In the Footsteps of Babur: Musical Encounters from the Lands of the Mughals
Fusing cultural influences from Persia, Central Asia, and India, the Mughals created a brilliant intellectual and artistic efflorescence whose legacy remains strong today. In the Footsteps of Babur represents a modern-day encore of Mughal artistic synthesis. Inspired by visual images and literary descriptions of exuberant music-making in the Mughal courts, the Aga Khan Music Initiative brought together musicians from Afghanistan, India, and Tajikistan with the aim of merging their talents, traditions, and musical instruments to create new sounds.
Babur was born into a world in which the influence of Persian culture loomed large. His birthplace, Ferghana, now a city in the nation of Uzbekistan, was in Babur’s time a principality that had once been part of the Timurid Empire. Babur traced his ancestry to the empire’s founder, Timur (anglicized as Tamerlane), as well as to Genghis Khan. The Timurids, descended from Turco-Mongol stock, had cultivated a Persian sensibility in art, architecture, poetry, and music that reached its zenith in 15th-century Samarkand and Herat, and it was this sensibility that Babur absorbed in his youth.
As a teenager, Babur set off from his native Ferghana with a small army. His objective: to capture Samarkand, which he viewed as his family’s ancestral homeland. His attempt failed, but in 1504, when Babur was twenty-one, he seized Kabul, and the next year took up residence there. From his base in Kabul, Babur led reconnaissance expeditions eastward into Hindustan, and in 1526, his vastly outnumbered troops won a decisive battle that gave him control of Delhi and Agra, the future site of the Taj Mahal, built by his great-great-grandson, Shah Jahan. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Babur’s descendants - the Mughal rulers Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan, and Aurangzeb - continued the expansion and consolidation of the Mughal Empire until it covered almost the entire subcontinent. The cultural diversity of this vast territory was reflected in the different kinds of music and musical ensembles that were patronized by the Mughal courts. Orchestras of kettledrums, cymbals, trumpets, and loud oboes whose origins were in Persia and the Middle East marked the comings and goings of the emperor. Mughal miniature paintings show a variety of long-necked lutes and spike fiddles - instruments rooted in the Persian and Turkic cultures of Central Asia. These paintings also show indigenous Indian instruments - most commonly the rudra vina, also called bin, easily identifiable by the large gourds attached to either end of a long neck.
The legions of performers in the service of the Mughal courts may well have created their own “fusion music” jam sessions, experimenting with various combinations of instruments, sonorities, melodic modes, and rhythmic structures. Another venue for musical fusions might have been the meeting places of Sufis - followers of a mystical path in Islam - where, contrary to more orthodox Islamic custom, musical instruments were sometimes used to facilitate prayer leading to a state of spiritual ecstasy.
Following the death of Aurangzeb, in 1707, the Mughal Empire began a long period of decline, which ended in 1858 with the abdication of Emperor Bahadur II and the establishment of the British Raj. As Britain faced off against its imperial rival, Russia, in what became known as “The Great Game,” Afghanistan became a buffer zone between empires. Following the rise of Soviet power in Central Asia in the 1920s, the once porous border between Central Asia and the subcontinent hardened. The fluid movement of artists and musicians characteristic of Mughal times was replaced by bureaucratized cultural exchanges of state-sponsored performing troupes and artistic luminaries. The 1947 partitioning of India, decades of war and political instability in Afghanistan, and, in the post-Soviet era, a focus on strengthening national cultural identities in the newly independent “stans” of Central Asia, all impeded the reestablishment of closer links among musical descendants of the singers, drummers, and instrumentalists portrayed in Mughal miniatures. Hoping to reanimate those links, the Aga Khan Music Initiative invited a small group of cosmopolitan-minded musicians from Central Asia, Afghanistan, and India to meet and explore the living legacy of their common musical ground. These musical meetings did not take place in the historical lands of the Mughals. Rather, in the spirit of today’s musically globalized world, they occurred in northern California, where Afghan rubab player Homayun Sakhi currently makes his home, and in Paris, where the commodious Studios Babel, true to its name, offered an ideal environment for a multicultural recording project.
Sakhi himself offers an exemplary case study in artistic synthesis. Born into one of the leading musical families of Kabul, he studied rubab with his father, Ustad Ghulam Sakhi, a student of Ustad Mohammad Omar (d. 1980). The music he learned included both the classical Hindustani raga tradition of North India and Afghan folk and popular music. Beginning in the mid-19th century, at the sunset of the Mughal Empire, Hindustani musicians were patronized by the local ruling family of Kabul, where they created a Kabuli tradition of raga performance whose principal instruments were Afghan rubab accompanied by tabla. The addition of sympathetic strings and drone strings increased the deep, resonant quality of the rubab’s sound - ideal for the slow and meditative opening section of a raga performance. This 19th-century adaptation of the rubab, an instrument rooted in the music of Central and West Asia, reprised the adaptation of older forms of long-necked lutes by musicians in the early 17th-century Mughal court, who, as shown in miniature paintings, used them to play the steady drone pitch that was then coming into fashion as an accompaniment to classical singers.
