Who really was Miyan Tansen, the singer who could ‘start a fire with his music’?

The 16th century singer still remains an enigma.

The first six Mughal rulers of India prized learning and culture, and, above all, the art of miniature painting. While Humayun took the initial steps to develop this branch, it was Akbar who laid the actual foundations of a proper school of this art form. The city built by Akbar at Fatehpur Sikri was the ideal locale for a community of craftsmen and aesthetes devoted to the pursuit of the arts.

That remarkable chronicler of the times, Abul Fazl, has in his two works, the Akbar Namah and the Aini Akbari, left us a faithful account of the varied interests of Akbar’s court. Akbar attracted a wealth of talent. The Aini Akbari has a special chapter on the art of painting and mentions Akbar’s personal interest in the atelier at his court. The master painters were the two Persians, Abdus Samad and Mir Sayyid Ali; the rest of the artists were mainly Hindus. The painters concentrated on two branches of the art of miniature: book illustration and portraiture. In drawing a portrait, the artist’s primary concern was to seize a likeness. Thus we have a pictorial record of the Nine Jewels who added lustre to Akbar’s court. The most renowned among these was the musician Tansen. In the Aini Akbari, there is an entire chapter on imperial musicians.

“I cannot sufficiently describe the wonderful power of this talisman of knowledge (music). It sometimes causes the beautiful creatures of the harem of the heart to shine forth on the tongue, and sometimes appears in solemn strains by means of the hand and the chord. The melodies then enter through the window of the ear and return to their former seat, the heart, bringing with them thousands of presents. The hearers, according to their insight, are moved to sorrow or to joy. Music is thus of use to those who have renounced the world and to such as still cling to it.

His Majesty pays much attention to music, and is the patron of all who practise this enchanting art. There are numerous musicians at court, Hindus, Iranis, Turanis, Kashmiris, both men and women. The court musicians are arranged in seven divisions, one for each day in the week. When His Majesty gives the order, they let the wine of harmony flow, and thus increase intoxication in some, and sobriety in others.”  

Abul Fazl goes on to describe the principal musicians of the court and pays a tribute to Tansen: “Miyan Tansen, of Gwalyar. A singer like him has not been in India for the last thousand years.”


The date of Tansen’s birth is not certain. But there is a legend that he died before Akbar, for a doha supposed to have been composed by the emperor himself says:

Pithala so majlis gai, Tansen so rag
Hasibo ramibo bolibo, gayo Birabara satha

Social life disappeared with Pithala; music disappeared with Tansen
And laughter, repartee and conversation with Birbal.

It is difficult to reconstruct Tansen’s early life and career because the biographical material which is available to us is so meagre. Badaoni in his Muntakhabu’t Tawarikh mentions Tansen’s apprenticeship to Muhamed Adil (popularly known as Adali), who was an accomplished dancer. He also says that Tansen was in the service of Raja Ramchand of Bandhogarh (Rewa) who appreciated his musical gifts and showered gold on him.

The background of Tansen’s departure from the service of Raja Ramchand to join Akbar’s court is recounted by Abul Fazl in the Akbar Namah.

“As the fame of Tansen, who was the foremost of the age among the Kalawants of Gwalior, came to the royal hearing and it was reported that he mediated going into retirement and that he was spending his days in attendance of Ramchand, the Raja of Pannah. His Majesty ordered that he should be enrolled among the court musicians. Jalal Khan Qurchi, who was a favourite servant, was sent with a gracious order for the purpose of bringing Tansen. The Raja received the royal message and recognised the sending of the envoy as an honour, and sent back with him suitable presents of elephants of fame and valuable jewels, and he also gave Tansen suitable instruments and made him the cheekmole of his gifts. In this year, Tansen did homage and received exaltation. His Majesty was pleased and poured gifts of money into the lap of his hopes. His cap of honour was exalted above all others. As he had an upright nature and an acceptable disposition he was cherished by a long service and association with His Majesty and great developments were made by him in music and compositions.”  

From the emperor’s mouth

There are also incidental references in the records of the time to the musical contests in which Tansen participated and to the hostility which he had to face from orthodox circles. In his memoirs Jehangir writes warmly of Tansen. He says, “There has been no singer like him in any time or age. In one of his compositions he has likened the face of a young man to the sun and the opening of his eyes to the expanding of the Kanwal and the exit of the bee. In another place he has compared the side-glance of the beloved one to the motion of the Kanwal when the bee alighted on it.” Jehangir observes that when the saint, Shaikh Salim Chishti, was on his deathbed, he requested Akbar to send Tansen to him. After Tansen had sung for him, the holy man died.

There is also the legend surrounding the meeting of Swami Haridas, Akbar and Tansen. It is believed that Akbar disguised himself as a sadhu and, accompanied by Tansen, went to Vrindavan hoping to hear the sweet strains of Swami Haridas’s music. When Tansen sang, he committed a mistake with the deliberate aim of prompting the Swami to correct him. The Swami then sang to demonstrate the right style to Tansen, and Akbar’s wish was fulfilled. When Akbar sought to find out why Tansen himself could not sing as beautifully as Swami, Tansen’s reply was: “Your Majesty, I sing in the court of a mighty ruler, while my teacher sings in the court of god.”

Tansen of Gwalior (1585-'90). National Museum, New Delhi. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]
Tansen of Gwalior (1585-'90). National Museum, New Delhi. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

People came to regard this meeting as a historical fact and the dramatic episode even formed the subject of a Kishangarh miniature in the second half of the 18th century. When such legends surround the personality of a musician, it is only natural that art lovers and musicians should seek at least a glimmer of what the man was like. There is a portrait of Tansen in the National Museum at New Delhi. He is shown as a tall, dark man, with a sharp nose and a pointed chin. His hands are small, and his fingers, sensitive. He seems to be clapping his hands, perhaps in the act of singing.

The same attitude and features are reproduced in another portrait in the possession of the Prince of Wales Museum, Bombay. Tansen wears a similar kind of costume as in the first portrait: an atpati pagri, a jamah reaching to the ankles, a dupatta crossed over the chest and a kamarband to which a dagger is fastened. His lips are open, he seems to be singing. There are inscriptions in Persian and Hindi at the back of the portrait. The Persian inscription reads: Shabih Tansen Kalawant Az Delhi marfat Mahanath. This means that it is a portrait of Tansen Kalawant and that Mahanath brought it from Delhi. The Hindi inscription is more interesting. It mentions the name of Kalawant Tansen and adds a couplet: Raga Dipaka gayo, tethi marana payo (Tansen sang the raga Dipaka, and the fire ignited by his wonderful music consumed his body).

This article first appeared in ON Stage, the official monthly magazine of the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”


“Like what?”


A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”




“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:


This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.