Emperor Muhammad Shah smoking hukkah with courtiers
Culture & Traditions

Music in the time of Muhammad Shah Rangila

By on January 15th, 2016

Of the many hundreds of pen names that crowd the columns of Urdu poetry none is perhaps as apt or true as Rangila (Joyous), the moniker of the 14th Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah Rangila.

Muhammad Shah Rangila was crowned Emperor on September 28, 1719. He managed to hold onto the throne until his death on April 26, 1748. His reign lasted nearly 29 years – a remarkable feat, considering the fact that in the preceding 12 years, seven different kings had occupied the Mughal throne.

In the Mughal miniatures of the period we see Muhammad Shah at court, smoking (presumably) opium from a huqqa, surrounded by musicians, playing holi with the women of the zenana and in what remains a unique example of a risqué miniature – making love to his wife.

By abandoning a policy of expansion altogether, Muhammad Shah ushered in a reign of relative peace and prosperity, the first one since the death of his great grandfather, Aurangzeb.

Aurangzeb and Muhammad Shah are good historical markers because in many ways they were polar opposites and their respective attitudes sowed the seeds for major advancements in Hindustani music.

In the ninth year (1667) of his reign, the puritanical Aurangzeb issued a fatwa banning all music. A great purge followed in which Mughal officers in Delhi seized and destroyed musical instruments.

A unique protest of sorts followed. Around a thousand people carrying biers assembled on a Friday when Aurangzeb was at the mosque. Slowly the procession of people and biers wound its way through the streets towards Aurangzeb, growing ever louder in their lamentations of grief, until Aurangzeb could ignore the hullaballoo no longer. When Aurangzeb sent two of his men to enquire, the people replied that as the emperor’s orders had killed music, they were bearing her to her grave. When a report was made to Aurangzeb, he supposedly calmly replied that the people should pray well for the soul of music and bury her properly.

With music being expelled from the Mughal court for a good 30 years, professional musicians faced a crisis of livelihood and patronage. Eventually musicians moved to satellite centres of power like Bijapur and Jaunpur. Increasingly musicians also found patronage with nobles. Aurangzeb’s rapid expansion into the south and the numerous battles he waged with Marathas virtually emptied the coffers, so that employees of the Mughal court were allotted jagirs (land) in lieu of a fixed salary. Subsequent Mughal kings like Jahandar Shah followed the practice indiscriminately until, by the time of Muhammad Shah, noblemen like Asaf Jah and Sa’dat Khan grew in wealth and prominence to such an extent that they stopped answering to the throne and in effect established separate fiefdoms. Eventually Asaj Jah and Sa’dat Khan went onto rule the territories of Avadh and Hyderabad respectively.

If the rule of Aurangzeb marked the expulsion of musicians from the city, then the reign of Muhammad Shah marked their return. A veritable renaissance of musical culture followed. With noblemen vying for the patronage of musicians, music became a lucrative profession and many new people entered the field. The competition and interaction this engendered revolutionised Hindustani music.

It is popularly believed that the sitar was invented by Amir Khusrau some 650-700 years ago. Many authoritative guidebooks and textbooks including early volumes of the Cambridge History of India have stated this as a fact, bolstering the popular legend. But although Amir Khusrau wrote extensively on music and describes many instruments (barbat, rubab, tambur) nowhere does he write about or even mention the sitar.

Amir Khusro playing the sitar. Photo courtesy: Braj Discovery

Amir Khusro playing the sitar. Photo courtesy: Braj Discovery

The first recorded instance of the sitar is in Dargah Quli Khan’s diary. Dargah Quli Khan was an important official in the principality of Hyderabad. He stayed in Delhi for a period of four years, between 1737 and 1741, as an adviser to Muhammad Shah.

What makes the Muraqqa e Dehli or an album of Dehli a particularly fascinating read is that it was the personal diary of a youthful and keen observer, who was clearly in love with the city. Since the Muraqqa was not a commissioned work, Dargah Quli Khan did not sanitise his language or pay obsequious compliments to his patron or his patron’s friends and relatives. It is an honest and exuberant account of the artists, fakirs, dervishes, dancers, musicians and noblemen of the city – the common folk whose lives are rarely recorded or spoken of in historical accounts. The empreror himself is only mentioned once in passing.

