It is virtually impossible to accurately trace the genealogy of what is today commonly known as Indian classical music – a hybrid entity that it is neither monolithic nor coherent. There is no written history to go by, only sculpture, paintings, crumbling manuscripts and a host of anecdotal references that are coloured by different biases and personal histories. Even the stories surrounding gharanas (schools of music) and ragas have an element of fantasy surrounding them, whether it is the legendary tale of Tansen singing Raga Megh to bring on the rain to his parched kingdom, or the story of how Alladiya Khan created the Jaipur gharana after he lost his voice. For this writer, an understanding of Hindustani classical music came from reading about it, but also from the colourful stories that my teacher, Dhondutai Kulkarni, told over the years about herself and her teachers, the great Kesarbai Kerkar and the Alladiya Khan family of Kolhapur, creators of the Jaipur gharana.
Like so many other monuments and myths, the narrative changes based on who is telling the story. For example, a scholar-musician who has spent the last twenty years trying to compile an encyclopaedia of Indian music (which has finally been published this year, by Sangit Mahabharati) was confounded by the absence of factual information. Was the sitar invented by the Persian poet Amir Khusro or does it have roots in the Subcontinent? What is the origin of the word aalaap, which refers to the slow cadences with which a musician lays out the raga? Some Muslim artistes insist that it comes from ‘Allah aap’ (Allah, you respected one). Hindus, on the other hand, trace its roots to the Dhrupad Dhamar tradition, a form of classical music believed to have evolved in the 15th century, under Raja Mansingh Tomar in Gwalior. And did a particular raga come from what was then Persia – given that the same melodic framework seems to exist in the Subcontinent, though under a different name? So often, one listens to a recital by, say, an Iranian musician, and finds stunning similarities in Hindustani music.
The truth is, no one quite knows the precise history of this great tradition. Like a tumultuous river, Indian classical music has gathered different influences along the way, and seamlessly merged them into its flow. Most musicologists agree that the basic swara, or note, originated in ancient Hindu Vedic chanting. The chants developed into organised groups of notes, which eventually became ragas. Just as in the West, organised music emerged as a medium to praise divinity, initially sung in places of worship. The compositions praised god; the audience comprised the devotees. Gradually, between the 12th and 14th centuries, the music moved to the royal courts and developed into a sombre, stately style called dhrupad, accompanied by a baritone pakhwaj drum. Around this time, the texts of the compositions also started to change. For instance, the music sung in the temples was about the gods, while that sung before the king would praise him or describe worldly subjects such as marriage and love.
The music of the Subcontinent started to transform quite dramatically around the 14th century, when the Mughal dynasty from Central Asia established itself in the region and held sway for the next three or four centuries. Inevitably, the cultural landscape began to change, as elements from Islam inspired the architectural aesthetic, dress habits, food and, of course, music, irrevocably altering its rendition. The musician and mystic poet Amir Khusrau, started to meld Islamic motifs into the local music. He inspired many new ragas, drawing from Persian melodies and ideologies. He also created new genres within the Dhrupad style, replacing traditional Indian compositions with Persian verses and couplets. Both Hindus and Muslims regard him as a saint-singer.
Although Islam was the dominant faith of the ruling class in the north, people did not define themselves by religion. Rather, class and caste remained far more divisive than faith. Many poor Hindus converted to Islam because it seemed to offer them the opportunity of social mobility; some converted for reasons of patronage. These converts included a number of professional musicians, such as Alladiya Khan’s ancestors. Like him, most musicians of the time would trace their lineage back to Haridas Swami, the great singer and saint who taught Tansen during the 16th century. The story goes that one of his descendents, Nath Vishwambara, a forefather of Alladiya Khan, was actually a Hindu priest, but converted to save his patron and king from being captured by the then Mughal emperor of Delhi. These tales, most of them likely apocryphal, firmly established that musicians essentially owed their allegiance to music, not to faith.
Music in northern Southasia thus evolved as a remarkably syncretic space. Hindu musicians converted to Islam but performed in temples. Muslim rulers became enthusiastic patrons, but were unmindful that the compositions being sung in their courts might have been in praise of Hindu gods and goddesses. In fact, the Mughal emperor Akbar, Tansen’s patron, commissioned compositions in the local Hindi dialect rather than in Persian. During the mid-19th century, the Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, an epicure, poet and musician, was known for his pluralist beliefs. In one of his verses, he wrote: ‘Hum ishq ke bande hai / Mazhab se nahin vasta…’ (We are slaves of love, religion means nothing to us).
