Hindustani Classical Music: a Muslim-Hindu Orgasm

Tansen with the Emperor Akbar

A warm spring night in New Delhi, April 1979. I’m seated on carpets under a cavernous and brightly-coloured marquee set up in a park. Around me a no-less brightly-coloured crowd eats fried snacks, attends to straggling infants and periodically calls out approval to some particularly fine moment in the performances. A series of artists – bewilderingly many of whom seem to have Khan as their surname – take the stage and as the night wears on I’m wondering what I’m doing there. Suddenly, well after midnight, the stage is transformed in my eyes: a young man in dazzling white is tuning a dazzling steel and hide instrument and before I know it I am utterly captivated. It’s not a decision so much as a simple conviction that two hours later I know that this is the instrument I will one day play.
Rasa and bhava form the theoretical basis of Hindustani classical ragas. Bhava is the feeling inherent in the raga and rasa the psychological reaction, the ‘reverberation’ in the listener when confronted with one (Walter Kaufmann). Amjad Ali Khan’s performance on the sarod that night provoked such clear rasa in me that on my return to London I began immediately the search for an instrument and a guru to teach me.

Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, early ’80s

What made that performance so special for me is not easy to put in words. Nor is it much easier to formulate what it is that makes Hindustani Classical music so special for its fans around the world. What stands out for me – leaving for later its musical sophistication and spiritual significance – is that it is (like the Taj Mahal) the product of the meeting of two ancient cultures, Muslim and Hindu, which are widely perceived to have clashed throughout history. Fed by both ignorance and malice, there are today powerful voices encouraging re-engagement in that purported conflict. The story of Hindustani Classical music is a rebuttal of those views. 
For what was happening on that stage that night? The performer was a Muslim (khan is ‘lord’ in Turkish) while his accompanist on tabla was a turban-wearing Sikh and the third figure on stage, playing tanpura was introduced by a Hindu name. The audience was similarly varied. Nobody seemed to care what religion anyone belonged to, the music was paramount.

Amjad Ali Khan and Sukhwinder Singh

Back home in London I struggled to find either instrument or guru for three years and spent my time noodling along to recordings of sarod on my guitar. And started to read some history. The story of a seminal figure from the 13th century illuminates something of the mechanism that founded Hindustani Classical music as we know it today. The Sufi poet Amir Khusrau arrived from Persia to the court of the Sultan in Delhi, capital of the India’s first Muslim Sultanate. Tradition has it that he came bearing the three-stringed Persian setar (se =three, tar = string in Persian), the forerunner of todays sitar. He was also bringing with him maqamat or scales of notes widely used in Persian and Arabic music. What he met on arrival is poorly documented, with Sanskrit sources hinting at a long-established but disorderly system of ragas which perhaps retain strong echoes in today’s South Indian or Carnatic music.
The legend of Khusrau’s meeting with Gopal Nayak, Hindu court-musician to the king of Devagiri, spotlights an instant in the fusion of Arab-Persian and Sanskrit musical cultures. In order to reproduce Naik’s exposition in raga Kadambak, Khusrau is said to have hidden and listened to him for six days, until on the seventh he managed to reproduce Naik’s rendition. (Willard 1834).
This makes it clear that while the Muslim rulers of northern India may have arrived as conquerors, they were also employing Hindus as musicians. And while performers like Khusrau were introducing elements from the Islamic world, they were wide open to what they found once in India. No clash of civilizations there!


Over the centuries that followed other key figures emerge to illustrate the harmonious blending of cultures that took place under Muslim rule in India. In the sixteenth century Tansen was the most celebrated of the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s Muslim court musicians, credited with creating new ragas (and founding a gharana or lineage of musicians that survives today). Yet his guru was a Hindu, Haridas, who had given up all public performances before Akbar’s accession and confined himself to playing alone in a hut by the river. Legend has it that Tansen had to persuade the Emperor to accompany him under the cover of darkness to listen outside the hut’s walls.

A final example of the fluidity with which Hindustani Classical music treats religious affiliation before I return to its significance as music and as a vehicle for spiritual transformation. Skip forward four centuries to a towering figure of twentieth century Indian music: Allauddin Khan, who died in 1972 at the age of 110 and is said (perhaps with Indian hyperbole) to have been master of a hundred instruments. He was guru to many famous disciples (notably sitarist Ravi Shankar) as well as father of sarod-ist Ali Akbar Khan (who Yehudi Menuhin praised as the twentieth century’s greatest musician) and of a daughter – a musical legend in her own right – Annapurna Devi.

