Music in the Reign of Akbar

ON Stage brings you edited excerpts from the NCPA Quarterly Journal, an unsurpassed literary archive that ran from 1972 to 1988 and featured authoritative and wide-ranging articles. In a riveting overview, cultural historian Geeti Sen discusses music and musical instruments in the paintings of the Akbarnama.

From contemporary sources of the time, it is evident that music played an essential part in Mughal court life. A rich source of information here is the A’in-iAkbari, written by Abu’l Fazl, wherein the court biographer has pioneered a new kind of documentation. As a sequel to his historical chronicle of the Akbarnama, the A’in describes the etiquette and ranks at the court, the regal ensigns of royalty, details of the arsenal, onwards down to the stables.1 He also devotes a section of the A’in to musical instruments which form an integral part of the ensigns of royalty. 2

In the chapter, Fazl describes, in considerable detail, the hours of performance at the naqqarakhana or the music gallery. This would stress the heraldic purpose of music, to indicate the ritual progression of time through the hours of a day. He commences his commentary thus: “Formerly the band played four gharis before the commencement of the night, and likewise, four gharis before daybreak. Now they play first at midnight when the sun commences his ascent and the second time at dawn. One ghari before sunrise, the musicians commence to blow the surna, and wake up those that are asleep; and one ghari before sunrise they play a short prelude, when they beat the kuwarga a little, whereupon they play upon the karna, the nafir and other instruments, without however making use of the naqqara; after a little pause, the surnas are blown again, the time of the music being indicated by the nafirs. One hour later, the naqqaras commence when all musicians raise the auspicious strain…”

The passage above suggests that this music of the naqqarakhana performed a ritualistic role, and was considered as such by the court historian. He describes and classifies the instruments used: “Of musical instruments used in thenaqqarakhana may mention:

  1. The kuwarga, commonly called damama; there are eighteen pairs of them, more or less, and they give a deep sound
  2. The naqqara, twenty pairs, more or less
  3. The duhul, of which four are used
  4. The karna, made of gold, silver, brass and other metals; they never blow fewer than four
  5. The surna, of the Persian and Indian kinds; they blow nine together
  6. The nafir, of the Persian, European and Indian kinds; they blow some of each kind
  7. The sing is of brass and made in the form of a cow’s horn; they blow two together
  8. The sanj or cymbal, of which three pairs are used.

It may be noted here that these instruments are different from those used by vocalists for accompaniment, which have also been listed in the A’in. These include the sarmandal, flute, tambura, rubab, qichak and surna.3 One may presume that these musical performances tended towards a greater degree of improvisation that was permitted in the naqqarakhana. However, pictorial representation of these ustads in compositions of the 16th century is rare.

The passages quoted above would serve only to precipitate the reader’s interest in music. An additional source of information to the reader, and one that is relatively unexplored for musical instruments, is the collection of paintings of the Akbarnama. 4 These paintings, which were commissioned from the leading painters of the imperial studio, provide a visual complement to the written narrative of the court chronicle. It is significant for our purposes to note here that they were painted within the same decade of the 1590s in which the Akbarnama was researched and written by Fazl. They thus become a contemporary ‘reading’ and recording of events, through the eyes of painters who on certain occasions may have been eye-witnesses to these events.

These paintings have been acknowledged in every monograph on Mughal painting, in terms of their superb quality. That apart, they provide a good deal of information about the day and the age, about customs at the court and etiquette. The details of music and musicians which appear in these paintings in an anecdotal fashion are proved to be authentic by the very fact that several compositions repeat the same details. Among the 116 paintings preserved today at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, nine compositions provide details on the nature of music and of musical instruments used at Akbar’s court. These are listed below with the subject of reference being usually a durbar, a marriage or a birth celebration:

  1. Akbar receives the child Abdu’r Rahim at court in 1561
  2. Scene from marriage entertainment of Baqi Muhammed Khan in 1561; colours and detail by Banwali
  3. Scene from marriage entertainment of Baqi Muhammed Khan in 1561; colours and detail by Sanwala
  4. The famous dancers of Baz Bahadur perform a kathak dance for Akbar following the defeat of the Malwa ruler in 1561
  5. Attempt to Akbar at Delhi in 1564 6. Rejoicings on the birth of Prince Salim (later Emperor Jahangir) in 1564 at Fatehpur Sikri (see page 44)
  6. Rejoicings on the birth of Prince Salim (later Emperor Jahangir) in 1564 at Fatehpur Sikri (see page 44)
  7. Akbar receives news from Fatehpur Sikri of the birth of Prince Salim
  8. Rejoicings at the royal city of Fatehpur Sikri on the birth of Akbar’s second son, Mirza Murad in 1570
  9. Husain Quli Khan Jahan paying his respects to Akbar while presenting prisoners of war from Gujarat in 1572

A few of these illustrations confirm the fact that the naqqarakhana was intended to refer to a musicians’ gallery, assigned to a specific place in Mughal architecture. In the dramatic composition of the attempt to assassinate Akbar as he passed through Delhi, the musicians appear above the entrance gateway to the city. They play vigorously upon the drums (naqqaras) and trumpets (surnas) to announce the immediate arrival of the emperor and the royal cavalcade. The instruments used here include two pairs of naqqaras, a pair of sanj or flat cymbals, the curved trumpet or surna, the short trumpet or nafir, two straight and long trumpets (surnas) as well as the curved horn trumpet of the sing, which appears rarely in these paintings.

