The Great Turk Genius Amir Khusraw and his Accomplishments in Music

Amir Khusraw (d. 1325) was essentially an eminent musician and is regarded as a great savant in the history of world music and a genius of unequalled stature in the history of music in the Hindustan sub-continent.

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Barbad Playing Music to Khusraw in a miniature.

This article was first published by the Turkish review Erdem 25 (Ankara 1996), pp. 161-174. The copyright of the article belongs to Erdem. We are publishing it by permission of Erdem's editor Imran Baba. Our thanks to them for giving their permission to us.

In the annals of the history of the South Asian Subcontinent, Amir Khusraw (d. 1325) stands out as a great personality of his time. He was a distinguished courtier, an eminent poet and chronicler and an accomplished musician. Much is known and recorded about his accomplishments. In the following pages, we will consider his contribution in the field of music.

Amir Khusraw was born to Turkish parents. His father, Sayf al-Din Mahmud, was a distinguished soldier who, after his arrival in Delhi, became an army officer under Sultan Shams al-Din Iltutmish (1211-1236 C.E.). Khusraw was born in 651 A.H. /1253 C.E. while his father was in service at Patiyâlî (the Etah district, U.P., India). In contrast to his father who had come to Hindustan from the outside, Khusraw was born and bred on the soil of Hindustan and, therefore, he considered himself a Hindustani (of Hindustan) while also identifying himself as a Turk,- a "Hindustani Turk". He confirmed this in his two memorable verses that translate as:

I am a Turk but a Hindustani Turk and, therefore

I marvel in Hindi, and not in Arabic;

I am a parrot of Hind, and so if you want to appreciate me

Ask for and listen from me sweet notes in Hindi.

So much affirmation of his identity postulates that he was accomplished in the Turkish cultural tradition assimilated with the best from the local Hindustani environment. Nowhere was this synthesis more pronounced than in his accomplishments in music.

Amir Khusraw's name is a legend in the history of Hindustani music. His creative contribution was so great that both the written record as well as the oral tradition have continued to extol him to this day as a genius who stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries and whose like was not born during the course of the subsequent centuries. He is generally regarded as the herald of a new era in the history of the 'Classical Hindustani Music' as it is known and understood to this day.

In spite of all this applause and recognition and the continued commemoration of his name through the centuries, Amir Khusraw's real contribution in music is not, and cannot be, fully known for want of adequate authentic record. He had written three volumes on music and had these survived, we would have been surer of his specific contributions to the theory and practice of music. What is known now is but incidental to his writings on other subjects except for his brief but brilliant discourse on music that, being a primary source of authentic information is of great value in understanding Amir Khusraw's ideas on music.

The Second Section in the Third Treatise of his monumental work on rhetoric and exposition of literary style, entitled Rasâ'il al-I'jaz[2], is the subject of a 'Discourse on differentiation in the fundamental and the subsidiary principles of music' ('Inshi'âb 'Usûl wa Furû'-i Mûsîquî). Though the Discourse primarily aims at producing a piece of creative prose in music terminology, it simultaneously throws into bold relief the perspective that has given birth to it. It was Amir Khusraw's intimate knowledge of the historical development of music and his actual experience of the contemporary music scene that inspired this Discourse. Each term and phrase representing a music figure, concept, technique or form is used artistically to produce music panorama in words. The author does not stop to explain the significance of any term or phrase which he uses, he takes it for granted that his reader understands the musical concepts underlying the terms used by him. For without such an understanding, his excellence and accomplishment in terms of professional knowledge and mastery in music can hardly be appreciated.

The most important by-product of this superb exercise in artistic expression is the music panorama that it creates and which brings to light both the background of the previous music tradition and also the contemporary achievements. As such, this Discourse which was under composition on 7th Shawwal, 716 A.H. (beginning of January 1317 C.E.), becomes, in effect, an important document on the historical development of music in the sub-continent by the turn of the 14th century C.E.

Among others, the Discourse contains significant observations on

(i) the nature and theory of music

(ii) the past tradition

(iii) the contemporary scene and practice

(iv) the level of achievement in technique and performance

(v) the need for further education.

