Nowadays, what passes for authentic folk music is usually lyrics in the dialect of the region, with background instrumental orchestration inspired by Bollywood. It was thus a true pleasure to hear authentic unadulterated folk music over the weekend at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA).
The first day was music from the higher regions of Uttarakhand, by Padma Shri Basanti Bisht and her troupe, and the next day was music from Karnataka by Jogila Sidharaju and his team. Both groups resisted the temptation to include modern sounds and steadfastly stuck to the old traditional music, passed down through the generations orally. The simple themes of the Gods, their ways, Nature and how to live with it were sung; the mood was that of a bygone time.
Basanti Bisht is an unusual singer who actually trained to sing only when she was in her thirties. She realised that singing what everyone sang was not for her, and what she had inherited, and absorbed subliminally from her mother and other village elders in her childhood was unique; “jagar” singing, or all night singing by the village folk in praise of the Gods. Uttarakhand is called “deva bhumi” (land of the Gods); it is the state where the sacred rivers Ganga and Yamuna came on Earth, and also holds one of the “chaar dhaam” (4 pilgrimages sacred to Hindus) temples; Badrinath. The ancient folk traditions of the higher hills of Uttarakhand (her village in Chamoli district is at a height of about 12000) were no longer being sung; Basanti took it on herself to jot down old pieces and later render them in the same old tunes.
She travelled for several years all through the state to prise out old songs. Accompanied by 3 singers from her state, Anita Rawat, Kusum Rawat, and sister Hema Bisht, Basanti Devi was accompanied minimally on the harmonium by Saurabh Mehtani, flute by Mahesh Chandra, percussion (holka) by Govind Singh, and dholak by Virendra Singh.
She started her concert with a traditional, auspicious Vedic song in which the Rishis (Sages) do a “yagya” (sacrificial fire) in heaven to send cows to Earth to purify it, after being assured by Narada Rishi that they would be treated with respect on Earth. The slightly nasal voice production, the sing song style of the hills, and the slow pace of rhythm were typical of the region. This was followed by an invocation to Lord Shiva by two sisters, who ask the Lord only for the boon of unending devotion to him. The traditional cymbals, and ringing of cow bells all brought in a rustic feel; no modern instruments were used. The next item was about one of the 10 “Avataars” (incarnations) of the Supreme Being; the Narasingh avatar who according to folk lore is said to have come to Joshimath from Tibet, and settled there. Basanti Devi recalled how she have heard of this old piece being sung by a village elder in a village far from hers and had travelled and stayed there to note it down, with great difficulty, as the elder took time to recall it. She was grateful she succeeded, as he is now no more and even then, no one else in the region knew this piece. The subsequent songs dealt with the vagaries of nature, invoking the monsoons so necessary for the crops, asking for the cold to leave, praising the rivers, and thanking them for being there and such like.
Here the harmonium and flute were brought in, as the subject was no longer sacred. Truly the concert was very carefully curated with different types of songs being rendered to give the feel of the entire gamut of the genre. The concluding piece included an impromptu dance by the ladies; Basanti Devi explained how in the hills, the ladies danced only in front of other ladies traditionally, and only to invoke the Gods.
The next day featured the folk music of Karnataka, another very rich region musically, and said to be the home of the origin of Carnatic music. Jogila Sidharaju and his 8 team accompanysists used only folk instruments; their concert was more rhythm based, expectedly, from that region. Again, the more than 8 songs they sang related to the Lord, and the precious gifts Nature bestowed. Sidharaju amazingly is a trained engineer who gave up his job to continue to propogate the folk music of his state. They ended their recital touchingly with a song in Hindi Saare Jahan Se Accha, which the whole audience sang along too.
Vilas Janve, now based in Udaipur, made both concerts alive by carefully explaining what the lyrics meant. He not only anchored both shows but was also instrumental in putting together both concerts.
The next edition of “Sanjari,” under which the folk music concerts are held, will be on June 24, at IGNCA....