It was the middle of the 90s. The onset of the decade had meant a time of turmoil for the people of Jammu and Kashmir. On the heels of a full-blown terrorist insurgency, the Hindu populace of the vale, in a mass exodus, had to leave their homes, friends, foes and occupations.
It was around this time that my father along with his two brothers was ‘trekking’ in the low lying Shiwaliks of Kathua. As the sun was setting, the trio decided to descend the hill and go back home. As they were on their way, in the distance they saw three men, in a small clearing on the hill, sitting on their haunches, with their hands covering their ears. With their eyes closed, they seemed to be in a deep rumination.
My father and his brothers were taken aback with a spate of nervousness hitting them abruptly. With everything happening in the state, they were unsure about what was transpiring in the distance. But, upon a deeper straining, they could make out that the three men were not doing anything perverse. They were simply……. singing.
The song started with a low hum that suddenly unraveled into a high-pitched cry with succeeding tonal changes that would remind one of the vibratos of an opera singer in a state hall in Vienna. It was as if, the cloud of silence around the hills was cleared away with the resounding echoes of their song. This experience left my father and his brothers deeply emotional, with an indelible mark of their heritage left unblemished on their hearts. Why do I say this? Because the song that was sung, the song that echoed throughout the exteriors of the hills was, what we call, a Baakh.
One might ask in today’s world of unabashed globalization, what is a Baakh? As Nidhi Verma notes in her paper, ‘Songs of Separation’:
“A Bhaakh is a unique expression of song in the form of music. The singer closes her one ear with [the] index finger and sings a long alaap like,
aaaaa……………….aaan…………oooooooji????o…….manda……..ki jo booo“““ooooooooooolna……
The song and music is spontaneous and inspiring and the ideas flow without any pre-conceived thought. Bhaakhan are not merely songs of jubilation, but they mirror emotions of people of a particular area arising out of social, political, economic and geographical conditions of that area. The local element that is represented in a Bhaakh reflects the impact of the local conditions related to work, festivals, jobs and life-style”.
A Baakh is an amalgamation of geography, economics, physiology and local folklore. This contention becomes all the clearer when one sees that the main narratives flowing through a baakh are inextricable connected to the stories underpinning the lives of the Dogra people. One of these narratives is the martial creed of the Dogras.
One of the oldest regiments in the Indian army traces its origin to the middle of the 19th century. I refer to the Jammu and Kashmir Rifles which was originally raised by the then Raja, Gulab Singh, for the Sikh action in North-western Pakistan around 1821. The British recognized the Dogra, along with the Rajput and the Sikh as one of the main “martial races” in the Indian subcontinent. Edmund Candler in his book ‘the Sepoy’ wrote about how the Dogra soldier is well known for being “an unobtrusive gallantry. The Dogra has a splendid heart, but his physique is often weakened by poverty. It is extraordinary how they fill out when they come into the regiment”. It is not hard then to infer that the reason for the nickname of the Dogra regiment being “gentlemen warriors”, was their innate qualities of chivalry and gallantry.
Following from this, the Dogras participated as soldiers in heavy numbers in both the world wars. Ajatshatru Singh notes how “during the Second World War, eight units of the State Army were placed, one after the other, at the disposal of the Government of India for active service outside the state. Three of these units, the two Mountain Batteries and the Artillery Training Centre, were permanently transferred to the British Indian Army by the Maharaja. The state supply ran into over half a lakh of recruits (50,000). The State Forces units particularly distinguished themselves at the battles of Keren (Eritrea) and Damascus (Syria) as well as in the campaigns against the Japanese. One of these units had the distinction of capturing Kennedy Peak and Fort White. For their conspicuous gallantry, the Dogras were awarded,” Victoria Cross-I, Military Cross-2, Indian Distinguished Service Medal-15, Member of the British Empire-7, Military Medal-41, Order of British India-5, Order of British Empire Military-1, B.E.M.-1.”
Even my own great-grand uncle served for the British in Haifa during the second world war. This narrative of soldiers leaving their homes to fight in distant lands is something that is a motif that runs through countless Baakhs. Here is one example from ‘Dogri Lok Geet volume 1’, where a wife petitions a king to send her husband back home. However, this is not quite possible as “war is immenent”. This is how the Baakh goes:
“Jammu deya Rajeya, Tu naukra gi ghar bej
Naukare ki kiyan beja, Bawe lagi dia laam
It is translated as:
O King of Jammu, send my husband back home;
How can I send your husband home, there is a war going on at Bawe.”
