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Music and Society in North India: From the Mughals to the Mutiny

The period from early 18th century leading up to the Mutiny of 1857 witnessed massive political and socio-cultural turmoil which impacted the evolution of musical culture as well. This paper synthesises existing historical work on the complex evolution of musical culture in northern India during the period, focusing on the origins and development of those forms that became identified as mainstream classical Hindustani music in the 20th century.

Music and Society in North India: From the Mughals to the Mutiny

The period from early 18th century leading up to the Mutiny of 1857 witnessed massive political and socio-cultural turmoil which impacted the evolution of musical culture as well. This paper synthesises existing historical work on the complex evolution of musical culture in northern India during the period, focusing on the origins and development of those forms that became identified as mainstream classical Hindustani music in the 20th century.


he dramatically transformed political and social dynamics that emerged in the aftermath of the Mutiny of 1857 determined the circumstances in which Indo-Islamic Hindustani music – or north Indian classical music – had to survive and adapt to “the modern”. However, it was between 1707 and 1857 that its ethos, genres, aesthetic concerns and manner of performance came to be established. Although its primary elements, the ragas and talas were ancient [Prajnananda 1981; Gautam 1980], the synthesis of Indian and Islamicate streams that had begun in the 13th century matured in this interregnum. Older musical forms were compounded and refurbished and new forms, especially of instrumental music, were developed. While late 19th and 20th century musicians elaborated and re-worked these forms – ‘khyal’, ‘thumri’ and the instrumental music of the sitar and sarode – in the context of a new and increasingly dominant metropolitan dispensation, it was in the period following Aurangzeb that the regional networks of princely patronage had emerged. Classical music, before and after the Mutiny, spread and survived the pressures of transition through these net works and these courts became the conduits for its passage into the world of modern urbanised India. The connection of musicians associated with the Gwalior court and with Maharashtrian students leading back to Pune and Bombay produced an important axis for khyal singing. Dhrupad and instrumental music on the other hand found a fertile field in Calcutta where, from around the time of the Mutiny, the musicians in the retinue of the exiled Nawab Wajid Ali Shah interacted with the city’s educated, modernising ‘bhadralok’.

Hindustani classical music in the 19th century was defined by the ascent of khyal, especially the ‘gayaki’ of Niamat Khan ‘Sadarang’, which became the dominant creative vehicle for art music [Karnani 2005]. Most of its musical elements were derived from older religious, folk and theatrical musical traditions of India but its distinct, hybrid identity can be traced back to the performative traditions of the Persian court and the Indian Sufi ‘khanaqah’. A remarkable feature in the narrative of Hindustani music right through this period was the central role played by the Seniah gharana [Miner 1997] of the Mughal court musician Mian Tansen and his descendants through his sons, especially Bilas Khan, and his daughter Saraswati. Throughout the 19th and 20th century, almost without exception, Seniah models [Dhar 1989] formed the canon and Seniah teachers taught those who achieved excellence in instrumental music. In the case of khyal singing, although it was a genre with a long history of development, its transition from being the leading musical form in the repertoire of the Chisti Sufis to becoming the dominant form of classical art music in secular performance was mediated through the nexus of the Niamat Khan (Seniah) and the Qawwal Bachche teaching lines. The Seniah gharana was associated with the ‘dhrupad’ genre of Gwalior, which became the canonical musicological model when the emperor Akbar (1556-1605) appointed a core of Gwalior musicians to his darbar. Mian Tansen attained the leading rank among them. His successors were responsible for making critical innovations to the Persian (or Kashmiri) ‘sehtar’ and its mode of playing that led to the development of the modern instrumental music of the sitar and sarode. The Qawwal Bachche, who formed the basis of the Gwalior khyal gharana in the early 19th century, were musicians in the teaching line of Amir Khusrau’s Chistiah musical ‘silsila’. In the early 18th century some of them had become followers of the gayaki of the Seniah Niamat Khan ‘Sadarang’, which had raised the universal standard for contemporary musicality. The music of these Qawwal-Bachche Qawwals precipitated the emergence of the modern khyal style in all its artistic, technical and musicological excellence.

For the greater part of the 18th and early 19th centuries, despite the devastation that tore north Indian society apart, the musical culture of northern India continued to move within an interlocking grid of courtly patronage, networks of Hindu devotional and Sufi mystical practices, and popular spaces of secular and religious entertainment. The imperial city of Delhi occupied the centre of this grid and set standards in the arts and other cultural practices, although after the gruesome events of the second half of the 18th century its influence was reduced and its “centrality” became largely symbolic. The tragedy of Mughal political decline stood in curious contrast to manifestations of creative energy in the domain of music, even if some contemporaries preferred to see an excessive patronage of music as an expression of moral decay. Taking its cue from Herman Goetz’s (1938) earlier formulations on cultural efflorescence in the 18th century, this paper attempts to synthesise existing historical work on the subject to locate the complex evolution of musical culture in northern India from the early 18th century up to 1857. It specifically focuses on the origins and development of those forms that became identified as mainstream classical Hindustani music in the 20th century.1

Music in the Age of Crisis

The articulation of Delhi’s musical culture went through several identifiable changes in the course of the 18th century, corresponding closely to shifts in court politics and the changing social fabric. A line of faineant emperors, a fractious nobility bent on self-aggrandisement, the depredations of a series of plundering warlords and a series of agrarian uprisings that strained the flagging resources of the empire, and created an impossible situation with inevitable consequences. The distinguishing features of Mughal rule immediately following the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 were bitterly contested wars of succession that convulsed the army and the nobility. Politicking at the imperial court and an emerging tendency on the part of the nobility to convert their official positions into permanent fiefs challenged what remained of imperial authority. The result was a rapid disintegration of the empire, with its provinces, or ‘subas’, breaking away. Compounding this rot in “the great time of troubles” were groups of powerful but eccentric outsiders, like the Bangash Afghans and the Rohillas, who were bent on carving out destinies for themselves.2

While the consequences of imperial Mughal decay were politically disastrous, the city of Delhi and its social fabric did not immediately register a decline. Even as signs of imminent municipal collapse appeared in the first quarter of the 18th century

– evident in the shoe sellers’ riots of 1729 [Irvine 1989] – the city continued to expand with staggeringly wealthy merchants and the nobility investing in architecture and the arts. The havelis or mansions of the nobles and leading merchants became mini courts and centres of cultural patronage, especially of music and the ‘sama’ associated with the Sufi circles in the city. We get a telling sense of the extravagant preoccupations of Delhi’s elites from the contemporary writer Mohammed Baksh Ashub, author of the Tarikh i Shahahadat i Farukhsiyar was julus i Muhammad shah. Citing the example of Zafar Khan Roshan ud daulah who had “amassed more wealth than what Pharaoh had dreamed to possess” [Chenoy 1998], Ashub wrote of how Zafar Khan’s house looked like a mountain of gold; how the walls and doors were lavishly gilded and decorated with costly tapestry and hangings of gold and the floors covered with carpets of the richest silk; how he went to the royal palace in costly state, always dressed in elegant, rich garments and attended by horsemen and servants, distributing money among the poor who thronged his way. Zafar Khan organised the ceremonies of Bara Wafat (the prophet’s birthday) and the Urs of Khwaja Bakhtiyar Kaki on a grand scale, making them unusually spectacular and impressive by decorating streets and roads with bright lights. Once a week, Zafar Khan held a Majlis i Sama to which he invited mystics, saints, ulema and pious persons of the city. In a state of ecstasy he tore up his golden clothes and distributed the pieces among the singers, offering coins of gold and silver to them. When the music was over, the gathering was entertained with sumptuous meals served in gold and silver ware (ibid).

The account is telling in various ways, besides pointing to a sort of vulgarisation within Delhi’s cultural practices. Musical patronage was central to the culture of Mughal India and was at once a court prerogative and simultaneously, integrally and intimately bound up with Sufi mystical devotion. The first half of the 18th century saw a further revival of the Chishti order, reorganised by Shaikh Kalim Ullah (1650-1729) and his successors, notably Shah Fakruddin, who made Delhi the centre of his activities and gave a renewed momentum to Chisti organisation. Similar developments were evident in the Naqshbandi order under a series of remarkable leaders beginning with Shah Waliullah (1703-63), Mazhar Jan i Janan and Muhammad Badayuni. Satish Chandra (1986, pp 210-11) has suggested that there was a noticeable increase in the numbers of Urs (birthday) celebrations of Sufi saints in Delhi, a development that is recorded by Dargah Quli Khan in his Muraqqa e Dehli, written during his stay (1737-41) in the middle of the reign of Muhammad Shah [Shekhar and Chenoy 1996].

Dargah Quli Khan was especially eloquent in his notices of Sufi leaders who spurned court patronage and led reclusive lives. What emerges from his account is the multi-layered musical culture of Delhi implicit in the contrast between the scenes of entertainment sponsored by the nobility and the wealthy, and the devotional pursuit of sublime experience practised in the Sufi Khanqahs (ibid, pp 36; 38-39, 45). Delhi’s status as the cultural capital of music did not long survive Muhammad Shah (171948). By the early 19th century the musical situation was somewhat similar to that of the 15th century, when music flourished in a number of regional centres, each with its own ethos. Nevertheless, the symbolic significance of Delhi remained important even as the regional courts became prominent. All of them without exception were supplied with an outflow of musicians from the imperial capital.

Contemporary observers tended to see the cultural efflorescence of Delhi in the early 18th century as symptomatic of a demoralised elite sinking into a quagmire of extreme hedonism. Dargah Quli Khan’s account of the raunchy exploits of Delhi noblemen certainly warrants such a reading. Artists and musicians had never had it better; he quoted a contemporary couplet “with betel in their mouths and bodies beautifully dressed, the artists play the Dholak or the Sitar and are coquettish and cockish in the security of their affluence”. This description evidently reflected a popular level of musical entertainment not to be mistaken with the high art music patronised by the Mughal court and cultivated by the Kalawants. Dargah Quli Khan’s Delhi had a very different atmosphere to that suggested in Nawab Faqirullah Saif Khan’s Ragadarpana written sixty years earlier [Sarmadee 1996]. The contrast between the dignified, dhrupad dominated and darbar centric tone of the Ragadarpana and the louche, even streetwise, ambience of the Muraqqa-I-Dehli’s performative world, despite the presence of Niamat Khan and other remarkable musicians, is striking. Muhammad Shah’s reign is generally seen as the period in which dhrupad began to be displaced from its central position. This appears to have been the result of a decline in Kalawant fortunes, mirroring the changes at the imperial centre, and a simultaneous resurgence of Sufism and the music associated with it.

The first manifestation of trouble for the Kalawants appears with Aurangzeb’s famous proscription of music in 1667. Katherine Butler Brown’s (2006) recently published article demonstrates how Aurangzeb’s action was more in the nature of a withdrawal of patronage when the emperor, for personal reasons to do with grief and pious austerity, decided to abjure the enjoyment of music. However, the absence of substantial court employment lasted more than 30 years and precipitated a professional crisis among the elite musicians of the north, driving them to seek alternative patronage and to rethink professional/performative strategies. During this period an intense interest in music, reflected in a proliferation of musicological texts appears to have grown among the elite of Delhi that coincided with a resurgence of the Chishti and other liberal Sufi sects. It also saw Kalawant musicians, most of whom were recent converts to Islam through the agency of Sufi saints, beginning to absorb the music and musical repertoire of the Qawwals in a more proactive manner.3

Aurangzeb’s death in (1707) after a series of accessions and assassinations, was followed by the bizarre episode of Jahandar Shah’s rule with Lal Kunwar, his concubine and short-term wife (1712-13) that constituted an extraordinary and well-documented episode in the convulsive decline of the Mughals. The courtesan Lal Kunwar was a descendant of Tansen according to contemporary sources [Irvine 1989; Chandra 1986] and became the favourite concubine of Aurangzeb’s grandson Jahandar Shah, whom she twisted around her little finger, becoming his queen with the title of Imtiaz Mahal. Together they proceeded to scandalise the solid citizens of Delhi with a series of outrageous pranks – publicly bathing naked in the Suraj Kund in order to conceive a son and wandering about the city in drunken revels, mindless of imperial etiquette. Contemporary chroniclers lamented the wilful promotion of her siblings, including Niamat Khan (later famous as ‘Sadarang’), to high positions in the court and how her caprice frequently persuaded the emperor to act against his better judgment [Irvine 1989]. After a year of mismanagement Jahandar Shah was assassinated and Lal Kunwar pensioned off. This episode4 damaged relations between the Mughal administrative and military elite and the Kalawant musical community, which was in any case held in low esteem by the orthodox Muslim community and the ulema.

