Like poetry, music & dance were an essential part of court-life in ancient Kashmir. Apart from Vedic & Epic literature, there are clear references of playing music, vocal & instrumental as with conch-shells, singing & dancing on Brahmanical festivals & rituals, in Nilamata Purana, to please Brahman-deities & Brahmans.
The actors, singers & dancers performed on festivals & in royal courts. Music & dance had a close interplay in history of ancient Kashmir. While singers & musicians performing in the courts of Rajas were mostly males, the females generally played the “nritya”, the role of dancers.
The singers & musicians entertained the Rajas & the royalty. Kanaka & Canpaka were favourite musicians of the music-loving king, Harsa [1089-1101 AD]. Canpaka was chief minister of Harsa & father of Sanskrit-Chronicler, Pandit Kalhana.
There were also resident dancing girls attached to temples in Kashmir, called devdasees, which was a Brahmanical practice since ancient times where young girls were dedicated to the service of Brahman-deities in temples, performing rituals by singing & dancing to please Brahman-deities.
As elsewhere in ancient India, all reputable temples of ancient Kashmir “had on its staff a few of the singing girls for the spiritual benefit alike of the gods and the pilgrims”.
Raja Harsa one day had seen Kayya, a devdasee, on the dancing stage of a temple & he took her into his royal seraglio. The devdasees’ dancing “stage was an important institution in the social life of Kashmir.
The actresses sometimes came from the troupe of temple dancers”. Ranga, a famous singer & musician of Domba/ Dumb caste performed in the court of Raja Cakravarman [936-937 AD]. His troupe, which included his two daughters, Hamsi & Nagalata, wearing necklaces, golden bracelets on arms & hands, had come from abroad, performed before Raja Cakravarman.
The Raja was completely enamoured with singing & dancing skills of two sweet-eyed daughters of low caste Domba, Ranga, so much that he took both girls, Hamsi & Nagalata, as concubines in his seraglio.
The high caste Raja being “blind with passion” raised the low caste, Hamsi, to the position of chief queen in his seraglio & granted Agrahara, jagir, of a village to Ranga, writes the chronicler.
Sanskrit antah-pura or ava-rodhana or ava-rodha-yana, is tantamount to seraglio or Arabic harem & Persian zenana. The idea of seraglio among Brahman & Buddhist Rajas existed long before the dawn of Islam in Kashmir.
Arthashastras clearly refer to royal harem, antah-pura, of ancient Brahman Rajas of India. There are enormous references to it in old Sanskrit texts. To cite a couple of evidences, Jaloka (200 BC), the son of the Emperor Asoka, had hundreds of women in his seraglio. Then, younger son of Lalitaditya-Muktapida, Raja Vajraditya-Bappiyaka [737 AD-744 AD] “had a large number of women in his seraglio.”
The minstrels performed in the royal courts of medieval period. Coming to entertain the Rajas & their courtiers, the singers & dancers thronged their courts to vie for a place in their kingdoms.
It was Raja Kalasa (1063-89AD) who first time introduced the practice of choral songs [Upangagita] & “a careful selection of female dancers” in the land of Kashmir.
The operatic songs & appreciation of ballet of dancing girls which were common in other lands but unknown to Kashmir were first introduced in the valley by Raja Kalasa.
It may be noticed here that generally the low caste inhabitants of the land were skilled in the art of singing & dancing in ancient Kashmir.
The Domba tribe who were famous for this art were ancestors of modern Dumb Kram in Kashmir who were low caste watchmen and village-menials as they figure in Kalhana’s narrative.
Ranga, the Domba singer, had come from outside as reported by Kalhana but Domba tribe existed in Kashmir as well. Like Vatals, they were like gypsy tribe of North India & Europe.
Trend continued in Sultanate Period
During the Sultanate Period, singers & dancers came from India, Turkistan, Khurasan & Persia, and they found favours with Sultan Zainul Abidin Bud-Shah & Sultan Hassan Shah in particular. It appears from the record of the court chroniclers that most of the singers & dancers who performed in the private halls of these kings came from abroad, though native music & singing too existed in the land.
Before the dawn of Islam, which brought with it Persian & Turkish influence on local music, Kashmiri Brahmans were accustomed to the singing of bhajans & hymns. Islam being a multi-ethnic religion, Muslim poets, musicians & singers transformed the very face of local music with its Persio-Turkish genres rich in new rhythmical style.
Adaptation to newer influence was quick & positive. In the reign of Sultan Zainul Abidin, musicians & singers flocked to the king’s court from Persia & Khurasan. Among them, most notable were, musician Mulla Udvi, pupil of famous Khawaja Abdul Kadeer from Khurasan, & singer Mulla Jameel who was prominent among his contemporaries in melodious singing.
Mulla Jameel’s songs were popular in Kashmir. The schools of musical art were founded in Kashmir by Irani & Turani musicians who were patronised by Sultan Zainul Abidin Bud-Shah.
On occasion of festivals, the within-mentioned Kashmiri Sultans entertained themselves with listening to music & songs, & witnessing dance performances of charming young female dancers. Sultan Zainul Abidin [1420-1470] showed keen interest in music & art.
On the festive occasions, his palaces were all lit up with lamps, decorations, & embellished with the display of art by musicians, singers & dancers.
“Young women, proficient in music, possessed of sweet voice, and with a genuine ardour for song, graced “the royal stage. The renowned songstresses & dancers, Tara & Utsavi, through their songs and dances attracted eye & ear of the royal audiences & every royal attendant was entertained by them through their sweet musical & amazing dance performances. In the words of Pandit Srivara, the court chronicler, Sultan Zainul Abidin was “part of Mahadeva” “Siva, the King of Dancers (Nataraja)”.
[Pandit Sitaram] The court of Sultan Zainul Abidin was always abuzz with the attendance of Turk, Persian & Khurasan singers & musicians who pleased the heart of the king by their proficiency in music. Sultan Haidar Shah, [1470-1472] was excessively given to wine & music. The great masters of music taught Sultan Haidar Shah to play on lute. He learnt the art & “gave lessons even to the professors” of music. He “spent all his life to the music of the lute without a moment’s intermission”.
Sultan Hassan Shah had brought in 1200 men & women experts in singing & dancing from foreign lands, and he enjoyed their performances. Among foreign actresses, Vahavadena & Shikshakara with a band of other songstresses & dancers came from present Karnataka State to display their art of music, songs & dance before the king, Sultan Hassan Shah. He was given to pleasures of life. He enjoyed his youthful life in the company of his music loving courtiers from whom he took cups of wine while watching dance and musical performances.
The female dancers, Ratnamala, Dipamala & Nripamala shone like lamps in his palace. They danced in the court of Sultan Hassan Shah, charmingly, displaying their emotions & gestures. Ratnamala was most beautiful among them like a drop of nectar.
Wearing a Tilaka on her forehead, decorated with jewels, she melted the hearts of the king and courtiers with her expressions of passions, gestures, steps, movements, tremors and actions in her dance performance, writes the court chronicler.
Kashmir’s kings did not live in musical isolation. The professional dancers & songstresses entertained the rulers & courtiers in private halls of their palaces.
To be continued
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.