The most famous and popular musician in Muhammad Shah’s time was Nemat Khan. He was the guru of Muhammad Shah and he went by the name Sadarang. Dargah Quli Khan’s account neatly falls into four categories – miscellaneous personalities and places, poets, marsiya khwans and musicians and entertainers.

The epigraphs of musicians begins with a description of Nemat Khan. It is here that the first written record of the sitar is found.

“His existence in Hindustan is a blessed gift. He is renowned for his compositions o new musical notes and notations and is on par with the nayaks of bygone days. He innovated a variety of beautiful khayals. The works of Nemat Khan are in different languages and he is considered the master of all contemporary musicians of Dehli. His personal contentment makes him bow only before the Badshah. He takes part in the ceremony of the urs of the saints and himself perfoms the celebrations of the 11th day of the death anniversary. There is a musical gathering on the 11th day of every month when a large section of the populace (including the nobles of high and elites) gather. People begin arriving since the early morning. By the evening all places are taken and there is no space even to place a seed on the ground. The mehfil lasts till the break of dawn, when it is culminated with raag bibhas (a calm and soothing early morning raag).

His expertise in the art of playing the bin has no parallel in this world. Felicitous is that bin player, whose mere placing of the bin on his shoulder emanated harmonious sounds and exhilarated the people. The gourd of his bin is intoxicating as wine, and the touch of his fingernails on the strings animates the people. The music of the bin makes the people listless with ecstacy and the sounds of appreciation rent the air. His playing of a new musical note elicits a similar response.

His brother has also mastered the art of playing the different musical instruments. For four hours a day, he recites the musical notations and his skill and stamina enable him to avoid repition of the same raags. The quality of his talent is quite uncommon and his singing is charismatic. Such skilled expertise is not bestowed on every one.

A nephew of Nemat Khan is skilled in playing the sitar and composes new notations. He also plays notations on the sitar usually played on other instruments. In the world of music, he is incomparable. I have attended his musical gatherings many times and regard him with respect. Endowed as he is with this unique talent, his mehfils are popular, and carry on all night. Inspite of the instability caused by the invasion of Nadir Shah, the spirit of revelry is extant and continues till pre-dawn darkness. He still accepts the invitations to offers of entertainment.”

The brother of Nemat Khan who was an expert at playing instruments is Khusrau Khan. Historian Allyn Miner who has painstakingly traced the history of the sitar and sarod believes that it was this Khusrau Khan who first introduced the sitar to Delhi. Miner cites Captain Augustus Willard, who in 1834 wrote that the sitar is “a modern instrument and was invented by Umeer Khusro of Dehli”. Later on Willard speaks specifically of the 14th century Khusrau and used a separate spelling of his name (Amir Khusrau).

In 1874, Calcutta scholar and writer Sourindro Mohun Tagore interprets Captain Willard’s statement and ignoring the fact that it was described as a modern instrument says that “It was according to  Captain Willard, invented by Ameer Khusroo in the beginning of the 12the century”. Subsequent histories and treatises of music like the ones by Karam Imam Khan in 1856 and Amul Natekar in 1884 merely cited Sourindro Mohun Tagore and gave credence to the Amir Khusrau myth.

Khusrau Khan likely brought the sitar from Kashmir, where it had existed as a common folk instrument with three strings. The sitar was originally likely just used as an accompaniment in dance performances. This is evidenced in the terminology used to describe sitar. For instance compositions for the sitar set into a tala or a fixed rhythmic cycle are known as gats, from the Sanskrit gati, used in the Natyashastra to describe manners of walking in dance and drama. Similarly melody lines which expand on and are interspersed with the gats are called todas. Todas are chain type ornaments worn at the ankle by dancers. Sitar player Inayat Khan has said that “todas punctuate the rhytm of the gat in the same way that ankle bells do in dance”.