The next episode of transition was the successful entry of “cutting edge” khyal into the court of Muhammad Shah. Niamat Khan, when ordered by the Badshah to accompany other singers on his ‘been’, refused out of self-respect and consequently had to leave the court. Adopting the ‘takhullus’ ‘Sadaranga’, he composed a series of brilliant ‘bandish’ (compositions) in the khyal style, transformed through his genius and grounding in the musicology of ‘dhrupad’, into a compelling new mould. These songs became enormously popular and his romantic texts, which combined the names of the emperor and the composer in the formula “Muhammad Shah Sadarangile”, cast Muhammad Shah in the role of a hero-lover. On discovering that the exiled Niamat Khan was the source of these pleasing songs, the emperor recalled him to the court and acceded to his request that his been-playing be given equal status with dhrupad singing [T J Singh 1995; Miner 1997]. This meant that he could, hereafter, sit and play solo been in the imperial presence. It also marked the entry of khyal, albeit via the zenana, into the domain of court music, an important step on its route to becoming the dominant secular form.

Evolution of Music in North India: A Historical Overview

Early orientalist historians conceived of Indian music as coming down in a continuous stream from Vedic times until the early medieval period when the music of Islamic societies, under the patronage of Muslim warlords, made a rude inroad into traditional ‘marga’ practice and corrupted its purity. Others later claimed that while some alien tunes, instruments and terminology were imported with the conquering culture, indigenous music was able to absorb these without losing its identity and that even those genres supposed to be derived from Persian models are in fact local forms. Neither of these views is satisfactory. While many elements in the collection of ragas, talas and practices that constitute classical Indian music have ancient origins in the Vedic and later Sanskritik culture, it is generally accepted that from about the 6th century a number of major decisive changes began to take place. Most significant was the growth of a repertoire of ‘deshi’ ragas and the gradual displacement of the ‘gramamurchana’ system of melodic classification [Prajananda 1981; Brihaspati 1934; Gautam 1980]. This laid the base for the shift to a universal tonic, ‘sa’, which characterises Hindustani music, and the need for a revised taxonomy of musical objects.

Musical influence from the Islamic world must have been felt in India with the Arab invasion of Sind but from the 13th century a much richer melange of musical elements began to appear in north India in the wake of the Mongol depredations to the west. The arrival of Sufis from Persianised central Asia brought an influx of musicians with Turkoman and Persian instruments, tunes and song forms and a positive will to engage with Indian music and languages [Brihaspati 1934]. Hindi was considered by the Chisti Sheikhs to be capable of poetically expressing subtle metaphysical ideas more directly than Persian, and to be more suited to song. The Sufis were attracted to Yoga practices and, identifying with the metaphorical themes of bhakti, became enthusiastic patrons of Hindu music. This inclusive devotional sociability, and its preoccupation with music, lay at the core of the Hindustani ethos and lasted till the early 20th century.

The pre-eminent musical personality in the early networks of cultural interaction was Amir Khusrau (1253-1325), the son of a Turkish nobleman and an Indian mother. He was equally famous as a “luminous presence” in a series of Delhi darbars (most notably that of Sultan Ala’uddin Khilji), and as the beloved disciple of one of the most revered and famous of all Sufi saints, Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia. Popular tradition credits Khusrau with the founding of the Hindustani musical tradition. He is believed to have mastered Indian music through the agency of Gopal Nayak (supposedly the greatest Indian musical authority of the period) who, according to legend, came to Delhi, and appeared at the court of Ala’uddin Khilji (1296-1316). The legend of Amir Khusrau’s engagement with Gopal Nayak has a deep resonance in the imaginary reconciliation of the confrontation of indigenous Indian musical practice with the Islamic culture that was to dominate the subcontinent for centuries to follow [T J Singh 1995; Ansari 1975].

Magical legend remembers Amir Khusrau as having taught his new syncretic music to two disciples, Samat and Nigar, the one deaf – the other dumb, at the command of his ‘pir’, Nizamuddin Auliya, to thereby manifest the compassionate power and grace of God. Legend says they established the lineage of the ‘Qawwal Bachche’ [Miner 1997; Roy Chowdhury undated], which remained closely connected to the Nizami Chisti Sufi silsila and ultimately left to the development of 19th century khyal. Nizamuddin Auliya’s following, with its spiritual base at his dargah in Delhi, emerged as a major site of musical patronage, practice, accumulation and integration, to which musicians from all over India were attracted in the following centuries. The Chisti centres of Ajmer, Multan, Ajodhan, Delhi, Jaunpur, Bijapur and various others functioned as a geographical network for the circulation of musical as well as mystical, philosophical and literary culture.

According to popular tradition, Amir Khusrau also invented a variety of musical genres like the ‘qaul’, ‘qalbana’, ghazal, ‘tarana’, ‘naqsh-o-gul’ and khyal, and instruments such as the Indian sitar and tabla [T J Singh 1995, pp 120-23]. These genres were actually derived from the conventional sequence of compositional forms in the contemporary Persian courts’ musical repertoire [Farmer 1957] which Khusrau integrated and naturalised through the use of indigenous languages and tunes. He participated in a larger inter-related Islamic musical world that spanned from Spain to India and the borders of China and is also credited with the introduction of a new system of classification based on the Persian ‘maqam’, that accommodated both Arabo-Persian tunes and the wealth of deshi ragas. The enormous success of the Chisti Sufis in spreading their indigenised form of Islamic devotion in tandem with an inclusive musical culture meant that this sort of classification, which became known as the ‘sansthan’ or ‘thaat’ system in the north, was adopted even in southern India where it was known as the ‘melakarta’ [Brihaspati 1934]. If he was in some way responsible for this development, it would have been quite consistent with the sort of intellectual engagement with musical theory that was current among his Persian and Arab contemporaries.

