Salilda, We Remember

Now that we get to watch Asianet on the net, I see the Idea Star singer competition on some nights and these days the Salil Chaudhary round is on. That reminded me of this draft on Salilda with Trivia collected some years ago, but had failed to post.

Some years ago (Asianet star singer 2007) there was a girl with a very unique name Mufeeda, who sang Salida’s ‘O Sajna’, a song from ‘Parakh’…not very well I am afraid, but when one of the judges gave a long and heartfelt speech on Salilda the person, my ears perked, eyes focused and I was all attention. When he made a remark that there is only one composition that Salilda truly made for Malayalam, which is ‘Manasa maine varu’ (for interesting details on that number, and the singer Mannadey, checkout my earlier blog). Sarath the eminent judge and music director also went on to say that Salilda’s other songs were recycled from various languages. Now I am a diehard fan of Salilda and well, my eyes said it all (I believed that Sarath was wrong) and my wife remarked….ah! ah! I see a blog under construction. Right she was… Actually I had been planning a tribute blog on Salilda for some days now, and this was good reason.

What follows is not a bio on Salilda, but a collection of difficult to find trivia for the avid Salilophile

Salilda (1925 - 1995) did music for about 150 films in many languages and also background music for numerous others, TV documentaries, jingles, advertisements and what not. He wrote at times, and like his music, you can easily figure out that his writing was also complex. He was a poet too, he wrote the lyrics for many of his songs, but most of the ones that we know and like were by his friends Shailendra, Gulzar, ONV & Yogesh. His singing was not bad either and I got to listen to his voice from a link on fellow blogger Ghosh’s site (look towards the end of the blog). Influenced in early life by Mozart and Chopin, he went on to create melodies that we remember even today and hum as and when they trail down the neurons of our memories. Salilda once said: 'I want to create a style which shall transcend borders - a genre which is emphatic and polished, but never predictable'.

Salilda commented aptly about pop music (he redid some of the Beatles numbers in Bengali – sung mainly by Sabita & Anthra – but did not release the tape) Why is today’s young society so enamored of 'pop' music ? How can one blame them? What does youth desire ? 'Something thrilling, something full of life'. They find that vital excitement in western music. Besides, look around the country and our society – we are surrounded by uncertainty and instability. In that environment they can hardly be expected to devote themselves to a steadfast cause (classical music?)…… So we must not be too hasty in judging what may be good or bad.

His secret in his own words - I have tried to apply the technique of harmony, a typical western musical technique, in my modern compositions. He was always famous for his need for a 40 piece orchestra to create the scores!! To quote an oft-used analogy, if composers of his time created tunes, Salilda crafted symphonies of four and a half minutes. A Salilda number was one-third prelude, one-third interlude, and the rest the basic tune. A detailed exposition on his composing techniques has been put together here by Manab Mitra and provided at

Snippets from Antara, his daughter (I don’t know where this interview was originally published, but many sites carry it)

He was a naughty man – my father! My brothers are married, so it was mum, my sister and me with dad - three women against one man, he would say and we never let him be. He loved Pan Parag and we would get after him to leave it so he would eat it on the sly.

He loved to cook and quite impulsive as well. Suddenly he'd say one day, ‘Today I'm going to cook!’ and we'd say ‘Oh God! Now the kitchen will be a mess!’ He drooled over non-vegetarian and generally loved to eat. He made deadly biryani and mutton curry. That's what I remember the most about him. Food… that was his single most important obsession! Fried stuff was banned for him. But he wouldn’t listen and dug into his favorite fried potatoes with absolute abandon. We have this thing in Calcutta called muri which is dipped in chane ka aata (gram flour) and eaten. He loved it and he'd have this flour and mirchi all over his face – just like a child but he didn't care. He would gorge into till as long as he wanted to.

Dad loved Rabindra Sangeet too and he was so upset when the poet passed away that he didn't eat for a whole month and walked without chappals. He enjoyed the music of Vanraj Bhatia, Iliyaraja and Madan Mohan. I believe a huge portrait of my father hangs in Iliyaraja's house. Such was his openness that he enjoyed listening to all kinds of music – some years ago the number ‘Ek do teen’ from Tezaab, became very popular and we kids were criticizing it when he said ‘Listen to it… Why has it become so popular? There's a fabulous rhythm and scanning there… hear it and see how attractive it is!’

Anthara continues - For him Lata Mangeshkar was like Ma Saraswati – he didn’t have to worry about scales and pitches when he was composing for her because he knew she could sing anything. I personally think the song she sang for dad in Annadaata is just fabulous - Raaton ke saaye has beautiful arrangement – and has been rendered equally well. I think the way dad has used Lataji’s voice was simply wonderful. Like in the Half Ticket, he used her to do the interlude which just has her crooning ha ha haha.... He adapted this bit from a Russian dance and she sang it to perfection. According to Salil Chaudhuri "Lata’s integrity as a singer lay in the fact that she never suggested a single change of note when he composed for her.

Shaji from Hindu explains in his article thus - The flawless harmony with which Salilda used an array of musical instruments suggests a unique understanding of instruments. Raj Kapoor once described him as a genius who could play everything from tabla to sarod and piano to piccolo. Salilda showed Indian popular music the way to use quaint western instruments. He has used instruments as varied as the oboe, French horn, mandolin and saxophone in his arrangements

Lataji says - Over the course of my life I have worked with over a hundred music directors. Of these, perhaps only ten understood both music and the cinema. And of these ten, Salil was the foremost. Salil Chowdhury's melodies were different from those of the others. Sometimes he would spend days on end without food or sleep in critical examination of one of his compositions, before deciding for himself how the tune should be developed. His songs were always the most difficult to sing (this quote from the Shradhanjali CD). Bimal Roy once persuaded Salilda to sing a complex Bengali song. Salil Chowdhary obliged and was alarmed to find that young Lata had fainted. She confesses, 'While listening to the song, I was overcome. I couldn't control myself'.

