Singing at Tansen’s tomb

The annual samaroh at Behat in Gwalior is one of the country’s oldest and most inclusive music festivals

January 27, 2022 08:17 pm | Updated 08:17 pm IST

A group singing of dhrupad

A group singing of dhrupad

Swar and taal echoed through the small village of Behat in Gwalior district, where the 97th edition of the Tansen Samaroh was held in December 2021.

The Tansen Samaroh is among the oldest music festivals in India; the oldest probably being Jalandhar’s 138-year-old Harvallabh Festival. Dovar Lane Music Conference, Bhatkhande Sangeet Sammelan, Gunidas Sangeet Sammelan, Shankarlal Music Festival are a few others that are known worldwide for the value they have added to the Indian classical music scenario.

Myriad genres showcased

The Tansen Samaroh stands out because of the myriad genres it showcases. The last few years have seen the festival present international artistes to the Indian audience. Though Mumbai, Pune, Goa and the Northeastern states have hosted jazz, blues, and EDM artistes, having them perform alongside Indian classical musicians has been a first. The Samaroh has successfully brought many musical genres together and managed to keep audiences engaged.

Mian Tansen, one of the nine gems of emperor Akbar’s darbar, was born Ramtanu Mishra in a village near Rewa. He spent most of his adult life in the court of Raja Ramchandra Singh of Rewa. Ramtanu was given the name ‘Tansen’ by his guru Swami Haridas in appreciation of his student’s proficiency in rendering taans and the range and quality of his voice. Tansen, till today, is referred to as the Sangeet Samrat. The title ‘mian’ was bestowed upon him by Akbar. The emperor’s court historian, Abul Fazal, makes a special mention of Tansen in his Ain-i-Akbari.

Mian Tansen's tomb at Gwalior

Mian Tansen's tomb at Gwalior

There are several legends associated with Tansen, the most popular ones being how his singing of raag Deepak (now not in vogue in its original form) could set lamps alight and how his rendering of raag Megh Malhar could bring rains.

Tansen’s journey was not an easy one. After losing his father at a very young age, Tansen would sing outside the Shiva temple in his village. Sufi saint Mohammad Ghaus took him under his care and began training him in music. Tansen eventually learnt from Swami Haridas.

It was in 1924 that Maharaja Madhav Rao Scindia of Gwalior decided to commemorate the memory and legacy of the legendary singer by holding a music festival near his grave in Behat. Initially, only Hindustani classical musicians, sufi and folk singers from neighbouring towns and villages participated.

Gwalior’s kings had always nurtured music, with artistes and students from across the country coming to this princely state to seek patronage. It led to Gwalior emerging as the seat of Hindustani music. The Gwalior gharana was established by Naththan Pir Baksh and his family, who had moved to the court of Raja Daulat Rao Scindia. Though Pir Baksh’s gayaki was dhrupad-based, he is also said to have introduced khayal gayaki. The Gwalior gharana saw the bandish as a tool to reach out to listeners, and even today, musicians of many gharanas sing bandishes of the Gwalior gharana.

Vikku Vinayakram performing at the festival

Vikku Vinayakram performing at the festival

Formal format

In the 1950s, the government of Madhya Pradesh decided to take over the Tansen Sangeet Samaroh and turn it into a tourist attraction. Since then, the festival has had a more formal format and was extended to include genres such as Carnatic, instrumental and semi-classical, along with lec-dems and art exhibitions. Dr. Keskar, the State’s then cultural secretary, played a significant role in bringing about this shift. Over the past 70 years, political changes have, thankfully, not affected the conduct of the festival. If anything, it has only grown in size and stature, and the association of the Ustad Alladin Khan Sangeet and Kala Academy has a lot to do with this evolution.

Today, though the main concerts take place in the huge shamiana erected near Tansen’s tomb, events are also conducted at other nearby venues.

This year the samaroh began on December 25 with the rendering of Punjabi Sufi songs by Ustad Pooranchand Badali and Lakhwinder Badali at Hajira, a nearby village. The festival concluded on December 30 with a dhrupad concert by Saranad Mandir of Gwalior. The last session also included a vocal recital by Vaishali Bakore and Saniya Patankar and a vichitra veena recital by Radhika Umedkar.

The other highlights of this year’s festival were the release of Pt. Ravi Shankar’s monograph, the use of traditional arts such as Madhubani to depict the emotions associated with different raags, and well-known vocalist Satyasheel Deshpande’s session on bandish.

While it’s heartening to see that the festival has grown in size, too much is not always good. The cramped concert schedule — two sessions a day, each lasting about five hours — leaves listeners exhausted and confused. This defeats the very purpose of music to calm the mind and soothe the soul. The organisers need to seriously give a thought to the festival’s time factor for it to retain its appeal.

The Mumbai-based writer is the

founder of Pancham Nishad.

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