Tansen (or Tan Sen) was a 16th century classical singer who sang at the court of Mughal Emperor, Akbar. What is known of him is highly contested but his name is synonymous with musical excellence in Indian culture.
Tansen was born around 1506 in Northern India. His extraordinary singing voice brought him great acclaim from a young age. He came to the attention of Swami Haridas, one of the great composers and musicians of devotional music, who became his teacher.
He then entered the court of Raja Ramchandra Singh, the King of Rewa, in modern Madhya Pradesh, where he was much celebrated and his fame grew. As Tansen’s renown spread, Emperor Akbar soon heard of the remarkable singer and summoned him to his court in Delhi. Reluctantly, in 1562, Tansen joined Akbar’s court and became subject of the comprehensive accounts written by court historians.
Tansen was one of the first documented Indian musicians to have introduced new ragas and compostions, invented instruments and written books on music. His role in popular culture has, however, always been as a singer with a divine voice that has melted the hearts of village girls and emperors alike.
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. Abul Fazl
Tansen in popular culture – The First Incarnations
Several Indian films have been made about, or with Tansen as central character. The narrative varies and none can be considered an academic appraisal of a historical figure, however each demonstrates the depth to which Tansen has entered the national understanding of musical virtuosity.
Tansen, directed by Jayant Desai was the first purely biographical film to hit Indian screens. It was the second highest grossing film of 1943 and starred K. L. Saigal and Khursheed Bano, both major stars of Indian cinema at the time. The songs were written by one of the greatest Hindi film composers of the 1940s, Khemchand Prakash with lyrics by Pandit Indra. Tansen’s story is portrayed in the typical narrative of broken hearts and class differences, along with a soundtrack of superior musicality.
Baiju Bawra, 1952
Baiju Bawra was an unlikely box office success, based around the rivalry between established musical virtuoso, Tansen and the young pretender to his musical throne, the eponymous hero, Baiju Bawra. Director, Vijay Bhatt and composer, Naushad intended to make a film centred around classical music, for the masses. Studios and backers were sceptical that the general public would pay money to see a historical drama with a classical soundtrack, but they were proved wrong. Renowned singer/actor, Surendra played Tansen opposite, relative unknown, Bharat Bhushan in the title role. Meena Kumari, who played the love interest, Gauri, considered it the role that turned her from actress to star.
The unexpected success of Baiju Bawra brought not only renewed interest in Indian classical music to the cinema going pubic but a revitalised interest in Tansen, beyond historians and classical music devotees. Perhaps it was the moment that cinema realised with a good film, popular audiences would not only appreciate, but love classical music.
Tansen (1958) and Sangeet Samrat Tansen (1962)
Tansen (1958) directed by Niren Lahiri largely fell into obscurity. Sangeet Samrat Tansen (1962) faired rather better and starred Bharat Bhushan this time as Tansen himself (after playing his rival in Baiju Bawra ten years earlier). Directed by S. N. Tripathi, Sangeet Samrat Tansen, is really remembered for the song, Jhoomti Chali Hawaa sung by Mukesh.
Later projects about Tansen
A 1977 film about the musician’s life went into production but failed to complete. However the song Shadjane Paya, written by Ravindra Jain and performed by KJ Yesudas, was recorded and released via YouTube many years later.
In the 1980s acclaimed Pakistani dramatist, Hassena Moin wrote a extensive biographical television series about the great singer for state-owned PTV (Pakistani Television Corporation).
We are waiting for the modern classical music biopic!
Orsini, F. and Schofield, K. (2015). Tellings and texts. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers.