In contemporary Hindustani vocal music, a presentation of a Raga is labeled classical only when the style of singing selected is — khayal or dhrupad, for these two approaches explicate the minutiae of the raga and the rhythm. Out of these styles of vocal music, the khayal, meaning imagination, is the most common; this is the style that you will most likely encounter in a classical music concert. You can expect to listen to the following components in a typical one-hour presentation of a Raga:
Alaap (approximately 5-10 min)
Instead of explicitly presenting the aroh, avroh, and pakad of a Raga, the proficient vocalist begins a concert with a few minutes long improvisation on the musical notes of the Raga, which sets the atmosphere of the Raga for the audience and the performer. Sequences of musical notes are sung without rhythmic constraints to clearly demonstrate the proper usage of notes in the Raga that has been chosen for presentation. In addition to the basic features of a raga, permissible sequences, and the correct frequency of every note used, this proper usage of notes includes ornamentation through meend, andolan, gamak and other alankars that are recommended for the raga. While notes can be sung as sargam, vocalists prefer akaar, where all notes are pronounced through the syllable “ah.”
Vilambit (slow) Khayal (30-40 min)
In popular terminology, this is called the “bada” khayal or “big” khayal not because it has lengthy lyrics but probably because it takes more time to conclude than a drut khayal (see below). The lyrics, not more than a couple of lines forming the sthayi and antara, have a romantic or devotional theme and become only a framework on which the musical notes of the Raga in the form of alaaps and taans are woven. (Taan is a high-speed ascending-descending sequence of notes, usually in a relative tempo of 2, 4, 8 or 16 times the base tempo.)
Because of the slow pace of the khayal, the first beat (sam) of the rhythmic cycle may not appear again for over a minute. All this time is filled with improvisation including alaap-taan and repetitions of a word (or a phrase) from the song with finer variations of the notes and speed. Once the performer reaches the major sam of the composition, another cycle of improvisation gets triggered. The vilambit khayal is commonly presented in Ektaal (12 beat or the 48 beat version); other rhythmic cycles selected include teentaal, tilwada (16 beats) and jhoomra (14 beats).
Drut (fast) Khayal (10 min)
This fast tempo “imagination” follows the vilambit one. The improvised note sequences are quicker and alaaps are fewer in number, for the complexities of the raga have already been unveiled in the vilambit version, and the melodious composition itself becomes a highlight of a drut khayal presentation. Because the rhythm and lyrics at this pace are easy to follow, more people can be seen nodding their heads in a drut khayal. Popular rhythmic cycles for this vocal style include teentaal, ektaal, and jhaptaal.
Tarana or Bhajan (5-10 min)
The drut khayal is often followed by either a tarana or a bhajan. The tarana, generally the fastest paced composition in a vocal concert, is made of language-independent syllables so that the focus can solely remain on the notes and the rhythmic variations. Syllables from the tabla or pakhawaj may also be mixed as “lyrics” to a tarana. Again, they are mostly sung in teentaal, ektaal, and jhaptaal. (While slow tarana compositions are also available, they are not saved for the concluding part of a concert.)
A bhajan (devotional song) generally classifies as a light music composition, for the focus is more on the spiritual feel rather than the presentation of the raga. Lyrics are frequently selected from writings by saints. Most bhajans are composed in keharwa (bhajani), dadra, roopak, and teentaal.