Theory and Nature of Music

The main observations on the fundamentals of music are as follows:

Music is a science ('ilm), very vast in scope, and extremely technical in nature. The subtleties of this science are too delicate to be mastered by an individual. Its principles were defined early by the learned men of Rum (i.e. Greek/Byzantine philosophers). The theory of the rhythmic modes ('ilm-i 'usûl) is important: the 'usûl extending to four, pardah to twelve, and ibresham to six: these are the basic ones, all the rest being the branch modes (furû) derived from them.

It is important to note that Amir Khusraw considered music to be essentially a science ('ilm). He has used the word 'ilm eight times in this Discourse in the sense of a 'field of study', 'a science', 'knowledge' and 'education'. The importance attached by him to the theory of rhythmic modes shows that according to him the science of music had essentially a mathematical basis. Long before Amir Khusraw, the eight Modes (usûl) of the Byzantine theorists and the eight Modes of the Arab-Persian system had already laid down a mathematical basis for music. Amir Khusraw's restatement of the 'usûl and furû' system of the fretting ratios was a confirmation of the scientific basis of Music.

A Qanun Instrument.

Knowledge of Music Traditions and Criticism

Amir Khusraw had an intimate knowledge of the music tradition of Hindustan and of the Arab-Persian system. Having been born in Hindustan and having a natural talent and aptitude for music from his childhood, he grew up with the indigenous system and mastered it thoroughly. As a personal and cultural pursuit he also studied the Arab-Persian system in detail.

(a) The Arab-Persian Tradition. To underline its historical continuity, he refers to the Greek/Byzantine theorists who had first defined the principles of music. Then he speaks of the great exponents among 'the Arabs and the Persians', 'the experts of Iraq and Isfahan', for their creative contributions in the domain of music. Among the Arab masters, he refers to the renowned musicians of Baghdad and Egypt. Of the Persians, he specifically mentions the two early masters, Nikesa and Barbad and the renowned contemporary musicians of 'Bâkharz and Nahâvand'. The name of 'Abdul Mumin is mentioned figuratively but he could be none other than the great music theorist Abd al-Mumin b. Safî al-Din b. 'Izz al-Din Muhyî al-Din b. Ni'mat b. Qâbûs Washmgir Jurjânî who had flourished during the Ghurid period in the twelfth century C.E. just 50 years before Amir Khusraw was born. He had written an important work on music entitled Bahjat al-Rûh during the reign of Mu'izz al-Din Muhammad Ghuri (1173-1206 C.E.).

Amir Khusraw's repeated mention of the pardah would indicate that he was fully conversant with the development of the Rhythmic Modes first mentioned by al-Kindî (d. 874) and al-Fârâbî (d. 950). The naming and manipulation of the rhythmic modes and fretting ratios such as Ibresham, Si-Pardah. Sarâ-Pardah, Dastak, Khafif, Usûl-i Thaqîl, Basît, Zîr-i Khirad and Zîr-i Buzurg shows that these were fully known in the contemporary music circles. The Melodic Modes, mentioned earlier by Ibn Sînâ (d. 1037), and their artistic performance are also referred to. From amongst the basic Modes, Rahâwî, Husaini, Râst, Bûsalîk, Ushshâq, Hejâz, Irâq, Sefâhân (Isfahan), Nawâ, Buzurg, Mukhâlif are specifically named. Subsidiary Modes (melodic/rhythmic) such as Zâwal, Khurasânî, Shârik, Nahâvand, Bâkharz and Marâghah are also mentioned.

Though well-versed in the Arab-Persian tradition, Amir Khusraw probably held a different view from the traditional 'doctrine of harmony of spheres' according to which music notes (naghmât) and melodies (alhân) originated in the movement of spheres and stars. It would follow from this doctrine that all music being co-extensive with the fixed movements of the Spheres, must conform to some set modes and stereotypes. Amir Khusraw mentions dawâir-i aflâk in this context but he makes a significant statement elsewhere that purports to mean than the world of man's creative experience is far more extensive than the limited scope of the Moving Spheres.

"In wise judgment," he says, "this Science (of Music) is more extensive in scope than the expanse of the Celestial Spheres because there (in the spheres) are only nine pardahs while here (in the human world) there are twelve."

