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The Musical Evolution of Lucknow

Credits : James Kippen

Volume: 10, No: 06 ; June-2016

The cultural legacy of Lucknow’s contribution to the development of North Indian classical music should by no means be underestimated. The crucial formative period for modern Hindustani music lasted from about 1720 to around 1860; and for much of this time one of the most important and influential centres of patronage for the arts was the city of Lucknow.


(Thumri written by Nawab Wajid-Ali-Shah and being sung by Late begum Akhtar) 

Virtually nothing is known about music in Lucknow during the first half of the eighteenth century. Initially it was Delhi that attracted musicians in search of court patronage but in 1764 the Nawab of Awadh, Shuja-ud-Daula, was compelled to forfeit a third of the revenue of this territory in return for which the British guaranteed Awadh’s security and independence from Delhi with a strong military presence and the posting of a British Resident to oversee military and administrative cooperation. Free from the restraints of Mughal domination, and with the security of this territory assured, Shuja-ud-Daula moved to Faizabad and opted to pour money into a rebuilding scheme that would transform the fortress into a bustling, fashionable city which ‘almost rivaled Delhi in magnificence; it was full of merchant from Persia, China and Europe, and money flown like water’

Shuja-Ud-Daula was also known to be fond of music and dance, and he promised to lavish his wealth on the pursuit of these passions. For example, it is reported that he regularly took musicians and courtesans with him on journeys. Thus, many courtesans, dancers, singers, and instrumentalists found this new and abundant source of patronage quite irresistible.

In 1775 Asaf-ud-Daula was crowned as the fourth Nawab for Awadh and turned Lucknow as the capital for the province. Thus musicians flocked to Lucknow from Faizabad and Delhi. Prominent among these were two singers, Ghulam Rasul and Miyan Jani, who had specialized in qawali, a Muslim devotional genre. However, on reaching Lucknow they began to specialize in khayal. Gulam Rasul and Miyan Jani did much to popularize khayal, and they provide us with an important link between qawali and khayal.

Ghulam Rasul’s son, Miyan Shori, continued the innovative trend by creating the vocal genre tappa, a light-classical from characterized by a constant stream of acrobatic flourishes and runs.

About Asaf-ud-Daula, it is said that he took dancers and musicians for hunting expeditions and spent excessively on events for example the wedding procession of his son and successor, Wazir Ali, in 1795. On each side of the procession, in front of the line of elephants, were dancing girls richly dressed carried on platforms supported by men called bearers, who danced as they went along. All these platforms were covered with gold and silver clots; and there were two musicians on each platform. The number of these platforms was about a hundred on each side of the procession.

Another very famous story concerning Ghazi-ud-din Haider and a celebrated singer of the day gives a taste of what things might have been like in the Lucknow of the 1820s.

Haideri Khan was a great singer who neither sang for money nor accepted the invitations of Lucknow’s nobility to perform. He insisted that any rich man interested enough to hear him should visit him at his own modest house, share his own cheap smoking pipe, and sit on his own rudimentary charpoy. This eccentric behaviour had earned him the nickname ‘Siri’ (‘Mad’) Haideri Khan.

One day the King, Ghazi-ud-din Haider, summoned Haideri Khan to perform at the court. When news of the inevitable refusal reached the King he was so outraged that he ordered the immediate execution of the singer. But the Prime Minister, Agha Mir, quickly explained the background and pointed out that it would not be in the King’s best interest if posterity remembered him for killing a mad-man who defied an order to sing at the royal court.

Sometime later the King was travelling through the city on a palanquin when one of his retinue recognized Haideri Khan en route and informed the king about him. The King got down and approached the singer, inviting him to come and perform at his house. Dressed in ordinary clothes the King was not instantly recognisable to Haideri Khan, and so he agreed. However, he was soon horrified to see that they were approaching the palace, and to learn that his companion was in fact Ghazi-ud-din Haider. He could not now go back on his word, and so Haideri Khan attended court and sang with a silver voice. Around midnight the King requested the poignant Rag Sohini. Soon Haideri Khan had his audience in tears. Impetuously, the King then repeated the request, but Haideri Khan refused. The King insisted that if he could not hear Sohini again he would have Haideri Khan beheaded! Angered but undaunted, the singer began to perform with such intensity that all present were utterly transfixed.

At the end of the sitting the King lavished praise on Haideri Khan and asked him to quote his price. Haideri Khan assured the King he did not sing for reward. A second time the King asked, and a second time the singer refused. Ghazi-ud-din Haider persisted a third time, to which the singer replied, “But you would not give me what I want”, hearing this, the King promised that he would indeed keep his word by honouring any request. “Very well then”, said Haideri Khan. “I would only ask that you never call me here again. If you die Awadh will have another King, but if I die India will have no other musician of any greatness”.

The last and most popular King of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah (1847-56), who embodied all that, was wrong with Nawabi Lucknow in the eyes of the British; not only did Wajid Ali Shah sing, dance and write poetry, he preferred the company of courtesans, dancers, musicians, and poets to that of his ministers and advisors.

