each Taal) with small Phirats (subtle variations of the syllables from those used in the Theka). Ustad Muzaffar Khan replied, “Janaab, iss Laya mein Theka sambhalna hi mushkil ho raha hai, Phirat kaise bajaun!” (It is extremely difficult to play the basic syllable cycle with accuracy in this meter, how should I play the variations?). 

This was until Ustad Abdul Waheed Khan and Ustad Amir Khan introduced the Ati-Vilambit (extremely slow paced) usage of Taal Jhoomra for their Khayals.  One would wonder how Ustad Amir Khan managed to sing effortlessly in the slow tempo he is known for. There are two important aspects of looking into this. First, Ustad Amir Khan’s music, except in the initial stages when he dwells into the lower and middle octave, creates an illusion of slowness rather than actually being that slow. This is identical to the stage of playing Laggi-s in Thumri, which creates an illusion of the music suddenly becoming faster, while in fact, the vocalist is singing in the same meter. Only the intervallic distances between the two strokes of Tabla have reduced. Ustad Amir Khan’s music creates a reverse illusion. His music is replete with Behlava and short bursts of embellished phrases, identical to that found in traditions like Gwalior. Since the intervals between two successive syllables of Jhoomra have widened, it creates a mirage of his Gayaki being extremely slow, while in fact it is slow-medium.

Secondly, in traditions with an evident melody-to-rhythm relation, each musical thought goes in synchronization with the structure of the rhythmic cycle, capped by an opening (‘Uthaan’) and closing (‘Aamad’). Musicians call this concept ‘Avartan bharna’. Going a step further, each such musical idea is put in a way that continues or develops the preceding design (this concept is called ‘Upaj’).

The preferred tempo of the rhythm-oriented styles (particularly Gwalior) is pacier and thus, their musical thoughts span over two (or even three) rhythmic cycles.

It is likely that in order to avoid such repeated openings and closings in a tapered span of time, the two maestros reduced the Laya of the syllable cycle drastically, thereby providing them more space to express their musical thoughts in a leisurely manner.

However, each rhythmic cycle in ICM has a unique personality, characterized by its Khaali-Bhari sections, which blossoms only in a narrow range of Laya-s. Addha, Teentaal, Tilwada, etc., for instance, have the same number of beats (sixteen). However, Tilwada is suitable only for Madhya – Vilambit Khayals (as preferred in the Gwalior style). At slower or brisker speeds, it will lose its inherent character. Likewise, each Taal has an optimum range of speed, beyond which, it becomes merely a specific number of beats.

In this recording of Ustad Amir Khan’s rendition of Raga Komal Rishabh Asawari, the Tabla accompanist has played a thirteen beat-cycle throughout the rendition instead of the fourteen of Taal Jhoomra, which, unless noticed carefully, does not affect the aesthetic beauty of the rendition because the Taal has lost its character.

Teentaal and Ektaal are perhaps the most versatile rhythmic cycles, finding their use in the widest range of speeds.  

The Jaipur-Atrauli tradition, founded by Ustad Alladiya Khan, is known for the skilful way of utilizing the intervals between two Maatras (beats) through an abundant use of off-beat accentuations. The Laya preferred is slow-medium and the melody-to-rhythm relation is direct.

However, all rhythmic cycles preferred in the Jaipur style (Teentaal, Ada Chautaal, Jhaptaal, Roopak) for their Vilambit renditions are paced in more-or-less the same Laya, which reduces them to merely seven or ten or fourteen beats.

At extreme fast (Drut and Ati-Drut) tempos, consistency of the intervallic gaps is not a problem. But at high speeds, it becomes difficult to maintain the lucidity of expressions.

The clarity and accuracy of notes, their relations with each other, and correctness of the phraseology of the Raga are some important and non-negotiable parameters that may get impacted. Taans, usually sung at double or quadruple the pace of the Laya, are sung in equivalent Laya in Sitar-Ang Taranas or Qawwali-Ang Khayal compositions. Even then, chances of missing the desired syllable remain high due to the lilting rhythm.