The musical culture that Khusrau’s genius developed was a seamless synthesis of Indo-Islamic elements, musical and linguistic, that fed into the devotional and court cultural practices of medieval India. However Persian and Turkomani music appears to have retained pride of place at court until the Mughal court registered a critical moment in the development of Indian music when Akbar’s ‘darbar’ demonstrated a shift in imperial taste with its preferential patronage of the indigenous ‘dhrupad’. The cultivation of classical Indian song-forms by pre-Mughal regional powers like Jaunpur (1398-1480), Gwalior (1480-1520) and Bijapur (1489-1686) constituted rich inputs in terms of musicology and practice and contributed to a triumph of indigenous musical form at the Mughal centre [Wade 1998, pp 160-83]. The courts of Hussein Shirqi of Jaunpur5 and Man Singh Tomar of Gwalior were especially important in the evolution of “classical” musical forms. Under Raja Man Singh dhrupad had acquired a cohesive form characterised by a four-part structure; the four ‘tuks’, ‘sthai’, ‘antara’, ‘bhog’ and ‘abhog’. The form was perfected by a collaboration of leading indigenous musicians gathered together in Gwalior by Raja Man Singh [Miner 1997: 75]. The Jaunpur court on the other hand had participated in the early evolution of the khyal genre6 when the local ‘Cutkala’ form of traditional Indian art song was interwoven with the ‘ravish’ (genres, repertoire and style) of Amir Khusrau, which had come to Jaunpur with the Chisti pirs of the Sultan Hussein Shirqi.

Hindustani music, distinguished by the primacy of ragas, use of regional dialects, and by the integration of Indo-Islamic elements, matured under the Imperial Mughal patronage. It drew from a cosmopolitan repertoire of musical forms of Arab, Persian and Khurasani music, the songs of the Qawwals – qaul, qalbana, ghazal, tarana, etc, along with classical dhrupad, Hindu temple and devotional music and an endless variety of itinerant and regional music, seasonal folk-songs and so on. These had evolved in networks of shared performative spaces with long histories of musical interaction and had been refined and recomposed in several major locations or nets of creative sociability. Among these, the Chisti Sufi silsila, the Vaishnav ‘Vallabhacarya Sampradaya’ and the Sikh congregation, beginning with Guru Nanak, were especially important in integrating musical ideas and practices [Delvoye 1997; Sarmadee 1996; pp (vi and vii)].

The interconnectedness of musical practices was reflected in the organisation of the musical profession that clearly straddled the domains of the court and the dargah. Faqirullah Nawab Saif Khan’s 17th century treatise, the Tarjuma I Manakutuhala, and Raga Darpan identify a hierarchy among the ‘ustads’ or professional class of musicians as well as among the amateurs [Sarmadee 1996, pp xxxviii]. Kalawants and Baykars occupied the most eminent position, followed by Qawwals, Dhadhis and so on, but all of them according to Faqirullah belonged to Sufi silsilas and “abided by a system of music which had by then assimilated every incoming influence, still had its infrastructure intact”. The various categories of musicians (ibid, pp 195, 197, 199-211) – Kalawants (dhrupadiahs), Dhadhis (especially associated with the epic song form ‘kabbit’), Qawwals (specialists in qaul, tarana and khyal) goindahs and so on, were not static caste categories but changed over time. The dominance of the dhrupad in court did not preclude the circulation of other genres. The qawwali repertoire– the qaul, qalbana and tarana and so on were widely sung in the sufi gatherings, and khyal, according to Allyn Miner (1997), the most widespread form of the time, was held in high musical regard in the 18th century (pp 845).

In recording the processes of transformation of the khyal into the dominant genre it is easy to overlook the continuing importance of the dhrupad as the cornerstone of raga music. Many of the musicians who facilitated the success of the modern secular khyal were themselves dhrupadiahs and dhrupad remained, conventionally, the dominant genre of most court music through to the early 20th century. Interacting with the Qawwal Bachches in a complex web of social relations, they applied the musical canons of the dhrupad in the articulation of the khyal, and maintained a special and close relationship with the Sufis, obtaining customary rights to perform at the dargah of Nizamuddin Aulia on occasions such as his Urs. In the 19th century, these families became the Agra, Khurja, Hapur, Secunderabad and Atrauli gharanas of khyal following the emergence of the Gwalior gharana. It is significant that leading khyaliahs of the late 19th and 20th centuries were by and large those dhrupadiahs who emerged as authentic sources of khyal teaching when the Qawwal Bachches, who had been the traditional exponents of pre-modern khyal, had disappeared from the musical world.

In instrumental music, as in vocal music, the advent of the Muslims brought about profound and far-reaching changes. Little is known with any certainty about the indigenous instrumental music current in north India at the time of Amir Khusrau. He mentions the ‘alawan’, a kind of been, as being the only instrument the (Hindu) Kalawants could play well [Sarmadee 2004]. Stick zithers of various kinds (the been family including the ‘kinnari’, the ‘jantar’, the ‘tuila’ and the early been) appear to have been common throughout India and some sort of long necked lutes are attested to in 14th and 15th century temple sculptures from the south and from Java, where quite an advanced form of been with two large gourds and frets is also commonly found. There is little or no evidence of short-necked lutes and the harps which abounded in ancient India.

Muslim musicians brought with them Persian and Khurasani instruments; the ‘chang’ – a harp/zither, the ‘rabab’ and ‘barbat’, respectively skin-covered and wooden-topped lutes, the ‘tambur’

– the long-necked lute with wooden sound-board that would later be hybridised with the been to become the Indian tanpura. They had various forms of fiddles including a bowed rabab, a prototype of the early sarengi. Both cultures of course had flutes and oboes (shehnai, etc), but stringed instruments were more prominent in the art music of the Indo-Islamic world. In the domain of percussion the Muslims brought their ‘duffs’ and ‘tabls’ (and possibly the dholak), while the Hindus had their ‘mridangam’, ‘ghatam’ and others. There is no mention of the Persian ‘setar’ in the literature of the Muslim era but it would seem to have been a common instrument in Kashmir from perhaps the 15th century, where along with the Afghani style of ‘rabab’, it was an important component of ‘sufiana mausiqi’ ensembles. The Afghani rabab was also common among Afghan warriors who played anthems and folk songs on it.

This repertoire of musical instruments seems to have held sway from the 13th to the 17th century. Under the Mughals however, we see a growing Indianisation of court music represented in miniature painting in the depiction of musical instruments [Wade 1998, pp 160-83]. Mian Tansen passed on to his descendants a dhrupad informed conception of playing the rabab and his son-in-law, the beenkar Mishri Singh, aka Naubat Khan, set a new course for the been. Having absorbed the instruments and methodological and melodic offerings that had immigrated into India from the Islamic world with the Sufis, the revitalised Hindustani music, with its own instruments, became the music of the Mughal darbar.

