At the grave of Tansen in Gwalior, there stands a tamarind tree. It is believed that if you pluck a leaf from that tree and eat it, your voice will become sonorous - just like the Mughal-era maestro’s. Few places in the world can boast of nurturing a musical legacy like Madhya Pradesh. The state has been producing one great artist after another for centuries now. Maybe it’s the air or water or perhaps (as believed by some) the quality of the tamarind leaves, that makes the voices of its musicians resound through the ages.
Madhya Pradesh’s association with music can be traced to medieval times. Two of medieval India’s most legendary singers, Tansen and Baiju Bawra were from Gwalior. Legend has it that Tansen could light oil lamps on fire and Baiju Bawra could melt stone through his intricate renditions of ragas. Tansen is also credited with founding the Gwalior gharana or musical dynasty that even today continues the tradition of creating great music.
Over the years, new musical traditions came into being and flourished in this state that admired and nurtured the craft of its musicians. As of today, Madhya Pradesh is home to four of the greatest gharanas of Hindustani classical music - Maihar gharana, Gwalior gharana, Senia gharana and Indore gharana. And among these, the most well-known ones are the gharanas of Maihar and Gwalior. The Maihar gharana has given the world luminaries like sitar legend Ravi Shankar, flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia, and sarod maestro, Allaudin Khan. The Gwalior Gharana has produced great artists like Veena Sahasrabuddhe, Malini Rajurkar, DV Paluskar, Kumar Gandharva and Mukul Shivputra.
The state’s contribution to the landscape of Indian music has not ceased even in the 20th and 21st centuries. Some of the biggest names of the Indian music industry that have enthralled generations and generations such as Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar are originally from Madhya Pradesh.
One explanation that can be offered for the veritable cornucopia of talent produced by the state is the fact that many musical festivals are held here that still honour musicians and celebrate music. Some of the well-known ones are the Allauddin Sangeet Samaroh, a three-day music festival held every February in the town of Maihar, dedicated to the doyen of the Maihar gharana, Ustad Allaudin Khan, and the Amir Khan Festival held in January at Indore, dedicated to Ustad Amir Khan who founded the Indore Gharana.
But the crown jewel of the musical calendar in Madhya Pradesh, and undoubtedly its most famous musical event, is the Tansen Sangeet Samaroh. The festival has grown under the patronage of the government into an international music celebration. Every year, the festival is held near the tomb of Tansen in Gwalior in December. One of the most prestigious prizes in Indian classical music - the Rashtriya Tansen Samman is awarded to a musician at the fest. Some of the artists who’ve won this in the past include Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, Malini Rajurkar, and Grammy award winner, Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. In 2017, it was awarded to Hindustani classical vocalist Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar. Some of the artists who performed at Tansen Sangeet Samaroh 2017 are - Anup Jalota, Pandit Bhajan Sopori, Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar, Shubhendra Rao, Javed Usmani, Afzal Hussain, Kalpana Jhorkar, Vinayak Shukla, Vijay Gupta Seth, Kaivalya Kumar Gurav and Sunanda Sharma, to name just a few.
So plan a trip to Gwalior this year and let Hindustani classical music mesmerise you. And while you’re here, do not forget to eat a leaf or two from the famous tamarind tree.
In India, whether you know anything about Hindustani classical music or not, you’ve definitely heard of Tansen. Every time someone on the Metro gets carried away and starts singing along to the music they’re listening to, an irritated co-passenger is bound to snap “Apne aap ko Tansen samaj rakha hai kya?” (Who do you think you are? Tansen?). In popular culture, he’s as synonymous with music as Einstein is with intelligence. Except unlike Einstein, Tansen is from the 16th century.
As it happens with historical figures, facts about Tansen’s life are mixed with fiction. What we do know is that Tansen was born Ramtanu Misra in 1493 or 1506 to a Hindu family in the northwest region of modern Madhya Pradesh. He spent most of his adult life in the court of the king of Rewa State, Ram Chand. His fame caught the attention of Mughal Emperor Akbar, who sent messengers to Ram Chand requesting Tansen to join the musicians at the Mughal court. When he was nearly 60, Tansen joined the emperor’s court and was named one of Akbar’s Navaratnas (nine jewels). He enjoyed Akbar’s patronage till his death in 1586 or 1589. His compositions inspired and shaped Hindustani classical music, and almost all Hindustani gharanas (regional music schools) claim some connection with his lineage.
More than the facts about his life, it’s the stories about his musical genius that are more well-known. How his Malhar Raga brought rain or how flowers bloomed when he sang Bahar. Some say lamps lit up when he sang the now forgotten Deepak Raga and that once he tamed a wild elephant with just his music. Legend has it that Bilaskhani Todi Raga was created by the grief-stricken son of Tansen, Bilas Khan, at his father’s wake, and that the corpse moved one hand as if approving of the new melody. Nowadays, a tamarind tree grows over his grave, and it is believed that whoever eats the leaves of this tree is blessed with a beautiful voice.
We’ll never know where the facts end and legend begins, but when it comes to Tansen, rather than looking at history for answers, it’s best to celebrate his legacy – his music. Which is why, in his memory, the Tansen Sangeet Samaroh is celebrated every year in the month of December near his tomb in Behat village of Madhya Pradesh’s Gwalior district. The musical event was last held between 21-26 December, 2017. Music lovers from all over the world gathered to pay tribute to the man who is considered the most illustrious musician of medieval India. The event was organised by the Academy of the Department of Culture and the Government of Madhya Pradesh. Artists from all over India were invited to pay homage to the great maestro with their performances. The prestigious Rashtriya Tansen Samman musical award is given to an artist who has made valuable contributions to the field of Hindustani classical music. In 2017, it was awarded to Hindustani classical vocalist Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar.
Wondering how to plan a trip for the coming December? Well, Behat is located just 45km from Gwalior and the best way to get there is to either take a train or fly to Gwalior and then drive down to Behat. There are many comfortable hotels nearby, so accommodation is just not a problem. And it really doesn’t matter how well you know your Ragas because appreciation of good music needs no training. If you’re looking for an experience that can enhance your appreciation of music, there are perhaps few better ones than the Tansen Sangeet Samaroh.