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.

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A sarod rendition of Raga Bhimpalasi

The Darbar Festival is an annual Indian classical music festival held in the UK, and their YouTube channel has some really high-quality performances by a variety of artists; both instrumental and vocal, Hindustani and Carnatic.

This video features a rising sarod player, Debasmita Bhattacharya. She is playing Raga Bhimpalasi, which according to the Hindustani tradition is an afternoon raga. To make it even more visually appealing, it was recorded at a medieval (16th-18th century) Vishnu temple in Guptipara, West Bengal.

The ascending scale of Bhimpalasi
The descending scale of Bhimpalasi (source)

From Wikipedia: “The sarod is a lute-like stringed instrument of India, used mainly in Indian classical music. Along with the sitar, it is among the most popular and prominent instruments in Hindustani classical music. The sarod is known for a deep, weighty, introspective sound, in contrast with the sweet, overtone-rich texture of the sitar, with sympathetic strings that give it a resonant, reverberant quality. It is a fretless instrument able to produce the continuous slides between notes known as meend (glissandi), which are important in Indian music.

The sarod is believed by some to have descended from the Afghan rubab, a similar instrument originating in Central Asia and Afghanistan. The word sarod roughly translates to “beautiful sound” or “melody” in Persian, one of the many languages spoken in Afghanistan.

Among the many conflicting and contested histories of the sarod, there is one that attributes its invention to the ancestors of the present-day sarod maestro, Amjad Ali Khan. Amjad Ali Khan’s ancestor Mohammad Hashmi Khan Bangash, a musician and horse trader, came to India with the Afghan rubab in the mid-18th century, and became a court musician to the Maharajah of Rewa (now in Madhya Pradesh). It was his descendants, notably his grandson Ghulam Ali Khan Bangash, a court musician in Gwalior, who changed the rubab into the sarod we know today.”

The greatest sarod players alive today are Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, and his sons Amaan and Ayaan Ali Khan. I saw them perform in Seattle in 2014 in an interesting concert that first featured them playing purely Hindustani music, and then with a Middle Eastern music ensemble. I remember that concert was the first time I didn’t fall asleep during an alaap — the long, slow improvisation of a raga. Truly, one of the milestones in my journey in Indian classical music. 🙂

Bridging the Carnatic-Hindustani, Hindu-Muslim divide

Indian classical music is made up of two traditions: Hindustani music, from North India, and Carnatic music, from the south. Although these traditions share concepts like raga and tala (rhythm), in many ways they are quite separate from each other. However, from time to time, Carnatic-Hindustani interactions do occur — and when they do, the results are fascinating.

Raga Hamsadhwani

Hamsadhwani (literally, “sound of the swan”) is a popular raga that is common to both Carnatic and Hindustani music; during any Carnatic-Hindustani jugalbandi (duet), the musicians will inevitably perform that raga at some point.

Vathapi Ganapatim is one of the most popular compositions in Carnatic music, set in Hamsadhwani. It’s dedicated to the god Ganesha, and was composed by Muthuswami Dikshitar (1775–1835) in Sanskrit. The following video is M.S. Subbulakshmi’s rendition of this song (at the age of 81!). Pay attention to the first line of the song: vathapi ganapatim bhaje, “I bow to Ganesha of the Vatapi/Badami temple.”

Now, listen to this next video, starting at 1:30. Pay attention to the first line of the song: laagi lagan pati sakhi sang, “I feel joy with my lord and my friends.”

If you listen carefully, you’ll hear that both songs have the same tune!

This second song was composed by the Hindustani singer Aman Ali Khan (1888–1953), who belonged to the the Bhendi Bazaar gharana of Bombay. Upon hearing Vathapi Ganapatim, he decided to compose a khayal in Hindi using that same melody. However, he pays homage to Dikshitar, the original composer of the tune, in the first line of his song.

Going back to the Carnatic song, the first line is vathapi ganapatim bhajeham. If we look at the first line of Aman Ali Khan’s song, the first line contains the word “ganapati” in the exact same spot: laagi lagan pati sakhi sang. How clever is that?

This article contains other examples, and goes more in-depth into the religious syncretism that characterizes Indian classical music, as well as so many other aspects of South Asian cultures. The author talks extensively about how Muslim musicians composed songs to Hindu deities, and vice versa.

Ustad Vilayat Khan

On that religious note, I want to include a short excerpt of an interview conducted with the great sitar player, Ustad Vilayat Khan (1928 – 2004). He was asked, “Which are the ragas you feel you have charged with the entire power of your soul; ragas for which you will be long remembered?”

However, his answer isn’t about music at all. He describes Bhairav and Bhairavi, which are Hindustani ragas, but also names for the terrifying forms of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. The Ustad’s answer blends music with spirituality:

Bhairav is awesome, Bhairavi is compelling. The average Hindu is conditioned by the caricature of Bhairav [Bhairav, as the destructive form of Shiva, is portrayed through graphic and fearful iconography]. I wish I, a devout Muslim, could describe to him my vision of Bhairav’s infinite form and awesome power! I would say the same for Bhairavi (Parvati). How many different facts of her persona I have experienced!