Faqirullah’s description [Sarmadee 1996: 191] of the ‘soz khyal’ invented by the Sufi Sheikh Baha’uddin Barnawi is an important pointer to the hybridity that characterised Hindustani music in Mughal India. Sheikh Baha’uddin, whose ancestors had been pirs to the Jaunpur Sultans, was the pre-eminent Sufi musician and patron of the ‘khusravi silsila’ in the Delhi region in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. A versatile singer and rabab player, he devised a complex new stringed instrument, the soz khyal which enjoyed a certain vogue and presented a performance of it played by one of his disciples, to Shah Jehan. It may well have survived as a venerated curiosity and stimulated later experimentation with instruments. The soz-khyal is the first instance we have of a deliberate invention of a new instrument; later we have the ‘surbahar’ and the surchain [McNeil 2004; Miner 1997].

Sadarang: Towards a Modern Art Music

The extraordinary achievements of Niamat Khan ‘Sadarang’ and his nephew Firoze Khan, in the early 18th century were a turning point in the development of vocal music and the beginning of a new conception of instrumental music that would lead to a range of hybrid instruments integrating dhrupad and khyal styles. The sitar, sarode, surbahar, sursringar, modern sarengi and even the tabla are all expressions of this process. (The sitar, first mentioned in the Muraqqa-i-Dehli, was found across north India, from the Punjab to Bengal, by the end of the 18th century.7 The Seniahs transformed it into a sort of been.) The musicological centrality of the Dhrupad and the acoustic primacy of the been ‘ang’, were essential to Niamat Khan’s approach towards the perfection and refinement of the khyal. He revolutionised the faster tempo songs with a series of brilliant fusions of raga and rhythm and developed a slower and grander form of khyal, known as ‘bara khyal’. This was set in longer cycles and performed in slow medium tempo that provided a leisurely framework in which a detailed improvisatory treatment of the raga became possible, while retaining the textual identity of the composition. Similarly, he enhanced the technique of the been, bridging the space between the Dhrupad, instrumental music and khyal. The description of his music in the Muraqqa makes it clear that he not only played the been superbly well, but in a way that had not been heard before enrapturing and fascinating his listeners [Shekhar and Chenoy 1996, p 75, 96]. Dargah Kuli Khan claims that there was never a binkar like him before and indeed Niamat Khan is credited with having raised the Bin to the status of a solo instrument (ibid, pp 76-77).

It is likely that Niamat Khan began a process of enlarging instruments, adding strings and widening the frets to permit more elaborate sliding tonal figures that marked the evolution of the been-sitar family of instruments over the subsequent two centuries. In any event, something in the way of a revolution in instrumental music was going on in his time and in his immediate family. His brother Khusrau Khan is described, in the Muraqqai – Dehli, as having a unique aptitude with all manner of musical instruments. His nephew Feroze Khan, better known as ‘adarang’, mastered the sitar, developed a new way of playing it, and invented a style of composition based on the new music.Technically this involved replacing the gut frets with metal, like those used on the been, permitting long sliding notes or ‘meend’ to be produced by deflecting the strings across the fret. Subsequent alterations in tuning with heavier strings and correspondingly larger structural forms, gave the been the surbahar and sursringar a deep sustained resonance that could convey the calm, reflective dignity of the dhrupad ang [Miner 1997; Mcneil 2004]. These changes matured in a transformed social setting when music spilt over into a number of regional centres and courts.

Delhi between Empires: Music in Search of New Patrons

With the invasion of Nadir Shah in 1739, the crisis of Mughal decline became all too clear. Delhi was subjected to unprecedented violence and the moral bankruptcy of the Mughal court lay exposed. The effects of political change on Delhi’s traditional culture were severe. By 1761, when the fateful clash between the Marathas and Afghans had been decided on the plains of Panipat, the fate of the emperor was in the hands of selfaggrandising nobles. Delhi became an empty city, desolate and bankrupt and in no condition to sustain the older cultural fabric. Raiding armies produced a state of intermittent siege and Delhi was, as the poet Mir observed, “little more than a wilderness, which every six months was laid desolate afresh” [Russel and Alam 1968: 35]. Mir, like so many artists, left Delhi in search of new patrons. While acknowledging Delhi as the ultimate arbiter of standards, they realised that the city was no longer in a position to sustain them.

Around the last quarter of the 18th century large numbers of musicians left Delhi for the burgeoning regional courts, the most notable being Lucknow in the independent kingdom of Awadh, which under Asaf ud daulah’s reign (1775-1797) “began to surpass even that of the emperor in Delhi” in wealth and magnificence. The Nawabs Shujauddaulah (1754-75) and Asaf ud daulah patronised the arts in a big way, attracting prominent Delhi artists such as Jani and Ghulam Rasul (khyal singers) and the celebrated instrumentalists Chajju Khan and Jivan Khan – dhrupadiahs and rababiahs. All manner of performers flocked to Lucknow and the court soon became a celebrated centre of musical entertainment [Miner 1997: 97].8 Another important destination was Jaipur, with which the enigmatic composer ‘Manarang’, famous for his khyals and ‘dadras’ in the dhrupad manner, was associated in this period. The founder of the kingdom, Sawai Jaisingh (1727-1743) was favourably disposed to music and scholarship and by the late 19th century its ‘gunijankhana’ boasted a host of great musicians, especially instrumentalists. Gwalior emerged as an outstanding centre for khyal after its ruler Daulat Rao Sindhia (1794-1827) attached the vocalists Bade Muhammad Khan and Kadir Baksh and his sons Haddu and Hassu Khan to the court [Wade 1985, pp 37-41].

Smaller regional courts such as Benaras, Betiah, Rewa, Darbhanga and Banda also held out important opportunities for musicians on the move – an indication of the importance music and its patronage held for the cultural politics and profile of indigenous kingdoms. In the politically disempowered indigenous states, the pleasures of listening to elevated music combined aesthetic enjoyment with religious identification and considerations of ritual status and honour. In such a curiously charged atmosphere, the Awadh sovereign Wajid Ali Shah’s (regnal dates 1847-56) obsessive engagement with music and poetry, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, becomes easier to comprehend.

