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Just Like That | Tansen: Epitome of India’s syncretic culture

Jun 16, 2024 10:58 AM IST

Tansen is one of the best examples of the ganga-jamuni tehzeeb, the syncretic culture combining the best of Hindu and Islamic traditions

How many of you know who Ramtanu Pandey is? I think very few do. But, perhaps, most would be familiar with the name Mian Tansen, the Hindustani classical music genius, who was also called Sangeet Samrat, or the monarch of music. Actually, the two are the same. I have met legions of people who believe that because of the honorific ‘Mian’, Tansen was a Muslim. The truth is that he is one of the best examples of the ganga-jamuni tehzeeb, the syncretic culture combining the best of Hindu and Islamic traditions, which became dominant around the 15th and 16th centuries CE.

Tomb of Tansen in Gwalior district.(HT photo) PREMIUM
Tomb of Tansen in Gwalior district.(HT photo)

Ramtanu Pandey was born by most accounts in 1500 CE, possibly in Varanasi, where his father, Mukund Pandey, an established poet and musician, lived and worked as the pundit at a local Shiva temple. Legend has it that Ramtanu was born mute and did not utter a syllable until the age of five.

At the age of six he began to learn classical music from Swami Haridas, the legendary composer-musician who lived at Vrindavan, and was part of the court of Raja Mansingh Tomar (1486-1516 CE).

Swami Haridas, in whose memory a major music festival is still held every year in Vrindavan, was the guru who influenced young Ramtanu the most. Haridas was a specialist in the Dhrupad form of classical music, and Ramtanu imbibed this form of singing first. It was in recognition of his musical excellence, which was second only to Haridas, that Raja Mansigh Tomar conferred on him the title ‘Tansen’, the one ‘Learned in Music’.

But here is where history and biography merge.

Around the 16th century, the Bhakti movement was at its peak. The Hindu faith, under attack from the Turkic Islamic invaders, found a new lease of life by moving away from the hitherto elite Sanskrit forums, to the language of the common masses. This remarkable phenomenon happened all across India—North, South, East, West—and Vrindavan was no exception. The musicians and poets here composed deeply moving bhakti songs, in the local language Brajbhasha and Hindi, and Tansen too began to sing his Vaishnav bandishes or compositions in them. This is important, since otherwise, especially as one who originally learnt Dhrupad, the ancient form of Indian classical music, he would have possibly restricted himself to Sanskrit, thereby reducing his mass appeal.

Tansen came into his own in the Hindu court of Raja Ramchandra Singh (1555-1598) of Rewa. There he had the full patronage of the sovereign, who was himself adept at classical music. It was at Rewa that Tansen spent most of his adult life, and also wrote two books on Hindustani music, Sri Ganesh Stotra, and Sangeetsara. His fame spread far and wide, and soon reached the exalted court of the great Mughal emperor, Akbar (1556-1605).

Also Read: Gwalior, the creative city of music, celebrates a new Guinness record

This is again where we witness the genius of India’s syncretic culture unfolding. Akbar was married to a Hindu princess; his mother was Hindu too. In his court, his leading counsellors were Hindus, like Todar Mal and Raja Mansingh. In this milieu, Akbar requested Rewa king, Raja Ramchandra Singh to send Tansen to his court. Tansen was reluctant. He was by now nearing sixty, and wanted to retire, but Ramchandra Singh was persuasive, and Tansen moved to Akbar’s court at Fatehpuri Sikri at Agra.

Akbar gave him the full respect he deserved, adding ‘Mian’ or ‘Learned’ to the name Tansen. Mian Tansen became one of the navaratnas or nine jewels of the Emperor’s Court. It is known that Akbar, a lover of Hindustani classical music himself, built a pool next to the Diwan-i-Aam, of his palace. In the centre of the pool is a platform, where Tansen would perform for the monarch. It was in Akbar’s court too that his Sufi leanings, first imbibed when he came in contact with a Sufi saint, Shaikh Muhammad Ghaus, in Gwalior, found full expression. While he continued to sing classical compositions in praise of Krishna and Shiva, and many other Hindu deities, he also composed Sufi pieces, and some in honour of Akbar.

According to some biographies, including references in Abu Fazl’s Akbarnama, Mian Tansen married a Muslim lady. Other accounts say that he was married to Akbar’s daughter, Mehrunissa. The known fact is that he had five children, four sons and a girl. Typical of this remarkable and mili-juli eclectic legacy, is the fact that their names were: Surat Sen, Sarat Sen, Tarang Khan, Bilal Khan, and Saraswati.

Tansen died in Delhi in 1586. It is said that the Mughal monarch, and leading members of his court, attended his funeral. Some traditions aver that he was buried according to Islamic rites, while others maintain that Hindu customs prevailed. His mortal remains are buried in the mausoleum complex of his Sufi master, Shaikh Muhammad Ghaus in Gwalior.

Tansen’s legacy continues. A prestigious annual classical music festival, Tansen Sammelan, is held every year at Gwalior. In Hindi, the hit film, ‘Tansen’ was made in 1943, starring KL Saigal. Films on his life were also made in 1958 and 1962. But the moot point remains: how much about this legendary genius is known to the younger generation today?

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