1. Introduction to the music of the Mughal court

The classical music performed in the Mughal courts survives today in the form known as Dhrupad. In the context of contemporary South Asian music, Dhrupad falls in the tradition of Hindustani music, which is practiced in the northern portion of India, as well as in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and in the period preceding the Russian invasion, to some extent in Afghanistan as well. Hindustani music is distinguished from Carnatic music, the classical tradition of the Southern states of India — essentially where the Dravidian languages Tamil and Telegu are spoken, and particularly in the states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

Dhrupad music was the result of an extended interaction between two cultures — the Hindu Indian and the Muslim Perso-Turkish cultures — over a long period of time. In the pre-medieval era, India was an essentially Hindu area with a religion and culture codified most completely in the extremely sophisticated Sanskrit language. Music was an important part of a cultural network that included dance and drama as well, but because there was no notation of actual musical performances — only of the theoretical melodic and rhythmic structures called ragas and talas — we have no idea of what the music actually was. We do know, however, that music was integral to temple life and ritual, and that professional singers and dancers were usually involved in some sort of devotional activity related to the Hindu deities. Music was also a part of courtly life as well, but since in this context — as in most traditional societies — there was no distinction to be made between the sacred and the secular, and music was simply one part of a unified cultural-social-religious continuum.

With the coming of the Mughal emperors, who though Muslims were very much attracted to the artistic and philosophical aspects of Hindu culture, the art of music in the North was brought from the Hindu temples into a Muslim courtly setting, with the result that the emphasis shifted from a devotional context to a more virtuoso performance style, with connoisseurship being an important part of the system of imperial patronage. This interaction reached a zenith in the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great (1556-1605), under whose patronage the arts as practiced by both Hindu and Muslim artists flourished; for example, the singer Tansen was considered one of the nine jewels of his court, though many other musicians as well are listed in contemporary texts as part of the imperial retinue.

Because the practice of Dhrupad music — and indeed of most Hindustani music — is propagated through the oral tradition, we cannot be certain that contemporary Dhrupad is the same is that of the Mughal era. But certain indicators — particularly in the identification of the composers of Dhrupad lyrics as stated in the composition itself—ensure that even with whatever changes have occurred over the centuries, the Dhrupad tradition at least represents a continuum with the music practiced during the Mughal era.

It might be noted, in conclusion, that Dhrupad music is but one stream among the traditions of South Asian classical music, and that beyond the classical forms, an extremely broad range of religious, folk, popular, and theatrical music may be found throughout contemporary South Asia.

-- Brian Q. Silver

Music Resources: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13