The art that time forgot: Music from the lost past

For centuries, the courts of India's Mughal emperors resounded with the playing of Delhi's traditional classical musicians. Now their ancient art is dying. Andrew Buncombe reports
Click to follow

Even sitting right alongside him it was impossible to keep track of Shaukat Qureshi's fingers as they worked furiously on the two tabla. The left hand, resting on the larger of the copper-bodied drums, made use of all the fingers and the heel of the palm. He used just the first two digits of his other hand to play the smaller drum, rapping on the taut goat's hide skin. The sound was remarkable.

Qureshi, aged 26, has been playing the tabla since he was seven and yet he insists he has barely started to learn the full intricacies of his instrument or the music he performs upon it. "No matter how old you get you still have lots to learn," he said. "It's like the sea – you can never know how deep it is. Even if I was 80 I would still be learning."

He is part of a tradition that reaches back centuries but which is under unprecedented threat. A descendant of the musicians who once played by royal decree for the Mughal emperors who ruled large swathes of what is now India, Qureshi is one of a small but dedicated group of classical musicians living in a neighbourhood of Old Delhi and fighting to keep their music alive.

Against the competing pressures of Western pop music and Bollywood movie tunes, this group is struggling to ensure that the Indian classical music they perform – some of it with roots much older than the 17th century neighbourhood in which they live – survives.

"People are forgetting the classical music, they are going towards pop music," he said. "People cannot recognise the good from the bad. People have to go back to their traditions. Earlier they would give traditional music a lot of respect. There used to be concerts in the royal court and lots of music was played there."

The story of the classical musicians of Daryaganj and their battle for relevance in India's fast-changing culture runs parallel with the story of the crumbling and often neglected neighhourhoods of Old Delhi, established in the middle of the 17th century by Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor who also built the stunning Taj Mahal palace at Agra.

The neighbourhood of Daryaganj is a chaotic warren of bewildering alleyways and streets, filled with hawkers and food-stalls, rickshaws and motorbikes. In some places the streets are so narrow that even at midday you can wander into an alleyway and struggle for light to find your way. It remains an important residential area too, with small densely-packed homes built precariously one upon the other containing dozens of families.

Yet, like the musicians themselves, this part of Delhi has long suffered from neglect and want of proper patronage since the the last Mughal emperor Shah Zafar II was forced out by the British in the aftermath of the 1857 uprising. Historic havelis, traditional Mughal houses with central courtyards, lie in a state of advanced decay and rot. Facades are left to crumble while stunning architecture is knocked down to make way for cheap and hastily built shops.

While a lack of funds to maintain the buildings is undoubtedly an issue – especially for the residents – it is hard not to conclude that the authorities simply do not care.

It was not always so. Without exception, classical musicians, singers and Urdu poets played a central role in the life of the Mughal court, centred on the palace of the Red Fort, and they received patronage and support from the emperor. "The musicians were always an integral part of the court," said the historian Yunus Jaffery, a scholar of Persian who himself lives within the Old City, close to the musicians' neighbourhood.

Indian classical music is quite different from its counterpart in the West. Dating back to the Vedas, the ancient Hindu texts, it is based upon ragas or scales that reflect mood and feeling. There are countless different ragas, some selected specifically for a particular time of year. Traditionally, the music consists of a single melody line played over a constant drone, often provided by an instrument such as the harmonium. The results can be hypnotic.

While such sounds were once at the very centre of the Mughal court, when that dynasty came to an end such patronage was dramatically halted and a way of life came to an end.

The historian William Dalrymple writes in his exhaustive study of the final years of the empire, The Last Mughal: "The demise of the [Emperor] and his court was something that could only cast a cloud over the whole of Delhi, much of whose prosperity and patronage derived directly or indirectly from the Red Fort. With the end of the Mughals, many in the city would find themselves out of a job: the courtiers and civil servants, the jewellers and silversmiths, the cooks and palanquin bearers, the guards and eunuchs, the musicians and dancing girls. None could expect employment under British rule."

In such circumstances it is all the more impressive that Delhi's traditional musicians, organised as a collective or gharana, have survived and that so many of them continue to make a living through music.

Zameer Ahmad, a harmonium player and fine singer of ghazals or Urdu couplets, teaches music to classes of attentive students at Delhi's Jamia Milia University. He said the narrow house in which he lives in Daryaganj was one of 72 properties that were given as a gift – along with an elephant – by the final emperor to a famous relative for his services as a court musician. For all the challenges it faces, he remains convinced that the traditional music will survive.

"There is still respect for classical music," said the teacher, who has ensured that his children are also all skilled musicians. "There are other forms that have come but we know we have to go back to our roots.

"The traditional music is difficult to learn. It is passed on by the families, but the next generation pick up other things as well, such as a guitar." His son, Zeeshan, 20, also a singer, said: "Anyone who wants to learn music has to learn the roots."

Another resident of Daryaganj, Afzal Zahoor, a violinist with wiry hair and a broad smile, also manages to make his living from music, accompanying other performers of various classical and religious forms in concerts across the city and further afield. Not everyone is so fortunate, however. Many of the musicians have to perform movie songs and popular tunes at weddings and other parties in order to survive.

"The other music creates a lot of pressure on classical music," said Zahoor, putting his instrument to his chin and tightening a tuning peg. "[But] musicians have been living [in this neighbourhood] for centuries. The atmosphere makes a lot of difference. If we have to go away for something, we know we can come back here at any time and practice together."

Such a concentration of musicians means the streets of Daryaganj are often filled with the sound of music. The musicians organise local concerts, but often people will simply hear the sound of singing or playing coming from a window or doorway.

"We hear the music in the street if we go to that street where the musicians live. It's relaxing," said Shalu Gola, a woman who lives nearby. Another resident of Daryaganj, Rajindra Kumar, said he had been listening to such music for more than 30 years but he said he believed its popularity might be declining, partly the result of people living more hectic lives. "It's got less. Day by day it's reducing. People have other things to do, people are busy with work," he said.

Dalrymple said he was not surprised to learn that the musicians of Old Delhi continued to thrive despite the challenges they faced. He said 20 years ago when he was researching his first book on India, City of Djinns, he discovered that many traditions he had been led to believe were a thing of the city's past, were actually alive and well.

"This is the extraordinary thing about India. You have Gurgaon (Delhi's Western-style satellite city) and the computer programmers and the call centres, but everything else continues as well," he said. "So you have the 19th-century colonels walking in Lodhi Gardens, you have the Sufi singers and you have the Saddhus and their sanskrit going back more than 3,000 years. This seems to be the way it is."

On a recent afternoon, the musicians of Daryaganj agreed to perform an impromptu concert on a secluded rooftop with views stretching across the Old City as far as the huge Jama Masjid mosque. Setting off from Amhad's house, they dodged their way through the busy streets – Zeeshan, his younger brother, Monis, Qureshi and his tabla, Afzal and his violin and a harmonium player called Shakeel Ahmed.

Ducking through the entrance to a haveli which had long seen better days and the courtyard of which was filled by a huge, overgrown tree, the musicians climbed up a series of narrow stairways and made their way to the rooftop. On the roofs all around them dozens of young boys were busily battling with homemade kites, trying to force down those of their neighbours.

The musicians laid out their instruments on a rug and got ready to play. Zahoor's violin soared, Qureshi's fingers danced on his drums and Ahmed squeezed the harmonium to produce a low, droning sound. Within moments their music was spilling out across the rooftops of Old Delhi.