By the end of the 19th century, most musicians had converted to Islam, essentially because their patronage came from Muslim kings and nobles, at least in the northern part of the region. Tansen himself was born Hindu (his birth name was Tanu Mishra), but once Akbar adopted him in his court, he converted and became Miya Tansen; the texts of his compositions also changed, from evocations on the Hindu gods to praise of Muslim saints. But like his cosmopolitan patron, Akbar, he had both Hindu and Muslim wives, and children who followed both religions. Above all, his music transcended such barriers, encouraging religious pluralism and cultural opening.
Thus, what developed from the 16th century on was a gradual syncretisation of music in the north. Alladiya Khan might have been Muslim but he, or some member of his family, performed every day at the Mahalakshmi temple, in Kolhapur, as part of his duty to the king and the people. Another well-known Muslim family of Dhrupad singers, the Dagars, played and sang regularly in the inner chambers of a famous temple in Rajasthan, which was out of bounds even to high-caste Hindus. Their music, not their faith, was their offering to the gods. Even today, the Muslim Dagar family is largely responsible for keeping alive a Hindu tradition – one of the many beautiful ironies in the music world.
So, was this music Hindu or was it Muslim? The question is irrelevant. During the 18th century, one of Tansen’s descendents on the Muslim side of his lineage, Niyamat Khan, who called himself Sadarang, introduced a wonderful new element into Indian classical music called khayal, which comes closest to the music as we know it today. While khayal – literally meaning thought and imagination – is considered the single most important Muslim contribution to music of the region by those who prefer to define musical genealogy along religious lines, it is a moot point. After all, Sadarang’s musical lineage goes back to Tansen, who was originally a Hindu Brahmin.
It was also royal patronage that gave rise to the gharanas, the schools of music. Since the rulers wanted the best performers to grace their courts, a musician’s individuality and repertoire became his or her asset, with a value attached to it that could command a price and salary. It thus became important for musicians to create distinctive styles, which would distinguish them from others so they could secure better positions. These specialised styles and compositions would then be zealously guarded, for it was through them that the artiste and his descendants ensured their livelihoods. If this new style survived the next generation, it became established as a gharana, and each gharana had (and continues to have) a personality that reflects the temperament, aptitudes and eccentricities of the founding master. For example, the Jaipur gharana developed its peculiar style by default, emerging as a result of a handicap that had afflicted Alladiya Khan – a highly intellectual style that prided itself on its many complex jod or compound ragas.
The courtesan influence
With the growing involvement of the royal patrons, music moved from being a medium of prayer to a form of high art. The performer was no longer the religious singer, but had become an entertainer. This is what catalysed the arrival of the courtesan singer, for the female became a preferred choice for performance for the princely class. In the process, male singers were increasingly marginalised, and a new tradition of bai singers came into being – women who were treated as the high priestesses of their art, and yet were not given the respect that married women commanded.
During the first decade of the 20th century, one such performer was Gauhar Jaan, the first woman singer to be recorded on a gramophone in India. She was once seen riding around in a four-horse carriage. A British governor, who happened to ride past her, automatically saluted her, assuming she was royalty. When he later found out that she was a ‘singing girl’, he reportedly became so livid that he passed an edict declaring that no one besides royalty could use a four-horse carriage. There are numerous such stories about singers who, despite their artistic achievements, had to silently endure the slights and humiliations flung at them by a society steeped in gender hypocrisy.
These courtesan singers gave birth to a new genre of music, essentially derived from the classical khayal but with a lighter, more flippant edge. This was the thumri, a languid, sensual style that draws on Urdu poetry. Most compositions were written as odes to love and longing, and the style became extremely popular among kings and feudal lords, fitting well into the general atmosphere of princely indolence. But given the association of women and the performing arts, the notion of a ‘respectable’ girl singing in public, or even learning music, was anathema. A well-known thumri singer from North India, Dhondutai, who was not from a professional singers’ family but, rather, the daughter of a barrister, had created a completely parallel identity for herself as a singer, which had very little to do with her domestic persona. No wonder her father had to fend off the disapproval of his community, even his wife, when he encouraged his daughter to learn music and even take it up professionally.
