Meera Bhajans as Film Songs: The Saintlier Side of Bollywood

Meera-bai (c. 1498-1547 A.D) was a mystical poet and devotee of Lord Krishna

When most people think of Bollywood cinema, they usually think of extravagant costumes, seductive dance moves, and lots of melodramatic overacting. While all this extravagance is certainly an integral aspect of the industry, you may be surprised to learn about a saintlier side of Bollywood that I will discuss here today: the use of Meera-bai’s texts in Hindi film music.

Meera-bai was a 16th-century mystic whose devotion to Lord Krishna has been immortalized in Indian culture through her poetry and bhajans (religious songs). Meera, a Rajput princess, was married off to a prince at young age, but this marriage did not satisfy her as she already  considered herself the spouse of Lord Krishna. Her husband died in battle soon after their marriage and Meera became a widow at an early age. Meera transformed her grief into spiritual devotion and wrote many poems in praise of Lord Krishna.  In her texts, she worships Krishna from the perspective of a lover longing for union: romantic on one level and spiritual on another. Although her undying devotion to Krishna was initially a private matter, public moments of spiritual ecstasy soon outed her to society. Eventually, her brother-in-law became displeased with her excessive devotion for Krishna and made several attempts on Meera’s life. The most well-known story describes how he poisoned Meera’s prasad and made her drink it, but the Lord transformed the poison into amrit (spiritual nectar) to save her life.

Meera-bai’s texts express themes that are highly pertinent to  heroines in Hindi cinema from the Golden Era. Interpreting and contextualizing Meera’s love for Lord Krishna can be a challenging task, however, because of its apparently paradoxical relationship to acceptable gender norms for women at the time. On one hand, Meera could be considered the ideal Indian woman for the eternal devotion she displays toward her lover–in this case, Lord Krishna–in spite of all the obstacles placed in her way. The type of selfless devotion and sacrifice Meera-bai displays toward Krishna is the same type of devotion that Indian women in the chauvinistic climate of the ’50s and ’60s were expected to provide their husbands.  On the other hand, Meera-bai actually subverts the typical pativrata norms established by Indian society because her devotion is misplaced. Instead of serving her human husband, Meera devotes all of her love to Krishna, which is inconsistent with society’s expectations for the dutiful and virtuous Indian wife. This is further complicated by the fact that Meera, in her mind, actually considered herself to be the wife of Krishna (and supposedly conducted a marriage ceremony with a Krishna idol at a temple).

In any case, it is undeniable that Meera’s texts contain universal themes about love, pain, and devotion that have permeated several mediums of the South Asian cultural sphere. Here, let’s analyze a couple of examples in order to see how Meera’s words have been used in the context of Hindi film songs:

pag ghungruu bandh miiraa nachii re (Meera, 1947): Meera (1947) is a rare treat for lovers of Bollywood films because it is the only Hindi film ever made that features M.S. Subbulakshmi as both an actress and playback singer. M.S. Subbulakshmi, who was the first musician to be awarded the prestigious Bharat Ratna, is one of the most renowned vocalists in the history of the Carnatic musical tradition. Her singing is ethereal and sublime, and many people have praised her by saying she is modern-day personification of Meera-bai herself! Although she retired from films early in her career to pursue classical concert music, her portrayal of Meera in this film is remembered to this day for its natural and pure expression of spiritual divinity.  Words don’t do this woman justice, so just click the link and take a listen for yourself. I’ve selected one of about 20 Meera bhajans that are found in the film; in this particular poem, Meera uses the metaphor of dance to describe her love for the Lord. You may have noticed that the first line of this bhajan was used in another (much less saintly) Bollywood classic rendered by Kishore Kumar and composed by Bappi Lahiri from Namak Halaal (1982) decades later.