In a way Lucknow had replaced Delhi as India’s most important musical centre. Several significant hereditary family traditions were represented at the courts throughout the period, in particular the Seniyas, musicians claiming direct descent from the great sixteenth-century court musician Miyan Tansen. The Seniyas specialized in dhrupad, which still predominated as the major form. It was performed either vocally or on one of two instruments : the bin (i.e. the rudra vina – a stick zither with two large resonating grounds attached to each end) and the rabab (a lute with a large, round, wooded body and tapering fingerboard). This was the time when Chajju Khan Kalawant and Jivan Khan Kalawant, both dhrupad masters specializing in the rabab, left Delhi to join the Lucknow court of Asaf-ud-Daula.

Towards the end of the Nawabi period the sitar seems to have become prominent. Initially it would have been used as an accompanying instrument, probably for dance, though by the mid nineteenth century Ghulam Raza Khan, who must have been a direct beneficiary of the non – dhrupad training of the Seniyas, had managed to popularize it as a solo instrument in its own right. He was also credited with the invention of a style of instrumental composition, or gat, bearing his name: the Raza Khani gat. However, it is not entirely clear whether Ghulam Raza created this style of gat himself or merely popularised it; nevertheless it became the predominant form in medium or fast tempo, and instrumental repertoire is full of melodies conforming to its sixteen-beat rhythmic structure.

Ghulam Raza was inspired by lighter forms, and the resulting compositions in his Raza Khani gat style. This style was ideal for light rags, such as those created by Wajid Ali Shah which were named ‘jogi, juhi, jasmine, or Shah Pasand’.

Though many ‘Ustads’ were not impressed by it but of course it was the nobility who were ultimately in a position to patronise music, and so their tastes helped establish and shape the new trend towards lighter music at the expense of more substantial and sophisticated classical forms known as dhrupad.

The compositions of dhrupad had always been accompanied by the large, barrel-shaped pakhavaj: an ancient instrument whose deep and powerful sounds are said to have had magical properties, and could, for example, subdue even a raging elephant. The pakhavaj is still used in dhrupad today.  Now dhrupad has been in steady decline all over India. Only a handful of musicians still specialize in it.

Nawabi courts were the courtesans, or Baijis as they are popularly referred to because of the addition of ‘Bai’ to their names (e.g. Zohra bai or Janki bai). The Baijis were women who danced, sang, and recited poetry. Member of Lucknow’s nobility even sent their children to the Baijis for schooling in etiquette as well as to learn something of the art, particularly poetry. Courtesans were an important link in the development of Hindustani music : though they did not have access to the dhrupad tradition of the Seniyas but yes, they did receive training from these masters, almost certainly in khayal. However, they were best noted for the semi classical thumri, (It was created by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah and an independent vocal form somewhat influenced by khayal by 1800, becoming extremely popular and pervasive during his time.) a vocal genre that also constitutes an important expressional and interpretive element in kathak dance, as well as the ghazal, a poetic form of melodies loosely based on classical principles.

Another genre that established in Lucknow, owing essentially to the nature of Shia Muslim was soz. Soz was started by Shias in India to keep fresh the memories of the martyrdom of the Prophet’s Family and was performed during the month of Mohurram. Based in serious rags and accompanied by voices giving the drone (no instruments were allowed in this style), soz compositions were performed by many great musicians at private gatherings or in the Great Imambara of Lucknow.

Just as Lucknow’s musical activity reached a peak under Wajid Ali Shah, so did the intolerance of the British who were bitterly impatient with the King’s blatant excess and incompetent administration, opted to annex Awadh. Wajid Ali Shah was sent into exile at Matiya Burj in Calcutta, and was never to see his beloved Lucknow again. Not that he would have recognized it anyway, since what followed annexation was to change the complexion of the city and its culture forever.

After a failed mutiny against the British in 1857, came up the new British policies that aimed at making Lucknow more easily defendable and thus governable. The large-scale demolition of vast tracts of the city was ordered. About a third of the population was displaced, and many places and aristocratic residences vanished, Musical activity came to a virtual standstill and the patrons of Lucknow music ceased to hold any music concerts because of the fear of the new regime under the Raj.

But soon, music-making resumed under the remaining members of the aristocracy who still maintained residences in the city. In addition there was a newly emerging nobility, the local landowners and tax collectors (zamidars and taluqdars), who were regarded as allies in the administration of the region. Thus Lucknow regained some of its stature as a centre for the arts, but never again to the same extent as during the Nawabi days.

Musical life of Lucknow was so intense that it could not be killed, rather it flourished behind the curtains. Then came the time when British too started appreciating the musical highs of Lucknow.  In 1926, Pt. Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande established a music school in Lucknow with the help and co-operation of Rai Umanath Bali and Rai Rajeshwar Bali and other music patrons and connoisseurs of Lucknow. This institution was inaugurated by then Governor of Awadh,  Sir William Marris and was thus named after him as ‘Marris College of Music’. In 1966, much after independence the State Government of Uttar Pradesh brought this college under its control and aptly renamed it after its founder as ‘Bhatkhande College of Hindustani Music. Later in the year 2000 it became a University offering courses in classical music and dance. The historic building of this University is in Kaiserbagh Palace Complex and is a part of the Wajid Ali Shah Walk conducted by Tornos. So aptly located in the home of the Last King, Wajid Ali Shah as if he left a legacy of music to remind all how great a patron of music he was.

Credits : James Kippen


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