Tag: hindustani music

Hindustani Music: The Four-Syllable Darling and Text Setting in Hindi

During the year I spent living in Delhi, the Bollywood song “Munni Badnam” was one of the most popular tunes in the country. The song was absolutely everywhere. It was wafting out from shops I passed along the road, spilling out of rickshaws whizzing by on the street. Even as I worked late into the night, I would occasionally hear it radiating through the walls from nearby apartments. Each time I listened to “Munni Badnam” (which is in Hindi), there was one word in the first line of the song I just could not catch. It bugged me to the point that I finally looked it up on a Bollywood lyrics website. I realized then that it wasn’t even a Hindi word: it was the English word “darling”. Munni badnam hui, darling, tere liye [1]. But it wasn’t just the context that made me unable to recognize the word: this version of “darling” was actually four syllables: daa-ruh-ling-guh.

As a composer, I am constantly fascinated by the way different languages can be set to music. Each language has a specific way of interacting with music that unleashes its inherent sonic beauty while maximizing its comprehensibility. When I learned Italian, it seemed to me that the naturally rhyming verb endings and open vowels were almost designed to be able to perfectly accommodate settings of strophic poetry. The subtlety of the French language is so beautifully preserved in the unique rhythmic and melodic choices French art song composers make in their music. Each language has specific traits that are accentuated and built upon in their musical setting.

I learned to speak and sing in Hindi over the same span of time[2]. Exploring the language in both its spoken and sung formats concurrently illuminated Hindi for me in a unique way. Many points of connection between speech and song surprised me, as they differed not only from English, but from many of the other the Western languages I knew. These observations prompted me to think more deeply about the connections between music and language, about the ways that one effects and enhances the other, and about new directions I might explore while setting text in Hindi, English, or any language.


Hindustani music is primarily sung in the chest voice, or what Hindustani musicians call the “natural” voice. However, the actual pitch of spoken Hindi is higher than the pitch of spoken English. Just watch any American movie overdubbed in Hindi, and you will immediately hear this distinction, as your favorite American actors and actresses are paired with a voice that is disturbingly higher than the one you are expecting.

Even with these opposing range considerations, the Hindustani singing range shakes out to be markedly lower than the Western one. For example, the range of a female singer who sings in A [3] will go comfortably down to an E below middle C, and up to a C#, and possibly an E within the treble staff. Above the E is considered virtuosic, whereas in Western music, it is standard for a high-voiced female singer (even a non-professional one) to sing up to G and even A above the staff. The Carnatic (South Indian classical) range is often lower still.
Some of the drawbacks of utilizing the lower range in Western art music are the decrease in clarity and definition, as well as the decreased ability to project—both of which result in a decreased intelligibility of text. However, in Hindi, the difference in sound production technique in the language changes the quality of the voice and markedly increases its intelligibility, even in the lower range.

Vocal Placement and Timbre

I find that I have a very different voice when I speak Hindi. My Hindi-speaking voice is higher in pitch and much more forward in my head and mouth. Vowels resonate in the face mask and through the nose, a fact that is incorporated into the grammatical constructions in the language itself. For example, the only difference between the singular and plural forms of many common Hindi words is that a small nasalization is added to the last vowel in the plural form of the word–the back of the tongue closes the throat slightly to feed air through the nose which creates the sound. Additionally, the particular sound quality of nasal resonance on consonants like M and N allow them to be heard when held. While the sustained portion of an English word is almost always a vowel, the nasal quality of the Hindustani sound allows M and N to also serve as sustaining notes in Hindustani music.
I’ve noticed that when I speak or sing in Hindi a lot (especially after a prolonged interval away from it), the tip of my tongue gets a little raw, as it plays a much more active role in the pronunciation of Hindi words than of English ones. Consonants are formed right at the lips, with the tongue tip either against the back of the teeth or brushing the ridge of the hard palette. There are no swallowed or imploded consonants like the letter T in the word “mountain.” I was so surprised when a friend of mine from Delhi told me of his fascination with the way I pronounced the word “totally.” He said, “I’ve been trying to imitate you for weeks, but my T’s just keep knocking together…” However, the fact that Hindi mandates this definition of consonants markedly increases the clarity of the language when sung.

