A glimpse of Malathi Ramachandran’s epic historical romance, Mandu- The Romance of Roopmati and Baz Bahadur (Published by Niyogi Books, 2020)
The evening gathering of music lovers – the mehfil – would begin after the day cooled and the sun sank, leaving the world poised and quivering with anticipation, a cacophony of bird calls filling the ears like clamouring silver bells, The evening skies would scurry away to dress themselves up in honour of another bewitching night in Mandu. They would return when the lamps had been lit all over the city and the sounds of music and ghungroos rang in the air; and they would glimmer gold in the waters of the lakes and fountains and flicker silver in the shadows of the forests. So enticing was the night life of the city, that they say even the creatures of the day, the peacock and the pigeon and the partridge, would hide behind pillars and in the crevices of rafters to catch a glimpse of the celebrations, night after night, in hall after hall.
In Shahi Mahal, a knot of women, their faces covered by low hanging ghungats, would gather in the main hall of audience, plush with its carpets and cushions and wide windows overlooking the Munj Talab and the illuminated complex of palaces. The evening would begin with the tuning of their instruments … a tanpura here and a been sitar there, a sarangi here and a tabla there. Soon the air throbbed with the beat of the tabla and the drone of the tanpura setting the pitch.
The women musicians would begin to play , building up the tempo, making the very walls and pillars vibrate, creating a suitable setting for the grand entry of the Sultan of Malwa. As he walked in, they would rise as one, bowing low over their palms…aadaab, aadaab … and move back to sit near the walls. Baz would take his place at the centre, adjusting his chogha and paijama, his hair free and flowing to his shoulders and his beard trimmed and tight around surprisingly vulnerable lips.
He would pick up his been sitar, that extension of his very self which transformed his feelings and emotions into melody. As he drew the first notes, the air was rent with cries of wah, wah, wah! Completely unaware of his audience as he sank into the composition, Baz would play with his eyes closed, his features set in an expression of rapture. At the end, when he opened his eyes, there would be a thunder of appreciation, followed by an anticipatory hush. A tiny figure would totter into the chamber, salute him low and announce in her deep, dark voice, ‘Sultan -e-Malwa, Badshah -e-jahan, I solicit your permission to announce the entry of Bibijaan Roopmati, Ustad -e -mosiqui , the Sultan’s personal musician in Mandu, the city of Shadiabad, the precious jewel of Malwa…’
Baz smiled and raised his hand. Sadiya backed to the door, waving her palm to and from her chin. As Baz watched, Roopmati walked in slowly, her palms joined together in a namaste. She was dressed in a cotton neevi of a mustard colour with a border woven in dark brown and pale green thread, her hair loosely plaited down to her hips. A red bindi adorned her forehead, but beyond that, she wore no adornments. As she settled down, her gaze shyly sought the other singers and the audience seated along the walls, and meeting their eyes through zari-worked veils, she smiled gently.
Baz and Roopmati faced each other, and the evening began. As Roopmati ‘s fingers stroked the strings of the tanpura, Baz began with his favourite raga, Bhoopali and she joined him in perfect unison as they wound their way through the intricacies of the chalans and pakads.
As the night progressed and they moved on to the ragas Tilak Kamod, Jog and Shahana, the audience watched and listened mesmerised to these two masters of the land.
It was well past the midnight hour in the early hours when Baz stopped and looking around, bowed his head and raised his fingers to his brow. Immediately, all the women rose and returned his salute as they filed out. Finally, it was only the two of them left. Still mired in the music and the aura of the evening, they sat speechless. Roopmati finally moved the tanpura away and rose.
‘It is late, Huzoor; I will retire now.’
He nodded. ‘That was a beautiful jugalbandi. It appears we were made to sing together.’ He rose. ‘Until tomorrow then.’
She stood watching him until he walked out of the door. His height and stature, his easy, loose-limbed walk and his gentle, sweet nature were beginning to haunt her days and she could barely wait for the evening when she would see him at last and sing with him. She put a hand to her fast beating heart.
He is the Sultan, I am his singer … there is and never will be anything more between us …. He has his begum and his dancing girls and his harem of women to choose from …
‘Bibijaan?’ Sadiya’s voice was lost in the sounds of the pigeons that had started their warbling in the rafters outside the window again.
Roopmati stood at the window and watched the lights on the Munj Talab growing darker, listened to the fading distant sounds of music and laughter and ghungroos.
… and I have my music and my father’s visits to wait for …
She felt the tears welling up in her eyes and watched the lights grow and blur and tremble.
Excerpted with permission from Mandu- The Romance of Roopmati and Baz Bahadur by Malathi Ramachandran . Published by Niyogi Books , 2020.
About the Author
Malathi Ramachandran is the author of three novels; this is her fourth. A Masters in Mass Communications, she dabbled with writing middles, features, and travelogues before finding her forte in fiction. Her short stories have been published in magazines and anthologies. Her passion for the history and cultural heritage of the country takes her to little known towns and hamlets where she often finds stories to share. Malathi’s last book in this genre, The Legend of Kuldhara, recreates the story of an abandoned village in the Rajasthan desert and the lives that were changed forever one fateful night.