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THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY SINGER REMAINS AN ENIGMA
Who really was Miyan Tansen, the singer who could ‘start a fire with his music’?

Moti Chandra

Tansen of Gwalior (1585-’90). National Museum, New Delhi. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

The first six Mughal rulers of India prized learning and culture, and, above all, the art of miniature painting. While Humayun took the initial steps to develop this branch, it was Akbar who laid the actual foundations of a proper school of this art form. The city built by Akbar at Fatehpur Sikri was the ideal locale for a community of craftsmen and aesthetes devoted to the pursuit of the arts.

That remarkable chronicler of the times, Abul Fazl, has in his two works, the Akbar Namah and the Aini Akbari, left us a faithful account of the varied interests of Akbar’s court. Akbar attracted a wealth of talent.
The Aini Akbari has a special chapter on the art of painting and mentions Akbar’s personal interest in the atelier at his court. The master painters were the two Persians, Abdus Samad and Mir Sayyid Ali; the rest of the artists were mainly Hindus. The painters concentrated on two branches of the art of miniature: book illustration and portraiture. In drawing a portrait, the artist’s primary concern was to seize a likeness. Thus we have a pictorial record of the Nine Jewels who added lustre to Akbar’s court. The most renowned among these was the musician Tansen. In the Aini Akbari, there is an entire chapter on imperial musicians.

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Moti Chandra

Tansen of Gwalior (1585-’90). National Museum, New Delhi. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

The first six Mughal rulers of India prized learning and culture, and, above all, the art of miniature painting. While Humayun took the initial steps to develop this branch, it was Akbar who laid the actual foundations of a proper school of this art form. The city built by Akbar at Fatehpur Sikri was the ideal locale for a community of craftsmen and aesthetes devoted to the pursuit of the arts.

That remarkable chronicler of the times, Abul Fazl, has in his two works, the Akbar Namah and the Aini Akbari, left us a faithful account of the varied interests of Akbar’s court. Akbar attracted a wealth of talent.
The Aini Akbari has a special chapter on the art of painting and mentions Akbar’s personal interest in the atelier at his court. The master painters were the two Persians, Abdus Samad and Mir Sayyid Ali; the rest of the artists were mainly Hindus. The painters concentrated on two branches of the art of miniature: book illustration and portraiture. In drawing a portrait, the artist’s primary concern was to seize a likeness. Thus we have a pictorial record of the Nine Jewels who added lustre to Akbar’s court. The most renowned among these was the musician Tansen. In the Aini Akbari, there is an entire chapter on imperial musicians.

“I cannot sufficiently describe the wonderful power of this talisman of knowledge (music). It sometimes causes the beautiful creatures of the harem of the heart to shine forth on the tongue, and sometimes appears in solemn strains by means of the hand and the chord. The melodies then enter through the window of the ear and return to their former seat, the heart, bringing with them thousands of presents. The hearers, according to their insight, are moved to sorrow or to joy.  Music is thus of use to those who have renounced the world and to such as still cling to it.
His Majesty pays much attention to music, and is the patron of all who practise this enchanting art. There are numerous musicians at court, Hindus, Iranis, Turanis, Kashmiris, both men and women. The court musicians are arranged in seven divisions, one for each day in the week. When His Majesty gives the order, they let the wine of harmony flow, and thus increase intoxication in some, and sobriety in others.”
Abul Fazl goes on to describe the principal musicians of the court and pays a tribute to Tansen: “Miyan Tansen, of Gwalyar. A singer like him has not been in India for the last thousand years.”
The date of Tansen’s birth is not certain. But there is a legend that he died before Akbar, for a doha supposed to have been composed by the emperor himself says:
Pithala so majlis gai, Tansen so rag
Hasibo ramibo bolibo, gayo Birabara satha.
Social life disappeared with Pithala; music disappeared with Tansen And laughter, repartee and conversation with Birbal.
It is difficult to reconstruct Tansen’s early life and career because the biographical material which is available to us is so meagre.  Badaoni in his Muntakhabu’t Tawarikh mentions Tansen’s apprenticeship to Muhamed Adil (popularly known as Adali), who was an accomplished dancer. He also says that Tansen was in the service of Raja Ramchand of Bandhogarh (Rewa) who appreciated his musical gifts and showered gold on him.
The background of Tansen’s departure from the service of Raja Ramchand to join Akbar’s court is recounted by Abul Fazl in the Akbar Namah.
“As the fame of Tansen, who was the foremost of the age among the Kalawants of Gwalior, came to the royal hearing and it was reported that he mediated going into retirement and that he was spending his days in attendance of Ramchand, the Raja of Pannah. His Majesty ordered that he should be enrolled among the court musicians. Jalal Khan Qurchi, who was a favourite servant, was sent with a gracious order for the purpose of bringing Tansen. The Raja received the royal message and recognised the sending of the envoy as an honour, and sent back with him suitable presents of elephants of fame and valuable jewels, and he also gave Tansen suitable instruments and made him the cheekmole of his gifts. In this year, Tansen did homage and received exaltation. His Majesty was pleased and poured gifts of money into the lap of his hopes. His cap of honour was exalted above all others. As he had an upright nature and an acceptable disposition he was cherished by a long service and association with His Majesty and great developments were made by him in music and compositions.”

