Saran division in north Bihar is the easternmost bastion of Bhojpuri culture in the Gangetic heartland. A flatland with wild and marshy topography, the region has been traditionally dogged by natural calamities, poverty and demographic disturbances. This has infused into its culture a streak of audacity and adventure, tinged with an undertone of melancholia and sorrow at the same time. Bhojpuri culture does not have much written literature, but it is rich in oral and folk traditions. Kabir was one of its earliest representatives; and Ghagh, an elusive genius of yore, pondered over the toils and travails of its people. Close to our times, Rahul Sankrityayan, scholar- activist and globetrotter, is another scion of this culture. All of them were unique and sailed against the tide. Here, I try to track an equally unusual and enigmatic representative of the culture. Mahendar Misir defies any epithet yet fits into many—athlete, musician, poet, revolutionary, criminal, wanderer, and thinker. His songs resonate all over the Bhojpuri world, yet people hardly know who he was.
Documented sources about him are meagre, and the chronology of the events of his life is not clear; however, oral sources abound. No historian appears to have ever worked on him; but literary works by Suresh Kumar Mishra, Bhagwati Prasad Dwivedi, Johar Safihabadi, Ravindra Bharti, Anamika and others have kept his memory alive. Pandey Kapil’s Bhojpuri novel Phoolsunghi (1977; English translation by Gautam Chaubey, Penguin, 2020) is probably a close portrayal of his life and time. Happily, many of Mahendar’s own compositions speak for him. Mahendar Misir (1886-1946) was born on March 16, 1886, at Mishraulia village in Saran. He was not interested in conventional schooling; but mythological stories told by his schoolteacher always fascinated him. In his youth, he had an interest in virtually anything that came his way. He was attracted to athletics and excelled in wrestling and horse riding. Gradually, he was attracted to music, folk theatre and mythological narratives ( pravachan ). He played almost all popular musical instruments of his time, composed lyrics and sang them exceptionally well. There was no cinema then, so, nautch, Ramlila, and performances by tawaifs (courtesans) were the popular forms of entertainment. However, men of respectable families were expected to stay away from them, but that did not deter Mahendar.
His region was among the earliest to suffer the extraction of resources by Europeans; vagaries of nature added to its woes. British revenue policy perpetuated its poverty and forced people to migrate to big cities for livelihood. A large number of them, called Girmitiyas (indentured labourers), went to faraway British colonies across the globe, leaving behind many problems at home. Crime and social insecurity rose high and oppression acquired new forms in usury, property disputes and exploitation of the weak, women in particular. Natural calamities and socio-political upheavals after the First World War made matters worse. Mahatma Gandhi responded with Satyagraha and his rural reconstruction programme from Champaran, and thousands joined him to work for freedom. However, the writers and artists responded in their own ways. While Raghuveer Narayan (1884-1955) wrote his iconic song Batohiya to eulogise the nation, and many endeavoured to stoke up patriotism for freedom, Mahendar was exercised over domestic excesses faced by women, the exploitation of the marginalised, and the emotional suffering of the youth. He empathised with them and gained inspiration for his creativity.
Very soon, he became known for his prodigious talent. A wealthy zamindar, Halivant Sahay of Chapra, the district headquarters, took an interest in him. A patron of music and dance, Sahay had lost his wife early in life and had no children. He spent most of his time in socialising and entertainment, and noted musicians and tawaifs performed at his mehfils (private concerts). Sahay was instantly impressed by Mahendar’s singing, and they became friends. Mahendar came in touch with the artists who performed for Sahay, and his singing stole their hearts, too.
Meanwhile, Sahay fell for one Gulzaribai, popular as Dhelabai, of Muzaffarpur. She was the daughter of the renowned tawaif Meenabai. Beautiful and talented, Dhela was accomplished in both singing and dance and was known for her gracious adaaygee (style). The musicologist Thakur Jaidev Singh has ranked her among India’s leading musicians of the time. Sahay craved her as his companion, but she spurned his advances.
He is said to have abducted and later married her. He put her up in a separate mansion and provided her with all the luxuries of life to make her happy, but she never reconciled with the situation and always felt caged.
