Two years ago, in May 2017, my husband, I, and our daughter—then three years old—shifted from Delhi to Noida. We had a lot of teething troubles, and even after we had more or less settled down, I kept missing (I still miss) the trees of Delhi. Not that Noida doesn’t have trees; it does. It’s just that the area we live in lacks the great big giants, many decades old, that are so much a part of Delhi.
But we do have a lovely little park in the middle of our housing society, and one day in June 2017, I took our child along there for a little picnic. We read a couple of books, she had a jam sandwich and some lemonade. We looked up at a stunning cabbage palm above the bench we were sitting on. I took a photo of that palm from our point of view, and later that day, I posted that on Facebook. I tagged it #LookingUpAtTrees. That photo became a landmark photo for me: it made me want to post more photos of looking up at trees. So I did. Over the next two years, I’ve become obsessed with trees (among the various other things I’m obsessed with). I photograph them, I want to know more about them, every time I travel, I keep an eye out for species not seen in and around the NCR. And, every week, I post a #LookingUpAtTrees photo (all of these posts are public, so if you’re on Facebook , you can see them even if you’re not on my friends network – just look for my personal page, Madhulika Liddle).
Yesterday I posted the hundredth photo in the series (of a landmark tree: a sal tree at the Forest Research Institute in Dehradun; it was planted in 1956 by the first President of India, Rajendra Prasad). With it, as always, was a brief write-up about the tree.
That called for a celebration in song too, I thought. A list of tree songs. Not Parbaton ke pedon par (not that I could think of too many songs that did feature ‘ped’ or ‘vriksh’ or ‘darakht’, for that matter), but songs that featured tree species. Besides my usual criteria (pre-70s songs, and those too from films that I’ve seen), I imposed the two following restrictions on myself:
– The tree should be named in the first two lines of the song.
– No two songs should feature the same tree species.
So, ten songs, ten trees. And—relaxing my rule of only one song per film—here is the list, in no particular order.
1. Neem. Mila hai kisi jhumka, thande-thande hare-hare neem tale (Parakh, 1960): Azadirachta indica is the scientific name of the neem tree, probably one of the most commonly known Indian trees. It’s native to the Indian subcontinent (hence the ‘indica’ in its botanical name) and is associated with all sorts of beneficial uses, from its twigs being used to clean teeth, to its new leaves being fried and eaten, to its abilities as an insect repellant.
The neem is not the first thing that tends to strike people in this lovely little song from Parakh: it’s the hibiscus, the flower Sadhana’s character so charmingly dubs a ‘jhumka’, which she’s found lying under the neem tree. The neem, with its cool green shade. Sadly, the actual tree that appears in the song’s picturization looks to me, at least from what I can tell, a mango tree rather than a neem one. Despite that, though, a wonderful reference to the neem.
2. Date Palm. Dekhoji chaand nikla peechhe khajoor ke (Ali Baba Aur Chaalees Chor, 1954): Phoenix dactylifera is the date palm, a species that is believed to have originated somewhere in Egypt and Mesopotamia from where it spread out to a much wider area across Northern Africa and all the way into South Asia. What we see in India, the ‘khajur’ (which, incidentally, gives its name to Khajuraho, which once had these trees aplenty) is a related wild species: Phoenix sylvestris, the wild date palm, which is shorter than the real deal.
When you set a film in the Middle East, it would be unthinkable to not have a palm tree appear at least somewhere in the narrative. And, sure enough, here’s Shakila, swaying and singing about the moon rising behind the date palm. No real palm trees, here: all that’s in evidence is a painted backdrop which features both the palm tree (laden with fruit) and the crescent moon.
3. Peepal. Pipra ke patwa sarikhe dole manwa (Godaan, 1963): Ficus religiosa or peepal is, along with a fellow ficus (the banyan), probably one of the most revered trees in India. In Hinduism, Vishnu is believed to have been born under a peepal tree and the tree is therefore associated with him. Gautam Buddha is supposed to have attained enlightenment under a peepal tree, and so the tree is also sacred to Buddhists—plus a big draw for birds, squirrels and the like, when it’s fruiting!)