From the emperor’s mouth
There are also incidental references in the records of the time to the musical contests in which Tansen participated and to the hostility which he had to face from orthodox circles. In his memoirs Jehangir writes warmly of Tansen. He says, “There has been no singer like him in any time or age. In one of his compositions he has likened the face of a young man to the sun and the opening of his eyes to the expanding of the Kanwal and the exit of the bee. In another place he has compared the side-glance of the beloved one to the motion of the Kanwal when the bee alighted on it.” Jehangir observes that when the saint, Shaikh Salim Chishti, was on his deathbed, he requested Akbar to send Tansen to him. After Tansen had sung for him, the holy man died.
There is also the legend surrounding the meeting of Swami Haridas, Akbar and Tansen. It is believed that Akbar disguised himself as a sadhu and, accompanied by Tansen, went to Vrindavan hoping to hear the sweet strains of Swami Haridas’s music. When Tansen sang, he committed a mistake with the deliberate aim of prompting the Swami to correct him. The Swami then sang to demonstrate the right style to Tansen, and Akbar’s wish was fulfilled. When Akbar sought to find out why Tansen himself could not sing as beautifully as Swami, Tansen’s reply was:
“Your Majesty, I sing in the court of a mighty ruler, while my teacher sings in the court of god.”
People came to regard this meeting as a historical fact and the dramatic episode even formed the subject of a Kishangarh miniature in the second half of the 18th century. When such legends surround the personality of a musician, it is only natural that art lovers and musicians should seek at least a glimmer of what the man was like.  There is a portrait of Tansen in the National Museum at New Delhi. He is shown as a tall, dark man, with a sharp nose and a pointed chin.  His hands are small, and his fingers, sensitive. He seems to be clapping his hands, perhaps in the act of singing.
The same attitude and features are reproduced in another portrait in the possession of the Prince of Wales Museum, Bombay. Tansen wears a similar kind of costume as in the first portrait: an atpati pagri, a jamah reaching to the ankles, a dupatta crossed over the chest and a kamarband to which a dagger is fastened. His lips are open, he seems to be singing. There are inscriptions in Persian and Hindi at the back of the portrait. The Persian inscription reads: Shabih Tansen Kalawant Az Delhi marfat Mahanath. This means that it is a portrait of Tansen Kalawant and that Mahanath brought it from Delhi. The Hindi inscription is more interesting. It mentions the name of Kalawant Tansen and adds a couplet: Raga Dipaka gayo, tethi marana payo (Tansen sang the raga Dipaka, and the fire ignited by his wonderful music consumed his body).

