Musicians from the Mughal era who shaped Hindustani music

Katherine Butler Schofield’s Music and Musicians in Late Mughal India presents a well-researched slice of music history.

Updated - June 14, 2024 09:55 am IST

Published - May 17, 2024 05:56 pm IST

Katherine Schofield’s latest book is an invaluable addition to the few on Indian music. The book is not only an evidence of her scholarship and intensive research in a subject that many do not know about, but is also a riveting page turner. Her evocative bring alive the world of music in that era.

Confining herself to the period between 1748 and 1848, “one of the most significant periods of change for Hindustani music”, Katherine rues that the period has not been “properly mapped”. The reason, “a pervasive belief” that the musicians were illiterate. The 2000-year-old tradition of writing sangita shastras stopped during this period, and the repositories of music were thought to be ignorant and unletterred. However this assumption has been proved wrong by modern researchers, and this book relies on writings on music during this period; which “have languished in the archives”.

Six essays dealing with different subjects and belonging to different time zones and regions, have been skilfully linked. In 1752, Inayat Khan Rasikh wrote the first-ever biographical collection (tazkira) on musicians. Rasikh created a record of musicians, from Akbar to Aurangzeb’s reign, “the golden age of the Mughal empire and of Hindustani music.”

The longest entry in this work deals with an anecdote from the life of Khushhal Khan ‘Gunasamudra’, (d 1675), great grandson of Mian Tansen. His father Lal Khan was so talented that when Tansen heard him sing, he sent his son Bilas Khan to train under him, and later made Lal Khan part of his family by getting Bilas Khan’s daughter married to him.

A singer or kalavant.

A singer or kalavant. | Photo Credit: British Library

Interestingly, 400 years ago, talent was recognised and musical training was not confined only to the family. Lal Khan went to become the chief musician in Shah Jahan ‘s court, a title given later to his talented son Khushhal.

Musicians at the time stood and sang; Rasikh writes of the young Khushhal and his brother Bisram standing on the edge of the carpet beneath the Emperor’s throne, and playing the ‘tambur’, and lending their voice in accompaniment to their father Lal Khan. The carpet is referred to by a later ustad, Sadarang (one of the greatest singers of his time) “only he who does not place a foot outside the carpet will earn the royal mantle of high distinction.”

Khushhal Khan stepped out of the carpet, metaphorically speaking, after he engaged the emperor’s attention by his wonderful rendition of Raga Todi. Seeing the emperor totally enamoured by the music, Khushhal signalled to an official to get him to sign a petition, which Shah Jahan unwittingly did, but later realised he had been tricked. He then banished the singer from court.

Apart from such fascinating anecdotes, the book also offers a wealth of information. Apparently, there were four communities that participated in musical gatherings (majlis) — kalawants who performed dhrupad and played the ‘bin’ (rudra veena) and rabab, quawwals, instrumental accompanists of quawwals and lastly, courtesans.

Tansen and Akbar visit Swami Haridas in Vrindavan.

Tansen and Akbar visit Swami Haridas in Vrindavan. | Photo Credit: Courtesy : National Museum, Delhi

A listing of great musicians, from pre-Tansen times to 1800s, help us know about the now-forgotten musicians such as Nayak Baiju (who pre-dated Tansen contrary to popular belief, Nayak Gopal, Amir Khusrau, Nayak Bakshu, Tansen, Lal Khan, Baz Bahadur and Roopmati, and Niamat Khan Sadarang and his descendants.

Sadarang or Mian Niamat Khan, the famous beenkar (today he is remembered more for his khayals) is said to have fallen from imperial grace and had to leave the court. His cousin, the courtesan Lal Kanvar married Jahandar Shah, grandson of Aurangzeb, and obviously Sadarang too was elevated to a high post. But when Jahandar Shah was strangled by his own courtier, Sadarang again left to re appear only in the time of emperor Muhammed Shah.” Because of his wonderful khayals, he is erroneously credited with having created the form, which was actually popular in royal courts since the 1660s.

The rivalry between Adarang, Sadarang’s nephew and also son in law and Anjha Baras Muhammed Shahi, the descendant in Tansen’s male line is discussed. The book is not confined to music in the Mughal court. At the Awadh court of Asaf ud Daula, in 1788, Katherine writes about the musical interactions between Kashmiri courtesan Khanum Jan and Sophia Elizabeth Plowden, wife of an East India Company official. These came to be later compiled as “Hindustani Airs”, which were popularly performed as late as 1850s.

Moving to Hyderabad, Katherine writes about Anup’s Rag Ragini Roz o Shab, written around 1833, and currently housed in the Salar Jung museum in Hyderabad. The listing of raags can “tell various stories — it could easily fill a book in its own right.”

Katherine highlights how the sources of music writing can contradict — Colonel Skinner’s notes on ‘kalavants’ are totally divergent to other sources, making cross-checking a must. Her book is a compilation of that immense research, which took over five years. “I used mostly Persian and to a lesser extent, Urdu, Brajbhasha and Hindi texts.”

More relevant today are Katherine’s views on the ‘thaat’ system – “it is well-documented that modern musicians do not use shared scales to conceptualise raga relationships... Ghulam Raza’s system (enunciated in a treatise in 1790-93) cares more towards modern raga relationships than Bhatkhande’s”.

The most poignant chapter is about the visually-impaired Mian Himmat Khan, ‘Keeper of the Flame,’ Belonging to Sadarang’s lineage, he died early during the reign of Bahadur Shah Zafar (1837-58). He attempted to preserve his knowledge through the treatise Asl al-Usul. As he had no sons, he took his daughter’s son, Mir Nasir Ahmed, as his last ‘bin’ disciple. Mir Nasir Ahmed had to flee Delhi after 1858, and lived under the patronage of the Kapurthala prince, Bikrama Singh (wrongly mentioned as Bikramjit Singh in texts).

Katherine’s research brings to light an unknown part of our music history, one lost with time. In her words, “the lineages important to 20th century musicians are not the same as those deemed central by Mughal patrons and musicians in their own time.” She concludes, “so many stories remain untold in this book. It is because I do not have the many lifetimes I would need to tell them all.”

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