Long before Pie in the Sky became a hit song in the early part of the 20th century, people only knew about the four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie! The nursery rhyme goes on to say that when the pie was opened, the birds began to sing, much to the amusement of the royal diner. This is not just an empty tale but something which was part of entertainment in feudal societies, both in the West and the East.
When the first Nawab of Tonk gave a wedding party, his guests, among whom were many rajas, nawabs and high officials, were pleasantly surprised to find live birds flying out as soon as the dishes were opened. The credit for this, of course, went to the royal cooks who caught and trained the birds. Bahelias or bird-catchers have all but vanished from Delhi, though not from UP, Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Bihar, Bengal and Assam, despite wildlife preservation laws and a big decline in bird numbers.
Bird trapping was an ancient art that was handed down from father to son. Bahelias were active not only in the jungles, but also in the hills, marshes, and river beds. Birds were caught both during the day and at night. Skill, patience and knowledge of bird life were among the the bahelias’ greatest strengths. The bird bazaar that flourished on the steps of the Jama Masjid in Delhi provided a variety of birds, both for the pot and for those who were interested in acquiring pets. Love-birds, the weaver bird, bulbuls, piddis, lals, parrots, mynahs, pigeons, partridge and quail were among the many varieties on sale.
In fact, pigeons, parrots and partridge are still available. Munna Mian of Jaipur was an expert bird-catcher who had netted birds for over 60 years. He used to supply them not only to the rich families of Tonk and Jaipur but also to the Jama Masjid market in Delhi. The man would oblige those seeking a demonstration from him in the Ghat Gate bazaar itself. Sitting on the roadside and inching his way up, he caught a sparrow so skillfully that one could not but applaud. Sparrows were netted in large numbers for those fond of chidi pulao. Hundreds of birds were needed for the dish, which was supposed to be both a delicacy and an aphrodisiac.
Early morning or late evening, nets were thrown over trees where the birds came to roost; the catch sometimes ran into the thousands. When not using a net, the bahelia used other devices, such as a heap of straw or a tree branch to approach the bird at close quarters. Traps were also used. At night, they would use a light to blind the birds, sometimes together with the ringing of a bell to confuse them. Glue was also quite common. But more than anything else, it was the skill of the bird-catcher that helped him succeed in his daily hunt.
Nowadays, few people know how chidi pulao used to taste and many have surely not seen a bahelia. Munna Mian is long dead and his sons no longer practise the family profession. Nobody produces singing birds on the table. And the only bird Delhiwallas eat with relish is the chicken. Titar and bater parties are a thing of the past. But many an old-timer misses the bahelia.