May 1, 2022

Baiji Culture of Kolkata during Colonial Period: A review

Indigenous Art & Culture

Aritri Majumder, SACT,Department of Music, Gobardanga Hindu College, Ph.D. Research Scholar, University of Calcutta

Tradition, the word which carries out many things in one boat. Culture and tradition are interdependent where tradition is a boat and culture plays the role of a sail. Kolkata, the city of joy, borrows its cultural tradition from a long time. On the other side Kolkata always greets and accepts new, so Kolkata is a place where tradition and trend stay side by side. Kolkata is a place of musical heritage as well as it was once the heart of Indian classical music. During British Colonial rule the scenario of India where a tide of transition took place in Indian culture. An obvious effect took place in Kolkata, the city of musical heritage, where classical music was already existed and continued a strong musical tradition of pure classical music from a long time. In 1856, when Nawab Wajed Ali Shah came to the city, a new form of music was entered with him. Nawab Wajed Ali Shah was a great patron of Performing and Fine Arts. So naturally the beautiful musical genre of Lucknow or Awadh gradually laid out its fragrance. It is very relevant to say that the gradual transition of musical field in Kolkata, there was a contribution of some forgotten muses who silently pioneering gave light and paved the way of new genre of classical and semi classical music as well.

Hindustani Classical and Semi classical music is itself a beauty and integral part of beautiful Indian culture where women performers continuously make exceptional style and keep mark on Indian musical culture. History always tries to reveal the truth or fact but unfortunately an unknown curtain covers some unknown fact about women performers and their contribution. It is a history of women performers who were known as – Nagarbadhu, Devdasi, Kanjari, Tawaif, Baiji and many more in different period of time. In Mughal period, the court was dazzled by courtesans and their performances. These courtesans acclaimed a special position and respect for their performance as well as talent. Music, Dance, Poetry and Courtesans were not different from each other. There was a profound relation where emotion, sentiment, ups and downs, rise and fall even life of a courtesan secured with Music-Dance-Poetry. These women performers established a new genre of Hindustani Classical Music and patronized the field of semi-classical or second stream of music. But their entire journey was too much uneven because the perception of so called elite society disgraced them continuously.

Kolkata was stalwart of performing art and the development and changes was taken place through the women performers who were called as ‘Baiji’. Nawab Wajed Ali Shah came with a huge number of dancers and singers not only that, he brought with him a new style of music. Dhrupad was well practiced form of Kolkata from long time. This time Khayal and Thumri started to bloom and flourish rapidly. Colonial Bengal, during 19th century was introduced with a new era and also with Bengal renaissance where effect of British Colonialism or orientalism took place. European thinking idea, educational movement-all kept a deep impact on Bengali Culture throughout this period of time. (Mitra, 2017)

Metiyaburj was purchased by Nawab Wajed Ali Shah but after coming at Kolkata Nawab realized that he was like an outsider and he missed his dynasty badly. So he decided to construct and began an extension of another Lucknow dynasty with the permission of British Government. Chota Lucknow and beautiful township was established like Nawabi Lucknow .So naturally the culture of Lucknow or Awadh touched Kolkata very fast. The fragrance of music, dance, poetry, recitation, conversation, attire, style-everything was spread and enthralled the Kolkata culture. And ‘They’ enchanted Kolkata with their mesmerizing voice with Thumri, they were Tawaif, the women performers. Many Tawaifs migrated from Lucknow to Kolkata; they all started a new journey with their beautiful performances. Nawab tried to keep the style and tradition of Mughal, and this corner of Kolkata became a place of Lucknow culture. The elite society of Kolkata enjoyed and accepts the Lucknowi Gharana.

