I was standing in front of the tomb of the greatest musician, Tansen. The cool breeze from the trees around brushed against my face. It was just a raised platform and the Tansen memorial was a simple structure made of sand stone. How could the memorial of such a great musician be so simple!? I wondered. The tomb was covered with sacred clothes like any mausoleum. My memory took me back to the vivid story and pictures from my history book.
Tansen was considered as one of the Navaratna aka nine gems of Emperor Akbar’s court. I had this love for Carnatic music on and off when I was young. I learned few kritis and was familiar with some of the greatest composers of yesteryear. It was during that time my history book had a page with painting of Akbar’s court. The Mughal emperor seated with a turban and rose held in his hand, his court filled with people of similar attire and Tansen too seated with a tambura in his hand and an unlit lamp in front of him. For someone who is familiar with seeing Purandaradasa and Muthuswamy dikshithar who are Hindus, dressed in a simple attire and carnatic songs written in praise of Hindu Gods; it looked absolutely new to see a musician dressed well and singing Hindustani music. And the story that followed captivated all my attention to him.
Tansen is such a great musician that through his music he can set things on fire and make the clouds to pour. Once Akbar asks him to sing Deepak ragam which will produce heat and set things on fire. Tansen is worried that the raga has the potential to burn the singer himself. He arrives to the court to sing deepa ragam. All the lamps are unlit and Akbar arrives at his throne. Tansen starts to sing the deepak raga. The court starts to get hot and people start to sweat. The birds that usually come to listen to his songs, fly away due to heat. The leaves in the garden start to dry up, the rose in Akbar’s hand shrivels. The lamps start to get lit and the flames start to rise. Tansen gets feverish and is dangerously hot. While the courtesans fear, Tansen has also trained and brought his daughter along. She starts to sing in Megh Malhaar raga which brings rain. Soon the clouds gather, it pours thereby restoring back the temperature to normal. Such was the power of Tansen! I was in completely awe with the story that it got permanently etched in my memory.
As a young girl I was totally impressed with his story. But until I visited the tomb of Tansen I was completely ignorant of his history. The tomb of Tansen is housed along with the memorial of the great sufi saint Muhammed Ghaus. It is the biggest in the complex and at first I mistook it to be that of Tansen’s. I was completely surprised to learn that Tansen was born with speech impairment. He was born at Gwalior to a well known poet in a Hindu family. I was surprised to learn that he was once a hindu vaishnavite too. When even at the age of five he was not able to speak, the parents bring him to Muhammed Ghaus. He, with his powers not only gives him the power of speech but also becomes his guru.
Tansen was originally part of the court of Rewa king. On one of Akbar’s visits he was so mesmerized that he requested Tansen to be sent to Akbar’s court. Not able to deny the request or rather for the fear of Akbar, Tansen was sent to his court. Nevertheless he went ahead to a wider audience and lives through his great compositions. Akbar then bestowed him with the title “Miyan”.
The Muhammad Ghaus memorial is bigger and at first I mistook it to be the Tansen’s tomb. People walked in offered their prayers to him and kept moving on. The outside corridor has beautifully carved jhaalis. Jhaalis are ornated carvings on the walls usually serves as purpose for air circulation. There was hardly anyone in the mausoleum. A mongoose family was keeping company as I walked around basking the sun through the jhaalis.
The cluster of pigeons fluttered by and the incense from his tomb whiffed by. I touched the tomb to take his blessings. “The tamarind tree behind you is as old as this tomb. Great musicians and people with speech disorders eat this leaf with the faith that they will also be able to sing as good as him”, said the caretaker. I looked back to see the tree which stood as testimony to time. The caretaker extended his hand for money in return for the information he just parted. Perplexed I got down from the platform.
The tomb and memorial are supposed to be constructed by Akbar among a lush mughal garden. Today there is a lawn filled with people. The entry is free and so there were pretty much people living there. Some taking naps, some having lunch, some having romantic encounters, some playing ludo, some to just cool off in shade. Apparently yearly once there is a music festival held here to pay homage to Tansen. But the place definitely does not seem to be maintained well. We don’t give much importance to art is a different thing. But he was not just a gem of Akbar’s court, he was the gem of India. His contribution to the world is huge and I wish the place is treated more as a temple than a leisure park.
Whiling away time at the grave
How to reach Tansen’s Tomb