Char Bait is an art form that has been a part of the Indian cultural landscape for the last 400 years, and rose to prominence in Bhopal during the reign of the nawabs. Today, it’s on its deathbed, and the last of its traces can be found in the city of Bhopal, besides smaller towns like Tonk, Rampur and Chandanpur.
However, nine female theatre artists from Bhopal’s Vihaan Drama Works , along with seven male performers, are now working on reviving this forgotten form of Urdu poetry – as part of a revival program by the Madhya Pradesh Urdu Academy. The former are an unlikely choice of saviours – seeing as how the art form was born 1,500 years ago in the Afghanistan war field, and so, was exclusive to male performers.
“When we were told that we would be the first female singers to take up this art form and break this glass ceiling, we became very conscious. Moreover, we didn’t have a direct connection with the language and thus, were concerned about whether we’d be able to render the poetry properly. However, the ustad who taught us – Mohammad Mukhtar Ahmed – ensured we learnt everything from scratch,” says vocalist Shweta Ketkar.
‘THE ART WAS BORN IN A PLACE WITH NO WOMEN, BUT WHY KEEP THEM AWAY NOW?’
“When we first performed in Indore and Bhopal, we were very nervous about what people would think. As theatre artistes, we don’t fear live performances, but this was the first time we were afraid. The fact that people accepted female Char Bait singers was an achievement for us,” chimes in percussionist Tejaswita Anant.
When asked why they chose to train female performers to revive this art form, Nusrat Mehdi, secretary of the Madhya Pradesh Urdu Academy, told us, “We wanted to open the gates of this art form for women. There is no field untouched by women and even though this art form was born in a place where there were no women – why keep them away from it now? The songs are sung with so many expressions and such feeling that they strum the right chords of the heart. By involving the women we wanted to break the glass ceiling and we are glad that it happened too.”
Before their performances, the artistes underwent a rigorous training programme organised by the academy, that was headed by Mohammad Mukhtar Ahmed, the fourth generation Charbait performer from his family, who have been performing since the time of Sultan Jahan Begum.
CHAR BAIT DURING THE TIME OF THE NAWABS
“The char (four) in Char Bait is also because of the fact that there were four lines in each stanzas,” says Mohammed Anees Ansari, who has published the book – Mehsile Char Bait – on the art. It originated thousands of years ago in Afghanistan –where soldiers would sing in Persian and Pashto during their breaks.
He traces its route from there to Bhopal – “It came to India from Pakistan, then travelled to places like Delhi and Rampur. From there it came to the Jwara town in the Khandawa district, and then, Bhopal. Soon, the legendary shayars of that time started Char Bait writing verses,” he adds.
The nawabs would often organise these performances during celebratory occasions.
“Back then the four singers would be seated on a takth in each of the four corners of the room, and would sing one by one. Sometimes, it would turn into a battle of songs, that became quite popular with the audience of Bhopal,” says historian Rizwan Uddin Ansari. “Now, the groups perform on one stage, and have a conversation in the form of shayaris,” says Mohammad. “It gained a lot of momentum during the reign of Sikander Jahan Begum, Sultan Jahan Begum and Nawab Hamidullah Khan. The trio was very fond of music and dance, and thus, a lot of performances were held during their rule at Jumerati, Moti Mahal, Iqbal Maidan, and Unani Shifa Khana,” says Rizwan.
“Apart from singing skills, this art needs strong facial expressions too,” says Nusrat, adding, “We don’t want to lose this beautiful art form. We are hoping to revive it, and mix it with the contemporary art forms. Following the performances, a lot of academies and private groups have come forward to book these artistes for private performances and concerts. The pictures and videos from the shows and rehearsals have also incited a lot of curiosity on social media.”