Durbar of Nawab in Metiyaburj was a blessing for Bengali Culture. A new musical genre was introduced. Durbar of Nawab was the witness of Lucknowi Gharana and its exillence where the ambience brought back the lost glory of Lucknowi ‘Mijaj’.’Bengali Bhadrolok’ specially Babu class gradually took interest in Lucknowi culture Raja Sourindra Mohan Tagore was a great patron of music on that time. He was welcomed and greeted by Wajed Ali Shah and enjoyed the essence of Lucknowi Thumri. Not only that, the Dhrupad exponents of Bishnupur Gharana like Jadu Bhatta, Aghore Nath Chakraborty were the great admirers of Durbari Thumri. Nawab himself composed many famous composition of Thumri and many Raginis also. At this time, the women performers, Tawaif were experts of classical music and classical art form. New talented personalities introduced the lighter form of classical music. Song of Tawaifs buzzed everywhere of Kolkata.

Bengal especially Kolkata gave a new name and identity of these Tawaif as ‘Baiji’. Before explaining about Baiji it is more important to explain about the term ‘Baiji’. The term ‘Baiji’ was derived from Madhyapradesh or Rajasthan. In Rajasthan ‘Bai’ means mother or elder sister, for an example –Meera Bai, and to give respect ‘ji’ is added. In Maharashtra this term was also customized .It is also said that Bai means women dancer where ji is for upper class. There were four divisions of Baijis, such as Bai-only singer, Jaan-singer and dancer both, Kanij-who only welcomed and entertained the guests, Khanagi-who included physical favor as entertainment.

Under the colonial canopy so called Bengali Bhadrolok existed with their intense and relishment with a balanced manner. European culture did not impede their passion for classical music and dance. Kolkata was cultural centre, and also a place where intellectuality and artistic splendor stayed side by side in British Colonial India .Zamindars of Kolkata already accepted, enjoyed North Indian Classical Music, they were passionate by it from early 19th century. After that Bengali elite society happily accepted the Lucknowi music dance with its performers. Khayal, Thumri and Dance-all were patronized by the rich patrons of Kolkata. The mansions of rich patrons were lightened up by expert singers and dancers-who were called ‘Baiji’, the Tawaifs of Lucknow, who created more passion, fascination, excitement by their voice, by their gesture, posture and overall by their talent. Before Wajed Ali Shah the elite society and Zamindars were already witnessed the Lucknowi Gharana infrequently. Rich Bengalis invited famous singers and dancers from Lucknow, Delhi occasionally. These renowned Tawaifs were given prominent position in the court of Bengali Zamindar as ‘Baiji’ such as famous Nickee, Begum Jaaan, Supan Jaan, Hingool, Nanni Jaan and many more sparkled in the court in early 19th century Kolkata. Kotha (the large adornment of women performers), Baganbari, Jalshaghar-these were the place where flow of music and dance engrossed every corner. These Baijis undoubtedly the ornaments of Hindustani Semi-classical music. They were well trained by pure classical music (Dhrupad-Dhamar-Khayal) but the ‘mithas’ of semi-classical (Thumri-Dadra-Chaiti-Kajri-Sawan) embellished the Mehefil more. These talented Divas were able to change the preferences of listening music.

A different perspective of society made them ‘other women’ or treated them as pariahs, but the sarcasm is their flair of art or art forms (music-dance-poetry) was the ravishment of elite society who gave them different names, different place, but a woman performer on that time, maybe she was Baiji or Tawaif, was a microcosm where talent and entertainment belonged together. A shadowy, convoluted world of Baiji gave another definition of life where they were categorized, though the created new artistic language after being categorized marginalized. Historical context can give some glimpses of their life but their voice still recalls to open the untitled page of their life.

In Kolkata, from the beginning, there was a tradition of classical music. Music patrons invited many Baijis in their residence occasionally, such as birthday party, marriage ceremony, Durga Puja etc. That was a culture and status maintain also. Metiaburj, Bowbajar, Chitpore were famous places where the flowers of music bloomed and nurtured by the women performers as well as Baijis and there were many Gharana’s culture assorted in Bengal through Baiji culture. Lucknow, Benaras, Delhi-all Gharanas were introduced by the Baijis, because they took Taalim from music maestros of different Gharana and Kolkata happily accepted the mixed culture of music. Many places of Kolkata became a centre of cultural hub; Bowbazar was one of the most renowned places where these talented women organized musical soirees for these ‘Samajhdar’ or patron of music as well as their voice. ‘Mujra’ and ‘Kotha’-these two words were deeply connected with Kolkata culture. It was another story that in later years these courtesans became the trainer of many singers of Kolkata.