At around the same time that Homayun Sakhi was learning rubab from his father in Kabul, Rahul Sharma was studying santur with his father, Shiv Kumar Sharma, in Mumbai. Drawn by the lively musical life of Mumbai, the elder Sharma had moved there in the 1960s from Kashmir, his native land.
The santur - a zither whose strings are struck with small wooden mallets, like a hammer dulcimer - had long been played in Kashmir as a folk instrument and as part of Sufyana Kalam, a local classical music tradition linked to Sufi practices. Musical instrument specialists place the origins of the santur in the Middle East. When it first appeared in Kashmir is unknown, but santur-like zithers are depicted in Mughal miniature paintings.
Just as Afghani rubab players learned to play Indian ragas and, in so doing, achieved a new level of virtuosity on their instrument, Shiv Kumar Sharma devoted himself to developing a way to perform raga on the santur. While the santur, with its tautly stretched strings and percussive playing technique, might seem an unlikely candidate for adaptation to the pitch-bending embellishments and sinuous melodic lines characteristic of raga performance, Shiv Kumar Sharma created a range of sophisticated santur techniques that brilliantly represent the sound and spirit of raga. This was the craft and sensibility that Rahul Sharma learned from his father.
Indian raga thus became the musical lingua franca for the meeting of Homayun Sakhi and Rahul Sharma.
Their fluency in the language of raga was in some sense a vestige of the enormous momentum of Mughal artistic synthesis, which persisted long past the cultural apogee of the empire, drawing an ever-expanding constellation of regional instruments and performance traditions into the cosmopolitan musical domain that was one of its great artistic legacies. Homayun and Rahul’s magisterial rendition of raga Kirwani on In the Footsteps of Babur includes tabla player Salar Nader, a young Afghan- American disciple of the renowned tabla master Ustad Zakir Hussain. “Raga Kirwani” is followed by “Misra Kirwani,” a lighter and shorter improvised piece based on the same melodic motifs and modal characteristics as raga Kirwani. Two other ragas - Bhupali and Vachaspati - are also represented on the CD, each in a solo performance, on the Afghan rubab and santur, respectively.
At the same time that instruments such as the rubab and santur from the geographical margins of the Mughal Empire became a part of the Hindustani classical music tradition, they remained popular among performers of many kinds of local folk music. Rahul Sharma drew on the folksong tradition of Jammu, in the southwest of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, for the charming melody that serves as the basis for an extemporized duet he performs with Homayun Sakhi. Rahul taught the melody to Homayun, and they quickly worked out an arrangement.
Two other pieces, “Sayr-i Badakhshan” (A Stroll in Badakhshan) and “Zuhal’s Song,” bring together a different configuration of instruments from Central Asia and the subcontinent. In these sprightly, folk-like pieces, Homayun Sakhi and Salar Nader, on Afghan rubab and tabla, team up with master musicians from Tajikistan, Afghanistan’s neighbor to the north. In this collaboration, the tabla represents the influence of India in a sound rooted in the Persian-speaking world from which Mughal artists and musicians drew much of their inspiration.
One of the musicians from Tajikistan, Mukhtor Muborakqadomov, lives not far from the Afghan border, in the Pamir Mountains of Badakhshan, a culturally autonomous region that straddles the boundary between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Mukhtor plays the Badakhshani setar, a long-necked lute whose multiple sympathetic strings and soothing timbre call to mind the sound of the setar’s near-namesake, the Indian sitar. Unlike the sitar, however, the Badakhshani setar is purely a village instrument - an artifact of the long tradition of music, poetry, and spirituality among inhabitants of the austere settlements that dot the steep alpine slopes and valleys of the Pamirs.
The second musician from Tajikistan, dutar player Sirojiddin Juraev, grew up in and around Khujand, the main city of northern Tajikistan, not far from the birthplace of Emperor Babur, in Ferghana. Sirojiddin’s instrument, the dutar, has old roots in the Ferghana Valley region, which encompasses both Khujand and Ferghana. These days, the dutar, like the Afghan rubab, lives a dual musical life in which it is used both by performers of classical music and folk music. Sirojiddin studied the classical tradition of Shashmaqom - historically linked to the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, and now proclaimed by both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as a monument of intangible cultural heritage - but he’s also fond of folk and popular music, and readily joined in the extemporaneous arranging of “Sayri Badakhshan” and “Zuhal’s Song.”
