Millennium Post

When music is a way of life

It was in 1985-86 that then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was trying to create a new grammar for governance. In Rajiv’s schemes, culture played an important role. A vitalised culture department hosted a highly successful Bharat Utsav in the United States. Its success and criticism both prompted the government to host a similar extravaganza in different parts of the country, with Delhi as its epicentre.

My first brush with music in the national capital took place during this cultural festival – with Pandit Ravi Shankar and his troupe performing at Roshanara Bagh close to the Delhi University. By this time, Spic-Macay, too, had started to play a role in popularising Indian classical music among the students of DU, with icons like Ustad Bismillah Khan, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Pandit Jasraj, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, Pandi Hari Prasad Chowrasia and Ustad Zakir Hussain, among others, frequenting the campus.

Maurice Nagar, as the main DU campus is christened, buzzed not only with Indian classical music, as it could not just afford to miss the maestros of ghazal – Ghulam Ali and Jagjit Singh and somewhat lesser mortals like Pankaj Udhas, Talat Aziz, Peenaz Masani and Anup Jalota. This was also the time Rambha Ho Usha Uthup and Baby Doll Sharon Prabhakar straddled the stage with considerable aplomb.

However, this was not Delhi’s own music. Nor is the Daler Mahendi brand of Punjabi pop intrinsic to the city. Even Shubha Mudgal’s ‘sufi pop’ is nowhere close to what music meant to the people of Delhi – of the walled city and the villages which dotted the country side, though both derive their inspiration from Delhi’s traditional melodies. While
found a place in court of the later Mughals, the Lucknowi (Awadhi) influence on its lyrics and musical notes were profound. Delhi’s soul rested in the music of the dargahs (qawwali), gurudwaras (gurmat sangeet) and those of the temples.


According to tradition, qawaali has its roots in the Arabic word Qaul – the saying of the prophet. A qawwal is someone who repeats the words of the prophet and his singing is qawwali. Qawwalis begin with a prelude of the main composition played on the harmonium, thereafter the singers begin gently with the alap, builds steadily to a very high energy level taking both the singers and the congregation of listeners to a very high hypnotic state. There are 10 to 12 persons in a group of
with harmonium, tabla and sometimes banjo to accompany the singers.

The roots of qawwali can be traced in Delhi in the 13th century, when Amir Khusro of the Chisti Order decided to make the city his home as the disciple of Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia and called himself Amir Khusro Dehlevi, that is a resident of Dehli (as the national capital was called in medieval times). The area in and around Delhi is replete with the Sufi orders, the school of Islam which believed in music to be a mode to be one with the godhead.

Thus, in addition to the dargah of Nizamuddin Aulia, at least two other mausoleums of the sufi saints – Bande Nawaz Nasirduddin Chirag Dehlevi  and Qutubuddin Bakhtiar Kaki of Mehrauli –  became centres of
and sufiana kalam, though there are 22 dargahs of medieval saints in all.

There is also a colony of qawwals staying in the Suiwalan area of the Walled City. Around Delhi too, there are two major centres of sufiana kalam – Fatehpur Sikri, which has the mausoleum of Hazrat Salim Chisti and Ajmer, where the dargahs of Hazrat Moinuddin Chisti is located. The Garib Nawaz of Ajmer is known as the founder of Chisti order of the Sufi saints.

The depth of Delhi’s Sufi traditions found an exposition in Imtiaz Ali’s 2011 Ranbir Kapoor-starrer Rockstar. The film attributes the protagonist’s hypnotic obsession to music to the time he spends at the
of Nizamuddin Auliya.


Unfortunately, the hoary gurudwaras (Sikh temples) of the national Capital fail to conjure up the image of being repository of Bhakti (devotional) music. At several gurudwaras in the national Capital, of which 10 have been blessed with the personal presence of the Sikh Gurus, there are dedicated groups of Gurbani and kirtan singer trained in classical traditions. Gurbani means compositions of the Sikh Gurus. Gurbani is composed of two words: 'Gur' meaning the Gurus and their voice – bani. Gurbani singing is done through vocal performance of religious hymns –
– in the kirtan form.

