Muslims in Indian classical music today

 As a supplicant before a deity, I am immensely attracted to Bhairav [Shiva]. And, as a lover, I am obsessed with Bhairavi [Parvati, Shiva’s consort]… The average Hindu is conditioned by the caricature of Bhairav. I wish I, a devout Moslem, could describe to him my vision of Bhairav’s infinite form and awesome power! I would say the same for Bhairavi. How many different facets of her persona I have experienced!

— Ustad Vilayat Khan, a famous 20th-century sitar player, talking about the ragas Bhairav and Bhairavi, which are named after Hindu deities


Indian classical music is generally viewed in terms of two distinct traditions: Hindustani music, which developed in the northern area of the Indian subcontinent, and Carnatic music, which took shape in the south. In both traditions, abstract improvisation is given great importance, but “at another level [Indian classical music] was (and in south India, remains) linked in various ways to Hinduism, with its [devotional] song texts, quasi-religious Sanskrit theoretical treatises, and its traditional associations with Hindu cosmology, mythology, and epistemology” (Manuel 121).

However, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Muslim rule in north India began to alter the character of Hindustani music: its performance, “like its patronage, came to be dominated by Muslims—specifically, hereditary professionals,” and although Hindustani music retained its devotional song texts, it “came to be regarded less as a form of prayer and devotion than as one of the secular ‘fine arts’” (Manuel 122, 124).

I am a student of Carnatic violin, and throughout my childhood, I associated Carnatic music with devotional compositions and performances held in Hindu temples. Hindustani music, on the other hand, conjured up ideas of Persian and Afghan music and instruments, of the magnificent Mughal courts, and of a unique fusion of Islamic and Hindu musical traditions. Yet all but one of the Hindustani musicians I have seen in concerts have been Hindus. Many of these musicians, such as Pandit Jasraj, performed Hindu devotional songs alongside abstract improvisational music. Even the Muslim musicians I read and hear about seem to describe their music in an explicitly Hindu manner, making little reference to their personal faith:

He interlocked the notes of the Raga Yaman and when he came to the fourth note … he said, “See, this is the psychic form of Raga Yaman. In this form Saraswati Mata [goddess of knowledge and arts] is … bedecking herself in all her glory. She has put on her beautiful saree and jewellery, she combs her hair and adorns it with flowers. Finally, she puts kohl in her eyes and that is the [fourth note] in Yaman.”

— A biography of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, a famous 20th-century Hindustani vocalist (Gilani 118)

Given the history of Hindustani music as an art form that was “secularized” in Muslim courts and further developed by Muslim musicians, why do so many contemporary Muslim performers of Hindustani music choose to publicly link their music to Hinduism?

This question can be answered by exploring the modern history of classical music in north India, beginning in the pre-colonial era, during which Hindustani music was dominated by Muslim hereditary musicians and their gharana system. This system was first challenged by intellectuals who sought to modify Hindustani music in accordance with British colonial ideas of modernity. The parallel emergence of Hindu nationalism in India posed another threat to Muslim musicians, as classical music became associated with Hindu devotional practices.

Upon the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, nation-building efforts in Pakistan renounced Hindustani music in favor of more Islamic alternatives such as qawwali, thus paving the way for Hindustani music to be explicitly linked to Hinduism in India. The world of Hindustani music has been shaped in the past century by colonialism and both Hindu and Islamic nationalism, with important consequences for how its Muslim performers present themselves today.

Historical background

By the nineteenth century in north India, “the field of music was dominated by Muslim musicians. That is not to say that there were no musicians who were not Muslim, but that there were conspicuously more Muslim musicians than non-Muslim” (Bakhle 81). Musical training was generally passed on from father to son through oral transmission, so that “hereditary musicianship [was] concentrated within families of Muslim performing artists” (Katz 280).

Each family’s unique performative and aesthetic style was called a gharana, and the particularly great musicians of a gharana were called ustads. Many ustads saw each other as rivals; they “had erratic, self-protective, and sometimes capricious pedagogical habits. They also tended to be secretive about their art, tradition, and history” (Bakhle 6). This tendency towards secrecy and self-preservation would soon lead the ustads to come in conflict with the self-styled modernizers of Hindustani music.