M.S. Subbulakshmi embodies the spiritual divinity of Meera-bai in the 1947 Hindi remake of the Tamil film Meera. 

ghunghaT ke paT khol re, tohe piiyaa mile.nge (Jogan, 1950): I have always thought that one of Geeta Dutt’s strengths as a singer was her rendition of bhajans. She shines here in this Raga Jaunpuri-based devotional composed by Bulo C Rani that has some beautiful words penned by Meera-bai. Literally, the first line translates roughly as  “remove your veil so that you can get a glimpse of your beloved.” However, on a deeper level, Meera-bai is using the veil as a metaphor for ignorance–she is asking us to remove our veils of ignorance so that we can be closer to the Lord.

erii mai.n to prem divaanii, meraa dard na jaane koii (Nau Bahar, 1952): Lata Mangeshkar is brilliant in her rendition of this Raga Bhimpalasi-based bhajan composed by Roshan and picturized on Nalini Jaywant  in Nau Bahar. Inspired by a Meera-bai poem, the words here describe how Meera’s devotion to the Lord can is best expressed through love, as she is unfamiliar with the traditional rites and rituals of worship.

 jo tum toDo piiyaa, mai.n naahii.n toDuu.n  (Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje, 1955):  V. Shantaram’s Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje was one of India’s first technicolor films when it was released in 1955.  In this Filmfare award-winning film, when the character played by Sandhya fears that she has destroyed her beloved’s (played by Gopi Krishna) dancing career, she becomes so depressed that she decides to reject all wordly pleasures and become an ascetic like Meera-bai. This Bhairavi-based bhajan composed by Vasant Desai is rendered beautifully once again by Lata, who succeeds in expressing the sentiment of Meera’s words about unconditional devotion to her Lord even if he is not faithful to her.

piyaa ko milan kaise hoye rii, mai.n jaanuu.n naahii.n (Andolan, 1977)Asha Bhonsle tends to employ a lot of over-the-top histrionics in her songs, but music director Jaidev manages to get Asha at her pure, unadulterated best with this soulful composition from Andolan picturized on Neetu Singh.

mere to giriidhhar gopaal, duusro na koii  (Meera, 1979): Directed by lyricist Gulzar, this film is yet another Bollywood biopic about Meera-bai, and Hema Malini takes the starring role here. Despite high hopes, this film achieved only moderate success at the box office. However, the film’s soundtrack of  compositions by sitar virtuoso Pandit Ravi Shankar has certainly left a memorable legacy. In this particular poem, Meera-bai’s words express her singular devotion to the Lord; there is no one else in the world for her except for her Lord Krishna. While Hema falls a little flat in her portrayal of Meera, Vani Jairam actually does a great job expressing the appropriate emotions needed in this rendition and in the rest of the songs on the soundtrack. However, as you may have suspected, Vani was not Ravi Shankar’s first choice of singer for this film–his first choice was none other than Lata Mangeshkar. Lata, however, turned him down, by using the following reasoning:

“How could I? I had already done Meera bhajans for my brother Hridaynath.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love the non-filmi album of Meera bhajans released by Lata and Hridaynath. In fact, Lata’s rendition of a similar text  “mhara re giridhhar gopaal, duusra na koii” tuned by Hridaynath for this album is absolutely exquisite. However, her reasoning here doesn’t really make sense to me. Even before her album for Hridaynath, Lata had sung plenty of Meera bhajans for films (see above!) under the baton of other music directors, so I don’t see how this excuse constitutes a legitimate reason to refuse singing in this film. I suspect that her refusal had more to do with some lingering bad blood between her and Ravi Shankar from their prior collaboration on Anuradha (1960): apparently, tensions had flared between the two of them because Lata had failed to show up to a recording session of “saa.nvare saa.nvare” without prior notice. 