In written Hindi, transliterated English words [4] sometimes look like snarled bramble in comparison to the Hindi ones. The main cause of most of these snarls can be boiled down to one main difference between the languages: Hindi rarely has multiple consonants in a row. Devanagari, the script in which Hindi is written, uses a single consonant as the main anchor of each syllable, with the vowel modifying that consonant in the way an accent would modify a letter in a Latin-script language. Two consonants in a spoken syllable is somewhat common and navigable, but more than two consonants creates written havoc that the Devanagari script is simply unequipped to handle.
While written and spoken English is much better equipped for consonant clusters, sung English still struggles with them. I remember trying to set a beautiful text for choir a few years ago. At the end of a particularly ethereal line, the poet had used the word “forests.” There was simply no way I could set the word without creating an unseemly rustling cloud of consonants at the end of the phrase. In the West, we compensate for these moments of ambiguity by printing full texts in programs or flashing them in supertitles, one phrase at a time. However, Hindustani musical culture does not make substantial use of written material in any form—just as the performers have no written music, the audience has no written program. Anything that needs to be communicated is spoken or sung directly to the audience from the stage. How, then, is the audience able to understand what the singer is saying?

In addition to the pitch, tone quality, and production of sound that have been touched upon above, there are two additional features of the particular method of text setting in Hindustani music that contribute greatly to the communication of a text.

Textual Repetition

Khayal singing (the dominant style of Hindustani vocal music since the 18th century) makes use of a wealth of poetry. One or two poems in Hindi or Brijbasha (an ancient Indian language not unlike Hindi) are always the centerpieces of a khayal performance. However, a text of about four to six lines will be used over a span of, perhaps, ten minutes of music. There are general guidelines for the repetition of each line, though they are loose and leave a great deal of room for improvisation and spontaneity. Each time the text is repeated, it is accompanied by a unique musical variation. Hearing the same text with different music perhaps 20-30 times over the duration of a section allows the audience multiple opportunities to grasp its meaning. Additionally, it allows the singer to color the words differently each time, highlighting different aspects of their pronunciation. This varied repetition results in both greater intelligibility for the audience and a more multifaceted characterization of their meaning.

The constant repetition of text allows the music to open up in other areas as well. When I first began singing Hindustani music, the tradition’s flexibility with declamation surprised me. There are many places in the music where weak syllables fall on strong beats. To Western ears this text setting may be perceived as off-kilter, because in Western music the strength of syllables closely follows the beat pattern. However, in Hindustani music, because the text is repeated so often, the disjunct relationship between the musical and textual stresses can be a source of interest and engagement rather than confusion. Also, Hindustani music is marked by incredibly long melismas in both slow and fast tempi. Melismas that occur on consecutive syllables can separate a word over a long period, so as to make it unintelligible in real time. However, perhaps similarly to a composer like Handel (who is also known for his long, patterned melismas), the repetition of text allows it to be understood in a simpler, more direct form before vocal pyrotechnics take over.

Sung vs. Spoken Consonants

For me, the biggest revelation in exploring sung Hindi is in the way the music handles consonants. In Western music, a lot of our consonants get swallowed at the end of syllables, or bunched together so that they are lost in the millisecond between sustained vowels. Professional Western singers work on the articulation of consonants for years to be able to communicate a text to an audience effectively.

Sung Hindi addresses this issue by articulating each consonant as a separate syllable. So, for example, the word “badnam” is spoken as two syllables (bad-nam), but is sung as four (ba-d-na-m). The extra syllable emphasizes a consonant that would be otherwise lost at the end of the word, which allows sung Hindi to be instantly understood. Sometimes the note will even change on these added syllables. (See the example below—both the D and M in the word “badnam” are on different notes.) While these “ghost” syllables are often shorter than the main ones, they are often also accented or stressed in some way, which adds a unique layer of rhythmic zing to words that might have otherwise sounded a little metrically flat.
Though the above is an example from a Bollywood song, the same practice is used in Hindustani classical music, and in many other Indian languages as well. In Hindustani music, there can even be melismas or long held notes on these ghost syllables.
This addition of an extra consonant syllable is a brilliant feature of Hindi text setting, and I so wish this system also worked for English text setting. But considering my confusion with the four-syllable version of the word “darling” in Munni Badnam, I doubt it would be effective on a larger scale. While Hindi consonants are certainly not as delineated in speech as they are in song, listening closely to a Hindi speaker will reveal that those consonants are still pronounced very prominently. This trait of Hindi pronunciation makes the leap from a clearly articulated consonant to a short extra syllable completely conceivable. Trying to make the word ”darling” into the four syllable “daa-ruh-lin-guh” would be so out of character with the English language that it would have the opposite effect—it would render the word completely meaningless.

