Chholiya | The Himalayan Bagpipers
Under a clear Himalayan sky, the sound of a bagpipe pierces the cool air. Swirls of blue, yellow and fuschia blur in and out of sight as Chholiya dancers feint and frolic to clashing cymbals and pulsating beats.
“The sweet fig grows all through the year, my dear,” the song undulates, “but the bayberry ripens only in springtime. So rare and precious is my love for you. So rare and precious is my love for you.”
Rare. Precious. Woven with contrasting cultures and layered history. This is the story of an art form that is part battle cry, part romantic entreaty, a colonial relic unlike any other.
But before we can wax eloquent about its origins, there is business to take care of. Narendra Prasad’s clients have asked for a trial run. Prasad, who plays the masaq been or the Himalayan bagpipe, is a Chholiya dancer. He and his troupe carry the Pahadi Dhun or mountain tune to weddings and festive occasions, raising the pitch of the celebrations with the essence of their frenzied rhythms.
But they would be just as much at home on a medieval battlefield.
As author and anthropologist Dr. Lokesh Ohri explains, Chholiya, derived from Chhaliya or Chhal comes from a tradition of martial guile. Kings once used this folk performance to lead their armies into battle. The labels might have changed, but the dance form still carries aspects of duelling, with swords and shields rivalling each other even as they are united by a common rhythm.
A paradigm shift occurred when the British exerted colonial control over the mountains, a terrain they were extremely wary of. Intimidated by the Himalayas, but impressed by the bravery of the soldiers in the Anglo-Gurkha war of 1815, they decided to establish the Sirmoor Rifles regiment.
The men who populated the regiment weren’t Gorkhas, though. They were men of the Garhwal and Kumaon region – strong, athletic and possessing a natural ability to hold a tune. The British then inducted these men into an army band, training them in the use of the Scottish bagpipe.