Category Archives: Culture

Babul Mora: The Queen Among Thumris

(Updated on 15 February 2015)

Babul mora naihar chhooto hi jaye…argubly, no other song represents the early Indian film music (of the 30s and early 40s) as this one in K L Saigal’s voice does. After close to 75 years of it being released (for the 1938 movie, Street Singer), this still remains a favorite of the discerning listener of vintage Indian film music. Many dub it as Saigal’s best. But few would know that this Bhairavi thumri, composed by Wajid Ali Shah, has been one of the favorite thumris of many a singers over generations—from Ustad Faiyaz Khan—the most well-known singer of Agra Gharana and arguably one of the best voices on record—to Alisha Chinoy. Wajid Ali Shah, to the uninitiated, was the last Nawab of Oudh (Awadh) who was exiled by the British to Metiaburz in Calcutta by the British. The Nawab was a great patron of art and music and was himself a good singer and composer. A book by Abdul Halim Sharar, Guzishta Lucknow, gives a very good account of his life in exile at Metiaburz, where he continued his indulgence in art, music and food. An English translation of the book, published by Oxford University Press titled Lucknow: The Last Phase of An Oriental Culture, is available. It is said that the Nawab composed the thumri when he was exiled by the British. While the literal meaning of the poem indicates the sadness of a newly-wed bride leaving her father’s home, many interpret it as the feeling of the Nawab when he was forcibly sent out of his beloved Lucknow to the distant Calcutta. The Nawab was sent out with a generous amount of wealth and people accompanying him—the decorated doli of the bride is supposed to be a metaphor for this. Here is the lyrics.

Babul mora, naihar chhooto hi jaae 
Babul mora - mora, naihar chhooto hi jaae
Babul mora, naihar chhooto jaae
Babul mora, naihar chhooto hi jaae

Char kahaar mile, mori doliya sajaaven re
Char kahaar mile, mori doliya sajaaven
Char kahaar mile, mori doliya sajaaven re
Mora apana begana chhooto jaae
Babul mora, naihar chhooto hii jaae

Aangana to parbat bhaya aa..
aur deharii bhayii bidesh
Aangana to parbat bhaya han
aur deharii bhayii bidesh
Je babul ghar aapano main chali piiyaa ke desh
Babul mora, naihar chhooto jaae
Babul mora, naihar chhooto hii jaae

The thumri has been song by many maestros of Indian classical music. I have read in many places that Ustad Faiyaz Khan used to sing it quite frequently in concerts. When I first wrote this, I could not locate the recording but I found it subsequently and have added it here. Among other singers of earlier generations, it has been sung by Gauhar Jaan and Malka Jaan. I give here a list of links to the song in the voices of some of the greatest singers in Indian music. Many others have sung it. The other great singers who I have read/heard have sung the thumri but I could not find them anywhere include—apart from Ustad Faiyaz Khan and Gauhar Jaan—Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Siddheswari Devi, Begum Akhtar, and Naina Devi. Here is the list



Filed under Culture, Indian Classical Music, Music

New Indo-Chinese Movie Around Odissi: Appreciations & Apprehensions

Finally, we have a Bollywood movie centred around Odissi. Desire: The Journey of a Woman, is a new Indo-Chinese movie that revolves around Gautami, an Odissi dancer, portrayed by Shila Shetty. The male lead role is played by a Chinese actor Xia Yu who falls in love with the dancer during one of her visits to Malaysia for a program. The movie stars Om Puri, Jaya Prada, and a host of other Indian actors. Produced by Shilpa’s mother, the movie has been directed by R Sarath, with music by Shankar-Ehsan-Loy and background score by Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, the classical guitar maestro.

The Odisha connection comes in form of an Odissi dance sequence enacted by Shilpa Shetty and Jaya Prada, to the Odissi song,  Shyama lagi mu pagali,  penned by noted Odia poet Gopalakrushna Pattnaik; and also, one of the two choreographers for the movie being Ratikanta Mohaptra, noted Odissi dancer and the son of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra.

I am happy that finally Odissi has caught the imagination of filmakers. But I am also apprehensive that like some other such efforts in the past, most notably, the movie Asoka, it does not do a wrong portrayal of Odisha, Odias and their culture. The reason for my apprehension is that the no Odissi musician is involved in the music of the movie. While I have all the respect for both the S-E-L team and Pt Bhatt, Odissi music has its own distinct characteristics and to try it out on a global scene without the involvement of an accomplished Odissi musician may be a litte too much of an adventurous experimentation.

Also—it is my personal opinion, though—putting Odissi in the centre stage without that extremely endearing face of Kalia (Lord Jagannath)–is not a great sign. The movie has not been shot in Odisha at all. And that is okay. Our art should not be restricted to the geographic boundaries of the state, but to dissociate Lord Jagannath from Odissi is inexcusable. I did not notice it anywhere in the promo and website of the movie. I just hope that it is there in the actual movie.

I am sincerely hoping that my apprehensions are proved wrong and the world sees Odissi in all its glory, especially that it has been choreographed by no other than Ratikanta.