Other sites of patronage, especially for instrumental music, were the Rohilla and Bangash centres, Rampur, Farruqabad, Bulandshahr, etc, that drew musicians from Delhi and enjoyed artistic connections with other regional courts like Lucknow. Nathu Khan, father of Ghulam Raza Khan, the celebrated and notorious musician of Lucknow, held an official position in Rampur between 1822 and 1840, while Ghulam Raza Khan’s son, Ali Raza, spent time in Patna after the Mutiny [Miner 1997, pp 104-109; 112-13]. In fact what is clear from the fragmented narratives we have of the musicians on the move, is that an extremely mobile and peripatetic community deployed connections of kin, patronage and skill to find a niche in courtly culture and presumably in Sufi musical circles as well.

The relocation of music hardly interfered with the experimenting tendency that had been set in motion. Developments in vocal and instrumental music suggest that regional centres like Rohilkhand and Lucknow sustained a series of important artistic innovations. Moreover Delhi remained a centre for the sitar and Masit Khan (1750-1820), a celebrated binkar who is especially important for his slow-tempo sitar compositions, is thought to have resided there9 (ibid, pp 93-94). The capital city still had well known Qawwal teachers, whom orientalised Europeans, like Antoine Polier, employed as teachers [Alam and Alavi 2001]. Tanras Khan the great khyaliah of Bahadur Jafar’s darbar dominated the musical life of the city up to the Mutiny.

This is not to deny that the exodus of so many important musicians depleted Delhi’s musical culture. The burgeoning of bazaar – nautch entertainment and the emergence of the dance thumri was widely seen as a marker of decline. We have somewhat miserable depictions of dance and musical entertainment in connection with the decaying Mughal aristocracy of the early 19th century. William Sleeman was especially savage in condemning Mughal princes like Mirza Jahangir, the favourite son of Emperor Akbar II. His descriptions of similar proclivities on the part of the Awadh ruler and of the intrigues of court musicians paint a picture of tawdry entertainment [Sleeman 1858] dominated by courtesans, that is in stark contrast to the high art music associated with the Mughal court. While this representation was biased and informed by British imperial designs on the court of Lucknow, it is important to consider how the shift in the spatial relocation of music, disconnected from its religious and imperial social context, to the ‘kotahs’ of Lucknow and the cantonments of Delhi, transformed the content of Indian music between the late 18th and mid-19th century. The Mutiny of 1857 and its aftermath put a seal to the changes and north Indian music had, to eventually, adapt to an even more profound and disruptive series of transitions through the phases of metropolitan and cosmopolitan modernity.

Before and After the Mutiny: The Emergence of Gharanas and a New Setting for Hindustani Music

The emergence of the gharanas around the end of the 19th century reflected the complexities of the sociological transition and transformation that music underwent before and after the Mutiny, culminating in the shift of the centre of Hindustani musical culture from central north India to the metropolitan centres of Calcutta and Bombay. Moving between various courts, musicians were often at loggerheads, competing for patronage and reluctant to share their musical resources outside their family circle. The term gharana, derived from ‘ghar’ referred both to a legitimate line of transmission and its artistic content and character.

The traceable line of the Gwalior gayaki, which appears to have been the reference point from which other gharanas were defined, begins with the Qawwal Bachche singer Ghulam Rasool, son of Taj Khan Qawwal [mentioned in the Muraqqa, Shekhar and Chenoy 1996:78] and a follower of Sadarang’s gayaki (it is quite likely that he was a direct student of Sadarang). Ghulam Rasool moved between Delhi and Lucknow and performed in the court of Asafudaula (1775-97). His widowed sister had two talented sons known as Shakkar and Makkhan whom she persuaded Ghulam Rasool to teach.10 The brothers developed a rivalry. Shakkar’s son, Bade Muhammad Khan emerged as a singer of extraordinary, virtuosic abilities and was appointed as a musician in the court of Gwalior. Makkhan had two sons, Natthan and Pir Baqsh who also became attached to the court of Daulat Rao Sindhia and pir Bakshs’s son Qadir Baksh had three sons Haddu, Hassu and Nathu Khan who were the founders of the Gwalior gharana.11 A dramatic foundation legend of the gharana reveals the interplay of royal favouritism with familial jealousy. According to legend Bade Mohammad Khan was frightened and jealous of Qader Baqsh and poisoned him. Moreover, he would not permit the young Haddu and Hassu to even hear his music. When Daulat Rao Sindhia, who was the patron of Bade Mohammad Khan, died, his son Jankoji Rao Sindhia persuaded their grandfather, the ageing pir Baqsh to teach Haddu and Hassu so they could avenge their father’s death and become the pre-eminent singers of the Gwalior darbar. In an episode redolent of Amir Khusrau’s encounter with Gopal Nayak, pir Baqsh persuaded Jankoji that in order to defeat Bade Mohammed Khan in musical combat, they should first secretly hear him perform. True to archetype they hid beneath the throne, heard Bade Muhammad’s music and were able to master the intricate ‘tanas’ for which he was famous. In a competition arranged by Raja Jankoji Rao, Bade Mohammed Khan was duly defeated by his junior cousins. In a huff he left Gwalior and lived out his days in the court of Rewa. He did however have his revenge when in another round of competition he challenged Haddu Khan with a ‘kharak bijli tana’ (a strong lightning tana). Trying to duplicate these ferocious patterns, the unfortunate Haddu Khan broke a rib, punctured his lung and died [Wade 1985, pp 40; T J Singh 1995, pp 270-73]. Whatever the truth may have been, the die was cast. Haddu and Hassu and their brother Natthan Khan, who certainly were among the leading singers of their day, eventually became the point of reference for numerous Maharashtrian students who identified themselves as followers of the Gwalior gharana and extolled their teachers as the true exponents of the “authentic” khyal gayaki.

