Rediscovering chahar-bait, a dying folk music form that travelled from Afghanistan
It has roots in the war poetry of Arabia.
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Musical traditions in India are so varied that one keeps discovering new aspects to them every day. At the recently concluded weeklong Jashn e Wirasat e Urdu (Urdu heritage festival) organised by the Urdu Academy, I chanced upon a new and now endangered genre.
In the beautiful setting of Central Park, at the heart of Delhi’s Connaught Place, we all settled down to listen to ghazals, qawwalis and sufi kalams sung by artists, most of whom were known to me. And then, a group walked in and put up a performance unlike any other. They were to perform the little-known form of chahar-bait. The lead singer was a frail old, bearded man, but when he started his piece, the entire area was filled with the liveliest music — the vocals were accompanied by the daf (a bass tambourine without cymbals) and two men made precise moves to its beat.
The words were sweet, innocent and yet zestful:
“Dekho na yun meri jaan mujhe tirchi nazar se
Yeh barchiyan hone lagi hain paar jigar se”
Don’t send coquettish glances at me, my love
They pierce like spears through my heart.”
I had never heard of chahar-bait and was curious to find out. Urdu Academy have invited the group for chahar bait performances in the earlier editions of the heritage festival. It is an endangered genre as, for long, it didn’t have many takers — only eight groups perform it today, mostly in and around Tonk, Amroha, Rampur, Bhopal and Moradabad.
The group I saw perform was helmed by veteran artist Iqbaluddin saheb from UP’s Bachrau town.
My curiosity was finally quelled by journalist Faiyaz Ahmed Wajeeh’s explanation. He has written the most exhaustive piece about chahar-bait on his blog and generously gave me the permission to quote from it.
Chahar (four) bait (verse), as its name suggests, is a musical composition in which verses of four lines each are sung. The popular folk music form originated in Afghanistan. Wajeeh writes that it has deep connections with the khayal form of classical Hindustani music. Called dedh phadakka, chahar bait was popularised in India by Afghani soldiers who used it as an interlude during war.
That was the reason why I found the moves of the singers so precise, as if set to a military rythm. It has roots in the war poetry of Arabia, where it was read out in battlefields to motivate soldiers.
Chahar Bait at Saadat Bagh Kothi in Tonk. Photo: YouTube screengrab
When Nawab Faizullah Khan established his rule in the princely state of Rohilkhand and made Rampur its capital, many Afghan soldiers settled there. Among them was Abdul Karim Khan, son of one Mustaqeem Khan Ghaznavi, who was proficient in chahar-bait — such is the form’s Indian legacy.
Chahar-bait, despite its connection to classical music, was never considered quite at par with shayri and so it always languished on the sidelines says Wajeeh. Famous rekhti poet Sadat Yaar Khan Rangeen was the first to include 27 types of chahar bait in shayri.
Typically, there are two-line verses in the ghazal: the first verse is called matla where both lines (misra e oola – first line and misra e sani – second line) rhyme with each other. The rhyming word, the last in the verse, is called radeef. The matla must also have a qafiya and it is the rhyming pattern of words that must directly precede the Ghazal’s radeef.
Thereafter, till the last verse called maqta, which contains the poet's pen name, the second line of each verse will rhyme with the misra e saani of the matla.
Koi umeed bar nahin aati
Koi surat nazar nahin aati
There seems no hope in sight
No face [of a saviour] comes to light
— Mirza Ghalib
In this first verse (matla) above, “nahin” is the qafiya or the refrain and aati the radeef.
At times, ghazal competitions are also held and a misra e tarah — the line of a given couplet on whose prosody other poets have to compose poems — is given. Every poet must write on that metre.
The reason chahar bait was never accepted as part of classical shayri was that it did not restrict itself to rules of the metre and was sung as an interlude in war, and not as part of high society. The people singing it were rough and ready soldiers, not poets patronised by kings. The setting was also far more down to earth and often the earth itself, not elaborate sitting rooms covered with while covers, brocade cushions for poets to recline against and a lamp to be lit and placed before poets to signal it was their turn to recite.
The chahar bait was a way of enthusing soldiers and providing them with light entertainment at the end of a tough day. Here there was poetic refrain called teep, which is more or less like the chorus in a song. This teep ka misra is used as the misra e tarah at competitions.
The names of the poets were not famous, and even when popular figures wrote chahar bait verses, they did so anonymously.Wajeeh tells me that not many people know that the classical number "Chaa rahi kaali ghata jiyara mora lahraaye hai" was written by famous Urdu poet Muztar Khairabadi from Tonk as a teep for a chahar bait.
However, Wajeeh says that chahar bait became famous not for its poetry but for its singing style, which is unique.
The vocalists sit in a formation similar to that of qawwali and repeat the misra e tarah, which is rendered by the lead singer. The difference is there are a few singers who will go around the other singers, to the beat of the daf — also called tambul — in very precise moves.
This seemed to invigorate not just the singers but also the viewers. It fascinated not just me, but everyone in the audience that day.
Kudos to the Urdu Academy for consistently giving chahar bait’s custodians a platform. I just hope it lives on.