Just Like That | The intimate world of Hindustani culture - Hindustan Times
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Just Like That | The intimate world of Hindustani culture

Mar 10, 2024 08:00 AM IST

Decorum, etiquette, elegance and intimacy symbolised baithaks, something possible only in smaller gatherings, sans the small-talk noise of bigger celebrations.

There is one cultural institution that is fast becoming extinct, and nobody seems to care or notice. This is the baithak, or intimate soirees of poetry, music and dance. At one time, before the advent of events always as a public spectacle, these mehfils were the life-giving oasis for the preservation and perpetuation of genuine culture, with a protocol and refinement entirely of their own.

A classical music baithak in progress. (Parveen Kumar/Hindustan Times) PREMIUM
A classical music baithak in progress. (Parveen Kumar/Hindustan Times)

This thought forcefully struck me at a rare baithak recently organised by Huma and Sanjiv Saraf at the lovely terrace garden of their home in Delhi. It was not a big event; the invitees were largely chosen for their interest in Hindustani poetry and not for how important they were; the arrangements were impeccable, the hospitality sophisticated, and the ambience very different from what happens in most parties — endless consumption of alcohol, political gossip and raucous jokes.

Sanjiv Saraf, ably aided by his wife, Huma, is the creator of the website, Rekhta. I think this institution, which has the most comprehensive corpus on Urdu literature, with the meanings of words and translations of poems given in both Devnagari and English, has single-handedly revived interest in the enchanting world of Urdu poetry, especially for those who don’t know the Urdu script or the meaning of many of its words.

The annual Jashn-e-Rekhta festival Saraf organises gets huge crowds, conspicuous by the large number of the young from all communities, who are attracted by the nazuk khayali or delicacy of the language, and Urdu tehzeebiyat, but have few avenues to learn it.

That memorable evening at the Saraf’s began with a poetry recital by Javed Akhtar, followed by drinks and mouth-watering food, and ended with a performance by the musical nightingale, Radhika Chopra, who sang ghazals, old film songs, and KL Saigal.

Farhatullah Baig, in his book, Delhi ki Aakhri Shama, describes the preparations for a baithak for Delhi’s last mushaira at the haveli of Mubarak-un-nissa, during the reign of Bahadur Shah Zafar. A platform was built in the courtyard of the haveli; this was covered with chandini, or white cloth; on the four sides of the platform were rows of long upholstered cushions for seating the poets; an embroidered white cloth was stretched to make an awning; from the roof were hung rows of jasmine garlands; arranged in a row, at short intervals, were huqqahs; the whole venue was fragrant with musk, amber and aloe; two silver candle-holders with camphor-scented candles were placed before the throne-like seat of the presiding poet. As important as the elaborate preparations, were the quality of poets — among whom Ghalib was undoubtedly the greatest — and the discernment and knowledge of the audience.

Decorum, etiquette, elegance and intimacy symbolised baithaks, something possible only in smaller gatherings, sans the routine boisterousness and small-talk noise of bigger celebrations. A far more plebeian version of such baithaks was the barsati culture of New Delhi till a few decades ago. At that time, most private residential homes were two-storied, with a barsati — two rooms, a toilet and a kitchenette on the terrace. These were usually rented by students or young professionals, with dreams in their eyes but still struggling to succeed. Around this core, grew a penuriously bohemian culture of impromptu baithaks, where one friend would arrange the drinks, another would bring food, and a few youngsters with talent waiting to become reality, gathered in the evenings to sing, recite, and play an instrument, or recount stories of the homes they had left behind for the metropolis.

Alas, this culture too has largely ceased to exist. Why are baithaks becoming such an endangered species? Perhaps now, there is an attraction of the big versus the small, of money and ostentation rather than cultural refinement, of power and building the right connections rather than the quieter, soulful communion between an artist and a cultured audience. And yet, the nostalgic allure of baithaks still remains. As Firaq Gorakhpuri put it so poignantly:

Ek muddat se tiri yaad bhi aayee na hamein/ Aur hum bhool gaye hon tujhe aisa bhi nahin

(It’s been ages since I last remembered you/ But nor can it be said that I have forgotten you).

Pavan K Varma is author, diplomat, and former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha). Just Like That is a weekly column where Varma shares nuggets from the world of history, culture, literature, and personal reminiscences with HT Premium readers. The views expressed are personal

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