There were many non-Bengali courtesans who settled down in Kolkata and made a place for themselves. The famous courtesans were Bari Malka Jaan, Gauhar Jaan, Malka jaan Agrewali, Janki Bai and many more. And there were many Bengali famous courtesans, such as-Harimoti, Jadumoni, Manadasundori, Krishnabhamini, Aschryamoyee, Pannamoyee, Manadasundari, Angurbala and Indubala. Being an outcaste to the society their contribution to Hindustani Classical Music and also to cultural ground of Kolkata was undeniable.

It is very hard fact that patriarchal structure where male singer got privilege there how women performer stood and proved themselves on that era. A very few Baijis were lucky to steadily face the entire struggle and got their minimum respect as an artist. Actually in everywhere these women performers or Baiji became a statuesque under the elite, rich patronages. In Mughal period these courtesans earned respect, position, stability. In British Colonial period they got or earned some respect from some aristocrat or music patrons like Babus, Zamindars or Rajas. These aristocrats organized musical evening in their ‘Baithak Khana’ where mesmerizing voices of Baijis echoed in every corner of the hall.Hindustani Classical Music always was in the heart of Bengali culture. Great patrons of music like-Seth Dulichand, Radharaman Roy, Nilmoni Mullick, Rupchand Roy, Gopimohan Deb, Raja Rajkrishna Deb, Raja Nabokrishna Deb, Raja Rammohan Roy and others. They were actual ‘Samajhdar’ of classical music on that era in Kolkata.

It is very necessary to say about some music patrons on that time, especially some royal families who were actual famous patrons of art and culture, such as Sobhabazar Raj Family and Raja Nabokrishna Dev. In the time of Durga Puja and other occasions, Baijis were invited in Sobhabazar Rajbari. Sobhabazar Rajbari was the place where performing and fine arts were revered by Rajas and gave all kind of support to the artists. Sobhabazar Rajbari is not only historical place,it is also a cultural heritage of Kolkata. During colonial period many Raja and Zamindars was influenced by music and there was a status maintain competition where ‘Baiji Gaan’ was a obvious part. But Sobhabazar Rajbari was an instance of true cultural place where music, dance was patronized by Rajas. It was a custom that during Durga Puja famous Baijis were invited to perform in Rajbari. Besides Durga Puja, in marriage ceremony, birth day parties famous Baijis performed. Not only in Kolkata, was the whole Bengal well introduced with Baiji culture. And a new form of music as well as culture was established by them.

Pathurighata was famous for three glorious aristocrat families-Tagore, Ghosh and Mullick family. Tagore family is very familiar to all. The performing and fine arts were got a new dimension from this Tagore family. Their aesthetic perception always created new thought motivated others. So it was very natural that classical music was also felicitated by Tagore family. Musicologist Raja Sourindra Mohan Tagore encouraged and helped Jadumoni (the Bengali courtesan) who was a talented singer and also an Esraj player. The ten prominent names from Tagore family who promoted and uplifted the melodies of Baiji gaan they were-Dwarkanath Tagore, Ramhari Tagore, Darpanarayan Tagore and Prasanna Tagore.

There another famous family was Ghosh family. The contribution of this family to performing art, especially music, is unforgettable and undeniable. Trailokya Nath Ghosh played Pakhawaj and Sitar not only that, this family patronized renowned, famous Dhrupad-Khayal singer like Jay Karanji, Tappa singer Ramchandra Chattopadhya and eminent singer Radhika Prasad Goswami from Bishnupur Gharana. They all were regular guests in Ghosh residence. Many renowned noted personalities like Vishnudigambar Paluskar, Faiyaz Khan were frequent visitors in the court of Ghosh family. Gauharjan, Malkajan, Noorjahan, Zohrabai-these famous Baijis were regular performer in Ghosh Mansion where Baijis got a position as a performer publicly.