O Allah! By how many different names, and in how many different forms, you manifest yourself to the seeker! It is we who give You different names, according to our limited capacity to understand You. All of them are names in praise of Your Glory. You are masculine; You are also feminine. You are the Love; You are also the Beloved. You are the Ascetic; and you are also the Emperor.

Sitting in this room, you and I talk glibly about my recording of one raga, or another recording of another raga, as landmarks. But all this reflects our limited understanding. Nothing limits the Almighty who inspires all this. Who, amongst mortals, has yet measured the heights to which He can elevate man’s endeavours?

The notes following the interview read: “He handles the apparent incongruity of himself, a Muslim obsessed by a Hindu deity, with total innocence. He is responding to an archetype pregnant with immense appeal within the culture. In explaining this vision verbally, he swings effortlessly between Hindu and Islamic ideas, emphasizing the irrelevance of religion to man’s artistic and spiritual life.”


Do you have 20 minutes to spare?

This might just be my favorite song ever. I’ve listened to it since I was much younger and it never ceases to amaze me. This track is a duet performance featuring Pandit Jasraj, a great Hindustani singer, and Dr. L. Subramaniam, who is one of the most skilled violinists in the world, and certainly the most accomplished Indian violinist. I’ve been lucky enough to see both of them in concert individually, but this joint performance is on a whole other level.

Pandit Jasraj is performing a composition called the “Govind Damodar Madhaveti” stuti, in a raga (melodic scale) known as Sarasangi. He is accompanied on violin by Dr. L. Subramaniam.

I’ve put the meaning of the composition after the break, but I would recommend listening to this track without reading the meaning first. (I’ve only just now discovered the meaning of the lyrics, thanks to Google) Just enjoy the music. The depth and range of Pandit Jasraj’s voice coupled with Dr. L. Subramaniam’s mastery of the violin is truly stunning.

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Someone please teach me sitar

Ustad Vilayat Khan (1928-2004) was one of the greatest sitar players of the 20th century, praised as Bharat Sitar Samrat (“India’s Emperor of the Sitar” in Sanskrit) and Aftaab-e-Sitar (“Sun of the Sitar” in Persian). In this 1976 recording, he is playing Alhaiya Bilawal, a morning raga. He is accompanied on tabla by Pandit Kishan Maharaj (1923-2008).

For the past year or so, I’ve been listening increasingly often to Indian classical music, and I’d say about 60% of the music I listen to now is Indian classical. Usually, I listen to South Indian classical music (called Carnatic music), because that’s what I learn and play on my violin. Yet, for some reason, ever since I started college, North Indian classical music (aka Hindustani music) has had an increased presence in my life.

Aside from learning tabla for a couple months when I was in second or third grade, my experience with Indian classical music has almost completely centered around the Carnatic tradition. However, being in my university’s South Asian music ensemble has changed that; we have a sarangi player and a tabla player, and we’ve been working on a variety of Hindi / North Indian songs. Additionally, a couple of guest artists have come and given lecture-demonstrations for the ensemble, including Portland-based sitarist Josh Feinberg and the first all-female Indian classical music and dance group, SAKHI (who came and talked to us the day after they performed at Carnegie Hall!).

Coming from a Carnatic background, being exposed to so much Hindustani music has been like meeting a distant cousin who speaks the same language as you, but with a very different accent. Carnatic music (karnataka sangeetam) and Hindustani music (hindustani sangeet) are the two distinct traditions that make up Indian classical music. They share a common ancestor, but while Carnatic music, just like medieval South India in general, remained relatively untouched by foreign influences, Hindustani music emerged as a distinct style in North India due to various Muslim invasions that began in the 12th century or so, bringing Persian and Arab influences into India.

Listening to Carnatic music and Hindustani music today, it is obvious that they are very distinct musical traditions. To begin with, they use different instruments. The sitar and sarangi are the stringed instruments of choice in Hindustani music; Carnatic music uses the violin and veena. Also, although they share some common ragas (melodic scales), the way in which ragas are sung or played is very different for each tradition. For example, during the opening improvisation of a raga (the Hindustani alaap and the Carnatic alapana), Hindustani artists tend to rely on slow, meditative phrases, dwelling on single notes for extended periods of time, while Carnatic musicians place a much greater emphasis on complex oscillations between different notes. I might have been previously biased towards Carnatic music, but now I honestly can’t say I prefer one style over the other.

All of this was basically just to say: I’ve fallen in love with the sitar. Gone are the days when I scorned it as being too “stereotypically Indian” so I would refuse to listen to it (true story). Pandit Ravi Shankar, his daughter Anoushka Shankar, Ustad Vilayat Khan, Ustad Shahid Parvez, Josh Feinberg, and many other sitarists have shown me the light. It’s such a beautiful and complex instrument and yeah, I love my violin, but… if someone’s feeling particularly generous and wants to buy me a sitar that would be a pleasant surprise.

Thanks for reading — hope you enjoy the Vilayat Khan recording!