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?
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