Mahendar Misir grew close to Dhelabai during musical soirees. Once, after the noted artists had finished, he was asked to sing as a debutant, but he left everyone spellbound. When the event was over and Mahendar was to leave, Dhela called for him, applauded his singing and invited him to revisit. He was already smitten by her beauty and performance, now her gesture threw him into a storm of emotions and daydreaming, and thus started their friendship.
Mahendar visited her mansion frequently and performed at the concerts held there. When his relation with Dhelabai deepened, Mahendar apparently expressed disapproval of her openness with others. This irked Dhela, who asserted her independence in a way he had never anticipated. Offended and distraught, he left Chapra and mindlessly boarded a train that brought him to Benaras.
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In Benaras, he loitered for days on its ghats (riverfront) before he mingled with the local musicians and became popular overnight. Soon, he met some leading tawaifs and started giving them lessons in music. Later, he also presented independent performances in major towns of north India and earned a lot of money. His knowledge and professional skill impressed the courtesans so much that they invited him to their homes in Benaras, Lucknow, Kanpur, Patna and Muzaffarpur. He composed songs for them, which resonated at their kothas (professional home) in his lifetime. They also invited him to their annual gatherings in Chapra, and at the famous Sonepur fair, where they assembled from all over the country to perform. However, his intimacy with a renowned courtesan (Vidyadhari Bai?) at Benaras seems to have hurt him again, and he left the city.
He moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata) and became popular among music lovers there. Some novels refer to his dalliance with courtesans and wine. His love for music, dance and poetry was certainly boundless. Calcutta was a major transit point from where the poor and the needy sailed to far-off lands for jobs, leaving their families in a state of perpetual waiting and hardship. This was especially the case in the Bhojpuri region, where pangs of poverty and separation had become a constant of life. Lack of freedom for women, incompatible marriages and oppressive social customs had perpetuated the agonies of the youth, which Mahendar portrayed in his compositions with unmatched sensitivity.
In the course of his visits to various towns, he became closely aware of the condition of tawaifs . During the Mughal period, they were respected as custodians of cultural heritage and its disseminators; but with the fall of the Empire, they were forced to shift for survival from Delhi to smaller places like Lucknow and Patna. Soon, the British deprived them of their last patrons as the aristocracy became impoverished. Many of them were forced to turn to prostitution.
It was in these circumstances that Mahendar Misir came to their help, like his contemporary Saratchandra Chattopadhyay (1876-1938), the noted Bengali novelist. Both were Brahmins and talented, but they associated with tawaifs . Saratchandra came into prominence with his novella Devdas , which he wrote around 1901 while staying near Chaturbhujsthan, the red-light area at Muzaffarpur; Mahendar started his artist’s journey from there, after Saratchandra left for Bhagalpur in 1903 ( Frontline , “The mortals of Devdas”, January 9, 2015).
Making of the revolutionary
The public life of Mahendar Misir began soon after the Swadeshi movement and with the rise of revolutionary nationalism in India. In one of his poems, he wrote how the British had drained India’s wealth for a pittance in return ( Hamra niko na laage Ram goran ke karni… ). Seeing the inefficacy of moderate politics, he inclined towards political terrorism, which surged after 1907. In Bihar, it started with the bombing by Khudiram Bose in 1908 at Muzaffarpur, and terrorist activity soon intensified around Saran district.
However, something happened in the meanwhile which disrupted Mahendar’s political activities and his equation with Halivant Sahay. Mahendar, who had gained popularity as an artist and probably as a toughie with his wrestling partners, opposed Sahay’s attitude towards Dhelabai, who had never reconciled with her relation with him. Sahay was an easy-going person sans any moral concern. Faced with resistance from the two, he renounced home to live like an ascetic at the residence of his “godfather”, Henry Revel, the Customs Collector of Saran, a little away from Chapra town. Dhelabai stayed back at his mansion, with property in Chapra and zamindari in the vicinity. Sahay had no children, so, his relatives scrambled to dislodge Dhelabai from the estate. Since Mahendar loved Dhela, he promptly came to her rescue. Some people suspect he had been a party to her abduction and now wanted to make amends by helping her. However, things could not remain like before. Legal disputes followed, depleting her assets. When the situation worsened, Mahendar supported her with his own resources, but they started drying up soon.
