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The songs of Holi


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IT is Holi again and I am surprisingly riveted to YouTube, listening to Jaddan Bai’s lilting composition in Raga Durga. From the feel of it, she must have sung it in the 1930s.

The words from the 78rpm record are haunting, and flow like confident advice steeped in experience: “Roop, joban, goon dharay rahat hain in bhaagan ke aage.” [A beautiful visage, youth and all your talents fall powerless before the vagaries of fate and time.] It should not be surprising if many who claim the legacy of Ayodhya as being exclusively Hindu fail to understand the lines in Awadhi, the language in which Tulsidas wrote his epic poem ‘Ramcharitmanas’ in the much-maligned Mughal era. Malik Mohammed Jayasi and Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khana probably understood its syncretic message better.

Neither Jaddan Bai nor Raga Durga is of course identified in any special way with the festival of colours. The usual compositions sung around this time are mostly in Khamaj, Pilu, Gara and Kafi, all late or early afternoon ragas. It’s different today, though, as Holi revellers mostly dance to inordinately loud drums in imitation of Michael Jackson’s pelvic thrusts. There are the odd Holi compositions in Bhairavi, a morning raga, or even Tilak Kamod, a late evening melody. Most songs celebrate the frolic of the mythical Lord Krishna with the milkmaids of Mathura.

Earlier this week, I took a niece from Karachi to a festival of thumri in Delhi. The evening was crowned by a rare concert by Girija Devi, now in her 80s. She is perhaps the last surviving relic of the different, more agreeable world that India once was. Her peers included Rasoolan Bai who, like Jaddan Bai, belonged to the tradition of courtesan singers. In her memorable bass voice Rasoolan sang a few beautiful odes to Krishna and Rama. She stopped singing in the 1970s after her house was burnt down by a Hindu mob in Ahmedabad.

It is curious that Ahmedabad, which has given rise to Narendra Modi’s brand of religious intolerance, was also the venue where Begum Akhtar and many other Muslim musicians and poets were embraced with unalloyed love. Begum Akhtar died in the middle of a concert in Ahmedabad, in a way symbolising her devotion to the city. More recently, Modi’s mobs desecrated the grave of Wali Dakhani, the 17th-century poet who celebrated the Hindu Mecca of Varanasi thus: “Kucha-i-yaar ain kaasi hai, jogiya dil wahi’n ka baasi hai.” [My sweetheart lives in Benares, and my ascetic heart belongs there.]

Modi’s mobs also destroyed Fayyaz Khan’s grave in Baroda. The feisty singer devoted many compositions to Krishna and his frolic. The most celebrated exponent of Raas Leela, the story of Krishna’s dalliances, was of course Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. Before the British exiled him to Matia Burj near Calcutta, the Muslim nawab of Oudh was writing verses for thumris and composing ballets in the Kathak dance form, all glorifying the mythology of Krishna and the legend of Holi around him.

The ageing Birju Maharaj has preserved the nawab’s legacy. His outstanding skills with Kathak have won the guru wide adulation and an army of fawning students. Watching him among the audience last week while his disciples performed the ballet from the story of Prahlad was a treat for the visitor from Karachi. That legend forms a rival narrative of how Holi came into existence. By contrast, Sheema Kirmani was fighting hard to keep the tradition of Kathak alive in Pakistan, the niece noted.

Why was I listening to Jaddan Bai and Raga Durga on a day when the world around me was celebrating Holi with colours or partaking of that delightful brew called bhang? (Nazir Akbarabadi, often regarded as Ghalib’s peer, wrote some fabulous verses on Holi and bhang.) The fact is that I was looking for the family tree of Sanjay Dutt, the bad movie actor with a good heart who was recently handed a five-year prison term for his alleged involvement in the 1993 bomb attacks in Mumbai. He was found with a banned gun and perhaps a pistol, which he apparently got from shady friends belonging to Mumbai’s Muslim underworld.

Sanjay Dutt has Muslim and Hindu blood in him, if blood can be assigned that description at all. His mother was the 1950s movie star Nargis, whose mother was Jaddan Bai. As jumbled as any DNA can get, Jaddan Bai had three children from different men, two Hindus and a Muslim. Sanjay’s mother Nargis had a Hindu father, the only one who married Jaddan Bai. Sanjay’s father Sunil Dutt was a Husaini Brahmin. Legend has it that Husaini Brahmins fought in the battle of Karbala against the forces of Yazid. Whatever be the truth about the evolution of his religious heritage, Sanjay Dutt responded to the violence against Muslims in January 1993 in Mumbai with the helplessness increasingly identified with Indian Muslims. That moment of intense helplessness is being scrupulously shunned and underplayed as the media takes sides on whether he deserves to be pardoned.

