Gaaliyon ki Raasleela

Social Commentary

Gaaliyon ki Raasleela

Illustration: Shivali Devalkar

Iam balancing a laptop bag, a camera, and a grave sense of dread while trying to stay aboard my guide’s motorcycle. We are at Khutainton Ka Rasta, in the labyrinth of criss-crossing streets of the Kishan Pol area of Jaipur, waiting to be insulted.

Kailash Gaur is the ruthless master of obscenities, the Pink City’s ultimate gaali baaz, the practitioner of a 300-year old craft. “Namashkaar, namashkaar,” he cackles with unusual warmth, gesturing for me to sit on a diwan in the verandah. Dressed in saffron, with a large tika on his head, Kailash ji is the keeper of what looks like the entire pantheon of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. His single-room residential quarter has a wide courtyard with a tulsi plant propped up in the middle. He’s a religious man, I assure myself, how sharp can his paan-stained tongue be?

I have my answer even before I can open my mouth. Kailash ji’s eyes drift to a grisly little zit, screaming for attention on my right cheek and an insidious grin appears on his face. He brushes a lock of white wiry hair drooping over his eyes, strokes his greying beard, and breaks into a limerick.

“Thaaki sundarta par is muhaso nazar phirave hai,
Aur danyee taraf muhaso bhatka ashubh batawon hai.”

Don’t be too pleased for there is a visible blemish on your beauty. That pimple on your right cheek is bound to bring you bad luck.

In one fell swoop, Kailash ji has not only told me that I look ugly, he has struck at my vanity, and told me that the future is bleak. This is what a roast feels like, I realise. I mutter a cussword under my breath, and feel like I am in the “hot seat” of The Dean Martin Show. I find it difficult to reconcile to the fact that this man, who is taking such delight in insulting me, has a full-time job as a government official. But his real calling lies in preserving the tradition of gaali baaja.

When I first learnt about the art of gaali baaja, I was enthralled to learn that this equivalent to a modern day roast – and my love for cuss words – is steeped in tradition and has a respected place in history. The craft migrated from Jodhpur over 300 years ago, and grew popular during the 19th-century reign of Maharaja Sawai Ramsingh Ji. Even before gaali baaja came to Jaipur, it was rooted in the backdrop of wedding scenes where women – traditionally behind the purdah – took to the stage to mock their in-laws. They largely sang from a repertoire of songs that were not only funny but sometimes downright obscene. The lyrics often bordered on the vulgar, and the targets included openly taboo topics like the relationship between a groom and his sister-in-law.

Eager ears of the audience strain to catch every word of the local Dhundhari dialect as the contestants hurl the choicest abuses at each other, albeit in a melodic fashion.

Kailash ji’s craft is an homage to that tradition – but it is also firmly in the same league as the kind of insult comedy that developed in America of the 1920s and featured regularly at The Friars Club in New York. This involved a savage tribute of barbs traded by fellow actors. This gratifyingly abrasive method of entertainment got millions of eyeballs when Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts became a popular TV show in the ’70s.

What was the allure for the roasters and roasted? A ludicrous way of showing deference, or shaking the idea of comedy by shock value, and forced humility in some cases.

The same sentiment persists with gaali baaja. Kailash ji was a devoted disciple of his grandfather, who had the power to draw hundreds at a gathering. Later he followed in the footsteps of gaali guru, Prahlad Maharaj, who, I noticed, had a shrine to himself in Kailash ji’s courtyard.

It is during Holi that the spectacle of gaali baaja really comes alive. Teams of up to 30 sit on low wooden platforms across from each other, clear their throats, initiate a rhythm on their daph/chang (round percussion instruments) and start a musical battle. Eager ears of the audience strain to catch every word of the local Dhundhari dialect as the contestants hurl the choicest abuses at each other, albeit in a melodic fashion.

Back in his courtyard, Kailash ji starts off on a tuneful ode to premature ejaculation. The targets are a young man, who is barely touched by his sister in law while rubbing colour on him.

The young man sings:

Tuh maari bhaiyle hai. Mai thaaro bhaiylo,
Aapa khailala holi, maon ghadon aaplo.

(You are my sister and I your brother; we’ll play Holi together with love.)

The knowing sister in law replies:

Mu ne pata hai, pyaara khel naahi,
Paaylo lagata hi haat nhor,
Jhat se jhand jhaaplo.

(I know this isn’t a sweet game for you, who will come at my slightest touch.)

I guffaw like a hyena when he sings the last line with extra emphasis.

As I leave Kailash ji’s home, I imagine him being pitted against the stalwarts at The Dean Martin Show or even the boys at the AIB Knock Out. Having been subjected to the depth of his creative vitriol, I’m fairly certain he’d hold his own.