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Semi Classical Music – The Heart of Indian Music

27 Oct 2021


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Semi Classical Music

From the rich and deep classical music lineage, one offshoot that comes out is the Light Classical Music or Semi classical Music. Semi-classical music uses the basic structure of classical music but takes the leverage to blend the different ragas. It even deviates from the rigid path to beautify the melody and make it more appealing to the mass. 

Banking on vocal prowess and shifting the emphasis from the raga to the lyrics that harped on emotion (bhav), light classical music found quick acceptance among performers and admirers alike. In many regions of India, semi-classical is also called bhav sangeet.

Types of Semi Classical Music

The various types of Semi-classical music involve - Thumri, Dadra, Bhajan, Ghazal, Chaiti, Kajri, Tappa, Natya Sangeet, and Qawwali.

  • Thumri

Derived from the Hindi word - ‘thumakna,’ which refers to a particular walking style making a tinkling sound from the anklets. Such walking or stepping styles often formed part of dance or stage performances. Thus it indicates that the Thumri style of music was composed to compliment stage performances such as an act of drama or dance.

The origins of Thumri traces back to the 15th century, in the courts of Lucknow where it was sung by the courtesans to be accompanied by the classical dance form Kathak. 

The compositions practiced in Lucknow were known as Bol Baant or Bandish ki Thumri. Later, this musical tradition traveled to Varanasi to evolve into a more slow-paced singing style that touched upon every human emotion. At this stage, it became an independent musical form that didn't need to be accompanied by dance.     

The structure of Thumri is identical to that of Khayal. It also has sthayi and antara. It uses Deepchandi, Roopak, Addha, and Punjabi taals and is sung in Kafi, Khamaj, Jogia, Bhairavi, Pilu, and Pahadi raag.  

The journey of Thumri as a form of music evolved simultaneously with Khayal. And both the forms of music exhibited a notable distinguishing factor in the way they were rendered by the practitioners. Unlike Khayal which focuses on the raaga, Thumri emphasizes more on the emotional part of the rendition.

Some of the notable Thumri singers were the exponents of the Benaras Gharana. Gauhar jan, Begam Akhtar, Rasloon Bai, and Naina Devi are some of the stalwarts who contributed majorly to the evolution of Thumri style of music. 

Several Khayal practitioners who aced the Thumri style of music include Bade Gulam Ali Khan, Bhimsen Joshi, Abdul Karim Khan, among others.

  • Bhajan

Bhajan comes from the word ‘bhaj’ which means to worship. The basis of music has always been devotion and spirituality. The Gandharva music, or the marga music was composed to sing the praises of God.

Gandharva marg led to the Dhrupad tradition that went on to become the very foundation of classical music in India. 

And as music evolved further, the devotional expressions also changed from staunch classical renditions to light classical music that dwelled more in the unbound love and devoutness of the devotee.    

Bhajan, as a musical form, came into prominence during the Bhakti movement. There is no stringent rule book for light classical music as it is there for classical music. And the same applies to Bhajans. 

Bhajans emphasize majorly on its lyrics and a melodious raga that complements that. The words used to compose the lyrics rake devotional feeling (bhakti ras) in the minds of the listeners. 

Sung in religious gatherings, Bhajans are accompanied with instruments like Harmonium, Tambourine, Tabla, and Dholak. 

The closest analog of Bhajan is Kirtan, a more high-paced and energetic form of music that involves multiple performers singing and dancing at the same time. In contrast, Bhajan involves solo renditions and is characterized by medium to slow-paced melodious compositions.  

Some of the most celebrated Bhajan singers include Anup Jolata, Anuradha Podwal, and Manna De among many others.

  • Ghazal

As beautiful as the word, Ghazal is the most beautiful musical expression of love, pain, and separation. The ultimate culmination of lyrics, melody, and feelings that touch upon the most sensitive points of human emotion - Ghazal always finds a special place in the collectibility of every musical connoisseur.

Taking its roots from the 7th century Arabic poetry, Ghazal spread its roots across Persia, Turkey, India, and also in Germany.

The Arabic word ‘Ghazal’ means to speak sweetly and passionately or to display a romantic gesture. A slight variation in the spelling – ‘Gazaal’ refers to a young and beautiful deer. There are several interpretations that also relate the word ‘Gazal’ to the ‘cry of an injured Gazaal (deer).

Thus, the poetic form of Gazal derives its elements of passion and pain from both the above connotations.

Ghazals are composed in the form of poems that comprise five to fifteen rhythmic couplets. Just like Qawwali and Khayal, Ghazal also has a specific structure that binds the poems.

Ideally, Ghazals comprise less than five couplets. The ones that go up to fifteen couplets are known as ‘qasidas’.

Ghazal follows a particular ‘rhyme and refrain rule’ – the Arabic terms of which are – ‘qaafiyaa’ and ‘radif.’ Other significant fragments that impart Ghazal its depth and grace include – Matlaa or the first ‘sher,’ Maqtaa or the last couplet and Bah’r or the metric pattern that binds each line of the Ghazal.      

