The Enigma of Amir Khusrau’s

Contribution to Indian Music

The Enigma of Amir Khusrau’s Contribution to Indian Music
by Yousuf Saeed

A large number of claims are made, especially by the practitioners of Hindustani classical tradition and Sufi musical cultures of north India and Pakistan, about what the 14th century poet Amir Khusrau ‘invented’ or contributed to Indian music. The list of such claims features instruments such as sitar and tabla, song types such as qawwali, qaul, qalbana, tarana, khayal, sohela and baseet, and ragas such as aiman, sazgeeri, ushshaq, bakharaz and even talas such as soolfakhta. All these names and their association with Khusrau has obviously been remembered and transmitted over centuries through oral memory in the families of musicians in north India, and even mentioned in some historical texts from the Mughal period onwards. There is very little information from the contemporary sources of Khusrau’s era itself to prove these attributes.

Interestingly, Amir Khusrau himself (while having great interest in music and musicality) did not mention having invented anything in music, even though he boasts so much about his innovations in poetry and language. However, in a couplet from a poem discussing the pros and cons of music and poetry, he says, “(so far) I have composed three divans of poetry, and I could, if you believe me, write three volumes of music too.”1 This statement is often interpreted assuming that Khusrau could have preserved his musical compositions if there was a language or system (such as notations) to write music. Interestingly, he makes similar claims elsewhere regarding his Hindavi verse too; that he loves writing poetry in Hindavi but has distributed it among friends.2 It is possible that he did compose music for his ghazals, to be performed by artists in the court, but such compositions could not be preserved. Let us, in this write-up, take a brief look at some of the sources where one can find information about Khusrau’s contribution to Indian music.

Among the sources other than his own works, one may start with a short sentence by Ziauddin Barani,3 Khusrau’s contemporary and friend, that “in the singing and composing of music, he was a great expert”. Although this statement does not specify a style of music (Indian or Persian), nor defines ‘composing’,4 it has been used as an important piece of evidence by later historians and musicians in Khusrau’s favour. However, music treatises in Persian such as Ghuniatul Munia (14th century), or a little later Lahjat-e Sikandar Shahi (late 15th century), have no mention of Amir Khusrau or his music inventions.5 Nor do they contain the words sitar or tabla. It is not before the 16th century that one gets the next mention of Khusrau’s music, in Abul Fazl’s Ain-e Akbari which refers to two of Delhi’s qawwals, Samat and Tatar who sang qaul and tarana (song types) of Amir Khusrau.6 This phrase probably became the basis of the claim that Khusrau was the inventor of qawwali, until Mehmood Sherani in the 20th century found out that these two qawwals may simply be contemporaries of Khusrau and hailed from the families of qawwals living around the hospice of Nizamuddin.7 Khusrau mentions the words qaul and tarana but simply as poetic/musical genres of his times, and not specifically as something that he invented or composed. These may have existed from earlier times, and given the literal meaning of the two, their form could have been vastly different from the qaul and tarana one hears today.8

Abdul Hamid Lahori (d.1654) in his Badshahnama9 goes a step ahead of Abul Fazl: he adds khayal and farsi (as a music genre) to the list of qaul and tarana, as Khusrau’s innovations. A little later, Faqirullah Saif Khan, an emir of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, amplifies this list manifold in his treatise, Rag Darpan (1666),10 as he adds khayal, naqsh, nigar, baseet, tillana, and sohela to the inventions of Khusrau. In addition, he lists ten ragas as Khusrau’s creations, including zeelaf, farghana, sarpardah, sazgeeri, aiman, and so on – this is the first time that ragas are attributed to Khusrau. (Interestingly, at least four of these ragas are Iranian and/or Turkish maqams that may have been prevalent in India in Khusrau’s times.) And if that was not enough, Faqirullah tells a spicy tale where Khusrau competed in the darbar with a music maestro of his time, Nayak Gopal, and won, by first hearing his performance hidden beneath the throne (takht), and then presenting a better version of every raga that Gopal sang!

Rag Darpan became the basis for much of the later writings on Khusrau’s music, in Persian, English and Urdu, including by Shibli No’mani and Maulana Azad,11 who further testified to Khusrau’s contributions in the said genres. But Malik finds Rag Darpan a dubious source, as large passages in it seem lifted straight from Ain-e Akbari, although Faqirullah claims to have translated it mostly from a vernacular treatise Manakutuhala. In the mid-19th century, Munshi Karam Imam benefited largely from Rag Darpan in enlisting Khusrau’s contributions in his Ma’danul Mauseeqi (published 1935), which in turn benefited Naqi M. Khorjavi for his Urdu book Hayat-e Amir Khusrau mae I’jad-e Mauseeqi.12 The list of genres or song types attributed to Khusrau keeps swelling – now also including the names of talas (time cycle) such as asoole-fakhta, farodast and so on. These books were taken as sources for most 20th century writings on Khusrau’s music, without an investigation on their origins. The information contained in them was either read by or percolated down to the practicing musicians, and since genres, ragas or talas with those names (tarana, sazgeeri, soolfakhta…) were in practice, their mention in a book with Khusrau’s name gave them much credibility.

