Not So 20th Century 

During the last fifteen years, one of the ways to be stylishly dismissive of old ideas and systems has been to brand them ‘oh so 20th century’. Constantly do we excite ourselves with new products and processes. As for what have rolled over from the last century—airplanes, cars, cinema and its music, medical technology, garments—these and more have been drastically transformed from their ancestral and limited roles.

But if we can’t transform it, have we closed the book on everything from the past? Not on everything; not for instance if you look at a centuries-old method of locomotion, the good old bullock cart. Most of us may never have sat on it. But we do not have to periscope for it either, since it is not out of line-of-sight for most of us in India. It’s another thing that it’s not smart to use this method to move around anymore.

With the coming of motorized means of transportation, even the graceful horse-and-carriage got sidelined. The car became king, and everything else diminished to a ‘khataara’. In fact, with the improvements in transport, anything that is relatively slow—even an old jalopy or temporarily non-functioning car—is branded as khataara. Do recall Haathi Mere Saathi (1971), in which Rajesh Khanna called Tanuja’s vintage American car a khataara, because it wouldn’t start: “Chal chal chal mere saathi, o mere haathi, chal le chal khataara khench ke, chal yaar dhakka maar…bund hai motor car!” Khataara was originally meant for bullock carts, but by association, a stalled car, and even anything that cannot zip across speedily has gone downmarket.

But it wasn’t always so. Bullock-cart or cow-cart, perhaps you recall some of the stars that were romancing the idea in parts of these songs from the ‘oh so 20th century’:

  • Ghata ghan ghor ghor (As Khursheed sings, looks like she’s on a bullock cart at one point, with Saigal on horseback/Tansen, 1943)
  • Kyoon unhen dil diya (Naseem Banu’s cart tows Surendra’s convertible in a case of one khataara pulling another!/Anokhi Ada, 1948)
  • Gaaye ja geet milan ke (Dilip Kumar rides it/Mela, 1948)
  • Main bhanwra tu hai phool (Dilip Kumar and Nargis are on it/Mela, 1948)
  • Aa gup-chup gup-chup pyaar karen (Dev Anand and Nimmi on a haystack, with a caravan of carts carrying folks gracing the duet with choral backing/Sazaa, 1951)
  • Dekh tere sansaar ki haalat kya ho gayi Bhagwan (Ajit is on a train, but all around him are people on carts, on foot, etc/Nastik, 1954)
  • Mera dil ye pukaare aaja (Vyjayanthimala’s on it/Nagin, 1954)
  • O saajna chhoota hai jo daaman tera (‘Heer’ Nutan sings on a cart, as her ‘Ranjha’ Pradeep Kumar joins with his feet on the ground/Heer, 1956)
  • Aaj suhaani raat re (Village belle Kum Kum and friends sing, as passing through buddies Kishore Kumar and Johnny Walker pause their bullock cart to join in/Naya Andaz, 1956)
  • Chal udja re panchhi (Dispossessed of their home, a family walks on foot, as a bullock cart passes by to show relative contrast, clearly a case of directorial excellence/Bhabhi, 1957)
  • Ho umad ghumad kar aayi re ghata (V. Shantaram aboard/Do Ankhen Baarah Haath, 1957)
  • Dukh bhare din beete re bhaiya (Nargis and Raj Kumar sing on a cart, the villagers furnishing the chorus/Mother India, 1957)
  • O gaadi waale gaadi dheere haank re (Sunil Dutt and friends on one cart, Chanchal and friends on another/Mother India, 1957)
  • Bedard zamaana tera dushman hai to kya hai (Khumar and Jayshree philosophizing during a ride/Mehndi, 1958)
  • Teer ye chhup ke chalaaya kisne (Bharat Bhushan plays his flute on a cart, as Madhubala sings from afar/Phagun, 1958)
  • Tum rootth ke mat jaana (This time Madhubala is on one, and Bharat Bhushan is on the ground, as both sing/Phagun, 1958)
  • Sun ja pukaar (Madhubala on a moving vehicle again, among a caravan of carts/Phagun, 1958)
  • Chale hum kahaan (Madhubala and Pradeep Kumar on a haystack-carrying cart singing this romantic winner together/Police, 1958)
  • Wo door jo nadiya behti hai (Nanda and Jagdeep riding one/Barkha, 1959)
  • Naach re dharti ke pyaare (Nirupa Roy and Balraj Sahni in Munshi Premchand’s story of two bulls/Heera Moti, 1959)
  • Teri aankhon mein pyaar maine dekh liya (Bharat Bhushan and Nanda/Chand Mere Aaja, 1960)
  • Baaje paayal chhun chhun (Nutan enjoys the bed of hay on a moving cart/Chhalia, 1960)
  • Baaten kaheen aur banao (Jabeen Jalil on one/Batwara, 1961)
  • Khush raho ahl-e-chaman (Background on Meena Kumari in a slow ride/Main Chup Rahungi, 1962)
  • Aa ra ra ra paayal meri chhanke ho (Shalini drives a cart, as Ranjan watches from the haystack above/Sakhi Robin, 1962)
  • Ab koi gulshan na ujde (Harvesting farmers sing and move in a convoy of carts/Mujhe Jeene Do, 1963)
  • Duniya banaane waale (the Lata flash version/Waheeda sings for Raj Kapoor’s attention: they are both on a cart/Teesri Kasam, 1966)
  • Laali laali doliya mein (Kids sing to Waheeda, who sits in the rear of a moving cart, with Raj Kapoor at the front/Teesri Kasam, 1966)
  • Sajan re jhootth mat bolo (Raj Kapoor on a cart/Teesri Kasam, 1966)
  • Sajanwa bairi ho gaye hamaar (Raj and Waheeda both on a bullock cart/Teesri Kasam, 1966)
  • Ye dil na hota bechaara (Dev Anand spends some moments on a bullock cart/Jewel Thief, 1967)
  • Oh re taal mile nadi ke jal mein (Sanjeev Kumar in slow motion/Anokhi Raat, 1968)
  • Manzil ki use kuchh bhi na khabar (Kishore Kumar on a bullock cart/Door Ka Rahi, 1971)

The bullock cart is not ‘oh so 20th century’, it is, in fact, several centuries older. In 1931, when speaking films came to India, the bullock cart was for long alive and well, and not just for transporting goods and people. Original thinkers created innovative platforms for it. For example, in Madras in that year, Dr. SR Ranganathan, the Father of Library Science in India, started the world’s first mobile library, which carried books and journals using a specially-designed, hooded carriage pulled by a pair of bulls.

Some things don’t change easily. It’s going to be many years before we retire the bullock cart from our streets. Our films may have put this mode of transportation out to pasture, but like its slow motion approach to life, the bull may be in no hurry to be decoupled from its cart. Should we go ahead anyway, there’s no guarantee what this animal will do when it decides to go after us, especially if it is horned.

(Photo: Oh re taal mile nadi ke jal mein)


Originally published: 7th September 2014

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