Colonial encounters

One of the first major threats to the gharana system came from British colonial writers in the late nineteenth century who were both fascinated and perplexed by Indian music. “According to these … writers, music needed three things: nation, notation, and religion,” and these criteria were quickly internalized by Indian intellectuals (Bakhle 10). The burgeoning nationalist movement, reacting to these colonial observations, wanted to “declare triumphantly that Indian music was just as religious, and as easily textualized, or notated, as the more sophisticated music of the West” (Bakhle 94-95). Thus, although Hindustani music had previously undergone a process of secularization in Muslim courts, colonial writers caused it to “become irrevocably tied to ideas of nation and religion” (Bakhle 94).

From these encounters with colonial ideas about music and modernity, there emerged two connected movements. One movement thus sought to make Hindustani music “modern”, which meant to undertake a program of notation and standardization. The other movement sought to make Hindustani music Hindu; or, more accurately, it sought to “retake” Hindustani music from Muslim musicians and their courtly “debauchery”. Both movements directly targeted the ustads and their gharanas.

Making Hindustani music modern

The movement to modernize Hindustani music was led by the musicologist V.N. Bhatkhande, who operated under the assumption that the “families [in whom] music had resided and flourished for generations were the main problem confronting music” (Bakhle 131). He and his colleagues believed that the gharanas, with their system of oral transmission and tendencies toward secrecy, were responsible for stifling Hindustani music. Bhatkhande’s solution was to “impose on these practices a nationalized and textual solution” (Bakhle 131), through which he attempted to catalog and notate hundreds of Hindustani compositions.

Although notation of Indian classical music never quite took hold, partly because it relies heavily on melodic oscillations that cannot be easily notated, Bhatkhande’s efforts did have a significant impact on Indian musical scholarship. During Bhatkhande’s time, “Muslims [were] conspicuous by their absence … as organizers, lecturers, and authors” (Bakhle 81) and even today “Muslims have played a negligible role in modern Indian music scholarship, hampered as they have been by their traditional reliance on oral transmission” (Manuel 126).

For Bhatkhande and his colleagues, Muslim musicians were not necessarily excluded from modernization on the basis of their faith; rather, they were looked down upon for their perceived backwardness and illiteracy. This is made clear by one of the stated goals of the music college that Bhatkhande founded in 1926: “to collect and preserve the great master pieces of the art now in the possession of illiterates” (Katz 289). Indeed, ustads were constantly branded with the title of “illiterates” rather than “Muslims”.

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The Bhatkhande Music Institute in Lucknow

Although Bhatkhande’s efforts resulted in Muslims being excluded from the modernization of music, these efforts were motivated by a secular nationalist desire to eliminate “elements of the colonial society that appeared archaic, outmoded, or pre-modern” (Katz 288). Thus, one could characterize the efforts to modernize Hindustani music as “[undermining] the tradition of Muslim hereditary musicians without … relying on personal prejudice” (Katz 292).

Making Hindustani music Hindu

581-vishnu-digambar-paluskar-india-stamp-1973
Stamp commemorating Paluskar

While the religious faith of the ustads may have been largely irrelevant to modernization efforts, it became the basis of the Hindu nationalist movement to “reclaim” Hindustani music from Muslim musicians, a movement which was led by the musician V.D. Paluskar.

To the accusation that Muslim hereditary musicians were illiterate, Paluskar added “debauchery”. In his view, Hindustani music’s development in and patronage by Muslim courts “opened Hindustani music … to the accusation of being sensuous and decadent” (Manuel 125). A common claim made by Paluskar and his colleagues was that Hindustani music was founded by the rishis, sages who are believed to have written the earliest Hindu texts, and that over the course of time, “music [fell] in the hands of illiterate and debauched hands, [and] its foundation in purity and classicism is rapidly disappearing” (Bakhle 149).

To bring about a renaissance in which Hindus would “reclaim” their music, Paluskar founded musical academies across India known as Gandharva Mahavidyalayas. In these schools, Hindustani music was taught through an explicitly Hindu curriculum: the schools would be closed on Hindu festival days, each class began with Hindu prayers, and “students were repeatedly told that they were involved in a process of tapasya [penance] in service to the goddess of music” (Bakhle 151). It is telling that although Paluskar’s first academy was founded in Lahore, a city with a large Muslim population, it had no Muslim students; furthermore, Paluskar was praised for establishing his first school “[in] the belly of the beast—[in] Muslim north India” (Bakhle 170, 149).

dsc00206_med
Vocal classes in New Delhi’s Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, 2011

This Hindu nationalist movement clearly undermined the authority of the gharanas and ustads. By establishing academies with standardized music curriculums, Paluskar’s project also aided the modernizers who sought to liberate Hindustani music from the illiterate ustads and old-fashioned gharanas. Paluskar’s academies were established in most major Indian cities by the mid-20th century; his greatest success, however, was in his linking of Hindustani music to Hindu devotional practices.