Most of the acknowledged 19th century gharanas had their own links with Qawwal Bachche of Sadarang’s gayaki line. The Sahaswan gharana began with Inayat Hussain Khan, the son-in-law of Haddu Khan. The founders of the Patiala Gharana studied with Tanras Khan (Qawwal Bachche) of Delhi, Haddu Khan of Gwalior, and Mubarak Ali, the son of Bade Muhammad Khan. The Agra gharana locates its beginning as khyalias with Gagge Khuda Baksh (1800-60) who turned to Natthan Khan of the Gwalior Qawwal Bachche for vocal training and ended up acquiring an impressive repertoire of his khyal bandishes [Singh T J 1995, pp 273-80; 293-95; 299-301]. There is a marked paucity of information about gharanas like Khurja and Hapur. They were dhrupad/Kalawant lines with Qawwal Bachche connections, but when and how they took up khyal is not clear. Kubdje Mohammad Baksh of Hapur (late 18th century – early 19th century) was the guru of Mian Achpal, who was in turn the guru of Tanras Khan, the great khyaliah of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s Delhi durbar. The Khurja musicians12 had some connections with Rampur in the 18th century, and possibly with Feroze Khan ‘Adarang’, who had relocated from Delhi to Rampur around the 1760’s. Khurja’s greatest exponent, who became a musician of all India repute was Mian Zahur Baksh ‘Ramdas’, a brilliant singer-composer who travelled and taught widely. We have an account of him teaching esoteric aspects of voice production and breath control to the important south Indian musician, Ghanam Krishna Iyer.13 Thus, virtually all the existing lineages of Khyal registered a significant initiation through some connection with the Qawwal Bachche line.

In reflecting on the 19th century story of musical dissemination, one is struck by the creative dominance of the Seniah family. From the first quarter of the 18th century through to the Mutiny, the sitar enjoyed great vogue and was used widely to accompany nautch. Its development into the “classical” sitar began with Feroz Khan ‘Adaranga’, whose deep engagement with the khyal gayaki is evident in the pioneering ‘Firozkhani’ gats he composed. Another critical innovation in sitar playing was made by his son Masit Khan, who devised the form of composition and development (or ‘gatkari’) that became known as the ‘masitkhani baj’. Whereas Feroz Khan’s gats were close to the faster, more rhythmic, tarana and ‘chhote’ khyal, Masit Khan produced a form of playing that incorporated the dignified virtues of Sadaranga’s bada khyals. A branch of Seniah sitar playing settled in Jaipur, where Rahim Sen and his son Amrit Sen (born 1814), the greatest sitarist of the 19th century, attained unmatched refinement and virtuosity in handling the instrument.

Masit Khan’s son Umrao Khan – the premier beenkar of his time – became one of the great teachers of the 19th century, and several lines of sarodiahs and sitarists had their initial Seni ‘talim’ from him, including Ghulam Ali Bandegi (the ancestor of Hafiz Ali Khan and his son, the famous contemporary sarodiah Amjad Ali) and Inayet Khan, the doyen of Shahjehanpur gharana. The professional locations of both father and son are uncertain, but they moved around a lot in a very disturbed world. Around 1825 Umrao Khan devised a giant sitar for his shagird, Ghulam Muhammad, that would play alaap like the been, and soon developed into a magnificent instrument, the surbahar, which was taken up by many musicians including Imdad Khan, the great grandfather of the 20th century sitar maestro Vilayet Khan. Umrao Khan’s son Amir Khan, was employed in the Rampur darbar and taught the sarodiah Fida Hussein Khan, one of the most acclaimed musicians of India at the turn of the 20th century. Amir Khan was the father of the binkar Wazir Khan, another important teacher and one of the main sources for Pandit V N Bhatkande in his prodigious work of collecting and publishing the music of north India. Wazir Khan became the ‘khas ustad’ of Allaudin Khan and Hafiz Ali Khan, the two great sarodiahs of the first half of the 20th century [ibid, pp 135-36; Singh T J 1997, pp 175, pp 462-63].

Seniahs had also overseen the transformation of the Afghani rabab into the modern sarod [Mcneil 2004]. The Afghani rabab, extremely popular among Pathans of Rohilkhand and Rampur, used gut strings over a wooden fingerboard with gut frets tied around. It had a long, and narrow skin covered drum and was carved from light mulberry wood. Sharing common features with the Indian rabab, its tone was weaker and lacked “sustain” (a voice-like continuity of sound after a stroke on the string), though this was partly compensated for by a complement of sympathetic strings that added sweetness/mood to its sound. Its evolution, into an instrument that could emulate qualities of the been and the Indian rabab, began when the dhrupad rabab playing descendents of Tansen’s son Bilas Khan invented the sursringar, around the same time as the surbahar appeared. Jafar Khan and Piya Khan were the leading rababiahs of the early 19th century. During a monsoon in Benaras, Jafar Khan found that his rabab could not answer the music of his cousin Nirmal Shah’s been, because the goatskin soundboard had become limp in the humidity. He took time off and made a rabab with a wooden top to which he fitted a steel fingerboard, steel strings and a been-like ‘jovari’ bridge14 and with this innovation, he was able to compete effectively with the been. The ‘Sursringar’, enjoyed a vogue throughout the 19th century, and its steel plate and metal strings were the technological basis for the modern Sarod. Pyar Khan’s son Basat Khan, a prominent ustad in the court of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, relocated with him to Calcutta in 1856, just before the Mutiny. Accompanying Basat Khan was his ‘shagird’, the Afghan sarodiah Niamatullah Khan, who is thought to have been the first to fix a steel plate and metal strings on his Afghani rabab (also called a sarode) at the behest of his ustad. He probably did this around 1840, or perhaps earlier, and other sarodiahs were soon doing the same. This new instrument, like the transformed sitar, adapted over time with the evolving music. Eventually, as the Seni family disappeared, the sitar and sarod became the dominant instruments in the north Indian music repertoire.


