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Music : December 03, 2000

Agra's musical past

Text and pictures by Shalini Saran

The writer is a freelance photo-journalist based in New Delhi.

At the peak of summer when maximum temperatures in Agra hover around 470C., an estimated 10,000 people visit the Taj Mahal every day. As the weather turns, this number swells to a staggering 25,000. Most tourists visit Agra Fort, the imposing ramparts of which encircle buildings raised by four great Mughal emperors - Akbar, Jehangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb. These buildings reveal the evolution of Mughal architecture from the robust style which characterised the reign of Akbar to the fine elegance associated with Shah Jahan.

Ramparts of the Agra Fort.Buland Darwaza, Fatehpur Sikri

Akbar created Fatehpur Sikri, his new capital 22 km from Agra, and he was so enthusiastic about this venture that he often supervised the artisans himself. Much of this great city, about which medieval travellers have left vivid accounts, has disappeared or is in ruins. Only the royal palaces remain, and because they were built entirely with red sandstone, they are in a remarkable state of preservation. The adjacent mosque, more famous for its towering gateway, the Buland Darwaza, is in use and pilgrims still throng the wish-fulfilling shrine of the medieval Sufi saint Shaikh Salim Chishti. Akbar also designed his own garden tomb at Sikandra beyond the limits of Agra city and there, the silence is broken only by the chattering of monkeys.

Jehangir chose to improve upon his father's design, as did Shah Jahan in turn and the result has aptly been described as an "amorphous curiosity". The mausoleum of Nur Jahan's father, Itmad-ud-Daula is also a garden tomb, a "jewelled casket" rising on the banks of the Yamuna. It is another milestone in the evolution of the garden tomb, but it lacks that restraint, that unerring sense of proportion and placement and ultimately that magical stroke of genius which made the Taj what it is.

To get to Itmad-ud-Daula's tomb one must see Agra at its worst for the road, if one can call it so, is lined not with trees but with open drains and garbage heaps. Similar conditions prevail along the way to Arambagh, the garden created by Babur. The waterways and pavilions in this garden are in the process of being restored; it should eventually bear closer resemblance to the place where, it is believed, Babur compiled his fascinating memoirs.

Terraced courtyards: Anup Tala - Tansen's seat in Fatehpur Sikri

For all its historical associations and architectural wealth, Agra remains a typical UP town with its spacious, tree-lined cantonment, its congested old city , its "upmarket" Civil Lines and substantial colonial heritage. A rich tradition of crafts endures in the city - Agra is known for its zardozi, its carpets and its fine marble inlay work done by craftsmen who claim descent from those who worked for the Mughals. Agra is also the birthplace of the famous Hindustani style of classical music, the Agra gharana.

The city's association with music harks back to Mughal times and may be , earlier. As a connoisseur and patron of the arts, Akbar had commissioned some 45 illustrated manuscripts during his reign, and the royal ateliers were a hub of creativity. Jehangir preferred to keep a few masters in his employ and combined his passion for art and nature by urging his painters to observe nature rather than the court. The masterpiece of Shah Jahan's reign is the Padshah Nama; rich, grand and formal, it is as different in its style from the lively paintings of the Akbar Nama as the Taj Mahal is from the palaces of Fatehpur Sikri.

The study of these Mughal paintings can help bring Mughal monuments to life. Then, the marble pavilions open to the elements become abodes fit for emperors and the throne in the Diwan-i-Am turns more formidable and remote than may have appeared at first. While depicting life in the court, artists also recorded actual events and durbar scenes in particular reveal the rigid hierarchy observed in the presence of the emperor; ministers, noblemen, ambassadors, petitioners, entertainers and musicians are all assigned their place.

(Courtesy, National Museum, New Delhi.)

Akbar, Tansen and his guru Haridas.

The frequent depiction of the naubat, the musical ensemble, in Mughal paintings reveals that music was very much a part of Mughal life and central to the Mughal court. The naubat was housed in the naqqarkhana, the drum house, situated at a height in the imperial palace. This ensemble was a constant presence which "announced, enunciated, reiterated and symbolised the power and authority of the emperor".

The naubat performed on a variety of occasions. Its musicians were the timekeepers, marking the passing of the day. They played when the emperor made his daily presence before his subjects, they heralded processions, were used for signaling in battle, provided accompaniment for female dancers in the harem and were an indispensable part of celebrations which marked the birth of an heir, marriages, the new year and other festivals.

Ethnomusicologist Bonnie Wade says that to understand the place of music in the Mughal court one must not only "see" miniatures but "hear" them too. In her fascinating study, "Imaging Sound," she shows how the depiction of musical instruments in Mughal paintings also reveals the cultural synthesis which was taking place in that era; how the synthesis of Hindu, Muslim, Sufi and Central and West Asian musical traditions led to the emergence of a north Indian classical musical culture.

Chameli Baag, Agra Fort,
built during Shah Jahan's reign.

Akbar and Jehangir were both lovers of music. Apart from the naubat, there were 36 musicians in Akbar's court including Tansen, Baiju Bawra and Guru Haridas, but Tansen alone was among the famous "nine jewels" of the court. Tansen came from Gwalior to Akbar's court in 1562 bringing with him a fully evolved dhrupad style. He is acknowledged as the most illustrious musician of medieval India, with a voice so evocative that, according to legend, when he once sang a midnight raga at noon, darkness encircled the palace. Abul Fazl, Akbar's chronicler, writes that Tansen was given the title of Miyan by the emperor in Fatehpur Sikri.

The patronage given to musicians in the Mughal court must have played a vital role in nurturing the Agra gharana. It is not clear when precisely this gharana came into being - whether its origin dates to the thirteenth century, or to Haji Sujaan Khan, who is believed to have been a contemporary of Tansen's and one of Akbar's durbar musicians, or to Ghagge Khudabaksh, who also came to Agra from Gwalior about 150 years ago. His great great grandson, Fayyaz Khan (1886-1950) remains the most outstanding exponent of this gharana and is known as Aftab-I-mausiqui.

Today, the musicians of the Agra gharana have dispersed throughout northern India and though the gharana is very alive, its links with Agra are severed. However, Vamanrao Deshpande's description of the Agra gharana speaks of its enduring link to the medieval world. "Its style," he writes, "reminds one of the rugged architectural construction of a medieval fortress with its gigantic walls, ramparts and turrets. Its successive taans remind us of speedily advancing armies striking hard at their targets, its bol taans of rapid gunfire. It captivates rather than delights."

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