A Brief History of Hindustani Music

Hindustani (North Indian) Classical Music is one of the most beautiful products of the Indo-Islamic culture of North India (including today’s Pakistan and Bangladesh).   It would not exist in its current form without the Muslim influence, having evolved in the Mughal courts after it left the precincts of the temples, which is where Hindu music was originally based.  I do not know much about Carnatic Music or South India in general so I will restrict my observations to the North Indian system only.

It is my aim in this post to briefly outline the history of Hindustani music. If there is interest, I can then go back and fill in the details as and when I get time.

Like all Indian Music, Hindustani Classical originated during the Vedic period.  It was at this time that the distinction between “Gandharva” (ritual music) and “gana” (incidental music) became clear.  One of the most ancient treatises on the performing arts in India is the “Natya Shastra”, attributed to the sage Bharata Muni and dated to between 200 BCE and 200 CE.  The text consists of 36 chapters with a cumulative total of 6000 poetic verses describing performance arts. The subjects covered by the treatise include dramatic composition, structure of a play, and the construction of a stage to host it, genres of acting, body movements, make up and costumes, role and goals of an art director, the musical scales, musical instruments and the integration of music with art performance.  The treatise is also notable for its aesthetic “Rasa” theory.  It is in this text that the seven basic notes (the saptak) are named: Sadja (Sa), Rsabha (Re), Gandhara (Ga), Madhyama (Ma), Panchama (Pa), Dhaivata (Dha), and Nishad (Ni). These note names are still used today, equivalent to the Western Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti.

With the arrival of the Muslim rulers of North India, music emerged from the temples and became part of the entertainment of the royal courts.  While for Hindus, music was preeminently religious in subject matter and spirit, for the Muslims it was a purely secular art.   Hazrat Amir Khusrow (1253-1325) was a Sufi musician, poet and scholar. He was a mystic and a spiritual disciple of Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi (1238-1325).  Born near Etah in modern day Uttar Pradesh, he was the son of Amir Saif ud Din Mahmud, a man of Turkic extraction and his Indian Rajput wife, Bibi Daulatnaz. Khusrow grew up in the house of his maternal grandfather, Rawat Arz (known by his title as Imad-ul-Mulk). He grew up very close to the traditions and culture of Indian society and was not alienated from it in the way that the ruling Turkic classes may have been.

Through his literary output, Khusrow represents one of the first recorded Indian personages with a true multicultural or pluralistic identity.  He evolved a new style in music by mixing the Perso-Arabic and Turkish styles with those that the subcontinent had inherited from the past. Tradition credits him with introducing nearly a dozen Perso-Arabic and Turkish ragas such as “Yaman”.  He is also supposed to have introduced many talas such as “Ada-Choutal” and “Qawali”. Finally, he is said to have invented the sitar (then known as the sehtar).

During the Mughal period, and especially under Akbar’s reign, temple music took a back seat and Darbar Sangeet came into being. Music was composed mainly to eulogize patrons.  Information about music in Akbar’s court comes from the “Ain e Akbari” of Abul Fazal (1551-1602 AD), a courtier in Akbar’s darbar.  There were numerous musicians in the court, Hindus, Iranis, Kashmiris and Turanis, both men and women.  The musicians were divided into seven orders. There was one for each day of the week. Headed by the legendary Tansen, there were 19 singers, 3 who chanted and several instrumental musicians.  The main instruments were the sarmandal, bin, nay, karna, and tanpura. Akbar’s court was witness to a complete fusion of the Persian and Indian music systems.

One of the most important figures in Hindustani music is Mian Tansen (c. 1500-1586). Born in a Hindu family—his childhood name was Ramtanu—he learnt and perfected his art in the northwest region of modern Madhya Pradesh. He began his career and spent most of his adult life in the court of Raja Ramchandra Singh, the king of Rewa. Here his musical abilities and studies gained widespread fame. This brought him to the attention of Akbar. In 1562, at about the age of 60, Tansen joined Akbar’s court and his performances became the subject of many court historians. Akbar considered him as a Navaratanas (nine jewels) and gave him the title “Mian”, meaning learned man.  He is remembered for his epic Dhrupad compositions, creating new ragas (such as Darbari, Miyan ki Malhar, and Miyan ki Todi), as well as writing two classic books on music “Sri Ganesh Stotra” and “Sangita Sara”.  His children included Tanras Khan, Bilas Khan, Hamirsen, Suratsen and Saraswati Devi. They were all musicians. He is buried in the mausoleum complex of his Sufi master Shaikh Muhammad Ghaus in Gwalior.

Akbar’s successors continued to patronize music. Even Aurangzeb (1618-1707), who was a puritan unfavorably disposed to music, enabled the publication of “Ragadarpana”, Fakirullah Saif Khan’s translation into Persian, in 1665-6 AD of Raja ManSingh’s “Mankutuhal”, written two centuries earlier.

Khayal (the modern genre of Hindustani music) developed in the court of Muhammad Shah “Rangila” (1716-1748 AD).  Muhammad Shah was a loving and generous patron to many musicians, particularly to Nyamat Khan, popularly known as “Sadarang” (1670-1748). Sadarang and his nephew Adarang changed the khayal style of Hindustani music into the form performed today.  They remain influential in Hindustani music, mainly through their compositions. Almost every raga has a standard composition by Sadarang and we know it is his because the author has inserted his name into the lyric.

The word “Khayal” comes from the Arabic for “imagination”.  It developed out of Dhrupad introducing frequent taans and alankars into it. As compared to Dhrupad, there is greater scope for improvisation.  The typical performance uses two songs: the “Bada Khayal” in slow tempo comprises most of the performance while the “Chota Khayal” in fast tempo is used as a finale, usually in a different taal. The speed gradually increases over the course of the performance.

Various Khayal gharanas exist today. Some of the most famous are the Gwalior, Agra, Kirana, Patiala, and Rampur-Sahaswan gharanas.  All of these have slightly different ways of presenting the khayal, though today’s performers are free to mix and match stylistic elements from various schools of thought.

I will conclude this post with a clip of Srimati Kaushiki Chakraborthy performing a drut in Raga Yaman.  Kaushiki learned from her father Pandit Ajoy Chakraborthy and is one of the best of the new generation of singers currently performing.

Reference: Sangeet Research Academy, Calcutta, “The Story of Hindustani Classical Music” http://www.itcsra.org/Story-of-Hindustani-Classical-Music



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