Music and Musicians of the court of Shah Jahan – A. Hatim.

Shah Jahan’s reign constitutes a brilliant epoch in the evolution of Indian music as in that of other fine arts. The process of com-mingling between the Persian and Indian art forms had reached a final stage in that reign. Indian or Persian music loses its individuality and both coalesce to take a decisive Indo-Persian form. One is struck to notice that while there were more than half a dozen musicians and instrument-players at Akbar’s court who hailed from Meshed, Herat, or Khurasan, and naturally played in the system prevailing in their country, there were only two such musicians at the court of Shah Jahan. Not only so, but in Shah Jahan’s reign, the art of music reaches a polish and grace unprecedented in the past. This stage in the development of music seems to have been assisted by the prevalence of comparative peace and the personal predilection and refined tastes of the emperor, who delighted in surrounding himself with artists and men of letters and lavishly patronized them. Shah Jahan, who was sufficiently orthodox in the matter of faith, had, like other Muhammedan rulers of India, a fine taste for Hindustani music. Nay, he was, according to the court chronicler, an accomplished vocalist and had a very sweet voice that kept his listeners spellbound. It was his habit to listen to music after the transaction of State business before sunset, and at night he listened to the music played by women-singers of the harem between supper and sleep. Apart from the daily routine, music formed an essential part of the court rejoicings and festivities, say on the solar or lunar New Year’s Day, the anniversary of the royal accession to the throne, marriage and birth ceremonies, the recovery from sickness of princes or princesses, and the ‘Eids. On such occasions, the emperor paid keen attention to musicians and instrument players, who displayed their art in turn and each received very handsome swards. In the rejoicings connected with the recovery of Jahan Ara,, 1054/1644, he bestowed two thousand rupees on LaaI Samudra, one thousand rupees on Rang Khan, and twelve thousand on other musicians.

Fortunately, we get a full picture of the music and musicians of the reign from Faqirullah’s Rag Darpan and Man Kautuhal a treatise on Indian music completed between 1073 and 1078 (1661 and 1665). Intended as work on the scientific basis of Indian music, the manuscript gives the type of information into which a historian would like to get in chapters XI and XII. Faqirullah informs us that musical concerts were divided into three categories, Uttam (good), ‘ Maddham ‘ (mediocre, and Nikrisht (third-rate). An Uttam type of concert consisted of four musicians of the first, eight of the medium class, twelve beautiful women, four players of the Bansri (flute), and four Mridang (Pakhawai, a timing instrument) players. In the medium concert, half of the musicians (that is two) consisted of singers of the Uttam category, other members being the same as in the Uttam type. The Uttam concert of the women musicians who played in the harem consisted of two women musicians, two mediocre women musicians, two women Bann’ players, and three ‘ Mridang ‘ players. The Maddham consisted of one woman Ustad (master), and four women players of the Bansuri. While claiming originality for the musicians of Shah Jahan, the historian asserts that compared with Shah Jahan’s musicians those of Akbar’s court, including Tansen, were Quacks’ because all their theoretical knowledge had been based on Rag-Sagar, which, the author says, Akbar had got translated, and ‘ they (musicians) did not know anything about the real music embodied in the Man Kautuhal which Raja Mansingh Tonwar (1486-1517 A.D.) of Gwalior had compiled ‘ with the assistance of the leading musicians of his court, such as Naik Mahmood, Naik Bakhshu and Naik Pandey. Though there seems to be much exaggeration in this statement, perhaps Faqirullah wishes to impress upon his readers that the musicians of Shah Jahan’s court were conversant with the new technique and style introduced into music by Raja Man of Gwalior to a greater degree.

It may be presumed that in Shah Jahan’s reign there existed a tendency towards the cultivation of new airs and melodies as given in the Man-Kautuhal which had begun to assume standardized form. It is certain that there had crept in a tendency towards beautification and ornamentation In music, as is proved by the gradual revival of Khayal. We may assume that there was a general tendency to deviate from the rigid conventionalism of the old Dhrupad style of singing or playing on instruments.

