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Friday, 31 August 2012

Bikat Kahani --- A Study of Afzal Jhinjhanvi's Baramasa

The barahmasa are songs of separation -- both mystic and secular – expressing love and longing for the beloved. Literally meaning ‘twelve months’, they are so called so because they contain one song for each month of the Indian lunar calendar.  While the state of separation remains a constant, the singer’s mood changes with the seasons thus allowing the poet to dwell at length on the anguish and yearning for union but also bring in local, seasonal and natural elements that vary in a country and climate as diverse as ours. Drawing upon its ancient roots in Prakrit, Sanskrit, Hindi and regional dialects, the barahmasa is almost entirely rural. It still survives in the form of lok geet or folk songs. Or, looked at another way, one can say that the barahmasa drew upon lok geet and the existing oral tradition and gave it a more seasonal colour.

The past and the present fuse in the barahmasa as the poet draws upon the popular Hindavi tradition of virah or separation and creates a landscape in which there is no reality save the pain-filled longing of the virahini, or a woman who lives in a state of perpetual separation from her beloved. It is this anguish that gets recorded month after month in plaintive, plentiful detail. One might well ask: Why should a woman’s longing for her absent lover hold any especial interest? What merit is to be found in these works – all on the same theme, all using the same stock of images, metaphors and conceits, almost all being little other than variations on a theme? Especially, since many are by lesser-known poets and some by virtually unknown composers? However, despite its limitations and singular lack of refinements, I do believe the barahmasa deserves to be studied for several reasons that I shall enumerate in this paper. I shall focus on a particular barahmasa, the Bikat Kahani by Afzal Jhinjhanvi which, in later centuries, became a template of sorts for generations of composers of barahmasa.

Sometime in the early 17th century, Afzal Jhinjhanvi compiled the first barahmasa in Urdu, and called it Bikat Kahani (bikat meaning ‘immense’ or ‘terrible’). The frontispiece of the version I have used for this paper describes it as ‘Shumali Hind mein Urdu shairi ka pahla mustanad namoona’), and attributes the date as AH 1035 or AD 1625. Its editors, Noorul Hasan Hashmi and Masood Husain Khan, draw our attention to the description of Bikat Kahani in the tazkiras of the eighteenth century where Afzal is put at par with poets such as Shaikh Saadi, Amir Khusro and Ahmad Gujrati. The verses quoted by Shaikh Muhammad Qayamuddin Qayam in his tazkira Makhzan Nikaat (1755) and Mir Hasan in his Nikaat-as Shuara (1752) are, oddly enough, two similar verses, both from Bayaan Mah Chait, or the description of the month of chait:

                     Padi hai mere gal mein paim phansi

         Maran apna hain aur logon ko hansi

                     Musafir se jinon ne dil lagaya

                     Unhonon ne sab janam rote ganwaya

Hashmi and Khan draw the conclusion that while the barahmasa was fairly well known and many people, especially the bards had consigned it to memory, its written version was possibly read by few in its entirety, including the learned men who wrote these tazkiras.

Here’s a sampler of what Afzal’s Bikat Kahani contains:

                     Ari jab kook koel ne sunayi

                     Tamami tan badan mein aag lahi

                     Andher rain, jugnu jagmagata

                     Oo ka jalti upar tais ka jalata?

                     Ah, when the cuckoo sounds her cooing

                     It sets my body aflame

                     The glow worm glows in the darkness of the night

                     Why does it burn one already on fire?

And, elsewhere:

                     Gayi barsaat rut nikhara falak sab

                     Nami danam ke sajan ghar phire kab

                     Piya bin aikal kaise rahoo ri

                     Sitam upar sitam kaise sahoon ri

                     The rains are gone, the skies are clear

                     But I don’t know when my beloved will return

                     How will I live alone without my beloved?

                     How will I bear affliction upon affliction?

Close to Surdas’s Braj-bhasha and Kabir’s Sudakhahni, Afzal’s Khari-boli had crossed the Jamuna and entered the Doaba region to drink deeply from both Braj-bhasha and Khari-boli. In fact, linguists such as Masood Husain Khan have studied the barahmasas as a barometer of the advance of Braj and Khari-boli into Urdu, the changing tone and tenor of rekhta and the extent of this intermingling over a period of roughly 350 years. In literary terms, too, Afzal’s Bikat Kahani is important because he introduced three basic elements that would remain the hallmark of the barahmasa: a gharelu lehja (domestic tone), dramai tarz (dramatic tone), and khud-kalami (use of first person).
Sometimes taking the colour of a lok geet, sometimes adopting the tone of a qissa-kahani, the barahmasa drew inspiration from a variety of sources: the Jain narrative poems describing Neminath’s desertion of his wife Rajmati on their wedding day; a swathe of devotional poetry that dwelt on Radha’s longing for Krishna; the description of the seasons in Kalidas’s epic poem Ritu Samhar (literally meaning ‘a compilation of seasons’, in this case six season) that, in turn, spawned a tradition of rituvarnan (poetic description of the seasons); elements of singhar rasa (the rasa or ‘flavour’ of erotica, one of the nine rasas) that have influenced the depiction of the nayika (the ‘heroine’ or female protagonist) both in verse and painting; an accumulated stock of similes and metaphors that had gained currency largely through word of mouth. Drawing upon these diverse sources, appropriating easily-understood stock images, speaking in a woman’s voice, the barahmasa allowed the fullest possible exploration of the link between memory and desire. It used the set format of the seasons -- and the fairs, festivals, rites, customs, flora and fauna associated with the 12 months of the year that are constant and therefore predictable – to reinforce the near-universal experience of love and its conjoined twin, separation.
A product of qasbahs and suburbs, the barahmasas were remarkably free of the courtly influences that characterized the rest of Urdu poetry, most notably the ghazal. Moreover, the barahmasa poets made a conscious effort to move away from the crippling influence of Persian that held sway over the court poets and displayed a remarkable readiness to experiment with other forms of poetic expression. Evidently, they reveled in the liberating air of dialects such as Braj-bhasha, Khari-boli, Awadhi, Rajasthani, and the occasional smattering of Dakhani just as much as they did in re-inventing or re-appropriating a literary space that had existed in the shade of the high form, be it the riti poetry in Hindi (traditionally written by court poets) or the ghazal and masnavi in Urdu. The barahmasas then appears before us as a valuable testament of multiculturalism, multilingualism and multifariousness. They tell us that voices other than the male voice existed, genres other than the classical were popular and the Urdu poet showed a willingness to accommodate different poetic traditions. More importantly, the barahmasa points to a time when Urdu had not established itself as a hegemonic force -- in a literary and linguistic sense -- nor acquired the purely urban consciousness it now displays.