Maybe this particular solution doesn’t transfer between these two languages, but even understanding why this is the case tells me so much about how each language is articulated. Perhaps there are other languages where this technique might be incredibly effective. And perhaps there are other points between Hindi and English where a successful transfer of methodology is possible. I am eager to find them.

Learning Hindi in its written and sung forms simultaneously has been revealing in so many ways. Little idiosyncracies I would have otherwise missed in the language are illuminated through song. Learning how to sing in Hindi has been teaching me volumes about the type of voice I need to use when I speak, the way words are formed and feel in the mouth, and the way the sounds resonate in my head and through my body. And, perhaps most importantly, discovering the unique ways in which the language and music connect allow me to explore new pathways in my own relationship to text setting, whether in Hindi, English, or any other language.


[1] Translation: Munni (referring to herself) has become infamous, darling, for you (or, for your sake).

[2] I am what is sometimes referred to as a “heritage speaker” of Hindi. While I did not grow up speaking the language (I began learning it during my masters degree at Yale), I did grow up speaking Gujarati, another Indian language from the state of Gujarat, where my father’s side of the family is from. Gujarati is about as far from Hindi as Spanish and Italian are from one another, so there are certain constructions that feel completely intuitive to me, and others that require me to think of grammar rules in order to say the right thing.

[3] Indian musicians usually have a specific drone note they sing on. A common note for women is A or Bb, and for men it is (I believe) C# or D. While Western musicians change keys in every piece, and even within a piece, Hindustani musicians will often sing in the same key for an entire career.

[4] English is widely spoken in India, and modern conversational Hindi makes increasing use of English words. Indians lovingly call this light, English-infused form of Hindi, “Hinglish.”

Hindustani Music: Cultural Collisions (and Washing Machines)

sequence of old Coinslot washing machines

Photo by Brad Perkins (via Flickr

My apartment in India had three balconies, one for each bedroom in the house. The back balcony, which could only be entered through a single door from its accompanying bedroom, housed the washing machine we all used. When I washed my clothes, I would quickly shuffle through my roommate’s bedroom out to the balcony, mindful not to linger, and I would return when I was absolutely sure the cycle was over so as not to continually disturb her. One day, many months later, my roommate offhandedly asked me, “Don’t you love that little song the washing machine plays when it’s done?” I had no idea what she was talking about—I had never been there to hear it. So the next time the washing machine stopped, we listened.

To my great astonishment, the song was “Die Forelle.” On our balcony, in South Delhi, there was a single machine that both played the music of Franz Schubert and had a special setting for washing saris. I was completely flabbergasted. How did this Indian appliance company decide to use an iconic German art song to signal the end of a spin cycle on its washing machines?

Incidents like this fascinate me endlessly. These unlikely collisions between the two musical cultures I inhabit bring up so many questions for me about musical perception: What do people from one musical culture hear in the music of another culture? What makes a particular piece of music resonate with someone who is not familiar with its tradition or context? What features of the music are most prominent to someone from another musical culture, and how different are those from the features that are prominent to someone within the musical culture? More broadly, how much of our aesthetic association with specific music comes from repetition and reinforcement within our musical culture, and how much is simply hard-wired into us as humans? While I certainly don’t have answers to these questions, I am deeply curious about them.

