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Jashn-e-Awadh: A Celebration of Love Ballads of Awadh in the American Heartland

Jashn-e-Awadh: A Celebration of Love Ballads of Awadh in the American Heartland

  • In India’s musical history, the Awadh region, more than any, has had a seminal impact on the Hindustani spectrum, having defined, shaped, evolved and refined the myriad vocal forms that exist today.

After a lapse of over two years, we got to hear Pooja Goswami Pavan’s  stunning vocals again. In all that we have gone through during the pandemic, the inability to attend Pooja’s live performance was the deepest cut of all. But finally, it happened, on Mother’s Day, May 8 at the Plymouth Playhouse Theater near Minneapolis, MN. The music and arts-loving folks of Minneapolis were treated to our very own Begum of Melodies’ powerful and lilting chops again.

Ably accompanied by renowned tabla player A. Pavan, Pankaj Mishra on Sarangi and  Kedar Naphade on harmonium, “Jashn-e-Awadh: A celebration of the Love Ballads of Awadh region of North India” was a soaring success. It offered a delectable bouquet of songs unique to Awadh, ranging from the sensuous and the lilting to the mystical and the festive. As an additional treat, the concert gave us a much-needed glimpse into how these songs have had such phenomenal influence on the popular music of Hindi films of the Golden Era (1950 – 1975), thus ensconcing themselves in the public consciousness.

I remember my father telling me about the great Naushad and Anil Biswas, the two giants of Hindi film music – while Naushad belonged to this region, Biswas was from East Bengal – how both looked deep into their own backgrounds to compose numbers that remain with us to this day.

And what an evening it was — we had amidst us the gifted poet and art lover — Nawab of Awadh Wajid Ali Shah’s gut-wrenching poetry as he bids farewell to his beloved Awadh when he is exiled by the occupying British forces, as well as the finest chaities, thumris and other folk songs that originated from the opulent, jasmine-scented and glittering havelis and verandahs of Awadh’s famous tawaifs   (courtesans).

Top photo, Pandit Pankaj Mishra, Tabla maestro A. Pavan, Pooja Goswami Pavan and Kedar Naphade, at the Jashn-e-Awadh, May 8 at the Plymouth Playhouse Theater near Minneapolis, MN. Above, after the finale, Pawan, Pooja and Pandit Pankaj Mishra on stage.

That independent India’s musical greats — including the Hindustani classical giants (ustads) failed to give due credit to these tawaifs — instead happily absorbed these lilting melodies and poetry of the era — is indeed a grave injustice. Pooja gave a face and voice to those countless courtesans who added to the artistic abundance of Awadh. Also present throughout the evening was the spirit of Begum herself – the inimitable and queen of Indian semi-classical thumris, chaitis, ghazals and so much more, Begum Akhtar. A fitting tribute indeed to this giant from the subcontinent as Pooja has trained under her Ustani Padma Shree Shanti Hiranand, who in turn was one of the closest disciples of The Begum.

In India’s musical history, the Awadh region, more than any, has had a seminal impact on the Hindustani spectrum, having defined, shaped, evolved and refined the myriad vocal forms that exist today. As we all journeyed through the soundscapes of Awadh, from the royal courts of Wajid Ali Shah to the celluloid court of “Mughal-e-Azam,” and beyond, Pooja and her ensemble fed us the colors of Lucknow, Faizabad, Allahabad, Sultanpur, Kanpur, Rae Bareli, and Sitapur. Very cleverly and with ease she slipped into the “inspired” versions of the popular culture thanks to Bollywood, much to the audiences’ delight — especially those that may be too young to know the origins of where the lovable humming tunes of Bollywood originates.

And indeed, for an hour and 30 minutes, way too short in my mind, the audience was enchanted and mesmerized by the very familiar thumris and chaitis made famous in Bollywood but had their roots and origin int the Awadhi soil and soul. Pooja started with Wajid Ali Shah’s poetry and ended with his heartbreaking “Babul mora, naihar chootoo hee jayee…. immortalized by K.L.Segal’s nasal voice — My father, my originator, I am now leaving your house forever…” just as the nawab had to leave his beloved Awadh forever, banished from the cultural city of Lucknow, from the kathak and the thumris that he patronized and as well from the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb that thrived in the plains of Awadh.

Speaking of this Ganga-Jamuni tehejib or culture that is unique to the Gangetic plains of North India, where the two great rivers Ganga and Yamuna meet and merge, thus giving us a culture rooted in both Islamic Persian as well as Hindu way of life that exists to this day. Pooja speaks of this tehejib when she mentioned how Wajid Ali Shah celebrated Holi with full gusto, just as Moharram was acknowledged as a special day. The folk songs of this region too symbolize this merger – “It is the simple, yet evocative, beauty of these songs, sung through the semi-classical and folk idioms of the Thumri, Dadra, Ghazal, Kajri, Chaiti, Hori, Sawani and Jhoola, that both soothes and excites the soul at the same time, the press release promised and Pooja and her brilliant ensemble kept this promise.

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Remember the famous Pakeezah song – Mohe panghat pe, nandala chede gayo te…”, and immortalized by the divine Meeena Kumari? The original version of course is “panghatuwa pe, nandlal gher liyo re…”, composed and performed by the great Pandit Bindadin Maharaj, originator of the Lucknow Gharana of Kathak and the grandfather of Kathak legend Pandit Birju Maharaj. Then, there is the Amitabh Bachchan song from “Baghban” – “holi khele raghubera awadh mein…” that also is “inspired” by an original folk song from the region. And last but not the least, the Begum’s famous number – “hamari attariya pe aaja re sawariya….” This song has been made famous by one and all but the original composition was by the begum herself and penned by Sudarshan Fakir. It was said that Faiz would make a request to Begum Akhtar to sing this dadra repeatedly whenever they met.

So many songs, so many memories came tumbling out. As an expatriate living in the U.S., I belong to this Ganga-Jamuni tehezib, from the ghats of Banaras where I can still hear the chaitis and kajaris sung by the gorgeous wives of the neighborhood gwalas (the cow herder), who after finishing up with the day’s tasks would gather on someone’s portico or front yard and sing deep into the night all the chaitis, the birahas and the saavanis they could sing, depending on the season.

Each season brought out a whole new pitara (luggage) of folk songs referencing anything from love and longing to the rains, the clouds and even Lord Krishna. Those days are long since gone but once in a while, listening to Pooja or talking with her fellow artist ace sarangi maestro Pankaj Mishra who also hails from Banaras and belongs to the famous Mishra clan that has produced many a seminal artist for centuries — it all comes back. Sometimes with a bang, sometimes with a delight but always a welcome reminder of the days long gone.

Kuhu Singh lives in Eden Prairie, Minn., a suburb of the Twin Cities. Bidding adieu to journalism a decade ago, she nonetheless loves to write and express her very strong opinions on social media and blogs and sometimes in a few Indian publications. She is a Senior Digital Marketing Manager for a broadcast retail company. Race relations, diversity, and social issues fascinate and roil her into action. She volunteers her time with certain political organizations and community organizations.

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