Bhola Moira & ‘Babu’ Calcutta

Anindita Mazumder

Most of us are familiar with the celebrated kabiyal, Bhola Moira only through the various romanticised presentations on screen. Two of the films, Anthony Firingi and Bhola Moira even featured the star of silver screen, Uttam Kumar. But the sweetmeat maker famed for his poetic abilities and repartee has remained relatively unsung. His impromptu satirical songs composed during musical duels reflect a great deal about contemporary society. Some of his fascinating creations have been chronicled by Purnachandra De Udbhatsagar, a litterateur and teacher of Sanskrit at Ashutosh College.

Bhola Moira was probably born in 1775 at Guptipara in Hooghly and ran a sweetmeat shop near Bagbazar Powder Mills by the river. He died in 1851 at the age of 76. He was a devoted Vaishnav. Another interesting fact is that the other famous sweetmeat maker credited with the invention of rasogolla – Nabin Chandra Das was married to Bholanath’s grand-daughter by his youngest son. Though biographical details are hard to come by Bhola Moira left an account of his own identity in his songs.

His song Ami Moira Bhola, Bhiyai(n) Khola/ o go sardi-garmi nahi mani revealed that he earned his livelihood by making sandesh and Firingi Anthony was quite fond of his gollas. During winter he made muri-khoi (puffed rice) and in summer he made ghol (a light sugary lassi). He never kept his shop closed, irrespective of the season. But whatever he earned was spent on poetic endeavours. In the same song he paid tribute to his teacher, Horu Thakur and praised Nabakrishna Deb Bahadur, eulogising him as the greatest among all the Babus of Calcutta.

There is an interesting background to this high praise by Bhola Moira. The rise of the neo rich in Bengal who owed their wealth to the British rule saw widespread changes in the socio-economic and cultural fields. Under their patronisation kabigaan, a form of poetic duel or repartee, spontaneously composed, came to flourish between the middle of 18th and 19th Century. The lead singer would pose a question in rhymed verse and the opponent had to answer it in the same musical verse form and pose another question to him. The victory or defeat was decided by the rich patron upon the quality of repartees.

Nabakrishna, the munshi of East India Company, was certainly crème de la crème among the Babus. He patronised Horu Thakur during his heydays. Bhola Moira enjoyed his patronisation as well by the virtue of being Horu Thakur’s favourite disciple. This was resented by Ram Basu, another disciple of Horu Thakur and a talented kabiyal who started the practice of question-answer format in rhythmic verses. He even composed a song abusing Horu Thakur for being partial to Bhola Moira. Horu Thakur would accompany Bhola to various musical duels. He would often act as a badhandar (composing the lyrics for the repartee) for Bhola Moira during the duels or Kobir larai, raising the hackles of his rivals.

There is another interesting song which reveals Bhola Moira’s ready wit. Nabakrishna Deb celebrated various festivals like Durga Puja and Doljatra with great fan fare and the task of preparing sweets and other eatable was usually given to Bhola Moira. Once during Durga Puja another sweetmeat maker in Chitpore area prepared the sweets while Bhola was asked to make only the less-profitable khoi and murki (puffed rice mixed with jaggery). A dejected Bhola Moira lodged his protests tactfully during kobigaan in the evening. He sang Ashore bujhiya lobo, keno Bholo-r saja/ Bichar korun Nabakrishna Maharaja urging the zemindar to judge why Bhola was being punished?

But it would be wrong to think Bhola Moira was a sycophant or groveller before the Babus. Once when a fellow kabiyal during a duel in Midnapore, in a fit of sycophancy flatteringly compared the zemindar and his landed estate to Krishna and Brindavan Bhola Moira retorted saying “You stupid fool, how could you compare Jara (the village) to Brindavan? Here a Brahmin rules; his subjects are mere farmers and take a look you will only find bamboos growing all around.”

When at erstwhile Pharasdanga (Chandannagore) Anthony Firingi poked fun at his caste, he promptly sang: Bamun bole ami boro… taking a dig at the caste system as each one claims to be higher in the caste hierarchy and finally signs off saying he does not believe in it, aspiring only to be at the feet of Lord Krishna. Significantly, in that era, though the society was being subjected to factionalism on basis of caste, kabiyals grew into a professional group coming from different caste and religious groups. Bhabani Bene came from the lower caste of spice dealers, Bhola Moira from sweetmeat makers while Horu Thakur was a brahmin; Ram Basu, a kayastha and Anthony Firingi, a Portuguese Christian. The themes of kabigaan were usually drawn from the mythology of Durga, Kali, local goddesses, love cycles of Radha-Krishna and finally contemporary social issues.

In another duel at Bagbazar Barudkhana (Powder Mills) Anthony invoked Shiva (whose other name is Bholanath) and sang a mock hymn in his praise, to which Bhola Moira promptly retorted Ami sei Bholanath noi/ Ami Moira Bhola, Horu-r chela/ Bagbazar e roi. In other words, he was not Lord Bholanath but Bhola Moira, a disciple of Horu and lived at Bagbazar.

At Telenipara, Anthony sang that since he is a foreigner he does not know how to appease goddess to which Bhola Moira immediately retorted that even the goddess cannot salvage him and he should go to the church at Sreerampore. Though a number of duels between Bhola Moira and Anthony Firingi are cited, Purna Chandra did not mention any kabi- gaane-r larai between the two at Sovabazar Rajbari. Nor did he mention that Bhola Moira was ever vanquished by Anthony Firingi. On the other hand he quotes those who witnessed duels between the two, saying that Bhola Moira was pure genius while Anthony laboured hard.

Such was his language skills that Bhola Moira routinely used Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, Urdu and Hindi words in his songs. No wonder, Iswarchandra Vidyasagar, a self confessed admirer of Bhola Moira observed: “To keep the society of Bengal lively we need an occasional orator like Ramgopal Ghosh, humorist like Hutom the owl and a street poet like Bhola Moira.”