Chemeen was remade in Hindi as Chemeen Lahrein – The great ‘maanasa maine varoo’ was resung in Hindi - by guess whom, Hariharan! I have head it & it is pretty good actually ‘Pyaasa he man kya karoon’. Incidentally, ‘maanasa maine’s tune was also used for a Bengali movie and Yesudas sung it.

Salil Chowdhury composed jingles for Lipton Tea, Hamam Soap and Dulaaler Taal Mishri (palm sugar)? And did you know that the Hindi, Gujarati and Marathi versions of the Hammam Soap ad were sung by Geeta Dutt? Even the late O.P. Nayyar, a composer who rarely claims to be an admirer of any peer, has said that he is a fan of Salil Choudhury.

Lata & Mannadey duet ‘Ja tose nahin bhou kanhaiya’ (much like Vaathapi ganapathim), set in Raaga Hamsadhwani (probably the first time Carnatic found its way to Hindi movies) was introduced into Hindi by Salil in 1956 via Parivaar.

Raju Bharatan recalls – With becoming Bengali modesty, Salil identified himself as the Pele of Music. “Take the game of football,” said Salil, “all the rules are there – free-kick, throw-in, offside, penalty, yet there is a player like Pele who produces something outside the rules, even while being within them. I am that Pele in music!”

Mannadey recalls - Raj Kapoor, after listening to "Laaga chunari mein daag." had said the music score and its rendering was too complex for an actor to live up to on screen and director Salil Choudhary put his foot down saying: "I spent two months on this tune." And he adds - Salil had his unique style. He was totally unpredictable. From where he conceived his tunes-God only knows! I could never guess the base of his compositions. Mannadey continues - Once I recorded a song for Salilda. It was going to be picturised on a person smoking gaanja. 'Phir wohi hai raat, phir wohi jigar Phir wohi dard hai’...'Salilda asked me to give some expression to create the effect that a gaanja addict was singing the song. I obeyed him & coughed in a typical manner of a gaanja-smoker at the beginning of the song!

Aye mere pyare watan - During the recording of this particular song, Salil Chowdhury was surprised when Manna Dey started rendering it in a low & soft voice, and insisted that Manna resort to his normal voice which millions loved. Manna Dey simply asked him to wait and see the end result that we know & enjoy today!!!

Satya Saran recalls - The song "Guzar jaaye din " in Annadata... used a scale progression as a method... here was a marked departure from the accepted norms in film music. It was a difficult number which the composer wanted Kishore Kumar to sing because "Only he could give it 90 percent of its credibility." It's said that even Kishore Kumar was stymied; the song was recorded after 18 takes. Kishore apparently remarked to Salilda - 'I am passing through a nightmare where your tune is running after me'. When Kishore Kumar came to know that hero Anil Dhawan was singing the song on a cycle, he sat on the bench and enacted as if he were riding a cycle. Just to get into the mood to sing 'Guzar Jaaye Din’.

The picture shows Kishore singing one of those Salilda compositions, with Salilda looking on and exhorting for more…The early founding relationship with Kishore is best explained in the linked article by Raju Bharatan.

In Half ticket - While composing ‘Aake Seedhi Lagi Dil Pe’, the script demanded that Kishore be dressed as a woman and Pran who’s chasing him is dressed as a village bumpkin when they both sing this duet. During the recording of the song, Kishore Kumar convinced music director Salil Chowdhury that he would sing both the male and the female voices in the song. Salilda was a bit apprehensive initially but they went ahead with it.

Salil hardly used Kishore Kumar and later commented that never really understood the real depth of Kishore's voice till he gave him ‘Koi Hota’ in “Mere Apne”, a good seventeen years after Kishore first sang for him

Malayali’s remember Sabita for her song ‘Vrischika Penne’ from Thomasleeha- . Well did you all know that Sabita was sometimes unhappy (so she said jokingly) when Salilda, her husband gave his best compositions to Lata to sing?

"I met Salilda way back in 1965, during the recording of Chemmeen, a landmark film in Malayalam," says Yesudas. "I still remember accompanying him to the Mumbai residence of Lata Mangeshkar once. Salilda wanted Lataji to sing one of the film’s songs. To our dismay, she was down with a fever, and eventually the song Kadalinakkare Ponore was recorded in my voice."

Listen to Salilda sing ‘Amay proshno kore’ the Bengali version of ‘kahi door jab din aye’ original sung by Hemant Kumar. Salil Choudhury would say of Hemant Kumar, "If God ever decided to sing, he would do so in the voice of Hemant Kumar." And here is some trivia about this song. When Salilda made its Hindi version for Anand, Hemantda wanted to sing it. But Salil Chaudhury declined and had Mukesh do it. That created much bitterness between Hemant and Salil Chaudhury.

However there is another reason – Apparently Salil liked to work & work on his compositions, and do the score only using his big orchestra. Hemant wanted things done faster and sometimes even completed Salilda’s tunes without his presence. His stand was that if he had informed Chowdhury he would have taken months to arrange the music, balance the orchestra and finally record it to his satisfaction. Salilda provides some clarification in his linked obituary on Hemant Kumar.

