It was a pleasant autumn evening in Agra. People were shivering in the early winter winds and were huddled in warm clothes near bonfires as the days were still sultry and the evenings chilly. It was an evening for romance. An evening for a cup of coffee if coffee were known by those people. It was an evening to sit with our loved ones and watch a decent movie, if electricity was discovered then. It was late 16th century Agra. The reign of Jalaluddin Mohammed Akbar.
Suddenly the serenity of the chilly evening was broken by the tuneless singing of a Sadhu. ‘Ankhiyaan Hari darshan ki pyasi…’
The silence and placidity of the picturesque evening was shattered as if someone has thrown a pebble in a tranquil lake! People were intrigued and ran out of their homes to see this lunatic, who had dared to invite his own death! Didn’t he know about the Royal Decree about singing?
Tansen, the Royal Singer was a zealous guardian of the divine art of music. He was a puritan and hated a single discordant note anywhere. It was said that even the crows cawed musically in his villa, as even they knew that this is the abode of a musician. Once, Miya Tansen was traveling through the country and he came across a band of gypsies, who were playing drums and singing folk songs. Tansen had very delicate ears and was so hurt by the atrocious music and singing that he couldn’t perform in the Royal Hall for a week. His Highness asked the reason for the malady and the Royal Doctor explained that the problem is psychosomatic. Akbar was a connoisseur and a great patron of music. He flew into a rage and immediately decreed that no one is allowed to sing within the boundary of Agra City. If anyone dares, he will have to challenge Miya Tansen, the singer par-excellence, and defeat him in a singing contest. The loser will be beheaded, unless he is granted a reprieve by the winner. It was a cruel decree, but when did royalty cared for humanity?
The people were aghast at this folly of the singers. They ventured to see those daredevils. They saw a group of Sadhus, with the leader – an old ascetic with a small and frail child of 10 – singing lustily. What does a man in love with God care for another mortal’s decree?
Suddenly soldiers materialized from nowhere, swinging their spears and handcuffs and surrounded those band of Sadhus. The officer shouted, “Stop singing! You are arrested for violating the law of the land!”
The leader smiled tranquilly. “The laws of lands are written by mortals, Kotwal Saheb. But, we follow the laws of Him, who has created this land! How can we violate the law of land?” He laughed and continued singing in his tuneless and hoarse voice. The Kotwal was horrified. He knew that if he didn’t capture these louts, not only his job, his life was jeopardized too. So, the entire gang was arrested and were jailed, to be presented before the People’s Court, or the Deewan-e-Aam.
Overnight the news spread across the city and the morning saw a huge crowd present before Fatehpur Sikri, the new capital Akbar had built. A huge dais was built for the eminent musician and Dhrupad singer. At the strike of nine, the Royal Court assembled and Zille-Illahi, Jalaluddin Mohammed Akbar, The Emperor of the world, walked in. Miya Tansen followed him and sat on the raised dais. The prisoners were brought in the Royal Court. The small boy was chained along with them. The prisoners were read their crime and the task they need to perform if they want to live. The already lost game began. Miya Tansen asked a few questions about origins of Raag. The Indian Classical music is a family. There are five Raags, which are originated by the Nataraj Shiva and one by his wife Parvati. They all are married and have produced offsprings, resulting into hundreds of ragas. Each raag has a Vadi or foundation note and Samvadi or second base. It also has certain rules, which are stringently followed, for example, the G and D notes are banned in Malkauns, etc. Also, the ragas are time bound and reflect the mood of a person at a particular time. For example, Bhairav is played at sunrise and reflects the somber mood and Bageshwari near midnight and is romantic.
What do Sadhus, who just care for the name of the Lord, know about the son of Bhairav or husband of Shree? They were stumped and silent. Miya was disgusted and got up from the dais. He waved his hand and left. A wave of hand can be very significant when it seals one’s fate. It was just an irritation for Tansen, but it was the death knell for those wretched sadhus and that small kid. Akbar was horrified. He asked Miya to reconsider. Tansen looked ruefully at the motley band and whispered softly, “How can someone live without music? They should die!” and left. Akbar was bound by his Royal Decree. Everyone was condemned to death. The sadhu said to the emperor gravely, “He’s my only son and he should be allowed to cremate me.” Akbar was perplexed. Although he couldn’t bend his Royal Decree, but as the ruler of the land, he granted pardon to the small child on humanity grounds, provided, he leaves Agra before sundown.
The miserable child cremated his father, who’s only sin in the world was that he loved to praise God. Akbar himself arranged for a carriage to take the kid away from city boundaries lest he may have to execute him too, conforming to the Royal Decree. They left him in Mathura. 60km from Agra. The chapter was officially closed in Agra and the next day, Miya Tansen performed his famous Raag Darbari Kanhda, which was actually based on a famous Raag Karnat of Carnatic music. The world was fine.
The kid was left on a street in Mathura. He begged in the streets by singing the devotional songs of Surdas. He earned enough to feed himself. Once, Swami Haridas was passing through the city, when he heard a boy’s voice, singing the famous Dhrupad, which he had written in his youth, ‘Shankar Girijapati, Parvati Pateshwar.’ in a beautiful but untrained voice. He stood still, mesmerized by the timber and beauty of the voice and asked his disciples to bring the singer to him. To the uninitiated, Swami Haridas was the teacher of Miya Tansen.