There have definitely been multiple attempts, both in Hindustani and Western musical culture, to match musical gestures with codified aesthetic profiles. The Doctrine of Affections (Affektenlehre), an early baroque theory most clearly described by musicologist Johann Mattheson (1681-1764), uses ancient rhetorical gestures as a basis for portraying specific emotions and moods in Baroque music. Wagner’s leitmotifs also often aim to codify and shape the sonic experience by creating a specific association with an extra-musical element, whether a character or a more abstract mood, a technique that has since been appropriated in Western film music. In Hindustani music, the theory of rasa, which originates from ancient Indian dramatic practices, outlines nine emotional states which serve as the basis for Indian musical aesthetics. Additionally, the time theory of raag dictates a specific time of day each raag can suitably be performed, determined by the accidentals (in Western terms) of the notes it contains. However, none of these theories can fully circumscribe aesthetic practice in the music, nor are they appropriated ubiquitously, even during a specific time period or location; their scope is limited. To this day, neither Hindustani nor Western art music has a comprehensive aesthetic doctrine that underpins its music entirely.

Even if there are no explicit aesthetic rules that dictate exact musical choices in either culture, it is undeniable that each music still has distinctive ways of painting a particular aesthetic picture which is instantly recognizable to people within that cultural context. While it is fascinating to examine what those methods are within each musical culture, it has been even more fascinating, for me, to compare aesthetic depictions inter-culturally. There are certainly techniques that have similar aesthetic effects across cultures. (I know exactly what you’re wondering, so I will say that, to the best of my knowledge, raags with a lowered 3rd are generally considered more melancholy than raags with a natural 3rd [2].) And there are certainly subjects that are portrayed similarly in both cultures. But even more telling are the points where the aesthetic portrayals of a subject are vastly divergent.
One of the most striking examples of aesthetic divergence I’ve found is in the portrayal of the season of spring. For most Western musicians, the very mention of the word might call up Vivaldi’s “Spring” from The Four Seasons, or Beethoven’s Spring Sonata—the ambient sounds of chirping birds and babbling brooks, portrayed onomatopoeically through music, have a long and established association with the season. (Even Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which has a very different aesthetic profile, could be considered to be more about the Rite than about the Spring.)

In Hindustani music, the hearkening of spring is portrayed by Raag Basant. The word basant (buh-SUNTH) literally means “spring” in Hindi, and it is one of the main raags that represents the season. Take a listen to how Basant sounds:

Below is the aroha/avaroha (ascent and descent) of the raag [1]. It ascends rapidly, beginning on a #4, and proceeding to a b6 and a high b2 before sinking into the tonic note. The descent is much windier than that ascent, and only after reaching the lower tonic does it reach back up to the natural 4th for a fleeting moment before returning to the #4, which precipitates the final descent.
Music notation for Raag Basant
The first time I heard the raag, I was completely confused by its aesthetic. It didn’t align with any part of my conception of the typical Western portrayal of spring. I just couldn’t connect the two perceptions of the same phenomenon in my mind. While the Western perception of spring is light and airy, the Hindustani perception felt dark and sinewy. If the Western spring was painted in pastels, the Hindustani spring was painted in cool, bold colors. Are these aesthetic profiles addressing two different views on the same season, or is the perception and, consequently, the musical representation of the same natural phenomenon just completely different in each culture? While years of pondering this question have certainly led me to formulate my own theories, I still have more questions than I have answers.

Like most people who speak multiple languages, I often find that the way I most want to express a thought uses words that are in a different language than the one I’m currently speaking. I feel this musically, too. This is why I love moments of cultural collision, like the incident with the washing machine. One little sliver of a different culture can be embedded seamlessly in the fabric of another. But that little sliver can also be a window, slightly ajar, begging to be opened. How I wish the Indian women washing saris on their balconies knew that they were listening to the digitized version of a beautiful Schubert art song. I wish people who sing the Bollywood song “Itna na Mujhse Tu Pyaar Badha” knew the tune at its inception, as the melody to Mozart’s 40th Symphony. (See below, and lest you think it’s just a melodic coincidence, listen until 0:49—besides the final augmented 6th, it’s all there!)

In my own music, I aim to leave the windows cracked open in the other direction by embedding little snippets I love from the raags of Hindustani music, particular phrases that I find strikingly beautiful and unique. While those phrases certainly can’t capture the entire breadth and depth of the culture, I hope that they will give Western audiences a little taste of the musical culture and will leave them wanting to explore it further.

