REVELRY – The Babu Way

estivities including Durga Puja in the houses of businessmen or neo rich traders in the city in the 18th and 19 century were incomplete without night long shows of kabigan, akhrai, half akhrai, tarja, tappa, kirtan, jatra and khemta . They were held on the days of Saptami, Ashtami and Nabami. On Vijaya Dashmi after immersion, it was a custom for the men folk to visit the red light areas in Sonagachi and Garanhata to watch voluptuous women dressed in expensive sarees and ornaments standing on their balcony or at the entrance of their houses.

The festivities usually began with kabigan involving two groups of singers, each led by a kabiyal or sarkar. The accompanying singers or dohars repeated the lead singer. Kabigan began with bandana sung in praise of goddess Saraswati or Ganesha. As many of the aristocratic family were Vaishnavs, songs on the romance between Lord Krishna and Radha were also popular. This was followed by kabir larai where two kabials took part in a wordy duel – an exercise of ready wit as well as intelligence. Famous kabials included Haru Thakur (1749-1824), Netai Bairagi (1751-1821), Ram Basu (1786-1828), Bhola Moira and Antony Phiringhee. The kabials sung on contemporary social life. The winner received cash awards after the show which stretched to two-three hours. Anthony, an Armenian defeated Bhola Moira, the most celebrated kabial of his time. A song sung by him Christe aar kriste kono tofat naire bhai- there is no difference between Christ and Krishna – became very popular. Kabials were both good lyricists and singers.

Akhrai were songs on the life of Lord Krishna. The show was held for an hour and included both male and female singers. Half-akhrai was drama organised by amateur youths generally sons, their friends and relatives of the zemindar celebrating the Durga Puja. Youths played female characters and hence those with feminine looks were in high demand; often the songs and the accompanying gestures were vulgar.

Kirtans were also sung by both male and female singers. The songs were on the life of Lord Krishna from his early childhood till he ascended the throne of Mathura and also on Maa Durga. They were mostly organised on Mahanabami. The kirtan singers, usually Vaishnavs were showered with gold and silver coins after the show. Tarja gaan, though popular in 18th and 19th century has become an extinct genre. Tarjas were semi classical songs and famous female tarja singers included Tagar, Mohini and Golap. The singers, wearing costly silk sarees and the medals they received from the zemindars, played ektara – a single string instrument. The singers used to sing both Bengali and Hindi songs. Tappa, particularly those composed by Ramnidhi Gupta (Nidhubabu) were quite popular. Most of the songs were on contemporary society, the lavish life of the aristocrats and the deteriorating condition of the commoners.

Khemta was organised generally by the neo rich traders class for a select audience and women were barred from watching the show since the female singers often stripped while singing songs, either in Bengali or Hindi. Two women usually performed together. While drinks and siddhi were served to the audience comprising the Babu and his close friends the performers too would be under the influence of alcohol, making lewd and obscene gestures which were thoroughly enjoyed by the audience. Later the performers were rewarded with gold chains or rings.
In some rich houses the merrymaking would continue throughout the night for more than a fortnight.

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