All said and done, I felt that Salilda’s favourite was Mukesh. He created such wonderful songs with him. Dilip Kumar wanted Rafi to do Suhana Safar, we are thankful that Mukesh did it (Salil had originally planned Hemant). Raju Bharatan wrote thus in Times of India - "Each word from his lips was a pearl," reminisced Salil Chowdhury in August 1976. "No one could sing the way Mukesh did, with the right diction, inflexion and intonation. His vocal timbre was out of this world. "Almost each song I composed to capitalize on this timbre was an instant draw," noted the creator of "Nain hamare saanjh sakare" for 'Annadata'. "Initially, I thought of Hemant Kumar as Dilip Kumar's playback for "Suhana safar" in ‘Madhumati'. But Shailendra persuaded me that Mukesh suited Dilip Kumar no less than he did Raj Kapoor." "The moment I recorded "Suhana safar," concluded Salil, "I knew Mukesh's vocals had captured the spirit of that verdant setting in 'Madhumati'. Yet not far behind "Suhana safar", I would rate "Zindagi khwab hai" from 'Jagte Raho" and "Kaise manaoon" from 'Char Diwari'. In later years, Mukesh brought rare depth of expression to my "Kahin door jab din dhal jaaye" and "Suhana safar", I still feel, ranks as my best for Mukesh."

Salilda also did a couple of Bengali numbers (Eee Haashi & O Majhi) with another of my favorite singers - Usha Uthup in 1995, which are probably some of his last recorded songs.

Kunnankudi Vaidyanathan used to do ‘Maanasa maine’ and ‘Ajaare pardesi’ on his violin to end his concerts!! And, did you know that Salilda’s ‘Koi hota jisko apne’ is the background played with the sax during the last shots of the movie Anand?

And that Ilayaraja used to play for Salil and that ARR was influenced a lot during his visits to watch the maestro conduct music? Ilayaraja was introduced to the film industry as guitarist and combo organ player in Salilda's recordings and his influence on Ilayaraja is evident. R.K. Sekhar, Rahman's father, worked with Salilda as an assistant. Rahman himself testifies that attending Salilda's recording sessions at a young age left an indelible impression on him.

This brilliant eulogy from Anirudha Chatterjee completes the tribute- In an era when dancing means acrobatics and grace has come down to catwalks; when melody is sulking in the dark and music weighed in decibels, it needs more than a passing effort to feel the pulse of an artiste like Salil Choudhury. Fed on a sumptuous diet of the remix and item numbers, barring a few die-hard devotees, the Salilophile is a dying breed.

Salilda left us 12 years ago, on Sept 5th. Friends, I can proudly say that I remain one of the dying breed of Salilophiles…

An acknowledgement - If one is looking for a site dedicated to Salilda, visit ‘The world of Salil Chowdhury’ managed & set up by Gautam Chowdhry. It is an authoritative collection of everything about Salilda. Thank you Gautam, for your dedication, your site has always been my starting point for details on Salilda’s music, whenever I was in doubt, for the so many years that have passed by.

Let us now investigate what Sarath the Idea SS judge said. Did Salilda give Malayalam just one composition? Sarath was possibly wrong. Here are examples. In the 25 odd movies that Salilda did for Malayalam and the 100 odd well known and popular Salilda numbers that we Malayali’s hum now & then, he did roughly 25% unrepeated compositions for those movies (a total of about 23/99 which was calculated based on Gautam’s total research). Here is where you can find those ‘only Malayalam’ songs. My all time favorite is Nee mayum nilavo….. in madanolsavam.

Ezhurathrikal (1968) has about 4
Swapnam (1973) has 2
Nellu (1974) had one
Neelaponman (1975) had one
Raagam (1975) has two
Rasaleela (1978) has one
Aparadhi (1976) has 4
Tulavarsham (1976) has 2
Vishkani (1977) has one
Devadasi (1978) has 2
Puthiya velicham (1979) has 2
Thumboli kadappuram (1994) has one

Just some of my Salilda favorites
Ormakale kayvala charthi (Prateeksha)
Manasa maine varu (Chemmeen)
O Nodire (Sidhartha)
Yeh din kya aye (Choti si baat)
Zindagi Khwab he (Jagte raho)
Zindagi kaisi he paheli (Aanad)
Kahin door jab din dhal jaaye (Anand)
Kayi baar yoonhi dekha hai (Rajni gandha)
Jaare jaare udja re panchi (Maaya)
Aaj koi nahi apna (Agnipareeksha)
Nee mayum nilavo (Madanolsavam)
Raton ke saye (Annadata)
Sagarame santhamake nee (Madanolsavam)

Don’t forget to visit, read & listen at The World of Salil Chowdhury, managed by Gautam
Debajyoti Mishra – a Salilda assiatant will now take up work in reviving Salilda for Malayalam films.
Salilda’s violinists reminiscences

"Music will always be dismantling and recreating itself, and assuming new forms in reaction to the times. To fail to do so would be to become fossilized. But in my push to go forward I must never forget that my heritage is also my inspiration." – Salil Chowdhury

Vishu and Nawroz

This was the day the child of the house always looked forward to, for it was the only successful day in a monetary sort of way, the only time money was given to the children in older days, days when terms like pocket money were not in vogue in Kerala. So when your pocket bulged with coins by the end of the day though not liberal in a value sense, coming from various uncles, aunts and elders of the family, the child had a beaming smile on your face for the next few days. The following days were spent in animated discussions with cousins as to who got how much and from whom and what was to be done with all the money.