But the oral history of Khusrau’s music should not be seen disconnected from a larger popular folklore. M. Husain Azad’s Aab-e Hayat (1907), a spiced up but less authentic history of Urdu poetry, ascribes many stories and popular songs to Khusrau, including folk songs for girls and grown-up women sung during sawan (rainy season), basant (spring), weddings, and virah (separation from the beloved), along with their cultural connotations, such as girls singing Khusrau songs while swinging under mango trees.13 Azad also makes the usual claims such as Khusrau’s replacing dhrupat by creating qaul and qalbana, and inventing sitar by reducing the been (ancient Indian lute) in size. He tells interesting tales about Khusrau imitating the rhythmic sounds of nature and music into Persian syllables and poetry. Some of those Persian words and phrases still resound in today’s tarana bols (lyrics) and talas ascribed to Khusrau.

The 20th century saw much interest in and writings on Khusrau. In a project to preserve his heritage, nine volumes of Khusrau’s poetry and prose were published between 1917 and 1933 in Aligarh, along with a compilation of his Hindavi poetry, Jawahar-e Khusravi, featuring a variety of popular riddles, couplets, and songs (including basant, qalbana, and many verses that qawwals sing). Nawab Is’haq Khan, the promoter of this project describes the great efforts made to procure Khusrau’s Hindavi poetry from different sources, including enquiring from the qawwals living around the tomb of Nizamuddin Aulia. Amin Abbas Chiriakoti, one of the compilers of the Jawahar, mentions Hasan Nizami (the chief Sufi at Nizamuddin’s shrine) among those who contributed material for the book. This shows an important synergetic point between the oral and documented sources while writing Khusrau’s history.

The invention of sitar, the most widely held claim about Khusrau, was questioned first by Waheed Mirza in his Ph.D. thesis on the life and works of Khusrau in 1927, as he did not find the word sitar in Khusrau’s works. He has referred to the sitar’s roots being in central Asia or in the ancient veena. However, a lot of other information on Khusrau’s music, such as his invented ragas or the story of Nayak Gopal, has been sourced in Mirza’s work from Rag Darpan. In the later, Urdu version of his book,14 Mirza quotes from Saut-ul Mubarak of Wajid Ali Shah, where he acknowledges Khusrau as a nayak but only of khayal and not of dhrupad. However, Wajid Ali Shah complains that Khusrau destroyed the thousand year old systems and instruments of Indian music with his innovations, and “his (music) disciples started mocking the kalavants (expert performers) who were considered masters of music since the time of Mahadev”. Mirza defends Khusrau here by commenting that his innovations may have paved the way for a change in an ancient system that had stopped growing beyond a point.

The next wave of activities on the subject, the biggest so far in South Asia, was the 700th anniversary of Amir Khusrau celebrated in 1975, when a large number of new writings and publications were brought out in India and Pakistan. While some were published under state-sponsored central agencies (such as the National Amir Khusrau Society in India, and the National Committee Baraye Saat Sau Salah Taqreebat-e Amir Khusrau in Pakistan),15 many individuals too were inspired to take initiatives to write on Khusrau.16 The busiest man that year must have been Zoe Ansari who edited over 8 books, wrote many long essays, voiced radio programmes, and translated countless couplets of Khusrau.17 The anthologies edited by Ansari and others contain many essays on Khusrau’s music.

In one such essay, entitled Ghazal Sara Khusrau,18 Shahab Sarmadee recreates the music scene of the Delhi Sultanate era to analyze the tools and resources that Khusrau may have been exploiting while putting his ghazals to music for the court. Dissecting today’s versions of genres like qalbana, tarana and qawwali in the light of numerous clues he found in the works of Khusrau and Barani, Sarmadee discusses the intricate experiments that Khusrau (or other musicians in his supervision) may have been conducting with swaras (notes), ragas, laya (rhythm), improvisation, lyrics, and so on, to achieve the desired effect while rendering the ghazals for court or Sufi sama. Although a bit technical for laypersons, Sarmadee’s essay is like a piecing together of an enigma, where oral and documented histories intertwine seamlessly. It has other invaluable titbits too, such as the reason why qaul and qalbana are sung in taar saptak (upper octave), also referred to as Amiri saptak by Abdulhaleem Jafar Khan19 in the same volume.

