One of Akbar's prized gems, Tansen was a musical maestro whose story walks the fine line between fact and fairytale. Nevertheless, his ragas are believed to have formed the basis for Hindustani music!
Tansen is a complex enigma in Indian history. The tales of greatness that surround his person include incredible anecdotes of elephants that were tamed by his music, rains that poured when he sang in raga Megh Malhar, and extinguished lamps that were lit by his rendition of raga Deepak. To top it all off, they claim he could produce any sound, from a lion’s roar to a bird’s chirp!
In fact, it is difficult to confirm which part of his life was fact, and which was a fairytale.
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Nevertheless, to many gharanas, or schools, of Hindustani music, Tansen is widely regarded as the one who started it all.
Some reports claim that Tansen was born with the name Ramtanu, to a prominent poet and musician, called Mukund Pandey. He showed an extraordinary prowess for music as early as the age of 6 and was taken to Swami Haridas, an accomplished musician, to learn the art. It is rumoured that his education in the arts took place in Gwalior.
Other stories claim that Tansen was born deaf and dumb, and it was only after he was blessed by a saint that he gained hearing and speech.
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Either way, popular sources agree that he spent much of his life as the court musician of Raja Ramchandra Singh. Here, he flourished, and his talent earned him the recognition of Mughal emperor, Akbar himself.
Tansen, who at the time was close to 60 years of age, considered retiring to a life of solitude, but at the encouragement of the Raja, was sent to Akbar’s court. The emperor bestowed upon him the title “Mian,”, meaning “learned one,” and he became one of Akbar’s Navratnas. You can read more about the Navratnas of Akbar’s court here.
His compositions are believed to have formed the foundation for Hindustani classical music.
His ragas brought forth melodies that are still sung today, and his legacy continues through his music.
Here are five ragas that are believed to be associated with the legend that is Mian Tansen. This is by no means an extensive list, but all these ragas hold a significant place in the myths that surround Tansen.
1. Miyan ki Malhar
Perhaps the most famous story which surrounds Tansen is that when he sang Megh Malhar, the skies would pour with rain. His alleged wife, Husseini, is believed to have sung this raga as an attempt to save her husband as he was being engulfed in flames. His own version of the Malhar raga is known as Miyan ki Malhar. You can hear a modern version of Miyan ki Malhar below.
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The tale goes thus. Akbar, who was enamoured by Tansen’s musical prowess, requested that he sing Deepak, the raga of fire. Knowing what would happen, he requested that all the lamps be extinguished. As he broke into song, the lamps lit on their own and engulfed him in flames. While he did not create this raga, it is said that his rendition had a special power.
3. Miyan ki Todi
A gentle raga, the Todi scale was reinvented by Tansen himself, leading to the name Miyan ki Todi. This rendition by the late Kishori Amonkar encapsulates the beauty of this Tansen creation.
4. Miyan ki Sarang
A raga which is part of the Sarang family, Miyan ki Sarang is generally sung in the late afternoon. You can enjoy an excerpt of this raga below, sung by Pandit Sharad Sathe.
5. Darbari Kannada
A complex raga, which is difficult to master, Darbari Kannada is best sung towards the evening. Its grave, contemplative undertones make for a mesmerising melody. The name “Darbari” itself is said to have been derived from Tansen’s time in court. Below is a version of the raga, as sung by Pandit Jasraj.