Ghazals seem to have the ability to be all things to all people. They are thought of as classical music, but the most popular ghazal singers sell out stadiums in India and San Francisco. They have been sung by both Sufi saints and courtesans, and who sings a ghazal can determine whether it is about sacred or carnal love. Although traditionally accompanied by sarangi and harmonium, ghazals are now accompanied by everything from acoustic guitar to choirs and symphony orchestras. And although the poetic lyrics of ghazals are one of their greatest appeals to South Asians, Indian-Canadian Kiran Ahluwalia has managed to cross over to Western audiences who don’t understand any of the languages she sings in. This is primarily because of her well-trained voice—sweet but more forceful than the usual filmi soprano—and the unpretentious but effective arrangements featuring the driving rhythms of guitarist Res Abbasi. But her stage presence is also a tremendous plus. Her previous career in Canada’s financial district has made her articulate and clever, and she has no trouble communicating both her love of the music and its technical nuances. The following interview, given at the Ashkenaz in Berkeley after a highly successful concert, greatly deepened my appreciation of ghazals.

Do you think the guitar helps your music reach out to Westerners?

Probably, but for the past 20 years, the guitar has been an important instrument in ghazals. I think Ghulam Ali first introduced it. We’ve just given it a more prominent voice.

Does the chord progression played on the guitar cut down on your freedom to improvise?
You don’t have to follow the chord progression if you can communicate with the guitar player.

So you change the number of measures from performance to performance?

Oh, yes, totally. This is not a measure-based form of music. It’s based on a rhythmic cycle. You can leave the rhythm for long periods, as long as you complete the cycle of the melody on the right beat. Res and I have known each other for so long, he knows how long I’m going to be out there.

How does the style of improvisation differ from that used in khayal?

A ghazal consists of a series of two-line couplets with the second line making a commentary or a surprise twist on the first. For example, there’s a famous ghazal written for the last emperor of India. Its first line is something like “I feel that even I should pray,” and the second line is, “but I’ve never learned to bow my head.” If I were to sing that ghazal I would sing several variations of the first line, using different words and notes. That would increase the impact of the climactic second line. Then usually after developing a few couplets that way, there is a brief instrumental part, and the singer returns with more couplets.

In some ways there is less room for improvisation than in khayal, which leaves the words behind and uses taans or sargam to create variations on the raga. But on the other hand, in khayal you can never use notes outside of the raga. In ghazal you can. You can’t do everything. It’s hard to articulate what notes you are allowed to add. But after you’ve been singing for years and years, you know what’s okay and what isn’t. You can eventually even say to yourself, “This is okay even though no one has done it before.”

Is it like thumri that way?

Yes, but you can go even further outside the raga than in thumri, even though you stay closer to the words in ghazal. In both styles the improvisation is based on words. But in some kinds of thumri you might improvise on one or two words from a phrase so that those words would almost become abstract sounds. But in ghazal if you rephrased the words, you would still be singing a complete sentence that made sense, not just a word or two. It would have new music and slightly different words, but the same basic meaning.

There seem to be a lot of similarities between thumri and ghazal: both were once performed by courtesans who danced, both improvise with words rather than abstract sounds. What are the differences between the two?

In thumri, the lyrics express a single thought or feeling, without the question and resolution of a ghazal lyric. It then develops that single thought musically at greater length. This is even more true of khayal—the word khayal literally means thought. You might think of ghazal, thumri, and khayal arranged on a spectrum, with ghazals having the most composition and the least improvisation, and khayal the most improvisation and least composition. And the techniques of all three styles are related. Like most ghazal singers, I gave myself a foundation by studying khayal for years.

I’ve heard that Jagjit Singh doesn’t improvise his ghazals, that he sings them pretty much the same way every time.

Yes, but that doesn’t stop him from being a great artist. He was the person who inspired me to sing ghazals. His music from the ’70s and ’80s is some of my favorite music in the world.

So why did you decide to study with Vithal Rao in Hyderabad?

His phrasing and compositions, and his whole approach, are from a whole other era. When he was a court musician in Hyderabad, people would hand him a poem, and he would improvise a ghazal with those lyrics right on the spot. He still does this, and today poets come to him for advice on how to write their poetry. What I’ve tried to do is bring that close relationship between poets and singers into the modern world. That’s why many of the lyrics for my original ghazals are written by Indian poets who have grown up here in the West.

KIRAN AHLUWALIA, Kiran Ahluwalia’s self-titled CD, is available at www.triloka.com.

Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.