Mullick family was one of the most influential families in Pathurighata and two most important persons were Jadunath Mullick and Manmatha Nath Mullick. They were cultural patron of that time. Musical concert was arranged regularly and there was an auditorium in the palace. They patronized many singers.

Each city and town has its own cluster, own story where history tries to draw the socio-cultural status. Kolkata is not exceptional but where music was strolled in every alley, yes there are many known-unknown history knocks the door again and again. Lucknow, Benaras, Kolkata-these three cities were the witnesses of courtesans’ culture, where Lucknow and Kolkata was connected by Nawab Wajed Ali Shah. Mid 19th century was a golden era for Kolkata as well as Bengal where Thumri easily mixed with the culture of the city. So it becomes obvious to revisit and try to create some anecdotes.

It was not only her grace and glamour; it was her voice and style of presentation which always attracted everyone. Raja Rammohan Roy invited Nicky Bai to the Jalsaghar of his Baganbaari at Maniltala in Kolkata where Nicky Bai made a magical atmosphere of Music.She was also invited from Thakur Bari for evening Majlis. The news papers of that time in Kolkata reported about Sir Charles D’Oily and Nicky Bai relationship. Sir D’Oily covered long distance to visit Nicky Bai and her performance. Like Nicky Bai there were Begum Jaan, Supan Jaan, Nanni Jaan and many more who were also invited to performing the Jalsaghar of Rajbari or Zamindar Bari.On that time Baijis were the headlines of newspapers as was Nicky,but names of the Babus were not mentioned. Nicky bai  started her career on 1808 or 1812 at the Majlish of Rajkrishna Dev and she ended her Majlish on 1832 at Nach Mahal of Asutosh Dev. After that she disappeared, maybe she was unhonoured, unlamented.

It is very pertinent to say about ‘Jalasaghar’, the movie, by Satyajit Roy, written by Tarashankar Bandopadhya, where music loving Zamindar Biswambhar Roy, standing on the edge of financial ruin, refuse to relinquish the lavish life style and tried to maintain his Zamindari by last penny, and he invited renowned Baijis to keep alive this high status. It was became a competition between Zamindars to maintain their social position. But it is also very truth many Zamindars were real patrons of music.Ray beautifully exhibited the era,the culture,,the music room,Baiji,passion and down fall.Satyajit Ray fantastically represented music and Dance of that era by Begum Akhtar and Roshan Kumari on screen.153 years old Nimtita Rajbari got again life by Ray.

Abanindranath Tagore also mentioned about Bhuban Bai,famous Nanhi Bai  of Lucknow,and Sree Jaan who sang whole night with her sweet cuckoo like mesmerizing voice,she was famous for her voice and she was an expert in Kanada and Bhairavi.Munsalimwali Gauhar,Johra Bai,Mustari Bai-they all captivated Kolkata by their voice and charm.In In the Nachmahal of Nabakrishna Dev,Munia Bai,daughter of Roshni Bai,made Clive fainted by her grace,beauty,talent.Many more beautiful talented Baijis were:- Supan Jaan,Nanni Jaan,Ratan Bai,Bunnu Jaan,Kashmiri Bai,Tulsi Bai,Misri Bai,Zinat Bai,Adda Bai,Amirul,Alphina.Many unknown fact,story,myth was grounded under the din and bustle of Kolkata.Mahefil,Mujra,Jalsa,Nach Mahal,Jalsaghar-these terms are very known to us.But a Mahefil got its charm by the Baijis who were like Gandharva Kanya.They are their own example.