The actor’s DNA has much to commend him. It could only happen in India that the most iconic Holi song was written by Shakeel Badayuni, composed by Naushad and sung by Shamshad Begum, three Muslim legends. And it was filmed on Nargis in a landmark role that cast her as Mother India. What religion was hers? “Holi ayee re Kanhaee, rang chhalke, suna de zara bansuri.” It was an anguished appeal to Krishna from his sweethearts not to stop playing his magic flute. Sanjay Dutt’s tragedy and Jaddan Bai’s syncretic legacy are tied to the fading notes of that song.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (34) Closed

SKChadha Mar 28, 2013 04:06am
Excluding writer?s fixation of Modi bashing, this is good writeup of harmonious India.
a.k.lal Mar 28, 2013 04:36am
sir, ----you are yet to move out of 18th century
Malik from Australia Mar 28, 2013 06:43am
Excellent piece, Jawed Sahib. Keep your finger on the pulse. People have short memories and someone has to keep them informed. In this regard, you are doing a noble job. God bless you.
Akhlesh Mar 28, 2013 07:40am
I do not think that Muslims are being deliberately marginalized in all of India. They are definitely under-represented in many walks of life---the ones that require modern education. They, like poor Hindus and people of other religions, need to ask for modern education for their children.
K G Surendran Mar 28, 2013 07:55am
When respected journalists use "much-maligned Mughal era" and "mythical Lord Krishna", it conveys a, possibly, a larger message which may not be comforting to many but with the intent of raising hackles. Besides how an article on Songs of Holi could meander to Sanjay Dutt is surprising because to write on Dutt, presently, songs of Holi need not be an excuse the writer could have easily devoted the entire article to Sanjay Dutt and it surely would have made interesting reading and raised tempers among some.
Krish Chennai Mar 28, 2013 08:49am
Coming to Sanjay Dutt, you could have maybe mentioned the great song "Insaaf ka Mandir hai yeh", lyrics by Shakeel Badayuni, from Mehboob's film Amar, sung by Mohammed Rafi, and music by the great Naushad, all Muslims. Sanjay Dutt could well draw some solace from that song now.
Krish Chennai Mar 28, 2013 08:58am
Not to forget that the one and only Yusuf Khan/Dilip Kumar rendered it on screen
Shweta Rajput Mar 28, 2013 09:12am
No one is above the constitution. Sanjay dutt has been acquitted from any link with terrorist activity. He was declared innocent by the court but he has been incarcerated for the illegal arms possession act. so dont be so haappy, Mr Frog of the well!
J.N Mar 28, 2013 09:29am
Perhaps it was because of all this cultural integration, that the Muslims panicked and aggressively demanded separateness in the form of Pakistan.
XL Mar 28, 2013 09:42am
If it was as simple as being caught with a banned weapon. He also let the underworld store the weapons at his place. The underworld used his house as a safe heaven for weapons. If not for the conniving Policemen and Sanjay Dutt, the blasts could have been avoided. Save your tears and bleeding heart. The day is not far that the spoiled brat of Bollywood will be let loose by politicians at the expense of those died in the blasts.
P,Mishra Mar 28, 2013 10:15am
Thank you Jawed sab, for enlightening us about our great cultural hairatage.
Sanjay Gupta Mar 28, 2013 10:15am
Agreed. And to write that Sanjay Dutt is discriminated because he is Muslim is bogus charge. His father was a noble person and great supporter of secularism. His life was threatened in 93 riots and Sanjay Dutt bought illegal gun for protection from shady people. Sanjay Dutt is much loved and much hated person at the same time not for his religion (which no one has clue) but for choices he has made; and films image he has portrayed.
rich Mar 28, 2013 10:42am
She is perhaps the last surviving relic of the different, more agreeable world that India once was. well for u perhaps, for us ordinary indian india is still agreeable, refarding sanjay dutt he has a strahge way of indentifying with muslim, with 3 ak56,some grenades, and a pistol, and he was not even threatned, in anyway refarding desegration of graves in gujrat, many temples too were destroyed by modi govt in road widening project infact even the sang was up in arms against him for it, he stoot his ground, in india i do not know abot pakistn, here they build mazar and temple everwher and causes incinviniance to everone, so clearing then =m is civic duty pls do not twist events the very thing that u brought ur neice to india shows how safe india is even towards muslims Richie
r.s.soni Mar 28, 2013 11:03am
sir, it is very well wrttenit is realy heart rendering. jadan bai was herself a great legend. she suffered a is very enlightening artcle. each and every word has toched my heart.your correspondent has done a great job. a good show
Sanjay Mar 28, 2013 11:08am
Jawed sahib, congrats for the wonderful write up. India is a delta of various cultures, religions, beliefs, mingling of races and genes and a goldmine of knowledge and wisdom. So many crazy people have surfaced over the centuries who thought they could manipulate and change things the way they wanted, but no body could even make a dent. So lets not worry about Modi. Nothing can change India and nothing will. We are Indians...religion really doesn't matter.
