Wishing Happy Baisakhi, Happy Indian and Myanmar’s traditional New Year, and Happy Birthday to a legend
No one went to Rangoon in the song Mere piya gaye Rangooon – it is a stage song picturised on the yesteryear’s famous comedian Gope and the ebullient and beautiful Nigar Sultana. The fact that yet there is a reference to the city indicates that Rangoon evoked some deep connection in India. C Ramchandra was a genius of light-hearted fun songs – this song is in the tradition of the cult song he had created a couple of years earlier – Ana meri jaan meri jaan Sunday ke Sunday (Shehnai).
Mere piya gaye Rangoon by Shamshad Begum and Chitalkar from Patanga (1949), lyrics Rajendra Krishna, music C Ramchandra
The Last Mughal
It had completely slipped my mind that there was another more powerful and historically significant Rangoon connection, until a mention was made of the must-see place, Bahadurshah Zafar Memorial. Of course we knew from our school history that the last Mughal emperor was exiled in Rangoon, along with his family, where he died. I have seen memorials and memorials. But this one was unlike anything I had seen before. The cruelty of the times seems to come closer to you when you see these pictures of the Emperor in his last days, his wife Zeenat Mahal and his two sons displayed on the wall.
For music lovers, Bhadurshah Zafar is, of course, immortal for two ghazals he wrote in captivity – Lagta nahi hai jee mera ujade dayar mein and Na kisi ki aankh ka noor hun. There cannot be a sadder expression of despair and hopelessness. And you get an eerie feeling when you go down to the basement which houses his grave, which is flanked by these ghazals inscribed on the two sidewalls.
Several singers have sung these ghazals – both in films and non-films, making these befitting candidates for Mr. Ashok Vaishnav’s mega project on multiple version songs. SoY readers would be familiar with Rafi’s rendering in the film in Lal Quila. But my favourites are the versions sung by Habib Wali Mohammad.
While I was struck at the poignancy of the last days of his life, standing at his tomb I realised a coincidence – I was there in the 150th anniversary year of his death (he died in 1862). Last year we celebrated centenaries and sesquicentenaries of several historical figures in our country, but we seem to have completely forgotten Bahadurshah Zafar – I do not remember any reference to him in our media. So let us recompense our omission, and pay our tributes to the Last Mughal with the two of his ghazals, which would ever remain immortal:
Lagta nahi hai jee mera by Habib Wali Mohammad live
This live presentation also has a brief profile of Habib Wali Mohammad. And in a very poignant introduction, he describes how he was ‘exiled’ to the US by his parents for doing his MBA, when he was deprived of his music. Thus, he brings out the pathos of this ghazal from his own personal memory.
Na kisi ki aankh ka noor hun live by Habib Wali Mohammad
This live presentation follows a different tune than we are familiar with. But strains of the sarangi in Raga Desh heightens the sadness and despondency of the lyrics, perfectly matched by the sonorous voice of Habib Wali Mohammad.
Mandalay also rang a bell from school history books – it appears along with Rangoon and Andaman in our consciousness. There was indeed something common between them. These are the places where Indian freedom fighters were deported. Bal Gangadhar Tilak was imprisoned here along with Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and Lala Lajpat Rai. Tilak wrote his famous Geeta Rahasya here. Nothing remains of the cell where they were kept. The only remnant is the following:
Place where Bal Gangadhar Tilak was exiled in Mandalay
The Last Emperor and The Last Emperor
But the most fascinating link between India and Burma is what can be described as the history coming full circle. The last Mughal Emperor was exiled to Burma (Rangoon) – after the British overran Delhi – where he died. The last Burmese Emperor, Thibaw, was exiled to India (Ratnagiri) with his family – after the British defeated Burma in the third Anglo-Burma war in 1885 – where he died in December, 1916 (i.e. after 31 years of captivity in ‘Thibaw Palace’ in isolation). Most interestingly, Thibaw line continues in India as a result of the eldest princess Phaya (Heiksu Myat Phayagyi) eloping with the gatekeeper of the palace, Gopal Sawant – in abject poverty, and now oblivious of their royal linkage. Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace is a fictional account of the last Burmese dynasty. But Sudha Shah, inspired by this book, has written a monumental historical work, ‘The King’s Exile: The Fall of the Royal Family of Burma’, after seven years of research based on documents, archives, travels and meetings with Thibaw’s descendants in India and Myanmar. You would find a very laudatory summary of this book by Amitav Ghosh on his blog.
