The Story of Babul Mora

The other day we all listened to a sonorous recital of the famed ‘Babul Mora’ in the Saigal style by our good friend Subash, during our music Samaroh session. As I had the responsibility to introduce the song, I did a little digging and come up with the brief background. The song took us back many decades, and as we watched the emotions play on Subash’s face and the mournful words came out of his mouth all the watching eyes and faces were rapt in attention. The song played over and over in my mind for a long time since then, taking me back to memories of many more favorites by Saigal and Mukesh. Many others have written about this story, but well, I thought, I will provide it some more depth and make an article of it.

I used to visit Lucknow often in the mid 80’s. At that time, I was neither interested in history nor did I have the slightest interest in Nawabs or kebabs. But I loved to stay at the not so popular hotel called Hotel Carlton which was a converted palace, somewhat musty and with no AC but presenting an opulent ambience of what once was resplendent Lucknow. One could see tiger heads on the wall and tiger skin rugs on the floor. The décor was antique and so were the rooms and furniture. It was a stately place, and my guess is that the some lowly prince once stayed there with his retinue of servants and begums. I distinctly remember that the food I ate there was lovely. Unfortunately during those quick trips, history was not my interest, but I was more interested in working out a working relationship with a key client, UPSEB or Uttar Pradesh State electricity board. It was while on those travels that I chanced through Azamgarh, Sultanpur, Benares, Amethi and many such interesting locales. I also visited the markets often to pick up Lucknow Chicken Churidars for my wife and then, I had my hair all stand up once while inside  a 400kV substation, but those are all unrelated to this so let me stop rambling and get on with it, and cut to the chase, as my second son Arun says…

The locale & the background

Lucknow as you may all know was the 19th century capital of Awadh, the ‘once upon a time’ kingdom of Lord Rama. Sadat Khan laid the foundations of the Awad dynasty at Faizabad, and the kingdom rose to great importance as it was since then considered the granary of India. In the 18th century, the 3rd Nawab - Shuja Ud Daula paid a heavy price for supporting a fugitive prince from Bengal named Mir Qasim. The EIC attacked Lucknow and defeated Shuja who had to cede the reins to the British. The EIC retained the Nawab in titular power, but established indirect control through a resident stationed in the Luckow to where the capital had moved by then. The British had annexed much of the kingdom under the treaty of 1801, and had impoverished Oudh by imposing a hugely expensive, British-run army and repeated demands for loans. The independence of Oudh in name was tolerated by the British only because they still needed a buffer state between their presence in the East and South, and the remnants of the Mughal Empire to the North. Wajid Ali Shah was most unfortunate to have ascended the throne of Oudh at a time when (as somebody else wrote) the British East India Company was determined to grab the coveted throne of prosperous Oudh, which was "the garden, granary, and queen-province of India", though before Britain came into full control, his predecessors and successors were one of the major threats to the Mughal Empire.

The story starts here

I have not been to Kaiserbag palace, but that was where later Nawabs lived. The Kaiserbagh Palace in Lucknow was built between 1848 and 1850. Wajid Ali Shah succeeded to the throne of Oudh when its glory days were at its peak and passing. Wajid Ali Shah the pompous and portly Nawab, expected the palace to be regarded as the eighth wonder of the world. This was where Wajid Ali Shah penned the lyrics of the song, as he was about to leave his abode.


Wajid Ali Shah

Abul Mansoor Sikandar Jah Padsha-E-Adil Qaiser-E-Zaman Sultan-E-Alam – Just imagine how the courtier reeled through this to announce his arrival to the durbar...

Between 1801 and 1856 the Nawabs wallowed in pomp & show and all kinds of excesses. When the British finally took over Oudh completely and conquered Lucknow in 1856, Wajid Ali Shah was in power. Wajid Ali Shah was widely regarded as a debauched and detached ruler, but some of his notoriety seems to have been misplaced due to mis-reporting by  the British Resident of Lucknow, General Sleeman. This proved to be the trigger the British were looking for, and formed the official basis for their annexation.

A large number of composers who thrived under the lavish patronage of the Nawab rulers of Lucknow enriched the light classical form of thumri; most prominent among these was Wajid Ali Shah. He was not only a munificent patron of music, dance, drama, and poetry, but was himself a gifted composer. He had received vocal training under great Ustads like Basit Khan, Pyar Khan and Jaffar Khan. Although his pen-name was Qaisar, he used the pseudonym "Akhtarpiya" for his numerous compositions. Under this pen name, he wrote over forty works - poems, prose and Thumris. "Diwani-Akhtar", "Husn-i-Akhtar" contain his Ghazals. He is said to have composed many new ragas and named them Jogi, Juhi, Shah-Pasand, etc. He was a poet, playwright, dancer and great patron of the arts. He is widely credited with the revival of Kathak as a major form of classical Indian dance. After the British took over, Wajid Ali Shah was promptly exiled to Calcutta
The Nawab was exiled to Garden Reach in Metiabruz, then a suburb of Kolkata, where he lived out the rest of his life off a generous pension and with not a care and continued splendor (See Satranj Ke Khiladi if you want that part of the story) except for his longing for Lucknow.