“By giving music’s performance and pedagogy an overtly religious tint, its previous reputation for disreputability could now be considered a thing of the past,” and “by placing religiosity at the forefront of his pedagogy, Paluskar institutionalized a Brahminic Hinduism as the modal cultural form of Indian music” (Bakhle 153, 173). Paluskar not only managed to disassociate Hindustani music from its perceived debauchery and decadence. He disassociated Hindustani music from its performers—the Muslim ustads—and, in doing so, fostered a cultural nationalism that even today seeks to prove that “all that is good in Indian culture is necessarily ancient Hindu rather than recent Muslim” (Bakhle 259).

Rejection in Pakistan

At this point, the ustads and the gharana system had been challenged by intellectual modernizers who saw the gharanas as outdated and impediments to progress. In addition, Hindu nationalists, who viewed the ustads as Muslims who had corrupted sacred Hindu music, had begun efforts to re-infuse Hindustani music with Hindu bhakti [devotion]. When India and Pakistan gained independence in 1947, the bloody partition of the subcontinent along religious lines saw “seven million Muslim migrants from Indian provinces … [bringing] to Pakistan their local dialects, culture, and, of course, classical music practices—including those from established gharanas of north India” (Saeed, “Fled” 240).

This represented a critical moment for Hindustani music and its traditional performers. Migration to Pakistan could have allowed the ustads to escape an increasingly critical atmosphere in India. Although Hindustani music was becoming “democratized”, meaning it was being taught to mostly middle-class Hindus through the schools established by Bhaktande and Paluskar, hereditary Muslim musicians still dominated the art form (Katz 280). As an indigenous tradition whose finest exponents were Muslims, Hindustani music could have flourished in Pakistan; it could have been embraced as the national music.

This was not to be the case. Before 1947, Hindustani music in what became Pakistan had largely flourished due to patronage from Hindu business communities. These communities overwhelmingly decided to move to India after Partition, making “this trend of the migration of musicians in one direction [to Pakistan] and their connoisseurs in the opposite direction [to India] … one of 1947’s most ironic developments (Saeed, “Fled” 240).

Unfortunately, this was only one of the many challenges Hindustani music faced in Pakistan. An important priority of the newly established Pakistani government was “to define its national identity, one that was very different from ‘Hindu’ India” (Saeed, “Fled” 238). In the process of creating a Pakistani cultural identity, Hindustani music was marginalized due to its associations with Hinduism, while the Pakistani government directed patronage towards more acceptably Islamic alternatives.

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Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan originally decided to migrate to Pakistan, but later moved back to India out of frustration with the Pakistani government’s attitude to Hindustani music.

In the new state of Pakistan, musicians depended on the state-owned radio as their only means of sustenance; however, it soon proved to be hostile towards Hindustani music (Saeed, “Fled” 241). Radio Pakistan banned compositional formats which were considered to be of Hindu origin, such as thumri and dhrupad, as well as ragas named after Hindu deities and any compositions that mentioned Hindu deities (Gilani 83). Some musicians worked to “de-Hinduize” their music by changing the names of ragas, so that Shiv Kalyan became Shab Kalyan, for example (Saeed, “Fled” 241). Others dropped the “Hindustani” label altogether, and called their music ahang-e-Khusravi, meaning “sound of Amir Khusrau”, a Sufi saint (Manuel 127). In general, Hindustani music was regarded as too un-Islamic to receive government patronage.

The government turned to more explicitly Islamic forms of music, including ghazal but especially qawwali, in an attempt to replace Hindustani music with a “religiously acceptable, and distinctly Pakistani, substitute” (Qureshi 599). Soon, qawwali “became an icon of Muslim identity for the new Muslim state,” and “a musical form that had thus far been restricted to Sufi shrines or private soirees was not only brought onto the national stage, but eventually came to represent Pakistani culture outside the country” (Qureshi 598) (Saeed, “Jugalbandi”).

Thus, Pakistan could have provided the ustads with an opportunity to develop a modern Muslim identity for Hindustani music—or, at the very least, to pass on their music to the next generation in an environment insulated from the criticism they faced in India. Instead, due to the dictates of Islamic nationalism, this opportunity was lost.