Miner writes “Khusrau Khan’s son Masit Khan turned the course of sitar music. He created a gat form in which the raga melody was place withing a fixed framework of strokes. In these compositions, the same stroke framework was common to all Masitkhani gats. The melody for each gat was created according to raga rules set down in the dhrupad tradition.”

Contemporary scholars of Masit Khan heaped praises on his gats, writing that ‘he (Masit Khan) has sanctified sitar music.”  By adapting dhrupad compositions to the sitar, Masit Khan elevated it from an accompanying instrument at nautch dances to a solo classical instrument.

Another important contribution of Khusrau Khan and his family was in the development of khayal gayaki. Up until the 18th century, dhrupad was the dominant form of singing. The term dhrupad is a combination of the terms dhruv meaning constant and pad meaning lyrics or style. Dhrupad singing is practiced within a strict framework laid down by the shastras (as is evident from the use of the term dhruv).

Khayal gayaki which has now overshadowed dhrupad started gaining prominence in the court of Muhammad Shah.  If you speak to any classical musician today, many of the names of musicians mentioned in the Muraqqa will draw a blank. But no so the names of Nemat Khan Sadarang and Firoz Khan Adarang. Many of the khayal compositions of Adarang and Sadarang remain in circulation and are sung or performed at classical music concerts even today. Khayal literally means imagination. A khayal rendition can break free from many of the constraints of the dhrupad tradition by incorporating upaj (literally meaning ‘to sprout’), an element of spontaneity or surprise by incorporating a new idea or a variation on a familiar theme.

Taking faster tempo dhrupad compositions, Adarang and Sadarang infused them with new and innovative raags to develop a slower and grander form of khayal that was predominantly vilambit (slow) and came to be known as bara khayal.

The vilambit laya (slow tempo) of these compositions gave ample range and time to Adarang and Sadarang to show off their virtuosity, constantly inventing and innovating on the fly. As Dargah Quli Khan indicates, a frequent test of a musicians ability was to see how long he could keep his audience in thrall, without repeating a single note.

It is important to note that in the epigraph of nearly 48 musicians and singers, Dargah Quli Khan mentions only three dhrupad performers. Even in Muhammad Shah’s time, khayal started to eclipse the dhrupad, a process that was completed with the arrival of the gramophone.

Dargah Quli Khan lived in Dehli during one of the most turbulent periods in its history – he was in Dehli two years before the qatle aam of Nadir Shah, and he stayed on for two more years after. Yet his diary has no indication of anything major or catastrophic having happened. There is seemingly no change in the behaviour and attitude of the people. There is no clearly discernible before Nadir Shah and after Nadir Shah. Delhites of the day seemed to have been in a festive mood of revelry throughout and the rich cultural life of the city – poetry readings at kahwa khanas or coffee houses, qawwalis sung in the urs or death anniversaries of sufi saints and musical soirees at the havelis of nobleman (“In the mehfil of Latif Khan, there is no day or night, for it is the cup that rotates here and not time” – a couplet from Muraqqa e Dehli) – carried on unabated.

The only occasional mention we find of Nadir Shah’s ransacking in the Muraqqa is when Dargah Quli Khan speaks of some noblemen not hosting musical nights as frequently as before or some artists not performing as frequently as before. But in the narrative of Hindustani music, this was a boon rather than a bane. Erstwhile court musicians like Adarang and Sadarang started performing qawwalis at private parties and sufi dargahs. This gave a fresh dimension to their singing (indeed many musicologists’ holds that this is what made khayal possible in the first place).

In the popular historical narrative, Muhammad Shah’s reign is seen as one of great decadence and indulgence, and the beginning of the fall of a once great empire. But this is the rather dispiriting view of an accountant or a miser. True the peacock throne and the darya-i-noor were lost but the gains were so much richer. Muhammad Shah’s court after all has given us the sitar and in the bandishes (compositions) of Adarang and Sadarang has given us a rich heritage and foundation of khayal gayaki. Muhammad Shah was also the first Mughal emperor to patronise Urdu officially. It is in Muhammad Shah’s time that Urdu poetry started to eclipse the popularity of Persian poetry.

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