Clearly, the survival of Indian classical music owes itself to the persistence and talent of numerous women professional singers, including such luminaries as Rasoolanbai, Kesarbai, Mogubai, Siddheshwari Devi and Shobha Gurtu. The relationship between patron and artiste often premised on the vanity of the wealthy patron boasting of having a great singer under his patronage – or his bed – in the early 20th century ensured that the music remained alive and well.
Finally, the change in patronage also marked a lasting divide in Subcontinental classical music, creating the two distinct styles of the northern ‘Hindustani’ – referring to music that is common to Southasia, not only post-1947 India, but to the Subcontinent as a whole and the southern ‘Carnatic’ music. While music in the north gradually transformed its aesthetic and purpose, classical music in the south, which remained distant from Islamic influences, continued to play a religious function and has retained the original styles and compositions. Even today, Carnatic music resembles the Vedic temple music that was sung many centuries ago, and does not use alien instruments (such as the harmonium) which had made their way into the Hindustani musical space.
It was the British who eventually got the ball rolling in terms of notions of ‘Hindu’ music. In the late 18th century, a reputed scholar named William Jones published a book called The Musical Modes of the Hindoos. He argued that there was nothing to be learned from the ‘muddy rivulets of Mussalman thinking’, and that Indian music history had been preserved by Hindus. Music as a means of cultural expression thus started to revert to its ‘sacred’ Vedic origins. Muslim artistes like Alladiya Khan probably found refuge in these Hindu origin stories as a strategic measure to survive in the public domain. By the turn of the century, two acclaimed scholars of music, Vishnu Digambar Paluskar and Vishnu Bhatkhande, started to align their music with a nationalist Hindu agenda. Paluskar was driven by a mission to ‘rescue’ music from illiterate and debauched Muslim musicians ‘who performed it for the dissolute entertainment of indolent princely state rulers’, in the words of a rightwing Marathi newspaper at the turn of the century. Ironically, most practitioners of music at the time were Muslim.
In their obsession to organise and document the history of the ‘natives’, British ethnographers eventually during the 19th century started to record local cultural history. In so doing, they studiously divided things into ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’, ignoring the more ambiguous confluences that expressed themselves everywhere, in architecture, music, dress, even in a new language. The defining moment came in 1931, when the British conducted an exhaustive census of the country and added a new category to their survey – religion. The new Indian political elite fell into this trap of identification, and started to differentiate themselves as Hindu and Muslim. Suddenly, the idea of being Hindu became paramount and part of a new cultural nationalism. In order to survive in the public domain, performers were sometimes forced to renegotiate their identities along religious lines.
The agenda fitted snugly into the larger political dramas of the time. The nationalist struggle, followed by Partition, forever scarred relations between two communities who had long lived – and sung – together. Without realising it, a suspicion and even revulsion evolved among many Hindus towards Muslims, even if they happened to be their beloved teachers. In that case, the best strategy was to adopt them as ‘Hindu-ised Muslim’, which is what one suspects happened with the Alladiya Khan family. ‘Alladiya Khan used to wear the sacred thread of the Brahmins,’ Dhondutai often said. ‘He was so Hindu, he rarely even drank tea, let alone touch other vices.’ Like many other singers, Dhondutai routinely speaks of ‘Hindustani classical music’ as ‘our’ sacred music, and emphasises the Hindu-ness of his Muslim teachers. Even a highly educated sitar player once said to me, in a back-handed acknowledgment of the Muslims’ contribution to this art form, ‘This may be our music, but it has been kept alive by them.’
For me, the most remarkable aspect of Dhondutai’s story – indeed, the story of Indian classical music generally – is that it rises above all divides created on the basis of religion, social stratification or gender. Three artistes such as Alladiya Khan, Kesarbai and Dhondutai occupied completely different worlds, and might not have ever run into each other in the social space; but music brought them together seamlessly, in an absolute sense. It became a language of communication like no other, surviving all kinds of
Parts of this article are extracted from The Music Room (2007) a memoir of the author.