Hema Malini is way too attractive to pull off being an ascetic in Meera (1979)
 jo tum toDo piiyaa, mai.n naahii.n toDuu.n  (Silsila, 1981): Although this text is similar to the Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje song listed above, the melody is quite different because music directors Shiv-Hari have tuned this song to the Raga Chandrakauns, an underused raga that is quite rare in the filmi musical sphere. Lata, unfortunately, sounds a bit past her prime here, but this song is still memorable for Meera-bai’s words and their relevance to the contemporary situation at hand in the film. Similar to the real-life rumors that were rampant at this time, Jaya Bacchan’s character suspects that her husband (played by Amitabh Bacchan) is having an extramarital affair with another woman (played by Rekha). Meera-bai’s lyrics express the anguish and torment that Jaya feels in response to her husband’s infidelity, but she resolves to remain faithful to him even though he is not faithful to her. Interestingly, things also turned out this way in real life–Jaya stayed with Amitabh even though it was widely known within the film community that he had cheated on her with Rekha.
Jaya Bacchan laments her husband’s infidelity in Silsila (1981). Look at those eyes!
What are some of your favorite bhajans featured in Bollywood films? Let us know in the comments!
–Mr. 55
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Bharat Bhushan Barsaat Ki Raat qawwali

Yeh Ishq Ishq Hai Lyrics and Translation: Let’s Learn Urdu-Hindi

Bollywood Qawwali Barsaat Ki Raat Shyama Ratna
Ratna (left) and Shyama (right) lead the qawwali “Yeh Ishq Ishq Hai” from the hit Bollywood film Barsaat Ki Raat (196)

For our next post, we provide an English translation of “Yeh Ishq Ishq Hai” qawwali (and its prelude “Na to Caravan ki Talaash Hai“) from the all-time classic film Barsaat ki Raat (1960). For anyone familiar with the beautiful lyrics of this Sahir Ludhviani masterpiece, you know that “Yeh Ishq Ishq Hai” is the crowning jewel of the qawwali genre. The ultimate in lyrical poetry, allusions, wit, and transcendent symbolism, “Yeh Ishq Ishq Hai” was no easy task to translate and dissect. Sahir Ludhviani, who also later penned the gems from films like Taj Mahal (1963), wrote an album of love poetry for Barsaat Ki Raat--from “Zindagi Bhar Nahii.N Bhoolegi” to “Mai.N Ne Shaayad Tumhe” to la pièce de résistance, “Yeh Ishq Ishq Hai.”

Bharat Bhushan Barsaat Ki Raat qawwali
Bharat Bhushan jumps in to save the girls’ qawwali team in “Yeh Ishq Ishq Hai” from Barsaat Ki Raat (1960)

Through this culmination piece of the film’s ongoing qawwali competition, both hero (Bharat Bhushan) and the heroine (Madhubala) are reunited after a long and painful separation. Mohammed Rafi, Asha Bhonsle, and Manna Dey vie to out-do each other in this clever, powerful discussion of the meaning of love, but at the song’s climax Rafi brings the qawwali to a heart-stopping triumphant finish that wins his team the competition. It is a real pleasure to appreciate the many levels on which the qawwali can be understood–from religious, to romantic, to quite literal–after singing “ilaaj koi to maut hai,” Shyama literally falls sick to her deathbed, or as Bharat Bhushan croons, “nikalii Radha saj ke,” Madhubala appears miraculously at the doorway from the prison of her house. Come follow along with our translation of this epic qawwali and it will be clear why “Yeh Ishq Ishq Hai” made Bollywood film history!

Madhubala Barsaat Ki Raat
Madhubala hears Bharat Bhushan on the radio and decides to find him in Barsaat Ki Raat (1960)

Yeh Ishq Ishq Hai Lyrics and Translation

MALE:

Na to caaravaan ki talaash hai
I am not in search of a caravan
Na to humsafar ki talaash hai
I am not in search of a fellow traveler
Mere shauq-e-khaana kharaab ko teri rehguzar ki talaash hai
That ruined place of my desire searches for the path that leads to you

FEMALE:

Mere naamuraad junoon ka hai ilaaj koi to maut hai
If there is any cure for my unfortunate obsession, then it is death
Jo davaa ke naam pe zehar de
Give me that medicine whose name is poison
Usi chaaraagar ki talaash hai
I am in search of such a healer

