India’s Syncretic Music-Culture: The Diverse Religious Origin of North Indian Hindustani Classical Music

Two diverse religious traditions in India: on the left, a Hindu temple, and on the right, an Islamic mosque, both located in New Delhi

“Again and again over the centuries, foreign cultural ideas have migrated into India. Once there they have been absorbed, assimilated, digested, played with, and combined with indigenous cultural elements, merging eventually in a new and undeniably Indian synthesis.” (Titon 270).

The history of the Indian subcontinent is extensive in both time and breadth; it spans several thousand years and involves an abundance of diverse religious and cultural influences.  The classical music of North India, known as Hindustani, shares this rich history since it developed out of two prominent yet differing religious traditions in India: Hinduism and Islam. Although the majority of India is Hindu, a sizable minority of the population is Muslim. In the last century, these religious traditions have related by communal behavior because of differences in belief; however, they inevitably share the same classical music tradition (Booth 69). The commonality of Hindustani music-culture has resulted in controversy between Hindus and Muslims, as there are “conflicting interpretations of identity and priority…[as well as] musical authenticity and authority” with regard to this shared tradition (Booth 73).  Ultimately, each of these religious traditions have entitlement to the Hindustani music-culture, as each contributed significantly to its development.

The Mughal Empire.

Hindustani classical music originated with the ancient Aryan people, who created a set of literary works known as the Vedas, which are sacred texts comprised of prayers, incantations, and rituals whose deities were predecessors to the many gods of Hinduism. This sacred text was chanted by Aryan priests, and the melodic qualities of these chants eventually evolved into the scale system of Hindustani music (Titon 268). More importantly, though, the Aryans interlaced religion and music, establishing an essential aspect of the syncretic Hindustani music-culture. However, the development of Hindustani music did not remain static. In the 12th century, invaders of Muslim decent penetrated into the Indian subcontinent and established the Mughal Empire. Music thrived in the courts of the Mughal emperors, who imported musicians from all over the world. Instruments derived from the Muslim tradition such as the sitar and tambura, which are plucked lutes, and the tabla, a pair of drums, became central instrumentation in the Hindustani music-culture. A fusion of the Islamic and indigenous Indian music systems was achieved (“Story of Hindustani”).

During the period of the Mughal Empire in the 16th century, a musician by the name of Mian Tansen became a central figure in the development of Hindustani classical music. Tansen was born into the Hindu Brahmin caste, which traditionally was responsible for all classical music performance (Booth 74). Eventually, he became a court musician for a Mughal emperor. Because “success in the acquisition of royal patronage correlated highly with religious identity,” Tansen is said to have converted to the Islam religion in order to maintain his high status in the emperor’s court (Booth 74). Like all court musicians, he sang in the dhrupad style, which originated from the chanting of Vedic sacred text and thus furthers the synthesis of Hindu and Muslim musics (Sankrityayan). Therefore, Tansen contributes to the parity of Hindu and Muslim identity of the Hindustani music-culture. Greg Booth states the following:

“Tansen embodies the inherent ambiguity in later claims to authenticity or priority; both Hindus and Muslims can (and do) claim authority [of Hindustani music] as the result of Tansen’s importance and their discipular connection with him” (74).

Mian Tansen, as depicted in "Baiju Bawra" (1952). Here he is portrayed as having a predominately Muslim indentity, and is shown playing the tambura, an instrument of Islamic origin.

Furthermore, this conflict for control of the historical identity of Hindustani classical music is demonstrated through three films produced by the Hindi cinema industry in the mid-twentieth century, all which stage the life story of Tansen. Two of these films clearly portray Tansen as having a Hindu identity and at odds with the Mughal emperor, whereas the other bestows upon him a Muslim identity, portraying him foremost as a devoted and favorite member of the Mughal emperor’s court musicians (Booth 78-9). Although there may be truth in both depictions of Tansen, it is apparent that the distinction of the two religious cultures and their contributions to Hindustani music-culture is desired by both Hindus and Muslims. Hindustani music is indeed an irresolvable contest of religious identity, since history lends itself to favor both traditions equally in their contributions to this music-culture. Ultimately, this leads to a unique situation within the abundance of music-cultures tied to a singular religion throughout the world, as two distinct religious traditions contend with sharing a music-culture born out of each.


Booth, Greg. “Pandits in the Movies: Contesting the Identity of Hindustani Classical Music and Musicians in the Hindi Popular Cinema”. Asian Music, Vol. 36, No. 1: 60-86. Web, 30 Nov. 2011.

Sankrityayan, Ashish. “Dhrupad: Classical North Indian Temple and Court Music.” Dhrupad Kendra. Dhrupad Kendra Bhopal, n.d. Web. 3 Dec. 2011. <;

“Story of Hindustani Classical Music.” ITC Sangeet Research Academy. ITC-SRA, n.d. Web. 3 Dec. 2011. <;

Titon, Jeff Todd. Worlds of Music: an Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples. Belmont, CA: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2009. 265-276. Print.

Image Credits:

BAPS Swaminarayan Akshardham.” Photo. 5 Dec 2011. <;

“Jama Masjid Ddelhi.” Photo. 5 Dec. 2011. <;

“Mughal Empire BR.” Photo. 4 Dec 2011. <;

“Tansen practises his singing.” Photo. 4 Dec 2011. <;


One thought on “India’s Syncretic Music-Culture: The Diverse Religious Origin of North Indian Hindustani Classical Music

  1. I find the fact that both Hindu and Islamic culture impacted Hindustani music to be fascinating — this is indeed unique, as compared to other music-cultures we have studied, because of this. At first, it seems almost unfortunate that the two cultures cannot work together to further enrich this style of music and to lend their traditions to a great melding of cultures that might result in an even richer genre. Perhaps, though, it is this separation of the two cultures that keeps Hindustani music unique. Does this division create a constant feed of new ideas to the genre, or had the genre already solidified at the amalgamation of the two cultures?

    –Meghan Demirer

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