Evidently the dynamics of transition politics in the 18th and 19th centuries did not entirely undermine the patronage basis of Hindustani music, even if it resulted in its spatial dispersion. As musicians moved out from Delhi in search of support, they found themselves interacting with provincial, local cultures. The regional rulers looked back to Mughal Delhi for a cultural model and sought out musicians who embodied its accomplishments and traditions and their kingdoms collectively produced a fresh field of circulation for musicians and for musical creativity. This is illustrated by the case of the rabab-playing sarodiahs in Rampur forming connections with Senia musicians; of the Senia sitarists finding a conducive reception in Rajput courts where the been had a long tradition; and of Gwalior, where the khyal found a courtly location from which it spread just as the dhrupad had 300 years before. In Lucknow Mian Shori, aka Jani Rasool took ‘tappa’ to new heights (late 18th century); Ghulam Raza developed a bright, light classical genre of sitar gats (mid 19th century) and khyal-like thumris were developed for Kathak dance. Benaras also became an important centre for dhrupad and instrumental music in the late 18th century and a number of other, smaller courts were important in the circulation of musicians and ideas. Rewa, whose Rajas were themselves musicians and patrons; Banda, the home of Kudau Singh15 [Singh T J 1997, p 300] the great doyen of Pakhawaj, and of the surbahar player Ghulam Muhammad; Betiah, whose Rajas were ‘Kali bhaktas’ and composers of dhrupads in her honour were other centres. In Delhi the tabla evolved and entered the classical fold as an accompaniment to khyal and was later elaborated in various local styles with special preoccupations – dance in Lucknow and slow ‘purab ang’ thumri in Benaras. Other principalities that participated in this wave of patronage and interaction included Bishnupur, Darbhanga, Alwar, Jhajhar, Baroda, Indore Thaunk, Patiala, the Nepal of the Ranas and so on. In most of these manifestations, we find the musicological talim and penchant for creative innovation of the Seniahs at the cutting edge. This post-Mughal circulation precipitated contemporary classical music that then drifted to the metropolises.

How did the Mutiny of 1857 transform the musical scene? There is no doubt that it sounded the final death knell for Mughal Delhi and ushered in far-reaching changes. For the next 90 years of British rule, the ‘sarkar’ did not extend any significant patronage to traditional music. Even before the cataclysmic event, music as part of an older court culture had dispersed to other centres. Those that sided with the Company in their encounter with the rebels emerged, ironically enough, as principal centres of classical music in the decades to follow. In the case of Awadh, which was annexed in 1856, the relocation of the Nawab with his retinue of ustads and entertainers proved fortuitous in providing Calcutta with an important cultural and artistic resource that the city’s bhadralok and new middle class would consume and nurture.

The Mutiny has been seen as a watershed in the history of India. For the greater part of the country, it marked the moment of rupture with a pre-modern past and the inauguration of the forces of modernisation, even if the British crown preferred to maintain a low profile in matters of religious and social reform. While admittedly, the moment of reckoning had already occurred in regions like Bengal, which by 1857 had embraced and responded to the benefits and challenges of western education, the Mutiny made this transition unequivocal for the rest of the country. For music, the rupture with an earlier political and moral economy was not insignificant. While in terms of style, content and orientation the essential features of North Indian classical music had already been accumulated and expanded in the century of decline and transition, the changing context of patronage especially as music came under the purview of a modernising elite in cities and courts alike, exercised a profound impact on the social constituency of the tradition. As music dispersed and musicians spread outside their customary locations, they found it critical to invoke claims of authenticity for their music and the family they represented. A tangible manifestation of this process was in the emergence of gharanas or styles, all of which were intertwined with older webs of sociability based on Qawwal Bachhe teaching lines and Kalawant families. At the same time, the increasing interest of the middle class in music was producing a new sociology of performance and pedagogy. Muslim ustads, hereafter, had to negotiate with an “orientalised” nationalism that privileged a constructed Hindu past and modern notions of institutional music education [Bakhle 2005].




1 There has been important scholarly work on forms such as the thumri or instruments like the sarangi. See for instance, Peter Manuel (1989), Thumri in Historical and Stylistic Perspectives Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi. Also see Joep Bor (1986), ‘The Voice of the Sarang: An Illustrated History of Bowing in India’, Bombay National Centre for the Performing Arts Quarterly Journal, 15 (3/4), 16 (1), pp 1-183.

2 There are several classic accounts of Mughal decline. William Irvine (1971), Later Mughals, rev Jadunath Sarkar, reprint Delhi. A major intervention came in the form of Irfan Habib (1963): The Agrarian System of Mughal India 1556-1707, Asia Publishing House, London and Bombay and Jadunath Sarkar (1971-75). Fall of the Mughal Empire, Vol 4, Calcutta 1912-30, reprint, Orient Longman, Bombay. For more recent studies of regional political formations in the wake of Mughal decline, see C A Bayly (1983) Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars, North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Also see Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam (eds) (1998), The Mughal State 1526-1750, Oxford India Paperbacks, OUP, Delhi.

3 Most of the kalawants appear to have converted to Islam during the period of the Great Mughals and to have had close connections with the Chistis. The popularity of khyal appears to have grown considerably with the influence of Ba’hauddin Barnawi and the resurgence of Chisti influence. Although the kalawants sang dhrupad professionally, there is evidence that they participated in the musical activity of the dargahs. Taj Khan Qawwal’s sons (Muraqqa-e-Dehli, p 78), Ghulam Rasool and Jani, sang the gayaki of Niamat Khan. See Thakur Jaideva Singh (1995), p 228.

4 Katherine Butler Brown suggests that this episode cemented a decline in kalawant fortunes from which they never really recovered. 5 See foreword in Tarjuma I Manakutuhala and Risala I Ragadarpana by Faqirullah edited and annotated by Shahab Sarmadee; Appendices, p

234. 6 Katherine Butler Brown’s thesis on the emergence of the khyal documents the importance of Jaunpur and of Bahauddin Barnavi’s contributions.

7 The Kashmiri/Persian sehtar seems to have replaced the longer slimmer tambur in the 18th century as the common lute, while the Tambur had transmogrified to become the tanpura – a sophisticated drone to accompany singers.

8 Ghulam Rasul and Jani were Lucknow’s first khyal singers; the Muraqqa mentions them as prominent qawwal singers of Delhi. One may surmise that their lives spanned the century of transition.

9 The ‘gat toda’ is explained in detail by Miner. Masit Khan is credited for adopting actual dhrupad compositions for melodies to use in his gats. 10 Some sources suggest that Shakkar Khan was the son-in-law of Ghulam


11 There are several versions of this story. Here, an attempt has been made to give an outline version and use it to make a larger point about the importance of the emerging Gwalior gharana.

12 Personal communication from Ustad Aslam Khan. 13 Ghanam Krishna Iyer in Tamil by U V Swaminatha Iyer (1936), Kesari Press, Madras.

14 The carefully adjusted buzzing bridge of the sitar, tanpura and been.

15 Kudau Singhs compositions and command of the ‘pakhawaj’ set new standards for the instrument in the early 19th century.


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– (1998): Imaging Sound: An Ethnomusicological Study of Music, Art and Culture in Mughal India, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, pp 160-83.

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