The legend of Baiju Bawra: Was there ever a musician who could melt marble with his singular voice?

There’s more to the mystery than what was immortalized on screen. The early history of Hindustani music, largely an oral…

The legend of Baiju Bawra: Was there ever a musician who could melt marble with his singular voice?
The legend of Baiju Bawra: Was there ever a musician who could melt marble with his singular voice?

There’s more to the mystery than what was immortalized on screen.

The early history of Hindustani music, largely an oral tradition, is a mishmash of legends, anecdotes and miracles.

One medieval composer-musician, his story lives on the play between myth and reality is Baiju Bawra or Baiju Bavare. He was popular but was not that historical. He is placed in Mughal Emperor Akbar’s reign. He is seen as the otherworldly musician, a bawra, who trumped the might of the Mughal court in a musical combat with Tansen.

Bharat Bhushan played the role as Baiju in Baiju Bawra, a film by Vijay Bhatt. In his celluloid avatar, he melted marble with the ardor of his music, wooed the ascetic guru Swami Haridas with Man Tarpat in Malkauns, and romanced Meena Kumari with Tu Ganga ki Mauj in Bhairavi. And, as musicians point out, in the classical numbers included in the film, Baiju and Tansen erroneously sang khayal – a form that had yet to evolve in the era when dhrupad ruled.

Over the last four years, in the small town of Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh, a young producer and music lover Chandra Prakash Tiwari has been trying to bring Baiju back from legend to reality. His Achaleshwar Mahadev Temple Foundation – based out of Dala, close to Varanasi – hosts an annual dhrupad music festival featuring Baiju’s oeuvre in Chanderi.

On a small hillock on the outers, close to the Chanderi Fort, there is a Samadhi dedicated to Baiju. According to locals, this was where he spent his last days, having lived much of his life at the court of the learned Raja Man Singh Tomar of Gwalior. Basant Panchami, the spring celebration in the month of February, the day Baiju is said to have died in 1610. On this day each year a small group of people gather to pay their respects to the musician.

It is hard to put a number or a definitive stamp to the provenance of Baiju’s compositions. Wasifuddin Dagar says the Dagar family tradition has at least 15-20 songs that the legends of his clan sang and taught the youngsters. Some come as pure poetry, others with raga specifications, and most carry his chhaap, or the name, in the verse.

“He was an ideal vaggeykara (musician-composer), and his work is rich with poetic and musical value,” said Ritwik Sanyal, a renowned dhrupad singer and scholar. “He influenced the music of Tansen, has a strong place in the dhrupad tradition of the Dagars and even inspired Tagore’s work. There are many unknown vaggeykaras of that period whose works didn’t attract any publicity, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist.”

Unlike Tansen whose saga stars in Ain-i-Akbari and several Mughal miniatures, Baiju Bawra does not have a definitive presence in historically valid documents.

Ashish Sankrityayan, a dhrupad singer, while researching into the evolution of dhrupad, he took a close look at all documented evidence on Baiju and found a confusing mass of information. There are references that situate Baiju in texts across nearly two centuries, from the reign of Humayun to Shahjahan. The problem is that all references are in Persian texts, Sankrityayan says, and “Baiju” appears to be spelt differently – sometimes as Bachchu, Bakshu or Baiju. Which of these is the man in question, it is hard to conclude definitively.

Kushal Beg, one of the Humayun’s guards described Baiju as, “My king, this man is Bachchu the minstrel, the prince of all, singers. He has probably no equal as a singer and reciter in all Hindustan,”in this 19th century retelling of Mirat-e-Sikandarshahi. Humayun had invaded the Gujarat sultan Bahadur Shah’s lands in 1532 and captured all his men, including his court singer Bachchu.Humayun was so captivated by Bachchu’s singing – “his whole demeanour changed and his mercy began to flow”, says Mirat – that he released him.

As for the grand musical face-off between Tansen and Baiju that the movie celebrates, music historian Katherine Schofield has another theory. The 17th century treatises and later tazkiras talk of a famous musical battle between one Nayak Gopal and Amir Khusrau in the 13th century and may have fed into the legend of Tansen and Baiju Bawra, she says. “The oral traditions are more reliable than we imagine, though usually not in a literal sense,” said Schofield.

Nayak Baiju also made his way into Sahasras, a 17th century compendium of 1,004 of his dhrupads in Brajbhasha compiled for Shah Jahan. In this Persian work, he was referred to as Nayak Bakhshu.One of the most erudite musicologists of Indian music, Thakur Jaidev Singh, in his book Sangitacharya Baiju Aur Gopal, Jivani Aur Rachnayein, also estimated that Baiju and Bakshu were the same figures. In another work, Bharatiya Sangeet Ka Itihaas, Singh praised Baiju’s lyricism in aligning akshar (alphabets) and swara (musical notes).

The version of the Baiju legend that is most popular comes from musicologist Susheela Mishra in Some Immortals of Hindustani Music. Taking care to attribute to attribute the material to stories in circulation, she places him as Baijnath Mishra, a poor Brahmin born in Champaner, Gujarat. A devout mendicant with musical skills, he caught the attention of Swami Haridas who trained him in dhrupad and instilled greater asceticism in him.Baiju became a singer at the Chanderi court. He went on to adopt a child and named him Gopal, the story goes. Baiju’s fame took him to the Gwalior court of Man Singh Tomar, but in his absence, Gopal left for Kashmir. Grief stricken, Baiju became a “bawra”. It was to bring him back into the musical world that Tansen declared a musical combat, and Baiju landed up to defend his guru’s legacy.

Once asked if a lamp could be lit with the notes of a raga, the great Indian classical singer Mallikarjun Mansur had shot back: “Vichar achha hai, par anubhav main nahin dekha (It is a great thought but I have never seen it happen in real life).” Given how much classical music resides in the realm of imagination, perhaps Baiju is as real as any other legend.