Login with Google

Is Khayāl A Dhrupad Form?

April 17, 2023 Authored by: Dr. Subroto Roy


Present is a working paper on how Indian music was Islamised, but only on the surface as the Islamists did not have the knowledge, skill, or imagination to go beyond nominal changes. Yet most Indians, uneducated in our ancient traditions lapped this narrative up and gave it currency. Here are arguments to show that Khayāl is a name given by the Islāmists, to a rather attractive Dhrupad  form of singing which existed before the plunder of this part of the world began. I posit that Khayāl is a misnomer for a different class of, nothing but Dhrupad. I justify this mainly with common sense arguments and some technical ones. Factually, the renaming of a Brajo-Saṅskrit vocal tradition into Arabic ‘Khayāl’ finds a phenomenal parallel in Pdt. Tānsen’s renaming. He was addressed as Miyān Tānsen without being able to religious conversion, to present him as a proselytised Muslim. Metaphorically, speaking, Rām was renamed as Rahim without despite failing in proselytisation. A separate project to find the original name of Khayāl is needed, but out of the scope of this paper although we are told by learned sources that Bharat Nāṭya Śāstra’s ‘Lāvaṇi’ is the same as today’s ‘Khayāl’. In fact, Ćunnulāl Miśrā of Kāśi demonstrates this song form with great mastery even today. In this, the paper considers altered perceptions of India’s intangible heritage affected for ulterior religious and/or political ends, as more critical than those of tangible heritage. It tries to expose a typical case of misappropriation of India’s intangible heritage and makes some recommendations.

Key Words: Dhrupad, Khayāl, Rāg, Alankār, Tān, Māngniār, Langār, Svar, Tāl, Lay, Āvartan


Present is a working paper titled ‘Islamisation of Indian Music’. I show how superficial the attempts were and how Islamists did not have the knowledge, skill, or imagination to go beyond nominal changes. Yet most Indians, uneducated in our ancient traditions lapped this narrative up and gave it currency. that Khayāl is a name given by the Islāmists who wanted to misappropriate the rich heritage of Bhārata by faking narratives. It gave a Quranic name ‘Khayāl’ to an existing attractive Dhrupad (D) vocal music form that came down from the Vegasvarā Gān form of Gāndharva Gān.   I justify this mainly with the help of common sense and musicologicalarguments.

The renaming of a Brajo-Saṅskrit vocal tradition into Arabic ‘Khayāl’ is signalled in Tānsen’s (Rāmtanu or Tannāmiśra Pānḍe)renaming. He is being addressed nomadays as ‘Miyān Tānsen’ perhaps to give the impression that he had indeed converted to Islām. However, in many official documents such as Tānsen’s portrait (one in Delhi’ National Museum and Mumbai’s Prince of Wales Museum) he is referred to as Kalāwant Tānsen. It is important to note here that one does not find any evidence to show his conversion. 

A separate project to find the original name of Khayāl is needed which is out of the scope of this paper although we are told by learned sources that Bharat Nātya Śāstra’s ‘Lāvaṇi’ is the original name of today’s ‘Khayāl’. In fact, Ćunnulāl Miśrā of Kāśi demonstrates this song form with great mastery.

The present article inaugurates a larger project on a related subject.

Basic Questions 
Now, what is the origin of the word ‘Khayāl? It is an Arabic, rather a Quranic word. What is the literal meaning of ‘Khayāl’? I quote. ‘Khayāl is an Arabic name for boys and girls that means “imagination”, “fantasy”, “vision”, “thought”.’

So, does the word ‘Khayāl’ describe efficiently the vocal tradition which we have inherited from our forefathers? What we inherited in this vocal music form is not merely ‘imagination’, ‘fantasy’, ‘vision’, or “thought”. Even all these meanings put together fails to describe the vocal tradition in question. The word is not a term, but just a name given evidently without cultural or technical coherence with this music.


A New Name for the Deficient word  ‘Khayāl’

I open my arguments by giving some obvious failings of the word ‘Khayāl’ in describing the highly sophisticated and evolved vocal music.

The most obvious failing of the word is that it is not a term, but merely a name ignorantly given without any knowledge of the cultural contexts and/or technicalities of the music. Culturally, Rasa is its inseparable part which concept has origins in India and not Arab. The source of Rasa in this case is Rāga. ‘Khayāl’ does not represent the idea of Rāga which has set rules for effective cultural communication based on which one can expand organically. ‘Imagination’ as a definition of such a song is too general to describe this  efficiently.