Pipra ke patwa sarikhe dole manwa draws attention to a somewhat unusual and often overlooked characteristic of peepal trees: the way their leaves flutter and rustle in the slightest of breezes. The rest of the song has nothing to do with peepals or other trees (it’s all about homesickness and lovesickness and a man going home to his family), but I love the setting, the beauty of the countryside. And the start of the song, with the fluttering leaves of a peepal tree reflected in water… yes, that’s very appropriate.
4. Meri beri ke ber mat todo (Anokhi Raat, 1969): Zizyphus mauritiana is known as the Indian jujube or the Indian plum, and in Hindi as ber. It grows wild in many places across India and produces a fruit which, despite its fairly pedestrian nature (who really values something that is so easily obtained, and doesn’t even need to be bought?), is popular enough.
Hindi cinema has used the ber in several songs, including Bangle ke peechhe teri beri ke neeche and Meri ber ki ber mat todo (both, ironically enough, remixed into highly popular tunes). Since Samadhi (1972) is outside of the scope of my blog, I choose Meri beri ke ber mat todo. In a film which had some really good songs, this one is the least favourite of mine, but it fits the situation very well: an innuendo-riddled song which serves to arouse an old man to such an extent that he forces the helpless dancer into marrying him. The double entendre here is unmistakable: the ber has been ‘planted’ by the singer’s father, her mother has nurtured it, her brother has guarded it. And she, equating herself with Shabari, asserts that she will keep her bers only for Ram, who can truly appreciate them.
5. Mango. Ambuwa ki daari se bole re koyaliya (Dahej, 1950): One of those quintessentially Indian trees (it’s even reflected in the scientific name of the species: Mangifera indica), mango is pretty much the king of fruits when it comes to India. India is the world’s leading producer of mangoes, contributing to 40% of the world’s total mango crop. There are hundreds of cultivars of mangoes, of which among the most popular are apus (alphonso), langda, chausa, and dussehri. Interestingly, the significance of mango (which is the national fruit of India and Pakistan) doesn’t stop at the fruit: the leaves are considered auspicious, Ganesh is sometimes depicted holding a mango (as a symbol of attainment) and mango blossoms—baur or manjari, in Hindi—are used in the worship of Saraswati.
And, it appears in songs as well. Not so much as a fruit but as a tree. A tree on which a bird sits, singing its song. Kanan Devi and Pahari Sanyal’s beautiful Ambuwa ki daali-daali from Vidyapati (1937) is probably the most famous and well-loved song of this type, but from a little over a decade later, there is also the pleasant Ambuwa ki daari se bole re koyaliya. This is one song where there’s absolutely no attempt to even have the tree (or even the koyal, for that matter) in the picturization of the song. Just a newlywed couple (played by Jayshree and Karan Dewan), with the singer-bride telling her groom to desist from consummating the marriage. Another innuendo-riddled song.
6. Chalo chalo chalein hum babool ke tale (Ali Baba Aur Chaalees Chor, 1954): Acacia nilotica, known in English as gum arabic tree and in Hindi as babool or keekar, is a native of West Asia, a tree that can survive (and even flourish) in fairly adverse environmental conditions. It is also a useful tree, providing everything from fodder to timber, honey, gum, dyes and traditional medicines, and is used for soil reclamation and as a fire guard and wind guard. In some areas, like the Galapagos Islands, babool has become a weed, but in India at least it’s still much-loved.
… loved enough for a couple to think of sitting under a babool tree as part of a date. Unlike the unadulterated romance suggested by the other tree song from this film (Dekhoji chaand nikla peechhe khajoor ke), this one takes a more practical route. The woman, who obviously knows her trees well (or at least the babool) counters her beloved’s suggestion with a valid argument: the babool has thorns, she’ll get pricked. Also, the tree’s so very far (the tree, or at least an artistic representation of it, is right behind them, though).
A fun song, and one of the rare ones (I think) with a babool at the heart of it.
7. Frangipani. Champakali dekho jhuk hi gayi (Ziddi, 1964): Plumeria—whether alba or rubra (common white, pink or red frangipani) or obtusa (white frangipani)—is known in Hindi as champa, and is one of the most beloved of India’s fragrant flowers. Flowering trees like gulmohar or amaltas may be more flamboyant, but when it comes to elegance and fragrance, it’s hard to beat the champa. Also known as temple tree, the frangipani is revered in various faiths across East Asia in particular, with tiny statues of the Buddha being traditionally carved of its wood, and the tree itself being planted in temple grounds (the oldest frangipani tree I have ever seen was a hundred year old beauty in the courtyard of Hampi’s Vitthala Temple).