Other illustrations would suggest that these same instruments of royalty were carried into the battlefield, to sound the battle cry with the large kettle drums (naqqaras) strapped across the backs of camels, and with the flamboyant curved necks of the trumpets (surnas) glinting in the sun. When the imperial forces advanced, with the elephants, arrayed in battle armour, the sight and resonance of these huge drums were intended to inspire the ranks of the enemy with terror. The capture of enemy booty invariably included the prized capture of the insignias and war drums, which were brought and laid before the emperor or his representative. It is not surprising that the same use of martial music, employing the same drums and trumpets, appears in Persian paintings of the 15th and 16th centuries. These illustrations would serve to confirm the origins of these musical instruments, and indeed of this genre of music, as derived from beyond the borders of India.

A third category of subjects introduce these musical instruments of the naqqarakhana in scenes of court festivity. Rites of births and marriage are invariably accompanied with a specific role assigned to the musicians of the naqqarakhana. In the scene of Baqi Muhammed Khan’s marriage, the royal guests are shown entertained by musicians on a splendid double-paged painting. These musicians are relegated to a separate dais at the far end of the courtyard, and are accompanied by the whirling dance of two ladies in the Turkish Chaghtai costume and head-dress.

Again, the birth of the princes (shaikzadas) at Fatehpur Sikri is announced through music and dance. Descriptions of these events in sources such as the Akbarnama, the Tabaqat-i-Akbari and the Muntakhabu-t-Tawarikh mention that they were celebrated with great feasts and revelry, by the casting of horoscopes and the release of prisoners,5 but not much is made of the music performances. It becomes the contribution of the painters of these events to have included these as an essential component of birth festivities. The same conclusion is drawn from the portrayal of other birth scenes, such as the birth of Timur and the birth of Akbar in the second set of the Akbarnama illustrations, today at the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin.

The last of these subjects from the Akbarnama, of the birth of Prince Murad, affords the most animated recording on the occasion of the birth of a prince in the royal household. It is conceived by the artists Basawan and Bhura, with different events happening simultaneously in different chambers. Even while the child is being nursed in the royal bedchamber, astrologers prepare the horoscope, women rejoice with stringing up mango leaves and musicians announce the joyous event. According to the description given by Fazl in the A’in, two men beat upon a small pair of naqqara drums and a pair of giant drums of damama. Besides them, keeping the tempo, a young musician plays upon the sanj or cymbals. Three more men are depicted as playing the trumpets, which include the surna or the curved trumpet, the long trumpet, and the short trumpet or karna. The sing is not to be found here, although it does appear elsewhere, and also on the battlefield in certain illustrations.

Accompanying the musicians, the male dancer performs a typical stance of Kathak, and attendants arrive with a cradle.

The birth of Akbar in the Tarikh-e-Khandan-eTimuriyah at the Oriental Public Library, Bankipore, Bihar [now known as the Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library], is presented in similar terms, with mango leaves strung along doorways, and royal musicians performing on drums and trumpets. The Akbarnama at the British Museum opens with two pages, both composed by Sanwala, where the birth of Akbar is presented under identical circumstances. Musicians and astrologers appear before Humayun on the second page. When the same ceremonies are observed for the birth of Timur two centuries earlier in 1376, then these would appear as anachronisms, referring specifically to customs of the 16th century. The repetition of the musicians authenticates, in a sense, their appearance at birth festivities during Akbar’s reign.

It has been mentioned above that the appearance of the indigenous tradition of music is rare among illustrations of the Akbarnama. However, two pages towards the beginning and the close of the present manuscript of illuminations introduce a veena player into the court or durbar scene. Dark-skinned and attired suitably in a luminous white jama, his appearance is more as one of the great luminaries at the court rather than as one of the performing musicians. He has been identified by certain authorities as Naubat Khan who was the darogah (keeper) of the naqqarakhana in the 1590s, by comparison with a portrait of his which appears elsewhere.6 At any rate, his presence at a durbar is greatly significant since it confirms the importance attached at this time to the indigenous modes of music and of musical instruments.

Again, it must be stressed that these two traditions of music at the Mughal court seem to have been quite divergent during the reign of Akbar, and to have served specific and different purposes. This distribution is confirmed once more in a later painting depicting a celebration of the coronation of Emperor Jehangir. Currently at the Rampur Raza Library, this animated composition includes the musicians of the naqqarakhana, all heroically astride horses, and flanking the elephants (nishan ke hathi). The description of this sumptuous page by Percy Brown comments on the two divergent traditions: “Flanking the elephants are two groups of mounted musicians, energetically blowing on their trumpets, turhi and nafir, or beating on the drum, naqqara… In the upper group, called Kalavat or gavayya, which is a mixed assembly of Hindus and Muhammedans, two men will be observed with stringed instruments like large mandolins, known as sarod. The elder of these two performers has been identified as Tansen… the younger performer is Shauqi, who afterwards took the place of Tansen, and of whom Jehangir writes that he is the wonder of the age and sings ‘in a manner that clears the rust from all hearts’.” 7

A study of these paintings would suggest and stress the contribution of musical performances during specific occasions. At the same time, the occasional appearance of a musician with a veena, or of the Kathak dancer, might suggest the presence of indigenous tradition at the court. These details enliven the events of the court and enrich our appreciation of this period of the 16th century.


  1. Abu’l Fazl, A’in-i-Akbari, V. I, trans I. Blochmann, and V. 11 transl. Jarett. VICTORIA & ALBERT MUSEUM, LONDON
  2. Abu’l Fazl, A’in-i-Akbari, V. I, transl. Blochmann, pp. 52-54.
  3. Abu’l Fazl, op. cit.
  4. Victoria and Albert Museum No. I.S. 2/1896/117
  5. Abu’l Fazl, Akbarnama. transl. Beveridge, II, p. 503
  6. Pinder Wilson, ed., Paintings from the Muslim Courts of India, 1976
  7. Percy Brown, Indian Paintings Under the Mughals, p. 130