But then Vishu was more than the ‘kainettam’. It started early that morning and had so much going on for the rest of the day. Starting with the Vishu kani, then the ‘chal pooja’ at the Chira, the fireworks, the sumptuous lunch followed by all kinds of happenings at home and the temple, the day was a joy for any Malayali, though it differed a bit from location to location. For us in Palakkad, it was a little bit more complicated with the field, farm work, many workers and so on. Let us go back in time take a look at how it all was; for those days are gone, replaced only by fond memories and just a quick and clinical Vishu kani and a lunch or dinner these days, if even that were possible.

As the article goes on, you will notice my veering away from the festival itself and go far away from the land, to lead you into other places, but for that you have to see how Vishu was some decades ago. First, thanks to Vijay Balakrishnan my friend, for sending me on this delightful quest and later Bernand Rajeev another friend, for making me embark on another but related project.

Malayalees have two main festivals, the Vishu and the Onam. The rest are celebrated somewhat half heartedly, in comparison, typically Aryan festivities such as Deepavali, Navarathri etc. Many question why the land was always so different, why the Malayalars did things a bit differently. Could it be that the separation by the Western Ghats and constant influx of foreign culture from the western visitors influenced the land so much? We shall see.

Vishu as they explain is usually on the day of the vernal equinox. Now what on earth could that be? The equinox occurs typically in March, marking the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere and fall (autumn) in the southern hemisphere from an astronomical viewpoint. During the equinox, the length of night and day across the world is nearly, but not entirely, equal. The vernal equinox occurs in the spring while the autumnal equinox occurs during fall (autumn). Vishu however follows the sidereal vernal equinox and generally falls on April 14 of the Gregorian year in Kerala, one of the few festivals based on the solar calendar. The word "Vishu" in Sanskrit means "equal". Therefore it is supposed that Vishu probably denotes the equinox day. Vishu is also considered as a harvest festival. Note however that although Vishu (first of Medam) is the astrological new year day of Kerala, the official Malayalam new year falls on the first month of Chingam (August - September).

Anyway while it is New Year ’s Day in neighboring Tamil lands, it is a harvest festival for the Malayalees, the day after which the hot season abates. The previous night is the important night when the older women on the family (those days we had joint families in the Tharavadu – ancestral house) got together to arrange what is known as the Vishu-Kani or what one sees as a good omen, early the next morning. Depending on what one saw, the year will turn out good or bad, but before we get to all that, let us see what the Kani is all about.

Starting with a big Uruli made of bell metal, the women arrange Konna leaves on the bottom. Then the following compulsory items are arranged therein, raw rice, paddy, a Kodi cloth (fresh, unused & typically a kasavu pudava with gold borders), gold coins, a Konna vellarikka, a holy book or thaliola grantham, Kani Konna flowers, a split coconut, Kovakka (not always though), mangoes, jackfruit, gold jewelry and finally a bell metal mirror – typically an Aranmula mirror. The coconuts are filled with clear freshly ground coconut oil and a wick lit. Brass lamps (Five wick type) are also lit and usually the whole arrangement made in or near the Pooja room of the house. The oldest female member wakes up very early (in earlier days sleeping next to the lamp and lighting it early) and lights the lamp and then brings in the other members of the family to the room, eyes tightly closed and they are made to sit in front of the Kani (typically facing east) to take it in with fresh eyes, the yellow hues of the konna, the shining gold and the affluence of the Kani arrangement. This it was believed, ushered in happiness & prosperity the following year. Nowadays all kinds of things land up in the room, like apples, bananas and so on, as well as other colored fruit to balance out the yellow.

In some houses, you took a dip in the pond in darkness, wore fresh Kodi clothes and then came in to see the Kani making sure you do not come across any bad omens on the way, but it was not so with us . In our house, it was straight from bed to the Kani room after a quick face & mouth wash, eyes closed. After all that was done and you have had a bath and wore fresh new clothes, you go around to the elders who are always seated and then humbly accept (actually a gingery smirk remained on your face) the monetary presents (vishu kainettam – new coins or crisp notes) of money from them after touching their feet and seeking blessings which they solemnly doled out. For the next one or two hours that morning, you make sure that an otta pattar (lone Brahmin) or a buffalo or a cleaning woman with a broom or a nayadi or a cat are not sighted nearby for they are bad omens.

Then all the seniors, youngsters and the servants trooped off to our Chira farming lands under the mountains, again in darkness where the chal ceremony takes place (this is only in Palakkad), where a spade furrow is laid and token ploughing conducted by the Kariasthan himself. A pooja is done and the spade decorated with Konna flowers is used to lay the furrow. After which a number of Ola padakkam or leaf crackers are lit and amidst the unearthly din, the new day is ushered with the hope for a lucky harvest in autumn. There is more to this, like the involvement of kanians or astrologers, forecasts of weather for the next season and all that, sowing of many types of seeds and farming jargon and the symbolic splitting of a coconut, but it would be too complex to the uninitiated, so I will leave it here.

The children returned to the house to continue the lighting of crackers and all kinds of fireworks while the older people sat on chairs and watched and doled out liberal doses of advise relating to health and safety and talked among themselves on how much more louder and bigger the crackers of their days were and how such and such an uncle did this or that. Much vettila and adakka is consumed, with permission given to the kids also to indulge in this activity and in which I gleefully partook.

