Of tumultuous times and mellifluous notes

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Of tumultuous times and mellifluous notes

How a patron king and court singer changed the course of Hindustani Classical music

Of tumultuous times and mellifluous notes

Garje ghata ghan kaare ri kaare, pawas ritu aayi dulhan man bhaave, rain andhera bijuri darave, Sadarangile Mohammed Shah piya ghar nahi (The dark clouds are thundering/ the bride looks more enchanting when it rains/ the lightning scary and the dark night terrifying/My beloved king Mohammed Shah Rangile is not at home)

The Bandish composed in Raag Megh is more than 270 years old and was written by Niyamat Khan or more popularly known among Hindustani classical music lovers as Sadarang. He was one of the most prolific bandish writers and musicians at Mughal emperor Mohammed Shah Rangile’s court. His reign was from 1719 to 1748. If an emperor’s reign is to be gauged only by the wars he won or the conquests that he led, this was one of the not so laudable periods in the history of the Mughals. 
    
There are some conservative historians who have also called him the ‘Nero’ of Mughal empire as he led one of the worst setbacks of the Mughal empire sometime to the Persians, and at other times to Marathas and Sikhs. It led to the Marathas dominating for a while followed by Nadir Shah’s invasion of Delhi. The British could strengthen themselves strongly in the country also due to his weak regime. 
    
However, history is not just about conquests and battle victories. It is also about the more subtle pursuits like arts, music, literature and its evolution during a certain period. His period is considered as one of the best times for language, poetry and the arts. Although many of his compositions were written in the praise of his King Mohammed Shah Rangile, his bandish or lyrics reflected many syncretic themes written in praise of Krishna, Shiva and Indian festivals like Holi and Diwali. His name Sadarang was derived from the sobriquet that was used for the king ‘Sadarangile’ or the ever joyous one. 
    
From the standpoint of Hindustani classical music the credit for popularising the Khyaal style of singing goes to Sadarang. As compared to the more regimented classical dhrupad singing which was the order of the day, the khayaal embellished the ragas in a much better fashion. The development of the khyaal generated a sort of poetic ethos in the classical music which also led to thumri; ghazal, tappa and taraana develop in the years to come. Naimat Khan Sadarang’s contribution to the khayaal singing hence remains unparalleled. 
  
However, while the courts were resonating and reverberating with melodious notes of Sadarang’s poetry it was a time of great strife and struggle outside. The lure of wealth and expansion during this period weakened Muhammad Shah considerably. In 1737 the Marathas, under Baji Rao 1, annexed Gujarat, Malwa and Bundelkhand and also raided Delhi breathing down his neck. In 1739, Nader Shah of Persia initiated a campaign against the Mughal empire and captured Ghazni, Kabul, Lahore and Sindh. He also defeated Muhammad Shah in the Battle of Karnal near the capital. The Persians ransacked Delhi between 1738 and 1740, hoarding precious stones, coins and treasures including the Kohinoor diamond, to Persia. 
    
If rumours are to be believed Nadir Shah was tipped off that Muhammad Shah was hiding the precious Kohinoor in his turban. Nadir invited him to a customary turban exchange ceremony to foster ties between the two empires. He exclaimed ‘Koh-I-Noor’ (Mountain of light) upon seeing the precious stone and since then it has been called the same. The diamond exchanged several hands till the British took it away with them ultimately. 
    
However, it is during the same Mohammad Shah’s regime when Urdu, which was previously only a ‘Lashkari Zaban’ or the language of the armies, gained popularity and was declared as the court language replacing Persian. Qawwali was reintroduced in the Mughal imperial court and it gained a lot of popularity in the region. While Muhammad Shah Rangile’s Generals may have not delivered him the goods on the battlefield in a different cultural front, Sadarang exceeded his performance. 
    
As per writer Aakar Patel’s article, he was described by the Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Music of India in the first line as the “pioneer of khayal”. His father Lal Khan sang in the court of Aurangzeb. Niyamat or Sadarang was made to learn Sanskrit and poetry from a scholar called Devdutta. A Kirana gharana composition in the Raga Shankara written by Sadarang shows his immersion in the syncretic tradition of the country. “Ad Mahadev, been bajayi payi Niyamat Khan Sadarang ke karam kar dikhayi (Show yourself, Shiva! Niyamat Khan plays his veena for you).”

Niyamat Khan ‘Sadarang’ died in 1747, just a year before the reign of his master Muhammad Shah Rangile ended. However, what he left behind is a treasure trove of Khyals and Bandishes that still embellish a countless Mehfils. Almost more than two centuries later, the King and his court singer are known more for their contribution to music than their conquests on the battlefield. Here is another in Raag Bihag.
   
 ‘Baalam re more man ki chite hovan dere, Hovan dere meet piyarva, Sadarang jin jaavo bidesva, Sukh nindariya sovan dere.’(Let my desires come true, let me meet my beloved, Sadarang don’t leave me for a foreign land, let me have a sound sleep sans worries)
    
The gharanas of classical music and their oral tradition have ensured that even after centuries, Sadarang is immortalised in the collective memories of the Hindustani music connoisseurs.