jo Mar 28, 2013 12:25pm
Typical Jawed Naqvi, twisting things in a manner that fact becomes fiction.
SS Mar 28, 2013 12:26pm
Jawed Naqvi in his usual style.Starts with something and ends with some other thing. Hard to understand what he is trying to convey. Sir,if you like to enlighten the readers about Holi and its rich tradition then why not just stick on to that. Why mixing up Dutt, DNA etc. into it.
G. Din Mar 28, 2013 12:33pm
"The fact is that I was looking for the family tree of Sanjay Dutt, the bad movie actor with a good heart who was recently handed a five-year prison term for his alleged involvement in the 1993 bomb attacks in Mumbai. " Factual error: He was given such a light sentence only for possession of a lethal gun. He will serve only three and a half years, having already served 18 months in prison. The man who was "involved" in that attack was given a death sentence and his associates were sentenced to rigorous life imprisonments Hint: When a sentence has been passed, drop the word "alleged"!
G.A. Mar 28, 2013 01:20pm
Excellent article. Now what does everyone think of the Two Nation theory?
shyam Mar 28, 2013 01:26pm
Thanks sir, its a great piece. Something positive in a negative world.
Raj Mar 28, 2013 01:28pm
Jawed Naqvi probably does not read readers' comments here, but here is one anyway. Plight of Muslims has been going down hill for a long long time, ever since decadence had set in Muslim rule in India. Muslims turned inwards and took shelter in The Holybook and forgot conveniently that there must be a different way to march ahead from accepting new ideas from the West which had come to Hindustan to conquer and dominate. Reformers among Non-Muslims did it but not Muslims, except men like Sir Sayyad Ahmed Khan or Badruddin Tyabji. The momentum did not reach lower rungs of Muslim society. The solution lies in education, education my friend. One has to start somewhere. So Mr. Naqvi should stop writing about his bitterness and use his skills informing his brotheren about changed conditions. Salaam
MS Mar 28, 2013 03:43pm
A wonderful article to be understood by people with a heart.
shaukat Mar 28, 2013 03:58pm
Why Modi come into picture?
Shyam Mar 28, 2013 05:14pm
I doubt if you have ever been to Gujarat. I have lived in Ahmedabad and Vadodara both having sizeable muslim populations and have not heard of any mazaars being brought down. Surely you must be getting your information from Jihadi pamphlets being distributed in Juhapura in Ahmedabad.
jimmy Mar 28, 2013 05:36pm
Sorry but Dilip Kumar didn't sing any song in that movie. But larger point taken?
Avtar Mar 28, 2013 06:18pm
Enlightening! Modi and his tactics are non-contextual. One can equally quote Muslim atrocities but that would be also non-contextual.
umesh bhagwat Mar 29, 2013 12:56am
nice article! i hope this kind of writing can soothe frayed nerves on both sides! good luck!
with Mar 29, 2013 01:40am
Sir let me first inform you that nobody is above the law in India, Please Google the voice recordings which were intercepted by Mumbai police between Sanjay Dutt and underworld don and then give your opinion.
R Bali Mar 29, 2013 11:48am
There is no such term as a Hussaini Brahmin (as a Mohyal Brahmin myself,I can vouch for it's non-existence).Brahmin is exclusively Hindu ;and to concoct a term that joins Islam with the Hindu varna system is simply hilarious.It is used by Muslims ,and Muslims alone ,to claim some kind of kinship with the Hindus and Brahmins.
truthseeker Mar 29, 2013 12:47pm
It is easy to believe the rhetoric about modi rather than a objective evaluation of modi
truthseeker Mar 29, 2013 12:48pm
It is easy to believe the rhetoric about modi rather than a objective evaluation of modi
truthseeker Mar 29, 2013 12:50pm
he is a wild cowboy into the wilderness
Vinay Mar 29, 2013 09:58pm
Dear Bali Saheb, The term is very much in existence since long. It likely owes itself to a legend (poem) among Mohyals about one Rahib Sidh Datt who is said to have led a band of fighters in what is now Iraq, and participated in the storming of Kufa after the Karbala episode, losing his sons in the fighting. While the veracity of this of course can't be verified now, consider a few intriguing aspects of that story: Dair-Al Hindiya (meaning the Indian quarter) where Rahib Datt is said to have stayed, does match an Al-Hindiya town in existence today. Likewise with the references to Hariya Bunder (another name for Basra, but not commonly used in India) where he is said to have later moved to afterwards. It also happens to be consistent with the old tradition among Mohyals of working as career soldiers. So the "Hussaini Brahmin" term has certainly been around, even though it is seemingly not as key to the Datt Mohyal identity as it used to be a century or so ago.. Times have indeed moved on from the days of the 1901 Census of India (now available online) which described the "brahmins of Goliana" (who were Mohyals) as the 'murid' (followers) of a local Shia leader of that time.. With regards, Vinay
truthseeker Mar 29, 2013 11:50pm
Javed saab in a holi mood the most acceptable article from him till now.