But then you wonder why the malayali vishu is somewhat different from all the other New Year days in the neighboring states. Have you asked a question why? A mountain separation cannot give rise to a totally alien system or then again could it? Was there something else to it? And that was the question Vijay asked me, pointing towards the similarity of the Kani festivities in another place conducted during the same time of the year. Bernard pointed me in a diametrically opposite direction and I will leave that for a second detailed study. Now where could we see the similarity? Well, for that you have to go westward, to the Iranian Scythian regions and observe how they celebrate their New Year day or Nau Roz. Interestingly they have a very similar function on their New Year dawn and it is called Hafta seen or Hafta Sin.

As I explain the event, you will see the remarkable similarity, though we know now that the early settlers in Malabar around the end of the Perumal era were a handful of Syrian Catholics, some Jews and some Armenians, and of course the Arabs and Moplah’s amongst the Nairs, Namboothiris, Pulayans etc. All this is clear but for the one aspect which continues to fascinate writers and researchers as to where the Nairs came from and also questioning their ‘different’ customs. Did they arrive with peculiar customs or did they adopt these customs from somebody else? Why so? Does this coincidence of customs in the Persian regions and Malabar have anything to do with each other? As I said before, we shall endeavor to see if there is a link by studying the similarities.

So as you can imagine, the astronomical Persian calendar begins its New Year on the day when the equinox occurs before apparent noon roughly around the 21st of March.

While the equinox is in March (based on tropical astrology) in Europe the Vishu is in April in Malabar and the difference is explained by the fact that Indian astrologers use what is known as Sidereal astrology based on true constellations – now that is a rather complex subject by itself which I will not drag you, the reader into, so don’t be alarmed..

The origin of Norouz dates back to events celebrated for at least 3,000 years. Preceding both Christianity and Islam, it dates back to the beginning of the Zoroastrian religion. One thing that is very interesting about Norouz is that it has appeared and reappeared multiple times in the history of the Persian Empire. During the Sassanid Empire (226-650 A.D.) the celebration of Norouz flourished. This era celebrated Norouz by holding special rituals and ceremonies in the court where the “King handed out precious gifts to the treasury and distributed other gifts among the audience”. Today it is still practiced on Nau Roz in Persia and neighboring countries. On this day, the people of the old Persian lands, all those who celebrate the nau roz or new year start their day with what they call a Hafta seen. Haft Sîn or the seven 'S's is a major traditional table setting of Nowruz, the traditional Iranian spring celebration. The items symbolically correspond to seven creations and holy immortals called Amesha Sepanta protecting them .Traditionally, families attempt to set as beautiful a Haft Sīn table as they can, as it is not only of traditional and spiritual value, but also noticed by visitors during Nowruzi visitations and is a reflection of their good taste. Typically, on the first day of Nowruz, family members gather around the table, with the Haft Seen on the table or set next to it, await the exact moment of the arrival of the spring. At that time gifts are exchanged. Later in the day, the first house visits are paid to the most senior family members. Typically, the youth will visit the elders first, and the elders return their visit later.

The main Haft Sīn items are: wheat, barley or lentil sprouts growing in a dish - symbolizing rebirth, a sweet pudding made from wheat germ - symbolizing affluence, the dried fruit of the oleaster tree - symbolizing love, garlic - symbolizing medicine, apples - symbolizing beauty and health, sumac berries - symbolizing (the color of) sunrise, vinegar - symbolizing age and patience. The Haft Sin table again is prepared only by women. Nowadays they have many more items, like the holy books, flowers and so on, listed below making the table look quite similar to the Vishu Kani in Malabar. Now they include the fragrant hyacinth flower - symbolizing the coming of spring, coins - symbolizing prosperity, Pastries such as baklava , toot white berries, dried nuts, berries and raisins, lit candles symbolizing enlightenment and happiness, a mirror, Sweet mint syrup, decorated eggs, water with a bitter orange in it symbolizing Earth "floating" in space and a poetry book, such as the or a religious text. As you can see, the flowers, the seeds, the mirror, the coins, the gift giving, the new cloth etc are striking similarities.

And we could compare the Chal Pooja of Palghat which I mentioned before with the different types of seeds etc, to early nau roz celebrations in Persia, where twenty-five days before New Year, 12 large cylindrical shaped containers made from raw brick were erected in the city centre. Different seeds were planted in each including wheat, barley, lentils and rice. On the sixth day of Farvardin, the new growths were pulled out and scattered around with music, songs and dancing. Abu- rayhan Biruni the celebrated Iranian scientist in his book; Asar al-Bagheyeh states, that this was done to estimate the growth of various seeds for the new season and to know how good a crop they could expect in the coming year. All the people also used to grow seven seeds in their own homes. Pretty much similar in concept with the Vishu Chal furrow celebration.

But then all this provides is an obscure link between Zoraster, early Persia and a the Vishu in early Malabar. We see that the new cloth, the seeds, the mirror, the fruits, the flowers (though a different color) the money giving after the kani, the holy book etc are pretty similar. So is there a connection? Well, Nau Roz or new day became popular in the entire Scythian region, a place Nair’s as some historians say are said to originate from. To sum up that theory, the Nairs have also been classified as of Indo-Scythian (Saka) origin. After the Saka or Indo-Scythian people invaded India in the second century BC, some Nagas mixed with the Scythians in North India. They adopted the Matriarchy, Polyandry and other Scythian customs. They migrated southwards and reached Malabar, where they fought with the Villavars and defeated them. Later they established their own kingdoms in Malabar and Tulu Nadu. The Nagas finally reached Travancore, the Southern most part of India.But this is all quite tenuous, and difficult to establish even with some genetic pointers. People who are interested in such matters may read my article on the ‘origins of nairs’.