Tera ishq hai meri aarzoo,
Your love is my desire
Tera ishq hai meri aabroo,
Your love is my honor
Dil ishq, jism ishq hai, aur jaan ishq hai
My heart is love, my body is love, and my life is love
Imaan ki jo poochho to imaan ishq hai
If you ask for faith, then that is love too
Tera ishq mai.N kaise ChhoD doo.N?
How could I ever leave your love?
Meri umr bhar ki talaash hai
That love is what I have been searching for all my life

MALE:

Yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq, yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq
This is love, this is love, this is love
Jaan-soz ki haalat ko jaan-soz hi samjhegaa
Only one in torment can understand the condition of a fellow sufferer
Mai.N shamaa se kehta hoo.N mehfil se nahii.N kehta
I am speaking to the flame, not to the company gathered here
Kyonki yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq, yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq
For this is love, this is love, this is love

FEMALE:
Sahar tak sab ka hai anjaam jal kar khaak ho jaana
By dawn, everything will burn and be reduced to ashes
Bhari mehfil mei.N koi shamaa yaa parvaana ho jaaye
Everyone in this gathering shall became either flame or moth
Kyo.N ki yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq, yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq
For this is love, this is love, this is love

MALE:

Vehshat-e-dil rasn-o-daar se roki na gayi
Love is not stopped by the madness of the heart or ropes and the gallows
Kisi khanjar, kisi talvaar se roki na gayi
It is not stopped by any dagger, by any sword
Ishq Majnu ki woh aavaz hai jiske aage koi Laila kisi deewaar se roki na gayi,
Love is that voice of Majnu’s which Laila followed and which no barrier could stop
Kyo.N ki yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq, yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq
For this is love, this is love, this is love

Woh hanske agar maa.Nge.N to hum jaan bhi dede.N,
If she laughs and asks, then I would even give my life
Haa.N yeh jaan to kya cheez hai? Imaan bhi dede.N!
Yes, after all what is this life? I would even give up my faith!
Kyo.N ki yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq, yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq
For this is love, this is love, this is love

Naaz-o-andaaz se kehte hai.N ki jeena hoga,
I am told that I must live with my fate gracefully
Zehar bhi dete hai.N to kehte hai.N Ki peena hoga
They give me poison, and say I must drink
Jab mai.N peetaa hoo.N to kehte hai.N ki marta bhi nahii.N,
But when I drink it, then they say I won’t die
Jab mai.N martaa hoo.N to kehte hai.N ki jeenaa hogaa
When I am dying, they say I must live
Yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq, yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq
For this is love, this is love, this is love

Mazhab-e-ishq ki har rasm kaDi hoti hai,
The laws and customs of love are very strict
Har qadam par koi deewaar khaDi hoti hai
At every step, there is a barrier standing
Ishq aazad hai, Hindu Na Musalmaan hai ishq,
Love is free, love is neither Hindu nor Muslim
Aap hii dharm hai aur aap hii imaan hai ishq
Your own duty and your own faith alone is love
Jis se aage nahii.N shekh-o-Brahaman dono.N,
Both Hindu and Muslim religious men cannot surpass this
Us haqeeqat ka garajtaa hua ailaan hai ishq
The reality of that thundering proclamation is love

(FEMALE in Panjabi):

Ishq na puchhe deen dharm nu, ishq na puchhe jaataan
Love does not ask your religion or creed, love does not ask your social class or caste,
Ishq de haatho.N garam lahu vich doobiyaan laakh baraataan ke
Love has drowned thousands of wedding revelers in its fiery blood
Yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq, yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq
This is love, this is love, this is love

MALE:
Raah ulfat ki kaThin hai ise aasaan na samajh
The path of love is dangerous, do not think it easy
Yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq, yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq
This is love, this is love, this is love

FEMALE:
Bahut kaThin hai Dagar panghat ki
The path to the riverside is very dangerous
Ab kya bhar luau.N mai.N Jamuna se matki?
Now how can I fill my jug with water from the banks of the Jamuna River?
Mai.N jo chali jal jamuna bharan ko dekho sakhi ji mai.N jo chali jal jamuna bharan ko
As I was on my way to fill my jug with water from the Jamuna,
Nand kishor mohe roke jhaadon
The young boy of Nanda [Krishna] stopped me
To kya bhar luau.N mai.N Jamuna se matki?
So how can I fill my jug with water from the banks of the Jamuna River?

