Madhushala by Harivansh Rai Bachchan: A Fan’s Tribute

This piece of mine is a fan’s tribute to Madhushala, one of the most popular works of poetry ever written in Hindi. Madhushala, one of those rare works which gained both critical acclaim and popularity, was written by Harivansh Rai Bachchan way back in 1935, 73 years ago. And he just 28 years old then.

Madhushala, on a superficial level, can be mistaken as a tribute to Bacchus, a celebration of liquor. In fact, most early readers fell into this trap. The literati was initially very critical of him, they thought he was extolling the virtues of drinking. The controversy abated after some time and even the great poets of the day conceded the greatness of this masterpiece.

The Madhushala means a tavern, and it repeatedly mentions the joyous pleasures of saaki (bar woman), pyaala (goblet), and the tavern.

But a discerning person would soon realize that this is a celebration of the joy of life. Joy in its purest form. Life devoid of dogma, make-believe, and orthodoxies.

Madhushala is written in the rubaii form, a form of Arabic poetry. There are 135 rubaiis and this album has a selection of them which capture the essence of the work.

This piece of mine is largely based on the Madhushala album sung by Manna Dey to music composed by Jaidev. It was released some 40 years ago.

My first recollection of Madhushala is listening to it on the new Bush “Stereo System” bought by my eldest sister some 35 years ago. She had bought LPs of Manna Dey’s Madhushala and Mukesh’ 5 –volume Ramcharitmanas to go with her new music system. I was a kid then and I did not understand much of what was sung.

Since then I have been through cassettes and CDs of Madhushala, losing most of my purchases to friends to whom I played Madhushala to. They all wanted to get hold of the music, and my cassette or CD was their simplest target. I now have only a cassette of Madhushala.

From LP to CD, I have been through the entire gamut over the last 35 years. And let me tell you, I still cannot get over the phenomenon of this music. I have been an unabashed fan of the album, and I believe I have managed to get many of my friends to like it as well.

This album opens with the seductive cries of a been and then the dilemma of the narrator who in his quest of a Madhushala reaches a cross-road and wonders which path to take. Different people advise differently. Someone then intervenes and advises him to select a specific path to the Madhushala.

This opening stanza of the album is in the sonorous voice of Harivansh Rai Bachchan himself.

“Madiralay jaane ko ghar sey

Chalta hai peene waala,

Kis path sey jaaoon asmanjas

Mein hai who bhola-bhala.

Alag-alag path bataletey sab,

Par mein yah batalata hoon,

Raah pakad tu ek chalachal,

Paa jayegaa Madhishala.”

I am told Bachchan’s recitation of Madhushala was a rage in the kavi sammelans he participated in! Such is the poetry and such was his voice, he was catapulted to popularity among the masses which thronged to listen to him. My father, who is 84 years old now, recounts the time when he walked all the way to a program a few miles away from his village to hear Bachchan who was rumored to recite Madhushala there. My father still regrets the poet did not turn up for the program and the fact that he could never hear him live. And this was sometime in the early 1940’s.

After this stanza by the poet himself, Manna Dey takes over. The magic web gets thrown on the listener!

Sun kal-kal, chhal-chhal…

Over the next few stanzas you are taken through the gamut of emotions felt by the protagonist. His reflections on life conveyed through the emotions he expresses via the interplay of liquor, goblet, barmaid and the bar. The mysteries of life, relationships, societal norms, organized religion, death, after-life are all expressed via these symbols. Side A of the cassette is joyous while the side B turns introspective, somber really. But what is not lost is the ode to that elixir which gives life its joy, its meaning.

I do not intent to transcribe/translate the entire text, however much I am tempted. I would still like to highlight a couple of portions:

(Pardon these rather awkard translations, I have only tried to give some flavor of the poetry, albeit crudely)

Adharon par ho koi bhi ras

Jihwa par lagti haala,

Bhaajan ho koi haathon mein

Lagta rakha hai pyaala,


Har soorat saaqi ki surat,

Mein parivartit ho jaati,


Aankhon ke aagey ho kuchh bhi,

Aankhon mein hai Madhushala.


Whatever life has to offer me, I take it as sheer ecstacy.

I greet the server as a barmaid,

Such is the joy which life has to offer to me.

Never mind what I see in front of me,

To my inner eye, the world is a large tavern.


Dharm-granth sab jala chuki hai

Jiskey antar ki jwaala,

Mandir, masjid, girjey-sabko

Tod chula matwala.


Pandit, momin, paadariyon ke

Phandon ko jo kaat sakaa,


Kar sakti hai aaj usi ka

Sawagat meri Madhushala.


The fire of the tavern has extinguished

The passions of religions

The fire has destroyed temples, mosques, churches

Breaking them asunder


The tavern welcomes all those

Who are rid of the trappings of all faiths.


And when the protagonist would be no more, he exhorts his near ones:


Aur chita par jaaye undela

Patra na ghrit ka par pyaala,

Ghant bandhein angoor lataa mein

Madhya na jal ho par haala,


Praan priye, yadi shraddhar karo tum

Mera, toh aisey karma,


Peenewaalon ko bulwaa kar

Khulwa dena Madhushala.