(b) The Hindustani Tradition. Amir Khusraw was fully conversant with the indigenous music tradition of Hindustan. He was all praise for the high artistic talents of some of the contemporary Indian masters (Kalâvantân-i Hindî) but was very critical of Hindu musicians in general because their level of understanding and achievement was poor. They had learnt to perpetuate the centuries-old tradition through hearsay but had hardly any knowledge of the scientific principles. This needs to be explained in order to see the significance of Amir Khusraw's criticism.

The Hindus had an ancient and rich tradition of music going back to the early singing of the Vedic hymns. Having originated as a form of worship, music among the Hindus became sacrosanct and it was in temples that it developed during the course of centuries. The 'music forms' developed by the early rishis and the pundits in homage to the different deities came to be preserved as a religious heritage and handed down from generation to generation. The whole tradition, in its earlier oral and the later recorded form, was based essentially on hearsay, represented by the different legacies (mutts) ascribed either to gods (because of their very ancient origin) or to their early originators and perpetuators, both mythical and real. The different regions had their own rishis and pundits with their own locally developed, named and preserved music forms (râgas). In the different regional or institutional traditions, the 'same name' of a râga did not necessarily mean the 'same performance'. In absence of a scientific/mathematical basis, the ragas could not be exactly structured or defined. Not that scientific or mathematical study were lacking at any given period, these were highly developed in ancient India and yet it is a great paradox of the traditional Hindu music that application of mathematical concepts to it could not be conceived by the early masters. Sir William Jones writes,

"Let us proceed to the Indian system (of music), which is minutely explained in a great number of Sanskrit books by authors who leave arithmetic and geometry to their astronomers and properly discourse on music as an art confined to the pleasures of imagination."

This was mainly because music among the Hindus was sacrosanct and non-secular and as such, it was to be preserved and perpetuated as a sacred legacy of the rishis and sages rather than to be developed as a secular art permitting innovation or as a science subject to mathematical reasoning.

A Lute Instrument.

Amir Khusraw was the first to give his criticism of this aspect of the traditional Hindu music and of the Hindu musicians. The indigenous music tradition, though ancient and rich in variety, had lacked a scientific basis. The Hindu musician though talented was like an artisan who, based on hearsay, had learnt to copy by pattern and to reproduce faithfully the set models without any idea of the underlying 'principles'. In a significant pronouncement, Amir Khusraw observed:

It is the theory of the classical Greek/Byzantine masters to go by the underlying principles of this subtle science. They formulated principles to differentiate the fretting ratios. The Hindustani musicians hardly understand this, and are mostly ignorant of it. The poor Hindus have hardly any knowledge of the principles.

This criticism was not based on religious or racial differences, it was rather an objective judgement of an accomplished master who was anxious to emphasise and establish a scientific basis for music.

The Discourse, in its vivid imagery, depicts the contemporary music scene in detail. It presents a very lively and life-like description of the court musicians, organizers and conductors, individual peforming artists, expert instrumentalists and of the colourful music festivals.

(a) The mention of the symbolic names of talented musicians such as the late Khalîfa Husaini, Kâmil al-Zamân Badruddin, Kâmilât al-Zamân Turmtay-Khâtun, Khwaja Latif, Qawwâl, Daud Jabali, Sha'ban Qamari etc... and references to expert instrumentalists (sâzindgân/surâi'dgân) indicate that there were a number of accomplished musicians in Amir Khusraw's time. As a profession, contemporary music had undoubtedly reached a high level of attainment. Speaking figuratively, the spring of music was in full bloom and thousands of nightingales were singing in the garden of Delhi in this music spring of Hindustan.

(b) An important contemporary development underlined in the Discourse is visits by the expert musicians from abroad. Due to the high level of local attainment, Delhi had become a place of pilgrimage for musicians from outside of Hindustan. Amir Rhusrau pays rich tribute to the professional talents of the Hindustani musicians (Kalavantan-i Hindi) who could very well compete with their contemporaries in any other part of the world: nay, they would excel and even instruct the champions elsewhere. The name and fame of these master-musicians of Hindustan had travelled everywhere with the result that some of the renowned musicians from outside, particularly from Iran and Central Asia, were now coming to Delhi.

