As a metaphor for intellectual stimulation or the bone of contention for the nagging housewife, alcohol has found favour and ire in various genres of Indian music. For the longest time I wanted to spend hours researching on the marriage of my two beloved vices – Indian music and alcohol. While this might not be comprehensive, I guess I have been able to scratch the surface a little and capture the chemistry (or should I say alchemy) they share. And if you were me, there is never too much of either of them.
Dhrupad and Khayal (Classical and Semi-classical Music)
Dhrupad is the oldest and parent form of Indian music which provides the structure of sur (melodies and compositions) and taal (rhythm). Known as Khayal in its modern freestyle forms, it led to the creation of semi-classical genres like Kajri, Thumri and Qawwali. Dhrupad verses typically talk about romance and marriage, mostly referring to Krishna from the perspective of Radha or other cow girls. Alcohol is often used as a metaphor to insinuate intoxication, like in the popular thumri, ras ke bhare tore nain saawariya/tadpat ho more din rain saawariya (the wine of your eyes, my love/tortures my day and night, my love) and the bandish in Raag Malkaus, raseeli rang daare/pee ke khoye chain (your intoxicating colours/give me a high – a reference to the festival of Holi). Later, the verses began mirroring social habits and behaviour and the focus shifted from Radha-Krishna to everyday relationships. Jao jao sayyian, sauten ke saath raho (Go away, lover/live with your mistress) is the bold rejection of a housewife who tells the husband, in the second couplet, to stay away from her as he is dead drunk – pee ke ho choor choor/rahiyo humse door door. Ankhiyon se na piyo/jaam hori khaali (Don’t drink with your eyes/the bottle is finishing) is the seductive invitation to the lover to stop drinking with only his eyes and come closer.
One of the primary subjects of Ghazals (the other being romance), alcohol has found various forms in the ashaar or couplets of innumerous poets over centuries. Mirza Ghalib obviously is the most respected and renowned of Urdu-Persian poets, his love for the bottle and mockery of hypocritical clerics being recurrent features in his poetry. Zaahid sharaab peene de masjid mein baith kar/ya woh jagah bataa jahaan par Khuda na ho (Let me drink in the mosque/or send me there where God does not exist) remains one of his most philosophical lines accusing the faithful of restricting God’s presence to religious boundaries. On a more romantic note, he flirts with the wine girl – pila de ok se saaqi jo hum se nafrat hai/pyaala gar nahin deta na de, sharaab toh de (Serve me wine in cupped hands if you hate me/don’t give me a glass if you want, pour the wine, please). Syed Allahabadi writes, gar aag maikashon ki sazaa hai to yaa Khuda/dozakh mein ek nahar bahaa de sharaab ki (If the drunk will be punished with Eternal Fire/God, make a canal of wine in Hell), portraying the popularity of alcohol, as does the famous Pankaj Udhas Ghazal, kabhi nahi pad sakta yaaro maikhane mein taala/ek do chaar nahi hai, saara sheher hai peene waala (the wine house cannot be shut down/not just one or two, the whole town drinks). On a different note, Akbar Allahabadi’s famous lines, hungama hai kyun barpa, thodi si jo pee hai (Why the fuss? I have just drunk a little) symbolized his love and belief in Hindu-Muslim unity, something he had been heavily criticized for by the Muslim League.
A semi-classical style, Qawwali can be both spiritual (Sufi) and romantic in nature. Hamd or Naat, which are the spiritual kinds devoted to Allah, the Prophet (pbuh) and other saints, do not have any direct references to alcohol of course. Khumaar or intoxication is often spoken of as a concept, a higher state of spiritual ecstasy achieved through meditation and prayer – Tali har balaa humari/chhaya hai khumaar tera (My obstacles have been removed/you have left everyone intoxicated). This likening of spiritual high with drunkenness is unique to Sufi poetry and music and takes up different forms – the whirling dervishes would be one of them. Regional flavours are found in Punjabi Qawwalis like gal kar koi peen pilawan dee/rut langna jaawe saawan dee (let’s talk about drinking before the monsoons end), as people of the region have always enjoyed drinking during the rains. Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Sahab’s treasure trove of romantic Qawwalis often uses alcohol to signify feminine beauty and romance. Nothing can be more romantic than the lines, Yeh jo halka halka suroor hai/yeh teri nazar ka qasoor hai/teri behki behki nigah ne/mujhe ek sharabi bana diya (This tipsiness, I blame your eyes for it/that look in your eyes, made a drunkard of me).
Devotional music or hymns are as old as Dhrupad sangeet itself and over centuries, guided by regional and sectarian preferences, Indian music has sung praises of various deities. Bhajans can be both respectful and irreverent in nature – Gods are praised for their kindness and mocked for their human weaknesses. Shiva has been a favourite of Shaivite Bhajan writers who fondly talk of his love for bhang, ganja and som ras (a Vedic drink with intoxicating qualities). Som peeke naache Bhole baba/sab karo parnaam (Shiva dances happily after drinking som/worship Him, everyone) and Peeke ek bhang ka pyala/mast mast hua Bhola (After a drink, Shiv is enjoying a high) are crowd favourites that one can often hear in Haridwar and Benaras. Vaishnavite Bhajans sing of Krishna and poets like Sur Das, Tulsi Das and Meera Bai (doyens of the Bhakti movement) are the primary contributors to this school of hymns. Intoxication becomes the metaphor for spiritual knowledge and awakening in their Bhajans, an interesting similarity shared with Sufi poets. Meera Bai’s Raam naam ras peeje manawa/taja ku-sanga, sat-sanga baith nita/hari charcha suni leeje/Meera ki prabhu Giridhar nagara/tahike rang mein bheeje (Drink the name of Ram/abandon bad company, sit with the pious/listen to the holy hymns/Meera’s lord is Krishna/she is drenched in his colour) is a shining example of the Bhakti period’s social relevance – drinking was a common social vice everyone was battling with.
Different regions in the country have indigenous folk music or lokgeet forms which mirror society and talk of prevalent ideologies and philosophies. While the Maharashtrian Lavani is erotic and boisterous in its treatment, egging men on to the pleasures of life, the Baul and Bhatiyali of the East is more introspective in nature. Lavani and Tamasha performances objectify nautch dancers, often comparing them to other immoralities like drinking. The Rajasthani Podina songs are irritated complaints of housewives who are frustrated with their inebriated husbands – ojhuk jaaye re hariya podina. The Bauls and Fakirs of Bengal and Bihar sing of finding God in one another, brotherhood and a universal religion. A famous Lalon Fakir number, Khejur gaache haari baandho mon/shujon gaache bandhle haari milbe ashol chini/je roshik hobe bujhe libe/ beroshik bujhbe na go ashhadon (Tie your mind like a pot on good Palm trees for sweeter knowledge), talks beautifully of seeking enlightened company just like the toddy-seller searches for healthy Palm trees to make good quality liquor. Bhatiyali are songs sung by boatmen to avoid boredom while rowing. Rupali nodi re, roop dekhe tor hoiyasi pagol/cholish tui dolok dolok, maatla cholok cholok (O silver river, your beauty drives me mad/your soft waves are like drunken swagger) is one of the innumerous odes to nature in Indian folk music.
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