The boy went with him to his ashram in Brindavan and started learning music in earnest. He was a prodigy and amazed the maestro himself by his talent and attuned ears. He had a natural talent for music. He was a strip of high quality and rusted steel, which was forged and honed by the great master into a shining and inimitable blade. He also had a roaring fire in his heart, which demanded satisfaction. Music is a panacea, but even that magic failed to pacify the lust of revenge in his soul.
10 years later.
It was a pleasant evening in Agra and and the streets were resonated by a baritone voice, ‘Ab mori raakho laaj Hari… ‘ . A sadhu was singing lustily, without any sense towards his facial expressions or clothes. Like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, kids started following him, followed by adults. The Nagar Kotwal came with his usual brigade to arrest this bearded young man. Even the soldiers were lost in the nuances of the magic which only music can create. The world stood still while That sadhu sang. He was reciting the virtues of love and God and suddenly he coughed. The spell was broken. The Nagar Kotwal came to his senses and apologetically arrested the mild faced ascetic, who didn’t speak a word.
Next day people were standing columns deep in the Deewan-e-Aam of Agra. No one wanted to miss this contest between the master and an obviously superior sadhu. His Highness arrived, followed by Miya Tansen.
Miya sat on the dais and asked the tranquil sadhu to explain the raag-parivaar.
“Bhairav, Deepak, Malkauns, Megh and Basant are the sons of Nataraj. They are all married to the daughter of Parvati, Shree. As they are all form of Mahadev, they need only one wife. Because, they are only one. Shree is Durga. So, they all are just a figment of male imagination, which finds solace in an all encompassing female. They are lost in Shree.”
Everyone applauded, including Tansen. They had never come across such a comprehensive explanation of Raagdari. Tansen asked many other poignant and deep questions, which were answered effortlessly. Tansen was perturbed. He realized that he had met someone who may know more than him about music. He was proud of his singing prowess, and knew that the entire competition depends on that. Akbar signalled for the live performance to begin to choose the winner.
Tansen picked up his Tanpura and announced that he will sing Raag Brindavani Sarang. He began the five note afternoon raag, which is ecstatic by nature. The wind waited to listen. The buds, who were ready to bloom, suddenly froze.
He rested his Tanpura and smiled triumphantly at the bearded guy, daring him. The sadhu lifted his Tanpura and started an Aalap in Dhrupad style. Miya Tansen was mesmerized. He had never seen such purity in notes. The wind, which was planning to leave, suddenly found a new stock of happiness. Tansen was lost somewhere, where he couldn’t find himself. Few deers, grazing in the nearby fields came by and started licking the sadhu’s face. Without missing a beat, he took out the Rudraksh garland from his neck and put it in one of the deer’s neck, and then he stopped singing. The deer suddenly came to it’s senses and scampered away, along with its brood.
The sadhu bowed to Akbar and said, “I want Miya to get me my Rudraksh, as it was my father’s, who’s dead. I’ll also be grateful, if he can sing Shree and bring him back later.”
Miya Tansen had never come across such talent. He lifted the Tanpura. He sang like he never sang before. He became a Tanpura himself, but no deers came on horizon. He was lost. The world knew now that the master met his match.
Akbar was in a doldrum. He wished that he could summarily reject the claim of this young sadhu and save his singer. He still tried to save him by asking the sadhu. “Can you bring back that Tasbeeh? It’s possible that they were stray deers and didn’t come here because of your singing!’
The sadhu smiled and sat back on his seat. He began Raag Asawari with a carefully kept C#, the favorite note in all morning ragas. Suddenly there were deers on the horizon. One of them had the garland of Rudraksh in its neck. The sadhu retrieved it and stopped singing. The deers ran away as if they had heard a thunderbolt. Sometimes, silence hurts us more than a thunderbolt.
The Emperor as well as the public knew the result. Tansen came down from his stage. Akbar stood up from his throne. He knew the Royal Decree and was aware that this sadhu can decide the fate of his favorite singer’s life. The sadhu was lost in the maze of his own soul, with his eyes closed. The lust for blood was roaring in his ears. He opened his eyes and saw the proud musician standing before him, without the fear of imminent death. Tansen was in a trance. He smiled. He was an artist and was thankful to the God that he was a witness to such a pure recital as the last thing in the world.
Akbar asked the sadhu anxiously, hoping to barter for the life of the singer, “Is there anything, you will accept for his life?”
Sadhu was silent for a while, then opened his eyes and said in a grave voice, “Yes. Please exonerate the public of your cruel Royal Decree. 10 years ago, it had cost a son his father and today it nearly cost an ascetic his soul in the lust of revenge. I hope that it doesn’t make anyone orphan again.”
A faded memory flashed before the eyes of the eminent musician, causing his proud head to bow down in shame.
Akbar hastily agreed, expecting more demands. The sadhu turned back and walked out. Akbar called out in amazement, “What’s your name?”
The sadhu stopped near the gate. He turned around, smiled and his soft voice wafted over the stunned audience…