As the research went on, I tried to check out on the Kani konna tree or the Amalata. Did it perhaps originate elsewhere? The tree and its flower are so essential on that Vishu day and mostly useless for the rest of the year these days, though it did have some pharmaceutical (laxative) uses once upon a time. A tree that was called rajataru or kings tree, uncommonly beautiful when in flower, few surpassing the elegance of its long pendulous racemes of large bright yellow flowers intermixed with the young bright green foliage (Roxburgh – Flora Indica). This is the Konna, the golden shower tree or the cassia fistula - the Indian laburnum. Interestingly the tree is mentioned in ancient Chinese and Japanese texts, and also in Arab books as the Indian Carob – Xarnub Hindi. Well, it appears it has been very common in Egypt in olden times (taken these from India), and the Persians imported the pods both from Egypt & India. Was it perhaps far more important an export then than today? It is certainly mentioned in ancient Greek, Roman, Arab, Chinese & Persian medicine. Was it perhaps a source of much revenue to the ancient people of Malabar, in addition to providing the bright spark on the New Year day for a relatively serious group of people? I would not be surprised.
And then it took me through yet another migration route, as explained in a paper set by Dr Samar Abbas. According to him and other researchers the ancient Pallava dynasty is considered to be of Persian decent. As it goes, the Pallavas were a northern tribe of Parthian origin constituting a clan of the nomads having come to India from Persia. Unable to settle down in northern India they continued their movements southward until they reached Kanchipuram. But the Pallava people as such had nothing to do with Vishu celebrations anyway and there were no Persians in Malabar to create a significant influence. So the origin of Vishu remains elusive though there are significant similarities between Haft Seen and Vishu kani and Zoroastrian NauRoz and Vishu. Or could it have been that one group settle ddown in Kachi whereas the other veered through and down the Northern mountain passes into what is Malabar? Likely as well, if the above theory holds forte.


Part 2 will check out the similarities of Vishu with the Chinese New Year celebrations.

Pics - from the web, thanks to the owners.

Senhora de Panjim

Brazil, Goa and Oh! What a lady!!

It is carnival time; many people have Samba, Soccer and Goa in their minds, and of course imagination of the places where it all happens, namely in Brazil. Samba is considered today to be the most popular Brazilian expression and I will agree that the dancers and dance that accompany it are very much watchable and candy for the eyes. But I am going to take you to a time much earlier, before Samba came about, some 300 + years back in time, and tell you the story of a fascinating lady who fled Brazil and lived a few decades in India, some 10,000 miles away. She lived a life you would find hard to believe, a period not counted in days, but for 13 years. So brace yourself, not for a samba, but to live through the adventures of this young Brazilian lady in Goa and an amazing love story at that.

The girl, for she was a chit of a girl when she took this tempestuous decision, was born to a wealthy Brazilian family in 1682. She had a reasonably complicated name and was the only daughter of Joao de Abreu de Oleveria. The girl was named Dona Maria Ursula de Abreu de Lancastro. They lived in Rio, the other side of the world.

Rio De Janeiro or Rio in those days was more than just the River of January, it was by then a biggish city, under Portuguese control, through the French were nibbling at its sides. Rio, for those who are a wee bit hazy about history and geography is of course in Brazil. Brazil as you may have read was ‘supposedly’ discovered on 1st January 1502 (various other theories exist) after being “accidentally” found by a captain named Gaspar de Lemos who captained a ship in Pedro Alvares Cabral’s fleet on its way to Calicut & Cochin. Well, he lost his way, so to say, and stumbled into Rio. Since that fateful day when Gaspar de Lemos strayed & reached Brazil instead of Malabar, the fortunes of Rio of the medieval times were tied to the Portuguese and their fate in Malabar.

The surrounding land, allotted to Portuguese settlers by the Portuguese king in enormous plots called ‘sesmarias’, was planted with sugarcane, which provided the colony with good income. In the second half of the 17th century, they say that the Rio population grew to 8,000 inhabitants, two-thirds of whom were probably African slaves and Indians. (Whatever happened to the Indian slaves in Rio? That I will leave for now to recount another day). In the late 17th century, still during the Sugar Era, the colonial scouts found gold and diamonds in the neighboring captaincy of Minas Gerais, and thus Rio de Janeiro became a much more practical port for exporting wealth (gold, precious stones and of course sugar). As a result, the colonial capital was moved from Salvador to Rio de Janeiro. The city remained a capital until 1808, when the Portuguese royal family and most of the associated Lisbon nobles, fleeing from Napoleon's invasion of Portugal, moved to Rio de Janeiro.

Now that I have introduced you rapidly to the early history of the Rio, I will hasten to take you to the story of our petite lady Maria Ursula. Oh, dear readers, as you can imagine, her story makes me chuckle at the vagaries and uncertain propensities of youth, and makes me wish time and again, of how glorious it would be - to be young, once again…

So, as I said, Maria was born to a wealthy family, most obviously in the sugar business or the government, while Rio was abuzz with the ships coming from Malabar, disgorging spices and slaves (Indian & African) and ships going out with Brazilians and sugar to India and Europe. You can imagine how it was, a very interesting period and the young lady, like most other girls of her age (which by the way was the ripe age of 18), fell in love. What happened next is something I am not so sure about, but either the love affair failed, or she was being forced by her parents to marry another whom she did not like. Unlike novels and movie plots, she did not kill herself or cry or sulk, or marry another. She decided to do something else, she ran away. But to know exactly what she did and how, you have to travel back in time, first to Lisbon, then to Goa to be precise, to a time when the fortunes of the Portuguese in India were clinging to a very thin thread.