(c) Most of the following musical instruments mentioned in the Discourses, were being played with great skill at that time: Barbat (lute), Tanbur (pandore/tambourine), Tanbur-i Zâwalânah (the Ghaznian pandore), Rud and Ajabrûd (psaltery), 'Ud (lute), Duff (tambourine), Nay (reed flute), Duhl (drum), Duhlak (small drum), Qânûn (dulcimer/harp/psaltery), Nay (flute), Shah-nai (clarion), Nai Nâi'rah (trumpet), Chang (harp), Rabab (rebeck), Mashkak (a small bagpipe (?), Âvlâvan (?), Nawâlak (?), Khistiti (?), Surfi (?) and Batirah-i Hindi (?). There were groups of specialists for each instrument such as Barbat-nawâzân, Nai-nawâzân, Rud-nawâzân, Changiyan, Rababiyan or Rabab-Suraidgan, Duhl-zanan, Duhlak-zanan, Tanburiyan or Tanbur-zanan and Churrah-bazan (?). The mention of Amir-i Ajabrûd, Amir-i Nai, Amir-i Changi would indicate that each group formed an orchestra by itself and had organizers/conductors of their own.

(d) A mention is made of the royal court musicians - the 'King's Musicians' (mutribân-i Bâdshah) and of the Chief Organizer (amîr-i mutribân). Other musicians outside the capital and in the provinces had also received due recognition giving birth to the idea that there should be a central functionary to organize and administer all the musicians both at the Court and in the country.

(e) 'Royal Music Festivals' with tasteful etiquette were the fashion of the day. For such grand functions, there was a special conductor/organizer known as. 'Amir Shadi wa Tarab. Among participants were the leading vocalists and instrumentalists and the most distinguished stars would grace these royal festivals. As an example, two master musicians under the improvised names of Kâmilât al-Zamân, Turmtay-Khatun and Kâmil al-Zamân Badruddin are presented to the reader with a vivid description of their superb performances and artistic achievements. Tributes paid to Turmtay-Khatun indicate the very high professional status enjoyed by female musicians.

Presentation, Technique and Artistic Excellence

Achievement of excellence both in vocal and instrumental music is amply underlined throughout the Discourse. Specific references and the relevant terminology used also reflect the highly developed modal concepts and excellence in technique and artistic performance.

The vocalists consisted of two main categories: the accomplished singers in general (mutribân/guyindgân) and the specialists who excelled in particular styles. The latter consisted of

(i) experts in the indigenous Hindustani style (Kalavantan-i Hindi)

(ii) those who excelled in the Persian ghazal style (Parsi Zubanan in ghazal-hai-Parsi

(iii) the qawwalan specializing in the presentation of Qaol or Sama', as distinct from Ghinâ'.

Reverential references to those who listened to Qaol indicate that it was a devotional form of music that the learned men of piety and the sûfi saints preferred to listen to. The qaol might have had its early origin in the Arabic mode of singing (qaol-hai-Hejazi) but this form of presentation had been so very highly developed in the local circles that the masters of this art (qawwalan) could compete with their renowned contemporaries in Baghdad and Egypt. The greatest exponent of this performance is represented by the symbolic personality of Khwaja Latif Qawwal.

An Ud Instrument.

Among the artistic techniques employed by the expert vocalists, mention is made of tarannum (psalming or sound modulation) and taranah (trilling or voice modulation). The qawwals improvised a highly artistic rhythmic accompaniment with the resounding echo of the clapping of hands just as the expert instrumentalists achieved it through the tonic resonance of their instruments represented by the tarannum of Chang, zamzamah of Nai, damdamah of Nai-i Nairah, dastan of Kitishti, bagak of Mash-kak, dura of Surfi, bâblak of Shahnai and the ma'rûfak of Rabab.

The performance was based on a professional knowledge of the underlying concepts which are indicated by the mention of naghmat (Notes), lahan (Melody), maqam (Principal Mode), awazha (Secondary Modes), Shu'ab or Furû (Branch Modes), asabi'ah (Melodic Modes or Formulas), usûl (Rhythmic modes) and jadval (scale?). The performance was to be presented in a recognized form, technique and style. Masalak probably signified an 'individual style' of performance. Tarîq and turûq possibly represented the ways of rendering a melody in different rhythms one of which was tariq-i Sabuki. The term rawish would seem to indicate the earlier concept of majrâ, i.e. the 'Course' of the Mode with each 'course' being distinguished by its Tonic (the base Note). Accordingly, the terms Du-bahrah and Si-bahrah possibly stood for the two different types of 'Courses'.