Pour not pure ghee on my pyre

But this elixir,

Tie the ceremonial pots with grape vines

And fill them with more elixir


And for my last rites, my love,

Do it thus.


Invite all the imbibers,

And have a tavern indulge them.


And the album ends thus:


Tarpan-arpan karma mujhko,

Padh-padh karke Madhushala


I shall not try to translate this one! By now you can guess how the protagonist wishes to be appeased once he is dead!


If you have heard Madhushala or read it before, you have been as lucky as I have been.

And if you have not, please do get hold of a copy of the album. CDs and cassettes are available freely. And if you want to read the text as well (the full text), Hind Pocket Books has a nice edition available even at a good A.H. Wheeler bookstall. The level of Hindi is slightly higher than Std X levels as you would have guessed by now. But do give yourself up to the joys of this work, the meaning will follow itself!

Go ahead, enjoy this vigorous- and loving- tribute to the goodness of life!

16 Responses to Madhushala by Harivansh Rai Bachchan: A Fan’s Tribute

  1. biswarup sarangi says:

    wow- we have on e thing in common. I Love madhushala. That Manna dey tape is out of the market now….
    Din ko Holi- Raat Diwali
    Roz manati Madhushala….

    Who can forget that?

    I’ve read that he was inspired by Rubaiyaat of Omar Khyaam. Not v sure,though.

  2. nayantara says:

    I have always wanted to read this apart from the Tirukkural. Have started the thirukurral – dont know when I’ll get down to this.

    Also heard that he was inspired by The Sufi Poets!!

  3. santoshojha says:

    Biswarup: I am sure the Manna Dey CD is still available, if not the cassette. Yes it is indeed based on Omar Khayyam’s work. I am told it is a virtual translation, I am not sure of this though.

    Nayantara: I hope you get to enjoy this work soonest. (I am at hand to answer your queries on some of the more difficult Hindi words!) Omar Khayyam was indeed his inspiration. Get hold of the album and just listen to Madhushala!

  4. Gullu says:

    Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s mentions in his autobiography that he gained so much notoriety as someone who promotes drinking that he was once summoned to give his side of the explanation to Gandhiji. Incidentally, he was a teetotaller.

    Have you heard Bachchan recites Bachchan?

  5. santoshojha says:

    Gullu: I too have heard about the Gandhiji bit, but I do not remember having read this in the autobiography. Which volume is this mentioned in? And yes, I love “Bachchan Recites Bachchan”!

  6. Biswarup Sarangi says:

    Sir jee,
    In pune, I also saw a translation of Khyyamm’s rubiayyat by Bacchan saab.
    That’s different from his Madhushala(written when he was 28).

  7. Shobhit says:

    I am looking for audio cassette/CD of Madhushala in Dr. Harivansh Rai Bhachchan’s voice. Does any one know it available or not?

    • santoshojha says:

      I am not aware of Madhushala album in Bachchan ji’s voice. Except for the Manna Dey one where the poet sings the first stanza.

  8. Abhijit Joshi says:

    This is a great way to summarise and tribute the great work and my most favourite!! Everytime I hear it I just wish I was born in those times where I could possibly hear this masterpiece live!

    Guys, if you are looking Madhushala than a casette, it is available to buy on iTunes. Just search for Mashushala.

  9. Shobhit Tyagi says:

    Thanks Abhijit.

  10. All I can say is: A BIG THANK YOU. 🙂

    Tweeted you and this link too.


  11. Rahul Sharma says:

    Dear Ojha Saab.


    Playing in various music players of mine since 1986, VI std.

    Presently, it is a rip from the last CD that I bought.

    Just got my nth Hindi Edition in print, today, after having innumerable ones loaned-never-returned/stolen(mostly)/lost/given-away!

    Same with cassettes and CDs. I remember about 6 cassettes and about 5 CDs that I have bought over the last 22 years!

    Presently, it is in my thumb-drive.

    I am desperately looking for the English edition with a forward by Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru.

    I am sure Google-Babbaa will get me that as well!

    Keep up the jaam!

    Clink, Cheers.


  12. A says:

    Dear all co-admirers of this legendary creation.
    Madhushala recited by Manna Dey saab is available on Youtube.

    My all time favourite- was mesmerised by it 30 years back – used to have it on a cassette tape.
    Still doesnt fail to give me goose-bumps everytime I hear it. Have introduced it to so many of my relatives and friends for whom Hindi is not the first language and they all have cherised it. Absolutely class.
    Thankyou Santosh for this blog.

  13. Dear Santosh,

    Like you I too stumbled on this treasure. I have now embarked on a project that you may like… please listen here. It is a safe file.


  14. Neha Gupta says:

    Must say, every line in this book was worth it. The lyrical structure, the philosophical outlook, the brilliant metaphors! I have read the book at least 3 times in the past one year and I’m sure I’m gonna revisit! You can easily tell why this book achieved iconic status when first published 1935, and boy does it still hold relevance! The book is a journey through life.

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