Allauddin Khan and Annapurna Devi

A Muslim father with a daughter named after a Hindu goddess? In what can only be described as ‘love jihad’ in reverse, Allauddin married his daughter to the Hindu Ravi Shankar and changed her a name. Up to her death in 2018, secluded in her flat in Mumbai (she gave up public performances in the early 50s) her reputation as the greatest of Allauddin’s discipes spread. Was she a Hindu or a Muslim? Hindustani Classical music was blind to the question.

The Taj Mahal is universally recognized to stand as monument to the genius of Indo-Islamic civilization. But in contrast to the one frozen in marble, Hindustani Classical music blossoms ever anew, welcoming elements from jazz, Western harmony and Carnatic music, into the formal raga structures. To listen today to sitarist Niladri Kumar (Hindu) perform with tabla-maestro Zakir Hussein (Muslim) is to hear the elaborated echo of Amir Khusrau in Delhi all those centuries ago, an antidote to the poison being spread by fundamentalist religious zealots.

Re-tracing these steps through history I’m aware of a deeper level to my appreciation of this music. Here are the reported words of Haridas to his disciple,Tansen::

“Soon you will transcend the small music, the boys, toys and noise stage. By being aware of the mind acutely, how it creates and promotes shadows – the personality, you will be freed of it and its impulsive reactions. The mask will have less and less hold on you.
Once even that will be but a faint memory, the Big Music will claim you, and from that moment on you will not conceptualize any music. Just a no-sound orchestra will be left.”

And these are those of Osho, who went several times to meet Baba Allauddin Khan, and when asked if he knew of any musician who had attained enlightenment through music, replied that right at the end of his life, while playing the sarod, Baba had indeed become enlightened:

 “In the East, music has always been accepted as a spiritual phenomenon ……..A musician can easily become a meditator, he is very close. There is nothing closer to meditation than music — wordless, meaningless, but tremendously significant. It says nothing but shows much, expresses nothing but brings to you a great splendor. From musician move towards the mystic. The day your music consists only of silence, you have arrived home.” ( The Great Pilgrimage from Here to Here #21)

It seems that Hindustani Classical is not merely a pinnacle of human achievement by virtue of its melodic and rhythmic sophistication, its unique emphasis on spur-of-the-moment improvisation and the sheer virtuosity of many of its exponents. For me Osho pointed towards a truth that I must have unconsciously picked up that evening in Delhi forty years ago: that there was more to this music than the sounds.
As Osho puts it: “Indian classical music….needs a certain understanding in you… a deep understanding of sounds and silence — because music consists of sound and silence. It is not only sound, it contains silence in it”. (This Very Body the Buddha #2)

A digress into Indian spirituality and philosophy might be pertinent here but liable to be – if it is to cover three thousand-plus years of history – too lengthy. Enough to say that much of its vast multiplicity converges towards the OM, the primordial sound out of which our universe’s whole existence is said to have birthed. I sometimes wonder: that night in Delhi which changed my life for ever  – was I simply receptive enough in that moment to hear, in the silence between the notes, a faint reverberation of the OM? Are the transcendent moments that I’ve experienced in the presence of this music over the years since, the ones when the rasa in me was so open that I caught it again?

My first sarod guru, Ustad Gurdev Singh, with latif Ahmed Khan (mid ’80s)

I carried a great sense of familiarity, of coming home, when I walked away from that concert. I couldn’t possibly have put it in words at that time. I needed to learn ‘WAH!’ ‘KYA BAAT!’ ‘SUBHANALLAH!’ at the feet of my sarod teachers (Ustad Gurdev Singh of Punjab/London and Pandit Shekhar Borkar of Pune). These are essentially meaningless exclamations of pure joy from the listeners towards an action from the stage that transcends the normal and enters the divine. A twist to the melody perhaps, that decorates the formal structure of its notes with buds of blossom that remind you of springtime in Jodhpur, the city from which the raga being played takes its name. Or a pitch so perfect that a male voice descending in wavering loops of fairy dust down and down to the low SA (approx two ocatves below middle C) can hang there suspended like a sunbird picking an insect off a mango leaf.

Learning to play Indian Classical music has taken me most of my lifetime so far. And to hear it with enough rasa that it can carry me towards the OM from which it emerges is a journey that I’m sure will take me the rest of it. I’m in no hurry. The silence of which the mystics like Haridas and Osho speak is a metaphor, like all words they are forced to use to describe the inexpressible. I don’t want to put down my sarod forever; none of us want to live in a world of pure silence – just live in this world with an absence of the mind’s noise, the chatter from ego.

The meeting between the worlds of Islam/Persia and Hindu/tribal India must have happened at a moment of extreme rasa on the part of conqueror and conquered (not always a clear a distinction in the long run, in India especially). It is my hope that contemporary Hindustani Classical music, one of the greatest products of that meeting, will find its worldwide audience as receptive and open as its originators were all those centuries ago and as I was that night in Delhi.