 When his Majesty happened to reside at Agra,” Faqirullah says in the introduction to Man Kautuhal, “matchless artists used to assemble around him, most of them belonging to Gwalior.” From various historical sources, we learn of the existence of about thirty musicians and instrumentalists of a high order. The names do not include any woman artist.


Among the musicians of Shah Jahan’s court, the earliest to deserve mention was Shaikh Bahauddin, a mystic who died in the second year of Shah Jahan’s accession to the throne at the ripe age of 117 years. He was an inhabitant of Barnawa, a village in the Jhunjhana Pargana in the Middle Doab, and belonged to a family of mystics. He had grown into a young man of sportive habits but renounced the world, it is said, after an incident in hunting when a deer which he aimed at with his matchlock opened its voice to reprimand him. He took to a life of travel at the age of 25 and met with the leading saints and mystics of his time. In order to learn music, he traveled to the Deccan and devoted himself strenuously to learning to play upon instruments till the age of 50. He then returned to his home in Jhunjhana and lived a celibate life, and wore green clothes from head to foot. In the science of music, he had no peer even in the Deccan and had composed many beautiful Gits, Dhrupads, Khiyals, and Taranas. He was an excellent player of Amrit Been, and had invented an instrument called Khiyal, which had a strange appearance. Two of his disciples—Rashid and Asad—kept him company; while he sang Rashid played on an instrument called Bhagwan (Bin), which could not be wielded by anybody else.

Sher Muhammad was another mystic musician and a disciple of Shaikh Bahauddin. It is stated about him that after the death of his father in his boyhood, he came to Shaikh Nasiruddin who was also one of his relatives, but on the decease of the latter, he was forced to change a settled life for one of rambles and travels. He had picked up Persian music from Shaikh Nasiruddin, who was without a match among his contemporaries. ” Though not as accomplished a vocalist as Sultan -Husain Shah Shan Sharqi, he produced melodies at the time of singing which, though they did not conform to the strict rules of Sangit, were so appealing that they cannot be reproduced in measures of writing.

Another mystic musician was Miyan Daalu, who belonged to the same tribe as Miyan Sher Mubanunad.  Miyan Daalu had become a mendicant and mixed little with men of the world. He was a very accomplished Dhrupad singer. His compositions too were of a very high order. Though great men (ascetics and mystics) of the time took great delight in cultivating music, there was none so accomplished as he and no one had seen a better player of instruments or heard of any better than he in any age.


But the most honored musician of the time, who had mainline over all the rest at the court, was Laal Khan Kalawant (artist), on whom Shah Jahan bestowed the title of Gun-Samudr (Gun-Samundar in Persian. histories, ‘ Ocean of Virtues or Knowledge ‘) on 1st Rajab, November 1637 A.D. He was the son-in-law of Billas Khan, son of Miyan Tansen, on whom he had made such an impression with his progress in learning the art, which Tansen handed him over to the charge of his son, Billas Khan for further training, and took the initiative in getting Bilas Khan’s daughter married to him. Faqirullah calls him a matchless Dhrupad singer. At the time of his singing, four of his sons kept him company, all being alike in style. Laal Khan is frequently mentioned in the Badshah Nama, and he was regarded as the premier musician of the court and was profusely rewarded by the emperor. On Rajab 24, 1052/ October 18, 1642, on the occasion of the festivities of the second anniversary of the coronation, the emperor bestowed on him an elephant after listening to him. On the occasion of the New (solar) Year festivities in 1053/1645-46, Laal Khan was one of the recipients of appropriate rewards. He was given 4 thousand rupees in Rajab 1055/1645, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the accession, and one thousand rupees four months later. Laal Khan also composed songs in the name of the emperor and died at the age between 80 and 90 years. But the foremost composer of the time was Jagannath Maha Kavi Rai. It is believed that after Tansen no better composer had been born in India. It is said about him that he composed some Dhrupads and brought them before Miyan Tansen, who approvingly said,  If his life is spared for long, his place will be next to mine in composition. He sang in the Karnatic, and the people of Northern India laments ‘Abd-ul-Hamid Lahori,’  did not grasp anything except the voice and the melody.’ Gun-Sen was another Dhrupadist who bore the title of Naik-i-Afzal (the great Naik). He was a descendant of Naik Bharru, a singer of Git and pre-eminent among his contemporaries in the science of music.” Muhib Khan Gujrati, Dhrupadist, was a disciple of Bilas Khan, about whom those versed in music have spoken well. Muhib Khan had a disciple in Basanthi Kalawant, who was a good musician.’ Rang Khan Kalawant was a very high-class musician of the Dhrupad school, who held a position among court musicians second only to that of Laal Khan Gun-Samudra. Music took shape even when he sang for a short while. He died between 80 and 90 years of age. He was one of those artists who had seen the time of Jahangir. One of the greatest musicians of the court was Khush-Hal Khan, on whom the emperor conferred the title of Gun-Samudra after the death of his father Laal Khan Gun-Samudra, in 1065/ 1654. “There does not exist,” says Faqirullah, ” a Kalawant like him.” Other Dhrupadists mentioned by the same author were Bazid Khan Tujhawari; Tulsi Ram Kalawant; Dharam-das Kalawant, ” who, having lost the elasticity of his voice, left the imperial service to settle in Agra till his death”; Hamir Sen and his son Subal Sen. The former had seen the times of Jahangir, the latter had his musical talents impaired by the loss of his teeth at the early age of 40; and Hasan Khan Nuhaar, grandson of Sa’id Khan and a matchless singer.

