Raising the Curtain of the Jalsaghar Era
Lucknow played a pivotal role Bengal’s cultural renaissance
Charles D’Oily could walk dos, bis crosh (long distance, as Bengalis say colloquially) just for a glimpse of Nicky Baiji.
D’Oily, however, was not the only person in today’s Calcutta who adored her.
Even Raja Rammohun Roy invited her to the jalsaghar (dancing floor) of his baganbari (garden house) at Maniktala in Calcutta where Nicky wove her musical magic. She also received invitations from the Thakurs (family of Rabindranath Tagore) for the evening majlis held at their Jorasanko Thakur Bari.
That was the peak of Bengal’s Jalsaghar era when belowari jhaar or chandeliers illuminated jalsaghars with talented Baijis like Nicky performing their art in the presence of baboos and officers of the British East India Company.
Baijis formed an integral part of the sociocultural life of rich Bengali bhodrolok and played a key role in transforming the old evening recreational patterns of Bengal by fast replacing it with waves of kathak and classical genres of north India, particularly Lucknow.
As you lift the curtain of the Jalsaghar era a little to peep into what is going on, as Bhootnath (Guru Dutt) did in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, you would find the dominance of the cultural trends of the Awadh region now in Uttar Pradesh.
In fact, Lucknow played a pivotal role Bengal’s cultural renaissance during the Jalsaghar era. At that time, most of the Bengali baboos were quite well versed in Urdu, Persian and Arabic to make closer their tryst with the new Lucknow culture.
Persian was still the official language in most of the royal kingdoms and Arabic was needed for a closer approach to the Islamic cultures for which Bengali baboos had massive fascination.
In short the Jalsaghar era brought about the cultural metamorphosis of Bengal, adding a new dimension to the land.
We get glimpses of Jalsaghar evenings in Hindi and Bengali movies and television serials and they continue to remain a major theme proving even the young generation keep interest in it.
This makes the topic of Baboos of Bengal and Baijis of Jalsaghar still a topical one.
As a topic, it has not grown stale.
That was the time of liberalism and Bengali renaissance. Bengal was quite open to cultural assimilation 200 years ago.
Anyone who has seen Jalsaghar by Satyajit Ray or Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam directed by Abrar Alvi can form an idea. The evening life of jalsaghar bled the baboos financially white but it did enrich the life of Bengal enormously.
When we talk of Ray’s Jalsaghar, the most famous scene of Roshan Kumari’s dance comes before our eyes. Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam’s all-time hit song ‘Saqia Aaj Mujhe Nind Nahi Aayegi…’ also portrayed those days in the most vivid way.
Devdas and Sautela Bhai portrayed baboos and baijis in its real flavours. ‘Ja main tose nahi boloon…’ of Sautela Bhai perfectly arrested the scene of pomp and show of the Jalsaghar of Zamindar Baboos.
Treading the corridors of different palaces of Rajas, Nawab Bahadurs and Zamindars in Calcutta once trotted by famous Baboos, one would perhaps have an uncanny feeling of having reached the era of Nicky and D’Oily through a time machine.
Interestingly, the pattern of newspaper reporting of the time of Nicky and D’Oily when compared to the Page 3 tradition of Mumbai dailies does not seem to have changed much.
Different filmy parties of Bollywood now figure in dailies in Mumbai. Similarly, in those days also the local English and Bengali dailies reported the grand evening programmes held by Baboos in their Jalsaghar.
Take the Calcutta Chronicle or Calcutta Gazette as examples. Just as today’s dailies talk a lot about any upcoming film actress, both the Chronicle and Gazette made Nicky a major news topic in the Jalsaghar era.
We now have personal gossip on the relationships of filmy personalities. In the Jalsaghar era also, the love of D’Oily for Nicky happened to be a major newspaper topic. The spicy news also used to be presented in those days in the newspapers as now.
Nicky and D’Oily were used by Baboos to outwit each other in Jalsaghar era. Quite interesting, isn’t it?