Muslim musicians today

This understanding of how colonialism, Hindu nationalism, and Islamic nationalism shaped Hindustani music can help illuminate why many Muslim musicians today choose to publicly invoke Hindu deities or religious practices when talking about their music. The success of the Hindu nationalist movement to associate Hindustani music with Hinduism and the rejection of Hindustani music by Islamic nationalists in Pakistan irrevocably changed the way Muslim musicians presented themselves in India, and it soon became difficult for Muslim musicians to make a name in the Indian public sphere “without participating in Hindu forms of religiosity” (Bakhle 175).

Since India’s independence, “a handful of reputable Muslim musicians [have become] the advertisement for the secularism of Indian classical music” (Bakhle 175). Ustad Vilayat Khan is celebrated for his devotion to the goddess Bhairavi: “he never seemed to run out of fresh ideas for courting his mythical beloved.” The Muslim nadaswaram maestro Sheik Chinna Moulana’s Wikipedia page describes him as “an ardent devotee of Lord Ranganatha”, while Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s biography says he “sang in the Baranagar Ashram [Hindu hermitage] with the same feeling of devotion and sense of sanctity with which he would sing at a Dargah [Sufi shrine]” (Gilani 115). The list goes on, with many great Muslim musicians seeming to have some connection to Hindu devotional practices.

To be fair, we have no right to question the personal faith of these musicians or their relationship to Hinduism, nor should a Muslim be viewed with suspicion for professing their love for another faith. What we can point out, however, is that “forms of religiosity particular to South Asian Islam do not seem quite as visible in the world of [Hindustani] music as do Brahmin chants and rituals at musical performances” (Bakhle 174). While the sitar player Anoushka Shankar sometimes performs in concerts with a large Aum (sacred Hindu syllable) and lotus flower projected behind her, few, if any, Hindu musicians recite verses from the Qur’an during their performances. On the contrary, when I saw the sarod maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan in concert, he greeted the audience with a namaskar, explained the importance of the teacher-disciple relationship using the Sanskrit terms guru-shishya instead of the Urdu ustad-shagird, and described how the alaap (slow introduction to a raga) was akin to Hindu meditation.

Perhaps the tendency of Muslim musicians to publicly link their music to Hinduism could be seen as strategic gestures necessary in order to exist in a cultural sphere that is neither completely secular nor totally Hindu. Hindustani music today can be described as “secular” in the sense that non-Hindu musicians are accepted and appreciated by the public, but it can also be called “Hindu” because non-Hindu musicians are expected to keep their own religious identities somewhat subdued during performances.

For example, how would a Muslim musician be received by the Indian public if they refused to perform ragas named after Hindu deities? This may seem like an unreasonable question, but it is not without precedent: the famous Hindu vocalist Pandit Kumar Gandharva allegedly refused to perform ragas associated with Muslims, such as Miyan-ki-Malhar (Bakhle 174). Simply put, the hypothetical Muslim musician would be seen as a “communal,” divisive figure, and would be unable to make a living. On the other hand, Hindu audiences or fellow Hindu musicians may have tolerated Kumar Gandharva’s refusal to sing Muslim ragas because they too may have viewed Hindustani music as another form of Hindu devotional practice.

Hindustani music may not be as explicitly Hindu as south Indian classical music, but stages are still often decorated before concerts “with the accoutrements of Hindu ritualism, such as incense holders, marigold garlands, and oil lamps,” for example (Bakhle 261). Paluskar’s successful association of Hindustani music with Hinduism is very much alive today, and I believe that Muslim musicians are quite aware of that.

Hindustani music today

How else has Hindustani music changed in contemporary India? The gharana system still exists, and “ustads, though diminished in number compared to the end of the nineteenth century, still train the high-level performers” (Bakhle 14). However, thanks to the efforts of the modernizers and nationalists who established music schools across the country, “more and more prominent Hindu musicians—often from bourgeois families—are emerging and may soon outnumber Muslim hereditary professionals” (Manuel 126).

Although the diminished role of the ustads may seem to be a cause for lamentation, this is complicated by the realization that women were by and large excluded from the gharana system. Although some women were able to learn from ustads, they were “hardly considered legitimate or true heirs to an ustadi tradition … [the] unintended consequences of modernizing projects, couched in terms of bhakti [devotion] and religion, made it possible for women performers to be recognized as musicians” (Bakhle 254).

Even then, those who benefited from the modernization of Hindustani music as a “respectable activity” were largely upper-caste women, who then marginalized the lower-caste courtesans who had traditionally “comprised the majority of female Indian classical music singers” (Herbert). All of this proves that history cannot simply classified into good developments and bad developments; it can only be analyzed in relation to larger social, political, and economic factors.