Another scholar to have seriously pursued Khusrau and the subject of ‘Muslim’ contribution to South Asian classical music is K.C. Brahaspati who, being close to the nawab of Rampur, had access to Persian and Sanskrit manuscripts at the famous Rampur Raza library. Writing in Hindi, Brahaspati came up with interesting new arguments,20 such as the fact that the ancient jati or murchhana system of raga classification was replaced by a new mela system during the sultanate period, with Khusrau playing an important role in its transition (although Jairazbhoy21 finds a large gap of time between the two systems). The most peculiar assertion of Brahaspati is a twist he provides to the Gopal Nayak-Khusrau myth: since the murchhana system could not be taught to non-Brahmins, Khusrau had to evolve a new, mela paddhati (system) using Irani maqams. And during their music contest, even though Gopal appeared to have lost, in reality he won as he kept the secret of murchhanas concealed (gupt), while Khusrau revealed (prakat) the mela system!22 Brahaspati quotes a dhrupad song ascribed to Baiju to back this story.23

Brahaspati also pointed out that the sitar may have been invented by Khusrau Khan, the younger brother of Sadarang, a Mughal court musician, instead of Amir Khusrau, although this has been contested by Badruzzaman,24 and Allyn Miner25 who finds yet another Amir Khusrau, of the 18th century (!) for the sitar’s development. (In fact one needs to investigate if the presence of these later musicians named Khusrau played any role in the creation of the 14th century Khusrau’s music myths). Anyhow, Brahaspati’s other important effort is the tracing of musicians who professed Khusrau’s music over the years. According to him, Khusrau’s music system (mel or Indraprastha mat) had reached south India via Hasan Gango, a disciple of Nizamuddin and friend of Khusrau who established the Bahmani sultanate in Deccan - his court later boasted of 300 musicians who could sing Khusrau’s ghazals. In the north, this practice continued in Jaunpur under Husain Shah Sharqi (r.1458-1505), from where it reached Agra, Gwalior, Atrauli, and nearby towns that have been its repositories till date. Although Brahaspati’s sources are elusive,26 some of them could be traced to Rag Darpan that lists many contemporary musicians such as ’Idi Singh and Sayyad Khan Nauhar as experts in Amir Khusrau’s music.27

It would be unfair to ignore works on Khusrau’s music by musicians themselves, mostly published around the 7th centenary celebration. One is Naghmat-e Khusrau28 by Ghulam Hyder of Lahore, documenting Khusrau’s song compositions in the specified ragas and talas with modern notation. The other is Mauseeqi-e Hazrat Amir Khusrau by Ustad Chand Khan of Delhi,29 with the usual details on sitar, tabla, ragas and song types such as qalbana, sohla, sanam, ghanam and so on. But a larger part of Chand Khan’s book is about how most of Indian music has roots in Arabia! He finds Arabic equivalents of many Indian raga names, but without much clues to the sources of his information, the reason why he has not been taken seriously by scholars. Otherwise he and his descendents are probably the most dedicated claimants of Khusrau’s music inventions today.

Malik, however, finds these claims about Khusrau wishful thinking of the musicians, blindly believed by the scholars.30 He insists that Khusrau not only had no contribution to Indian music, he even gave preference to poetry over music as evident in his verse.31 Malik finds almost all terms such as tarana, qaul, qalbana, zeelaf, farghana, sarpardah and so on as well-established genres, song types, maqams or other musical terms migrated from Central Asia before, during or after Khusrau’s time. On the other hand, one also finds enough evidence about Khusrau’s scrupulous knowledge of musical sciences and practice – even the fact that he excelled in the playing of rubab and chang, and could teach these to other musicians.32 A section from Khusrau’s prose work, I’jaz-e Khusravi, called “On Shooting Forth Roots & Branches of Music”33 that Madhu Trivedi and others quote, is a complex text with metaphorical references to the music of his times, which deserves a more comprehensive interpretation to resolve the enigma of Khusrau’s contribution to music.

To conclude, while one cannot reject all the claims made about Khusrau’s music contribution without investigating where they originated from, one also cannot ignore a large amount of Indo-Persian literature and historical sources available worldwide to fully understand and appreciate Amir Khusrau’s music heritage. But in order to recreate this holistic image of Khusrau, one needs to be an expert not only of music and musicology but also of language and literature since the two are inseparable, especially in the eyes of Amir Khusrau.