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Filed under Culture, Hindi Film Music, Indian Classical Music, Odia music, Odisha & Odia

Hanuman: The World’s First Writer

It is traditionally believed that Mahabharata is the world’s first written text. A new story told by Prof Philip A. Lutgendorf, Professor of Hindi and Modern Indian Studies, University of Iowa and the translator of Tulsidas’ Ramacharitamanas into French, suggests that it is not Mahabharata but Ramayana which was the first written text, though that text is no longer available, thanks to the great sacrifice made by its writer: no other than the popular Hindu God and one of the most important characters of Ramayana, Hanuman.  Prof. Lutgendorf  says that it is not Valmiki but Hanuman who wrote the first Ramayana. And while Valmiki composed for oral rendition, Hanuman had actually written down his Ramayana.  “In my story,” he clarifies, “Hanuman writes, Valmiki composes”

This is the story that he narrated in the Jaipur Literature Festival in January 2011, taking part in a discussion titled, Many Ramayanas.

Hanuman writes Ramayana out of boredom and sadness when Sita is sent away by Ram. He goes to the mountain and starts writing by his nail on the crystal floor (sphatik chattan) of the mountain. He writes this huge Ramayana and while he is writing Valimki starts composing Ramayan. In my story, he clarifies, Hanuman writes, Valmiki composes. Someone tells Valmiki that Hanuman has already created Ram’s story. Valmiki wonders: he is a eye witness, but can he write? So, he asks Hanuman about it and Hanuman carries the sage on his shoulders and takes him to the mountain and shows him what he has written. And then, he asks Valimiki for his comment on the work. Tears roll down from Valmiki’s eyes as he said it is so real, so perfect. “Now who will care about my Ramayana?” he says. Hearing this, Hanuman places Valmiki on one shoulder and all the crystal boulder on the other shoulder and flies out on the sea. He drops off the boulders in the sea and says to “Let it be an offering to Shriram.” An overwhelmed Valmiki says: “In Kalyug, I will be reborn and sing your praise and tell Ram’s story in the language of ordinary people. Thus Valimiki is reborn as Tulsidas and writes Ramcharitamanasa.

Prof. Lutgendorf’s session was both fascinating and moving. While his occasional jumping to chaste Hindi struck a cord with the audience, his recitation of Ramacharitamanas was soulful. Occassional humor added to the colors.

Here is the above story, in Prof. Lutgendorf’s own voice: hanuman-valmiki.

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Filed under Books, Culture, Mythology

Huluhuli: The Dying Art Form

Bastra bhushana alankara

je bidhi puja upachara

deina samaste  pujanti

jubati hulahuli dyanti

(Offering clothes, ornaments and accessories, and all that are needed for a puja, all (the people) worship; the young women offer huluhuli)

To the Odias (people of Odisha), nothing symoblizes auspiciousness more than the sound of Huluhuli (Hulahuli): a shrill of varying magnitude produced by women through quick movements of the tongue. No auspicious occasion is complete without the sound of huluhuli, usually accompanied by the blowing of conch shell (shankha). It has probably come from the ululation, a similar practice made by women in various parts of the world, but through a slightly different technique. Hulahuli as a word is used in Sanskrit too.

Ululation is also widely practiced in southern and eastern parts of India. People, especially women roll their tongues and produce this sound during all Hindu temple rituals, festivals and celebrations. This is also an integral part of most weddings in these parts where, depending upon the local usages, women ululate to welcome the groom or bride or both. In Tamil it is known as ‘Kulavai’. In Kerala, ululation is essential for all ceremonial occasions and the term used in Malayalam is Kurava. Bengalis and Oriyas call it Ulu-uli. Assamese call it ‘Uruli’. Ululation is, also, used to some extent by south European women: Wikipedia

While the blowing of shankha (conch shell), shankhadhwani (the sound of shankha) usually marks the beginning and end of a ceremony or a particular ritual within a ceremony, huluhuli is repeated often, sometimes to mark special moments, sometimes when there is reference to the word in a song/text that is sung/read as part of the ritual (as in above, which is from the popular festival of Khudurukuni in the month of Bhadrava, in which unmarried women worship Goddess Mangala), and sometimes simply without any special need, as and when women feel like offering it.

In pure religious  festivals like Rath Yatra, while the women offer huluhuli, men match it with cries of Haribol. But in functions like marriage and other such auspicious occasions,  it is only the sound of huluhuli that is enough to mark the auspiciousness of the occasion.

In earlier times, huluhuli was treated like an art and young women took pride in their ability to make the sound of huluhuli for a long period. My grandmother was greatly accomplished in this art form and would often continue for close to ten minutes when she would start once. The average was somewhere between less than a minute to two minutes. So, she was quite sought after when there was any ceremony in the neighborhood.  I probably started making the sound to tease her but found that I could produce it the way it should be. And for boys, it was really fun.

I still remember an incident in a friend’s marriage (I was unmarried then), when me and another friend of mine (a guy), started making sounds of huluhuli, for the sake of fun. An old lady (probably the bride’s grandmother) was quite impressed with that. When the next turn came for offering it, almost after a few hours, we were still there watching  the ceremony. And finding that none of the womenfolk there were capable of making it, she asked us to make the sound.  She herself was offering it but she was too old to make it loudly. That time, we thought they were making fun of us. But it is only later that we discovered that none of the women present there were actually capable of producing this auspicious sound.

And we were shocked!

This was about twelve years back. Since then, it has steadily lost its practitioner base. Today, one would be lucky to find 3-4 good huluhulist in a ceremony. In some such occasions, we hear audio tapes of recorded huluhuli being played. Believe me, that does not sound half as thrilling!

In Odisha, government has taken many steps to preserve our art forms, including many rare arts. But few are even sensitive to the fact that this once-ubiquitous art form is dying a slow death.

But when I searched the term huluhuli in Google, all I found was pages after pages on some Hawaiian chicken preparation! While you can find ululation/ululating, the Odia huluhuli is nowhere!


Filed under Culture