This article first appeared in ON Stage, the official monthly magazine of the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai.


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Left alliance could herald new era of political stability in Nepal

Biswas Baral in Kathmandu
The Wire

The communist movement in Nepal began with the formation of the Communist Party of Nepal in Kolkata, India, in 1949. The party, just like the Nepali Congress – the country’s oldest running democratic party – was forced to operate from India as political parties had been banned by the Rana rulers in Nepal. Since then, the communist movement in Nepal has undergone countless consolidations and splits.
In more contemporary times, the first people’s revolution in 1990 gave birth to the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), or UML, which came into being with the merger of the Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist).  The UML party has since morphed into a political juggernaut. It is the second largest party in parliament at present and emerged the largest party under its charismatic, if at times controversial, leader K.P.  Sharma Oli in the recent local elections.

Full Story

Biswas Baral in Kathmandu
The Wire

The communist movement in Nepal began with the formation of the Communist Party of Nepal in Kolkata, India, in 1949. The party, just like the Nepali Congress – the country’s oldest running democratic party – was forced to operate from India as political parties had been banned by the Rana rulers in Nepal. Since then, the communist movement in Nepal has undergone countless consolidations and splits.
In more contemporary times, the first people’s revolution in 1990 gave birth to the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), or UML, which came into being with the merger of the Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist).  The UML party has since morphed into a political juggernaut. It is the second largest party in parliament at present and emerged the largest party under its charismatic, if at times controversial, leader K.P.  Sharma Oli in the recent local elections.

The merger mechanism
Meanwhile, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center), led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, traces its origin back to 1994. The Maoist party wanted to establish a ‘people’s government’ through an armed insurgency (1996-2006). Under Prachanda, the Maoists fought state forces to a stalemate and in 2006 entered mainstream politics through the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.
Even at the time of the Maoist party’s entry into the political mainstream, there had been efforts to form a common communist force through a formal merger with the UML. At the time, however, the differences between the UML (which had become well-versed in parliamentary politics) and the Maoists (whose rank and file were still filled with revolutionary fervour) were too big to be accommodated under the same political tent. But informal efforts to unify all leftist forces continued to be made.
It has taken 11 years for these efforts to fructify. In what came as a complete shock to Nepalis, who were busy celebrating Dashain, their biggest festival, the two parties, along with former Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai’s Naya Shakti Party, announced a new Left alliance for the upcoming two-phase provincial and federal elections. Not just that, the three parties said that they would formally merge following these elections.

Two posts, two folks
While it is true that efforts to unify all leftist forces in Nepal have been taking place for a while now, few in Nepal believed that it would materialise anytime soon. Even in the recent campaigns for local elections, there were open clashes between the cadres of the UML and Maoist parties, as the two battled it out for limited ‘Left votes’.  Even before that there was always this underlying tension between the two parties, as each sought to portray itself as the real communist party. Whenever one did well in an election, the other invariably suffered.
But the same factor that made UML and Maoists bitter rivals also eventually brought them closer. If we look at the results of the recent local elections, had the two parties fielded common candidates, they could have won in up to 83% of all contested seats. This realisation hit home particularly after Nepali Congress routed both the communist parties in the third phase of local elections in Province No. 2.
Hence, in the reckoning of the top UML and Maoist leaders, it made perfect sense to forge a Left electoral alliance ahead of the provincial and federal elections to consolidate the Left-leaning voters. But there were several other reasons why the leftist forces decided to come together right now.
Perhaps the biggest of them had to do with personal calculations of UML chief Oli and Maoist chief Prachanda. Oli realised that given the proportional electoral system Nepal has recently adopted, there was no possibility of any one party getting an absolute majority in the upcoming elections. That being the case, there was a real chance of the continuation of the current Nepali Congress-Maoist coalition far into the future, not least because India seemed to have given this coalition its blessing. In that case, Oli’s ambition of becoming the prime minister again would have been thwarted.

