Sangeet Samrat Miyan Tansen

During the reign of Mughal emperor Akbar (r: 1556-1605), the splendor of music in north India reached its peak. Akbar, known for his patronage of the arts, was not only a great ruler but also a talented musician himself. Abul Fazl documented a list of 36 principal musicians in Akbar's durbar, many of whom were from Gwalior. Miyan Tansen occupied the first place in this list.

Tansen is often compared to Thyagaraja in South Indian Music and Beethoven in Western Music for his unparalleled talent. Abul Fazl remarked that, "A singer like him has not been in India for the last thousand years."

Tansen at the Court of Sur Kings:

The Afghan Sur kings were also lovers of music. At one point, Tansen served the Sur kings, likely within the court of Salim Shah Suri at Gwalior (r: 1545-1554). His first patron was believed to be Daulat Khan Ujala, who was the brother of Baz Bahadur and a close confidant of Salim Shah Suri. Tansen composed numerous poems in honour of Daulat Khan. Tansen and Baz Bahadur 'a singer without rival' were disciples of the musician king Adil Shah nicknamed Adali (r: 1555).

Tansen at the Court of Raja Ram Chand Baghela (1555-1562):

Tansen was already an accomplished musician before coming to Akbar's court. He was the chief singer at the court of Raja Ram Chand [or Ramachandra] Baghela of Rewa (r: 1555-1592), who was a renowned patron of music, particularly Dhrupadas. Historians Karl Khandalavala and Moti Chandra suggest that Raja Ram Chand likely convinced Tansen to come to his court after the downfall of the Sur dynasty following Humayun's victory in 1555.

During his time serving Ram Chand, Sikandar Sur, a successor of Salim Shah Suri, tried to persuade Tansen to come to Agra, but the Raja refused to let him go.

Ram Chand generously rewarded Tansen. The author of Virabhanudaya Kavyam, a Sanskrit poem composed in 1555 by Madhava, a poet at the Baghela court, mentioned that "for every song and each tana and each dhrupad he gave a crore of rupees to this musician namely Tanasena, who was the embodiment of the art of music." According to Badauni Ram Chand 'gave in one day a crore of gold pieces to Miyan Tansen, the musician'.

Tansen at Akbar's Court (1562-1589):

In course of time, Tansen's fame reached the ears of Akbar. Raja Ram Chand was hesitant to send Tansen to Agra. However, in 1562, Akbar sent Jalal Khan Qurchi to Rewa to bring Tansen to his court. This time, the Raja yielded to Akbar's request and sent Tansen along with his musical instruments and various gifts to Agra.

"As the fame of Tansen, who was the foremost of the age among the kalawants of Gwalior came to the royal hearing, and it was reported that he meditated going into retirement and that he was spending his days in attendance on Ram Chand, His Majesty ordered that he should be enrolled among the court-musicians. Jalal Khan Qurchi, who was a favourite servant, was sent with a gracious order to the Raja for the purpose of bringing Tansen. The Raja received the royal message and recognized the sending of the envoy as an honour, and sent back with him suitable presents of elephants of fame and valuable jewels, and he also gave Tansen suitable instruments and made him the cheek-mole of his gifts. In this year Tansen did homage and received exaltation. His Majesty was pleased and poured gifts of money into the lap of his hopes. His cap of honour was exalted above all others. As he had an upright nature and an acceptable disposition he was cherished by a long service and association with His Majesty, and great developments were made by him in music and in compositions", records Abul Fazl.

Badauni remarks, "Miyan Tansen did not wish to leave him [Ram Chand]. Finally Jalal Khan Qurchi came, and brought him back to his sense of duty."

Tansen received 200,000 rupees for his debut performance at Akbar's court.