The name fails to factor in voice training which involves great regimentation in very hard work that goes into it and not merely semantic matrix of ‘Khayāl’ given above. The definition is silent about the concept of bandiś which is too well structured to be a ‘fantasy’. The description ‘thought’ is,  again, too general to comprehend the specificity of bandiś and the philosophy that goes into this music. 
Bandiś is based on specific historical, purānic, and śāstraic contexts which makes ‘Khayāl’ a complete outsider. Musicologically, bandiś is set to a fixed tālāvartan, which can’t go without one or more ćanda/-s, and whose morphology probably has Sām Vedic roots in the idea of ‘bāndh’? Philosophically āvartan is a rather deep and ancient concept that originates in Ved. The definitions of ‘Khayāl’ above are ignorantly silent on these aspects.

Mastery over any form of D possible after a long training under an able and established guru who puts the student through great degree of rigour for long hours and none of the above descriptions signify this fact either. This tradition of guru-śiśya comes from an ancient Indian system of education. The imaginative part in ‘Khayāl’ is possible for the śiśya after diligently following the above regime, yet it comes only in sparks.

The other words ‘fantasy’, ‘vision’, and ‘thought’ even put together only minimally describe all the above which are inseparable parts of ‘Khayāl’ singing. This shows a complete lack of understanding of the nature of this art by Islāmists. Moreover, all the definitions of ‘Khayāl’ are applicable to any art, philosophy, creative endeavour, etc. Hence the term is too general to describe or identify the specific singing and song that constitute this art.

As such the name ‘Khayāl’ is inappropriate, incomplete, alien, too general, and simplistic. It is inappropriate because the vocal music form is much more than what the meanings of the word ‘Khayāl’ are and even imply. Incomplete, because it does not describe even a small fraction of what the form  actually is. Alien, because it is not Saṅskrit, but Arabic. The Arabic name does not suggest a major part of the art and is not specific because it does not pin down the essential features of the form. The name was given despite the fact that all Rāga-s, svara-s, śruti-s, rules (daśak niyam) etc. all have Saṅskrit names and a majority of bandiś-es are purely of Indian and not Arabic contexts.


Who was he?

Hazrat Abu’l Hasan Yaminuddin Khusro

Order: Chishti

Born: 651 AH/1253-4 AD Patiyali, Uttar Pradesh, India

Passed away: 18 Shawwal 725 AH/27 September 1325 AD Delhi, India

Resting place: Delhi, India

Urs: 17 to 19 Shawwal

Predecessor:  Nizamuddin Auliya

So, we must know when and how the misnomer ‘Khayāl’ was given to this highly evolved and complex form of vocal music. I as a student of ‘Khayāl’ for over 20 years have seldom encountered compositions of Amir Khusrau (Twelfth Century). We have heard some popular  quavvali numbers of Khusrau. It is to be noted that Sufi movement does not have any music of its own, but employs the music of the cultural area they want to spread their religious message through their characteristic poetry. Moreover, if Sufi follows Shari-a, it cannot accept music.

It is rumoured that Khusrau created ‘Khayāl’. An immediate question is where did he learn Rāg so well as to create a new art form? We know very well that even to create a new composition it takes years of training, talent, and deep contemplation. So how did Khusrau find time to do all this and under whose guidance within his military operations? It is rumoured that Gopāl Nāyak, who lived in Vijay Nagar under the then King’s patronage, was summoned to teach Khusrau. There are strong counter claims, regarding this second rumour. It appears that Nāyak never taught him. So Iltutumish/Altamash forced him to teach Khusrau. However, this was a move by Nāyak and taught little considering a master of his stature was being forced to teach.

‘Khayāl’ – A Dhrupad Variant (DV)

Considering all the above, I term ‘Khayāl’, in this article, as Dhrupad Variant (DV)

Family trees of all the so-called gharānā-s of DV are given every where. Most of them claim their family origins to Tānsen who was born and died a Brāhmaṇa and whose one famous son was Vilās and famous daughter was Saraswati. It is common knowledge that a large chunk of DV bandiś-es are actually Ds.