Malka Jaan, who was a Shayer Tawaif of Benaras, her fame laid out from Benaras to Kolkata. She sang Thumri, composed by Nawab Wajed Ali Shah, in front of him; she engrossed Nawab and became court singer. Malka Jaan learned Bengali and recorded Bengali songs also. On that time Kolkata and Babu was fascinated by Malka Jaan.Gauhar Jaan,daughter of Malka Jaan,the icon,was disciple of Bechu Mishra, Bindadin Maharaj, Ganapat Rao Bhaiya Sahib, Dhrupadiya Jaal Bai, court musician Bamacharan Bhattachariya, Kirtaniya Ramesh Chandra Dutta. She was most talented person who made her musical debut at the age of thirteen. Her personal life or life story can make everyone cry to know which phases of life she faced, how much struggle made her The Gauhar Jaan. Kolkata was lucky to have a Baiji or Tawaif like Her. In 1902 Kolkata’s best known Baiji became the first classical singer who recorded for Gramophone Company of England. Her first record was released in India, it was Raag Jogiya. Her approach to Music and attitude made her icon. Gauhar Jaan was a novel herself, where she was the novelist and the protagonist also. Kolkata as well as Bengal was blessed by the Gauhar. There was a famous phase-“Gauhar ke bina Mahefil/Jaise shaadi ke bina Dulhan.”

If Gauhar Jaan was moon then Janki Bai,Jaddan Bai, Ladli Jaan, Husna Jaan were those dazzling stars who covered the whole sky with Gauhar. Their presence made every Jalsa or Mahefil special. They were main attraction where voice and charm were harmonized beautifully. Janki Bai Chappan Churivali (with 56 scars) came from Vaggeyakar community. Between 1907 to 1929 she recorded 250 songs. Her acquirement in light classical music like Dadra, Hori, Kajri, Chaiti , Bhajan, Ghazal was undoubtedly conquered the mind of audiences.

In 1920, Kolkata was introduced with a stage actress who came from Awadhi culture-Akhtari Bai. Her contribution in Ghazal was undeniable. She made Ghazal unique and created a position in main stream. Thumri and Dadra got a new style in her voice. Her struggle, her journey made her Begum Akhtar from Akhtari Bai.

It is proved in history of Music British Colonialism kept a deep impact on musical field also. A changing perception, a changing genre, changing concept about music took place where Bengali Baijis and women performers belonged with their splendid art form. We get some names of Bengali Baijis in previous discussion. Manadasundari who recorded huge number of songs of her time. Her specialization was in Tappa and Tap Khayal. She was well trained in Indian Classical Music. She achieved patronage from Desh Bondhu Chittaranjan Das and Maharaja of Natore.Her famous Bengali Khayal was- ‘Kotobar Ashiya…’

Like Manada Sundari Dasi it is an obligation to say about Indubala and Angurbala also. Indubala was famous women performer who shared the stage with many Ustads and Baijis. Also Gauhar Jaan trained her. It was Angurbala Devi was known as ‘Kolkata ki Koyel’, in Bengali she was ‘Banglar Bulbul’. She recorded 500 songs. On that time singing was an offense for women, but Angurbala Devi made it wrong. Her voice reached every corner of Bengal.

The cultural scenario of Mughal India was totally different for these women performers. It was a glorious time for Music and Dance. British perception never accepted these women performers or Tawaif or Baiji as artist, they were only entertainer for them. They never understood the Indian cultural sentiment and emotion; they misunderstood Indian Dance art also. On the other side Social Purity Association also went against the dance form of India. Late 19th century and early 20th century was the time period of Anti-Nautch campaign. Arya Samaj and Bramho Samaj were the social reformers; according to their opinion these women performers were harmful for civilized society. Nautch girls and their performance were compared with hell and evil. ‘Nautch’ –the word was misinterpreted by British Raj and so called Purity Association. Anti-Nautch campaign changed the whole landscape of Indian art culture.

Baijis were versatile artists and divine child of performing art but they were stigma for society. Baiji culture in Kolkata was slowly lost its flame .Zamindar, Babu Culture was also faded away. Many Baijis had to choose other profession like Theatre, Cinema etc. An era, socially culturally started its last journey, a community went to another cultural domain and slowly disappeared. But a new horizon was opened for women performer.

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