History, Music


When I turned nine, my cousins gifted me a couple of Amar Chitra Kathas for my birthday.  These were comics that retold tales from Indian mythology and history.  One of them was on Tansen, the legendary singer from the court of the Mughal emperor, Akbar.  This was my introduction to the story of Tansen.  He was one of the “Navaratna” or “nine gems” of Akbar’s court.  Legend has it that his rendition of Raag Deepak could light unlit candles and Raag Malhaar could summon the rains.  One of the illustrations in the comic showed Tansen seated with a sitar in a pavilion situated in the middle of a pool.

In 1998, on a rainy day in August, I happened to visit Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar’s short-lived capital city near Agra. Built of red sandstone, this complex was inhabited for just 39 years before it was completely abandoned in the early 17th century.  It is well preserved.  I’m a lover of history and it was exciting to see first hand, monuments such as the “Buland Darwaza” (Gate of Victory) that I had studied in my religious and cultural history textbook in high school.  The piece de resistance for me, however, was a pavilion in a pool that the local guide explained to us was where Tansen would perform.  This pavilion can be approached from all four sides via bridges, footbridges if you will.  It is plausible that he performed at different times each day.  There is, after all, a strong association between the time of a day and a raga in the rich pantheon of ragas in Indian classical music.

The pavilion at Fatehpur Sikri

Tansen was born in 1500, near Gwalior in present-day Central India.  He started his career at the court of Raja Ramachandra Singh in the kingdom of Rewa and spent much of his adult life there.  His fame spread to Akbar, the great Mughal who invited him to his court and eventually anointed him as one of the Navaratnas or “Nine Gems” of his court.  It is Tansen’s time at Akbar’s court that burnished his legacy. Tansen’s musical works survive today but I don’t think a contemporaneous biography of him was written or has survived.  It is certain that some of what we know of Tansen today is gleaned from Abul Fazl’s “Ain-I-Akbari” (Constitution of Akbar), which chronicles the administrative, art, music and literary details of Akbar’s reign.

It was no doubt a thrill for me to be seated at the same spot where Tansen performed centuries ago. However, I wondered, how many people at that time had actually listened to Tansen sing?  As a member of the royal court, he probably performed at the court or palace.  Commoners probably got to hear him rarely and if then, perhaps only at festivals.  Given the distances and difficulty of travel, his fame was probably spread by travelers to the court who spoke of his singing and composing ability.  The common man in the hinterlands would probably have not even heard of him.  His exposure to music probably came from a local singer in the village or the wandering minstrels.

The same cannot be said of the Western musicians.  Given the instrumental nature of Mozart, Bach and Beethoven’s music, they have been played over the years, one can listen to a symphony today and the experience is probably the same as listening to it centuries ago when they were composed.  Tansen would be considered a triple-threat today, he was a vocalist, composed music and was an accomplished instrumentalist.  One can listen to his compositions by other singers, but it is not his voice!

A VCD of the 1943 movie Tansen starring K.L. Saigal and Khursheed Bano

When I think of Tansen, the image of Saigal singing “Diya Jalao” (Light the lamp) comes to my mind.  KL Saigal played the lead role in “Tansen”, filmed in 1943, music composed by the equally legendary Khemchand Prakash.  The movie features a plot wherein jealous courtiers convince Akbar that if Tansen sings Raag Deepak, it will cure Akbar’s daughter who is sick.  This leads Akbar to request  Tansen to perform the Raag Deepak.  Tansen is in a quandary since singing it would justify his fame but it would literally end in a pyrrhic victory. The antidote to Raag Deepak is Raag Malhar and he can sing that too, but he would be too sick to sing it after he has sung Deepak.   The myth says he ultimately sang Raag Deepak (Saigal’s rendition of “Diya Jalao Jaga Maga” in the movie).  The candles are duly lit but the heat generated by the power of the song burns Tansen from within.  Birbal, the wise courtier, tells Akbar that Tansen can only be cured by somebody who can sing Raag Malhar.  No singer is found and as a dying Tansen heads home to meet Raja Ramachandra before his death, he meets Tani, his childhood sweetheart.  She is an accomplished singer who sings Raag Malhar that brings down the rain and cures him.  The song in the movie, of course, is “Barso Re” (let it rain), and is sung by Khursheed Bano.  If I remember correctly, the Amar Chitra Katha version has Tansen’s daughter singing Malhaar.

As with many other stories in India, the facts are interwoven with fiction but Tansen’s legend is alive and well in India.  An annual festival called “Tansen Samaroh” is held annually near his tomb in Gwalior.  A prestigious music award called “Tansen Samman” was instituted in 2000 and is awarded annually to foremost exponents of Hindustani Classical music.  Tansen’s remains are buried near Gwalior at the mausoleum of his Sufi teacher.  Music has traditionally transcended the parochial boundaries of religion in India.  A classic example in modern times is the song “Man tarapat Hari darshan” (My mind craves for a vision of You) from the movie “Baiju Bawra”.  The song, sometimes played at Hindu religious festivals was penned by Shakeel Badayuni, set to music by Naushad and sung by Mohammed Rafi (a modern day Tansen, in my humble opinion), all Muslims.  Incidentally, Baiju Bawra features the character of Tansen though not as the protagonist.  A 1962 version had Bharat Bhushan essaying the role of Tansen in “Sangeet Samraat Tansen”.

I’ve attended a solitary Carnatic musical performance at Mysore’s Lalit Mahal palace during the Dasara festival and it was quite an experience.  It must have been a magical experience though to be seated at night in the King’s chamber at Fatehpur Sikri. The night sky, a panoply of dazzling stars, the air dead quiet, save for the rustle of silk as the king and his guests make themselves comfortable.  Attendants wave their fans in tandem.  Oil lamps cast dancing shadows and moths circle around the flames in their doomed dance of death.  The silence of the night is broken by the opening strains of the sitar followed by the alap.  Then follows an enchanted hour of Hindustani music from the singer regarded as one of the greatest Indian singers of all time.  All I can think of is that those guards, manning the ramparts, were very lucky indeed!

Here is a scene for Tansen where K.L. Saigal sings “Diya Jalao”.  My maternal grandfather loved this song and somewhere at home in Bangalore is a cassette with a partial recording of him singing in tune to this song as it played on the radio,


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