D v/s DV

It must be noted that a very considerable number of D bandiś-es are either sung without much change by DV singers. For instance, the ādanā Sūl Tāl bandiś ‘parata lankā…’ set to Sūl Tāl. Also take the case of Sārang bandiś ‘lāl mori gail…’  set to Dhamār Tāl. This was taught to me as a DV in the Gwālior tradition. But I have heard this sung by Pdt. Uday Bhawālkar in a Guru-Purṇimā concert. My first D guru Ustād Sayēduddin Ḍāgar had told me and publicly that the bandiś ‘Hari ke Ćarana Kamala…’ in Śri Rāg made famous by Pdt. D V Paluskar is originally a D under the Sadrā type. Many times bandiś meters are converted into meters differing from D merely in terms of arrangement rather than temporal bases. For instance, I get the strong sense of a Dhamār when I sing Sadārang’s Bhūp bandiś ‘e barana barana ki…’  converted into an ādā ćowtāl DV; both set to 14 mātrā-s.

In some eminent cases a 12 count cycle is converted into a 16 count cycle with some extensions in vowels or addition of meaningful or meaningless words like ‘eri’ and ‘ey’, respectively. Niyāmat Khān and famous as Sādārang (probably a grandson of Pdt. Tānsen is believed to have as composed numerous DV-s. He was a D singer and never ever sang the DV, a story although accepted by many seems incredulous to state the least. I tend to believe that all of Sadārang’s compositions were essentially Ds, but were sung as DVs. This is because I hear many D singers singing compositions made by Sadārang in the D format. Either, these singers are picking up his DVs and passing them of as Ds, or they’re originally Ds and not DVs.

Usual Differences Pointed our between D & DV

It is often said that in DV one encounters ‘aśṭāng gāyaki’ while this is not the case in D. This is far from the truth. The Late Ustād Rahim Fahimuddin Ḍāgar has gone on record saying that Dhrupad includes 51 alankāra-s and comprehends all that we see in Hindustāni music today.

When one listens to the D compositions of the Nāthadvāra, tān-like patterns are clear. Also, the mēnḍ which is the prime embellishment (mukhya alankār), is employed in DV profusely, and is considered genetically related to the other gamaka-s, is actually the hallmark of D. All the gamaka-s found in DV are integral to D. The sapāt tān which is the hallmark of the Gwalior Gharānā as also of the PatiālaGharānā can be witnessed in D ālāp practice with slight difference in focus. Khaṭkā is used in D as it was even in Sām Gān. All the other alankāra-s and more can be encountered in D, barring the murki (as far as I know).

It is made out that Amir Khusrau created the so-called ‘Khayāl’ form. So, by the above argument should we assume that the murki was added to D and the DV was created? But just on the basis of this small difference on cannot claim that a new form has been created.

We can say this, given the fact that during Khusrau, tān as we encounter today, was not part of DV. But in fact, it precedes Khusrau because Nāthdvāra, and the Māngniar-s and Langār-s already had it. Tān patterns are practiced by all D students even today. So, to say that it came into Khusrau’s tān-less ‘Khayāl’ from Quavvāli is a superfluous argument. As a corollary, one can also say that Quavvali was not needed to add the tān in DV because at least two alternative sources existed before Khusrau – the Māngniār & Langār on the one side and D of various types on the other.
Importantly Carnatic vocalism is full of tān patterns. This art music comes from the Vegasvarārā Gīti type among the four ancient types of Gāndharva singing. It literally means ‘swift movement song’. So, to claim that tān was given by Quavvali into DV is not true.

Commonalities in D & DV

I enlist common fundamentals of both the forms of vocal music here which existed before the Islāmists came into India:

Svar: Śruti, Nād, Dhvani

Ras: Nav Ras (The rāg-ras relationship)

Tāl: Sam, Tāli, Khāli, Mātrā, Khand, etc

Lay: Vilambit, Madhya, Drut (broadly)

Āvartan: Cyclic

Rāg: Most Rāga-s are sung by both

Bandiś: Conceptually the same, majority thematic coherence, metric coherence, majority poetic coherence

Ālāp: Original Gwalior tradition of DV follows bol-ālāp like D. Elaborate Rāg exploration only in D and ‘gharānā-s’ later to Gwālior DV. The newer ‘gharanā-s’ borrowed pre-bandiś rāgālāp from D in some cases with the phonemes (ā, ra, na, nā, etc). Other later ones dropped them and using only ākār ālāp within the bandiś; e.g. the Jaipur Gharānā.

