Oh father mine, my natal home is slipping away from me! Four bearers are decorating my palanquin. That which was mine belongs to others, it is slipping away from me!
A decadent voluptuary? Or a patron of arts and intellectuals? How should we remember Wajid Ali Shah (1822-1887)? He ruled as the last Nawab of Oudh (Awadh) from 1847 to 1856. Even when he ascended the throne, much of the kingdom was already under the hands of the British. At about the same period, the sun was setting on the great Mughal Empire in Delhi as well, under the hands of Bahadur Shah Zafar. Is it a coincidence that both men were patrons of art ?
Wajid Ali Shah started out, it is said, by being a good administrator, in being interested in reforms. However his passion was not for statecraft but for the arts. Statecraft in those times was no easy beast to handle, was it? It is little wonder that he quietly retreated into his own world of pleasure filled with singers, dancers, actors and courtesans. They say that Nero fiddled while Rome burnt. Awadh did not burn, but it did disintegrate while Wajid Ali immersed himself in his life of pleasure. The British called him debauched, saying that his kingdom was maladministered and lawless. They used it as an excuse to annex his kingdom and exiled him to Kolkata. Historians today are looking with a more kindly eye at him.
But what do I know of matters of State? My interest in him is as a patron of arts. He himself was a composer and had had vocal training as well as training in Kathak. He is said to have created a number of ragas and written prose, poetry and song. Those of you who missed seeing Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977), do take time to see an interpretation of the last years of Wajid Ali’s rule in Oudh. It is a classic, well worth your time. After seeing the film, if interested, click here to read a critique the depiction of Wajid Ali and Ray’s defence.
It is said that when Wajid Ali left his beloved Lucknow, all his subjects lamented his exile. On March 13, 1854, the royal caravan of about 1000 people left towards Kolkata (source). Wajid Ali Shah was distrait. It was in this grief stricken state that he burst forth with Babul Mora.
‘Oh father mine, my natal home is slipping away from me! Four bearers are decorating my palanquin. That which was mine belongs to others, it is slipping away from me!’ he wails. It is written as a bidai song, in the voice of a bride as she leaves her father’s home. It is possible to interpret it as the final farewell to the world as four bearers carry one to the final resting place. For lyrics and translation, see footnote.
Babul Mora is the most famous of Wajid Ali Shah’s works and remains in the public consciousness of India due to K.L.Saigal’s memorable rendering of the song in the film Street Singer (1938). It is set to Hindustani Raga Bhairavi; if you want to know more about this raga, here is an excellent resource.
Coming back to my first question : Was Wajid Ali a decadent voluptuary? Or a patron of arts and intellectuals? Somewhere in the middle I would say. I feel a sneaking sympathy for him despite his having let his kingdom get into British hands with nary a fight. You see, I come from the same mould – my furniture is covered with dust, my cupboards look like disaster zones, my ironing pile is taller than I am, but I am spending all day today with my music and my new painting! I will remember him with kindness for he did help preserve, propagate and enrich the wonderful world of Indian music .
K.L.Saigal’s rendition has to come first. Is it even possible to think of this song without thinking of him? The music was composed by Rai Chand Boral.
Too short to satisfy? Listen below to a more detailed, brilliant rendition by Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, a master of his art form. This is Bhairavi in despair, exquisite and memorable.
Footnote (Lyrics) :
बाबुल मोरा नैहर छूटो ही जाए |
चार कहार मिल मोरी डोलिया सजावें
मोरा अपना बेगाना छूटो जाए |
अँगना तो पर्बत भया और देहरी भयी बिदेश
ये घर बाबुल आपनो मैं चली पिया के देश |
bAbul mOrA naihar chUTO hI jAyE
chAr kahAr mil mOrI DOliyA sajAvE.n
mOrA apnA bEgAnA chUTO jAyE
a.nganA tO parbat bhayA aur dEhrI bhayI bidesh
yE ghar bAbul ApanO mai.n chalI piyA kE dEsh
Oh father mine, my natal home is slipping away from me!
Four bearers are decorating my palanquin. That which was mine belongs to others, it is slipping away from me.
The courtyard has become a mountain (=insurmountable) and the threshold, a foreign country. This house is yours now father, I am leaving for my beloved’s land.