Yet another Baakh follows the same motif:
“Dhoor sapayi tusein dhoor nyi jana, phir ghirde tusein nazri rehna;
Sukh snehda tusein beiji dena, manda lage tusein mili jana.
O my soldier! You will not go far, roam around before my eyes;
Keep me informed about your well-being, you must visit me when I am sad.”
The disagreements and ‘conflicts’ between a woman and her in law is something that is cleverly expressed by linking it again with the martial traditions of the Dogras. One Baakh epitomises this:
“Akhein- layi laiyan chuttiyan sapaiya gori dea
Tuki likhi likhi bejan chithiyan, sapaiya gori dea
Akhein- Sus chandri maal chrandi, kanne ghote balan o……..
Charo belei daye krehkhi, bhai tero talan o…….
Akhein- dher kare shtani, nandi so-so mare tane o…….
Dokhen moi jhadani, jhoothe larein bahne o…………..
O soldier of fair maid! Take leave, I write letters to you, O soldier of fair maid!
Mischievous mother-in-law rears cattle, collects cow chips and woods,
Every time she gives me stern looks, cunning woman as she is.
The younger brother-in-law teases and my sister-in-law taunts me
My Elder sister-in-law makes false excuses………”
Nidhi Verma argues that “a Bhaakh becomes the self-expression of despondent, crestfallen, forsaken women of Shiwaliks hills and Kandi belt of Jammu region who heal themselves by singing these folk songs. These women leave their homes after marriage but do not find it easy to settle forever into another home.”
She gives the example of another Baakh to drive home the same point. It goes something like this:
“Royi- royi gori raat gujarai, hoi gayi pehno sabeir
Naukar ni mera bodheiya aae, Bhaino lai aae dher
The whole night is spent in crying, O dear sisters!
My husband has not returned, he is taking so much time, sisters.”
Perhaps, her assertion is based on sound fact. But then one must not ignore another aspect of the Baakh. This is that Baakhs have been sung in the praise of valiant Dogra warriors and statesmen like Wazir Zorawar Singh, Maharaja Gulab Singh and Diwan Dhian Singh.
Today in Jammu and Kashmir, perhaps, the tradition of singing the Dogri Baakh is dying out. But, it must be mentioned that extraordinary singers like Pradyuman Singh and Krishna Kumari have taken the Baakh not just to the national stage but the international Stage as well. They have had the distinction of singing and sharing the narratives that have lined the lives of the Dogra people in front of European audiences in countries like France as well.
Kalo Devi is another famous name who has created a place for herself in the tradition of the Baakh. In the present day, Romalo Ram and party have enthused the milieu around the Baakh with vigour and energy. For this they must be commended.
The Baakh still in popular culture seems to be on the retreat. The pathos of this fact mirrors that of the verses of a particular Baakh. The Baakh talks about Maharaja Hari Singh and his decision to leave Jammu. You can feel the sorrow in the singer’s voice, as his song slowly rises into a deep cry on the lines of:
O my king emperor
Do not leave Jammu;
O my king
For my sake at least,
Do not leave your Jammu.
Instead of the Maharaja leaving his lands voluntarily, he was banished from his home. If the Maharaja was the crown of Dogra richness, then with him he took the jewels lining this crown with him, when he left for Bombay. All that was left of us, was taken away from our lands the moment the Maharaja left. All that was left was a hollow crown, and the Baakh symbolises this shedding point in our shared heritage poignantly.
The Baakh is something that is an inextricable part of our heritage, which shows how rich and ‘federal’ our heritage is. Unlike some places and people where music and art were reserved just for the high class and the wealthy, we have in direct opposition to this the Baakh which was and still continues to be sung by the common populace. Perhaps, this is the very essence of the Dogras and their culture. It being a firm sense of independence to follow one’s own tradition, culture and values. It is unfortunate that the Dogra is slowly and steadily losing this ‘courage’ to unabashedly follow his heritage. Perhaps, with time, a dawn of reawakening amongst our people will come back. I, along with my fellow people, long for that day with bated breaths.