Exploring these different methods of aesthetic expression across cultures can only increase our expressive palette as musicians. It can offer us opportunities to engage with another culture through its unique musical depictions, and it can also allow us to explore a wider range of methods of aesthetic expression, to increase our repertoire of ways of knowing [3].


1. This is as close to an ascending and descending scale as a raag gets.
2. There are, however, raags that have both lowered and raised 3rds, which I think brings about a whole other aesthetic in Hindustani music. I would be curious to see how these raags are felt in an exclusively Western context.
3. This last phrase, “repertoire of ways of knowing” is not my own. It was coined by Dr. Peter Rojcewicz, who specializes in holistic education and was a humanities professor at Juilliard when I studied there in the early 2000s.

Hindustani Music: Recitals of Gratitude

Lakshmiji's students singing together

Lakshmiji’s students singing together
Photo by Reena Esmail

“You must come to Gurupoornima this year,” my teacher Lakshmi Shankar* said after our lesson one summer day in 2012. I had just come back to Los Angeles for the summer between the years of my doctoral coursework at the Yale School of Music, and I was studying Hindustani vocal performance with her intensively, attempting to make up months of lessons over a single summer.
“You will enjoy it—all the students perform. You really must come.” I nodded that I would be there, even though I had never heard the term before. As it turns out, Gurupoornima (goo-roo-POOR-nee-maa) is an Indian festival to pay homage to one’s teachers. The word guru, which literally translates to “the remover of darkness,” is the Sanskrit term for teacher. And the word poornima refers to a festival celebrated during the full moon, an auspicious occasion in many cultures. Gurupoornima is celebrated on the full moon in the month of Ashadh, which usually falls around June or July on the Gregorian calendar.
It immediately struck me that I could not recall ever celebrating a similar holiday in America. While America certainly has a designated Teacher’s Day, I never once remember celebrating it, or even knowing about it, either as a student or a teacher. In modern India, Gurupoornima is not the only holiday that venerates teachers: Teacher’s Day, which falls on September 5, is also widely celebrated throughout the country—often, older students will take over the classroom duties, allowing teachers to relax and enjoy the many festivities the students have planned in their honor.

In practice, the Gurupoornima celebration serves a similar place in Hindustani musical culture that a yearly studio recital does in the West. Students gather together for a long afternoon of performances, starting with short segments from the youngest beginners and ending with extensive programs by the most accomplished students. Gurupoornima creates a space for social and musical interaction between students, which helps to establish a community of students of varying levels of proficiency and to inspire students to continue progressing in their studies.

However, the central theme of gratitude makes Gurupoornima different from a studio recital in many ways.
At Gurupoornima, the teacher is the guest of honor. She will often be seated in a prominent location, both in view of the performers and the audience. Before performing, students will speak directly to the teacher, expressing gratitude for what they have learned and for her patience and dedication to their musical development. Often, students will even ask for forgiveness in advance for any mistakes made during the performance, not wanting any shortcoming in their performance to reflect poorly on the guru. (This last practice was shocking to me at first—it is common even for top-tier artists to make this advance plea for forgiveness to an audience. However, over the years, I have come to appreciate the humility and admission of vulnerability in such a gesture.)

The celebration of Gurupoornima is not limited to current students, as a studio recital would be. It is common for previous students to come back and perform for their teacher, sometimes traveling long distances to participate in the celebration. Often, students who have had more than one teacher will find a way to attend each Gurupoornima celebration—a feat that can often prove as difficult as spending Christmas with multiple sets of relatives. In recent years, I have seen that students who are too far away to attend the celebration in person will make a point of publicly acknowledging and thanking their teachers on social media—even the most famous performers do not let this day pass uncelebrated.

Esmail singing at Gurupoornima 2014

Esmail singing at Gurupoornima 2014, accompanied by Samar Das, tabla
Photo by Ashwin Rode

Students display their gratitude through their actions as well: the Gurupoornima event is often planned and executed completely by the students—from venue arrangements to audio equipment rental, from invitations to catering and paying for the full meal that customarily follows the performances, the students handle all the logistics.

