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How Ghazals Made Classical Music Popular With the Masses

Back in the early 1990s, Ghazals suddenly saw a resurgence among the masses with the likes of Pankaj Udhas, Lata Mangeshkar, Jagjit Singh, and Asha Bhosle. Who can forget such beautiful compositions as Aur Ahista, or Who Kagaz Ki Kashti? Suddenly there was a paradigm shift in the kind of music one liked to hear – not quite Bollywood, not quite classical – a new form of music craftily meandering its way, somewhere in between.

However, Ghazal has always been that – a connection between pure classical, usually reserved for puritans and the masses, for whom endless hours of droning ragas held little appeal.

According to singer, composer, and lyricist Sadasivan KM Nambisan, one way Ghazal popularised classical music is in its initiation as a way of singing poetry/shayari with classical instruments like tabla, harmonium, and sarangi. “It was sung by prominent classical singers of that time, thus the compositions had a classical edge,” he says, adding that the term light classical is associated with Ghazals because the composition of Ghazals were done in classical style by default. Moreover, the music instruments used were of the classical genre. But with time, the arrangements of Ghazals also changed its course, he reveals.

Singer, voice-training artist, writer, and filmmaker Rituraj Sen, on the other hand, opines that Ghazal is termed light classical because the subjects of its evolution play a major role in calling its public recitation or ‘Peshkash’ at performance a light classical performance.

Ghazal singer – Begum Akhtar

Naming Mehdi Hassan, Talat Mehmood, Noor Jehan, Begum Akhtar, Shamshad Begum, Ghulam Ali, and Jagjit Singh as some of his favorite Ghazal exponents, Sadasivan adds that fabulous lyrics, shayari, catchy compositions, and tailor-made arrangements are elements that give Ghazals an edge over pure classical music.

Rituraj, for whom Gauhar Jaan and Akhtari Bai Faizabadi (Begum Akhtar) are the best representatives of the genre, explains that through the 18th and 19th centuries, Ghazals used to be penned by not only renowned or celebrated shayars (poets), but also by many local popular courtesans and writers. They all practiced the poetic conventions of ‘matla’ (the opening couplet), radeef, and qafya. The subjects found perfect foils in vocal ornamentations, which, coupled with embellishments of musical expressions enhanced the poet’s original verse. Thus, a music form arose that was devoid of the perpetual attention that pure classical music warrants, and one which became an easy experience for many. 

Ghazal singer – Jagjit Singh

Ghazals have been a staple of Hindi cinemas in the 1950s thanks to the likes of Talat Mehmood, Noor Jehan and others. However, it was slowly edged out by the advent of western instrumentation, and unfortunately, could not find a secure place in high music culture, which considers the khayal the pinnacle of vocal accomplishment. It was Jagjit Singh along with his wife Chitra, who finally were able to carve out a niche in the music industry with their rendition of Ghazals in albums titled ‘Ecstasies’, ‘Beyond Time’, ‘Hope’, etc.

As for whether Ghazal is continuing to evolve with changing musical aesthetics, Rituraj opines that in different countries it has developed in its own way. In India, a great number of people have presented Ghazals in jazz and blues and in different languages like Bengali and Gujrati.

Sadasivan concludes, “Any music genre will continue to grow if it can keep up with times and trends and styles of that particular era. In fact, adaptation and implementation of new arrangements is a genuine need to keep ghazals alive.”


Umang Sharma is a media professional, avid reader, and film buff. His interests lie in making the world a better place through the power of the written word.