Walks and tours play up Gwalior’s music and architectural heritage

With Gwalior added to Unesco’s Creative Cities Network, the city is turning the spotlight on music and architecture

Avantika Bhuyan
Published8 Jun 2024, 04:00 PM IST
The Taj Usha Kiran Palace is housed within an annex to the former royal residence, which was built in the late 18th century.
The Taj Usha Kiran Palace is housed within an annex to the former royal residence, which was built in the late 18th century.

It’s 9 on a Saturday morning and the sun is already beating down on Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh. Just outside the tomb of the city’s most famous resident, the 16th century musician Tansen, people are exchanging news over cups of tea. Near the tomb, it feels a little cooler as a breeze flows in and out of the intricate jaalis or delicate stone lattice work. The only sound is that of the chirping of birds and the rustling of leaves.

Sitting there, between the adjoining tombs of Tansen and his spiritual guide, the Sufi master Muhammad Ghaus, it is easy to slip into the past. One can only imagine music so powerful that it transported its listeners to a higher plane of consciousness.

A major annual music festival, the Tansen Sangeet Samaroh, takes place in the city every December, and this year marks the 100th edition of the same. Already, preparations have started.

Music in its DNA

Gwalior has had an unbroken tradition of music—with records dating back to the 15th century. It is in recognition of this legacy that last year, on 31 October, Gwalior was recognised internationally for its musical heritage. It became one of the 55 cities from across the world to be added to the Unesco Creative Cities Network—which now counts 350 cities in more than 100 countries, representing seven creative fields: crafts and folk art, design, film, gastronomy, literature, media arts and music. In the past, Varanasi and Chennai have been recognised by Unesco for their contribution to the field of music.

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Raja Man Singh Tomar (1486-1516) was one of Gwalior’s great music patrons. It is also believed to be the home of Baiju Bawra, about whom many legends abound. Later, the court of Madhorao Scindia (1886-1925) patronised three brothers, Hassu, Haddu and Natthu Khan, who became pioneers in khyaal gayaki. One of their most prolific disciples was Shankar Rao Pandit, whose family has now come to be emblematic of the Gwalior gharana. His son, Krishnarao Shankar Pandit, opened the Shankar Gandharva Mahavidyalaya in 1914, mentored a long line of musicians, and was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1973 for his contribution to the field. Today, his descendant Meeta Pandit, who lives in Mumbai and Delhi and is the first woman in the family to take up music as a profession, is carrying the baton forward.

This is also the city of Ustad Haafiz Ali Khan, considered one of the foremost classical instrumentalists of his time. Born in 1877, he hailed from the Bangash family, which is credited with the sarod’s origin and development. His work has been carried forward by his son Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and grandsons Ayaan and Amaan Ali Bangash. The family also helms the Sarod Ghar, a one-of-its kind music museum housed in what was once the family’s ancestral home in Gwalior.

The legacy of all these musicians continues to thrive in Gwalior. From the Phool Bagh Area to Nai Sadak and Lashkar, music schools, colleges and universities abound—from the Shankar Gandharva Sangeet Mahavidyalaya and the nearly 106-year-old Government Madhav Music College to the fairly new addition, Raja Man Singh Tomar Music & Arts University, which was established in 2008.

The city is not wearing its badge of Creative City for Music lightly. Efforts are being made by the administration, private organisations and individuals to showcase not just the musical but also the architectural heritage of Gwalior—and ways are being found to rejuvenate earlier initiatives. A vibrant cultural ecosystem is slowly coming about in the form of heritage walks, weekly concerts, regular music festivals and special experiences by luxury hotels.

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The adjoining tombs of Tansen and Sufi master Muhammad Ghaus. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“If you go to Gandhi Road, next to the railway station, a music-themed display is coming up. Replicas of musical instruments are being prepared to be showcased as permanent displays,” says Chandra Shekhar Barua, assistant professor (tourism studies) and placement officer, Indian Institute of Tourism and Travel Management, Gwalior. “This is a city enriched by different genres of music from classical and semi-classical to folk and devotional. All kinds of musical instruments are played here. Music lives in every nook and corner.”

A tourism specialist for the past 37 years, Barua conducts specialised walks for individual tourists and guests staying with the Taj Usha Kiran Palace. One of his most popular tours involves a walk through the Gwalior Fort and the Jai Vilas Palace, followed by a tonga to the picturesque Maharaj Bada and then ending it with a melodious baithak at one of the music schools in the area. Back in 1991, when he suggested such a tour to an international travel agency for foreign travellers, Barua conducted a survey of the city and found 16 major schools that followed the guru-shishya parampara. Today, of course, the number of schools offering different forms of music tutelage have increased. “I was surprised at this high number. Since I was a local and the schools had faith in me, they allowed me to bring in travellers,” he says.

A network of schools

One of the schools that Barua takes travellers to is the Government Madhav Rao Music College. Veena Joshi, who looks after the administration there and has been a teacher of classical music for the past 33 years, works closely with him to train young travel management professionals on the musical heritage of Gwalior.

“Guests who come to our institution are also briefed about the significance of the Gwalior gharanayeh ek mool gharana hai. Its distinguishing feature is the simplicity and sapaat (straight) taan,” elaborates Joshi, who hails from a distinguished family of musicians. Her father, Pandit Eknath Sarolkar, was a disciple of Pandit Krishna Rao Pandit.

She is heartened to see that ever since the Unesco declaration, the frequency of musical programmes—small and big—at landmarks such as Townhall and Baija Taal have increased.