As I listened closely to the performances at Gurupoornima that year, I felt that the focus on gratitude played a central role in the energy in the room and, consequently, in the rendering of the music itself. In my experience as a young student of Western music, studio recitals were always marked by a permeating uneasiness—perhaps a combination of each performer’s individual nervous energy and a general sense of competition between students. There would inevitably be displays of debilitating stage fright and long, tense silences during memory slips or derailed performances. Even the anticipation of these mishaps often made the less experienced performers rigid and inexpressive. In sharp contrast, the energy at Gurupoornima was lighthearted and relaxed. People moved in and out of the room easily—chatting, drinking tea, and enjoying the music together. Performances felt spontaneous and expressive, with even the youngest students smiling shyly into the audience as they sang.

Recent research substantiates the claim that it is impossible to feel both nervous and grateful at the same time—that the brain is incapable of processing both sentiments simultaneously. As each student thanked Lakshmiji** and aimed to honor her by performing well, the focus moved away from their desire to impress and dazzle, and shifted onto their effort to honor her. Even when mistakes were made, Lakshmiji warmly encouraged her students to continue, visibly proud of each one. Consequently, I found myself focusing not on the accuracy or vocal dexterity displayed in the performances, but on familiar turns of phrase that I began to recognize in many of the performances—I heard her characteristic vocal style emerging uniquely through each student. It was the best testament to her careful and thorough teaching.

As I listened to Lakshmiji’s students sing that afternoon, I began to wish that we also celebrated Gurupoornima in the West. I thought of some of my most trusted composition mentors, who have gone above and beyond for me—the teacher who made time to call me from a competition he was judging in Europe to offer support for the orchestra piece I was struggling to complete, who would always find time for me even in the busiest moments of his wildly successful career. There was also the teacher who accepted me into her studio when my confidence was shot and I was almost ready to quit composing, who would stay late in New York City to delve into my work (even though I wasn’t actually a student at the school where she taught) and who worked patiently and deliberately to rebuild my understanding of my own creative process. These teachers took the time to understand my ideas better than I understood them myself and helped me render them into music when I, at times profoundly, doubted my ability to do so. I truly wished there was a day on the calendar when my colleagues and I could organize performances to honor them, to celebrate the boundless energy they poured into each one of us.

Sadly, this year’s Gurupoornima was a more somber affair: Lakshmiji passed away in December of 2013, at the age of 87. As her students remembered her and thanked her, everyone in the audience choked back tears. I was especially heartbroken because I had so looked forward to studying with her full time—she passed away just months before I was able to move back to Los Angeles. But as I listened to her students perform, I heard those same characteristic strains of her voice coming through each of them. It was as if she was in the room, singing to us.

About halfway through the afternoon, one of her master students asked me if I was planning to sing something. Truth be told, I had barely practiced after her death. I just couldn’t bring myself to listen to the recordings of our lessons and hear her voice. But her other students encouraged me. “It’s about showing her your gratitude for her teaching. Sing a little bit, just to honor her.” For all the years I had spent immersed in practicing Hindustani vocal music, I had never sung a purely classical performance for an audience of peers. It was my first time. And it was magical. I felt my voice weave through the phrases, remembering them as she taught them to me, hearing them in her voice and executing them in mine. I missed her intensely, but even more than that, I was so profoundly grateful for every moment I had spent in her presence.


Readers, have you ever wished there was a practice from another musical culture that could be incorporated into Western musical culture? Have any of you regularly celebrated your teachers? What did you do? Please respond in the comments below!

* Lakshmi Shankar was one of the most prominent Hindustani singers of her generation. Recognized in the West as famed sitar player Ravi Shankar’s sister-in-law, she sang in the 1982 film Gandhi, and recorded 19 solo albums during her career.

** the suffix –ji is a marker of respect in Hindi


Reena Esmail

Indian-American composer Reena Esmail “creates richly melodic lines that imbue her music with the heights of lyricism, balanced by winning textural clarity.” (AAAL) A graduate of Juilliard and Yale School of Music, and a recent Fulbright grantee to India, Esmail’s work draws together elements from Western and Hindustani (North Indian) classical traditions. Esmail’s works have received honors from The American Academy of Arts and Letters and ASCAP, and have been performed throughout the United States, in India, and abroad.