Two musicians are mentioned as having accompanied Prince Shah Shuja’ to Bengal with the permission of the emperor—Misri Khan Dhari, a musician and disciple of Bilas Khan, who died in Bihar, and Gun Khan who died in Bengal.


The professional court musicians of the Dhari type were Sawad Khan of Fatehpur Jhunjhana; Wali Dhari, a musician-composer Rahimdad Dhari; Gop Chop Dhari, a musician-composer. In the list of musician composers come the names of Ghulam Muhiyuddin, who was living in Faqirullah’s time, and Bocha, brother of Sher Muhammad. The latter died of a fistula in Agra when he was between 50 and 6o years of age.


The artists of the Qawwali school were Rauza Qawwal and Kalu Qawwal, the latter being a disciple of Sher Muhammad.

There were only two court musicians representing the Persian school of music, Muhammad Baqi Mughal, a good composer whose accomplishments declined owing to his taking too much opium, and Mir Imad, also a musician-composer, a Sayyid of Herat whose father had migrated from Central Asia.


Khayal as a style of music had not yet become popular; it had had few advocates up to that time. It does not appear to have competed with Dhrupad in terms of equality. Its heyday was destined to come later, in the reign of Muhammad Shah. Only two musicians of the Khayal school are mentioned in Shah Jahan’s reign—Rija Eid Singh Bor (Gor ?), and Raja Ram Shah of Kharagpur, the latter well versed in the style of Amir Khusraw and Sultan Husain Shah Sharqi. Among Raja Ram, Shah’s compositions were many Dadras, Khayals, and Taranas.

In closing his 12th Chapter Faqirullah pleads for brevity in these words:— ” Since so many Kalawants had the fortune to serve His Majesty, details of them would lengthen the narrative.”

In the foregoing observations, the following features are prominently noticeable:—

1. That Dhrupad held the field and was recognized as the highest form of musical art.

2. That Khayal had fewer advocates, though its existence as a form of music has been traced in books of music to the time of Amir Khusraw or Sultan Husain Shah of Jaunpur.

3. Those mystics not only delighted in listening to music but many of them were first-class musicians themselves.

4. That the Deccan still maintained its reputation as the home of high-class music, as it did in the days of Amir Khusrau.

5. That Gwalior continued its reputation as a great center of music in Northern India and supplied, as in Akbar’s days, the bulk of the court artists.

6. That only two musicians represented the Persian or non-Indian school, the one a Mughal, the other a Persian arriving from Herat, and the rest were Indians, demonstrating that the struggle between the two systems had reached a decisive stage.

7. That there was an increased tendency towards ornamentation and beautification in singing or playing on instruments and the rigid convention of the old Dhrupad style had been definitely discarded.

8. That ingenuity in inventing new musical instruments went side by side with the development of a more polished form of music, to alleviate, as it were, the grim majesty of Dhrupad.

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