इतिहास // Lands and legends
Gujari Mahal, Gwalior fort
Of memories and music
by Dr Bandana Malhotra
Nothing I had read or heard prepared me for the experience that was Gwalior. As a child, I would sit facing my Guru, and listen in fascination as he narrated the birth of the Gwalior gharana, the fountainhead of all the khayal gharanas in existence today. Founded by Ustad Naththan Pir Baksh and his three grandsons Haddu, Hassu and Nathan Khan, this was the birthplace of a simple and balanced style of singing that shares many features in common with dhrupad. The most important of these is placing the bandish at the heart of the presentation. It was here too that dhrupad was reborn. Gwalior was also associated with Swami Haridas, teacher of Tansen, one of Emperor Akbar’s navratnas. And Baiju Bawra – the list of musical ‘greats’ of yore was endless! I promised myself that, when I ‘grew up’, I would visit Gwalior. Now, as an adult, I doubted that my romantic visions of Gwalior as a child would bear any likeness to reality.
Driving through the streets, I felt an instant sense of homecoming. Standing before the mausoleum of Mohammad Ghaus, a Sufi saint and the spiritual Guru of Tansen, I took in the serene and peaceful atmosphere. The exquisite marble jaalis covering the walls let in pools of sunlight in variegated patterns on the floor, which changed as the sun changed direction. Legend has it that the great singer, Mian Tansen, was born to his parents after the saint blessed them. They came back to the saint a few years later, as their child was dumb. The saint supposedly took a paanfrom his mouth and gave the child some to eat, which is said to have given him his miraculous voice!
Tansen’s tomb lies a few meters away from that of his spiritual mentor. It is plain and much smaller, but musicians from all over come to pay homage to the legendary singer. The descendants of Tansen established the Senia gharana of music, a tradition very much alive today.
Gwalior is also inextricably linked with Raja Man Singh Tomar (1486–1516). A great patron of the arts, he is credited with revivifying dhrupad, and bringing it out of obscurity. An adept singer himself, along with his Gujjar queen, Mrignayani, he not only provided patronage to musicians but also brought dhrupad to the people by composing bandishes in the language of the common people (Brajbhasha) instead of Sanskrit. Raja Man Singh Tomar and Queen Mrignayani composed several new ragas, of which perhaps the best known is Gujari Todi, after the queen, who was a Gujjar. Together, they ran a school of music, which is said to have provided 16 of the 36 singers in Akbar’s court! Mrignayani is believed to have learnt music from the saint musician, Swami Haridas.
The Man Mandir palace, built by Raja Man Singh Tomar, lies within the forbidding, indomitable Gwalior fort, which dominates Gwalior’s skyline. Decorated with blue, green and yellow tiles, some of which still remain, it is an exquisite piece of architecture.
Perhaps the most beautiful part of the palace is the performance area, an open courtyard, with place for people to sit. Musicians would be seated in a small room and did not perform in the open. The rationale was that they would then be able to play or sing freely. The acoustics of the room are astounding. A small sound inside the room is magnified manifold, as though several microphones have been used! In that enchanted place, it was very easy to imagine Mrignayani’s doe-like eyes looking through the jaali, hear the great dhrupad singers elaborating the alaap, feel the resounding beats of the pakhawaj, and see the Raja close his eyes to absorb the music better!
Dr Bandana Malhotra is a medical doctor with a deep love of music.She learnt singing under Pt D.G. Marathe of the Gwalior gharana. She worked as a music critic for various English dailies, and was later the dedicated music critic of the Hindustan Times for a number of years. She lives in New Delhi.