10. Miyan Tansen

As previously mentioned, the singer and instrumentalist Tansen (or Tan Sen, or Tanasena), was the most prominent musician in the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. There are various mentions of him in writings of the Mughal period, so that his actual existence is itself a certainty. Distinct ragas said to have been created by him—Miyan ki Malhar and Darbari—are illustrated on these Web pages, while other ragas said to be of his creation include Miyan ki Todi and Miyan ki Sarang. There is also at least one Mughal miniature said to be an accurate portrait of Tansen.

One of the most interesting aspects of this now legendary figure is the manner in which he embodies the composite Hindu-Muslim culture of the Mughal period. While his name is clearly Hindu, the attachment of the Muslim title Miyan indicates both respect and affection (God himself is often referred to as Allah Miyan), and gives some credence to the possibility of his having converted to Islam at some point in his life. Tansen is said to have had two wives—one Hindu, the other Muslim—and of the three sons cited in historical accounts, two have Muslim names and one a Hindu name.

There are numerous popular accounts of Tansen's musical abilities. It is said that he could charm the beasts of the forest with his singing. Another story existing in variant accounts tells of how the Emperor ordered him to sing the rare raga Dipak—the raga of fire. Tansen, fearing for the consequences, demurred, but when the Emperor insisted and he began to sing, his body began to be consumed with fever. One version has Tansen having to sing immersed in the river up to his neck to prevent his being consumed by fire; another has him having to sing the raga which he is said to have created for the rainy season (Miyan ki Malhar) immediately afterwards to bring down the horrific fever generated by the previous raga.

According to contemporary accounts, Akbar's opinion of Tansen was so high that he insisted a procession of musicians, singing and playing the while, accompany the body to the graveyard in the manner of a wedding procession.

At least one of Tansen's sons—Bilas Khan—was also a musician. The story is told of how a number of musicians were asked by the Emperor to sing after Tansen's death, and when Bilas Khan sang his own new version of the raga Todi, the spirit of the deceased father was so pleased with his son's rendition that the head of Tansen's lifeless body moved from side to side in the conventional Indian gesture of appreciation; to this day, Raga Bilaskhani Todi is one of the most popular of morning ragas.

-- Brian Q. Silver

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