Khayal music is a kind of being brought into being as it is going: Chaitanya Tamhane

Asha Bajaj
6 min readNov 4, 2020


#Toronto; #TIFF2020; #ChaitanyaTamhane; #KhayalMusic; #IndianClassicalMusic; #TheDisciple

Toronto, Nov 4: During one of the conversations series organized by the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) held at Toronto, Cameron Bailey, Artistic Director & Co-Head of TIFF discusses the film ‘The Disciple’ with Chaitanya Tamhane, the director of the film — winner of TIFF 2020 Amplify Voices Award, and Best Screenplay award at Venice Film Festival — in which he examines a lifetime journey devoted to the art of Indian classical music.

Asha Bajaj, Editorial-Director of Canadian-Media brings you the excerpts:

Chaitanya Tamhane. Image credit: Official Facebook


Cameron to Chaitanya: Can you talk a little about the form of Khayal music, that your disciple is learning and that you’re exploring in the film?

Chaitanya: Khayal, a form of Indian classical music, a complex art with its strict framework of rules, believed to be 5000 years old with its foundation to be improvisation. Khayal translates literally to a state of transformation of an artist’s performance expressed through the music similar to the Western classical meeting jazz because the performer is a singer-composer.

Khayal music. Image credit: Facebook page

To Chaitanya: Is the improvisation provided primarily by the singer, the soloist, or by all the members of the ensemble?

The accompanist’s presence is mandatory to adapt to that art to respond because it like a conversation between the musicians on stage, a kind of being brought into being as it is going. Once you start understanding and appreciating it, its similarity to the original version of rock and roll becomes obvious. The suspense and thrill are being unfolded slowly to the audience how a performer resolves that particular beat cycle or how he lands again on the resting note.

To Chaitanya: How did you become interested in Indian classical music and decide to make it the subject of your film?

When I was younger, I did not like the traditional setting of the music with its rituals such as extreme reverence, submission to your guru, or to your elders. But gradually I developed an interest in the stories, the history, and the anecdotes and learned how to separate the music from the facets of unappreciated elements of the world. Once attracted to it, I started following musicians on social media, attending concerts, reading books on the subjects, watching documentaries. I realized the richness of the well-documented subject with an endless ocean to dive into and decided to make this the subject of my film.

Indian classical music. Image credit: Wallpaper Cave

To Chaitanya: Fans of Western classical music might find the element of the music a little bit different when they watch ‘The Disciple.’ Sharad, your disciple in the film, is not appreciated for studying this very complex ancient Indian art form. Where does this music stand now in Indian society?

This is something that even I thought as well. After I started researching and attending concerts, I realized that it was a very dynamic thriving subculture in the country, though with a limited, niche audience similar to arthouse cinema, in being a much younger media. Although not a part of the mainstream dialogue, or pop culture, practitioners, and performers of this art form are fully committed and have an audience, and are adapting to changing times. It is not a dying art form.

To Chaitanya: As a maker of arthouse films, was this film then kind of a personal story for you?

Yes, it is a kind of exploration of personal life, but it is slightly different when it comes to films as opposed to music. I was born in 1987 and while growing up films had a very different value, mystery, and position in popular culture. Today there is a great change where media, memes, video games, etc. are competing for people’s attention. Although different in some ways, the film is universal and could be the story of a ballerina, an athlete, or a dancer.

To Chaitanya: Being part of one of the world’s most famous mentorship programs, the Rolex Mentoring Protégé Initiative with Alfonso Cuaron as your mentor as well as the executive producer of this film. What was your experience working with him as a protégé and what was his contribution to this film?

It would take me approximately 10 or 15 years to fully comprehend and realize what all I learned from Alfonso as my learning is an ongoing process. Although Alfonso calls it a two-way process and considers it to be a dialogue between two artists, one relatively younger and upcoming, and the other more experienced, I consider him to be my mentor. Watching him work expanded my vocabulary of filmmaking. He constantly pushed me to be fearless, to have a strong vision, to pursue it with conviction, and to demand the best. And although not being experienced in editing by myself, he insisted that I edit this film with his reasonings, “Who will know better than you?” and provided me with valuable feedback. When faced with challenges to communicate this complex art form with a context to a lay audience who knows nothing about this music, he just said ‘Don’t even try, just do it. Just tell your story. And trust the audiences’ intuition.’ Alfonso’s advice to just grant intelligence rather than being expository to the audience was very valuable.

Alfonso Cuaron. Image credit: Facebook page

To Chaitanya: The visual style of the film, although meditative, never feels slow. There is a discipline in framing each image, making them move from one to another. Did you follow a particular strategy to approach the visual style and the rhythm of the film?

Every story and every narrative demand its own cinematic language and is a constant process for the artist to discover that language while shooting, while prepping, and while editing. I felt it unethical to impose a certain style on a film or to give set motions to it. In spite of my affinity towards continuous stakes and wide shots, and a certain kind of pacing, compared to my first film ‘Court,’ the language has taken a new turn in “The Disciple”, in being more dynamic, subjective, and more emotional. I followed the strategy of sensitivity and openness, to what the film itself demands, and then to follow your intuition in finding that language.

To Chaitanya: In both your previous film “Court,” also widely celebrated, and ‘The Disciple,’ you mentioned that you filmed not only just portraits of individual characters, but also of institutions in India, the justice system, and in this case, Indian Classical Music. Are you inclined towards exploring institutions?

Being raised in a very insular middle class set up compared to the diverse and dynamic Mumbai, I was completely driven by curiosity towards different subcultures, different worlds, and different settings, than the institutions. Having a similar approach to the journalist, I wanted to engage with something totally new and alien, and then to marry that external stimulus with something deeply personal. You begin to realize that people and cultures, at the core essence, are universal, and similar at the end of the day. I am still in the process of searching for what I would explore in the future.

The Disciple. Image credit: Twitter handle



Asha Bajaj

I write on national and international Health, Politics, Business, Education, Environment, Biodiversity, Science, First Nations, Humanitarian, gender, women