Did she become the wife of a soldier or perhaps a wealthy trader? Did she become a nun? Did she marry a king or nobleman? Or better still, did she become a trader?

It was the year 1700. 200 years had passed after Vasco Da Gama found his way to Calicut and the Portuguese had since then struggled hard to establish a colony in the Southern ports of Malabar. While they were successful to a certain extent in Cochin, the Zamorin’s land and sea forces had been constantly fighting battles with them with support from the Moplah’s, the neighboring kings of Bijapur, the Kolathiri’s of Cannanore and even far flung lands such as Egypt and the Ottoman Turks. It was turning out to be a lost cause for the murderous Franks, as very large amounts of money had been spent with little returns and the only real holding they could call their own by then was Goa.

The Dutch had already taken away all their possessions in Cochin and Quilon and the English EIC was making early inroads. The Portuguese had fled Malabar after the relentless attacks by the Marakkars in their small Paros ‘Praus’ and they had not recovered from the sea based attacks by one of their own, who turned out to be the nephew of the Kunjali (see my previous articles on these matters). The Portuguese were virtually holed up around Goa, which they had originally taken in 1510, when they defeated the ruling Bijapur kings with the help of the crafty local Timoja, leading to the establishment of a permanent settlement in Velha Goa (or Old Goa).

According to a Scottish Sea captain, the city at that time was a 'place of small trade and most of its riches lay in the hands of indolent Country Gentlemen, who loiter away their days in East, Luxury, and Pride. Bombay had also been lost to the English by 1665. It is to this Goa of the period 1700-1750 that we are traveling to.

Goa was way North of Malabar as we know from the Malabar of today, and was as you can imagine looking more and more of a decadent port, the great times long gone. The Fidalgo’s, Soldado’s, Cassado’s, the Orpha’s (You may want to check out my earlier blog on Orfas)and the various other types, local, half breeds and imports were milling around in squalid conditions, rife with all kinds of problems. Money and women were in short supply, wars and churches were aplenty and the Portuguese East India Company, the Estado Da India already in dire straits was extremely bureaucratic and horribly corrupt indeed for anybody’s comfort.

The problems for the Portuguese with Chatrapati Shivaji had started sometime around 1670. The new Maratha foe Shivaji Maharaj who trained, armed and allied himself with a number of other Hindu kings of the area fought resilient battles with the Portuguese. The fights were largely victorious for Shivaji, but he died in 1680 to be succeeded by his son Sumbhaji who first allied with Aurangzeb, but later aligned himself with his father’s cause against the Moguls and Franks. The Portuguese were supported by Aurangzeb for a while and Sumbhaji was killed in 1689. A small window of peace now prevailed in Goa though Arabs from the other side of the Indian Ocean continued to harass the Portuguese ships in the interim. The Bijapur Bhonsle’s led by Khem Sawant also made occasional forays into Portuguese territory both from the land & sea.

In 1700, Portuguese historians started to take first notice of a young Soldado or soldier who was well versed in western martial arts (sword and the gun). Brave and smart, this young man went by the name Balthazar da Couto. He had recently arrived in Goa, and seemed to have the right connections, or let us at least assume so. Unfortunately the life of a soldier is never easy, especially that of a Soldado in Goa of the medieval times as you will read and you will then agree that high level connections were paramount.

Life of a soldado (referring to Silveira and Diogo Do Couto’s old writing) As the yearly fleet comes in and disgorges the quota of mercenaries from Europe, the chances of employment were dim. Unless he has friends or connections, the soldado would sleep on a doorway or the boat, die of malnutrition or disease or fade into the wretched population as Silveira Do Couto wrote, or flee Goa and take up service with another Indian ruler. The only soldiers who prosper are unscrupulous riffraff in the services of the Viceroy, other officers or Fidalgo, working mostly in their private armies when not in campaign.

Only when they were in a campaign for the viceroy were they paid any salary, and only part even if they did, the viceroy pocketing the balance. Many a soldier thus failed to report on duty and was brought in frequently by ‘goon’ squads. If caught, they had to serve a campaign without pay. On top of that they were expected to provide their own weaponry. They lived about 9-10 per house, leading bachelor lives, lolling around in their white cotton drawers and shirts, singing and playing the guitar (Pyrard of Laval) sharing 2 -3 formal dresses, murdering & robbing lonely people by night. Many consequently left Goa for Bengal. Due to this situation, morale was low and many fought half heartedly if they had to. Many of the documented fights and tales of valor on the Portuguese side were in reality, flights of fancy of the writer.

It was in Oct 1703 that Caetano de Mello de Castro arrived as the new Viceroy. He decided to consolidate Portuguese hold over the areas surrounding Goa. The first order given was to capture and raze down the Maratha fort at Amona on the banks of the Mandvi River. Khem Sawant Bhonsle was the enemy during the 1704-06 periods and he had to be muzzled.

While the Portuguese ships quickly destroyed the Sawant’s small navy blockading the Mandvi River head, the army led by Capt Teixeira Arrais de Mello was conducting a ferocious hand to hand combat with the Sawant’s men but losing badly. Balthazar Couto, our young soldier, seeing this, rushed to Capt De Mello’s rescue and attacked the Sawant’s men violently and head on with his troops, braving certain death. This was a major tuning point of that battle where Balthazar rescued his captain but was seriously injured in the bargain. The Sawant’s forces were routed and the fort was taken. De Mello ensured that his savior Balthazar Da Couto got the kudos.