Now you might notice a unique December connection. I visited the Bahadurshah Zafar’s tomb in Rangoon and the Glass Palace in Mandalay in December. Thibaw died in Ratnagiri in December. And on December 22, i.e. about ten days after my visit, the President of Myanmar H.E. Thein Sen visited Thibaw’s Palace in Ratnagiri, and met his descendants in the office of the Deputy Commissioner of Ratnagiri (there are several reports on the internet).
Myanmar’s President at Thibaw Palace Ratnagiri
INDIA AND MYANMAR TODAY
One thing that strikes a visitor, especially if you drive through the countryside, is that the country and its people are lovely. It is primarily an agricultural country, which means the villages still have an old world charm. However, their new capital, Nay Pyi Taw (also written as Naypyitaw or Naypyidaw), is a gleaming futuristic city with grand public squares, wide avenues, and infrastructure which would be good enough for the next 100 years. Some of the vignettes of the cultural links, in today’s context, I came across are the following.
Myanmar loves Ekta Kapoor
Ekta Kapoor is one of the two modern icons of popular culture – the other being Rohit Shetty. Rohit Shetty says, “Leave your brains behind and laugh in my movies”. Ekta Kapoor is more erudite. Schooled in our ancient literature and Greek classics, she knows that the ultimate in performing arts is karuna rasa. So she says, leave your brains behind and cry in my serials. And what galaxy of crying women she has created – Tulsi, Parvati, and the CRYING QUEEN Archana (Pavitra Rishta). So I was filled with joy when I saw my favourite, Archu’s serial, Pavitra Rishta, coming on Myanmar Radio and TV (MRTV), with sub-titles, while ambling past a curio shop in a pagoda.
Dhoom macha le dhoom in Mandalay
It would be surprising if a cultural evening was held in India’s neighbourhood for Indians, where Bollywood would be missing. These two Myanmar girls do a very good job of dancing to Dhoom macha le dhoom.
Burmese New Year, Baisakhi, Vishu, Bihu etc.
And the strongest cultural link, which is eternal, is while people in many parts of our country are celebrating around this day the traditional New Year by various names – Baisakhi (Punjab), Vishu (Kerala), Poila Baisakh (Bengal), Maha Bisubh Sankranti (Orissa), Bihu (Assam) or Gudi Parwa (Maharashtra) – Burma is also celebrating, precisely at this time, its own New Year. In another striking cultural similarity, the most dominant part of their New Year festivities is ‘Water Festival’. This is similar to our Holi, with the difference that it is played with plain, rather than coloured, water. Even though the New Year was four months away, these Burmese girls presented a ‘Water Festival Dance’ – it is a treat to the eyes and senses for its melodious music and graceful moves.
Happy Birthday Shamshad Begum
I started with Mere piya gaye Rangoon. Though it is a duet, whom do you associate it with? There is an openness and force in Shamshad Begum, which makes her stand out in her duets. And what a coincidence that today is her 94th birthday. It was 72 years ago with Khazanchi (1941), when she stormed the Hindi film music with a verve and joyous style of singing, which came to be known as the Punjab school of music. There are several posts on her in my mind. She is among the few surviving artistes from our vintage era. So while I remember Indo-Myanmar links, Baisakhi, Vishu, Bihu, the New Year, let us also wish Shamshad Begum, who so symbolises the spirit of Baisakhi, a very Happy Birthday.
Note: 1. I have, at places, used Burma and Rangoon for their official names Myanmar and Yangon. This is in the sense one uses Bombay for Mumbai (Ye hai Bombay meri jaan). I respect their sentiments for their official names.
2. The place where Bal Gangadhar Tilak was incarcerated is barred to the visitors. That our impossible visit became possible is due to Mr. Tarun Vijay, MP, a man of incredible charms and versatile talents. He was travelling in some other capacity, and our paths crossed at Mandalay. His request was so earnest, and made in such an endearing manner that it melted the Chief Minister of Mandalay region, at the tea table, into giving approval instantly. By the time the two of us reached there, the message had already reached the guards. But they were still tentative and bewildered to let us in – the first visitors in about ten years. Thank you, Mr. Vijay, and Thank you, Excellency Mr. U Ye Myint.