Operas of the East

In our childhood days an old family retainer would regale us with his rambling retelling of the adventures of two heroes – Prince Gulfaam and the unnamed hero of Gul-e-Bakawali ( whose name he probably could not recall 😉 )

I. Gul-e-Bakawali

In 1712, Sheikh Izzat Ullah wrote a medieval romance Taj-ul-Mulk Gul-e-Bakawali narrating the tale of Prince Taj-ul-Mulk, Princess Bakawali and a magical flower that could restore sight to the blind. His book was written in Farsi (Persian) prose and over the years a number of authors published their own poetry/prose versions, and plays and later films in various Indian languages were based on the fable.

In 1835, Pandit Daya Shankar Naseem, belonging to a Kashmiri family settled in Lucknow wrote ‘Gulzar-e-Naseem‘ a masnavi (poem with rhyming couplets) based on ‘Gul-e-Bakawali‘. Reputedly verses from the poem became very popular and excerpts from the poem were included in text books.

dekha to woh gul hawa hua hai
kuchh aur hi gul khila hua hai

jis kaf men woh gul ho daagh ho jaaye
jis ghar men ho gul chiraagh ho jaaye

The poem is also famous for a controversy about its antecedents and Naseem was defended spiritedly by Brij Narain Chakbast. Apparently the controversy was fanned at the time by Awadh Punch, an Urdu weekly. [Who knew that Punch (1841-1992), the famous satirical British journal, had an Indian clone in the shape of the Awadh Punch (1877-1936), that dared to make fun of British rule during the heydays of the Raj in India!]

Pandit Brij Narain Chakbast (1882–1926) also belonged to a Kashmiri family settled in the erstwhile United Provinces. He wrote some highly-regarded poetry, most famously the following couplet:

zarra zarra hai mere kashmir ka mehmaan nawaaz
raah mein patthar ke tukdon ne diya paani mujhe

[I was reminded of this couplet when our thirsty trekking party encountered cool and sweet water flowing out of the rocks on the way to Gangabal from Naranag]

II. Indar Sabha

The story of Prince Gulfaam is even more interesting.

Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Oudh (Awadh), was so enamoured by accounts of famous European operas that he commissioned Syed Agha Hassan Amanat to compose an opera in Urdu. The Nawab supervised the production, composed part of the music and performed one of the leading roles in the opera whenever it was performed before courtiers at Kaisar Bagh in Lucknow!

The opera called The Court of Indra or Indar Sabha is a fantasy about the forbidden attraction between Prince Gulfaam (the Flower Prince), son of Gulzar Shah (the King of the Flower-Garden) in Hindustan and the Sabz Pari (the Emerald Fairy) of the heavenly court of Raja Indra, ruler of Paristan (the Land of Fairies) in Koh-e-Qaf (the Caucasus Mountains) beyond Iran.

Gulfaam is a recurring motif in Kashmiri literature, and a mystical couplet describes an idyllic setting thus:

Springtime, fragrant goblets
the evening of the full moon
rhythms of songs of youth
and Gulfaam in front of my eyes

III. Bombur ta Yemberzal

The first opera in Kashmiri was Bombur ta Yemberzal (The Bumblebee and the Narcissus) written by Pandit Dina Nath Nadeem. It is a tale about the doomed love between the Narcissus (Yembarzal) which blooms in springtime and withers away, and the Bumblebee (Bombur) which arrives in summer and searches from flower to flower till it goes blind.

Mohan Lal Aima composed the music for the opera including the famous Bumbro Bumbro song. ‘Bombur ta Yemberzal’ was performed at Tagore Hall in 1955 for Russian dignitaries Nikita Khruschev and Nikolai Bulganin.


Image credit: RIA Novosti

Bombur-Yemberzal as a symbol of selfless love is quite common in popular culture. Mahjoor’s lyrics provide the theme of a Kashmiri-Urdu-Persian fusion song which is a huge hit with Kashmiri youth these days.

tamanna chaani deedaruk chumo yemberzale bumbro
phaejis yamath laejis wuchney gaejis chaney kaley bumbro

karan mahjoor chu husnas gath vanan yaaras patho akh kath
ye dil deewan gow sei path beyis seith na raley bumbro

I don’t know how the old illiterate rascal had heard these fantastic tales but his dastangoi – mixing up elements from each other and from other unrelated tales – used to be hilarious yet compelling at the same time.

Ah sweet nostalgia!