While Afzal’s Bikat Kahani is mentioned in the tazkira by Mir Hasan, most other barahmasas have been kept beyond the pale. Little scholarly work has been done even in Urdu on the barahmasa tradition save for compilation of 12 barahmasas by Tanveer Alvi. Had the thrust of literary criticism and research been on exploring the oral tradition in Urdu rather than discrediting its presence by casting doubts on its verifiable antecedents, our literary canon would have been that much richer. Had the literary historian not created this artificial distinction between high and low literature, a great deal of folk-related literature whose roots go back to an orally-transmitted cultural legacy would not have been marginalized. However, it is still not too late. Even now, if we abandon the parameters of ‘high’ culture and ‘high’ literature and begin to study the small and the simple and the natural we can avert some of the dangers of separatism


  1. Loved this post! Barahmasa traditions, together with Raga Mala, incorporate a series of moods and themes that has supplied fodder for many an artist. I think ours is the only culture that has paid such sedulous attention to musical modes and their artistic depictions.

    I believe "Bikat Kahani"," Makhzan Nikaat" and "Nikaat-us Shoara" have been published by UP Urdu Akademi.

    1. Thanks Tarun. I have a long paper on this. Needs some more work. This was a sortsa 'dumbed down' version oub by the isara e farogh e urdu, lucknow in 1970.

      Re the UP Urdu akadmei's pub, I havent seen the ones u mention. My copy of bikat kahani is a very old one. however if u r intersted in barahmasa, strongly recommend u read Tanveer Alvi, Urdu Mein Baramase ki Riwayat: Matalon Mein (Delhi: Urdu Akademi, 1988).

    2. Are the works Bikat Kahani and Makhzan Nikaat really short? I checked UP Urdu Akademi's website( "Publication") and it seems that the books are priced at Rs. 7 and Rs. 5 respectively. This is incredible.

      Do you think they have a stall in the ongoing Delhi Book Fair?They are quite popular for their "Bacchon Ka Adab" section.

    3. yes bikat kahani is slim. all teh baramasas are short-ish. UP akademi stall at delhi book faiw wd be worth checking out.

      and if teh baramasas interest u do look out fr alvi's collection.

  2. Dear Rakshanda ji,

    Thank you for this wonderful post. I truly enjoyed reading it and would be grateful if you could permit me to get in touch with you on the email. I am a student of music and I first learnt a baramasa during my taleem with Smt. Naina Devi, the eminent thumri singer. Over the years I have collected some baramasa songs and poems, but the information you provided about "Bikat Kahani" was fascinating. Do let me know if I could get in touch with you and if I could email.


    Shubha Mudgal

    1. Shubha ji, my email is

  3. "Hai t'aajjub yeh bohut kis kis tawassut ki tufail! Dikh gayein anjaani raahein thi na jinki kuchh khabar! Ik shanaasaai kisi se ittafaaqan si hui! Aur le aayi mujhey ik aur hum mashrab ke dar!" (Bait e Filbadeeh)

    Hazarat Rakshanda Saahiba! Salamat Rahein! Aapke is blog ke link ko abhi abhi mujh aam aadmi ko Muhtarama Frances Pritchard ne bazariya e email bheja hai is hidaayat ke saath ke aapse bhi aashnaai haasil karoon. Zahey naseeb keh sirf aik hafta pahle internet par kisi aur shakhsiyyat ki justuju mein mujhko unka aainakhaana nazar aaya aur nateeja e t'aassur yeh hua keh unki tareef mein aik taweel insha pardaazi unke webpage par raqm hui! Phir aaj us silsiley mein unhone do link bheje hain mujhko keh ahl e zubaan o zauq se behtar aashnaai ho meri. Pahli kadi ne aapka safha khola hai. Aagey qismat ki marzi!

    CA. Shyamal Mitra
    Delhi - 110054.

    1. Mu'aaf farmaaein Rakhshanda Saahiba! Sahwan typing se Frances Pritchard likh gaya! Unka naam Ms. Frances Pritchett hai.

      "Ae Khataaposh e maa ze maa beguzar! Keh ze maa juz khataa nah meguzarad!"

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