It would be a mistake to characterize the Hindustani music of the seventeenth century as having existed in “a multicultural paradise ruined only by colonialism and modernity” (Manuel 137), just as it would be a mistake to portray today’s Hindustani music as an art form hijacked and transformed by Hindu nationalism. The story is always more complicated; a few dedicated Hindustani vocalists are still passing on their art in the Pakistani cities of Lahore and Karachi, just as Hindu singers like Pandit Jasraj have recently composed songs with distinctly Islamic lyrics:

Yet, it would not be inaccurate to argue, as I have, that Hindustani music today is generally associated more with Hinduism than it was a century ago, and that in order to stay relevant in the public sphere, Muslim musicians have had to adjust the way they publicly present themselves and their music.

As a student of Carnatic music, and as a lover of Indian classical music in general, it would make me feel better to believe that Indian classical music has always existed in a space of innocent religious harmony, totally disconnected from the ever-changing outside world. However, by understanding the ways in which the traditional masters of Hindustani music—hereditary Muslim musicians—were challenged in the twentieth century by ideas of colonial modernity, Hindu nationalism, and Islamic nation-building, I can better understand and appreciate Hindustani music today.

After all, “there is no doubt that the history of music in India presents many beautiful instances of cooperation, respect, and affection between Hindus and Muslims. Yet … such sentiments should [not] lead us to an uncritical embrace of Hindustani music as an inherently communalism-free zone” (Katz 281).

We should interrogate why modern Muslim musicians present their music as conforming to ideas of Hindu devotional practices. Because British colonial writers associated “sophisticated” music with religion and standardization, Indian nationalists responded by trying to modernize and Hindu-ize Hindustani music. In the process, these modernizers and cultural nationalists attempted to separate Hindustani music from its traditional masters: the ustads and their gharanas. After Pakistani nationalists rejected Hindustani music, Muslim musicians had no choice but to adjust to a changed cultural sphere: one in which Hindustani music had been successfully linked to Hinduism.

There is no point to looking at these developments in terms of good and bad, because history is always more complicated than that. Rather, we should use this knowledge of the past to inform the way we look at Indian classical music today, as well as the place of minorities in other artistic and musical traditions in contemporary South Asia.


Further reading:

  • Bakhle, Janaki. Two Men and Music: Nationalism in the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005.
  • Gilani, Malti, and Quratulain Hyder. Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan: His Life and Music. New Delhi: Harman House, 2003.
  • Herbert, Caroline. “Music, Secularism and South Asian Fiction.” Ed. Claire Chambers. Imagining Muslims in South Asia and the Diaspora: Secularism, Religion, Representations. N.p.: Routledge, 2015.
  • Katz, Max. “Institutional Communalism in North Indian Classical Music.” Ethnomusicology 56.2 (2012): 279-98. JSTOR.
  • Khayal Darpan: A Mirror of Imagination. Directed by Yousuf Saeed. Ektara, 2006.
  • Manuel, Peter L. “Music, the Media, and Communal Relations in North India, Past and Present.” CUNY Academic Works.
  • Patel, Aakar. “The Twin Strains of an Indian Symphony.”
  • Qureshi, Regula Burckhardt. “Sufism and the Globalization of Sacred Music.” Ed. Philip V. Bohlman. The Cambridge History of World Music. N.p.: Cambridge UP, n.d. 584-605.
  • Saeed, Yousuf. “Fled Is That Music.” India International Centre Quarterly 35.3/4 (2008): 238-49. JSTOR.
  • Saeed, Yousuf. “Jugalbandi: Divided Scores.” Himal Southasian.

Image sourcesAlladiya KhanV.N. BhatkhandeBhatkhande Music InstituteBhatkhande’s notationPaluskar stampGandharva Mahavidyalaya classBade Ghulam Ali KhanFareed AyazNusrat Fateh Ali KhanAnoushka ShankarKishori AmonkarParveen SultanaKaushiki ChakrabortyHirabai and Saraswati

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5 thoughts on “Muslims in Indian classical music today”

  1. This is a very comprehensive article….Your point of Anoushka playing with the backdrop of Aum and the ‘desire’ of the Muslim musicians to exist in a system that is neither secular nor completely ‘HIndu’ is a very interesting one….i have to read this again thoroughly……Thanks for sharing it……please check out the blogging contest based on music here http://funkaar.in/contest.html…..It is a verified contest……If interested, do participate….and let your friends know too….Thanks….:)

    Liked by 1 person

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