The crucial elements
Likewise, Prachanda was lured by the prospect of getting to be the undisputed leader of all the leftist forces in Nepal. If the new Left coalition garners an absolute majority, as is now likely, then Oli could become the prime minister while Prachanda could take over party leadership.
In case of Baburam Bhattarai, his Naya Shakti Party was going absolutely nowhere. While Bhattarai was the second in command in the Maoist party after Prachanda, since leaving the party in 2015, his political stature had been steadily declining. The recent deal with Oli and Prachanda once again puts him at the centre of Nepali politics, as he is sure to get a respectable position in the new party. Oli and Prachanda also seem to have calculated that having Bhattarai – who is reputed in Nepal as someone trusted by New Delhi –on board would help alleviate India’s concerns over the new communist coalition.
The last point is important because there are already rumours in Kathmandu, often backed by credible voices, that China put together the current communist coalition as a counter against the Congress-Maoist coalition that was backed by India. The Communist Party of China has long advised its communist cousins in Nepal to form a united front. But it would be a stretch to infer from this that the current left coalition was formed at China’s behest. There is no reason for China to pick favourites among the political parties in Nepal these days. It now has solid support among all three big parties in Nepal: Congress, UML as well as the Maoists.
But given New Delhi’s recent paranoia over Nepal being ‘taken over’ by the Chinese, Oli and Prachanda, both of whom have been suspected of harbouring pro-China proclivities, clearly felt that Bhattarai could help allay any concerns of the ‘communist takeover’ of Nepal by China’s ‘lackeys’.

Deuba in the doldrums
But what happens to Nepali Congress now, which is currently the biggest parliamentary party in Nepal? Following news of the Left merger, Congress president and Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba has been busy in hectic parleys to cobble together his own ‘democratic alliance’. Among the likely candidates to join this alliance are the pro-monarchy Rastriya Prajatantra Party, Upendra Yadav’s Federal Socialist Forum and the alliance of six small Madhes-based parties, the Rastriya Janata Party Nepal.
Even if these disparate forces can somehow work out a viable electoral strategy, it is likely to be a poor match against the communist alliance. This is because only Congress, UML and Maoists have deep, nationwide roots and with the latter two now in an alliance – and an eventual merger – their combined organisational heft will be hard to match. History is also against Congress. In recent elections in Nepal around 50-60% seats at all levels have gone to communist parties, while the Congress has been able to get just 30-40% of the seats.
Had Deuba been able to take his party into provincial and federal elections with the Congress-Maoist coalition intact, there was a major likelihood that the two parties would together get absolute majority and again form the government. This, in turn, would have greatly strengthened Deuba’s position in his own party. But with the main opposition party’s hand strengthened, partly as a result of Deuba’s failure to convince Prachanda on continued utility of their ruling alliance, Deuba will struggle to exert himself in Congress. Some party stalwarts are already calling for a new generation of leaders to take over.

Many fears, some hope
In the final analysis, this latest turn of events in Kathmandu has given rise to countless questions on the future course of Nepali politics, but there are few answers. For instance, what now happens to the agenda of constitution amendment that Congress and Maoists had together been championing and which the UML had bitterly opposed? With the new communist coalition making executive head of government their common agenda, is the old parliamentary Westminster system now doomed in Nepal?
What happens to transitional justice, with the UML now having seemingly dropped its agenda of prosecution of grave rights violations from the decade-long Maoist war? As importantly, will the Deuba government even survive till provincial and federal elections?
There is a lot of uncertainty, but Nepalis are also hopeful that the new wave of consolidation could also herald a new era of political stability. With the polity badly fractured after the 2006 changes, governments in Kathmandu have changed every nine months or so. But now there is a real possibility of a single party garnering an absolute majority and getting to rule for full five years.
Even amid these hopes and fears and general atmosphere of uncertainty, one thing is for sure: after the latest turn of events, Nepali politics will not be the same again.

Biswal Baral is a Kathmandu-based journalist. He tweets @biswasktm.


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