Jahangir, Akbar's son, also held Tansen in high regard. Jahangir noted, "Because the black bee is a constant visitor to these flowers [lotus and water lily], the Hindi poets consider it to be like the nightingale in love with the rose, and they produce marvelous poetic conceits based on it. One such poet was Tansen Kalawant, who was in my father's service and without equal in his own time — or any other for that matter. In one of his songs he likened the face of a youth to the sun and the opening of his eye to the blossoming of the lotus and the emerging of the bhaunra. In another one he likened the beloved's wink to the motion of the lotus flower when the bhaunra alights on it."

Shaikh Salim Chishti was also a great admirer of Tansen's music. Jahangir mentioned that, the Shaikh at the time of his death, wished to hear Tansen's singing.

Early Life:

We do not have any authentic biographical information about Tansen. His early life is shrouded in legend rather than historical facts.

The exact year of Tansen's birth is not certain. Some sources suggest he was born around 1530, while others claim it was in the 1490s or 1506. Tansen was known by various names such as Tannamitra, Tanna Misra, Ramtanu, or Trilochan. His father's name was recorded as Makarand Pande, Makarand Misra or Mukund Mishra, a Gauda Brahmin. In the Virabhanudaya Kavyam, Tansen is referred to as Tanasena.

Legend has it that Tansen was born with the blessings of the famous Sufi saint Muhammad Ghaus of Gwalior. However, Badauni's biography of Shaikh Muhammad Ghaus does not mention Tansen. The Shaikh passed away in 1562-63 at Agra at the age of 80 and was buried in Gwalior.

It is uncertain whether Tansen actually converted to Islam. While some claim he embraced Islam a few years after entering Akbar's service, it is important to note that Akbar's religion was not Islam, but Tauhid-i-Ilahi or Divine Monotheism. Tansen's name is not listed among the followers of Tauhid-i-Ilahi.

It appears that Tansen received his early musical training at the Gwalior School of Music, established by Raja Man Singh Tomar (r: 1486-1518). He even composed some Dhrupad compositions in praise of this king.

Contributions to Hindustani Music:

Tansen was a singer, musician and a poet. He introduced many new ragas such as Miyan-ki-Todi, Miyan-ki-Malhar, Miyan-ki-Sarang and Darbari Kanada. He was also skilled in playing the musical instrument Rabab. Tansen excelled in composing Dhrupadas, with many of his works dedicated to Akbar, Ram Chand Baghela, and Daulat Khan. Tansen is said to have composed three books: Sangeet Sar, Ragamala and Ganesh Stotra.

Death of Tansen (1589):

Tansen died in April 1589 in Lahore, causing immense sorrow for Akbar. Akbar ordered the royal musicians and singers to accompany Tansen's body to the grave, playing melodies as at a marriage. Akbar remarked that Tansen's death was the annihilation of melody. It seems that, in a thousand years, few have equaled him for sweetness and art!

It is said that Tansen's remains were later taken to Gwalior and laid to rest near the tomb of Shaikh Muhammad Ghaus. A tamarind tree stands near the purported tomb of Tansen at Gwalior. Singers believe that chewing its leaves sweetens their voice.

Tansen's Children:

Tansen had three sons: Tantarang Khan, Bilas Khan and Surat Sen. Tantarang Khan was also among Akbar's 36 leading musicians. Bilas Khan is credited with inventing the raga Bilas Khan Todi.

Numerous legends surround Tansen's musical abilities. It is said that his Deepak raga could light lamps, and his rendition of raga Megh Malhar was believed to bring down rainfall. The Tansen Sangeet Samaroh is an annual celebration held in December at Behat, Gwalior district, Madhya Pradesh, to honor the musical legacy of Tansen.


Great Masters of Hindustani Music By Susheela Misra

Imaging Sound: An Ethnomusicological Study of Music, Art, and Culture in Mughal India By Bonnie C. Wade

P.K. Gode, A Contemporary Sanskrit Tribute to the Musical Talents of Tanasena, the Greatest Musician of Akbar's Court, and its historical Perspective

Tansen By K.C.D. Brihaspati