The Portuguese thus defeated the Bhonsle’s and many historians admit that it was mainly due to clever tactics employed by young Balthazar Couto. The Amona fort was then razed to the ground so that the Bhosles did not use it again. The Portuguese government gifted two palm groves in Chaul to Bathazar Couto for his brave deeds. Balthazar was made a Captain of the bulwark of the Chaul fortress and his name figured in the banners of Portuguese bravery in the field of war for many more years.

Balthazar continued his brave battles when the viceroy launched campaigns between 1705-1706 to take Bicholim fort and later the islands of Corjuem and Ponelm.

I have been penning word after word, sentence after sentence, para after para, but where do these two people meet? Whatever happened to the heroine of the story? We talked at length about our hero Balthazar, but we also started with a heroine Marie Ursula. Where is she?

The last we heard of Maria Ursula was when she decided to take a ship to Lisbon from Rio in Brazil. Did these two get married? It is now close to 14 years after Marie Ursula left on the boat to Lisbon. Well, take the wildest of guesses; and I can assure you, you will not get any closer to the truth. So I have to tell you what happened.

You see, as it turned out, the hero and the heroine were both one and the same. Ursula had before leaving Rio decided to don a man’s dress, had changed her name to Balthazar Couto (to avoid being traced by her rich dad I suppose) and offered her services to the King or Portugal as a Soldado or soldier going to Goa, in one of those yearly ships. His services were accepted and Balthazar Couto landed on Goan shores. Marie Ursula was thus lost to the world for 14 years while the name of Balthazar blazed the Portuguese annals.

The history books are not entirely clear as to where she mastered the art of war and as to when exactly Balthazar divulged her true sex, but she did both. While one historian states that this happened when she was seriously injured in the attack at Amona, while trying to save De Mello’s life (and due to the nature of her injury her true sex had to be revealed to De Mello), who presumably kept quiet. She, I believe maintained touch with Captain De Mello who later became the captain of Fort S Jao Baptista.

Ok, I mentioned a love story in the beginning. What about that?

On 12th May 1714, she retired from military service and obtained permission from the King of Portugal to marry the man she had fallen in love with in the meantime, none other than the very man she rescued, Capt Affonso Teixeria Arraes de Mello. She was 32. They got married and lived a happy life, and had a child named Joao. It is said that even as a wife she continued proudly wearing her uniform.

Later on 8th March 1718, the King Dom Joao V granted this brave Soldado the free use of the palace of Panjim for 6 years and a pension of One seraphim per diem (300 reis per day) paid by the customs department of Goa with the condition that she could will it to anybody she chose or her descendants upon her death……….

Since then she was known in Goa as the Senhora de Panjim, well admired and respected in the various circles of Goa. Strangely her story can be found in very few books, and her deeds are not glorified in any official documents. She died in 1730.

The Portuguese continued to hang on to their powers in Goa until around 1736, but that part of the story is no longer of interest here.

I have held a dim view about the Portuguese in India, but I do have admiration for Marie Ursula since Goa in those days was not the Goa you see today, it was filthy, bureaucratic, corrupt, with Portuguese men desperately searching for women to cohabit with and this brave girl survived the filth and the lust, excelling in a man’s world, fighting side by side. They fittingly called her an adventuress.

She was one hell of an adventuress; that I can assure you, this ‘Senhora de Panjim’

Sawants of Wadi - SK Mhamai
Portuguese in India - FC Danvers
Brazilian Biographical annual 1876
Essays in Goan history - Teotonio R. De Souza
The black legend of Portuguese India - GD Winius
Appleton's cyclopedia of American biography - James Grant Wilson, John Fiske
Women in Iberian expansion overseas, 1415-1815 - Charles Ralph Boxer
Slavery & South Asian history - Indrani Chatterjee, Richard Maxwell Eaton


1. It is quite difficult for a lady to hide her sex for so long and that too for 13-14 years in a turbulent place so alien to her upbringing is even tougher. Imagine the plight of Soldados who had to sleep in open barracks and places like that. How she managed is a mystery.

2. Historians state that it is very hard to come by information about Balthazar in official documents, in spite of his/her valor. However they all attest that the story is true.

3. How Balthazar found her way up is curious considering the sad state of Soldados. Like how she got her weapons or training in Lisbon, unless she had training as a child in Rio. However it is a fact that she found success early and that soon lifted her out of the rut and got her a key position as captain of the Chaul fortress and hopefully, with it, privacy. With that her fortunes looked up.

4. Cassado means married man. Soldado means soldier. Orpha or Orfa is orphan and Fidalgo is a noble man.

5. While Marie Ursula’s case is somewhat unique, i.e. a woman doing a manly soldiers job, it was not uncommon in the case of Rajputs or Marathas of India, for there were quite a few women fighters who are documented in history. One such person is Tarabai, Shivaji’s daughter in law, who fought the Moghuls & the Portuguese, at the same time as Balthazar was fighting for the Portuguese.

6. According to eminent historian CR Boxer, Marie Ursula sailed out in 1699 and revealed her sex as I have described, after rescuing De Mello in the battle and being gravely injured. She married him after recovering according to him, but this does not fit very well with the time line as the Amona attack happened in 1702-05 time frame, as I understood, but her marriage took place in 1712.

7. Readers might wonder about the paradox where soldados were without work, but at the same time new recruits came from Lisbon & Brazil. It appears that the people in Goa were less inclined to go to war for various reasons, relaxing in pride, and so the newer ones, accepting lesser pay went into campaigns, especially African & Brazilian recruits. The older Soldados in Goa who had enough by then were lolling around, doing little. They normally held the rear of the forces while the newer ones were up in front, like our Balthazar Couto.

twc, and others on the net thanks.