By Françoise Delvoye
In the sixteenth century, the popular devotional movement known as the "Krishnaite Renaissance" took place in the Braj country,
around the city of Mathura, in the sacred land of Lord Krishna's divine exploits that are sung about in myriads of devotional lyrics
composed by saint-poets and transmitted up to this day through both the oral and the written traditions (cf. my PhD thesis in Indian
Studies (Medieval and Modern), "The Bhamvar-git of Nand-das in Braj Bhasa, a Critical Edition with an Annotated French
Translation", Sorbonne Nouvelle University, Paris, 1976). Agra, the site of one of the imperial capitals of Akbar the Great (r. 1556-1605) belongs to the same region, described in ancient history as the Madhyadesh or "Central Region", a rich and famous cultural
centre in medieval India, where both religious and courtly artistic traditions, vernacular lyric poetry and vocal art-music mingled for
centuries. This confluence of cultures is testified to even today in the repertoire of professional art-musicians as well as of performers
belonging to the more popular genre and to the religious tradition linked with temples.
Among the poet-composers of renown, the life of some court-musicians and their contribution to music are to an extent documented by written sources in Indian languages as well as in Persian, and attested to in the lore of musicians. Some of the well-known artists excelled in the art of Dhrupad, a relatively "new" genre of vocal music in the 16th century, but which today is considered the most ancient and "classical" poetico-musical genre still sung by musicians, who are thus the heirs to both the court and the temple traditions. Very little of their poetic work has been edited and studied, though it certainly deserves a closer examination, both as a literary corpus and, through its thematic content, as a precious source of documentation on the ever-changing taste of the musicians' protectors, as well as on medieval Indian music and its aristocratic patronage.
Within the framework of a long-term study of art-music patronage in medieval and pre-colonial India, and more precisely that of the "Social and Literary History of Court-Musicians in Western India, 14th-18th Century", in the course of a one-year project supported by the European Science Foundation in the form of a Post-doctoral Fellowship in Asian Studies, 1995-1996, I intend to survey Indo- Persian, Sanskrit, and vernacular literature (chronicles, musicological treatises, literary works, and lyrics) on the music patronage of the sultans of Gujarat.
The choice of Western India has been inspired by my previous findings on Tânsen, foremost court-musician of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, who hailed from the region of Gwalior in Central India, and reached the Mughal imperial court via some lesser-known princely courts (cf. my D Litt thesis, Tansen and the Tradition of Dhrupad Songs in Braj, from the 16th Century to the Present Day" (in French), Sorbonne Nouvelle University, Paris, 1991, forthcoming). Another outstanding musician is Nayak Bakhshu, who will be the central figure of the present project, and who went from the Tomar court of Gwalior, to Kalinjar in Central India, then to Gujarat, before spending some time in the service of the Mughal ruler, Humayan (r. 1530-1556). Nayak Bakhshu was a poet- composer of great renown, whose lyrics - in the Dhrupad genre - continued to be widely sung by court-musicians after his death, do popular were they that in the mid-seventeenth century the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (r. 1628-1658) ordered the compilation of all Dhrupad songs attributed to him and transmitted by oral tradition. Of the two thousand lyrics collected under imperial order from court-musicians during a two-year search, one thousand were considered to be both authentic and of good literary quality. This collection is known as Sahasras or Hazar Dhurpad. An anonymous preface in Persian reveals the historical circumstances and the process of the song-collection initiated by Sh■h Jah■n. Two important unpublished, dated manuscripts kept at the India Office Library, London, and the Bodleian Library, Oxford, will be examined in the course of this project. Many poetic compositions attributed to Nayak Bakhshu and addressed to various patrons are also preserved in some other manuscript anthologies. Hence a major focus in the present project will be divided equally between two manuscript collections, the Anu■pa Sangita Ratnakara and the Anu■pa Sangita Vilasa of Bhavabhatta, a court-musicologist of the Bikaner king Anup Singh (r. 1669-1698), whom the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707) had sent to the Deccan as a governor, and which are located in the Anup Sankrit Library, Bikaner, and the City Palace Library, Jaipur.
Though limited to the study of one court-musician, the interdisciplinary project thus aims to throw simultaneous light on several related issues of historical, literary, and musicological significance. As a self-contained case-study, it will stimulate more comparative studies and generate a new reflection on a number of complementary issues such as the following:
- The relationship between musicians and their protectors and the rather ambiguous social status of artists, who often belonged to low-born communities but were so close to political power that they were at times permitted to act contrary to the established norms of conduct (adab) which loomed so large in court life, especially at the Mughal court. At the same time, strict etiquette was also respected between musicians (particularly between a teacher and his disciple) and between a musician and his patron;
- The mobility of artists, who went from one court to another, with their repertoire and the musical genre and the style in which they were expert. Thus, these artists acted as transmitters of cultural traditions from one centre to another, and helped define musical and literary styles over a wide area. At the same time, the role of these musicians as items of prestige is best shown when they are "invited" to the court of a powerful ruler from the court of a lesser king, as happened with Tansen, who was obliged by the then twenty-year-old emperor Akbar, to come to his court leaving that of Raja Ramacandra, the Baghela king of the small princely state of Rewa, in Madhya Pradesh in 1562;
- Finally, the project will also have a well-defined literary and philological aspect, in the sense of bringing together and editing a textual corpus attributed to the artists and musicians in question.
Dr Françoise Delvoye is an ESF fellow posted to the IIAS from November 1995 to November 1996.