Uday Kumar Varma
Bulbuls are not merely birds, they are an integral part of our
traditions and lore, our faith and beliefs, our sentiments and
emotions. Their scientific description tells only part of the story.
Its fullness is obtained only when the love and longing that it so
passionately symbolises, forms part of our understanding.
Bulbul or the Crested Bulbul
“Ek tha Gul
Aur ek thi Bulbul
Dono chaman me rahte the
Saath jiyenge saath marenge
Ye dono yu kahte the”
Bulbul (the bird) and Gul (the flower) are eternally linked with love, lovers and all that they together celebrate. In Indian tradition cutting across folk and classic, oral and written, prose and poetry, no bird commands the popularity and prevalence as this chirpy bird of uncommon agility and beauty. There are endless stories, layered and enshrined in diverse and rich aspects of Indian lore. This distinction and privilege places Bulbul at a perch loftier than any other bird associated with humans.
Alama Iqbal compared the citizens of this country to Bulbuls and the country to a “Gulistan” (garden), in the following famous words,
“Sare Jahan se achha
Ham Bulbul-e hai Iski
Ye gulistan hamara”
The poem, which is also one of our national songs, while perhaps being the finest portrayal of India’s rich and diverse cultural and emotional eternity, also immortalizes this beautiful bird.
It is a musical bird but more than that it is a magical bird. Gul and Bulbul remain together and represent the eternal lovers. The endless stories, folk tales and anecdotes that link this wonderfully beautiful and melodiously musical bird to our culture, tradition, faith, conviction and belief, is denied to any other non-human creature let alone a bird. They also embody the sublimity, profundity, depth and permanence of the basic emotion of love while underlining the eternal pain, sorrow or the longing as separation, severance and estrangement invariably get scripted and entwined in their togetherness.
How does, then, this bird look like? Therefore, perhaps the best beginning to the description of these distinguished visitors must undoubtedly commence with the description of Bulbul.
Bulbul belongs to one of the largest families of passerine songbirds, so much so that over years it has been classified and reclassified several times. Some similar birds are referred to as greenbuls, brownbuls, leafloves and bristlebills. They do belong to the same family but none as graceful and winsome as the Indian Bulbul. Few know that the commonest name for our bulbul once was Kalsiri-the Black-headed, rarely referred to these days.
Bulbul is a bird whose variants are spread all over the globe but mostly in Africa and Asia. But their presence is also registered in Middle East, in Indonesia and as far north as Japan. However, the two do not have striking resemblance.
The large genus Pycnonotus to which Indian Bulbul belongs forms several deeply divergent clades. (A clade is a group of organisms believed to comprise of all the evolutionary descendants of a common ancestors). The main genus was subsequently split into six genera. But the family forms two main clades, one clade that accommodates species found only in Africa and the other that comprise mostly of Asian species including our own red vented bulbuls.
Bulbul belongs to a big family that has 160 recognized species classified in 32 genera.
The Indian Bulbul
Bulbul is a Persian word that also means ‘Nightingale’, though many resent this description and claim it should have been other way round. The Nightingale should have been called bulbul. In Indian context this connotation comprises the cultural setting in which this bird finds situated. Although most other variants remarkably miss both the beauty of its appearance and the douceness of its call. One ornithologist called the brown-eared bulbul as ‘the most unattractive noises made by any bird’.
The Indian bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus) is a red whiskered bulbul and is adorned with a prominent crest. Although its soft plumage in some species is yellow or orange vents, cheeks, throat or super cilia. However, a majority of species are drab, with uniform olive-brown to black plumage.
It’s a medium sized bird 20-22 cms in length (body and tail). This distinctive bird has an erect black crest, prominent white cheek patches, and red under tail feathers. The red whiskered mark, from which it gets its name, is located below the eye. It has a white belly and breast and a dark brown to black collar extending down each shoulder. The long tail has white tips, and the bird has a pointed black beak.The long 2 cm crest is held upright except when the bird is flying.
