By:Mehmood M. Abdi
Sophistication, humility and refinely expressed manners synonymically identified with till twentieth century Lucknow. Nevertheless, in humour a kind of raw street culture was enjoyed where the line between fun and lewdness did often overlap. Double meaning phrases and suggestive gestures though were not practiced by the genteel class but was delighted in artistic performances. Kashmiri bhandon kas naatch was a popular art form of this kind.
Some of Kashmiris took their talent of sharp brain and wits to a novel use. Shia Kashmiris settled in shahganj of the old city became court jesters. Their intelligent stand up comedies endeared them to the nobles. So much so that no noble gathering was complete without a show by Kashmiri bhands, as the entertainers were called. Their performance was called “Bhandon ka naatch”
There are many interesting tales recording episodes of their intelligent impromptu comedies.
Once the famous poet Dagh Dehlavi was a guest to one of the gathering at the sheehmahal palace. Stand up comedy by the Kashmiri Bhands was the main attraction of the evening. One bhand dressed up as a tiger came wandering in the middle of the gathering. Another followed him dressed as a hunter with a gun aiming to gun the tiger. However he was not firing. Then another bhand shouted from the rear “abbey dagh” ( shoot you bloody) “abbey daghta kyo nahin dagh”( why don’t you shoot, you bloody). Lastly, a voice came “abbey ullu ke patthe dagh” ( shoot you bloody fool). Instead of getting annoyed poet Dagh Dehlavi caught the idea behind the skit and giggled.
Another such anecdote is of the Rampur court. Kashmiri Bhands from Lucknow were drawn to entertain the ruling nawab of Rampur. Delighted with their performance the nawab granted expensive dushalas(shawls) to each member of the troop. However, the dushala stock got over and last one in the troupe was given a rampuri suttanna( tight chooridar pyjama). The bhand instantly composed the verse “sab ko diya shawl dushala hun ka diyo sutan; hum to tum ka yaad karenge jab baithenge mootan” (everyone got shawl from you but I got a suttanna which will remind me of you whenever I will sit to urinate).
Bhandon ka naach as their show was called would start with ghore chorna (letting lose the horses). One bhand will jump on to the middle of the stage gesturing as if he was riding a horse. He would act like both horse and the rider. Once he would Neigh and gallop like a horse and immediately would act as a rider and would do something as if to control the horse. Their Michael Jackson like suggestive pelvic movement in the process would bring spells of laughter to the crowd.
On culmination of the mourning period of Mohorrum their performance in maidan of our mohalla still forms my candid childhood memories. I saw famous bhands, names of their time, Ain Ali, Ghain Ali, Tajdar,Jahangir and Tawanger. Ain Ali was no jester he was a singer. draped in ladies attire of khada paycha ( roughly gharara) and matcing decorated shirt with a panch gaz ka emborided duptta crossed over his shoulder he used to move about and dance in subtle moves like a mujra performer. Others used to play the musical accompanists as they all were well versed in instrumental music. Male performers dressing up as females was not limited to Lucknow. That was a kind of remnant of the bygone practice in many parts of the country. Male artists performed as females in cinema as well long after the Pahlke era. May be as young pretty looking Kashmiri lad would easily pass as appealing girls.
However, when I saw Ain Ali he looked ferocious. His broad and solid frame with a poking kashmiri nose fixed between small sharp eyes set close to the edge of the big nose and above all his big bald head made him look like an alien.
Still I did watch his performance right through the night and when I would fall asleep someone manzar Hussain or muuni bua ( our domestic helps) would come to pick me up. Like others of my age Ghore chorna was the favorite act which I also tried to imitate in privacy.
Though it was mainly a male affair but there used to be arrangement for women to watch the show either from behind the qanat (cloth partition walls used for encampment) or from behind the chilman(curtain of woven thin bamboo sticks).
One kashmiri bhand was not seen at any of the skills which they were known for and was seen only on Eid and Bakrid day when his baritone voice was heard signing Mubarak–salamat (song wishing good luck). A tall fellow he wore a sherwani and a mukhmali cap(velvet cap) Though such visits were the practice at the deorhies of the nobles( roughly palaces). May be expecting good returns from a Kashmiri households like ours, he used to visit our Moholla. Persian couplets “saqiya badao pamana mubarak bashad” in completely unmelodious voice was the signature of his arrival. He would not settle for a rupee or two which was quite some at that time and would not shift a bit before getting a five rupees note from our house since my own uncle Aalijaan and his cousin Amarat chacha were police thanedars, the posts considered coveted for any native. He kept saying “deorhi salamat rahe, panjatene pak ka saya bana rahe, hamesha naubat baje” ( long live this household and remain blessed with protection of the holy five- Mohammad, Ali, Fatima, Hasan and Hussain and ever remain reverberated with (naubat) shehnai).
Now I recall and wonder that old Kashmiri bhand had inordinately long earlobes which uncontrollably shook with movements and gestures of the man.
He would play that entire act all over again at Amarat Chach’s house. Bashsho chacha, younger brother of Amarat cahacha, would enjoy teasing the man by calling in different voices from inside that no one is at home tashreef lejaeye (please leave). That led the old bhand to further imploring- ai miyan kyon satatey hain bari door jana hai ( please don’t tease me I have to travel a long distance).
During Mohorrum some of these Bhands who otherwise did only musical acts and not the caricature skits, would take to soozkhani ( mournful poetry to the memory of martyrs of Karbala).
Set in appropriate evening raga, in shahganj ki Mehdi procession on the seventh night of Mohorrum, which was took out quite late in the night, the rendition of sooz by the bhands was a feast to the ears of connoisseur and the commoners alike.
Unlike the seasonal occupation by some Kashmiri bhands, Soozkhani was a full fledged profession. In princely states sozkhans ( sooz singers) well versed in ragas were retained on salaries only to perform during mohorrum gatherings and processions. In Royal procession of Lucknow’s Hussainabad and Allied trusts, Soozkhans still forms the last contingent of the procession. Covering their faces upto nose with white handkerchief symbolizing grief, the ex- royals and the trustees travel along the soozkhans who address their compositions from classic urdu poetry of Meer Anees and Mirza Dabeer and others to the crowd.
Largely replaced by cds and cassettes of Pakistani nauhas (mournful poetry on mohorrum) soozkhani has nearly vanished from Lucknow. This is a topic for another piece.
Besides Shia bhands there was a stock of Sunni kashmiri bhands. they were mainly settled on Lauctche Road of Aminabad.
Unlike shia Bhands they never performed in mehfils at deorhis (noble households) Their main engagement was their shows at Melas (faire) held in Kasbahs and towns. So was the difference in plots and themes between the two stocks of Kashmiri performers. Distinct from the fancies of class nuances of mehfils, mela crowds relished more earthy substance. Nevertheless, the witticism and hilarity of Kashmiri performers was never in wanting either at mehfil or mela.
Rahat Bhand was the last remnant of the Sunni stock of the Kashmiri Bhands A client of late Barrister Nawab Asfar Hussain of Narahi, Rahat was often seen in Lucknow Kachehri (court) for some litigation. Dull and dreariness of unrelenting court proceedings could never beat the element of a Kashmiri bhand. His visits to the court premises used to be a scene with people prodding remarks to provoke the bhand’s impromptu response.
With the passage of time local orchestras took over the entertainment space that lead most of those bhands virtually jobless. About twenty five years ago I saw Tawanger or Jahangir, certainly either of the two, old and frail, entering the dargah of shahmeena sahib. Someone told me he took to qawwali singing at the mazar.
Journey of kashmiri bhands from mehfils to a sufi mazar captures the status of a dying art form of Awadh.