Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Baabul Moraa........ The Lament of Exile

Baabul Moraa, Naihar Chhuuto Hii Jaae
Baabul Moraa, Naihar Chhuuto Hii Jaae
Chaar Kahaar Mil, Morii Doliyaa Sajaave.
Moraa Apanaa Begaanaa Chhuto Jaae.”

O father, I depart forcibly from my home
Four men gathered to lift my palanquin
My loved ones will become strangers
The innermost portals of my home will be unreachable

Generations of Indians must have grown up on this haunting thumri in Raag Bhairavi since K.L.Saigal immortalized it in the 1938 film, “Street Singer”. Not many may know its history and source; typically it has become exemplified as a folk melody associated with Vidai rituals when a bride leaves her father’s home for her husband’s home.

I thought the same too; till a stray paragraph in a book I recently read and reviewed by the name of “Those Days” indicated that the truth might lie some where else and that the lingering melody is actually a song of lament – a dirge, if you will at being hounded of home and hearth, never to return again. The lament is that of the last Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, whose life and times have been immortalized by Satyajit Ray in Shatranj ke Khilari. The origins of this composition and its composer - the epicure Wajid Ali Shah - are not as well known.

Wajid Ali Shah wasn’t probably much of a king but he was surely an artiste and a connoisseur and his lament at being exiled out of his beloved Lucknow, was the first modern original inheritance of loss that is recorded. In fact the annexation of Awadh or Audhas the British spelt was one of the events that led to the first war of independence in 1857. That he was popular enough in his own way is evidenced by the fact that when his royal caravan left Lucknow, the poets of his court lamented the exile of the Nawab as follows:

Lucknow bekas huwa Hazrat jo-gaye,

Fazle gul kab ayegi, kab honge aakar naghma sanjh,

Ek muddat ho gayi murgaane gulshan ko gaye”

One’s roots and ancestry is a strange thing. Whether it is a forced migration as it was in the case of Wajid Ali Shah or a voluntary exiling of one self for the sale of a better life as it is often the case today, there is an inner lament that may never find proper expression in words unless one is a writer of some kind. it is possible that Saigal’s song found the enduring popularity it did with just a tabla and a harmonium as an accompaniment because its heart tugging words pulled a chord in the heart of every body who has felt alienated and the strange foreboding that one is bidding farewell to a familiar territory.

There is an anecdote about the song composed by Wajid Ali Shah got into a Hindi movie. After the British annexed Awadh, they exiled him to the Metiaburz suburb of Kolkata, where he established a mini court with some pomp but no glory. There he tried to recreate the fabled charm of his legendary Lucknow and his mehfils were the favored destination of the Kolkata aristocracy.

The Nawab’s dirge was often sung there and though much of the pomp of the court vanished after Wajid Ali Shah died in 1887, the song remained on the repertoire of the musicians lamenting their own fall from grace. It continued to be sung in the progressively decaying music concerts of Kolkata, till Rai Chand Boral, the producer of Street Singer chanced to hear it in one of them and decided that it was just fitting for K.L.Saigal and the film. History has of course proved him right.

Finally of course, those who have read the biography of the Last Mughal by William Dalyrymple will know that Wajid Ali Shah wasn’t the last to die mourning the inheritance of his loss. Bahadur Shah Zafar, one of whose honorifics was jahanpanah (the shelter of the world) was exiled out of Delhi’s Red Fort to distant Rangoon and die lamenting that the one who once provided shelter to the world did not have luxury of being certain of a few meters of ground for his burial and a few yards of cloth for his shroud. If you have read the first few chapters of Dalyrmple’s book will know how the emperor was eventually buried. Loss is a strange phenomenon. It spares nobody. May be those boarding those crowded trains to get out of Maharashtra will not know but the eviction game has happened before. And will keep happening again and again.

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