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Tansen was the other great musician of the Mughal court. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Tansen was the other great musician of the Mughal court. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

On Hindustani music’s influential mystery

Niyamat Khan, a most influential Indian about whom little is known

The historical figure I would love to meet is Niyamat Khan, whose pen name is Sadarang. Not because he comes across as the most fascinating character; in fact, it’s the opposite. He’s a most influential Indian about whom little is known.

If you have heard Bhimsen Joshi or Rashid Khan or any Hindustani music, you are familiar with the work of Niyamat Khan.

Almost every raga has a standard composition by Sadarang, and we know for certain it is his because the author has inserted his name into the lyric. Whether you want to sing an ode to Shiva, to Krishna, a song about lust, or, since this is the appropriate season, about rain clouds, there is no escaping Niyamat Khan.

We know his work, then, but we don’t know the man.

He is described by The Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Music of India in the first line as the “pioneer of khayal". Before him, there was only dhrupad and qawwali. He was born around 1670 and died in 1747.

His father Lal Khan sang in the court of Aurangzeb (must not have had much work). The old man was open-minded and Niyamat was made to learn Sanskrit and poetics from a scholar called Devdutta. Then, for three decades, from 1719 to his death, Niyamat Khan sang in the court of emperor Muhammad Shah. He also taught the women of the harem, the encylopaedia says, particularly two women called Kamalbai and Pannabai.

“In his compositions in honour of the emperor," Niyamat Khan “addressed him as Rangile, to signify the colourful and usually ebullient mood of the emperor and his obsession with art and music".

In many of these, Sadarang cleverly fuses his own name with his Rangile’s in lines like “mora sainyya sada rangeelay".

To me this is playful and lovely, but for some reason, historians dislike Muhammad Shah and the word Rangila was taught to us in the SSC history book with contempt.

Pakistani scholar Daud Rahbar called Rangila the “Nero of Islam" because it was in his reign that Nadir Shah sacked Delhi and the Marathas became finally dominant.

In his Fall of the Mughal Empire, Jadunath Sarkar has two pages on Muhammad Shah’s character. He lists with dislike the emperor’s fondness for hunting, dope and womanizing, but has no words, even of disdain, on his sustained and enthusiastic patronage of music.

Sarkar’s predecessor, William Irvine who wrote Later Mughals, also ignores this aspect and there is nothing in either work on Sadarang.

Ordinarily, the place to turn to for information on a Mughal courtier would be the Maathir ul Umara. This is a set of 734 biographies of men from the time of Akbar to about 1770 or so. Unfortunately, the authors only list nobles who held martial rank above a certain level. They are only interested in “maar-faad" (violence) as we say in Gujarati.

There’s nothing on the great Tansen, for instance, other than a passing reference in the biography of Ram Chand Baghel, from whom Akbar took the singer, giving him 2 lakh on debut. Birbal gets in, but only because he led an army against the Yousufzais in Swat and Bajaur (unfortunately, he’s not as clever as Amar Chitra Katha promised us, and he loses his way and is killed during the campaign).

There is nothing on Sadarang, and I so wish there was. What I am looking for is the smaller things that reveal much. I was astonished to read somewhere that what Ghalib drank was Old Tom gin. The British had been trading with India for 250 years by the time of the Mutiny which ruined Ghalib, so it shouldn’t be surprising. But the idea of Ghalib sipping gin is for some reason incongruous.

Anyway, The Oxford Encyclopaedia’s source for its information is listed as the Aftab-namah. I tried finding it, and the Punjab University in its catalogue lists a manuscript called Ikhtisar Tawarikh Mirat e Aftab Numa, by Abdur Rahman and calligraphed by Ganda Singh.

I’m not sure if this is the document the encyclopaedia refers to. The text is 55 pages of 15 lines each, which makes it thin, and it is apparently on many people, not just Sadarang. The original, the catalogue says, is “lying in the Central State Library, Patiala, and was full of errors".

That’s not encouraging. The encyclopaedia says his music “showed an affinity to the dhrupads of the time" and that he had “impressive knowledge of Braj-bhasha, Punjabi, Rajasthani, Avadhi and to some extent Persian".

But what did he look like? How did he sing? What happened to him after the sack of Delhi? We will never know. It’s like nothing was known about Mozart and Beethoven other than their music. This is information gleaned from his music.

Historians are bang on about the Great Mughals, but the Taj will vanish one day and Shah Jahan’s most precious creation, the peacock throne, is already gone. Little of Akbar’s legacy survives, but it is Muhammad Shah, the Nero of Islam, whose gift to us remains in the form of Sadarang’s work. One of the meanings of Niyamat is boon or blessing. How appropriate.

Meanwhile, go to YouTube and search for “Raag Shankara Bhimsen Rashid". The first link is a Doordarshan video. It begins with a short and brilliant introduction on Lord Shiva by Vilayat Khan. Then listen to the work of the mystery man who calls out to us so powerfully from so long ago.

Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns

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