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I can live without anything but music: Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who played sitar

Saquib Salim

“You (Sardar Patel) perhaps do not know that I (Maulana Azad) have always taken a keen interest in Indian music and at one time practiced it myself.” Maulana Abul Kalam Azad wrote to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in a letter dated 10 February 1947. He was dissatisfied with the “standard of music of All India Radio broadcast” and asked Patel to look into the matter so “that All India Radio should set the standard in Indian music and lead to its continual improvement.”

It is a lesser-known fact that Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, an Islamic scholar and a freedom fighter, was a trained musician.

Maulana Azad in an unposted letter, dated 16 September 1943, to Maulana Habibur Rahman Sherwani, wrote, “Let me tell you one thing! I have contemplated this many times. I can be happy without everything in life, but I can’t live without music. For me, the sound of music is the support of life, the cure of mental efforts, and the cure of all diseases of the body….If you want to deprive me of the comforts of life, just deprive me of this thing and your purpose will be fulfilled.”

Maulana Azad developed an interest in music in 1905 after he bought Raag Darpan, a Persian translation of an ancient Sanskrit text on Indian Music by Faqirullah Saif Khan (a musician contemporary of Aurangzeb). When he was at the bookshop Denis Ross, Principal of Aliah College, Kolkata, challenged a 17-year-old Maulana to explain the content of this book. He did not know music and couldn’t explain. After this, he took it as a challenge to learn music.

Maulana asked Masita Khan, a disciple of his Sufi father and an accomplished musician trained in Jaipur and Delhi traditions, to teach him. Maulana’s father was against music and thus Masita trained him at a friend’s home. It didn’t take long for him to learn sitar. He kept training sitar daily for almost five years until he became an accomplished sitar player. 

Maulana Azad wrote, “There is an incident of the same period that the trip to Agra was agreed upon. It was the month of April and there were moonlit nights. When the last watch of the night was about to begin, the moon curtain would be removed and one by one would peek. I had made special efforts to arrange for the Taj to take a sitar at night and sit on its roof facing the Yamuna. Then, as soon as the moonlight began to spread, he would play a song on the sitar and get lost in it. What shall I say and how shall I say how the flashes of illusion have passed before these very eyes.”

Maulana Azad in this 26 pages long letter wrote a concise history of Indian music and its development through the middle ages. In his view, music runs through the veins of India. When Aurangzeb banned music that couldn’t stop Indians from learning and playing music. The order could only affect court musicians but several musicians kept the tradition alive outside the royal courts.

When after independence Maulana Azad took charge as the Education Minister of India he took a special interest in the promotion of Indian music. One of the first tasks undertaken by his ministry was to establish a trust for training in music, drama, and dancing in Indian culture. 

In a speech delivered on 29 August 1949, Maulana Azad said, “There should for the purpose be three Academies, namely, an Academy of Letters to deal with Indian languages, literature, philosophy and history, an Academy of Arts (including graphic, plastic and applied art) and Architecture, and an Academy of Dance, Drama, and Music. The object of these Academies would be to develop, promote, and foster studies in the subjects with which they deal.” 

He also declared, “The Government of India have, as a first step towards the encouragement of Indian Music, promoted the establishment of two academies — one of Hindustani Music at Lucknow and the other of Karnataka Music at Madras. The object of these academies will be to promote advanced studies and research in these branches of Indian Music.”

On 28 January 1953 while inaugurating the Indian Academy of Dance, Drama and Music (Sangeet Natak Akademi) Maulana Azad said, “it is my conviction that in the field of music, the achievement of India is greater than that of even Greece. The breadth and depth of Indian music is perhaps unrivalled as is its integration of vocal and instrumental music. The essence of Indian civilization and culture has always been a spirit of assimilation and synthesis. Nowhere is this more clearly shown than in the field of music.”

Maulana Azad further said “This precious heritage of dance, drama and music is one which we must cherish and develop. We must do so not only for our own sake but also as our contribution to the cultural heritage of mankind. Nowhere is it truer than in the field of art, that to sustain means to create. Traditions cannot be preserved but can only be created afresh. It will be the aim of these academies to preserve our traditions by offering them an institutional form.”

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Financial aid to students and institutions were also earmarked for the promotion of Indian music by Maulana Azad during his tenure as Education Minister. 

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