Tān: Both use different forms with common names like ‘gamak’, etc.

Alankār: Mēnd is the main embellishment in both from which all the other alankara-s are generated.

Upaj: Extempore improvisation is the hallmark of ālāp and bandiś in D, especially in the Dāgarvāni.

Laykāri: Both progress into a highly complicated interplay between the given temporality and improvisation. Some D  traditions employ the doubling (dupat), Tripat (Tripling), of the bandiś. This is also encountered in some DV. However, the predominant trend among excellent artistes today in DV is extempore temporal improvisation.

We see from the above that there is little difference and great commonality between D & DV. The differences are so minimal that it does not warrant a renaming. Yet Rām had to become Rahim, thanks to hard power wielded by the then rulers.


Popular sentiment is against religious conversion of people of India. There are states where there are laws to prevent them. However, the common man and the political dispensations do not take into consideration that art forms, knowledge, practices etc have also fallen prey to the predatory politics of Islāmic and Christian misappropriation.

I have presented a case where we see that a legitimately pre-Moghul art was renamed to give the impression that it was of Arabic origins. There are other arts and crafts which were claimed to be of Arabic origins. For instance, the wood craft of Sahāraṇpur and the attar making of Kannauj. It is also claimed that the delicacy named Biriyāni was a creation of the Moghul army. However, the book of great antiquity titled Nal Pāka Rahasya in Saṅskrit contains the complete recipe of Dum Biriyāni. If, hypothetically, someone claims that Bririyani is also originally from Arab, one would naturally ask that how in a place where rice and spices did not grow how did they make a rice recipe with so much sophistication? Due to bombardment of such misinformation, the common Indian is made to believe that all that is good and great originated outside India. Even the mighty Veda-s have been claimed by scholars of foreign origin whereas Rg Ved mentions the equally mighty Sarasvati River whose existence predates the so-called Ārya-n invasion/migration. We’re made to believe that the so-called ‘Ārya-ns’ were nomads and waged a blood battle, and yet they carried the highly sophisticated Veda-s with them and enlightened the dark and primitive people in this part of the world. This same narrative is applied to a music that legitimately originates in ancient India.

In music, we have other cases like the Mangniyār and Langār singing where the predators had limited success because they were not artistic enough to completely change the content of their songs. So, even today we hear the converted Muslim singers of these tribes singing songs of purely Indian Purāṇic contexts.

Some may claim that Rāga-s are similar to Arabic Maquām-s which is why the former have come from Arab. Such arguments are naive because the word ‘Rāg’ was used by Mātang in the 8th Century. His Brihaddeśi was however, not the first to use the word. Also, all Rāga-s (barring a few that were added like Zēlaf and Šahānā) have Saṅskrit names. Why should Arabs bring their Maquāms and rename them into Saṅskrit? This does not at all serve their agenda of misappropriating the good things of an ancient culture. It is known that they were Islāmising India, and therefore, would never ever rename Maquām-s into Saṅskrit. Unfortunately, for these predators, they could not usurp the contents of Saṅskrit and Vedic traditions that were communicated from one generation to the other by an oral-aural route more accurately than the written texts. They could merely loot our tangible wealth, or burn libraries, but could not fully misappropriate highly sophisticated intangible heritage. This is why some very deep rooted codifications in them can still be decoded and the truth about their origins be ascertained.

I expect a debate to emanate from this quasi scholarly piece and initiation of research to unravel the truths behind all such dishonest claims.


It is now clear that at least a vocal music form which existed before Mughal entry into this part of the world has been renamed as ‘Khayāl’. The original name of this form needs to be ascertained. The too general nature and vagueness of the new name and its failure to describe this highly evolved music are the main reasons why one needs to ask whether ‘Khayāl’ is indeed a misnomer. Is it the name given to an older song form without understanding its complexity, specificity, and true value?

Above I have conjectured with reasonable confidence that Khayāl is indeed a DV, like Dhamār, Sadhrā, etc.

Recommendation A policy must be put in place to identify such narratives which misappropriate India’s intangible heritage. There must be financial provision for doing research and related work on a matter of such deeply embedded false narratives.

Center for Indic Studies is now on Telegram. For regular updates on Indic Varta, Indic Talks and Indic Courses at CIS, please subscribe to our telegram channel !