MALE:
Ab laaj raakho more ghoonghat pat ki
Now protect my honor, this veil of mine
Jab jab Krishn ki bansi baaji,
When Krishna played his flute
Nikali Raadhaa saj ke
Radha emerged, dressed up
Jaan ajaan ka dhyaan bhulaa ke,
Forgetting all she was taught
Lok laaj ko taj ke
She left the honor of society
Haaye ban ban Doli Janak dulaari,
The darling child of King Janak [Sita] swayed into the forest
Pehenke prem ki maalaa
And wore a garland of love
Darshan jal ki pyaasi Meera
Meera thirsty for her a glimpse of her Lord
Pii gayii vishh ka pyaalaa aur phir araj kari
Drank a glass of poison and then pleaded
Ke laaj raakho raakho raakho, laaj raakho dekho dekho,
Protect my honor, protect my honor, protect my honor
Yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq, yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq
This is love, this is love, this is love

Allah rasool ka farmaan ishq hai
The commands of God and Mohammed are love
Yaanii Hadith ishq hai, Quraan ishq hai
The teachings of Mohammed are love, the Quraan is love
Gautam kaa aur Maseehaa kaa armaan ishq hai
The wishes of Bhudda and Christ are love
Yeh kaayanaat jism hai aur jaan ishq hai
This material existence and this life are love
Ishq sarmad, ishq hii mansoor hai
Love is everlasting, love alone is victorious
Ishq Moosa, ishq Koh-e-Toor hai
Love is Moses, love is Mt. Sinai
Khaaq ko but, aur but ko devtaa karta hai ishq
Love turns clay into idols, and idols into Gods
Intahaa yeh hai ke bande ko khuda karta hai ishq
The pinnacle is that love has the power to turn a man into a revered God
Haan.N yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq, yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq
Yes, this is love, this is love, this is love

Glossary:

caravaan: caravan; talaash: search; humsafar: fellow traveler; shauq-e-khaana; desires, hobbies; barbaad: ruined; rehuguzar: pathway; naamuraad: unfortunate; junoon: obsession; ilaaj: cure; maut: death; davaa: medicine; zeher: poison; chaaragar: one who treats you, doctor, healer; aarzuu: desire; aabruu: honor; jism: body; imaan: faith; jaansoz: torment, soul-burning; sahar: the time before dawn; anjaam: conclusion; khaak: ashes; parvaanaa: moth (used allegorically as one blinded by love); vehshat: madness; rasn: rope; daar: gallows; khanjar: dagger; talwar: sword; LailaMajnu: legendary ill-fated lovers; awaaz: voice; deewaar: barrier, wall; cheez: thing; naazoandaaz: pride and style, grace; mazhab: law; kaDi: strict, harsh; qadam: step; azaad: free; dharm: Hindu religious duty; haqeeqat: reality; garajnaa: to thunder; ailaan: proclaimation; deen: Islamic obedience; jaataan: caste; lahu: blood; ulfat: love; kaThin: dangerous; aasaan: easy; Dagar: pathway; maTki: jug, pot; Nand kishor: young Krishna laaj: honor; ghuunghat: veil; bansi: type of flute; dhyaan: meditation; lok: people, society; ban: forest; Dolna: to sway; Janak Dulari: The darling daughter of the mythological King Janak [Sita]; prem: love; maalaa: garland; darshan: glimpse of a deity; pyaasi: thirsty; vish ka pyaalaa: glass of poison; araj: plea; rasool: messenger [of God, Mohammed]; farmaan: commands; hadith: a report of the deeds and the teachings of Muhammed, Gautam: Buddha; Maseehaa: Jesus Christ; kaayanaat: material creation; sarmad: everlasting; mansoor: victorious, Moosaa: Moses; Koh-e-Toor: Mt. Sinai; khaaq: clay; but: idol; devtaa: God; intahaa: pinnacle, culmination