It was in 1815 that the newspapers began reporting about the competition of royalty between Baboo Nilmony Mallick and Raja Ramchandra Dey of Calcutta.
The basic purpose of the competition was to outwit each other. That was common among the Zamindars of the Jalsaghar era.
In that year, Mallick Baboo organized a colourful Jalsa. Nicky was invited. So was her lover D’Oily, then very powerful in the East India Company.
It had a purpose. Mallick Baboo wanted to show to Dey Baboo that his Jalsa was attended by the costliest Baiji of Calcutta and one of the most powerful British officers of the East India Company.
Soon, Dey Baboo also invited another very famous Baiji, Ushoorun, and several top officers of the Company.
The newspaper reporting shows that even Firangis of those days liked classical Hindustani music and dance. Many of them knew Persian, Arabic and Urdu also.
A year earlier in 1814, the Calcutta Gazette reported about two Jalsa held by Raja Kishun Chand Roy and Baboo Neel Mony Mullick. The star attractions of both Jalsa were Nicky and Ushoorun.
Of course, D’Oily was present in those parties as he just could not miss any programme of Nicky’s.
D’Oily, a painter and poet, even composed a verse in the praise of beauty of Nicky. That is quite natural of the lover of a beautiful lady.
In the same year, Baboo Joy Kishun Roy held a musical event at his Jalsaghar, to which he invited Baijee Misree, an exponent in Hindustani Ragas. This party was also attended by some Memsahibs and Firangis.
But no other Baijee of the era would always be in the newspaper headlines as was Nicky. One such news item appearing in 1819 in Calcutta Gazette merits a mention. The news said: A rich Zamindar appointed Nicky on a regular basis to entertain him exclusively on a fabulous Rs 1,000 monthly salary.
The Baboo’s name was not mentioned.
We reporters also keep names in private affairs confidential.
Those were not the days of cameras but some Britons like D’Oily and Mrs Belnos painted those Jalsaghar events. In 1825, D’Oily painted in watercolour a Jalsa with the title ‘Raja Nob Kishen’s Nautch Party at Calcutta’. Mrs Belnos painted another such Jalsa and said in her noting that visitors were welcomed by beautiful Nautch girls with attar of sandal and rose and a bouquet of flowers.
Here we find that Baboos followed the style of the old Mughal tradition in welcoming guests to Mehfils. Of course, baboos like Raja Ram Mohan Roy had very close connection with the Mughal kings.
To talk of Jalsaghar and not to refer to Jharbati or chandeliers just would not do. While walking along the corridors of the Baboos’ palaces you still can see Jharbati hanging from the ceiling. They are the same chandeliers that lighted the events of Baijis like Nicky and Ushroon.
There is a very touching song on such a Jharbati sung by Manna Dey and Sandhya Mukherjee in the epic Bengali film Anthony Firingee of Uttam Kumar and Tanuja . The song in Bengali sings like this:
“Ami je jalsa gharer
Nishi phurale keho
Chayena amaye, jani go aar…”
In Firangi Zuban English, it would appear like this:
“Neglected I swing
From the ceiling sans wing
With no dance or song
As the night passes
My life ceases
Forgotten I lay
Chandelier of the day…”
The meaning is poignant as the chandeliers have no life in the day but they are all splendor in the night.
Now a question arises. When exactly did the Jalsaghar era begin in Bengal and who was the first Baboo?
Well, we have to consult a newspaper report here. In 1789 the Calcutta Chronicle did a special report on it. The newspaper printed a list of very prominent Baboos and said the first Baboo was Raja Nabakrishna Deb of Shobhabazar Rajbari or Royalty.
A man very close to Robert Clive, the Raja was an expert in Persian and Urdu.
The list of prominent Baboos included about 10 names. Of them, we find the names of the Tagore family in the top: Dwarkanath Tagore, Ramhari Tagore, Darpanarayan Tagore and Prasanna Coomar Tagore.
They all promoted Baijis and the melodies of Chaiti- Dadra- Thumri- Kajri and Kathak.