Yet, he did not desert Dhela. By now, she was emotionally involved with him. Thus, circumstances brought them together. She got an accommodation built for him on her premises along with a Shiva temple. He lived and practised music there. She was often woken up in the dead of night by some sad songs of separation coming out of the temple, so goes the legend. One night, beats of the tabla woke her up. When she came out on her rooftop, the town was soaked in moonlight and fast asleep, and Mahendar was playing the tabla in a frenzy, unmindful of the world around. Dhela could not control herself; on an impulse, she put on ghungroo s (anklet bells) and started dancing on the rooftop. They caught up with each other instantly, reciprocating to the beats of the tabla and Dhela’s footsteps; and an unusual, divine dance continued in celestial cadence. When it ended, Dhela rushed to Misir ji , bowed to him and presented him her nose ring as a token of respect, and requested him to accept her as a disciple, recount the local people. This was a touching moment that gave wings to their platonic love to soar unto their death.
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However, her financial crisis worsened; and, maybe, problems cropped up also concerning their relations. As a result, Mahendar decided to get off the scene, and wandered away. He went to Calcutta for earning more money to support Dhela. His passion for music continued all along; so, as soon as he performed at a musical concert there, he captivated the audience, which comprised a sizeable number of Bhojpuri-speakers and freedom fighters. A public speech by Subhas Bose at the Victoria Ground ignited his patriotism and brought him close to Bengali revolutionaries. They planned to operate in Bihar through him and gave him a currency-printing machine to finance their operations there and weaken the colonial economy with fake money. Others say he got it from an India-born Englishman who loved his music, but this story is not plausible. Still others believe he did it for the sheer greed of money, but there is no evidence of this.
Actually, there was a streak of the rebel in him from his early days. People believe he was influenced by the anti-British Sanyasi rebellion, which had inspired Bankimchandra’s novel Anandamath , said to be based on the revolt of Raja Fateh Sahi of Huseypur in Saran. Bankimchandra and Vivekananda urged the youth to be strong and brave to fight the foreigners. Consequently, akharas appeared as unique centres of athletics and the arts, and Bharat Mata was portrayed as the female deity Durga, known as the destroyer of evil (metaphorically identified with the British at this time). This trend is likely to have motivated Mahendar to go for martial arts, music, the feminist cause, and revolutionary nationalism, simultaneously.
Thus, on returning from Calcutta in 1915, he started printing currency notes and used these to help the local revolutionaries and others. He invited them to his residence, apparently for cultural meets, but there they secretly exchanged information and money. By the 1920s, many Biharis were influenced by revolutionary groups like Anushilan Samiti and Yugantar; now they joined Bhagat Singh’s Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA). A number of them lived in Tirhut division, and Saran was its hotbed. Just across the Gandak to the east lived the noted revolutionaries Jogendra Shukla and Baikunth Sukul at Jalalpur village in Muzaffarpur district. Jogendra Shukla (1896-1960) was arrested in Chapra and was jailed for over 16 years. He was among the founders of the HSRA and a senior associate of the Bhagat Singh group. His nephew, Baikunth Sukul (1907-1934), was hanged at Gaya jail for killing an HSRA polite bureau member, P.N. Ghose of Betia, for turning approver in the Lahore conspiracy case leading to the hanging of Bhagat Singh. Baikunth’s trial revealed how intense revolutionary activities were going on in Saran. Is it possible that Mahendar Misir was not connected with them?
By now, even kothas of tawaifs had become information centres for the revolutionaries, as tawaif s came in close contact with visitors from whom they could elicit information. Later, some tawaifs actively helped freedom fighters. When Mahatma Gandhi visited Benaras, he requested the noted courtesan Vidyadhari Bai to raise funds through her performances for the freedom movement, leading finally to the foundation of the Akhil Bharatiya Tawaif Sangh in 1920. He also asked the well-known courtesan Gauhar Jaan to help in this regard. Tawaifs lived at Chapra, but Muzaffarpur was a greater centre. Their kothas were a place of entertainment and cultural grooming for the aristocracy. However, when the nobility declined under the British Raj and overall conditions deteriorated after the First World War, their existence became precarious.