That a beautiful and attractive young woman would be called a ‘champakali’ (‘the bud of a champa’) is hardly surprising, then—the flowers, after all, are the best-loved feature of this tree. Unfortunately, though, the picturization of this otherwise pleasant song is marred by the fact that there’s not a sign of any champa flowers, not even a bare tree, in the entire almost four minutes of it.
8. Screwpine. Ketaki gulab juhi champak ban phoole (Basant Bahar, 1956): The screwpine is known by different names: Pandanus odorifer is its botanical name, but in Hindi it’s commonly known as kewra or ketaki, the highly-scented leaves and flowers of which impart an almost cloyingly sweet fragrance to a variety of dishes. Ketaki mostly appears as a large shrub, but can grow to tree size, when it resembles a palm tree.
In this iconic song from Basant Bahar, the ketaki is referred to in terms of its flowers. Other flowers of spring are mentioned in the song, too: roses, jasmine (juhi), magnolia (champak)—but it’s ketaki which comes first. There are no references in the picturization, since this is, after all, a music competition held indoors and the theme of spring is just that: a theme. It’s interesting to note that while all the flowers listed are renowned for their fragrance, the ketaki is the only one which isn’t also famed for its beauty: the ketaki’s flowers are nothing to write home about when it comes to looks.
9. Indian sandalwood. Chandan ka palna resham ki dori (Shabaab, 1954): The most expensive wood in the world is African blackwood; the second most expensive is Indian sandalwood, prized for its fragrance, which—unlike the fragrance of other aromatic woods, including other sandalwoods, too—can last for decades altogether. Santalum album, as this species is called, is a protected species and all trees in India and some other parts of the subcontinent are government-owned and government-controlled (though, that, sadly, does not prevent an illegal trade in the wood).
While the sandalwood tree, known in Hindi as chandan, is not directly referred to in this song, its most prized element—that wonderfully aromatic wood—is an important part of this tender, soothing lullaby. A princess who suffers from chronic insomnia is lulled to sleep by a singer who sings of all that induces comfort and a deep, dreamless sleep: a cradle made of sandalwood, tugged by a silken string. Luxury, indeed. And soothing. There isn’t a single reference, naturally, in the picturization, that suggests the tree, and Nutan’s gorgeous princess, being adult, sleeps on a bed rather than in a cradle, but still. For me, this is the ultimate tribute to sandalwood.
10. Lime. More angna mein laaga (Aurat, 1940): The Citrus genus contains so many different species of fruit that it’s often hard—at least for the layperson—to identify one. In India, especially, what with limes and lemons ranging all the way from tiny green-skinned ones to large yellow ones (not the pomelos, which are too outsize to be mistaken for anything else!), from smooth-skinned ones to gnarly ones… it’s safest to club all of the really sour ones as nimboo, neeboo, lembu, call it what you will.
Or, as here, nimbuwa. Although the first tree that is mentioned in More angna mein laaga is a mango (ambuwa), right after that is mentioned the nimbuwa. A bunch of villagers, harvesting their crops together in the fields, sing a song about planting trees: a mango tree and a lime tree. Is it merely a song, or a reflection of the fertility of the earth? Or even of the woman Radha, the very fecund central character? I can’t be sure, but I do think that reference to the planting of mango and lime trees is innuendo.
Before I end this post, one last observation: this combination of ambuwa and nimbuwa appears in at least two other songs that I know of. From Veer Chhatrasal (1970), Mere ambuwa pe aao mere nimbuwa pe aao, and from Lakeerein (1954), the lovely Nimbuwa pe papeeha bole. I wonder why? Is there supposed to be a connect between the mango and the lime tree, just as there is between the peepal and the banyan? Or is it just because ambuwa and nimbuwa rhyme so well?
What other songs would you add to this list? And if you can add songs about other species of trees, that would be even better!
Note: All tree photos except babool are copyright Madhulika Liddle. The photo of the babool is from Wikimedia Commons, photographed by Dinesh Valke.