Akbar, the Great Mughal, was a great patron of art and learning. He had drawn to his Court some of the greatest intellectual and artistic luminaries of the age. Being a contemporary of Sulaiman, the Magnificent of Turkey and Queen Elizabeth of England, his brilliant rule was distinguished for internal peace and prosperity-qualities which are greatly instrumental in preparing the ground for the development of arts and sciences. Tan Sen, the celebrated vocal musician, whose name has become a household word in the realm of music, was one of the brightest gems that adorned the Durber of Akbar, the Great. The stately edifice of modern Indo-Pakistani music has been raised on the foundations laid by the genius of Tan Sen.
Abul Fazal, the author of the well-known Aeen-e-Akbari, pays glowing tribute to the matchless art of Tan Sen when he says: “A singer like him had not appeared in India for the last thousand years—such a genius in music might not be born again”.
Tan Sen was born in a Brahmin family of Benares in 1506 A.C. His father Mukundaram, himself a good singer, led an unhappy life in spite of being extremely rich. Several sons were born to him, but none had survived. Mukundaram had learnt of a Muslim Saint Hazrat Muhammad Ghaus residing at Gwalior, whose fame as a spiritualist had reached the distant corners of the subcontinent. Mukundaram went to pay homage to the celebrated Saint who gave him an amulet for his wife intimating him that all rites being strictly observed, he would be blessed with a gifted son. The words of the Saint bore fruit and shortly after a son was born to him who was named Ramtanu.
Ramtanu had no charm for academic pursuits and possessed a romantic nature. He was blessed with a wonderful natural gift of possessing a perfect voice and in his childhood, he could successfully imitate the voices of animals and birds. By a strange coincidence, he came into contact with his professional Guru, Swami Haridas, a hermit of Bindraban, who was on his way to Benares along with his disciples. All of a sudden the companions of the hermit were terrified by the roar of a nearby lion. But he was satisfied that no lion was found in those parts of the country, and a search led to the discovery of Ramtanu, who was roaming about in the suburbs of the Holy city. Ramtanu was taken as a disciple of Swami Haridas and taken to Bindraban, where he developed his art of vocal music to such a high degree, where none could reach during the last thousand years or more. Just like Plato, the teacher of Aristotle, Haridas will go down in the musical history of the world as the teacher of inimitable Tan Sen.
The Sen remained in Bindraban for about ten years. Therefrom he went to Gwalior to fulfill the last wish of his dead father who had instructed him to devote his life to the service of his spiritual ‘Guru’, Hazrat Muhammad Ghaus. Tan Sen had an access to the Court of Maharaja Man Singh of Gwalior and his talented Queen Mriganayani. There he fell in love with Husaini Brahmani (a Muslim convert) and embraced Islam having been named Ata Ali Khan. After the death of Hazrat Muhammad Ghaus, Ata Ali Khan (Tan Sen) again migrated to Bindraban and completed his course in music.
By this time, the fame of Tan Sen as a vocal and classical musician had reached the distant corners of India. Maharaja Raja Ram of Rewa invited him to join his Court as his Court musician. Emperor Akbar who once visited Rewa had an opportunity of listening to the matchless songs of Tan Sen and was charmed by the melodies of the immaculate artiste. The Maharaja of Rewa grasped the opportunity of winning the favor of the Emperor by offering his celebrated Tan Sen to Akbar in 1556 A.C. and thus opened the most glorious chapter in the life of the famous musician. The Durbar of Akbar was adorned, besides his nine gems, with experts of arts and learning. Out of a host of vocal and instrumental musicians, who warmed the meetings of the Emperor, Mian Tan Sen, and his four sons, namely, Surat Sen, Sarat Sen, Taranga Sen, and Bilas Khan, won a high reputation in the world of music.
Hazrat Amir Khusrou, the most talented and versatile genius that Muslim India has produced had the distinction of being the originator of a new style in Indian music which was a sweet fusion of Hindu and Muslim elements. He was the master artist who is known in the annals of Indian Music as the inventor of Khiyal, Kaul, and Qalbana. Tan Sen, coming later on, popularised and improved upon the innovations of the earlier master, opening new vista for Indian music. His innovations in vocal music are known as Mian Ka Rag (The Song of Mian Tan Sen). Of his direct descendants and disciples, his son Bilas Khan and his son-in-law Misri Singhi kept aloft the high reputation of their immortal teacher. Bilas Khan is known as the originator of Bilas Khan Todi-a song which acquired immense popularity throughout the subcontinent. One of his descendants brought about beneficial changes in the Sitar by increasing its strings. Niyamat Khan Shah Sadarang a descendant of Misri Singhi, living in the reign of the last Mughal Emperor, improved upon the Khiyal songs.
Mian Tan Sen had become a legendary figure in the realm of music and many interesting stories are current in this subcontinent about his musical performances, which though apparently incredulous cannot be lightly brushed aside and, on the other hand, bear ample testimony to the hold of music over the elements of nature. Like all great men, Tan Sen, too, had his enemies who were jealous of his unique success. They conspired against his life by instigating the Mughal Emperor to persuade Tan Sen to give a performance of Dipak song, which the Emperor had not listened so far. Tan Sen contended that the singing of such a song would endanger his life, but this plea only added to the curiosity of the Emperor who struck to his order. Tan Sen was obliged to consent to and requested for 15 days time in order to make necessary preparations. Within this period he taught his talented daughter the art of Megh Raga. The appointed day at last came and the Emperor along with his Courtiers waited impatiently for the commencement of the fateful song. Tan San began singing the Dipak Raga. His eyes became blood shot and at the end of the fourth song, the entire hall was lit and afire. The audience ran helter-skelter and Tan Sen himself hurried home crying with burning sensations. His daughter started her Megha Raga. Suddenly the sky was overcast with clouds and rain began to pour down in torrents. The cool breeze and the refreshing rain soothed the burning sensations caused by the Dipak Raga in the body of Tan Sen. The injurious effects of the Dipak song did not disappear completely and Tan Sen was confined to bed for more than a quarter year.
Tan Sen, having grown too old, was permitted by Emperor to lead a retired life at Gwalior on a pension of Rs. 2,000/- a month. His four sons were taken as Court musicians by Akbar on handsome salaries. He died at a mature age of 80 years in 1585 A.C. and in compliance with his last wish was buried by the side of his spiritual teacher Hazrat Muhammad Ghaus in Gwalior. A tamarind tree casts its shade over his grave and it is said that chews the leaves of this tree is blessed with a melodious voice.