Mahendar Misir acted as their saviour . His love for music and dance had brought him to them in the prime of his youth. He seems to have empathised with them, especially after losing Dhela—something like Saratchandra’s empathy for all women in distress after losing Paro and Chandramukhi (in Devdas , Dheeru and Kalidasi in real life). Thus, Misir visited tawaifs in several north Indian towns and tried to hone their skill in music and dance free of charge. Above all, he helped them financially in case anyone went out of the profession because of old age or bad health.
Conviction and jail term
While this was going on, his generosity and lavish living raised suspicions about the sources of his income. The police spied on him, and an officer, Jatadhari Prasad, entered his household as a domestic help under the name of Gopichand. Eventually, he won Misir’s confidence and discovered his involvement in counterfeiting currency notes and revolutionary activities. The police raided his house on the night of April 16, 1924, while printing of notes was going on. They seized the machine, with bundles of printed notes, and arrested Mahendar along with his brothers. He was tried in the district court and sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment.
Subsequently, an appeal was filed in the High Court, and two sympathisers of revolutionary nationalism, Hemchandra Mishra and the renowned barrister C.R. Das, represented him. Das did not charge any fees. The sentence was reduced to 10 years. The tawaifs , especially Dhelabai, met the expenses of the suit; now they petitioned the government for his release in lieu of silver coins and their jewellery equal to his weight, but the government declined. Even if this story is not true, it shows the public perception of tawaif s’ concern for their benefactor.
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After his conviction, Misir was sent to Buxar jail to undergo the sentence. At this point, Jatadhari Prasad reportedly appeared before him suddenly, applauded his patriotism, and apologised for having him arrested. Their dialogue is captured in a moving song scripted by Misir later (“With love Gopichand served me fine betel leaves …and got me jailed…”) . Incidentally, the jail Superintendent already knew Misir as a renowned musician and poet; soon, they became friends. In fact, with his manners and his music, he endeared himself to all in the jail. He also trained them in music. Finally, he was released in 1931, three years before the due date. While in jail, he wrote on various subjects, of which the seven-part Apoorva Ramayana , the first epic of Bhojpuri, and Nirguns (philosophical songs about life) are notable.
Sadly, the moment Mahendar returned home, he came to know of Dhela’s illness and rushed to meet her, but she was close to her end. She talked to him briefly and requested him to sing for her. Puzzled and perturbed, Mahender poured out: “O blessed bride, I see a fair, in the city of snares/O blessed bride, Fineries are sold, precious and rare…” ( Maya ke nagariya men lagal ba bazaria ei sohagin suna …). As he finished, she smiled and closed her eyes forever.
This was devastating for Mahendar. For the next 15 years, he was forlorn and melancholic and became spiritual. He wrote mostly sad songs and Nirguns , and presented Ram-Krishna katha (story) in Navtanki style. His activities were restricted, and he stayed mostly at the Shiv Mandir at Dhela’s residence. Every morning he would start with raag Bhairavi and raag Vihaag; but on October 26, 1946, the eighth day of his illness, he began with Ramdhun (prayer to God) and passed away.
Today, Dhela’s dilapidated double-storey haveli (mansion) and the Shiv Mandir stand at Shivpuri in Chapra as their last memorial. Most people do not know them, none is interested. However, the commoners have sanctified them: they call Mahendar Baba (saint), and Dhela Mai (revered, divine mother), and the temple is known after their names. Its attending poojari remembers their love as that of Radha-Krishna and of Krishna-Meera.
Almost a century has passed since then. Let us remember them on the occasion of the 75th death anniversary of Mahendar Misir on October 26, 2021. Meanwhile, numerous versions of stories about them have floated around, making their evaluation difficult. Misir’s roots are clear; his descendants still live at his native Mishraulia, with a few structures of his time intact. Dhela came from a lineage of celebrated Mughal tawaifs ; but the confusion on the sequence and authenticity of happenings in their lives can be resolved only after further research. It is difficult also to authenticate their artistic excellence unless we have their recorded versions; nevertheless, Misir’s countless songs are testimony to his legacy and enthral millions of Bhojpuri-speakers in India and the erstwhile British colonies like Mauritius, Fiji, Trinidad, British Guiana, Surinam, and Myanmar. Dhela, too, survives in popular memory as an elusive diva.