To conclude, while one cannot reject all the claims made about Khusrau’s music contribution without investigating where they originated from, one also cannot ignore a large amount of Indo-Persian literature and historical sources available worldwide to fully understand and appreciate Amir Khusrau’s music heritage. But in order to recreate this holistic image of Khusrau, one needs to be an expert not only of music and musicology but also of language and literature since the two are inseparable, especially in the eyes of Amir Khusrau.

About the author:
Yousuf Saeed is an author and filmmaker working on Indo-Persian and Indo-Muslim culture and arts for over two decades. He directed documentary films like Boojh Sake To Boojh (1997) and Khayal Darpan (2006) among others. He is the author of Muslim Devotional Art in India (2012, Routledge).


  1. quoted from Khusrau’s ‘Majalla-e Mauseeqi’, Tehran, in Rasheed Malik, Amir
    Khusrau ka Ilm-e Mauseqi, Lahore, 2000, 223.
  2. Khusrau, Amir, Deebacha-e Ghurratul Kamal, Urdu trans. by Lateef Ullah, Karachi,
  3. Malik, Rasheed, ‘Amir Khusrau Asateer Ke Narghe Mein’, in Al-Mu’arif, Lahore:
    Idara-e Saqafat-e Islamia, May-June 1993, 55-79.
  4. Barani uses the Persian word sakhtan, meaning ‘to create’ or ‘fabricate’.
  5. ibid
  6. ibid
  7. ibid
  8. Malik, Rasheed, 2000, ibid
  9. See a partial translation in Rasheed Malik, 1983, ibid
  10. Malik, Rasheed, Faqeerullah Saif Khan ki Rag Darpan ka Tanqeedi Ja’eza,
    Lahore, 1998.
  11. Malik, Rasheed, 1993, ibid
  12. Khorjavi, Naqi M. Khan, Hayat-e Amir Khusrau mae I’jad-e Mauseeqi, Karachi, 1960.
  13. Azad, Mohammad Husain, Ab-e Hayat, Lahore: Nawalkishore, 1907.
  14. Mirza, Waheed, Amir Khusrau, Delhi: National Amir Khusrau Society, 1986, 74-76.
  15. Various authors, Amir Khusrau aur Mauseeqi (muntakhab mazameen), foreword
    by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Islamabad: National Committee Baraye Satsau Salah
    Taqreebat-e Amir Khusrau, Ministry of Education, 1975.
  16. Parvez, Afzal, Hazrat Amir Khusrau aur Mauseeqi, Islamabad: National Institute of Folk Heritage, July 1975, (unpublished research report), 12 p, R1-48.
  17. Ansari, Zoe, Khusrau ka Zehni Safar, Delhi, Anjuman Taraqqi-e Urdu Hind, 1977.
  18. Ansari, Zoe and Abulfaiz Sahar, Khusrau Shanasi, Delhi, Taraqqi Urdu Bureau, 1975.
  19. Ja’far Khan, Abdulhaleem, Amir Khusrau aur Hindustani mauseeqi, in ibid
  20. Brahaspati, Kailash Chandra, Muslman aur Bhartiya Sangeet, Delhi: Rajkamal,
  21. Jairazbhoy, N.A., The Ragas of North Indian Music, Islamabad: Lok Virsa, 1971.
  22. Brahaspati, Acharya, ‘Bharatiya Sangeet ko Amir Khusrau ka Yogdan’, in Malik
    Mohammad, Amir Khusrau, Delhi, Pitambar, 1987, 266-274 (in Hindi).
  23. Brahaspati refers to a treatise Sangitachintamani for this.
  24. Badruzzaman, Sadarang, Lahore, Idara-e Farogh-e Fanne Mauseeqi, 1998.
  25. Miner, Allyn: Sitar and Sarod in the 18th and 19th Centuries, Delhi: Motilal, 1997.
  26. according to Rasheed Malik, Badruzzaman, and Miner.
  27. Malik, Rasheed, 1998, ibid
  28. Khan, Ghulam Hyder: Naghmat-e Khusrau, Lahore: Mashriqi Music Centre, 1977.
  29. Khan, Ustad Chand: Mauseeqi-e Hazrat Amir Khusrau, Delhi: Mauseeqi manzil, 1978
  30. Malik, Rasheed, 1993, ibid
  31. ibid 57-58.
  32. Trivedi, Madhu, ‘Music Patronage in Indo-Persian Context: An Historical Overview’, in Joep Bor, F.’Nalini’ Delvoye et al, (eds.), Hindustani Music: Thirteenth to Twentieth Centuries, New Delhi: Manohar, 2010, 65-93.
  33. Sarmadee, 2004, ibid