Between the ensemble pieces are two short instrumental duets, “Ruboyat-i Vanj” and “Bilak Uzuk,” which pair the setar and tanbur with tabla - a pairing that wouldn’t occur in present-day Badakhshan or northern Tajikistan, where the customary percussion instruments are frame drums. The tabla, a product of the Mughal-era fusion of Persian percussion and Indian sensibility, provides an Indian accent to the sounds of Central Asian instruments, reanimating the artistic synthesis of two great and enduring musical civilizations.
Since immigrating to the United States in 2002, Homayun Sakhi has established a worldwide reputation as the outstanding Afghan rubab player of his generation. His artistry demonstrates how an imaginative musician working within a traditional musical idiom can enrich and expand its expressive power, while respecting the taste and sensibility passed down from master musicians of the past. Sakhi’s performance style has been shaped not only by the musical traditions to which Afghan music is geographically and historically linked but by his lively interest in contemporary music from around the world. Born in Kabul into one of Afghanistan’s leading musical families, he studied rubab with his father, Ustad Ghulam Sakhi, in the traditional form of apprenticeship known as ustadshagird (Persian: “master-apprentice”). Ghulam Sakhi was heir to a musical lineage that began in the 1860s, when the ruler of Kabul, Amir Sher Ali Khan, brought classically trained musicians from India to perform at his court. Over the next hundred years, Indian musicians thrived there, and Kabul became a center for the performance of North Indian classical music. Musicians in Kabul also cultivated the art of playing the rubab, which was prominent in regional folk music. Today the people of Afghanistan regard the rubab with great pride as their national instrument. Homayun Sakhi currently resides in Fremont, California, a major cultural center of Afghan émigré life, where he opened a school to teach Afghan music to children. His busy performance schedule regularly takes him to cities around the world.
Born in Mumbai in 1972, Rahul Sharma is heir to the Indian classical santur tradition established by his esteemed father, Shiv Kumar Sharma. “It wasn’t a preconceived idea that I would become a professional musician,” Rahul recounted. “I majored in economics at university, and didn’t begin performing publicly on the santur until I was around 22. But once I started, it just took off. In the last dozen years, I’ve probably released more than 40 albums and had a lot of opportunities to collaborate with international musicians. I’ve always enjoyed composing. Ever since I was a kid, I played the Casio synthesizer and composed my own tunes. Composing offers freedom from the discipline of classical music. When I was growing up, I was fascinated not just by Indian classical music but by world music and rock. I listened to the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Celtic music, Sting. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s collaborations with Michael Brook inspired me. So I thought, why don’t I do something like this with santur? I’ve always had a desire to experiment. I played with Shakti and John McLaughlin, and with percussionist Zakir Hussain and mandolin player U. Srinivas. The santur is not just a classical instrument. It has a whole different side. My father established the santur in the classical mode. Now it’s ready to head off into new realms. I’m still experimenting.”
Salar Nader is one of his generation’s leading performers on the tabla. His parents emigrated from Afghanistan to Germany, where Nader was born in 1981. At the age of three, he came to the United States, and at age seven, he began formal tabla study with renowned tabla master Ustad Zakir Hussain. Nader frequently accompanies Homayun Sakhi and other performers of Afghan and North Indian classical music. He is also active as a performer in world percussion and jazz-fusion groups. A resident of San Francisco, Nader recently appeared as an onstage musician in an American theatrical adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s bestselling novel, The Kite Runner. In addition to his performance activities, Salar is a devoted teacher of tabla.
Sirojiddin Juraev comes from a lineage of dutar players in his native region of northern Tajikistan. “Both my father and grandfather played the dutar,” said Sirojiddin, “and my first ustad was my father. Later I studied at the Music College in Khujand and at Khujand University, and after that, at the Academy of Maqam, in Dushanbe, where my ustad was Abduvali Abdurashidov. I listen a lot to old recordings of the great ustads, and when I listen to their records and hear something I really like, I try to learn those tunes. Now I teach dutar in the National Conservatory in Dushanbe. When I feel inspired, I also compose my own music on the dutar. If you listen a lot to old records that are inspiring, there should be an urge to compose. You can’t compose from a void. There has to be an inspiration that comes from listening to a master.”
Badakhshani setar player Mukhtor Muborakqadomov makes his home in a village near Khorog, the regional capital and Badakhshan’s largest city, with a population of around 40,000. “I began playing the setar when I was in eighth grade. I learned by ear from my uncle,” said Mukhtor. “I’ve never learned to read music. I like Indian music and frequently listen to it, so probably that’s why my style sounds Indian.” Mukhtor is a member of the Badakhshan Ensemble (featured on Music of Central Asia, vol. 5), which performs both traditional Badakhshani music and contemporary pop songs - the latter typically in the context of local wedding festivities, for which Mukhtor plays electronic keyboard in place of setar. He is also a composer who creates original melodies for song lyrics drawn from classical Persian and Badakhshani poetry.