Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Maenzraath: The Night Gul Akhtar Danced

A Kashmiri wedding is always set off by a night of celebration - a night of singing and dancing, called Maenzraath or The Night of the Henna. The bride side and the groom side have their own separate Maenzraath ceremonies with relatives coming in for this nightly affair. The relatives dip their beak in lavish but pure vegetarian fest. The fest is vegetarian in case of Pandits as this day unlike any other day is holy of the holiest. The only fest non-vegetarian fest possible in a Kashmiri Pandit wedding is the 'reception' dinner held on a convenient date following round-round round we go around the fire kund ― Saat pheras performed on the day of the Lagan.

After the fest, when everyone has had his say about the softness of paneer, wooliness of nadru, freshness of hakh, crispness of nadurchurma, mushiness of auluvchurma and unquestioned greatness of daal; the person about to get married is given a ceremonial bath by the aunts. Water is poured ― filtering through a chunni held by giggling children of the house - onto the embarrassed would be mahrin/mahraz seated below squatting on a choo'yk – a low wooden stool. The badi bua ― eldest sister of the man whose son or daughter is getting married, gets the honor of washing the feet of the bride/groom. On this night, and the few nights that follow, the would-be-bride is the mahrin or the Queen and the would-be-groom is the mahraz or the King. After the wedding, the bride for the first few years is mahrin and then just zanaan or woman. The groom is just roon or husband for the rest of his life.

Then start the henna ceremony starts with aplomb. Maenz is the Kashmiri word for Henna or Mehandi, the green leaves of which are made into a paste with tea water and daubed onto the palms of the would be bride or the budding groom. All those present lay down on mattress laid on the floor with a hugh laif or wool stuffed chaadars thrown on top of people to keep them warm, they all sit close to each other forming groups of their own near and dear ones, and still discussing the quality of aulavs or potatoes used in the fest. Men folks and women folks form separate groups. Some men especially brothers of the man and woman whose child is getting married can be found roaming around, trailing the vaza ―the koshur chef, bidding farewells to relatives who won’t be staying over night, and making the arrangements for the functions that would follow in the coming days and nights of the marriage. Older men sit down too, while still discussing the quantity of aulavs used in the fest. Young children run around and just be themselves, jumping on the hugh laifs,crushing the big toes of the old folks and laughing on hearing the teeth less Kashmiri curses shot at them from toothless mouths.

All these people get their hands painted by the persistent joyous aunts ― the mamis, the massis and the buas. The bowl of henna moves around, passing from one person to another, each person gets his hands daubed with a lump of henna; Its then that the real celebration starts. Singing and the dancing that continue into the wee hours of the morning with only kahwaand sheer chai breaks in between.

Tumbaknaris are handed over to the ladies and the women thump the sonorous-thick-yellow colored animal hide of this drum with both hands to the rhyming beats of the song. In West Asia: it is known as tumbari or tumbal and in Iran: Tunbak or Tumbakh. Women hold the brown-long earthen vent of the drum under their thigh or else keep it over the thigh griping its neck in their thick arms, it all depends on comfort and drumming style. Thalis or metal dishes taken out of the kitchen and women beat them with spoons. Pair of Khos or the copper cups, usually meant to drink sheer chai or the salt tea, are used as cymbals. And, so sits the troupe of singing ladies in a corner and they sing old songs in chorus.

The old ladies start Wanvun or the traditional chorus song. The ceremony is set off by a type of wanvun whose long trailing wordings urge all the ladies present to start singing as it is the wedding of a child brought up on invested love of mother, father, grandparents, uncles and aunts. This particular type of singing is called Henzae, an ancient form of singing in Kashmir that goes centuries back. Henzae a derivative of the Prakrit word ‘hanje’, roughly translates to ‘O lady!’. It sounds quite unique with its strange vocal syllabi of long trailing words.
Vuchhmay na zaatakas, prutshmay na kraanis
kooree laanis namaskaar.
(I didn't get your horoscope examined, nor did I inquire about your family ties; daughter dear, let us bow to destiny.)

So sing the old ladies.

This home band sings until the professionals move in.

The professional performers brought in for the celebration start the night with prayers. For Kashmiri Pandits, the singing typically starts with the rendition of a hymn to Lord Ganesh ― Om Shree Ganeshaya Namha. For Kashmiri Muslims, the singing starts with Bismellah ― Bismellah kaerith hyamoy vanivonuy. At a Kashmiri Pandit wedding, if the professionals brought in are all Muslims, then instead the ladies start the prayer singing, everyone else joining in and the musicians follow them on their instruments. In Kashmir, it wasn’t odd if you found the Muslim musicians singing along.

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I recall the first and the last Maenzraath ceremony that I ever attended in Kashmir. It was the late '80s and I must have been eight.

