Madhu Trivedi’s recent book chronicles the intermingling between Indian performing arts and foreign traditions

How did the Hindustani tradition in music, dance and drama come about during the past millennium in North India and how did it crystallise into its present form? If one were to read books written by musicians or music scholars, the question will most likely remain unanswered. It’s a pity that barring a few exceptions, high-quality research in the history of our music does not take place in our music departments. One possible reason for this state of affairs may be the researchers’ lack of familiarity with methodological tools of historical study. More often than not, fables and myths are accepted as history. It’s not uncommon to find Amir Khusrau being described as a ‘foreigner’ although he was born in Patiyali near Etah in Uttar Pradesh.

Most historians have either no interest or no familiarity with music. Consequently, we are left with vague notions of tradition and its formative processes. The late Acharya KCD Brishaspati had tried to fill this gap by writing a book in Hindi on the contribution of the Muslims to Hindustani music. However, his endeavour met with limited success because, though familiar with original Braj bhasha, Persian, Urdu and Arabic sources, he too was not very well versed in the historical method.In view of this, historian Madhu Trivedi’s book “The Emergence of the Hindustani Tradition: Music, Dance and Drama in North India, 13th to 19th Centuries”, brought out by Three Essays Collective, comes as a breeze of fresh air. It makes us aware of the complex yet continuous process of intermingling that took place over the past seven or eight centuries between the Indian performing arts and foreign traditions that had arrived from Iran, Arabian Peninsula and Central Asia. The interaction spilled over centuries, giving birth to a composite culture that is best reflected in Hindustani music, dance and drama. Trivedi draws attention to the fact that in the pre-Sultanate days, sangeet à la Bharat’s “Natyashastra” was the amalgam of acting, dancing and singing but in the Sultanate period, theatre had no votaries.

By the quarter of the 13th Century, Delhi had emerged as a very big city where scholars, artisans and performing artistes from major centres of Islamic culture came and settled. This led to the process of assimilation of different cultures leading to the emergence of new performance practices. Amir Khusrau singlehandedly gave a tremendous push to this process and blended Indian and Persian lyric genres and music techniques. In any case, Indian classical and folk traditions were striking roots in the Sufi sama and he combined them while fashioning qaul, tarana, naqsh, nigar, basit, tillana, farsi, fard and sohla. Khusrau also laid the foundation stone of Hindustani music by joining two distinct musical cultures and blending Indian ragas with Persian muqams.Around the same time, Bhakti saint poets gave up the traditional prabandh form and opted for chhand, pad and doha. Most of the musical forms, such as Shabad, Dhrupad and Vishnupad, took shape in this milieu. Some revival of theatre also took place. The celebrated poet of Padmawat Malik Muhammad Jayasi (early 16th Century) refers to an actress (patur) who excelled in the make-up and acting of a jogan. The tale of Akbar and Tansen is very familiar. What is less known is that from Shah Jahan’s time onwards, music became a highly developed science. We are also told that in his travelogue “Muraqqa-i-Delhi” (1739), Dargah Quli Khan, who visited Delhi during the reign of Muhammad Shah, mentions the names of only two dhrupadiyas, indicating that Khayal had overshadowed Dhrupad by this time.

Madhu Trivedi has written a well-researched and informative essay, “Female Performing Artists in North India: A Survey”, that sheds new light on this neglected part of our history. Another essay, “Historical and Stylistic Development of Kathak in Medieval North India”, details the evolution of this dance form, changes that were introduced by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, and the way it acquired its present-day status. She notes that while the medieval sources do not recognise Kathak as a dance form or as a community of dancers, Kathak had become the most renowned of all the communities of musicians and dancers as well as a prominent dance form by the mid-19th Century.