Kirtan comes from the Vaishnavite traditions which prescribed music with devotional songs as the way for being one with the god. The devotional hymns are played to the accompaniment of tabla, harmonium, dholak and the ubiquitous kartal. In Sikhism, the musical tradtion – Gurmat Sangeet – can be traced to its founder Guru Nanak Dev. Sikhs refer to a hymn or section of the Guru Granth Sahib as shabad. The first shabad in the Guru Granth Sahib, the Mool Mantar (the hymn which has the essence of the Sikh philosophy) -- Ek Onkar, Sat Nam, Karta Purkh, Nirbhao, Nirvair, Akaal Moort, Ajuni, Sai Bhang, Gur Prasad
.  The hymns are arranged in chapters named after musical ragas. The shabads in any chapter are meant to be sung to that particular raga with due attention to tal (beat) and dhun (melody).

At Gurdwara Rakabganj near the Central Secretariat, is located the historical Gurmat Sangeet Vidyalay, where young disciples are formally trained into Gurbani singing and anointed a Ragi. Some of the more famous Indi-pop and Punjabi-pop singers like Daler Mehndi, Hansraj Hans and Rabbi Shergill have all had their training in Gurmat Sangeet.


The Bhakti culture of Delhi presents a unique mosaic of the Ganga-Jamuni traditions. The dramatisation of the stories of Ram – the prince of Ayodhya – is part of the north Indian folklore, especially in the areas of falling between mighty rivers, Ganga and Yamuna. There is also the tradition of playing the legend of Radha-Krishna, especially in the Braj area, south of Delhi. Ramlila is staged annually often over ten or more successive nights, during the auspicious period of 'Sharad Navratras', which marks the commencement of the autumn festive period, starting with the Dussehra.

Usually the performances are timed to culminate on the festival of Vijayadashami day that commemorates the victory of Lord Ram over demon king Ravana, when the actors are taken out in a procession through the city, leading up to a mela ground or town square. There the enactment of the final battle takes place before giant effigies of Ravana, his brother Kumbhakaran and son Meghanath are set fire, and coronation or abhisheka of Rama at Ayodhya takes place, marking the culmination of festivities and restoration of the divine order.

The staging of Ramlila is largely done through the recitation of the hymns from Bhakti poet Goswami Tulsidas chaupais (quadruplets) from
Ram Charitra Manas.
The story, which is staged in dance drama form, has an accompaniment of an orchestra consisting of harmonium, tabla, dholak, kartal and conch shells with a chorus and a lead singer.

The ballad format is adopted during the time of Krishnajanamashthami for the enactment of Krishnalilas. Despite modernisation and urbanisation, Delhi has not only preserved but expanded its Bhakti music culture through staging of Ramlilas across the metropolis.


Despite being maligned for being a ruthless city, this seat of power has always had place for spirituality, often expressed through music. Even in the modern times Delhi is playing a humongous role in promotion of music, especially the government agencies like the NDMC, Punjabi Academy, Lalit Academy and, of course, the theatre hub around Mandi House. Government patronage to the musicians continues in the traditions of the royal durbars of the yore. In the recent times, at least very famous pop band – Parikrama and Indian Ocean, owe their roots to Delhi and the latter the patronage it received from Delhi’s chief minister Sheila Dikshit.

In addition to the sponsorship, modern day Delhi has become home of musicians as it’s also the centre of music industry. Technology has helped growth of recording studios across the city and into the suburbs of Ghaziabad and Noida, which anyway had music mogul Gulshan Kumar of T-series as one of its first lease holder. 

Given the patronage of the government and also the corporate houses and the variety of forums that the national Capital provides, several reputed musicians of different gharanas like Raja-Sajan Mishra of Banaras, among others, have shifted base in the national Capital. Benefaction and tradition have helped in the rise of Punjabi-pop and Sufi singers like Daler Mehndi and Shubha Mudgal, who are progenies of Delhi musical traditions.  

What Zauq, the court poet of last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar said, ‘Kaun Jaye Zauq Chod Dilli Ki Galiyan?’ (who can leave behind the streets of Delhi?) still holds as good!
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