The calls of the red whiskered bulbul include a cheerful and pleasant queep-quilya as well as incessant chattering.
An Omnivorous Eater
The bulbul is an opportunistic feeder of fruits, berries, seeds, nectar, flower buds and invertebrates such as beetles, grasshoppers, caterpillars and spiders. Around human settlements it will also take kitchen scraps. Most foraging occurs in trees and bushes but often also on the ground.
In the wild the red whiskered bulbul can live for up to 11 years and possibly longer in captivity.
The red-whiskered bulbul and red-vented bulbuls have been captured for the pet trade in great numbers and have been widely introduced in tropical and sub-tropical areas and have travelled as pet as far as Florida, Fiji, Australia, and Hawaii. In that sense, notwithstanding its endemic character, Bulbul does enjoy a certain international recognition.
A Birdwatcher’s Delight
Bulbul may be one of the commonest birds in our gardens but one can spend hours together watching, observing, appreciating this beautiful and charming bird. The mellifluous music and the cadence of sonorous soothing sounds that this extra ordinary bird is capable of and so generously offers us without fail every day makes Bulbul one of the our most liked friends since centuries and will ever continue to entertain and please us. If it tires you and tests your stamina, blame it to its extraordinary agility and endless energy.
It is one bird that can be observed during any part of the day. And it is also bold, not minding the prying nature of humans. It obliges them with generosity and graciousness. And as a bonus, it also regales them with melodies that are at once divine and captivating.
Urdu poetry is a medium that saw the depiction and description pf gulo-o-bulbul tradition to an exalted station of refinement and sophistication. In Urdu poetry, bulbul is conceived as a replica of the literary image of the Persian bolbol. (The term Bolbol was indigenized as bulbul in course of time). The bulbul of this rather esoteric poetry is a denizen of Time’s garden where beauty has a short life span. The bulbul and the rose(gul) synbolised both the fragility and eternity of love. The rosebud blossomed and the bulbul burst into celebration and lustily sang; the rose petals scattered and the bulbul drooped into lament. And yet, there is a continuity. One rose will fade, another will bloom, and a new bulbul will be born. Baizah-e-bulbul, the bulbul’s egg brings cheer and excitement in the garden as it represents the arrival of a new lover.
There is a lot that tempts one to quote from this rich poetic treasure. But one will confine to just two, one from Mir Taki Mir and the other from the inimitable Ghalib.
Mir expresses the intimacy so beautifully thus,
Jis chaman zar ka hai ti gul-e-tar
Bulbul us gulistan ke ham bhi hain
(The garden whose freshest rose you are
We are the bulbuls of that garden too.)
And Ghalib’s bulbul touches ever so tenderly each one of us,
Kehta hai kaun nala-e-bulbul ko be asar
Pardeh main gul ke lakh jigar chaak ho gaye
(Who can call the bulbul’s lament wasted
In the guise of a rose, a million hearts were sundered)
And lastly, composed impromptu, here is a tribute to a bird so uncommonly a part of human habitation, but more an eternally integral and delightful strain of their emotional evolution. If it captures in some ways the essence of Bulbul’s association with humans, the age-old bondage stands vindicated, strengthened and cemented.
Harbinger of Happiness
Messenger of Love
Muse to many
Never fails to mesmerise!
Folklores celebrate you
And so do lovers across races
They swear by you
Declaring an undying passion!
Your songs melodious
Stirs a lovelorn heart
Delights as the lover is waiting!
And yet a sadness
Subsumes, melancholy consumes
Reminded of the days gone by
A failed love that lingers, never to resume!
Phantasmagorical and yet so real
Dreams ingress into consciousness
Your calls make me believe
My love is away but not for ever!
The author, Uday Kumar Varma, a 1976 batch IAS officer of Madhya Pradesh cadre, was Secretary Information & Broadcasting, member of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) and member of the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council, a self-regulatory body for general entertainment channels. As Secretary I&B, he spearheaded the nationwide digitisation programme.