This was going to the grandest Maenzraath of all that I have ever seen. It was the Maenzraath of my father’s youngest cousin brother. By Kashmiri standards, the family was “well off”, naturally, they had hired the best in the business for Maenzraath celebration. Gul Akhtar was coming. Normally, at Maenzraath the kind of musicians usually hired is bachkots or the boy band. A male dancer called bacha accompanies these musicians, he dresses up as a woman or tries to by wearing multi-colored-long-flowing frock and painted red cheeks. He takes turn dancing with everyone, everyone interested/uninterested in dancing. Men and women, dancing in jest. It's called Bach'nagma.

But, not this time. This time, professional musicians had been hired.

After dinner, everyone moved to the huge hall on the highest floor of the big house. There was buzz in the air. Gul Akhtar is coming. Everyone found a wall to support the back; the hall filled in, everyone chirping. A space left in a corner for the musicians and the center of the hall left for Gul Akhtar. After the feet washing and the henna ceremony, and after the old ladies had sung their chorus songs and prayers, the musicians made an entry carrying their instruments. The harmonium, the Wasul/Tabla, the Setar/Sehtar or Sitar, the Nott― an earthen pot used as bass drum, the Gaagar or a brass pot beaten by the musician using his metal ringed fingers, and Saaz-i-Kashmir ― a variant of the Iranian Kamancha. It is played with a bow, it has three prominent strings, two of them made of silk. The silk strings made of fish skin and not just silk. Either side of the instrument having seven metal strings, the strings on the right side made of steel and the strings on the left side made of brass; quite an instrument and not many people remain who can talk to this complex instrument.

Gul Akhtar, Singer from KashmirThese musicians knew the language of these instruments. They occupied their corner of the room and began setting up the instruments. It was then that she entered. She must have been in her mid- thirties at the time, her skills honed each passing year, and now at the peak of her profession. She was not a waifish thin women, in fact with her painted red cheeks, she looked hale and hearty, a typical Kashmiri women. She was dressed in a traditional Kashmiri embroidered pink dress of thick clothing, her head covered in a headgear decorated with silver ornaments. Around, her ankles, she put on gungroos, heavy gungroos of maniacal sound. It’s difficult to forget a women who has gungroos tied around her feet. After friendly banter with some of the people present and meeting the grooms father, she staked claim to the center of the hall, striking the floor with quick musical movement of her feet, gungroos vibrating in controlled frenzy . I thought she was testing the strength of the wooden floor, testing if it could bear her heavy art. Then suddenly, on some unseen signal, the singing and the dancing started. She was singing in a high tone that needed no electric amplifiers, she was enacting the meaning and play of the words from the song, and with the rising notes, moving her feet and arms to the notes of music. Everyone looked awed by the performance that she was putting on. The hall filled up with music and the walls started to get warm. These were songs about marriage, about dreams of marriage, songs about henna and songs of love. Song for brothers, sisters, father, mother, uncles and aunts. Song for the lover and also song for the lover who could not be, songs of love unfulfilled, songs of Habba Khatoon and Arnimal. The songs that had Sufi meanings. The women folk present, sang along, giggling at some verse, at times they felt visible touched by some phrase bemoaning the fate of women, and at times they were shocked at some verbal jaunt of the song and the life given to the word by Gul Akhtar poised and decorous physical flaunt.

The men folk were excited. There were requests for songs, one after the other.
Ya Tu’li Khanjar Maare
A song about dagger, heart and an unrequited love. This song sung

With men, this remains the most popular of the songs.
My father recounts that the eldest of his cousin brother got up to dance with Gul Akhtar and tried to hold her hand but she snubbed him down. A snubbing, that my father still gleefully remembers and my dear uncle would certainly like to forget, but I am sure he has not.
Photograph of Kashmiri Singer Gul Akhtar
Gul Akhtar owned the night. The floor began to thunder. I really thought that the wooden beams bearing the house and the mud walls supporting the high rising house would collapse onto themselves. But, they held on, just vibrating to the mood of the song.
I put my head on grandmother’s thigh and wrapped my small arms around her, later, threw off the laif that was covering my legs, this winter night had turned sweetly warm; and I slept. With the falling and rising shrill metallic note of the chakkri, a loud thump of tumbaknaar, with the change of the beats of a song or a thali beaten out of turn, I would open my eyes and find the lady still dancing. The wooden floor was alive and still being played upon by her feet. And, I would go back to sleeping knowing that the house wouldn’t fall while Gul Akhtar danced. I slept.

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When my family migrated out of Kashmir, intermediately, we kept hearing news snippets about her. Hearsays. Some said that the militants had killed her; her body chopped up into pieces and buried some place unknown. Some said that she was alive but the new powers in Kashmir had forced her to stop performing, killed her art. Finally, some years ago, someone confirmed that she was alive and well. After a brief hiatus, she was singing again. She had only got older. I don’t think she dances any more, certainly not at marriage ceremonies, her age not permitting. Yet, the bird continues to sing her tunes.

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Photographs of Gul Akhtar courtesy of Funkar International, a beautiful initiative to revive the music of Kashmir. A big thanks!

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Related:
Those Dancing Girls of Kashmir
Kashmiri Folk songs and its types

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