Misir’s compositions number in hundreds; about a dozen of his books are traceable, others in manuscripts are hidden here and there. He enriched every genre of music and literature, be it Thumri , Dadra , Kajri , Barahmasa , and ritual songs. He excelled in romantic songs of love, longing and separation. Two of his most popular and sensuous songs are “The serpent has stung my finger, O Sister-in-law/Kindle the lamp and call your brother…” ( Anguri men danslebiya nageenia re, ei nanadi, diyara jara da/… apna bhaiya ke bulaada… ) and “Half night past, the koel cries and I am sleepless” ( Adhi-adhi ratiya kuhuke koelia, Ram barania bhailee na/ Mora ankhiya ke niniya, Ram bairaniaya bhailee na… ). He wrote many of his songs in prison. Animating his compositions with vivid imagery that brings the words to life, and with metaphors drawn from his surroundings, he has strung together simple, natural responses of love, loss and the human limitations into sublime poetry and stirring songs. Nowhere has he ever used vulgar terms to depict something otherwise considered lewd. Beneath his flamboyance and dalliance, there is a perennial undercurrent of longing for love, feelings of loss and deprivation that he experienced personally and watched his society suffer. He wrote in Bhojpuri, Hindi, Awadhi and Urdu, and also commented on the Gita, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
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His understanding of classical music and folk traditions and eye for the subtle have enriched his compositions. Their malleability has allowed successive generations of artists to embellish them with their own creativity and let the audience connect. His devotional verses express deep emotions of communion with the divine, but also ponder over the primordial horror of death. There are fleeting glimpses of Kabir, Tulsi and others in his compositions; yet he has his novelties. This is why, even without finding any place in mainstream literature or history, he resides in millions of hearts across the globe. The Purabia style of gayakee is destined to remain his greatest contribution to India’s cultural wealth.
After seniors like Sharda Sinha, now a new generation of singers such as Chandan Tiwari, Rameshwar Gop, Kalpna Patwari and Devi are carrying forward his legacy of soulful songs; and with his literary input, Manoj Bhawuk and others have brought his admirers together on TV. Yet, why is Mahendar Misir absent from mainstream history?
Obviously, the stigma of counterfeiting and association with tawaifs continues to hound him, though for the wrong reasons: The history of the revolutionary movement is replete with murder and robbery committed to raise funds for operations aimed at destabilising the colonial economy. Mahendar’s involvement was no different. True, his association with the tawaifs was too much for his traditional Brahminical society. But this obsessive moralism overlooks the social realities—his two unhappy marriages, which forced him to engage with his fads that brought him to tawaifs , and that, in turn, to the problems of man-woman relationship. He was appalled at the dehumanisation of women, tawaifs in particular. Missing this point in the name of morality is gross injustice to him.
Bhikhari Thakur (1887-1971) was inspired by him to engage on similar problems, and survived to taste freedom, popularity and honour after Independence ( Frontline , June 12, 2016). Mahendar Misir worked on a larger canvas with much deeper sensitivity, but he lived and died under subjugation. Ironically, he is yet to be recognised as a freedom fighter, let alone as a Renaissance man! This is a reflection on his society. Pat Brown of the United States has probed the Devdas-Paro relations in Devdas , and has attributed their frailties to their social background. Why cannot we see Misir in that light? His relation with Dhelabai is a supreme example of human relationship, and his benevolence towards tawaifs an act of courage, too. Beneath his flamboyance and vagrancy, there was a humanist and an early exponent of feminism—much before Simone de Beauvoir published TheSecond Sex (1949). Indeed, Mahendar Misir is a victim of tradition and tyranny of time.
J.N. S inha taught history at the University of Delhi. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
(The writer is grateful to Manoj Bhawuk, senior journalist, Chandan Tiwari, folksinger, and Professors Devendra Chaubey, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Anamika, Delhi University, V.P. Sahi (SHUATS, Allahabad), Gautam Chaubey, DU, and Nilesh Jha, Jai Prakash University, Chapra.)