In an era where extreme (slow and fast) Laya-s are a rage, a musician must think about the limitations they offer. Ustad Alladiya Khan, who was fond of fast Taans in his youth, was advised by a senior musician to practice in Madhyalaya to be able to maintain musicality of his expressions at an advanced age. Gaan Saraswati Shrimati Kishori Amonkar has mentioned in her documentary that Madhyalaya is ideal for average human breath-retention. Back in the day, musicians knew and sang innumerable compositions in slow-medium tempo, which alas, is becoming a rarity of late. 

About the Curator:

Bhavik began learning music at the age of 10. His initial training was under the guidance of Shri. Kishor Chotaliya, and later from Shri. Jay Sevak. He is fortunate to be learning the nuances of Agra, Gwalior and Jaipur Gharanas from veteran vocalist, Pandit Arun Kashalkar. Since 2017, he is also receiving training from Professor Ojesh Pratap Singh, a senior disciple of Padma Shri. Pandit. Ulhas Kashalkar.

A B.Tech in Biotechnology by qualification, Bhavik switched fields to pursue music full time and is currently doing his Ph.D. from University of Delhi. He has performed for various prestigious organizations at Rajkot, Jamnagar, Palanpur, Mumbai, Nashik, Solapur, and Delhi.


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13 replies on “Laya in Indian Classical Music”

Bhavikbhai, Nice contentful write-up with a studious approach supported with examples. Liked it. Looking forward to read more..

Thank you so much, Charu Dada. आपके समान विचारवंत कलाकार का अभिप्राय बेशकीमती है।

Very well written and enriched with full package of knowledge which can only be possessed by ‘authentic taleem.’ Bhavik ji, we need more articles like this from you 🙏🏻

Bhavikbhai I very much like this. Although I have not received training I have gone into this topic which is interesting. This will enrich my study.

I extend my sincere acknowledgements to all for their valuable feedback. Honoured to have it from respected seniors like Shailaja ji, Shri. Sharad Chaturvedi Sir and Surendra Kaka.

Thank you very much for a very well explained and illuminating written composition!
Beautiful illustrative recordings.

Thanks for sharing your insights and for articulating them so well. My comments:

1. Your explanation for why Ustad Amir Khan’s music appears to be slow, when in reality it is not so, was particularly illuminating (although in retrospect, it is such a no-brainer :)). Also, I had also never paid much attention to the taal in Khansaheb’s rendition of Komal Rishab Asawari during my previous listenings – the profusion of tirakiTas had lulled me into thinking that it was jhoomra 🙂 Thanks for pointing out that it is a 13-matra theka that is being played.

2. The pros and cons of various layas have also been articulated well and illustrated with apt examples. I was not able to understand one point that you have made, though – what exactly do you mean by “chances of missing the desired syllable remain high due to the lilting rhythm”? I request you to elaborate on this.

3. This last one is a quibble – titling this article as ‘Laya in Khayal’ would have been apt. While ‘khayal’ is the dominant form of vocal Hindustani Music, by equating it to ICM, albeit unintentionally, we are guilty of perpetuating the practice of giving short shrift to other genres/forms of Hindustani Music such as dhrupad and instrumental music, as well as Carnatic Music, in discussions such as these.

I look forward to more such articles from you. Best wishes!

Hello Sir. Thank you for taking out time to read the piece and posting an in-depth review about it. I shall try to adress each point you’ve made in your review:

1. Much agreed that the illusion is a no-brainer. Despite that, Khan saheb’s artistry was of such a superior level that unless someone points out this aspect, it remains elusive (in my case, it was my Guru Pandit Arun Kashalkar who enlightened me). One can become so immersed in his meditative music that this aspect remains hidden unless pointed out.

2. What I meant by “missing the desired syllable lilting rhythm” is that when the Laya is too fast, there are high chances of the vocalists misjudging the calculations of his musical thought (usually Layakari or Baant) and land a beat here or there. Taking nothing away from the musicianship of any practitioner, I personally find ideal calculations a result of reflex (or a well rehearsed Upaj) more often than not, rather than perfectly executed improvisation at such speeds.

3.I once again agree to your point. The original title of my piece was about Madhyalaya in context of Khayal Gayaki. However, after I few edits (which included the title), I seem to have overlooked it. Although, when I shared this piece on social media, I did mention it this way. Thank you for pointing out.

Sincere regards.

desired syllable due to* the lilting rhythm.

vocalist* misjudging

after a* few edits

Fat fingers. Please beg me pardon the typos.

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