Yes, that glossary was a mouthful. Even as it is, I must warn that many of these words have a far deeper religious meaning to them that cannot be summed up in the one or two words as I have defined them. But no one said the Hindustani language was easy, and this song is just loaded with Arabic-based and Sanskrit-based vocabulary as well as references from both Hindu and Islamic traditions. It’s part of why Urdu-Hindi is such a complex, beautiful and absolutely fascinating language. Let’s take a more in-depth look at some of these lines:

  • “Ishq Majnu ki woh awaaz hai…” according to the Arab legend, similar to Romeo and Juliet, Laila and Majnu (whose nickname means “madly in love”) were two star-crossed lovers from rival families. However, Laila fled from her house to be with the one she loved and it is said that as Majnu was caught and whipped, their love was so strong that Laila screamed and blood appeared to flow from Laila’s skin instead.
  • “Bahut kaThin hai Dagar panghat ki…” is actually a line from the great Amir Khusrau qawwali written during the 13th century. The qawwali refers in one sense to the risks of dishonor faced by Radha as she attempted to fetch water, another sense explores the risks of standing up for religious beliefs (in Khusrau’s case, an allegiance to Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya.) The line has now become a sort of idiomatic warning to not underestimate the burden of any difficult task.
  • “Jab jab Krishna ki bansi baaji…” refers to the tales of Hindu folklore of childhood lovers Krishna and Radha, the latter of whom risked familial honor and suffered teasing and torment from her girlfriends in her love for the young Lord.
  • “Janak dulari ban ban Doli…” is a reference to the Ramayan in which Sita, upon learning of her husband Ram’s banishment to the forest, renounced her title as well. Sita, it should be recalled, had a very lavish upbringing as she was the daughter of King Janak, so this was no simple sacrifice to live in the dangerous jungle. But Sita’s love was unparalleled, and although she was not otherwise compelled to accompany Ram to the jungle, did indeed join him out of pure devotion.
  • “Darshan jal ki pyaasi Meera…” refers to the legend of Krishna devotee and Rajput Princess, Meera Bai of the 16th century. Her zealous worship and love of Krishna inspired not only many famous bhajans we know and sing today, but the resentment of her brother-in-law who frowned upon her actions (eg. mingling with the poor, ignoring her husband, etc.) He made several notorious attempts to kill her, including forcing her to drink a glass of poison that Lord Krishna is said to have transformed into nectar and saved her when she pleaded for the Lord to protect her honor.

As you can probably tell, I LOVE this qawwali. I discover new things every time I enjoy it (for example, anyone else notice how the background clappers only start shrugging their shoulders cliched bhangra-style ONLY when Ratna starts singing in Panjabi? Coincidence? I think not!) The song indeed transcends all religious and material loyalties, bringing the audience a dazzling, other-wordly experience. For anyone who’s tired of all the allegories and vocabulary quizzes, here’s the long-awaited behind-the-scenes gossip:

Did you know Bharat Bhushan actually got married in real life to Ratna (who ironically played the only character in the film NOT in love with him!) Surprise, right!? She was his second wife, and some even say that later mild-mannered Bharat Bhushan had had an affair with none other than Meena Kumari. Did the scandals never end in this town?

For more Urdu bliss, check out our post on the beauty of Urdu poetry in Hindi films!

-Mrs. 55

Ratna Barsaat Ki Raat
Ratna, wife of Bharat Bhushan, plays a sassy side-kick in the film Barsaat Ki Raat (1960)