A ‘baithak’ at a music school, where Chandra Shekhar Barua ends his tours of the city. Photo: courtesy Chandra Shekhar Barua

Another set of walks is conducted by the Paryatan Vikas Welfare Society, a not-for-profit organisation. The team focuses on storytelling rather than just a regular walk around landmarks. “If you look at the Phool Bagh area, you will find four different religious structures there built by the Scindias around 1920, which highlight the city’s secular and syncretic nature,” says Ankit Agrawal, convenor of the society, which has been hosting walks and tours in collaboration with state tourism bodies as well as private organisations.

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The other walk takes one back to the first war of Independence in 1857, when Rani Laxmi Bai reached Gwalior after fighting the British Forces. “She took refuge in an ancient matth, or spiritual centre. Gangadas ji was the head there and they both knew each other from earlier. She made two requests to him—first, to not let her body fall into British hands after her death; and second, that he would send her son away to safety,” says Agrawal. It is believed that the priests of the matth fought the British and the names of those, who perished, are inscribed inside the centre, which is popularly known as Gangadas ki shaala today. “Also interestingly, the shaala started a music parampara called Ragaayan to give a platform to talented musicians from the city. It has been given a more organised form in recent years, with a big event taking place every few months,” he says.

These walks have found appeal not just with foreign tourists but also with domestic travellers who have been coming to Gwalior in droves after the covid-19 pandemic. Prakash Shukla, who has been associated with the tourism industry since 1997 as an agent, has noticed this trend. “During the pandemic years, when international travel was restricted, people were looking for short-haul destinations. Gwalior emerged as one of the popular holiday spots not just for people from Delhi but also for those from Gujarat and Maharashtra,” says Shukla. During the peak tourist season, October to March, such is the influx of travellers that he himself has to drive people around and guide them through the city. “Before the pandemic, Europeans—mostly Italians—would come here. But now the Indian tourist is visiting a lot due to rising awareness about the city’s architectural and musical heritage,” he says.

Architecture in focus

Myths and legends, which abound in the city, draw the travellers in. One of the most famous ones is related to its name—according to lore, a saint called Gwalipa cured a Rajput king of leprosy. The king built a fort there and named the city Gwalior in the saint’s honour. Since then, the power of different dynasties has waxed and waned—from the Tomars and the Delhi Sultanate to the Mughals, who eventually lost the city to the Scindias.

The carved filigree screens on the first floor corridor of Taj Usha Kiran, is an example of the fine stone jaali technique practised in Gwalior alone

Moving away to Lashkar, located south of the fort, the Scindias started modernising and developing the city, with various rulers such as Jayajirao Scindia establishing landmarks like the Moti Mahal, the Kampoo Kothi and the Jai Vilas Palace.

It is interesting to walk around the city and take in the different architectural styles. The Maharaj Bada, the city centre, boasts of seven different styles, including Greek, Persian, Roman and Mughal. Then there is the Jai Vilas Palace, made in 1872, which features Tuscan, Italian-Doric and Corinthian vocabularies.

A glimpse of this heritage can be seen at the Taj Usha Kiran Palace as well. The property, the management of which was taken over by the Indian Hotels Company Ltd in 2002, has been recently restored and renovated in phases. It now offers special experiences around its architectural, culinary and musical heritage.

The structure, within which the hotel now resides, was built as an annex to the royal residence in the late 19th century. The architect for both Jai Vilas Palace and Usha Kiran was the same—Sir Michael Filose, who studied civil engineering and architecture at the University of London. The palace, built in the Indo-Western style, stood on grounds crisscrossed by a network of canals, called nav talav, to resemble a mini Venice. Today, the canals have been restored as a long winding pool, which makes it the largest such water feature within the Taj hotels group. At the Usha Kiran Palace, one gets the same feeling as at the Tansen tomb—of utmost serenity, and of having been transported back in time.

Also read: Vikram Mehra of Saregama: The music maker

A daily walk through the hotel takes guests to the unique carved filigree screens on the first floor corridor, which is an example of the fine stone jaali technique practised in Gwalior alone. The 32-panel screen, which dates back 143 years, creates dancing patterns throughout the day, depending on the direction of the sun. Peacocks, parrots, elephants and other patterns and motifs move across the floor and walls of the corridor, creating a pageantry of sorts.

Storytelling forms an integral part of the hospitality experience here, with connections being forged between the past and the present. One is told about the time when the palace hosted Edward, Prince of Wales, when he visited Gwalior in 1921-22 after World War I. Of the 100 guests in the entourage, 40 stayed in the main palace, and the rest in camps set up to the south in Dilkusha Maidan. Today, luxury tents have been pitched to recreate that experience.

Guests stumble upon little secrets and nooks, which are followed up by anecdotes by the staff. You come across Radha Mahal, once a designated bathing area for women of the royal family, located amidst nature. Two temples are located within the hotel, a 130-year-old Ganesh temple and an equally old Shiva temple. Music runs like a leitmotif through the experiences—such as a curated meal, available on request and availability, in which courses are based on and accompanied by ragas. The main therapy at the spa, Mangal Snaan, involves a musical component, with an instrumentalist playing to soothe the nerves.

While efforts such as these are bringing out different facets of Gwalior’s heritage, more remains to be done. Barua suggests that a survey be conducted of old havelis, which feature the unique and exquisite filigree work. In public-private partnerships, these need to be conserved and talked about. “Some primary level work has happened. But it needs to be taken forward. Some of these havelis also have old temples, which need to be restored,” he says.

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First Published:8 Jun 2024, 04:00 PM IST
HomeLoungeArt And CultureWalks and tours play up Gwalior’s music and architectural heritage

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