The poem, a thumri

When Wajid Ali Shah was expelled to Calcutta, he wrote the parting song Babul Mora,picturing the mind of a heart broken man. He expressed his pain of parting in the lyrics of ‘Babul mora naihar chhuto jaye’, thus

babul moraa naihar chooto hi jaaye
baabul moraa naihar chooto jaaye
mora naihar chooto hi jaaye
chaar kahaar mile
mori doliya sajaawen
mora apna begaana chooto jaaye
mora naihar aa
chooto hi jaaye
angana to parbat bhaya
aur dehri bhayi bidesh
ye ghar baabul aapno
main chali piya ke desh
baabul mora naihar chooto jaaye
mora naihar chooto hi jaaye

The lyrics mean roughly - The rough translation (the song can be a metaphor for a wedding as well as funeral procession)
My father! I'm leaving home.
The four bearers lift my doli (palanquin) (here it can also mean the four coffin bearers). I'm leaving those who were my own.
Your courtyard is now like a mountain, and the threshold, a foreign country.
The singer and the song

Shambhuji Maharaj of Lucknow, the well known musicologist trained a large number of singers of his time. One day, a young man of about 30 years of age came to Shambhuji Maharaj to learn the singing of ‘Babul Mora’. The maestro taught him within three days. The boy was Kundan lal Saigal (story narrated by music director Jagmohan)

The most famous version of Wajid Ali Khan’s Babul Mora was sung by Kundan Lal Saigal in the movie Street Singer in 1938. The music was composed by Rai Chand Boral, who is considered as a father figure amongst cine-music composers.  

The song was recorded live on camera, not in a studio because Saigal did it so well on the sets. Many takes were done, each better than the other. Although Boral had introduced playback singing for the first time in Indian cinema in Dhoop Chaon (1935), Saigal insisted on rendering it live along with the picturisation, as a street singer, with the orchestra consisting of a plain sarangi and a tabla following him outside of the camera’s range, as he did the walking act. 

K. L Saigal worked as a time keeper with Punjab railways, then as a hotel manager and also a typrewriter salesman with Remington (going around Connaught Circus in Delhi with a typewriter on his bicycle carrier) before he chose music as a vocation.

The other versions

Famous versions exist, one in the movie Avishkaar by Jagjit & Chitra Singh, and of course the heavy duty version by Bhimsen Joshi. And many more versions are talked about such as Kanan Devi’s, the golden melodious voice of yester years. She sang a sketch of this song in the film for little over a minute’s time. Because of the short duration, no recording of this master-piece was made on a gramophone record and it is only available on the sound track of the film-‘Street singer’.   Incidentally, in the movie Saigal teaches Kanan the song who sings it in a wrong tune and they break up on that account after Saigal is furious.

The list of luminaries who sang ‘Babul Mora’ includes-  Bhim Sen Joshi, Kesarbai Kerkar, Siddheshwari Devi, Rasoolan Bai, Khadim  Hussain Khan, Mushatq Hussain Khan, Girija Devi, Kishori Amonkar, Jagmohan, Padma Talwalkar, Shanti Vaidyanathan Sharma, Mahender Chopra (son-in-law of K.L.Saigal) and none other than ghazal queen Begum Akhtar.

Musical aspects

This is a thumri though the particular number is neither sensual nor romantic. Thumri’s are usually romantic or devotional in nature, and usually revolves around a girl's love for Krishna. Thumri is characterized by its sensuality, and by a greater flexibility with the raga. Thumri arose in popularity during the 19th century in the Lucknow court of nawab Wajid Ali Shah. At that time it used to be a song sung by courtesans accompanied by dance. Shringar Rasa, the emotion of romantic love, is the essence of Thumri and its allied forms. Thumri is a short piece of semi-classical rendition usually sung at the conclusion of a classical music concert. The words are strictly adhered to, and the singer attempts to interpret them with his/her melodic improvisations. It is quite usual for a singer to deviate from the rendered Raga, but momentarily.

The Saigal version is set in Raag Bhairavi – Bhairavi had traditionally been performed in the early morning hours.  However, due to the fact that performances lasted all night, it has now become common to consider Bhairavi to be the finale.  Today this rag is performed at any time provided it is the concluding piece. "Jyot Se Jyot Jagate Chalo", and "Laga Chunari Me Dag Chupaun Kaise" are other examples of Bhairavi.

Of course there are many other rumored stories around this Saigal version. Saigal who was working hard on this bandish was far from perfection. One story goes that he heard the present version while he was taking an early morning walk along tram tracks near Metia Burj of Kolkata (where Wajid ali lived?). Interesting...

Enjoy the various versions linked here

Saigal version
Avishkaar clip 
Nihar Ranjan Banerjee version

Thanks to many others who came up with the bits and pieces that help link up this story


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