Each ‘sher’ or couplet of a Ghazal is complete in itself and yet connected with each other to impart a holistic oneness in the rendition.

Ghazal, as a form of music, spread its roots in India around the 12th century following the same route as its closest analogs – Khayal and Qawwali. Following the path set by its progenitor – Amir Khusroo, the baton was taken up by notable stalwarts in India – Mirza Ghalib, Mohammad Iqbal, and Kazi Nazrul Islaam.

  • Tappa

Tappa takes its lineage from Pashto folk literature. Tappa is a song sung at marriages or at the time of grief. It uses ‘Rabab’ and ‘Mangay’ as its instrumental ally.

Though there is no prescribed gender role for singers of Tappa, it is usually sung by women. The influence of this Pashtun folk literature was first seen to be influencing the music of Punjab through the camel riders.

Later, Tappa sprawled to the Mughal court during the reign of Muhammad Shah and thereafter, to the courts of Asaf Ud Dowla of Awadh through the compositions of his court singer – Shori Mian.

Tappa traversed eastward to Bengal, where it was further refined by composers – Ramnidhi Gupta and Kalidas Chattopadhyay. Their compositions are known as Nidhi Babu’s Tappa.

In a later stage, Tappa refines and evolves furthermore to give way to ‘Puratani,’ – a term used to define semi-classical Bengali songs.

Tappa reached its Zenith as a musical genre by the end of the 19th century and reigned till the first half of the 20th century. It soon became the centre of attraction at the ‘baithak khana’ or assembly hall, ‘naach ghar’ or entertainment halls of the Bengali ‘zamindaars.’

After that, however, its popularity took a downward turn to no one from the succeeding generations showing interest in pursuing the genre.

The celebrated exponents of this genre include – Dadathakur and Ramkumar Chattopadhyay.

  • Musical Dramas

When it comes to narrating the saga of musical traditions of India, it would be incomplete if we didn’t talk about Sangeet Natya. Music has been a constant for stage performances since its very first mention as Gana. 

Later, it formed the basis of narration and storytelling in diverse forms. And one of them is Sangeet Natak. The predecessor of theatrical drama, Sangeet Natak enthralled the audience since the mid-seventeenth century.

The major themes of these musical dramas used to be stories from the Indian epic – Mahabharata. They were performed on stage as well as open-air public events such as fairs.

Every region has had its share of contributions to the evolution of a more elaborate theatrical way of storytelling, which further upgraded to motion pictures (cinemas) with the advent of movie cameras.

  • Music in Cinemas

Music and the act of performing arts evolved parallelly over time. Earlier, it was constricted to the Royal courts, and thereafter to the Ghranas (families of court singers) who hoarded musical ideologies and also refined them.

Even the stage evolved in the same tandem. And at one point, with the advent of upgraded technologies, the stage gave way to ‘screens’ – known to people as bioscopes or cinema. And, music played a very important role in Indian cinemas.

Right from the beginning of sound films in 1931, music has been an integral part of cinema. If we look at the early days of Indian cinema, we can find a deep influence of both classical and light classical music.  

Music in Indian cinema received mass acceptance in no time. Several vocal and instrumental music composers found a new stage to showcase their expertise like never before.

Each genre of music be it classical, semi-classical, Ghazal, Qawwali, folk, regional and more found its complete manifestation through film music.

Some of the stalwarts who laid the foundation of Indian film music include K.L Saigal, Suraiya, Khursheed, and Noorjehaan. The subsequent crop of music composers includes Madan Mohan, O.P Nayar, Naushad, and Hemant Mukherjee, who weaved the Golden Era of Hindi cinema with vocal maestros such as Manna De, Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammad Rafi, Geeta Dutt, Mukesh, and Kishore Kumar among many other.

Contributors of refined poets such as Gulzaar, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Kaifi Azmi and many more from that era also need a special mention here.

Over time, music became a significant part of Indian cinema. To the extent that even the success of many films could be attributed to the songs of those films.

In the initial phase of the film, music was primarily based on classical and folk songs. Films like Baiju Bawra, Mughal-e-Azam, and Shabab are the best example of classical music in Indian cinema.

As the journey proceeded, the orchestra was introduced. And from here, started a new phase of fusing new and innovative techniques to come up with something new with every composition. This practice of taking inspiration from other genres and music of other countries has given film music a distinguished mark of its own.

At a time when even Hollywood stopped using music in films except for background scores, Indian films still thrive for their music. Even today, for the Indian audience, film and music are inseparable. And I hope it stays like that forever.

In Conclusions…

Semi-classical music was perhaps the starting point where classical music started merging with other forms to create a genre with a wider appeal for the masses. It democratized music for the listeners as well as for the new learners.

Semi-classical music did not need a very discreet understanding of or inclination towards classical music. It gave rise to a cult of music that was hummable and pulled at the heartstrings of the listeners. And it simply hails glory to itself even to the present times.

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