Mastery in skill and excellence in performance consisted in:

a) being able to play apart the fine constituent notes of a (melodic/rhythmic) mode and again to recompose and integrate them;

b) to change the modes by adjusting the fretting ratios;

c) to change the tonic structures and bring about a transition from one mode to another;

d) to re-set an instrument from DU BAHRAH (the Major Third) to SI BAHRAH (the Minor Third) Course so that the one Branch Mode would change into another Branch Mode.

Need for Music Education

To be able to develop an understanding of the underlying principles and gain mastery in practical skill and performance, it was necessary to be properly educated in Music. It required teaching and instructing the young to produce accomplished artists. Those who had not been educated and sang and played by pattern were much below the standard. It is on this account that Amir Khusraw criticised even those who had attained the rank of 'King's Musicians', especially the Rabab and the Chang players who boasted a great deal; but had hardly any knowledge of the underlying principles:

We have also listened to the voices of the kings' musicians. Most of them hardly know anything. They should be given education to come up to the standard so that they are able to construct complicated instruments and frame the finest melodies.

The achievements laid down by Amir Khusraw obviously called for a high standard of music education. It would seem that instruction in music was being imparted but Amir Khusraw stood for raising the standards. A reference to the budding talents among the youngsters whose attainment was high indicates that music as a profession was attracting younger pupils and that the quality of training imparted to them was satisfactory.

Amir Khusraw's Personal Attainments

Amir Khusraw's own personality is writ large in the Discourse that he has authored. Throughout, it unfolds his own creative genius in Music. More specifically, those expressions that are couched in 'first person', even though put into the mouths of others, underline his own professional attainments. These are to be discerned as follows:

(a) As a vocal singer he was endowed with a voice that was superb both at high and low pitch. "In its height our voice goes beyond Venus."

(b) He had achieved the highest artistic skill in instrumental music to be able to manipulate the fretting ratios and to play apart and again integrate the 'notes' into the differing 'courses'.

(c) He had a sound knowledge of the nature and structure of most of the musical instruments and he could set right any of the defective instruments.

(d) Being a genius, even the foremost musicians of his time turned to him for guidance and instruction. "The musicians also play before us and learn and get seasoned, so that they do not commit the mistakes of ordinary players." He taught some of the great stars of his time to play specific forms of music. "We showed her (Turmtay-Khatun) the way towards the playing of Shahânah".

(e) Maslaki Khwish would signify that he had a distinctive style of his own.

(f) He structured new 'courses', and innovated new modes, both principal and subsidiary.

His creative compositions, his criticism, his guidance and instruction, his immense popularity in music circles and his own music assemblies that were attended by both the apprentices and the more accomplished artists, had an all-pervading influence. He had heralded a new era in music and the modes and melodies of this new music resounded all over and inspired all.


An evaluation of Amir Khusraw's contribution, in its all dimensions, in the field of music can be made only after a thorough study of all his works and any other authentic record that may become available. He wrote this Discourse in the first quarter of the 14th century C.E. (716 H. /1317 C.E.) and in so far as he underlined the concept of music as a science and emphasised the need for its continued development through education, he is to be regarded as a great savant in the history of world music and a genius of unequalled stature in the history of music in the Hindustan sub-continent.

He was the first great theorist and performing artist and talked of music as a science. Not only in this Discourse but also in his well-known Qita' he refers thrice to the 'Science of Music' ('Ilm-i Mûsiqui) on which he had written three volumes. In this Qita', he gives a comparison between Poetry and Music and adjudges Poetry to be superior to Music. This was the judgement of a great poet and a literary genius and, though a sound one, it was pronounced mainly on an intellectual level. At the level of 'feeling', Amir Khusraw was essentially a musician. For, in an aesthetic mood he invokes the Mutrib (musician) more often than the Saqi (cup bearer) and, according to him, even after his death, if someone were to lend an ear to his grave, he would hear not the echo of his verse but the sweet music of a superb melody.

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